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Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Dissecting Young Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane's Awful, Awful Sitcom

121 - One of the BoysThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Take a seat and I'm going to tell you about a sitcom that aired in 1982 that came and went. In the lead, we have the late Mickey Rooney, once the number one movie star in the world, then 62, mustached, and while he was still much older than you're average sitcom anchor, still a very capable performer. As his grandson we have Dana Carvey, still a few years away from his big break on Saturday Night Live, with a weird, blonde bowl cut, but still ready to break out into a Mr. Rogers impression for a quick laugh. And as Dana's roommate we have a young Nathan Lane, in his TV series debut. Why didn't this series run for years and years with talent like that?

Because it was horrible.

The show was called One of the Boys, and though I had never heard of it before stumbling across it, apparently it has a bit of a reputation in television. A reputation for being garbage. Now, I sincerely hope I'm not hurting any feelings with that assessment. After TV Guide named it one of their 50 worst shows of all time (#24!), I highly doubt any of the surviving cast members or crew have a One of the Boys Google alert set up. I watched the pilot episode of the show, and even though the show aired 32 years ago, I felt as though I was watching something out of a time warp from several decades earlier. It had all the hallmarks of a classic bad TV show like a My Mother the Car. Crazy, unrealistic premise? Check. Characters that act nothing like actual human beings would? Yep. Other characters that exhibit one character trait and only that trait? Yes sir. Female characters that were either incredibly stupid or shrill nags? Why, yes! A jazzy, animated theme song? Of course! One of the Boys was neither ahead of its time nor of its time.

Let's break it down. First, the crazy, unrealistic premise. In this press interview from 1982, Carvey robotically describes the premise of the show: "I play [Mickey Rooney's] grandson, and he's in an old folks home at the start of the show, and I come and get him and say 'Grandpa, you're too cute to be in an old folks home. Come live with me in my off-campus apartment as we share comedic adventures.'" It's like Old School, with out anything resembling a college experience. Immediately a TV show premise is introduced for an audience of no one. Teens don't want to watch a show about college that centers on an elderly man. I imagine that even Mickey Rooney's biggest fans don't want to watch a show all about how left behind and backwards he is now that the culture has moved on without him. They want to see him sing to Judy Garland again. And everybody else would rather watch T.J. Hooker.

Let's move on to the characters that act nothing like actual human beings. No matter how cute one's grandfather is I have a hard time buying a college student bringing home their grandfather to stay at an apartment. Especially when, just that morning, that college student's roommate, played by Nathan Lane, reminded him to be home on time "for our date tomorrow night. The girls said they'd be here around 8 o'clock," in that traditional 1980s sitcom dialogue that balances exposition and nothing else. Lane continues, "Don't let me down, Adam. I had a long talk with my glands and all systems are go," but we'll get to flat, one-note characters in a moment. Shortly after Grandpa Mickey Rooney (America didn't both to learn the character's names, so I won't bore you with them) arrives, he decides to watch the 1am horror movie on television but promises to not disturb Nathan Lane as he studies. Seconds later he clutches Nathan tightly and exclaims, "Look! Look! Seven-headed thing!" When the aforementioned girls arrive, Grandpa decides to get out of the way and go to the movies, after flirting with them ferociously. Once he's gone, one of the girls asks about the upright piano. Of course, she doesn't say, "Isn’t this an off-campus apartment? Why would a college student bring an upright piano to college?" instead asking "A piano? Who plays it?" giving Grandpa Rooney the perfect opportunity to open the door back up and loudly announce that he does. Then, turning on a dime, he forgets about his promise to stay out late and give the boys their date night and proceeds to occupy the girls all night with his piano playing and reminiscing through photo albums. And the girls absolutely are thoroughly charmed by him, just as any college girl expecting to spend their evening with a boy their own age would be. Which leads us right into…

Flat, one-note characters. Technically this is everyone, since nobody on this show really has any depth to them, but some stand out more than others. Nathan Lane's character is there to be the cranky one. If Mickey Rooney is the show's manic pixie dream girl, Nathan Lane is the stuffy guy who needs to be shown how to live life to its fullest; he just doesn't know that yet. I don't really know what Dana Carvey's character is there for. He gets Grandpa to the apartment and he's a bit of a middleman between Lane and Rooney but other than that, he doesn't have much to do. At the very beginning of the show, we see him waking Nathan Lane's character up by doing a Mr. Rogers impression, which at least feels like they wrote something in to make use of his talents, but beyond that he's simply there to say things like, "just give him a chance," and "you have to understand."

And then there are the female characters. The first one we meet is the landlady Mrs. Green, played by Francine Beers. I have no idea what function her character serves, other than to have a woman in the main titles. She certainly does nothing for the story in the pilot episode, since all she does is threaten to raise the rent, and then discover that Mickey Rooney is staying with the boys and give no consequences for doing so. I'm assuming that as the series went on she was going to be like Don Knotts' Mr. Furley on Three's Company, invading the apartment when the comic capers were at their wackiest, the threat of eviction ever looming over our heroes. In this episode, she just shows up and leaves a couple of times. The two young ladies who are Nathan and Dana's hot dates were played by Meg Ryan and Hot and Cleveland's Wendie Malick. These characters are there to be attractive and then be really charmed by Dana's cute grandpa. Calling them one-note seems generous since they are barely even given that one note.

Now, I didn't set out to write a snarky article about a TV show that has already been forgotten. Anybody can do that, and I like to think we're somewhat above that in From the Archives.  I watched this program with the intention of writing about and giving it the same attention and context that I do for any other historical program in this series. However, this thing was just so insultingly bad that I couldn't let it off that easy. I recognize that this was a different time for television. A time in which the audience didn't have as many options, and as such, the shows had to swing for the broadest audience possible. It's not fair for me to hold it to modern standards as a result. I like to think that if I were writing about TV in the 1980s this article would have taken pretty much the same shape. I'm glad all these talented people made it out of this show, but this thing was rough.

But let's give the casting department a retroactive Emmy!

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.