Actually, *Pushes Glasses Back Onto Face* the ‘Diner’ TV Pilot Was the First Show About Nothing
Barry Levinson’s 1982 film Diner is a classic. Funny, original, and engrossing, it has been credited with influencing a huge swath of what we consider to be the best comedy in movies and television over the past twenty or so years. It paid attention to the seemingly mundane past-time of young adults in their early twenties bullshitting about everything and nothing, making the art of talking around a topic of dubious significance in circles no longer just for middle aged men (John Cassavetes’ Husbands) or specifically for Wallace Shawn (My Dinner With Andre). As S.L. Price noted in his Vanity Fair article about the movie in 2012, it opened the doors for directors like Quentin Tarantino to let their characters sketch in their inner lives by pontificating about Big Macs, and for Judd Apatow to get us to know the Knocked Up guys better by having them spend time discussing how great Eric Bana was in Munich. It also would effect television too, most notably Seinfeld and their frank conversations about button placement, and later Larry David and all of the improvised conversations on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Cheers, a show that spent most of its time in one place, and premiered the same year Diner opened, had its characters talk their way into becoming one of the most critically acclaimed and loved sitcoms of all time.
What is far less written about is the television pilot that attempted to pick up right where and when the movie left off, in Baltimore in the very beginning of 1960. Based off of his sudden financial and artistic success, Levinson wrote and directed a Diner pilot for CBS that didn’t make it to series. It got the summer burn-off treatment and aired thirty years ago this Thursday, only to be remembered again by the fine folks at the long defunct Trio Network ten years ago as part of their “Brilliant But Cancelled” series, and once more in the wondrous right here and now. But despite the movie’s influence on television, the small screen version proved to be faulty and awkward, the charms of the film failing to track.
The thing about the movie Diner that automatically put the pilot at an unfair disadvantage was that it happened to feature one of the most talented young casts ever assembled: Mickey Rourke played Boogie, the womanizing hair dresser in constant gambling debt. Eddie was portrayed by a pre-Police Academy and Party Down hot tub enthusiast Steve Guttenberg. Tim Daly played The Gutte’s brother Billy. Daniel Stern played Shrevie, with Ellen Barkin as his wife Beth. Kevin Bacon was Fenwick, charitably described as a rapscallion that identifies too much with Holden Caulfield. But the cast was all gone and off on their long, successful, and in one case, Rourkeian journeys into Hollywood fame and fortune by the time the pilot was cast, with one exception: Paul Reiser. Reiser reprised his role as Modell, the one character that started and drove those groundbreaking conversations that peppered the film and helped make it so different. When Reiser was holding court at the cool kids booth in the Fells Point Diner on TV however, something was off.
Possibly it was due to something as simple as Modell not wearing a suit, but more likely the awkwardness stemmed from the feeling that Reiser was too blatantly trying out one of his standup routines. He was out of place chronologically and generally. He carried too much of the weight instead of being an integral part of a varied group, and it called too much attention on itself to whenever Reiser would ask a leading question1.
It wasn’t as if he was the only future star around. The pilot featured the likes of Michael Madsen, Mike Binder, Alison La Placa, and James Spader. In the abstract, trading young Kevin Bacon for young James Spader works. Specifically to Diner and to the complicated character of Fenwick, baby Spader was unable to match Bacon in playing up the character’s dark side. A part of it was the script, which obviously was a sixth shorter than the film’s and had to take shortcuts in developing a character. But while Bacon can indicate aggravated contentment by just a facial expression, TV Fenwick’s troubled backstory was provided for the audience by way of dialogue from Eddie to Eddie’s mother, and in a shot of Spader drinking out of a flask. These indicators are actually well-written and on the subtle side of TV writing, but only meshes with Bacon’s interpretation of the character. Spader’s Fenwick lives in fear, mostly of a psychopath known simply as The Gripper, who lurks outside of the diner. The Gripper is a character that was not in the movie, and exists to drive the equivalent of the B-story. He is also a character that represents a physical manifestation of the fear the main characters all seem to exhibit about 1) leaving their precious diner and entering The Real World, which would lead to 2) Growing Up. The video quality of the footage isn’t the best, but even in its initial airing it must have been purposely shot by Levinson as dark as possible. If it wasn’t for Fenwick’s friends laughing and letting the scene unfold, this would have been difficult to watch2.
To Levinson’s credit, he did not blunt the rough edges of his creation for CBS, only losing any nuance3 from the time constraints. For one thing, we knew that Madsen’s Boogie hadn’t kicked his gambling habit from a quick scene with Modell, which most certainly would have played out to some AMC style drama down the line. For another, Levinson didn’t shy away from making Eddie and Shrevie4, the two married men on the show, kind of deplorable. The main story found Eddie’s new wife Elyse asking him to stop going to the diner, so he can spend more time with her and start to mature (bit of a theme). It can’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that Eddie gets his way by the end of the episode. But how he got his way is open to debate: Eddie told his friends — conveniently after a going away party was thrown at the diner in his honor — that he was free to frequent the group’s homebase after all, following a conversation he had with Elyse a few days earlier. This conversation was not filmed however, which lead the audience to believe that one of two things happened: 1) Eddie lied to his friends and is simply going to defy his significant other or 2) the argument would have been too intense and horrible to see, and would have veered the show into way too dark of a direction then intended. Beth, influenced by Elyse, decided to also ask her husband to leave his friends behind. There were probably a million thoughts running through Shrevie’s mind in this scene before he poorly articulated why he can never do such a thing.
Interspersing drama in a half-hour series was actually not something that all network executives would find jarring in 1983, particularly at CBS, which was home to All in the Family, Maude, and the recently concluded M*A*S*H5. But what the suits probably didn’t understand, or at the very least were concerned about, was a pilot episode that featured two of its characters questioning the very concept of the show. Presumably, they asked if each episode was about five men fighting every week to preserve their childhoods just a little bit longer. Would audiences find that heartening or incredibly depressing? Would America tolerate Eddie and Shrevie for very long, when anti-heroes were not yet welcome on television? Those were enough questions raised to not go ahead with the series.
Diner managed to be ahead of its time in both cinema and in television, but was only commercially successful in one of them. In regards to artistic merit, the pilot did not match or exceed the lofty expectations put upon it by its cinematic equivalent. This of course is ridiculously not fair, but cannot be ignored. While Levinson was already and would turn out to be a successful television creative, writing for The Carol Burnett Show before Diner and executive producing Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street after, anyone could have easily mismanaged the tricky-to-capture tone in hypothetical subsequent episodes and tarnished the legacy of the movie, which subsequently could have changed the comedic television landscape. It was for the best that the boy-men get to stay young forever, preserved on DVDs.
At least until the musical comes out.
1Which just might remind people of The Paul Reiser Show, and nobody deserves that.
2The imagery between 1:01-1:05 is remarkably creepy.
4Shrevie was played in the pilot by Max Cantor, best known as Robbie Gould in Dirty Dancing. He was also a journalist. Cantor died of an overdose at 32 years old while writing a Village Voice article about heroin addiction. This is sad.
5Which also was based on a movie, took place in the past, and consequently dealt with a few sexist main characters.