Tune in Tonight: "Makin' It"
We come to nearly the end of another decade. 2019 was supposed to look like either Blade Runner or The Running Man, and while things aren’t quite that bleak, they’re getting there, but at least we can have Dairy Queen delivered right to our door if we want.
I thought I would spend January looking back at the end of another decade, 1979, when shirt collars were at their largest, and Republicans hadn’t yet turned into murderous sociopaths (not openly, at least). Other than the Iran hostage crisis, which didn’t begin until November, it was an enviably uneventful year. It offered up a veritable mayonnaise sandwich of pop culture, with “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” as a number one single, and Kramer vs. Kramer, perhaps the whitest movie of the decade, was a box office smash. Where it really struggled was television—a whopping 36 new shows premiered in the first half of the year, with exactly three (3) succeeding. Those were The Dukes of Hazzard, B.J. & the Bear, and Real People, and when’s the last time you heard anyone fondly reminiscing about Real People?
To watch a montage of the opening credits of all these shows is to be startled by how many of them aired for a few episodes and then immediately disappeared, along with several million dollars flushed down the toilet. For every legendary flop like Hello, Larry and Supertrain (the entire season of which I reviewed last year, destroying a piece of my soul in the process) there are a dozen obscurities like Miss Winslow and Son, or Doctors’ Private Lives, giving the impression that, for a brief, wondrous time in television, virtually anyone could walk into a network boardroom, pitch a show, and get it picked up for several episodes. Many of them focused on “colorful” (albeit still Caucasian) characters in such far-off, exotic locales as Philadelphia and northern New Jersey, and there was a distinct emphasis, particularly with sitcoms, on drawing in young adult viewers. This resulted in multiple versions of the same show, including three separate takes on Animal House, all of which flopped immediately, and two on Saturday Night Fever, one called Flatbush, and the slightly more successful (in that it lasted nine episodes instead of just three) Makin’ It.
It seems odd to base two sitcoms on a decidedly unfunny movie that features gang rape, racism, and an emotionally disturbed character plummeting to his death from a bridge, but Hollywood knows a goldmine when it sees one. While Flatbush starred Joseph Cali, who played one of John Travolta’s buddies in Saturday Night Fever, Makin’ It boasted an actual Travolta in the cast – granted, it was Ellen Travolta, John’s sister, but still. Makin’ It was also the more “official” tie-in of the two, with Fever’s producer Robert Stigwood involved in the creation of it, but that and the main characters’ love of disco dancing are where the similarities end.
There’s exactly two things worth noting about Makin’ It: one is that the theme song, performed by star David Naughton, became a top 10 radio hit, but not until two months after the show was canceled. The other is that it might have the longest opening credits sequence you’ll ever see for a sitcom. While most network sitcoms today, if they have an opening sequence at all, clock them in at about thirty seconds, this one is almost two minutes long, chockful of “hilarious” clips and endless shots of people disco dancing, and doesn’t even introduce the characters until more than a minute in. Correctly anticipating that the theme song would long outlive the show itself, the producers treated it as a precursor to a music video.
I would love to tell you that Makin’ It is either a tremendous stinkbomb, or an unexpected gem, but it’s neither of these things. It’s nothing at all, and despite watching the one episode available online less than 24 hours ago, I’ve already forgotten much of it. As previously mentioned, the connections to Saturday Night Fever are tenuous at best, and not even a character having a poster for it on their bedroom wall is enough to remind you that it’s supposed to be based on it. While Billy Manucci (David Naughton, at the time still known mostly for being the “I’m a Pepper” guy) had big dreams, unlike Fever’s Tony Manero he wasn’t aggressively champing at the bit to escape his working-class neighborhood. He also gets along just fine with his nice mom (Ellen Travolta), gruff but loving father (Lou Antonio), slightly shady but good-hearted older brother (Greg Antonacci), and his younger sister (Denise Miller), a sentient wisecracking machine. While Tony’s friends were sleazy anchors around his neck, Billy’s are harmless morons who talk like they’re minor characters in a Bowery Boys short. Even by sitcom standards, it’s so thin on plot, character development, and conflict you can almost see right through it.
In the episode I watched, Billy is trying to figure out what to get his mother for her birthday, when all she wants is for the whole family, including Billy’s brother, Tony, together to celebrate with her. Because the preceding five episodes aren’t available, I have no idea why Tony doesn’t get along with his father, but it probably doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, Tony agrees to come to the house, and even gives his mother a gift of expensive earrings. The festivities are interrupted, however, when Ma is arrested, because the cops believe the earrings are stolen. Billy, along with his best pals Kingfish (Ralph Seymour) and Bernard (Gary Prendergast), both of whom are too stupid to be alive, sets out to prove that it’s a mistake, and that Tony didn’t steal the earrings.
Spoiler: Tony didn’t steal the earrings.
Actually, I will say something positive about Makin’ It: watching it was the fastest 25 minutes of my life. Despite the excessively long opening credits, there’s not an ounce of fat on it. All the requisite beats are present: set-up, ensuing hijinks, heartwarming resolution, boom boom boom (or rather, if you’re a character in Makin’ It, bada boom). It feels like it was written in about an hour, and yet it also isn’t missing any of the most basic aspects. You could easily pass a community college television writing class by turning in this script (although you shouldn’t, because that would be plagiarism), and it’s not at all surprising to know that it was written by Babaloo Mandel, who would go on to a workmanlike screenwriting career, churning out perfectly average movies like Spies Like Us, Multiplicity, and EDtv. TV Guide voted this the 40th worst sitcom of all time, placing it in the same company as Pink Lady and Jeff and Homeboys in Outer Space, which seems impossible. It’s really not that bad. It’s not anything.
Original airdate: March 2, 1979