Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What Exactly Constitutes "Groundbreaking"?

When I was 18 I watched One Day At A Time religiously and I'll tell you the biggest reason: Bonnie Franklin. I didn't think much about her acting but for the 18 year-old me, who had little success with girls my own age, she was a fantasy - she was pretty enough, energetic, older and therefore more experienced, and she didn't wear a bra (they weren't big but the moved and that was good enough for me). I wanted her or her doppelganger to "teach me" if you get my meaning. 18 year-old boys are horny pigs, but I'm sure that comes as a revelation to no one, either former 18 year-old males or females of just about any age. She wasn't my first TV sex object - that would probably have been Margot Kidder from the short lived Nichols (thanks to those bar maid outfits) - but Bonnie lasted.

I watched "bouncing Bonnie" bounce for the full eight years that the show was on the air. I enjoyed the show even as, in an odd way it grew increasingly mainstream. Valerie Bertinelli went from a cute kid to an extremely attractive woman and lost her virginity long before her character did, and we watched Mackenzie Phillips go from skinny bitchy teen to drug addicted near-cadaver. Anne Romano went from struggling divorced mom to successful business woman and all three women married. And as the show pushed more towards the centre other shows were doing stuff that was even out there in terms of breaking ground. About the most outrageous thing One Day At A Time was able to do towards the end was have Anne marry her son-in-law's father (which meant that Anne became Barbara's mother-in-law as well as her mother).

So I wasn't going to write anything about the One Day At A Time reunion show - beyond my desire to "sleep" with Bonnie Franklin (or Anne Romano) until I read a comment on the show's IMDB entry. The person writing the show was venomous in his attack on Bonnie Franklin to the point of calling her "one of the worst actresses in television history" and that "her act would get gonged on The Gong Show but it was one line in particular that started me thinking. The line in question was "Why did they think that D-I-V-O-R-C-E was edgy? The show was five years behind the times." What makes a show edgy and groundbreaking?

I can only assume that the writer of this diatribe never saw the shows of the period except in reruns which is not seeing it in the context of the time. Back in the day - and the day was thirty years ago - divorce was a big taboo on television. Actresses might get divorced, but you didn't see divorced or separated women on TV. Women living alone were single or widowed. If an unattached woman had kids then she was a widow. (And of course there was Doris Day: on her sitcom she went from a widow with kids living on a ranch with her father, to a widow with kids living in San Fancisco to a single woman with no kids. In fact she was probably a virgin again!) About the only divorced women on TV at the time were also Norman Lear creation, Maude Findlay (a three time loser) and her daughter Carole, but on Maude, Maude was married and Carole was just a subsidiary character, not the lead.

Another thing about Anne Romano was that she was an independent woman. She'd gotten out of one marriage and unlike so many characters on sitcom even at that point her objective in life wasn't to get married as soon as possible. She didn't want to be controlled the way she had been in her first marriage, which caused her first post-marriage relationship to end - he wanted kids with her, she didn't want any more. She struggled with being a single parent and trying to balance finding work and then working with a family. And like a good feminist, when she felt that she was being held back at work because she was a woman she started her own business and made a success of it.

And then there was sex. Anne Romano got laid. It was less than five years before that people were scandalized that Mary Richards stayed out all night with men on very rare occasions (and to protect herself took the pill). Mary Tyler Moore was supposed to be an even more groundbreaking show - Mary was supposed to be a divorced woman, but the network objected to the idea because they said that people would think that Laura Petrie had divorced Rob. Anne didn't just discreetly come home the morning after like Mary, you saw her heading to the bedroom, from the bedroom, and on occasion in the bedroom. Not all of her affairs were long term relationships either - she had at least a few one nighters sprinkled in among her list of bed buddies.

So was One Day At A Time groundbreaking? To a degree I think it was. It wasn't All In The Family or Maude or even The Jeffersons in terms of innovation, it broke a few taboos in a gentler fashion. It even makes me wonder if a show like this could be made today by a major network. I don't watch sitcoms today, but it seems to me that the typical sitcom can be boiled down to this sort of recipe. Take one guy (usually overweight - think Kevin James or Jim Belushi), add one wife who usually looks to good to be with him (Courtney Thorne Smith or Leah Remini), mix in one or more kid or funny adult relative who needs to be cared for (have to say that to include Jerry Stiller) and some goofy friends. Blend well and pour into molds. As nearly as I can recall the only show with a female lead character in a sitcom who is a divorced woman with kids is Reba, and that's not even in the same league as One Day At A Time.

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