TV wife set the standard for sane, comic marriages
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GOODNIGHT, EMILY: The death of actress Suzanne Pleshette this weekend brings an end to a varied career that had its zenith in one role, and underscores the paucity of decent but comically satisfying marriages on sitcoms today. Married dysfunction is hardly scarce on the primetime ground these days, but that’s not surprising when so few writers seem to grasp the precise nature of being an adult anymore; it’s easy to get laughs from flawed characters, especially when your standard for behaviour is basically adolescent, and regardless of whether role is being played by someone aged anywhere from their ’20s to their ‘70s.
Bob and Emily Hartley were adults; that much was hard to deny. They may have lived in a world of neurotics painstakingly created for The Bob Newhart Show from 1972 to 1977, but their immense appeal was that they were patently the sanest people in that world, none more so than Pleshette’s Emily. Stunning and wry, she could rein in her skittish husband by doing little more than intoning his name in that husky voice.
Theirs was a TV marriage that resonated. We’d all seen its like before – the knockout who prevented you from underestimating their distinctly less impressive spouse. Newhart’s low-key but anxious Bob must have had unseen depths if he could bat so clearly out of his league with someone like Pleshette’s Emily, though you never doubted that their bond. The closest comparison today would be Larry David’s acid self-portrait on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and his longsuffering wife Cheryl, played by Cheryl Hines, and it was no surprise when, at the end of season 6, she’d finally had enough and left Larry with his corrosive neuroses.
Pleshette’s career until Newhart is a mixture of typecast ruts and unexpected detours, from the doomed ex-girlfriend in Hitchcock’s The Birds to the James Garner’s love interest in Support Your Local Gunfighter. Her career began in TV, and stretched from episodes of Playhouse 90 and Have Gun – Will Travel in the ‘50s to appearances on virtually every show on primetime in the ‘60s and ‘70s – a list that includes Gunsmoke, Marcus Welby, M.D. Love, American Style, Ironside, Columbo, Bonanza and The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father.
It wasn’t until Newhart that she found the role that defined her, and it’s not surprising that she never found it again afterward. “I work for wardrobe,” she once told Orlando Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedeker, making light of a post-Newhart career that included shows such as Nightingales and Maggie Briggs. “Whenever I need clothes, I take a job.”
Emily and Bob’s uneven but perfect relationship provided the punch line for the justly famous finale of Newhart, her co-star’s next hit series, which revealed the whole of the preceding eight seasons to have been a nightmare, and ended with Bob Hartley back in bed with Pleshette’s Emily, the ritual end to so many episodes of The Bob Newhart Show – a place where many of us watching wished we all could be.
Rick McGinnis writes about music, movies, books and television, but not opera. He walked 47 miles of barbed wire and has a cobra snake for a necktie.