Molly Dodd has NBC scared to death,” says Jay Tarses, the new show’s creator, producer and director. “Those guys over there have turned that network around–they’re in the catbird seat, they’re in fat city, and they don’t want to do anything to screw that up. But they’re smart enough to know you gotta experiment with new things.”
And Tarses’s show, which debuts May 21st, is nothing if not a new thing. Billed as a dramatic comedy, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd is a half-hour show about a 34-year-old career woman on the skids. Tarses discusses the show as he wanders amid the wreckage of the Molly Dodd set, in a warehouse in California’s San Fernando Valley, where his You & Me, Kid Productions has set up shop. “The network is terrified that people are gonna take one look at Molly Dodd and say, ‘What the hell is this, anyway?’ ” he says. “They think it’s too–I don’t know–subtle, I guess.”
Producers with a subtle touch are the ball-busting Evel Knievels of television, the real daredevils in a realm dominated by programming execs whose traditional Rx for attracting large audiences has been a predictable mix of sitcom humor, car crashes, glitz and steep Vs of cleavage.
Jay Tarses is not from that mold. This is the same guy who created (with Tom Patchett) Buffalo Bill, perhaps one of the most brilliant, albeit strange, comedy series ever to self-destruct in prime time. Remember? Think back three or four years ago. Buffalo Bill starred Dabney Coleman as a terminally self-centered talk-show host. It was a major critical success.
“But it never got the numbers,” Tarses says as he shrugs and glances around Molly Dodd’s “New York” apartment. He is tall, has dark curly hair and, dressed in an old plaid logging shirt and jeans, looks more like a truck driver or the garbage man he occasionally plays on the show than a Hollywood hotshot.
“I mean, we got millions and millions of people to watch Buffalo Bill,” he explains. “More people, in fact, probably saw any single episode of Buffalo Bill than all the live performances of Hamlet in history combined. But in prime time that’s just not enough. It’s a tremendous numbers game. You gotta have, like, 25 million people watching your series on any given night just to be doing okay. So the inclination on the part of the networks has always been to rely on the tried and true. The formula stuff.”
Tarses peers into the sink in Molly’s stage bathroom. He runs his finger around the rim. “Looks like somebody actually shaved over this thing,” he says. “Pretty realistic, huh?… Anyway, a few years back, NBC broke the mold. Really went after quality. St. Elsewhere, Hill Street, you can’t find more perfect comedy than some of the early episodes of Cheers. They let us do Buffalo Bill. Some pretty outrageous stuff. Brandon [Tartilcoff, the president of NBC Entertainment] was great. He’d say, ‘I think you guys are gonna end up getting us in a lot of trouble but…hey, it’s great stuff. Go do it anyway.’ I mean, when we did the abortion show on Buffalo Bill in which Bill went to pitch an imaginary baseball game at Yankee Stadium to save the life of his unborn child, you wouldn’t have believed the letters we got. We got pictures of dead babies in the mail. NBC could handle that”–Tarses looks truly worried–”but Molly Dodd, I just don’t know.”
Actually, the premise of the show is simple and hardly revolutionary. Molly, played by Blair Brown, is a single woman, living alone in New York. She has problems with her mom, problems with her job, problems with her ex. As the first episode begins, we hear a voice-over of her mother, laying out Molly’s predicament. She’s divorced. No kids. Almost 35. An aspiring poet. She tried art but ended up in real estate. So?
The first hint that Molly Dodd is aiming past the cheap seats comes when she confronts her elevator man on the way to work. She reads him one of her poems. He remarks that he would have preferred something a little “crisper, meatier.” She’s puzzled. “You mean, like bacon?” “No,” he replies. “If it were like Bacon, it would be fine. He was a homo. He knew where he stood.”
What emerges here is TV that could have been Mark Christensen’s novel, Mortal Belladaywic, will be published this summer by Dolphin/Doubleday. written by Ann Beattie, with some help from the ghost of Andy Kaufman.
Molly Dodd lives in a city where the mundane and the weird are Siamese twins. Her world is deftly, realistically surreal. Her mother complains that Molly’s father has become “a slab of meat with eyes.” Her boss is a cunning bozo of a cad who, savvy enough to zoom right in on her loneliness and vulnerability, seduces Molly without mentioning that he is married. Never mind that he has also seduced the young woman across the hall.
After an explanation of his motives that would make Alice in Wonderland sound like Dick and Jane by comparison, he offers, in icy summation of the mess he has created, “But Molly, here’s something scary: What if I’m the best there is?” And that’s the key to this show. Molly Dodd is a woman who, facing the first harsh light of middle age, finds herself pondering her lot in life. She’s a dreamer who wonders if she should go on dreaming.
“Like Molly,” Blair Brown says, “I was part of the generation that thought we were going to save the world. Then when we discovered we couldn’t save it, I guess we figured we could buy it. In some ways, Molly Dodd is a show for all the people who thought they were going to end up yuppies and aren’t. For me, Molly Dodd is the story of what happens to someone who reaches the midpoint of life and realizes a lot of her big dreams are not going to come true. It’s about someone from a generation that had such high hopes for itself but that is now faced with compromise. What Molly ends up realizing, what a lot of us are realizing, I think, is that life is a work in progress.”
Blair Brown came to play Molly Dodd after a relatively short screen career that included roles ranging from William Hurt’s love interest in Altered States to John Belushi’s love interest in Continental Divide. “Molly Dodd was natural for me,” she says, “because I’d gone through things that were so similar. I’d started out on the stage, then gone on to movies. I guess that’s what I expected for myself, but when I got to movies I found them very hardball. I didn’t know where my life was going at all. Which is Molly’s problem exactly.
“I never had really thought about doing series television before I met Jay. But as this character Molly began to evolve, I really became hooked. Because I think Molly Dodd is an extraordinary creation.”
She is also a creation in a lot of trouble. Here is a woman whose dreams are populated with gauchos and stallions and lances and who writes poetry like this: Love’s fangs pierced my neck,
My blood spurted and wrote your name,
Serpent in scarlet letters,
Winding around my sleeping shape,
Twisting and squeezing,
And the hot wind licks the lace curtains.
And that, according to Molly’s mother, was a “non-sexual part.” Ever since Molly’s endearing sax-playing sponge of a husband left her, she has been unable to find Mr. Right.
Why? A couple of reasons. One, because Mr. Right, wherever he is, is probably thinking, “Granted, she’s got lovely eyes and a smile as bright as the moon. But she’s got the self-confidence of a church mouse, is on the high road to 40, and, Christ, listen to her rattle on sometimes and you wonder who’s driving.”
Two (closely related to one), Molly Dodd is going out of her mind. “Molly is a very realistic character,” says Brown. ‘I was so tired of playing ladies in corsets or the diligent modern urban woman. This is much closer to the bone.” So close, in fact, that by the sixth episode, Molly is on the brink of an all-out nervous breakdown. At first, it appears she’s met her prince–an airline pilot Hip. Strong of jaw. Speaks English. And you can’t help but wonder why she ditches him. Then it’s obvious.
She’s blowing her circuits. And it’s not funny. Not funny at all. By the time Molly tells a psychiatrist that her ex-husband still has “a hold on my heart so tight, sometimes I feel like I’m never going to breathe again,” you may be peering at your TV goggle-eyed, feeling like you’ve just been flattened by a gravel truck. “
Molly Dodd is not a sitcom. It’s a hybrid. I think that’s what is both scary and exciting about the show; it’s a crap shoot,” says Warren Littlefield, a senior vice-president in charge of series, specials and variety programs at NBC Entertainment.
“Conventionally, it’s boy meets girl. She falls head over heels. Then–son of a bitch!–turns out he’s married. Second act: Well, ‘Yada, yada, yada, I’m a good person. I guess you’re not such a good person.’ Resolve. Wrap. Life doesn’t happen like that. Life doesn’t happen in twenty-three-minute spurts. Neither does this series.
“Our goal is to do a show that is not traditional, that talks about the real life of a single woman,” he says. A show that “does not offer life in neat little bundles.” Even the best of NBC’s current comedies–Cheers, Family Ties, Night Court, The Cosby Show–are essentially comic fables that prove each week that the world really works. Episodes of each show generally follow the same pattern: situation, complication, crisis, resolve, reprise.
“The audience expects closure in a story,” says Littlefield, one of the architects of the ambitious schedule that has put NBC at the top of the TV-ratings heap. “Here things don’t close, they go on. In terms of story, it’s a radical departure. There are no Prince Charmings. No easy solutions.”
There may be no easy ratings solutions either. “The show’s too realistic, probably too much of a downer,” says one industry analyst. Still, three of TV’s funniest and most successful shows ever–The Rockford Files, M*A*S*H and All in the Family–had great gobs of reality and desperation at their foundation. They also had strong central characters.
Not only have Tarses and company abandoned the beat-beat-yuk, beat-beat-yuk, rhythm of the traditional situation comedy, but they’ve allowed Molly the luxury of being a motor mouth as well. True, her discombobulation leads to some goofy flights of verbiage. Explaining the appeal of a potential Indian suitor, she says, “His sersual fragrances bounce off him and right up your nose.”
In order to knock down the artificial constraints of TV, Molly is given time to just run on. When the show works, you believe that this character really exists, that you are watching something totally unmanufactured, something that is really taking place.
“If you watch this show every week,” says Tarse:., “you’re never gonna know what will happen next. This woman is seductive. She’s in trouble like a lot of us are in trouble. We’re in our thirties, forties, we’re attractive, educated, we do all the right things, and our lives are just jokes….Think we’re doing something so fine, so fucking wonderful… but [TV is] a business. A business of numbers. If we don’t get numbers, we’re gone. Simple as that… [but] I just don’t give a fuck anymore. I’m not going to give ’em car crashes to get numbers.”
Nor is he interested in “a show that offers pat answers.” ‘It’s a show about a doomed romance,’ says Tarses. ‘We’ve hit on something very current.’ And to what extent was he pressured by NBC? “They kept saying, ‘Give us a story. Why can’t you give us a story?’ There is a story. It’s the story of a woman’s life. It’s a show about a doomed romance. A romance that can’t live and won’t die. … I think we’ve hit on something very current, something very undefinable. It’s compelling. A lot of people are going to see themselves in this show. I don’t mind if people look at this and say, ‘Gee, this makes me uncomfortable.’ I don’t care if they laugh, if they cry. I’d like ’em to do it all.”