Three’s Company

Watching the pilot episode of Three’s Company for the first time in–I’m gonna say 25 years–I was slightly horrified to discover that I not only remembered the plot, which is pretty straight forward, but individual jokes, word-for-word. I guess this sit-com that ran from 1976 to 1984 made a bit of an impression on my young mind.

What I remember most are the final moments when Janet tells Jack how she convinced Mr. Roper to let him live there. “I also told him that you were gay,” she says, and Jack falls off the couch. I had to ask my mom what gay was. I’m not sure I understood it even after her honest and open-minded explanation, but the ruse of Jack pretending to be gay is at the heart of the show’s premise.

In case you don’t remember or are under 30, the pilot opens with two women, bombshell Chrissy (Suzanne Somers) and petite Janet (Joyce DeWitt) cleaning up the remnants of the previous night’s party. Their modest two bedroom apartment isn’t much worse for the wear, except for a punch ladle that has turned green from soaking in a mysterious alcoholic liquid. They quickly discover a man asleep in their bathtub. They wake him by turning on the shower and wielding the discolored ladle as a weapon.

The man in the tub is Jack (John Ritter). He’s a little doofy, and taken with Chrissy, but seems like a reasonably nice, normal guy. The women are looking to replace their previous roommate, for whom last night’s bash was a going away party. The clincher is, he’s an amazing cook. Deciding he would make an ideal roommate, they plan to invite him to move in. Here’s where you have to use your mental wayback machine. Since that would be no big deal, this show could never work today.

Each of the trio has his or her own quirks, but the wacky in the show comes from the Ropers, an older married couple who live downstairs and manage the building. The writers hit us over the head with the fact that Mrs. Roper (Audra Lindley) has a sexual appetite that scrawny Mr. Roper (Norman Fell) just can’t satisfy. This role reversal, if you consider it that, is another point where the show was probably edgy for its day.

When Mr. Roper catches a glimpse of Jack, Janet tells him Jack is a woman. Then, a rather masculine woman shows up to view the apartment. Mr. Roper mistakes her for a man. Thus we’re introduced to this show’s convention of misunderstandings; somebody is always not what somebody else thinks. (Chandler: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” Pheobe: “Oh, then I’ve already seen this one.”)

When everything comes out in the open and Mr. Roper finds that the women are planning to have a man move in, he is outraged. However, Janet quickly smooths things over, only we don’t know how until that final moment I mentioned above. So, we’re set up for all kinds of potential misery, with a straight man forced to pretend to be gay, while simultaneously attracted to his hot roommate.

One more thing that would happen today that didn’t then: Jack and Chrissy never get together. Granted, her character left the show after four seasons, to be replaced by other hot blondes. But in a sit-com pilot today, where a guy and two girls were introduced in this situation, it would be almost a given that somebody was sleeping with somebody in the season 1 finale. So watch this show, if not for its campy humor and laughable 70s attire, for the fact that it’s different from what we’re watching these days.

Hot in Cleveland

It’s a pretty safe bet if a series opens on a plane, the plane is going down. This one goes down in Cleveland. Three beautiful middle-aged women, all familiar faces from earlier sitcoms, are headed to Paris for some gal pal time. The very first line speaks to the theme of body image insecurity. “Airplane mirrors aren’t accurate, are they?” asks Valerie Bertinelli’s character, Melanie. Her loyal friends are quick to assure here that they most definitely are not.

The in-air conversation doesn’t get much more complex than that, but gives us a taste for each character. Melanie has written a book listing things a woman should do before she dies. She is going through a divorce, and hasn’t abandoned hope of a reunion, until finding out her ex is already engaged. Joy (Frasier’s Jane Leeves) is an eyebrow… um, stylist? And Victoria (Wendie Malick) is a longtime soap opera actress who loves being recognized. She’s basically her character from Just Shoot Me so we don’t have to work hard there.

The joke is pretty simple. Women who feel old, fat, and ugly in L.A. can feel gorgeous in Cleveland. It’s a set-up for a million jokes, particularly biting if you happen to have traded a Midwest life for one filled with palm trees (and there are a lot of us). You know what’s coming; the women are amazed at real estate costs, at the attention they receive from men, at the fact that there are museums in Ohio!

The pilot is brimming with funny—if not completely unpredictable—lines, like “Friends don’t let friends move to Cleveland,” and “That price has got to missing a zero.” Personally, and again perhaps it’s personal experience talking, I about fell on the floor when one of the women exclaimed, “Plumbers in Ohio can afford boats?”

It’s easy to believe that Melanie instantly wants to set up home and hearth in the Buckeye state, especially when she points out that a month in the large 2-story house she’s renting costs the same as a night in a Paris hotel. What’s harder to buy is that her friends want to stay, too, and that the creators are going to stretch out that stay long enough to make a whole series.

Surely a key to the show’s success (Season 2 starts January 19) is Betty White. She plays Elka, the 80-year-old caretaker who lives on the premises. Granted, Betty White is amazing, but these jokes, too, are low-hanging fruit. You can’t go wrong with an elderly-person-smoking-weed bit. Elka is delightfully bitter and wry and particularly hates Joy. She can wither even these hardened L.A. babes with a look, and she dispenses wisdom like, “When you’re 80 you dress for the bathroom.”

Basically, Hot in Cleveland doesn’t ask much of its audience but the situation in the pilot has built-in humor. I watched a couple other episodes, and it seems to evolve into just another show about single people trying to get dates. The pilot may have been the high point.