Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Betty White Show : What Happened?

Betty White Show / 1970s TV Shows

Betty White Show / 1977 CBS sitcomOne of my favorite shows of the 1977 fall season - and there were some pretty decent productions that met their demise that year - was The Betty White Show.

Though she had been a fixture on daytime game shows for two decades, Betty White never really caught fire in primetime TV until she was cast as caustic Sue Anne Niven the Happy Homemaker on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973.

Her character added a real zing to the production and, before long, she became a regular, one of the biggest laugh getters on that series. Audiences loved her character's sugary sting, it was primarily the addition of Sue Anne that took the bite out of losing two key supporting characters. After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977, and flush off the (initial) successes of Rhoda and Phyllis, it was Betty's turn to star in her own series, with another MTM alumni along for added attraction.

The premise: Joyce Whitman (Betty) was the star of Undercover Woman, a send up of Angie Dickinson in Police Woman; the show is directed by her contentious ex-husband played by John Hillerman (Magnum P.I.), Georgia Engel from The MTM Show played her best friend.


Granted, this sitcom felt a diluted compared to the best of Mary's shows, the MTM team was stretched pretty thin by the fall of 1977. Many of their best writers had gotten production deals elsewhere and the studio had a one-hour drama, Lou Grant, debuting in the fall of '77 as well as The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, and The Tony Randall Show still on the air (only Lou Grant survived the season).

Betty White Show 1970sFor Betty's show the writers fell back on too familiar patterns as you'll see in the episode above. The rhythm of the MTM Show is there but the jokes are strained with running gags that feel stale and worn out. Transplanting the Georgette character from Mary's show lent another air of familiarity. As the series wore on the network toned down the caustic banter betweened the two leads, to make Betty's character nicer, thereby eliminating most of the humor.

It didn't help that this was the first MTM sitcom shot on videotape. Film was getting too expensive for the networks, they wanted all of their new sitcoms videotaped to save money. The result was a cheaper looking product and some worthy shows went down the chute because of it. (Newhart debuted in 1982, shot on videotape for the first season - after the show was a proven success, they moved over to film for the rest of the run.)

At its best The Betty White Show was a worthy vehicle for a great comedy star that could have evolved into something wonderful, taking potshots at the entertainment industry always provides an endless stream of comedy potential, but the production never found its footing and was cancelled after 14 episodes.

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