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Don't Let the Door Hit Your Ass on the Way Out

Cole Porter, possibly one of our nation's greatest songwriters, once wrote:

Every Time We Say Goodbye
I Die a Little
Every Time We Say Goodbye
I Wonder Why a Little
Why the gods Above Me
Who Must Be in the Know
Think So Little of Me
They Allow You to Go

And he wasn't just whistling dixie. Nobody likes to say goodbye -- not to a friend nor a loved one nor even that last Molson Golden in the six pack you bought on sale at Ralph's last weekend for $4.99.

But since Cole Porter wrote most of his tunes long before the advent of television, it's probably safe to say the lyrics to "Every Time We Say Goodbye" do not apply to TV shows that leave the air long after losing their creative stride. In that case, their long-overdue departures are not met with the plaintive, melancholy melodies of America's greatest songwriter so much as a collective sigh of relief from the beleaguered American public. Or in the case of the shows leaving the air this year, a universal shrug of indifference.

Going into the May Sweeps period, five shows will be taking their final bows before disappearing into the nothingness from whence they came. Roseanne, Wings, Married... With Children, Martin and Coach are being put out to pasture after years and years of diligently entertaining the vast North American viewing audience, leading every man, woman and child with even a passing familiarity with TeeVee to cry out in unison, "Coach is still on the air? Where the hell have I been?"

It wasn't always thus. Many years ago, when giant fire lizards and Alan Alda roamed the earth, M*A*S*H* decided to call it quits after 11 glorious seasons on the air -- some eight years longer than the actual war it was set in. Of course, the Korean War never really was a big ratings winner, losing most of its lead-in audience from World War II...

M*A*S*H* went out with a bang -- a two-and-a-half hour movie that damn near every TV set in America tuned into, making it the highest-rated program ever not to feature football players or LeVar Burton. It was a landmark TV moment, only slightly cheapened by the debut of the phenomenally inconsequential AfterM*A*S*H* in 1984, which only served to give Jamie Farr a five-minute extension on those 15 minutes of fame.

How significant was the last episode of M*A*S*H*? I can still remember the plotline for the 30-minute episode of the otherwise forgettable Alice that lead into M*A*S*H*. Alice and Vera and Mel thought they spotted a UFO flying over Mel's diner, but as it turns out, it was only a weather balloon. Not as significant as the Korean War coming to an end, of course, but a poignant TeeVee moment none-the-less.

Since then, we've seen memorable farewell episodes from memorable shows (Newhart), not-so-memorable farewell episodes from memorable shows (Miami Vice) and just outright crapola (Moonlighting). A couple of years ago, NBC got the bright idea to give the M*A*S*H* treatment to Cheers -- which coincidentally also ran 11 years, or some eight years longer than the Korean War.

But instead of airing an episode of Alice, before the bloated two-and-a-half hour finale of Cheers, NBC slapped together a fawning pre-game show in which Bob Costas waxed nostalgic about Cheers' place in our cultural firmament. Costas sidekick Ahmad Rashad was not included, since the last episode of Cheers in no way featured Michael Jordan. Sadly, however, it did include Shelley Long.

There will be no two-and-a-half hour episodes for the five shows bowing out this year, no slavish praise from the likes of Bob Costas and no realistic chance of any of these swan songs coming within shouting distance of M*A*S*H*'s farewell ratings. Because, and I don't think anyone can seriously take issue with this point, they are all lame.

Of all the shows going gently into that good night, Roseanne probably takes with it the largest chunk of warm sentiment from fans, TV critics and those in the industry. But not from me. In its nine seasons on the air, a devoted TV-phile like myself managed to catch a sum total of one episode of Roseanne, and that was when I was drunk off my ass on rum in a New Orleans hotel room. To be fair, I laughed continuously throughout the episode, though I'm sure the rum had a bigger role in that fact than did the wacky antics of Roseanne and her TeeVee brood.

But apart from drunken, ill-tempered Lutherans, even the show's most partisan fans would have to admit that Roseanne has lost a step, at best, and, at worst, it's become an empty echo of its bygone greatness. Then there's the fact that its star, the eponymous Roseanne, is completely nuts -- a thoroughly unpleasant person who we are best rid of, top-rated sitcom or no.

Champions of Roseanne like to argue that both the show and the star broke new ground, expanding the TV universe beyond its staid boundaries. Roseanne the show blazed a trail for other sitcoms starring white trash, like Grace Under Fire. Roseanne the person cleared the way for others with unconventional looks to star in TeeVee programs, be they fat (Louie Anderson), unpleasant looking (Andrew Clay) or tattooed and insane (Dennis Rodman). By constantly firing executive producers and writers, Roseanne made it possible for other former standup comics to do the same when they became swelled with hubris. And by demanding that ABC find work for then-hubby Tom Arnold, she was a pioneer for other stars who one day will have to line up projects for their no-talent spouses. Of course, by launching Tom's moribund career, Roseanne Barr-Arnold-Thomas-Fortensky is also indirectly responsible for the release of "The Stupids."

So for all she's done, we say, Thanks, Roseanne. Now go away.

There's some question as to what Roseanne will do with her life now that her TV show sleeps with the fishes. ABC nixed plans for a spinoff, going back to standup would seem a step backward and prospects for making feature films seem dim considering Roseanne's last two efforts on the silver screen were the savagely unfunny "She-Devil" and a cameo in the seizure-inducing "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." She could follow-up on "Backfield in Motion," her TeeVee Movie triumph, but that would require hooking up with Tom Arnold who is white-lava hot ever since "The Stupids."

Roseanne gave an indication of the direction her career is headed when discussing her latest role on Broadway as The Wicked Witch in the "The Wizard of Oz."

"I've always been into the female power thing, and there's nothing stronger than the Wicked Witch for a female," she told the L.A. Times. "I'm patterning her on a lot of serial killers and FBI serial-killer profiles. I'm so excited. I mean it's absolutely Shakespearean to me, that character. I think people will have great glee seeing me being mean to a little girl and her dog."

A Wicked Witch patterned after Shakespearian serial killers? Yeah, that'll be great theater.

Like Roseanne, the soon-to-be departed program Wings also proved to be a landmark television show. It proved that a sitcom didn't have to contain actual humor or have any sort of audience to remain on the air year after year.

Looking back on old episodes of Wings -- which is surprisingly easy to do, since they air almost continuously on the USA Network -- it's amazing to see how little the show has actually changed over its eight years. Give or take a Thomas Haden Church, a Farrah Forke, a Tony Shalhoub or an Amy Yasbeck, every character is exactly the same from 1990 when a couple of ex-Cheers producers got the bright idea of creating a sitcom set in a Nantucket airport. Joe is still the responsible brother. Brian is still the over-sexed layabout. Helen is still cute as a button. Faye is as scatterbrained as ever. Roy continues to be portly. And I still can't tell the difference between Timothy Daly and Steven Weber, except that one is related to a Cagney & Lacey star and that the other made the unwise career choice of aping Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Maybe that explains Wings' otherwise inexplicable staying power. The show is like one of those snow globes -- those unchanging winter scenes that you can turn upside down and shake around and then ignore after you've gotten your fill of looking at the same damn thing over and over again. Wings is like a comfortable sneaker that's ripped and torn and full of holes, but you just can't bring yourself to throw it away... until the stink becomes too bad, that is.

Speaking of stink, the corpse of Married... With Children went ripe and should have been planted in the ground long ago. Married's last season is its 11th on the air, making it the longest-running entertainment program currently airing on TeeVee and allowing it to outlast programs like Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere and The Dick Van Dyke Show, or as we in the writing business like to put it, shows that didn't suck.

Married... With Children even managed to dodge one of TeeVee's most deadly bullets -- having Ted McGinley join the cast. When the once and future "Revenge of the Nerds" star debuted on Happy Days in 1980 as straight arrow English teacher Roger Phillips, little did we know that the long-running program would be off the air in four years. When the Ted-ster asked for permission to come aboard The Love Boat in 1984 as ship's photographer Ashley Covington Evans -- "Ace" to you and me -- Capt. Steubing and his unwitting crew only had two years left to live.

The lesson here was a painful yet simple one: cast Ted McGinley in your program and reap the consequences. And when Teddy Mac joined Married... With Children in 1991, it seemed as sure a sign as ever that it was time for Ed O'Neil to update that resume of his. But now, six years later, the curse of Ted McGinley is only now beginning to pay off. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I place the blame for Married... With Children reaching the rarified air of M*A*S*H* and Cheers squarely on the shoulders of Terry Rakolta, the Michigan housewife who in 1988 urged a boycott of Married's advertisers because of the show's raunchy humor. Rakolta was right about the show's quality, of course -- unless you find the sight of Ed O'Neil leering at some chippie's ass to be the height of comic nuance -- but by making a scene about Married, she only called attention to a show that might otherwise have been in its death throes. Instead, the curious tuned in to see what the fuss was all about and, hypnotized by the power of Christina Applegate's breasts, watched the program transfixed for the better half of the next decade.

Let that be a lesson to you all -- the next-time some stick-in- the-mud is ranting and raving about how we need to ban raunchy TeeVee programs, belt them upside the jaw before another abortion like Married... With Children spends a decade on my TV.

True to form for anything on Fox, Married... With Children is staggering to the finish line like a distance runner whacked out on pills. Last week, the show tried to steal Ellen's thunder by having cast member Amanda Bearse, who plays the Bundy's wacky neighbor Marcy, come out as a lesbian. Only it wasn't Marcy that came out, but her twin cousin... or something like that. My life is not yet so empty that I felt compelled to watch.

I can still remember where I was when Married... With Children debuted in 1987 -- a freshman in high school attending the state conference of the Future Business Leaders of America at the Holiday Inn in Fresno. I bring this up because it offers an important lesson to today's troubled youth. No matter how bad things seem, shows like Married... With Children will eventually be cancelled and you will eventually get to leave Fresno. Your involvement with the Future Business Leaders of America is your own concern.

The pellets have already hit the pail for Martin after five years on the air. I don't know if you saw the last episode Thursday night, but it featured a very special moment when Martin, whacked out on prescription medicine, runs naked through the streets brandishing a handgun and screaming obscenities at passersby before he...

Oh wait, that's from Martin Lawrence's rap sheet...

As for Coach's last lap, I'm afraid I can't be of too much help there. You see, I have to remember many important things like the periodic table of the elements and relatives' birthdays and what city I was in when Married... With Children debuted. And if I were to devote any part of my brain to memorizing the minutiae of Coach, well, then I may have to part with some sort of knowledge that I may actually one day need.

So for you Coach fans out there, I apologize. I'm sure the last episode will offer you the closure you seek. I wish all the best to Dauber and Luther and all the gang. I hope this allows Craig T. Nelson, who has spent the last nine years playing a sullen, selfish, Type-A asshole football coach, to go back to his roots, playing other types of sullen, selfish, Type-A assholes.

And if we're really lucky, maybe ABC will gives us AfterCoach, thereby extending the career of Jerry Van Dyke.


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