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What might be the weirdest ever attempt to save a TV show in trouble

The strange saga of Tattinger's

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Emily VanDerWerff

May 03 2021

12 min read

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A few weeks ago, I started researching a follow-up post to my ruminations on why TV shows set in college and at newspapers never had the success of dramas set in similar locations. I wanted to write about how there have been plenty of sitcoms set in restaurants, but very few of them have reached the level of success of sitcoms set in bars. What could account for that disparity, I wondered.

Then I discovered Tattinger's and realized I had to write about that instead.

I had been aware of Tattinger's at least tangentially as a fan of St. Elsewhere. When I wrote a piece on that show for The A.V. Club, I tracked down an episode of Tattinger's just to see what it was. I thought it was okay, but I didn't really see a reason to track down more of it. I always assumed I might for a different feature, but it's not like opportunities to write about failed 1988 restaurant dramas come around all the time.

Created by Tom Fontana, Bruce Paltrow, and John Masius, Tattinger's was a blatant attempt by network NBC and production company MTM to stay in business with the creative team behind the last several seasons of St. Elsewhere. (Joshua Brand and John Falsey had created that hospital drama, but they left the show after its first season. Fontana, in particular, came to be associated with the show's glory days.)

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The series also allowed MTM, which was in its last few years of existence, one last chance to recapture the glory of its early successes in the 1970s and '80s. As Tattinger's debuted in the fall of 1988, the company was already in the process of being bought by UK company TVS, and the kitten from the company's production logo had died a few months earlier at 20. In so many ways, Tattinger's marks the end of MTM, even though the company continued producing shows until 1998. (It was briefly owned by Pat Robertson!) (I need to do a full series about MTM, huh?)

At its core, Tattinger's was a family drama, both onscreen and off. The slightly-too-convoluted premise involved a divorced couple who had owned a renowned lower Manhattan eatery called (would you believe it?) Tattingers. (The show itself originally didn't have an apostrophe in its title either, until one was added later on. You are eventually going to see how this was the least weird thing about this show.) Nick (Stephen Collins) and Hillary (Blythe Danner, who was co-creator Paltrow's wife) remained co-owners of the place, even though they were divorced, and their two daughters helped run it as well. Jerry Stiller and Mary Beth Hurt co-star!

A solid premise for a family drama, right? Well, Tattinger's adds an entirely unnecessary level of complication by having Nick get shot by a man named Sonny Franks (played by Zach Grenier, whom you may know from starring in every TV show and also my podcast). Nick absconds to Paris, then sells the restaurant. But when he returns after a few months to deal with a family matter, he learns the restaurant isn't doing so hot. Developers want to buy up the whole block to build a housing project. (That the housing project would be in lower Manhattan marks this as a product of the 1980s.) The regular clientele doesn't like what's happening to the food. The only way to save Tattingers is for Nick to take it over again.

Even in 1988, critics were curious about Tattinger's but reticent with their praise. The series had long been in development, taking three years to make it to the screen at a time when development cycles for TV shows were typically quit short. In the intervening years, Paltrow and Masius had had a falling out, which led to the latter leaving the project. And the fact that St. Elsewhere had gone out with one of the most memorable final seasons and final episodes in TV history meant the bar was raised even higher.

Those critics weren't wrong either. A single episode of Tattinger's exists on YouTube, and it's a fascinating piece of TV history that doesn't really have a great reason for being. The St. Elsewhere team long admired their rough contemporary, Cheers, and this show feels a little like an attempt to do a one-hour drama version of Cheers. There's a surprising history of taking sitcoms and revamping them as dramas (This Is Us, for instance, is extremely similar to Modern Family in structure terms), but Tattinger's doesn't know which elements from Cheers to highlight and which to ditch. As workplace drama settings go, a restaurant is a lousy place to turn for weekly conflict, and the stuff about the inner workings of a tony restaurant largely falls flat. But the show doesn't seem wholly comfortable with examining the tension between Nick and Hillary either, perhaps worried viewers will feel burnt out on will-they/won't-they connections and won't buy a workplace drama as a vehicle for a comedy of remarriage.

So Tattinger's probably should have been more focused as a family drama. And indeed, just a few year's later, Party of Five would run six seasons. That was a show about a family that ran a restaurant, but the restaurant rarely became a major storytelling conceit. (It was mostly the setting for the family's frequent dinners together.) It's not hard to imagine Tattinger's as a more family-focused version of itself.

But that version of the show would be less self-important than the one that exists. Don't get me wrong. Jonathan Tunick's theme song is one of the great instrumental theme songs, an imaginary Gershwin riff that feels at once familiar and new. The cast was pretty spot on, even when the material they had to work with wasn't the best. And Fontana and Paltrow never met a premise they couldn't mine for unconventional humor and pathos. There was a version of this show that I adored, but the one we got was frequently stuffed full of cameos from "Manhattan celebrities," seemingly to show off that the show was filmed (handsomely) on location. In every way, the show feels pitched at about five people living in FiDi. That's rarely a recipe for success.

So the ratings for Tattinger's were awful. Its natural audience of prestige TV fans was already busy with its timeslot competition China Beach (over on ABC) and Wiseguy (over on CBS), both critically beloved, awards-nominated shows in their second seasons. It had few critics in its corner. And the ratings for the pilot, which were already low, cratered in the weeks to come.

But NBC couldn't just burn its relationship with Fontana and Paltrow, to say nothing of Collins and Danner. So the producers retooled the show into a half-hour sitcom named Nick & Hillary. They also added Chris Elliott!

Critics weren't into this version of the show either, though at least some of them seemed more into the TV in-jokes, at least. Co-creator Tom Fontana has written more about the desperate attempt to save the series, if only to recoup some of the investment Paltrow's company had made into New York soundstages. (Fontana has also written about Tattinger's proper.)

I think you can see just how bizarre this shift was simply by watching the show's two different opening credits sequences. The credits sequence for Tattinger's is ostentatious and grand. The credits sequence for Nick & Hillary feels like a parody of 1980s sitcom opening credits, and it opens with the opening credits sequence from Tattinger's getting warped beyond recognition. Fontana and Paltrow were fond of playing around with TV history and tropes in this fashion, and they did it with smashing success on St. Elsewhere. But imagine tuning into this new show after watching Cheers or Night Court and seeing the logo for a different show you've maybe heard of before a too-cheery theme song starts playing. It's so weird.

You can watch both versions of the credits in this video:

Nick & Hillary lasted just two episodes, both of which are on YouTube, and it's certainly an interesting document. NBC gave it a fighting chance, too, airing the first episode in between Cheers and LA Law, then moving the second to what would have been its normal timeslot after Night Court. Neither episode did well, and both versions of the show were canceled.

Sometimes, a show has so much talent involved that its network keeps trying to make it work, even though the show is deeply flawed on a premise level and, thus, will probably never be "fixed." A recent example is when Up All Night, NBC's show where Christina Applegate and Will Arnett were new parents, and Applegate worked at a late-night show hosted by Maya Rudolph, briefly flirted with becoming a multi-camera sitcom via a portal only the baby could access. Cooler heads prevailed.

I'm fascinated by shows like Tattinger's because they are so often made by people who know how to make good television but who are felled by the most common issue with bad television: a flawed premise. Tweak just a few things about Tattinger's and you end up with Party of Five. But the show as it existed was somehow hugely disappointing while also being better than it had any right to be. And then it became a sitcom. For some reason.


A quick note: I know the publishing schedule has been a touch erratic over the past few weeks. Switching over from Substack took longer than expected. I think we're on the verge of getting everything going again. My apologies for the issues!


Talk back to me: Tell me all your thoughts on Tattinger's! (Or just tell me a show where you think the premise was fundamentally broken.)


What I've been up to: This week at Vox, I argued live events have been surprisingly entertaining in quarantine, recommended a new Julien Baker album, and broke down the 2021 Oscars with my colleagues.

For the past two years, Netflix has had a film with Oscar nominations in the double digits. In 2020, it was The Irishman. In 2021, it was Mank. Both movies received 10 nominations. But out of their 20 total nominations, the two films combined for ... two wins, with Mank taking home trophies for Production Design and Cinematography. Cinematography, in particular, is one of the more prestigious technical prizes at the Oscars, but neither of those awards is even at the level of, say, Best Adapted Screenplay.


It gets worse. The streamer also saw six nominations a piece for Marriage Story in 2020 and The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2021, and of those 12 total nominations, the two films combined for ... one win (Laura Dern’s Best Supporting Actress trophy for Marriage Story). In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was the only Best Picture nominee at the 2021 Oscars to take home zero prizes.


Oh, and while I'm planning on writing more about Neon Genesis Evangelion in this newsletter, I also appeared on Axe of the Blood God's Patreon feed to talk about the show with my friend and NGE docent Kat Bailey.


Read me: The gubernatorial campaign of Caitlyn Jenner seems unlikely to gain much traction to me, a trans Californian, but Katelyn Burns's piece on the weird bind her campaign puts trans people (and especially trans Californians) in is a must-read, as Burns always is.

While California is one of the most supportive states for LGBTQ people, it is also majority Democrat, so it’s not clear to whom, exactly, Jenner’s run is supposed to appeal. Her trans identity may hold her back from attracting votes from hard-core Trump supporters in the state, too. “If her base is trans sympathetic Republicans, well, that’s not 51 percent,” Jim Newton, a former LA Times reporter who’s now an editor at Blueprint, a UCLA-sponsored public policy magazine in California, told Vox. “But in this race, if there are enough candidates, and they divide up the vote enough ways, she could win with a lot less than that.”


Jenner’s politics and controversial existence as a self-professed trans advocate has long put trans Americans in a double bind, forcing them to defend her from transphobic attacks while deploring her political views. And her gubernatorial run, however successful, is amplifying those tensions once again.


Watch me: I feel like I constantly link to Be Kind Rewind's stuff in this newsletter, but her new video about the links between the two women who've won the Best Directing Oscar is really terrific film analysis.


And another thing... I've been working my way through a giant backlog of episodes of One Shot, my favorite actual play podcast, and the episodes they released last year where a terrific group of players gather around the table to play Jay Dragon's wonderfully spooky game Sleepaway is maybe my favorite story the show has ever done. Check both the game and the episodes out!


Opening credits sequence of the week: I love how even when she's cut down into a series of still frames, Rita Moreno sells this fucking opening credits sequence for the 9 to 5 TV show. Bonus points for Jean Marsh being there for some reason!


A thing I had to look up: Basically everything in this newsletter I had to look up, but I had a great time doing it!


This week's reading music: "Little Plastic Castle" by Ani DiFranco


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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