Monday, May 20, 2013

"The Quintessential Hegelian Sitcom"

There’s a mouthful.  And a guaranteed crowd pleaser, don’t you think?  I think I’m getting better at this “learning what people want and giving it to them” thing.  Though it’s possible I’m fooling myself.

Ah, well.

Yeah, anyway…

I did not create Major Dad.  What I did was “develop” it, which means I took the bare bones of an idea and I expanded it into a viable series.  Major Dad ran for four seasons, making it, by far, my most successful commercial undertaking. 

A lot of Major Dad’s success was due to its likable star – Gerald McRaney.  (As well as its wonderful supporting cast.)  But – please excuse the bragging – I helped a lot too.

When I was first brought onboard, the series’ creators – actor McRaney and writer Rick Okie – presented me with a concept, involving a recently widowed Marine raising three children on his own.  It was My Three Sons, with amphibian landing craft.

When we pitched the idea, ABC turned us down.  (Hard.  I later received a phone call, asking me, “Are those guys {the show’s creators} for real?”)  Our next stop – CBS  said okay, but only if we changed the show’s premise from a recently widowed Marine raising three children on his own to a long-single Marine marrying a woman with three daughters. 

You see the difference in the two concepts?  A recently widowed Marine raising his own children?  What we got there is a “power mismatch”, over-balanced in the direction of the Marine.  Sure, the kids could pull off some shenanigans behind his back, but head-to-head – the kids mess up, and they’re headed straight to the brig. 

The revised idea, an immeasurable improvement, was exploited thoroughly in the Major Dad pilot. 

From their initial meeting, where “Polly”, the “Liberal Female Reporter”, interviews “McGillis”, the ”Conservative Career Marine” for a feature article for her paper, the sensors for both of them are on “High Alert.” 

Polly challenges the Major on the morality of his purported mission – taking innocent young people and teaching them how to kill.  They spar edgily back and forth, and at the end, when she tries to “sneak attack” him, McGillis (gently) flips her, exemplifying the Marine Corps’ “always ready” mentality. 

The pilot concludes with the confirmed bachelor McGillis’s proposing marriage, after knowing Polly only a few days, explaining that, as in combat, the decision to do so crystallized in his mind, and once it did, he knew exactly what to do.

“See the hill.  Take the hill.”

Where does the “Hegelian Dialectic” fit in?  (GUTTERALING THE “R”) Ghghghghgright here.

The Free Dictionary defines the “Hegelian Dialectic” as

“An interpretive method in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis.)”

Conservative Marine:


Liberal Reporter: 


And away we go! 

Making sure you proceed towards but never reach “synthesis”, because if you do, you eliminate the natural and necessary conflict in the show.  The “Hegelian Dialectic” suggests the ideal engine for a series.  (Though you don’t need it to be a hit.  Modern Family jettisoned its “antithesis” before the end of the pilot, and it’s doing just fine.)  Throw any issue at it – from control of the family’s finances to the issue of spanking – allow it to percolate, and out comes a zesty brew of “Comedy Loveliness.”

Major Dad was engineered to run forever.  In its middle years, it ranked in the “Top Ten” in the ratings.   Everything was beautiful.


I left Major Dad after its first season, returning to my office to create new series ideas.  And nap.  I continued to consult on Major Dad, until early in the second season when the replacement show runner insisted that I stop. 

Still, though I was no longer participating, I was invited to sit in on a meeting, initiated by Shanna Reed, who played Polly on the show.  There were four people in attendance – Gerald McRaney, Shanna Reed, the replacement show runner and me. 

The meeting started with the standard casual chitchat.  Shanna was expressing her views on some (now forgotten) issue of the day.  Suddenly, McRaney interrupted, dismissing Shanna’s opinion, and replacing it with his – diametrically opposite – own. 

Then the meeting began in earnest. 

The problem, in Shanna’s plaintively expressed words, was,

“What happened to my character?”

It seems that, in the recent episodes – and in contrast to the pilot and the first season in general – “Polly” had been stripped of her “co-equal” status on the series, becoming more a satellite in the “McGillis Menagerie.”  

What was abruptly startling to me was that Shanna’s complaint mirrored precisely what I had just witnessed during the casual chitchat, “antithesis” blowing “thesis” right out of the water.  This was apparently the same destabilizing dynamic that was also playing out on the show.

Major Dad had abandoned its template, depriving it, to its considerable detriment, of its conflict-inducing tension. 

Gerald McRaney was an Executive producer of the show.  The replacement show runner was under his thumb.  I was officially off the show.  There was nothing I could do.  Other than voice my concerns.  Which were summarily ignored.   

There were other issues involved.  But it is my opinion that Major Dad could have lasted considerably longer. 

If only they had listened to Hegel.     

1 comment:

Barry said...

I'm curious if you can give other examples of sitcoms that exemplify the Hegelian Dialectic...

The first one that popped to my mind was All in the Family, with the philosophical conflict between Archie and Mike. But the conservative/liberal similarities may be too easy, and the connection between the two is forced (Mike married Archie's daughter) rather than consensual (Major and Polly married each other. But am I on the right track?