The Los Angeles Times
January 23, 1985

The Changing Face of Prime Time on the Tube;
'Sara' at the Starting Block

By: Patrick Goldstein

You have to be crazy to produce a new network situation comedy.

But Gary David Goldberg, creator of the sitcom hit "Family Ties," has been overseeing the last-minute preparations for a second show, "Sara," which debuts tonight at 9:30 on NBC.

That makes him really crazy.

"It definitely is a nutty experiment, which I can already tell isn't going to work, at least in terms of my sanity," Goldberg said, wandering across an NBC soundstage, eyeing a midday "Sara" rehearsal the other day.  "Sometimes I feel as if I don't even know what city I'm in."

The bearded producer watched Geena Davis, a willowy young actress who plays the show's title character, rummage around a kitchen set, tugging at her sweat shirt.  Staring intently at her wardrobe, Goldberg mused, "I wonder if we're cleared to use UC Berkeley for the sweat shirt.  I don't know why, but we always have trouble whenever it's Ohio State."

With the comedy's debut imminent, Goldberg and "Sara" co-creator Ruth Bennett had a lot more than sweat shirt labels to worry about.  Network executives have already labeled the sitcom an '80s "Mary Tyler Moore Show," much to the producers' dismay.  "It's certainly a compliment," Bennett said.  "But we hope people will judge us on what we do, not what came before."

Neither producer had much time to worry about the show's label.  Bennett was locked away in her office, surrounded by a mountain of scripts and unopened Christmas presents, trying to polish several upcoming episodes.  Goldberg, who was busy leaving "official messages" for NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, had a limousine on call, waiting to whisk him away for a quick visit to "Family Ties," where his "Sara" has been affectionately nicknamed the "O.S." -- the Other Show.

"Sara" isn't just the "O.S." with the Goldberg team.  It's also starting out as the Other Show in its time slot, airing opposite ABC's mega-hit "Dynasty."

But just as important, "Sara" is one of the network's new breed of yuppie sitcoms aimed at the rising tide of upwardly mobile, increasingly sophisticated TV viewers.  Set in a San Francisco office complex, the program revolves around a young, single attorney whose "family" is a trio of footloose lawyers.

In addition to Davis, the cast includes a likable but demanding girlfriend, played by Alfre Woodard, and a pair of wisecracking male attorneys.

"It was Brandon's idea that we try to bring the single-girl genre into the '80s," Goldberg said, sipping an ever-present cup of coffee.  "But it's a very risky kind of comedy to do, because the laughs come almost purely from the characters, not from jokes.  We're hoping that the audience will stick around and let us play out some of the drama along with the comedy."

Even with Goldberg as titular head, "Sara" is a show largely populated by women.  Goldberg proudly pointed to Bennett, who has written many of the initial episodes while also serving as the supervising producer, as well as producers Carol Himes and Merrill Markoe, who until recently was segment producer of "Late Night With David Letterman."

"We push women to the forefront for the simple reason that if we don't, who else will?" he said.  "In fact, I finally had to hire a male production assistant because I wanted to have someone to watch the Super Bowl with."

"Sara" also is a show that boasts that rarity of rarities, at least for network TV -- a wry, acerbic and very gay character, played by Bronson Pinchot (who got rave reviews for his fey art gallery staffer role in "Beverly Hills Cop").  In one upcoming episode, Pinchot wanders into a ladies room, admiring the lighting, while in an earlier scene, a male colleague tells Pinchot that he's such an ardent womanizer "because guys like you don't pitch in and help."

So far, the show's producers have downplayed the Pinchot character's significance. "I guess it will get a lot of attention," said Bennett, who wrote her first TV script on a dare while she was a deejay in Boulder, Colo.  "But when we came up with the character, we thought, perhaps naively, that it wasn't such a big deal.  After we set the show in San Francisco, we decided, considering the arithmetic, that it would be perfectly normal to have a gay man.

"Bronson may even have a gay relationship at some point," Bennett said, quickly adding, "if the show lasts that long."

Pinchot, who kept his co-stars cackling during rehearsals with his loopy ad-libs, was refreshingly candid about his gay role.  "I don't know what the affiliate in Tallahassee is going to think about this," he joked while phoning People magazine, trying to see when a story on him would run.  "But I know my grandmother is going to go through the roof!"

The rest of the cast displayed the same relaxed, convivial spirit.  During a break, Woodard asked a crew member if she could have some tea with honey.  Davis immediately added, "And how about some cheese blintzes for me?"

Later, in front of her makeup mirror, Davis, a co-star on the late but lauded "Buffalo Bill" show, explained, "This is a loose, fun place.  We get a lot of opportunities to participate.  The producers are very secure, so they're very supportive if we want to try to work in some lines of our own.  I'm almost jealous of my character's energy.  In real life, when I finish the show, I go home, read my script and collapse."

Woodard, who won an Emmy for a "Hill Street Blues" episode, agreed that the TV pace was grueling.  After a run-through that afternoon, Goldberg gently suggested that she try to put a little more energy into a scene.  Just before the cameras began to roll, she slipped off her shoes and began to bounce up and down on the balls of her feet, as if she were jumping rope.

"The biggest problem isn't the long hours, but the way you have to constantly reestablish your concentration because of the long breaks in between rehearsals," she said later.  "It's not the physical exertion so much as the psychic strain.  When the day's over, emotionally I feel like I've been through Sartre's 'No Exit.'  You just always have to be alert."

Watching one last rehearsal, just before the final taping, Goldberg lingered out of camera range, chuckling appreciatively at lines he'd heard dozens of times that day.  "It's important not only to let the cast know they're funny but to give them a sense of where the laughs are, so it won't throw them off when they perform in front of a real studio audience.

"But most important of all, you've got to build confidence.  This group doesn't know if it's a winning team yet.  To use a basketball metaphor, they don't know whether they're the Boston Celtics or the Cleveland Cavaliers."

Goldberg awarded another line a loud guffaw. "We're not trying to figure out what makes other people laugh -- it's what makes me laugh that counts," he said.  "That's how I make my living.  If we're wrong, this is network television.  They can always get someone else."