Saturday, January 3, 2015
The Baxters (1979-1981)
When I think about the 1970s (which, as you might guess, is a lot), sometimes the words “Let’s rap” ring softly through my head. While that phrase may seem mawkishly silly by today’s standards, 70s rapping could be intense, polarizing or even enlightening (for a modern reference, it is basically like facebook but with actual faces, and maybe a book). But, before you get all “Can you ironically dig it” on me, let’s discuss The Baxters.
The Baxters was a syndicated program brought to national attention by Norman Lear. The Baxters were a traditional family unit who were dealing with many of the same heated issues that the show’s audience members were also struggling with. Women’s rights, teenage sex, alcoholism, and even labor strikes brought up various He Said/She Said conversations that would end without resolution about halfway into the 30 minute running length. At this point, each local station that aired the show hosted an audience who discussed the family's situation. Groovy rapping commenced.
Conceived by Boston Broadcasters, Inc., The Baxters was first locally produced in 1977 before Lear came into the picture in 1979. He loved the idea of the show and picked it up because he felt it was “the comedy and the tears in the reality of our lives.” And, as you know, he also believed that using comedy to explore topical issues brought out the themes in more overt ways, so the audience never had to suss out the meanings, which served to enrich the on-point conversations.
The first national season of The Baxters consisted of a husband and wife (played by Larry Keith and Anita Gillette who would go on to drive me insane on Quincy M.E.) and three children, an older teenage daughter, who was adopted (Derin Altay), a younger teenaged son (Christ Petersen) and a ten year old daughter (Terri Lynn Wood). One of the series’ biggest selling points was that the time each episode spent discussing an issue (approximately using 51% of the allotted airtime) fulfilled the local station's agreements that they would air a certain amount of public affairs programming per week. That’s a pretty brilliant sales pitch.
However, due to poor ratings, The Baxters was cancelled after one season. Then, a Canadian company picked it up and produced it in Ontario. This season introduced another Baxter clan led by Sean McCann as the patriarch and Terry Tweed, as the mother who was returning to work. They also had three kids of the same ages as the first family's children, played by Marianne McIsaac, Sammy Snyders (of The Pit! Oh. Em. Gee.) and Megan Follows. Again, the show could not gather up enough interest and was cancelled for the final time in 1981.
Despite disappointing ratings, many look back on The Baxters fondly. Mostly viewers remember the experimental sitcom/discussion show hybrid as groundbreaking and fascinating because it engaged real people in very contemporary debates. The Museum of Classic Chicago Television has unearthed the episode Women’s Roles in Marriage! This particular episode aired in Chicago on March 16th, 1980, and I’m thrilled it's available in its entirety. You can watch part one here, and then you can move over to the discussion portion here.
Some of the topics discussed on The Baxters that I would like to review are spousal abuse, marital affairs, and alcoholism. Even by syndicated standards, the show seemed a little clunky, even then. But, and for many of the same reasons that I enjoy watching retro game shows, I absolutely love seeing the real people of this era. We were a gorgeous bunch! In the episode posted by the Museum of Classic Chicago Television, the banter between audience members is fairly light, but it’s interesting to note the guy who creates a bit of a stir when he accuses working women of spending both their own salaries and their spouse's (even suggesting that career women tend to keep their own money in a private bank account for themselves). He also states if it's the man who is working, it’s the man who gets to spend the money, and Mrs. Baxter should probably ask for his permission before she touches any of it (even if it's on something both parties had agreed to purchase!). While I disagreed with a lot of what he said, I have to admit, he brought out the then-growing cynicism towards marriage by pointing out the contractual nature behind matrimony. Also, in the days before Jerry Springer, it was nice to see people mostly grumble and politely respond instead of breaking chairs and throwing punches. The seventies were certainly not perfect, but I will always embrace a good rap session, and it looks like The Baxters had plenty of it!