In our previous exhilarating installment, we discovered that Fred Silverman’s endeavor to bring MTM to ABC, as seen in the first season of The Tony Randall Show, didn’t yield the desired results.
However, a contingency plan was in place: transferring MTM’s invaluable writer-producers to ABC’s primary content provider, Paramount TV. Paramount, renowned for producing Happy Days and its numerous spinoffs, struck a deal in 1978 with several prominent figures from MTM, including James L. Brooks, the mastermind behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the dynamic duo of Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, who both produced Mary and crafted Phyllis and The Betty White Show.
Although the fin-syn regulations prevented networks from owning their own shows, ABC and Paramount maintained an extremely close relationship. Paramount’s top executives, Michael Eisner and Barry Diller, had previously worked at ABC, and ABC appeared to have the first opportunity to acquire anything produced by Paramount.
Under the agreement with the former MTM talent, as David Shaw of TV Guide articulated, ABC assured Brooks and his team that they could “create, write, and produce three specials and two series—without having to make a single pilot.”
In a sense, this agreement may have marked the decline of independent TV companies like MTM, although independent entities would still experience some success during the ’80s. Independent companies lacked the backing of movie studios or many other diverse multimedia ventures.
Consequently, once someone like James L. Brooks had developed a TV series for MTM, there were limited avenues for further creative expression. Paramount, however, presented Brooks with an enticing opportunity to write and produce feature films and perhaps even venture into directing them down the line. Brooks told Shaw that this was his primary motivation for aligning with the studio.
Many of Brooks’s colleagues shared a similar aspiration to delve into feature films, not only due to the increased prestige and higher income potential but also because there’s a natural inclination to explore new creative horizons after writing a finite number of TV episodes.
However, James L. Brooks’s initial priority was television production upon establishing his newly-founded Paramount company, John Charles Walters Productions (known for the iconic logo featuring a disgruntled man being unkind to his secretary).
Following a less noteworthy special—a rendition of Cinderella featuring an all-black cast led by Charlayne Woodard—they delivered Paramount and ABC their inaugural series, Taxi. This show should ring a bell. In its debut year, Taxi clinched the Emmy for exceptional comedy, demonstrating that the distinctive MTM/CBS style could be seamlessly transplanted to a major studio and ABC.
This achievement hinted at the possibility of an entire MTM-style enclave of sophisticated comedy taking root at Paramount, traditionally recognized as the studio most closely associated with lighthearted, family-oriented humor.
How The Associates Came Into Existence
Expectations were riding high for “The Associates,” John Charles Walters’s second television project. This series debuted on ABC in September 1979, a year following the launch of “Taxi.”
It drew inspiration from a novel penned by John Jay Osborn Jr., the same author responsible for “The Paper Chase,” essentially serving as an unofficial sequel to that literary work.
Brooks, Weinberger, and Daniels decided to depart from most of the source material, retaining only the fundamental concept of tracking a young man’s journey as he navigated the challenges of maintaining his integrity during his inaugural year as an associate at a prominent law firm.
They did pay homage to the original material by featuring Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) in one episode.
Charlie Hauck, a former staff writer for Norman Lear, collaborated as a co-creator on the project. However, the responsibility of developing the series, crafting the pilot episode, and overseeing its production fell to one of the team’s preferred writers, Michael Leeson.
Leeson had previously earned a Humanitas prize for his work on the “Angela” episode of “Taxi” and was known for his inclination toward dark humor. He had scripted a “Phyllis” episode centered on suicide and later penned “The War of the Roses” for Brooks.
While a few young staff writers were on board, they had limited opportunities to contribute substantially to the series, as David Lloyd wrote a significant portion of the 13 episodes.
Lloyd, known for his almost superhuman writing output during his tenure at MTM, had finally been enticed away to Paramount.
The Associates: Briefed
“The Associates” can be briefly described in a single sentence: it’s close to a white-collar version of “Taxi.” This comparison encapsulates its appearance, atmosphere, and likely original concept. “Taxi” represented the John Charles Walters team’s foray into blue-collar storytelling after years of crafting narratives centered on white-collar settings.
Additionally, it marked their shift towards a male-dominated show following a history of predominantly producing vehicles for female stars. With “The Associates,” they returned to the white-collar world but in a more intense setting than the newsroom in “Mary Tyler Moore” or the photography studio in “Phyllis.”
The show’s theme song, composed by Albert Brooks, a friend and frequent collaborator of James L. Brooks (although not a relative), effectively summarizes the series’ premise. It revolves around young lawyers on Wall Street who earn substantial incomes, dress impeccably, and possess promising futures, yet grapple with the feeling that “something is not quite working” in their high-pressure jobs and complicated personal lives.
The central character was Tucker, portrayed by a youthful Martin Short—so young that he still pronounced “about” as “aboot,” reinforcing all the Canadian stereotypes.
In the series premiere, Tucker gets plucked from Harvard Law School to serve as an associate at a prominent law firm. On his first day, he encounters his fellow new associates: the stunning blonde aristocrat Sara (played by Shelley Smith) and Leslie (depicted by Alley Mills), a working-class woman from Hollywood homely with a mountain of student loans.
This dynamic sets the stage for a classic Betty and Veronica scenario throughout the show, as Short’s character ardently pursues the seemingly unattainable Sara while largely overlooking Leslie’s affection for him.
Tucker also crosses paths with Mr. Marshall (portrayed by Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte), the elderly, eccentric, rambling, yet surprisingly astute senior partner. Mr. Marshall resembles a blend of Latka and Reverend Jim, transformed into an elderly British man. Whenever a scene requires a boost, Whyte’s character is there to deliver a humorous quip or a meandering monologue.
The role of the Louie DePalma-esque unsavory character is inhabited by the slick and obsequious Elliot Streeter (played by Joe Regalbuto), who wholeheartedly embraces all the morally questionable aspects of being a lawyer that the other characters wrestle with.
Lastly, as the token blue-collar figure, there’s Johnny Danko (enacted by Tim Thomerson), the sharply dressed gofer and office heartthrob.
The pilot episode also springs a surprise reminiscent of a nonviolent precursor to the character Jesse in the pilot of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It initially establishes a character portrayed by John Getz as the likely lead of the series, a witty and amiable guy with a subtle edge.
Since Getz had previously starred in the short-lived series “Rafferty,” while Martin Short was relatively unknown, it should have been a major shock to the studio audience when Getz departed the firm in Act Two. Mr. Marshall selects the less pleasant Elliot as the new partner instead.
(Similar to “Buffy,” the effect is somewhat diminished for the home viewer because Getz is not featured in the opening credits, making it clear that he won’t stay around.)
This moment instantly sets “The Associates” apart from other workplace comedies, where job stability is rarely in question unless it’s the series finale, and from other legal dramas where the virtuous lawyers typically prevail over the evil ones.
By promoting Elliot and dismissing the ethical and charming lawyer, “The Associates” conveys the message that workplace dynamics aren’t always straightforward. At the conclusion of the pilot, Mr. Marshall seizes an opportunity to elucidate that the heroic individual isn’t necessarily the best fit for the job.
Such nuanced portrayals are a rarity in television, often leaning toward moral certainties.
Brooks later mentioned something like the show being ahead of its time in capturing the essence of the “yuppie” phenomenon. While they weren’t referred to as yuppies in 1979, that’s undeniably the theme at the core of “The Associates.”
If “Taxi” revolved around individuals striving to construct better lives while stuck in unfulfilling jobs, then “The Associates” delves into the lives of people utterly consumed by their work. Numerous episodes tackle the repercussions of working such long hours that you scarcely have the chance to meet anyone beyond the confines of the office.
It also explores how your job can sometimes force you into making decisions that conflict with your values.
In the second episode produced, authored by Earl Pomerantz (known for specializing in second episodes that demonstrate a series’ potential beyond the pilot; he also scripted the second episodes of “Taxi,” “Cheers,” and “The Cosby Show“), Leslie finds herself in a new romantic relationship with a left-wing activist who ends things because he can’t reconcile her association with what he perceives as the “bad guys.”
In another episode, Tucker is dismayed when Mr. Marshall becomes his neighbor in the condominium complex. This is despite his genuine fondness for the elderly man, simply because he has so few hours away from the office that his moments of relaxation become exceedingly precious to him.
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So, Why Was It A Flop?
The show’s performance was far from impressive, to put it mildly. In fact, it appears to have been a resounding failure. It survived for only five episodes during its initial run in the fall of 1979 before ABC decided to yank it from the schedule.
However, ABC made an attempt to salvage the situation by bringing it back in March 1980 with a new time slot, primarily to appease James L. Brooks. As reported by the Boston Globe, “ABC doesn’t necessarily think ‘The Associates‘ will do better, but the network wants to keep writer-producer Jim Brooks happy.”
The revival endured for four additional episodes before facing cancellation again just before the sweeps period. Astonishingly, four out of the 13 episodes never even aired on ABC.
Following this setback, Brooks opted to take a step back from television work for a few years, focusing his efforts on developing movie projects.
With the exception of ongoing involvement with “Taxi,” this marked the conclusion of John Charles Walters Productions and the end of the Brooks-Weinberger-Daniels collaborative team.
The most straightforward explanation for the downfall of this show was its unfortunate timing, as it aired during a particularly disastrous season for ABC. It was slated to follow “Mork and Mindy,” a massive hit the previous year, with the hope that this time slot would work its magic, much like the effect of “Three’s Company” on “Taxi.”
However, this was the year when “Mork and Mindy” underwent changes to appeal to a younger, more hip audience, which ultimately resulted in a decline in ratings, even against a show it should have easily outperformed ( “Archie Bunker’s Place“).
In the television landscape of 1978-79, there was a palpable demand for intelligent ensemble comedies. Yet, by 1979-80, the comedy genre began to experience an overall decline in ratings.
This downward trend in comedy ratings would persist into the early ’80s, marking an era when “the sitcom was dead,” as the genre faced significant challenges in maintaining its audience appeal.
When a show faces failure, it undoubtedly reflects on the show itself. “The Associates” received exceptional reviews from critics who had been lamenting the proliferation of risqué, lowbrow comedies on television.
They were thrilled to see a more refined and sophisticated show, and many of its shortcomings could have been addressed with the opportunity to produce more than just 13 episodes.
One of the later episodes produced, “Tucker’s Co-Op,” attempted to rectify some of these issues by allowing viewers to glimpse Tucker’s home life, hinting at the possibility of seeing the characters outside the confines of the office more frequently.
However, it’s challenging to ignore the fact that the show’s premise carries a somewhat melancholic undertone. As the theme song suggests, these characters are young, attractive, and hold promising positions with opportunities for advancement. Yet, they don’t seem content.
They don’t indulge in self-pity as the yuppie culture would later depict on television, but there’s an absence of genuine enjoyment in their good fortune. In its own way, this aspect is even more disheartening than a show like “Taxi.”
In “Taxi,” the characters consistently face setbacks but manage to make the best of their circumstances, adhering to a classic comedic tradition that can be traced back to Charlie Chaplin.
In contrast, “The Associates” presents characters who have achieved what many people only dream of, yet they don’t seem to derive much satisfaction from it. This scenario is better suited for a cable series like “Mad Men” or “The Larry Sanders Show,” where nuanced exploration of complex emotions is the norm.
However, in a mainstream network comedy, the audience typically expects to witness characters either relishing their success or maintaining a positive outlook despite their setbacks.
Lloyd’s episode titled “Is Romance Dead?” was selected to be the second to air, probably because it featured a scene in which Shelley Smith undresses, making it a perfect fit for ABC’s famously sensationalized promotional department.
(You can easily imagine Ernie Anderson’s voice announcing something like: “And then on ‘The Associates,‘ Sara bares her soul to Tucker!” or something along those lines.) This episode is a fairly representative example of the strengths and weaknesses evident in the initial 13 episodes.
One of the most notable weaknesses, aside from the prevailing gloomy atmosphere, is that the characters often come across as rather unkind: Tucker displays unkindness toward Leslie, Sara is unkind to Tucker, Mr. Marshall is portrayed as a peculiar individual with arbitrary authority, and oddly enough, Elliot, who is meant to be the token antagonist, seems somewhat reasonable in comparison.
Conversely, this episode contains several noteworthy elements of David Lloyd’s trademark humor. For instance, there’s a scene where he cleverly subverts the common sitcom convention that people can’t hear conversations happening outside a closed door.
While Lloyd had penned some excellent episodes for “Taxi,” he seemed to have a stronger connection with the world and characters of “The Associates.” He particularly excelled in crafting material for Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte, who was notorious for being a challenging actor to work with.
Hyde-Whyte had a tendency to alter lines if they didn’t meet his approval freely, and much like Andy Kaufman, he consistently gave the impression that he was improvising lines on the spot, even when he wasn’t.
The climactic comedy scene outside Sara’s window serves as a splendid platform for Martin Short’s captivating yet irritating charm and his physical comedy prowess. The show’s creator, James L. Brooks, meets this sequence with hearty laughter.
Moreover, it contains one of those trademark moments often found in Brooks’s productions where an unexpected line suddenly injects a sense of reality or emotional depth into a comedic scene.
In this instance, when Sara confronts Tucker about his stalker-like behavior and candidly discusses her history of being harassed by boys “since I was in the eighth grade,” David Lloyd, James L. Brooks, and the other writers effectively flip the scene inside out.
They compel the audience to view a typical “harmless” comedic situation (the Nice Guy pursuing the unattainable woman) from the woman’s perspective, revealing that it’s anything but funny for her. This shift in perspective is brief, and the scene quickly returns to its comedic tone, which is why it continues to be humorous.
However, the ability to infuse small glimpses of depth and hints of reality into a comedic scene is one of the qualities that sets a Brooks production apart from the rest.
I am strongly convinced that “The Associates” could have evolved into a top-notch series if it had been allowed to continue. My confidence is rooted in the fact that my assertion cannot be disproven.
Nevertheless, the 13 episodes, which were replayed on a few cable channels during the ’80s (the slightly edited text above is sourced from the vintage, fantastic version of USA Network), are well worth seeking out as a snapshot of the emerging ’80s yuppie culture.
They also offer a glimpse into the kind of shows the “Taxi” team might have crafted had they achieved greater success at Paramount.
Ultimately, the responsibility of upholding the “Taxi” legacy—and attaining the significant mainstream success that had eluded the show—fell to a little series known as “Cheers.”
Evidently, if we’re going to spend 11 years in the company of somewhat disheartening characters, we’d prefer them to be bar regulars rather than lawyers.