Sunday, October 11, 2009

He & She

It is a sad fact of American television that the quality of a show does not guarantee its survival. Many good shows have gone ignored by viewers, only to be cancelled after a single season or, worse yet, only a few episodes. Even critical acclaim does not insure a show's survival, as audiences often ignore a series despite the most sterling reviews. Such was the case with the 1967 sitcom He & She. It debuted on CBS on September 6, 1967, yet it was gone by the fall of 1968.

He &  She was the creation of Leonard Stern, who had previously created I'm Dickens, He's Fenster and produced Get Smart at the height of that series' success. It starred film star Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, then married in real life, as Paula and Dick Hollister. Paula was a caseworker for the Travellers Aid Society. Dick was a cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Jetman. Dick's life was complicated by the fact that Jetman had been adapted as a TV series staring Oscar North (played by Jack Cassidy). North was in constant conflict with Dick over the portrayal of Jetman, which would have probably been fine if North had been a good actor--sadly, he was the TV actor equivalent of The Mary Tyler Moore Show anchorman Ted Baxter. The Hollisters' neighbour and best friend was fireman Harry Zarakartos (played by Kenneth Mars), who would drop by their apartment via a board between the firehouse and the apartment building. The apartment building's handyman Andrew Hummel was played by folk singer Hamilton Camp.

Leonard Stern clearly wished for He & She  to be a quality show. As its story editors he hired Chris  Hayward and Allan Burns. Hayward and Burns were veteran writers who had worked on various Jay Ward cartoons (Hayward had created Dudley Do-Right, while Burns had created Cap'n Crunch) . They had served as story editors on Get Smart and, as odd as it might sound, created My  Mother, the Car. Many of the series' episodes were written by Hayward and Burns, as well as such writers as Arne Sultan (who wrote the screenplay for the film Boy's Night Out and several episodes of Get Smart), Arnold Margolin (who had written for The Andy Griffith Show and That Girl, among others), and Jim Parker (another veteran from The Andy Griffith Show and That Girl).

Having been created by and produced by Leonard Stern, with writers such as Chris Hayward and Allan Burns, He & She would be a very different sort of sitcom from any other airing in 1967. Contrary to popular belief, sophisticated humour was not unknown on television in the mid-Sixties. While both shows had fantastic premises, Bewitched and Get Smart  had a high degree of sophistication. And it must be remembered that in 1967 The Dick Van Dyke Show had only been off network airwaves for one year. In many respects, however, He & She was a very different show. Not only was it a sophisticated, witty comedy, but it was set in a realistic, urban setting. In fact, in many respects it was a forerunner of Seventies comedies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which Hayward and Burns would go onto create) and The Bob Newhart Show. It even resembles The Bob Newhart Show to a large degree, centring on two intelligent people who are surrounded by screwball characters. The difference between He & She and other Sixties sitcoms becomes even more pronounced when one considers that Paula Hollister actually had a career, a rarity for married women on TV shows during the era!

When He & She debuted, it must have seemed as if it would be a sure fire success. The series had a good time slot, following two top rated shows (The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres). It received great notices from critics across the nation. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for Chris Hayward and Allan Burns for the episode "The Coming Out Party," and was nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Richard Benjamin, Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Paula Prentiss, Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy for Jack Cassidy, and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for the episode "The Old Man and the She" by Leonard Stern and Arnie Sultan. Sadly, it would not be enough. While The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres continued to receive top ratings, viewers tuned out He & She in droves. It was cancelled before it could even win its single Emmy award.

He & She would maintain a cult following. This was enough for CBS to rerun episodes of the show in the summer of 1970. It would later be rerun on the USA Network in the Eighties and still later on TV Land. Sadly, He & She has never officially been released on DVD.

In light of everything it had going for it, it seems unusual that He & She failed in the ratings. The reason is that perhaps it was a bit ahead of its time. In 1967 American television was in the tailend of cycles towards fantasy sitcoms (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Monkees, et. al.) and rural sitcoms (The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, et. al.). Those shows which  were set in realistic, urban settings often tended to be less sophisticated in their humour (Family Affair, That Girl, et. al.). He & She was then perhaps too unusual. It was sophisticated in a way that some of the fantastic and rural sitcoms were, but set in a realistic, urban setting. Quite simply, viewers at the time may not have known what to make of it.

Regardless, He & She has not been forgotten. Although it ran only one season, it is remembered by television historians and TV buffs alike. Indeed, it is not many single season shows that get rerun on both the USA Network and TVLand. While it has not yet been officially released on DVD, it would seem likely that eventually it will be. In the end, it seems that He & She will be better remembered than many higher rated shows with longer runs.


Holte Ender said...

Try this instead


Beekeepers Apprentice said...

I've never heard of He & She, but it sounds good. I was upset back in the '80's when Crime Story (Dennis Farina's debut, and the best of the Michael Mann series, all you Miami Vice fans can fuggedaboudit) was canceled after only 2 seasons.

And I'm really hoping for a Boston Legal spinoff, but I'm not holding my breath.

Mercurie said...

Thanks, Holte! It's always nice to have a vote of confidence, especially from someone whose blog I love!

Beekeeper's Apprentice, Crime Story is one of my favourite shows of all time. I loved it. I really wish it had run longer and was bummed when it was cancelled, especially as it left the 2nd season cliffhanger unresolved!