By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
WB Sundays (1996-1997)
7:30 Brotherly Love
8:00 The Parent ‘Hood
8:30 The Steve Harvey Show
9:00 Unhappily Ever After
9:30 Life with Roger
In previous installments of this column, we’ve looked at early lineups from upstart networks DuMont and FOX. The two make for an interesting study in contrasts: DuMont fizzled out after just ten years, while FOX slowly grew into a true equal with the other broadcast networks. With this month’s column I’m going to discuss another young network, the WB. In some ways, the story of the WB is a mixture of the other two. It lasted just slightly longer than DuMont at 11 and a half years—mostly because broadcast TV just wasn’t a great business model by the 2000s—but it managed to make a big, splashy FOX-style mark on pop culture before folding.
Both of those earlier posts looked at the how those shows reflected the overall identity of the networks. With this column, I plan to do the opposite: show that this lineup’s shows have been all but erased from what history now considers to be “the WB.” Because looking back, that network has a very clear identity. Ask someone what a “WB show” is, and chances are high* that it will be a quirky hour-long drama where hyper-literate teenagers have deep conversations. Prominent examples include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, Dawson’s Creek, and Gilmore Girls (where the quirk was multi-generational! Progress!)
But in its early seasons, before it developed that image, the WB showed more sitcoms than anything else. In this particular season, the WB schedule was still only three nights (Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday). Monday night featured the Aaron Spelling dramas 7th Heaven (where the teenagers, of course, talked like aliens) and Savannah, but the other two were devoted entirely to sitcoms. Since Sunday night was three hours long instead of two, this means that five-sevenths of the network’s evening programming was comedy. So let’s take a closer look at them.
The best-remembered WB comedies are the ones that target the so-called urban demographic, which actually just means the ones about African-Americans. The three big hits on Wednesdays all fit that category—Sister Sister, The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Wayans Bros. That’s not to say that they only appealed to black audiences. I was a Scandinavian kid from a farming community in North Dakota, and I vividly remember watching that lineup every week in sixth grade. (I know I haven’t talked about my personal experiences in any of these columns thus far, but this is the first one I’m old enough to actually experience.)
But that’s the Wednesday lineup, and we’re here to talk about Sunday, which wasn’t nearly as appealing (although I did watch some of these shows fairly often). But why not? I couldn’t have articulated this in sixth grade, but the answer is that the Wednesday lineup felt unified and the Sunday one was a scattered mess.
In theory, the evening had a nice flow—the six shows got steadily raunchier as the night went on, and all three one-hour blocks seem to be nicely paired. But the problems began in that first hour, which was essentially two of the same show back-to-back. First was Brotherly Love (a castoff from NBC), starring former teen heartthrob Joey Lawrence from Blossom as a grumpy twenty-something who moves in with his stepmom to help raise his younger brothers following the death of his father. It was immediately followed by Kirk, starring former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron from Growing Pains as a good-natured twenty-something who gets saddles with the responsibility of raising his three younger siblings when his aunt moves to Florida and leaves them with him (really!)
Both shows depended heavily on the charisma of their leading men, neither of whom was as charming in adulthood as they’d been in teen heartthrob days. They had similar types of stories, with Joe/Kirk chasing women and continually being shut down by parental responsibilities. Both featured a mother figure to teach the young man how to meet those responsibilities (in the case of Kirk, it was the landlady.) And both shows were clean enough to air on TGIF. Cameron is famously a devout Christian, and his series was free of anything even mildly offensive. Similarly, Brotherly Love was rerun on the Disney Channel for years, and it fit right in with that network’s programming of the late 1990s.
Each series was watchable, although Brotherly Love was certainly the more memorable of the two (to this day, I can still sing the entire theme song). That might be because of the Disney Channel reruns, but I think it’s also because it aired first. There was no reason to watch two of this premise back-to-back, so Brotherly Love won out. Unfortunately, “won out” only means that it made it to the end of the season before being canceled, while Kirk was canned in November.
The middle hour was the only one that made an sense, consisting of a pair of “urban” sitcoms, which were two of the longest- running shows in this lineup. First up was The Parent ‘Hood, Robert Townsend’s attempt at a Cosby Show for the ’90s. The show was a low-key family comedy about a college professor (Townsend), his law student wife (Suzzanne Douglas), and their four kids (Reagan Gomez-Preston—my #4 TV crush of middle school—and three other kids). The show frequently let Townsend indulge in fantasy sequences, similar to those in his 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle. It wasn’t a great series, but it was a dependably entertaining one, at least in the early seasons. The last couple of years were plagued by several odd cast changes.
Here, in its third season, The Parent ‘Hood served as the lead-in to the brand-new The Steve Harvey Show, starring the most genial Original King of Comedy as a former soul singer now employed as a high school music teacher in inner-city Chicago. It was very much in the vein of earlier hits like Our Miss Brooks and Welcome Back, Kotter, with the wise-cracking teacher making his students laugh and then guiding them through big moments in life. Like The Parent ‘Hood, it was a family show, although it had a lot more jokes about teen sex. (By which I mean that my mom sometimes got mad if we watched it.) In any case, it ran for six seasons, but it never really rose above the level of “acceptable.”
At this point, the night made an abrupt shift into “shocking” and “outrageous” and “edgy.” The 9:00 show was Unhappily Ever After, which could be called a ripoff of FOX’s Married… With Children if it hadn’t come from Ron Leavett, that show’s co-creator. In many ways, it was an even more absurd version of MWC. The Al Bundy-ish Jack (Geoff Pierson) lives in his family’s basement after his wife (Stephanie Hodge) kicks him out, his only solace coming from his disgusting, hallucinatory talking bunny friend Mr. Floppy (voiced by Bob Goldthwait, obviously). Nikki Cox played the ridiculously cartoonish sexpot daughter Tiffany, with E. from Entourage and Reese from Malcolm in the Middle as her two younger brothers.
Our own Jaime Weinman once tried to make the case that Unhappily is underrated, but I’m afraid I just can’t see its charms as well as he can. Of all of the sitcoms on the WB, it’s the one that feels the most like the legendarily-awful sitcoms on arch-rival UPN (Homeboys in Outer Space, The Mullets, etc.). It ran a lot longer than any of those UPN flops (100 episodes over the course of five seasons), but it was awful in a very similar way. The writers took a dumb premise, and went crazy writing weird jokes and stories about it, but they seem to be writing for their own amusement instead of the audience’s. More than any of the other shows on Sunday nights, Unhappily shows why WB drifted away from comedy development. It’s an embarrassment, and it was one of their longest-running sitcoms.
The last show of the night was Life with Roger, a program about a suicidal man (Mike O’Malley) who is talked down from a bridge by a doctor (Maurice Godin). Then they become roommates. And that’s all anyone remembers about Life with Roger, a fitting end to a largely mediocre night of television.
(*One final note: My wife would like to announce her displeasure with the premise of this article, because she insists that some people will always associate the WB with Pinky & the Brain, Freakazoid! and Superman: The Animated Series. [Ed. Note: Your wife is a much smarter woman than you, Anthony. -NK])
(Editor’s note: For more discussion on the WB at This Was Television, be sure to check out our book club discussion of Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN, and Cory’s list of the top 30 WB and UPN shows. – LC)
Next: NBC Wednesdays 1981-1982
Previously on Right On Schedule: DuMont Tuesdays (1952-1953)