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.
NBC Wednesdays (1981-1982)
8:00 Real People
9:00 The Facts of Life
9:30 Love, Sidney
10:00 Quincy, M.E.
In contrast to some of the preceding lineups explored in this column, the 1981-1982 Wednesday night schedule on NBC doesn’t provide significant insights into the network itself.
It also doesn’t feature an exceptionally high-quality collection of shows. Frankly, what caught my attention was the quasi-reunion of “The Odd Couple” with Tony Randall in “Love, Sidney,” followed by Jack Klugman in “Quincy, M.E.”
When I noticed them scheduled back-to-back, it struck me as a clever programming move.
Naturally, I wouldn’t base an entire column on this observation. However, upon closer examination of this lineup, it became apparent that it exemplifies a notable era trend: television’s somewhat awkward efforts to address social issues.
During the early 1980s, it was common for all four of these shows to tackle controversial subjects to some extent. Equally common was their tendency to tread cautiously, not fully committing to these topics.
This approach allowed the shows to maintain a sense of political neutrality, potentially attracting a larger audience. But did it truly result in “a great night,” as promised by the ad campaign?
Let’s take a closer look at the schedule, considering both the positive and negative aspects.
Let’s begin with “The Facts of Life” (a series that Andrew Rabin recently nominated for our Hall of Fame). On the surface, this seemingly innocuous sitcom set in an upstate New York boarding school might not appear as one that would stir controversy.
It was one of the rare sitcoms in history to boast an all-female regular cast for most of its duration, and remarkably, this fact was never a point of concern for the show’s characters. I watched countless reruns of the series, and I never perceived it as exclusively a “girl show” (even though, as a child, I was sometimes prone to such nonsensical categorizations).
The show also featured Geri Jewell, who, like myself, had Cerebral Palsy in a recurring role as Blair’s cousin, which held special significance for me as part of the youthful audience.
Also Read: Right on Schedule: NBC Sundays (1960-1961)
While being a TV show centered on girls might not inherently seem like a progressive move, it did afford them the opportunity to explore a range of storylines that might not have been addressed in a series with teenage boys.
In its third season alone, the show tackled episodes (I’d call them “Very Special Episodes,” but they occurred so regularly that it seems somewhat trivial) dealing with book-banning protests, an incident where Natalie was assaulted, a teenage mom accidentally leaving her baby at school, Blair’s mom being diagnosed with breast cancer, Tootie meeting a teenage prostitute, and Jo catching the school’s journalism teacher in a drug deal.
Despite the provocative subject matter, these issues were consistently resolved with a happy ending and a warm embrace. The show managed to sidestep controversy by presenting a world where everyone could ultimately find agreement on everything.
The show’s companion in the same time slot, “Love, Sidney,” similarly navigated a potential source of controversy. The series originally began as a TV movie titled “Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend,” with Tony Randall portraying a gay man in his fifties.
In the movie, Sidney formed a close bond with and eventually took in a single mother and her charming daughter. When the series was developed, it retained the same premise but introduced two significant changes.
First, the character of Laurie, the mother, was now played by Swoosie Kurtz, replacing Lorna Patterson. The second and more crucial alteration was that Sidney’s homosexuality was not explicitly addressed in the first season.
While subtle hints were present for those who were perceptive, and Tony Randall himself affirmed that there was no question about the character’s sexual orientation, the show was cautious in presenting Sidney as a mostly asexual confirmed bachelor.
So, Sidney might have been television’s first openly gay leading character, but he didn’t extensively discuss his sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the show managed to stir controversy from both ends of the spectrum.
Groups on the right, such as the Moral Majority, were upset that TV was portraying a friendly, middle-aged gay man as a positive role model. Meanwhile, individuals on the left were bothered that TV’s first “gay” lead character was essentially a mostly closeted, amiable middle-aged man.
In their attempt to downplay the show’s potentially contentious aspects, NBC unintentionally offended both groups instead of just one. Realizing their misstep, they granted the show’s creative team more freedom to address Sidney’s homosexuality explicitly in the second season.
However, by then, it was too late, and the show met its demise in the spring of 1983.
Following “Love, Sidney,” there came “Quincy, M.E.,” featuring Jack Klugman as a determined medical examiner who skillfully solves previously unsolved murders. As the last survivor of the 70s NBC Mystery Movie omnibus, it initially premiered as part of that lineup but transitioned into a one-hour weekly series midway through its first season.
In its early years, the show primarily centered around typical TV murder cases, reminiscent of those found in series like “Columbo” or “McMillan and Wife.” By the fall of 1981, it had reached its sixth season, and the plots began to take on a more political dimension.
Episodes delved into pressing issues such as the need for stricter gun control, unjust drunk driving laws, and the rights of the mentally handicapped, among others. Jack Klugman even testified before Congress in the spring of 1982 to advocate for orphan drugs, drawing from his experiences on the show.
Despite tackling these weighty subjects, “Quincy” never stirred significant controversy, perhaps owing to its established presence in viewers’ minds.
By the time it ventured into addressing more daring topics, it was simply known as “that one doctor show starring the lovable old Oscar from ‘The Odd Couple.'”
It’s easier for a new series like “Love, Sidney” to spark outrage, but when a beloved classic like “Quincy” raises concerns about gun laws or critiques punk rock music that the younger generation enjoys, it tends to be met with a more lenient response.
This brings us back to the beginning of the evening, with an hour of television that was so outrageous that one of the hosts was Fred Willard. “Real People” was presented in the guise of a talk show, featuring a half-dozen hosts who delivered filmed reports in front of a live studio audience.
These reports primarily showcased, as you might expect, everyday Americans with unique talents, hobbies, or jobs. The hosts also engaged with the audience, read letters from viewers, and shared amusing headlines, billboards, and road signs submitted by the viewers (a segment that continues to air on NBC every Monday during “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”). Remarkably, it was the highest-rated show on NBC during the 1981-1982 season, drawing in just over 16 million viewers per week.
On the surface, none of this appears to be controversial, and indeed, it wasn’t. However, one of the show’s secrets to dominating the ratings was its appeal to the baser instincts of its (predominantly straight male) audience.
Most episodes featured at least one report in which (real!) scantily clad women engaged in various activities while wearing very little clothing. As evident in the TV ad linked above (and also in this one), this particular segment consistently made its way into the commercials.
The reason behind this is not hard to discern. “Jiggle TV” shows like “Charlie’s Angels” were waning in popularity by 1981, and NBC’s marketing team seized the opportunity to promote “Real People” as a place on television where viewers could catch a glimpse of plenty of skin.
The fact that it was a harmless, light-hearted family show hardly seemed to matter.
So, this was NBC Wednesdays in the fall of 1981, featuring the least controversial lineup one could ever imagine, despite being packed with hot-button issues.