Judge Chris Claro has one for the Rhoda.
Our review of Rhoda: Season One, published April 22nd, 2009, is also available.
"My name is Rhoda Morgenstern…"
From Maude to Frasier, the spinoff is that decidedly American form that takes beloved supporting characters and puts them center stage, where they belong. Or do they? Sure, Joanie loved Chachi when they were on Happy Days, but wasn't their relationship more awesome without all the Potsies and Malphs hanging around? Weren't Flo's wisecracks sassier when she's zinging some nameless day player instead of mixing it up with Mel?
Spinoffs can be a cash cow for producers, with established characters saving audiences the trouble of getting to know new ones. But for every hit like The Jeffersons, there's at least one non-starter like The Ropers. Every NCIS—begat by JAG—is offset by a Beverly Hills Buntz, scion of Hill Street Blues.
Facts of the Case
Among the more successful spinoffs in the television pantheon was Rhoda, who made the leap from snarky sidekick to leading lady—and found her own partner in comedy in sister Brenda (Julie Kavner, The Simpsons). After four seasons on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, the formerly overweight, wisecracking New Yorker was sent back home to get a new job, a new husband, and a new series of oh-so-'70s head-wraps.
The episodes included on Rhoda: Season Two are
• "Kiss Your Epaulets Goodbye"
Rhoda: Season Two finds Ms. Morgenstern nearing her first anniversary as Mrs. Gerard, married to construction company owner Joe (David Groh, Two-Minute Warning) and still under the thumb of meddlesome mother Ida (Nancy Walker, Can't Stop the Music). Throughout the season, Rhoda deals with everything from the icicle that is Joe's ex-wife (Joan Van Ark, Knot's Landing) to the questionable intentions of Ida's doctor (Norman Fell, Three's Company) to Stuart Margolin (The Rockford Files) as a clueless couples therapist. But does she maintain the zingy snap we've come to expect from her character?
The answer, sadly, is no, and it reinforces the object lesson of most spinoffs: supporting characters support. They 'chute in, unholster a couple of witty ripostes or sling a few theretofore unforeseen insights into one of the characters, and make their exit. With few exceptions—Frasier, anyone?—side characters should remain on the side. When producers take someone like Rhoda and make her the satellite around which the other planets revolve, they effectively drain that character of all the comedic juice she once provided.
(Not to get all graduate-school about this, but this explains why spinoffs such as Maude and The Jeffersons worked: Maude and George were antagonists, not sidekicks. They were strong characters capable of going toe-to-toe with Archie, which made them worthy of their own shows. Gloria, on the other hand, was cut from supporting character cloth, which explains the one-season-and-done fate of her spinoff.)
With Rhoda, the supporting cast does its best, with both Walker and Kavner standing out. The timing of the former, as Rhoda's passive-aggressive, put-upon mom, is outstanding, with her deadpan delivery and munchkin appearance comprising a classic comedy package. Walker's takes and slow-burns make one wonder why none of her four Emmy nominations yielded a win. One who did score a statuette was Julie Kavner. As Rhoda was to Mary, Brenda was to her big sister, the overweight sad-sack with a hapless dating life. Kavner's portrayal made Brenda both funny and human.
For all the series' snappy acting, it was in service to less than inspired scripts. The petty squabbles of Joe and Rhoda, complicated by buttinsky Ida, are simply not that interesting. Add to that the dated humor about the war between the sexes and retrograde references to race and Rhoda simply doesn't hold up 35 years on.
Visually, Shout Factory has done a yeoman's job of making Rhoda look and sound crisp. The transfer is surprisingly vibrant, considering the age of the material and the audio is equally impressive. They undo the technical goodness of the disc, however, by not including any extras, and by packaging Rhoda: Season Two in flimsy plastic cases that are more suitable for some cheapo public domain release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the ordinary scripts, the producers of Rhoda did pull off one masterstroke, the character of Carlton, your doorman. Never seen, only heard, the sozzled sentry was the funniest character in the Morgenstern orbit. As voiced by Lorenzo Music (Garfield), Carlton was the ultimate supporting character because his status of being unseen seemed to make him impossible to spin off. (Impossible in live action, anyway. In 1980, Music wrote and voiced an animated pilot about the doorman's adventures.)
Rhoda is at once a reminder of the tropes and conventions of the '70s sitcom and how far television comedy has come in subverting them. Comforting, predictable, and ultimately uninspired, Rhoda: Season Two is proof that turning supporting characters into leads is usually the first step on the path to mediocrity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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