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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
Imagine that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had centered on Carl Reiner's Alan Brady character and you will have a pretty good handle on Dabney Coleman's "Buffalo Bill" series.
Despite the many conspiracy theories there is little actual mystery regarding the early cancellation of Coleman's series; it simply failed to find an audience large enough to sustain it. Awards and critical acclaim won't take a show very far; especially back in the days when the three networks were pulling in the vast majority of television viewers.
If a quality show is a little different (insert "The Big Bang Theory" here) it will start slow and must show "steady" progress toward building a larger viewing audience. The progress only happens if it "holds" onto its initial group of viewers while adding new viewers each week that it is broadcast. Generally this only works if the show has figured out what it wants to be and consistently delivers a weekly product. Once firmly established a show has the luxury of an occasional clinker episode.
Unfortunately, "Buffalo Bill" was perhaps the most inconsistent series in the history of television. I hung with it throughout its entire broadcast run and was amazed by the wild swings from week-to-week. Episode 7 "Guess Who's Coming To Buffalo?" was an absolute gem, and several other episodes were equally inspired; but you never quite knew what you would get. Friends could be talked into one viewing. If it happened to be the right episode they would be hooked. If they saw a dog episode they would never watch again.
The cast was rarely the problem, although someone should have figured out that the best moments seemed to come when Dabney Coleman and Pippa Peartree were interacting as father and wayward daughter. These provided an amazing mix of comedy and poignancy; yet they were far too few. Contrast them with the much more frequent stuff involving Charles Robinson's Newdell, which was generally awkward and forced; both the writing and the execution. You don't have to look further than decisions like this to see that the producers had some serious "don't have a clue" moments.
The self-absorbed title character was often the source of the ratings-killing inconsistency. The humorous moments came from his exaggerated character flaws; imagine a self-promoting version of Sheldon Cooper. The "wheels fall off" moments were typically those showcasing his unlikely need for the approval of others; they could never quite settle on just who Bill was. The more his character wobbled between extremes of selfishness and vulnerability the harder it was take vicarious pleasure in his antics.
The uniqueness of the series was in its attempt to integrate comedy with serious subjects. Too often this crossed the line into overwrought melodrama. But when they got the balance right it worked as well as anything that has ever been on network television.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
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