[Elizabeth] Taylor Made Monday
It’s great to be with you live at the Southgate Media Group Marathon. This episode of Advanced TV Herstory is being recorded for release later, which is a wonderful thing. Podcasting can be kind of a lonely ambition. We put out a recorded product about something we love – for me that’s talking about the fantastic stories of leadership, persistence and achievement by the women in and of TV – and we put it out there for all humanity to enjoy or critique.
To be able to gather here at the Blue Box in Elgin, Illinois to share my show, engage with you all as part of Advanced TV Herstory and meet others in this realm – it’s a pretty excellent thing. So foremost, my thanks to Rob Southgate and his dedicated team for creating this marathon and giving me the chance to be a part.
Read the news, podcasting is taking off like gang busters. The number of women creating podcasts is increasing as well. So ladies, whether you’re here today in person or listening to Advanced TV Herstory on your own schedule and YOU’RE thinking – “hey, I’d like to do that…” please, contact me – I’ll share that information shortly – I’m happy to chat about the costs, the many, many benefits and rewards.
Podcasting is here to stay and I am incredibly confident that future Southgate Marathons will be held in larger venues and continue to gather some of the midwest’s greatest emerging talent.
So, without further ado, let’s talk TV!
Advanced TV Herstory takes a researched, thoughtful, sometimes provocative look at the stories of TV women. Ask anyone their favorite TV shows that featured strong women characters and bingo! They totally understand the importance of this podcast. That show, those story arcs, characters – have left a profound impact on them – women AND men.
Every once in a while I stumble into a moment in TV or show that looked like it should be a big hit on paper, but in real life, just fell flat or didn’t pack the punch that others had predicted.
That brings us to February 26, 1996 – the Monday evening late into the season of the CBS’ original fall line up – when Elizabeth Taylor either appeared on or was referenced throughout four women-based or women-led sitcoms.
Your Advanced TV Herstory lesson will be a better understanding – via time capsule – of how women roles evolve over seasons, the total lack of recall or recount of this campaign and perhaps the conclusion that Elizabeth Taylor was a smarter business woman (as well as tremendous actress) than most give her credit for being.
1996 – I just keep asking where was I and why don’t I remember this? CBS’s Monday night line up might have needed some boost, caffeine, love – something. Monday nights were focused around 4 sitcoms, 2 warhorses – CLASSICS you’ll recognize and two that featured talent that well, wasn’t the right fit.
If you were in Chicago, then at 7 pm Monday nights in 1996 on CBS you were watching The Nanny. Yes, Fran Dresher. Third season, solid ratings. Fran Dresher was leading a team of talented writers and directors who, in many cases, were taking old comedy situations from vaudeville, Preston Sturges, I Love Lucy and tossing in a Brooklyn accent?
Miss Fine, the nanny to Mr. Sheffield’s children, with regular appearances by her mother, Cynthia Fine, played by the over-the-top Renee Taylor. Mr Sheffield has invited Elizabeth Taylor to the family home to discuss a business matter.
It’s tough to set a non-visual stage for Dresher’s brilliant physical comedy, her facial expressions and the chemistry that the cast and writers had created. So what you need to know is that Fran’s mother is hiding in the closet, as she too is dying to meet…
How many times have we heard that basic bit? Well-timed, it never gets old. This episode titled Where’s the Pearls?, was directed by Dorothy Lyman. Elizabeth Taylor was one day short of 64 years old when this episode aired. She was a bit past her iconic look, a decade removed from the very public she took on as a leading fundraiser and advocate for AIDS research- in that time frame she raised more than $250 million and openly criticized the Reagan Administration for dragging its heels on dedicating any funding to better understand the disease which was killing Taylor’s dear friend Rock Hudson and would claim the lives of so many other talented entertainers.
At this stage in her career, she was having fun and making big dough off her perfumes – White Diamonds and Black Pearls.
Unless you have the DVD, there’s no way for you to see the full episode of The Nanny online, though the Taylor appearance can be found on YouTube. Butler Niles is as star-struck as Fran.
Fran’s mother Cynthia convinces Fran that a bonded courier is likely to get robbed, so Fran decides to deliver them herself but her taxi gets into an accident. Fran suffers a concussion and loses the memory of ever having the pearls.
That plot thread is picked up at 7:30 with a show YOU NEVER HEARD OF – Can’t Hurry Love, which enjoyed its final episode of its only season on that fateful night. 1996 – this gem starred Nancy McKeon – she was the big name – Jo, from The Facts of Life – which had ended nearly 10 years prior – and a relatively unknown – Mariska Hargitay – three years before Law and Order: SVU would premier – now in its 19th season, it’s very hard to see Hargitay in any role other than the iconic Lieutenant and Commanding Officer of the Special Victims Unit. It’s even harder to see that great talent attempt comedy – with bad writing.
The characters played by McKeon and Hargitay work together in a Manhattan staffing agency and live together in a pretty nice apartment. Hargitay’s character is the saucy one, trampy, a little ditzy and her name is Didi.
McKeon plays basically the character of Jo if she had moved to Manhattan after graduating from Eastlund and college. So from Jo to Annie, McKeon is the point guard, the set up, the sensible, the more serious one.
There are a few episodes of this show on YouTube – like literally someone turned on their VHS recording and converted it to digital. The Elizabeth Taylor episode – literally it’s called the Elizabeth Taylor episode – is not among them.
So here’s how the Black Pearls plot advances, according to IMDB – Fran was in the taxi that got into the accident. She had no memory of having possession of Taylor’s package, so walked away from it leaving the pearls in the back seat. In Can’t Hurry Love, Annie is going on a date, hails that same cab and finds the pearls. She wears them and promptly loses them – only later does she find out that they belonged to Taylor.
8 pm, Monday night on CBS – Murphy Brown! In its 8th season of 10. This episode, entitled Trick or Retreat is directed by Joe Regalbuto, written by the show’s creator Diane English and Sarah Dunn, who was a busy writer in the 90s and most recently on American Wife.
It’s common knowledge among generations of Murphy Brown fans (it’s been off the air now for nearly 20 years) that the entire series is still unreleased on DVD and it’s only shown occasionally on TV. Like almost never. Reason? Supposedly the complex state of the music rights contracts written when the show launched in 1988.
The Taylor plot was much more of a side-reference in Murphy Brown. Realizing her famed black pearls were on the loose in New York, Taylor cancels an appearance on Brown’s fictitious news show, FYI. There’s a little exchange about this at the beginning, but the show’s main plot is a team-building retreat in a rural setting.
I never saw it. Can’t see it today. Can only believe the IMDB synopsis is remotely accurate. Everything on the Internet is the truth, right?
Okay, so at 8:30, we get to know how the Taylor’s pearls get recovered, right? The show – again – one you never heard of – High Society – which was a fall replacement of another sitcom that barely made it past a third episode. On February 26th, High Society ‘s series ended… Three names you’ll recognize: the show with the original timeslot of 8:30 – If Not For You, starred Elizabeth McGovern – who we’d later come to love on Downton Abbey. Two episodes of If Not For You and it was decided it wasn’t for us.
High Society starred Jean Smart – who we will always remember as Charlene from Designing Women and Mary McDonnell – who, depending on your demographic is either President Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica or Capt. Sharon Raydor from Major Crimes. Jean Smart – comedy, great timing. Mary McDonnell – comedy? Really?
Was it the casting, the writing? Even the premise of this episode wasn’t nearly as well-crafted as, say, The Nanny.
Mary McDonnell big hair, shoulder pads. Jayne Meadows, who was really just famous for being famous and for being married to comedian Steve Allen– and had recurring roles on Medical Center, St. Elsewhere, as Mary McDonnell’s mother.
Jean Smart character very similar to Charlene, only much more vauous. Not naïve, so much as just disposably vain. In one scene she’s smoking.
Comedy for two society women who are single (Mary McDonnell has a grown son, Brendan, with whom she has an eerily close physical relationship), valium, martinis, cigarettes, easy sex. Pretty low bar for comedic writing. And the laugh track immunized them from the reality. The plot jumps from their being robbed to Jean Smart – we’ll just call the character Charlene, it’s a lot easier, deciding that after seeing the great bond between Mary McDonnell’s character and her son, that she too wants to have a baby. In vitro? Best to invite a list of potential sperm donors to your apartment overlooking Central Park. They babysit the neighbor’s baby – Mary McDonnell’s character wanting the Charlene character to better understand the rigors of parenting.
Okay, the only reference you hear to the Elizabeth Taylor Black Pearls plot thread was a toss-off line by a robber at the beginning of the episode – that everyone is having their jewelry stolen these days, including Elizabeth Taylor.
No appearance, no further integration into the already flimsy plot of this series 13th and final episode, which IS available on YouTube but is a real challenge to watch. Directed by Iris Dugow, written by 2 men, Robert Horn, who did write on a number of women-centric series and Daniel Margosis, whose IMDB profile touts his work as an intern and executive assistant to producers of women-centric. Was this his chance at writing? If they were giving away chances, surely there was a woman who could have given a higher degree of credibility and stature to the work Jean Smart and Mary McDonnell undertook.
Because what? After all the build-up of Taylor Made Monday had no closure.
Taylor undoubtedly negotiated a fantastic deal to get her Black Pearls launch integrated into 4 sitcoms – aimed squarely at women, on a sleeping late winter Monday evening.
Did she save the struggling single season dogs Can’t Hurry Love and High Society? No. Even being positioned between The Nanny and Murphy Brown help them much. I can envision that in the days before DVR, where you would have had to set your V-C-R or watch in real time, viewers stepped away during those 2 struggling shows, moved laundry from the washer to the dryer, bathed a toddler or quick paid bills.
And we have no idea how many times, in the course of those 2 hours, the Black Pearls commercial ran, complete with a breathy voice over of Taylor and dark images of her head – body submerged in water – or silhouettes of well – let’s just say that would have been Taylor’s body like 20 years prior.
Up to her death in 2011, Elizabeth Taylor wrote the book on celebrity – living the life of an American celebrity – that perhaps is only paralleled by Beyonce today. But Beyonce didn’t have 2 Oscars on her mantle by the time she was 35. Taylor certainly appeared on TV frequently – in roles as well as herself, including some really fun cameos in the 80s - daytime dramas General Hospital and All My Children. Getting back to her AIDS work, it feels like she very much knew her power and knew how to use it.
Little exists today on the internet that tells the story or even reveals who was responsible for decisions about Taylor Made Monday. Did her Black Pearls Perfume reach that status of Taylor’s previous product “White Diamonds” which is still available? 20 years later, we can conclude – probably not.
But 20 years later, actresses Fran Dresher, Candice Bergen, Mary McDonnell, Jean Smart and Mariska Hargitay remain blue chip actresses. They’ve grown and expanded their crafts individually. Huge followings. Quality roles and not nearly the tabloid-documented drama that Elizabeth Taylor and her career generated.
One might say Candice Bergen has taken a bit of that Elizabeth Taylor sort of stature. Her mere presence on a show is an attraction, but really, we’d all just be happy and forever in debt to the lawyers who can figure out how to get Murphy Brown released on DVD or a streaming service.
That’s what we talk about here on Advanced TV Herstory – the business, the careers and the plots good and bad. Drop me a line with your own memories of single episodes or entire series. This podcast is about the impact of TV on our lives, so send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me at @TVHerstory and we’ll head down that rabbit hole together. There’s so much meaning that hasn’t been discussed to so many decades of TV. Find the archives – ready for streaming – at the website www.tvherstory.com.
And here’s my suggestion for getting through your next multi-generational family function. You don’t really want to talk politics or defend the millennial who’s getting grief for her tattoos – instead, start talking podcasts to those who are intimidated by the technology. Pull out your phone or better yet Aunt Sarah’s iPad and show her how to go right to a site where she can stream directly. Just Press Play! And yes, Advanced TV Herstory is coded as CLEAN, so you won’t get yelled at down the road for exposure to salty language.
Bringing you the stories of leadership, achievement and persistence by TV women – in this case when Elizabeth Taylor probably made a lot of money for very little work – loyal listeners, this is why I podcast, I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.