James L. Brooks, the grand old man of American television, was very busy in 1993-4. Not only was he working on a new movie, As Good As It Gets I’ll Do Anything (a famously troubled film that reached theatres after brutal re-cutting), but he moved his TV operations from Fox to ABC and got two new shows on ABC’s schedule, one for mid-season, the other for fall. The mid-season show is the one everybody remembers: The Critic. The fall show is the one nobody remembers: Phenom, a comedy for ABC’s mighty Tuesday night lineup.
It was the story of Angela, a teenaged girl (Angela Goethals, the sister from Home Alone), a tennis prodigy; the show was about the pressures of trying to build an athletic career while not letting it consume your whole life. Angela is pulled in two directions: her single mother (Judith Light) wants her to be a regular teenager with a strong family life, and her coach (William Devane) wants her to focus all her energy on becoming a tennis star. Most of the episodes focused on the way her athletics conflict with her regular teenage life: should she go to the dance or train for a tournament; should she become a more aggressive person in order to play more aggressively. It’s a theme that most teen shows explore in some way, whether it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Hannah Montana.
Brooks put many good people on the show, including co-creator/showrunner Dick Blasucci (SCTV) and writer-producer Jon Vitti (pulled off the staff of The Simpsons). One of the other co-creators was Sam Simon, Brooks’ showrunner on The Simpsons, but Simon wasn’t involved after the pilot because he quit Brooks’s company after some kind of dispute. (That’s why Simon has been billed as Sam “Sayonara” Simon on subsequent Simpsons Halloween episodes.) It was highly uneven, but it got good reviews for the Carly Simon theme song, the good cast, and the occasional injections of off-kilter lines that Brooks came up with (referred to by the Simpsons staff as “Jimmies”).
ABC initially treated the show well, giving it the 8:30 Tuesday time slot beetween Full House and Roseanne. It actually did fairly well, ranking # 28 for the season and holding most of its lead-in audience, but ABC canceled it, and the cancellation was controversial enough that the Los Angeles Times did a whole article on it, suggesting that ABC dumped it because Brooks wouldn’t take the show in the direction the network wanted. Brooks’s official statement was “I have no comment while I’m developing the muscle to lie about my reaction to what ABC did.” Judith Light, a member of my personal Academy Of the Underrated (you try keeping some measure of dignity after acting with Tony Danza for eight years), told the Times that the show hadn’t really been all it should have been, but might have gotten there with another season.
It can be a long process to find the voice of a show. This is a show that was particularly hard to define. For Jim Brooks, complexities and nuances can be as automatic as breathing, and he brought in some very original writers. But he was also working on a film, and, though he was with us as much as he could be, he was in and out.
One can argue that any show in the top 20s should get a second season, but then one can also argue that maybe we should have distilled the show faster. Obviously, I’m sad that we couldn’t develop these characters further, but, in this case, I really think both sides are right.
This episode, the second of the series, features a Jon Vitti script, some ’90s pop music I’m not familiar with, and a rather obnoxious audience.