Comedy, 1/2 hour
(Tuesday, 7:30 pm., ABC)
Dan Writer (Ted Danson) is an English professor at a small public college in New Jersey. A youthful 55, he enjoys the banter with his students, acting in the college’s small (and very bad) Shakespeare productions, and bantering with his colleagues (Tom Lafontaine (Jason Alexander), a nasty-tempered foul-mouthed philosophy professor who continually misquotes famous writers, and Jill Saint Claire (Shelly Farbares), a worldly English professor who once published a famous romance (the name of which is never mentioned on the show) and who dreams of living in a cottage in the Costwalds. Other college cast members include include the ruthless and ambitious young(ish) department head (Vicki Lewis).
But the focal point of the show is Writer’s neighborhood, an upper west side block of apartments, shops and (of course) characters from which Writer commutes every day. On his salary, Writer is able to afford a small apartment (and is, consequently, always running out of money) and hence, to enjoy (which he obviously does) the diverse and unusual neighbourhood in which he lives. Some regulars on the block include the Chinese grocer (Pat Morita, who of course speaks and acts Japanese (and constantly complains that Japanese food would never sell, so he must sell Chinese food), ‘Nell’, the waitress at the coffee shop (Christine Lahti) where Writer eats breakfast (he doesn’t have a kitchen, of course, and is constantly trying (and failing) to get breakfast on creadit), the news-stand guy (Pat Morita again, in a different role), the rap kids outside Writer’s front door (new), and Andrew Jackson (Avery Brooks), a local resident and Writer’s foil in the neighbourhood.
Episode narration and setting of context is provided by Writer’s continuing chapters in his ‘novel’ (we learn, over time, that Writer is and always has been a failed writer: he has never been published, not even once, and over the course of the series his work is rejected by the Times, the New Yorker, the community newsletter, the college student paper…). To get the gist of the narration, you have to picture Ted danson as an author and… well, you get the picture.
Writer is attempting to write a story of iner-city new york told from the perspective (not the point of view) of a suburban college professor – consequently, his work is full of really obvious, sometimes trite, observations about inner-city life. Gradually, through the course of the series, he and his writing are pulled into the complexities of the inner city, until eventually he is writing about suburban life from the point of view of an inner-city dweller.
The hook for the story is, of course, the contrast between the inner-city experience (which includes poverty, crime, crowding, etc) and the surreal setting of the New Jersey college. Writer comments frequently that entering one from the other is like entering a “different world”. The sub-theme is the similarities between the people who live in the two cultures (an understated and not obvious parallel is drawn between two characters, one from each side, in every episode).
It’s important to keep in mind that throughout the series, Writer is a well-meaning an earnest – even naive – college professor who is, despite his continual failure, always hopeful about his writing career, genuinely caring about his students (so much so that they take advantage of him from time to time), intelligent (in a home-spun kind of way) and reasonably articulate – just not very insightful. The world (both worlds) is passing Writer by, and he just doesn’t quite understand what exactly is happening, but he is confident of his place and role in the world.
Theme song: paperback Writer (of course), and the outro is an instrumental with the same music.
Catchphrases: “It’s like entering another world.” – “Can I owe you for that? (varying sarcastic responses)” – “I have just sent a manuscript to –” ; “I have just received a letter from –”
Begins in Writer’s apartment as he begins the ‘Novel – he is writing by candlelight (during the series he uses flashlights, candles, whatever, because his power is frequently (but not always) shut off because the payment is overdue). As writer describes his block in increasingly romantic terms, the sounds of the inner city increase in intensity – horns, shouting voices, sirens, gunshots…
Quick cuts: Writer leaving the apartment, eating breakfast, buying a newspaper, then (longer shot) cycling over the bridge to New Jersey (during the show he explains that while he could probably afford a car, he can’t afford the parking), cut to Writer parking his bicycle (no lock (he’s naive), and hence, different bicycles over the course of the series, different weather during the cycle as well), cut to Writer standing in front of a class, Shakespeare in hand, reciting as the opening music fades…
… and you get the idea. In the pilot, Writer takes to a young man of indeterminate ethnicity who thinks he’s a rebel (a cross between Springsteen and James Dean) – after a trigger event (fighting in the hall), Writer decides it would be a good idea to take this suburban punk into the inner city to show him “what being a failure is really like.” They get into the city and the young punk adapts like a fish to water, rapping with the rap kids, getting along with the newspaper guy, so on. But in the third act, the kid says the wrong thing to a gang member and looks like he is in trouble until Writer placates the gang with a mixture of naivite and indifference (“Look,” he says, “if you do me then you can pay my power bill.”)
– The department head plans to get rid of the English department, so Writer plans to convicne her of how wrong she is by showing her the bad English spoken on the block, she agrees to go with him but one after the other she meets a Pulitizer prize winner, a peabody prize winner, a Nobel laureate… but she relents anyways, reasoning that if English can survive on the block she has no chance of killing it.
– Writer and Lafontaine deside to go hang out in the cafes of the lower east side, where they discover some of their students busing tables. Writer spends some time complaining to lafontaine about how today’s youth are neglecting their studies, but on the way out spots the student’s Shakespeare, open, on the top of the diswashing machine, and has a change of heart (unseen, but shown after Writer leaves, the other half of the book, propping up a bucket collecting water from a leaky roof)
– Writer decides to mount (yet another) production of Shakespeare, but decides to import some of the people from the block (and in particular, the rap kids) to play some of the roles (reasoning that by being exposed to the more cultured life, they will want to make something of themselves). The play is eventually produced entirely in rap.
That’s it, it a nutshell. I have a large basket outside my door to collect the royalty cheques. 😉