Garry Marshall Frank Rich - Essay

Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

ABC's shows do not pretend to deal with topical issues, and their premises are brazenly retrograde. Happy Days copies Dobie Gillis…. Laverne and Shirley's slapstick antics—usually built around wild schemes to earn money or meet men—are often indistinguishable from the adventures of Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy.

Upon closer examination, however, the new shows prove to be quite unlike the older ones whose formulas they borrow; plots and characters may be similar, but the message they deliver is not. ABC's blockbusters are downright obsessed with two subjects—youth and sex—that were never too important to earlier successful series. Obviously this twin fixation strikes a popular chord—for the Tuesday night hits win every age group in the Nielsen survey. The America they reflect is younger and sassier than the one that once embraced Lucy and Dobie. Happy Days' frantic pace is TV's equivalent of the erotic drive of Top 40 radio.

The young seem to have a monopoly on wisdom. The teenagers of Happy Days …, as well as the young adults of Laverne & Shirley …, are forever outwitting their elders, whether parents or employers or landlords. This fantasy is not without its comic rewards. In the '50s, Father Knows Best concluded with an Eisenhower-like Robert Young counseling his children about the wages of maturity. Now the same sermons are delivered with far more panache at the end of Happy Days by Fonzie, the dropout greaser….

ABC's treatment of sex is also slanted in favor of the young; indeed, the Tuesday night sitcoms are a giddy celebration of post-pubescent horniness. The kids of Happy Days are always trying to score with cheerleader types…. (p. 94)

As Happy Days grows older, the relationship between the bad boy hero Fonz and the good boy hero Richie … is becoming TV's own pop version of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. (p. 96)

Frank Rich, "Tuesday Night on the Tube," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1977), Vol. 110, No. 24, December 12, 1977, pp. 94, 96.∗