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Thomas F. Wilson,
Bill Bittinger is the egotistical host of a local daytime talk show on WBFL in Buffalo, NY., unhappy at being a big fish in a small pond (but unable to break into the big leagues). Bill makes life miserable for his crew, guests, and especially his station manager, Karl Shub, who is constantly dodging lawsuits resulting from Bill's behavior. The one person Bill is unable to bully is his director and on again/off again lover, Jo Jo White. Written by
BUFFALO BILL was originally received like a Neil LaBute or Todd Solondz movie; the few who liked this program LOVED it, while the masses who didn't like it LOATHED it.
There had been sitcoms starring essentially unlikable characters before, such as ALL IN THE FAMILY and FAWLTY TOWERS, but Archie Bunker and Basil Fawlty were veritable pussycats compared to Dabney Coleman's Bill Bittinger, host of a Buffalo, NY talk show. Think Coleman's "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss in the movie 9 TO 5 and you pretty much have his BUFFALO BILL character, only here he's surrounded not by feisty secretaries but by wimps and sycophants. His stage manager Woody (John Fiedler) worships him, his research assistant Wendy (a young, nubile Geena Davis) is flustered around him while his director/longtime girlfriend Jo-Jo (Joanna Cassidy) puts up with him primarily out of self-loathing.
Brandon Tartikoff wrote in his memoirs that his greatest regret as NBC head was canceling BUFFALO BILL in 1984; one more season and it might have become a hit. Executive producer Bernie Brillstein went on to oversee THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, and he's said he considers that successful HBO sitcom (also about an insecure talk show host) to have been the critical and ratings hit BUFFALO BILL should have been.
The series was created by the great comedy team of Tom (ALF) Patchett and Jay (MOLLY DODD) Tarses, who wrote the funniest episodes of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW in the 1970s. They bitterly broke up by the end of this show's run. I suspect that even if BUFFALO BILL had become a SEINFELD or FRIENDS-level hit, they'd have broken up anyway because the show was emotionally draining for an early-1980s sitcom. In one two-parter Jo-Jo, pregnant with Bill's baby, vindictively gets an abortion. In another episode, the racist Bill fires his black makeup man Newdell (Charlie Robinson), only to have a nightmare where he's chased by grotesque black stereotypes who lip sync to Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack." Bill rehires Newdell and is congratulated on his enlightenment. In other words, WE GOT IT MADE or MAMA'S FAMILY this wasn't.
While BUFFALO BILL may not offer instant gratification, sticking through the entire run is worth it. Each member of the outstanding ensemble gets a moment to shine, the guest stars include Martin Landau and Jim Carrey (who impersonates Jerry Lewis) and the story lines are well-constructed with intelligent dialogue. In a stroke of good fortune, all 26 episodes were released in a no-frills three-disc DVD set in the fall of 2005 -- unfortunately, licensing issues prevented the "Hit the Road, Jack" sequence from making this set. Do yourself a favor and pick this up. There won't be another sitcom quite like BUFFALO BILL on network TV anytime soon.
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