Q & A: Amerika; Frank’s Place

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

There was a mini series, I believe in the mid to late 70s, that depicted the United States being taken over after a terrorist attack of a joint session of Congress that resulted in the death of all representatives there. We were led to believe it was Russia that was behind this. The series went through all that resulted after this attack. Do you know the name of this mini series and, perhaps, if it is available on DVD. Thank you for a response…
Lynn

Announced in May 1984 as a four-hour telefilm titled “Topeka, Kansas, USSR,” Amerika was set ten years after the Soviet Union invaded and quickly pacified the United States of America [1]. In June 1984, Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Motion Pictures, explained that the telefilm wasn’t a response to ABC’s 1983 telefilm The Day After: “It’s a movie about the lives of ordinary American citizens under a Russian regime in Topeka, Kansas, in 1994. The only connection between the two films is we happened to put Kansas in the title, which will probably be changed [2]. Indeed, in February 1985 the title was changed to Amerika [3].

In October 1985, The New York Times reported that Amerika was now a $40 million, 16-hour miniseries set to air during the 1986-1987 season. A bibliography of research materials provided by ABC included “58 books, 15 magazine articles, five films, and 18 consultants, contributors and interviewees – a mixed bag of conservative and liberal sources with only a couple of prominent experts on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union” [4]. Donald Wrye, writer, director and producer of Amerika, stated that the intent of the miniseries was to “make us think about what our values are, and about the responsibilities of being an American” [5].

In early January 1986, ABC announced it had postponed production on Amerika due to financial concerns and a warning from the Soviet Union that the network’s news department could run into problems in Moscow should the miniseries proceed. Said Wyle, “It would be preposterous for an American organization to allow itself to be affected by a form of blackmail” [6]. But Boris Malakhov, the spokesman for the Soviet Union’s Washington embassy, felt differently: “The whole idea that the Soviet Union is going to capture the United States is completely wrong and false, and that is why shooting such a film would not facilitate understanding between our countries,” [7].

On January 22nd, however, ABC reversed its position and announced that Amerika (now 12 hours) would begin filming in March for broadcast in the spring of 1987 [8]. Still, the controversy surrounding the miniseries was far from over. In addition to criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, ABC ran in to trouble with the United Nations in October 1986. “The whole thing is paranoia,” said Francois Giuliani, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. “The secretary general is aware of it and he is concerned” [9]. The U.N. was especially upset at the use of its emblem in the miniseries and threatened to sue ABC (it didn’t).

ABC eventually admitted that the genesis for Amerika came from conservative columnist Ben Stein writing in response to the network’s broadcast of The Day After, although according to a February 14th, 1987 TV Guide article “[ABC’s Brandon] Stoddard still maintains the project was in no way conceived as a conservative answer to ‘The Day After'” [10]. The New York Times reported that Stein even received a “quit-claim fee” from the network (meaning he would receive no additional payment; he had no further connection to the miniseries) [11].

Despite the controversy, or because of it, Nielsen ratings for Amerika were underwhelming. The premiere, broadcast on Sunday, February 15th, ranked 7th for the week with a solid 24.7/38 Nielsen rating/share. According to Marvin Mord, ABC’s vice president for marketing and research services, if Amerika‘s share of the audience were to fall below thirty percent, the network would be disappointed [12]. Fall it did. The seven segments averaged a 18.9/28, often rounded up to a 19.0; some reports indicated that ABC had promised to deliver 35 share [13].

Amerika was released on VHS in 1988 but has never been issued on DVD. The attack on a joint session of Congress that Lynn mentions was the climactic point of the miniseries, not the impetus for the takeover of the United States.

It took place in Louisiana, possibly New Orleans. The cast was mostly African American. The lead male was willed a restaurant by his late father and planned to sell it. When he went to see it he discovered that all of the employees did not want him to sell as it was somewhat of a landmark in the community. They tried everything to get him to break up with his girlfriend back in (Boston?) so that he would move and continue running the restaurant. The female lead was a gorgeous woman and was the town undertaker. Her mother was also involved in the undertaker business and was confined to a wheelchair. I thought Ron Glass was the lead but cannot find anything in his bio that sounds like this show.

I think the show was on too early (7:00 p.m.) it probably should have been on a later time slot around 9:00 p.m. when adults could have watched. It wasn’t racy but had a few undertones of black magic and also of English humor slapstick. Like when a few of the patrons of the restaurant stole a body from the funeral parlor to give him a sendoff. The health inspector arrived about the same time and they had to hide the body (which eventually wound up in the health inspector’s car). Anyway is there any help out there? My friends think I made this up. Thanks for your help
Dorothy

Aired without a laugh track, Frank’s Place was a CBS sitcom that ran for 22 episodes during the 1987-1988 season starring Tim Reid as Frank Parish, a Boston professor who, upon learning that he has inherited a New Orleans restaurant (the Chez Louisiane), proceeds to fly down to Louisiana to sell it. Instead, after meeting the staff and some ardent customers, he decides to stay and run the place. Also appearing in the series were Daphne Maxwell Reid (Tim Reid’s wife) as the beautiful Hanna, a mortician; Frances E. Williams as Miss Marie, a waitress; Lincoln Kilpatric as Reverend Tyrone Deal; and Robert Harper as Bubba Weisberger, a lawyer.

Cast of Frank's Place
Cast of Frank’s Place – September 12th, 1987
Copyright © TV Guide, 1987 [1]

Critics were universal in their praise for Frank’s Place: “A veritable feast: meat-and-potatoes comedy seasoned with subtle and exotic flavorings” (Monica Potters, USA Today); “the savviest, most sophisticated commercial television series ever attempted on black culture” (Gene Seymour, Philadelphia Daily News); “blessed with clever dialogue and an endearing cast, all of which contribute to its being a sweet, uplifting comedy” (Clifford Terry, The Boston Globe); “mellow, decent and adult” (Tom Shales, The Washington Post); “If all the new fall shows were as fine as Frank’s Place… it would be chaos. There would be too much to watch. Not to worry. Frank’s Place is in a class of its own” (Greg Dawson, The Orlando Sentinel) [14, 15, 16, 17, 18].

A special preview episode of Frank’s Place was broadcast at 8PM on Monday, September 14th; another preview was shown the following Monday at the same time. The plan was for the sitcom to then move to the 8-8:30PM timeslot on Saturdays beginning October 3rd. Instead, due to strong ratings, it remained at 8PM on Mondays, forcing Everything’s Relative, the new sitcom that was supposed to air from 8-8:30PM on Mondays to move to Saturday.

CBS gave the series a full-season order in October 1986 but those strong ratings were already faltering [19]. The network tried switching Frank’s Place with Kate & Allie in December and then shifting it to 9:30PM on Mondays following Newhart in February 1988, but nothing seemed to work. It was moved again in March to Tuesdays at 8PM where it sank even lower in the Nielsen ratings. Its second Tuesday airing — also its season finale — drew a dismal 6.9/11 Nielsen rating [20].

Soon thereafter, the network pulled the bulk of its Tuesday line-up, including Frank’s Place, promising to return the critically acclaimed series at a later date [21]. And it did, eventually, airing repeats of the series on Saturdays at 8:30PM beginning July 16th. For the 1987-1988 season as a whole, Frank’s Place ranked 61st out of 104 programs with a 12.0 rating [22]. CBS didn’t include the series on its 1988-1989 schedule nor did it cancel the show. It decided to keep Frank’s Place on the back burner for use as a mid-season replacement [23].

The final repeat of Frank’s Place was shown on October 1st. Days later and only a week away from starting production on thirteen new episodes, CBS officially cancelled the series. Said CBS Entertainment president Kim LeMasters: “‘Frank’s Place’ embodied every element of excellence that a programmer would want to see in a television show. It received the widespread support of CBS, of television critics and of a broad spectrum of the entertainment community. Unfortunately, the viewing audience simply failed to respond to it, and as it is not in the fall schedule, it will not return to production as a mid-season replacement” [24].

Creator Hugh Wilson attempted to put the cancellation in perspective: “We just didn’t produce an audience. Maybe the show wasn’t fast enough or it was too smart for its own business. I think maybe TV needs to move faster, be more obvious, more physical, and not rely so much on tone or a patina” [25].

Works Cited:

1 Tannenbaum, Jeffrey A. “A Special Background Report on Trends in Industry and Finance.” Wall Street Journal. 17 May 1984: 1.
2 Hastings, Julianne. “TV World: George Lucas’s ‘Ewoks’.” United Press International. 21 Jun. 1984: BC Cyle.
3 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 4 Feb. 1985: B8.
4 Smith, Sally Bedell. “Film Shows U.S. After Takeover.” New York Times. 7 Oct. 1985: C.18
5 Ibid.
6 Boyer, Peter J. “ABC Delays ‘Amerika,’ Discloses Soviet Warning.” New York Times. 9 Jan. 1986: C.22.
7 Ibid.
8 “ABC Now Says ‘Amerika’ Will Be Made.” San Francisco Chronicle. 23 Jan. 1986: 28.
9 Rosenberg, Howard. “Cold War Between U.N. and ABC Over ‘Amerika’ Heats Up.” Los Angeles Times. 10 Oct. 1986: 1.
10 Blair, Erica. “With Amerika Under Fire, the Stars Were Feeling the Heat.” TV Guide. 14 Feb. 1987: 2.
11 O’Connor, John J. “‘Amerika’ – Slogging Through a muddle.” New York Times. 15 Feb. 1987: H1.
12 “‘Amerika’ Drops in Second Night Ratings.” Associated Press. 17 Feb. 1987: PM Cycle.
13 Schwed, Mark. “‘Amerika’ Fizzles.” United Press International. 24 Feb. 1987: BC Cycle.
14 Collins, Monica. “CBS’ “Frank’s Place,’ a Hot-and-Spicy Comedy.” USA Today. 14 Sep. 1987: 01.D.
15 Seymour, Gene. “‘Frank’s’: Best of the Season a Savvy Series on Black Culture.” Philadelphia Daily News. 14 Sep. 1987: 53.
16 Terry, Clifford. “‘Frank’s Place’ Is Well Worth Stopping By.” Chicago Tribune. 14 Sep. 1987: 4.
17 Shales, Tom. “Frank’s Place: Warmth, Wit & Cajun Spice.” Washington Post. 14 Sep. 1987: b.01.
18 Dawson, Greg. “Frank’s Place Deserves a Visit.” Orlando Sentinel. 14 Sep. 1987: C.1.
19 Roush, Matt. “Five Rookie CBS Shows Win Full-Season Orders.” USA Today. 28 Oct. 1987: 03.D.
20 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 24 Mar. 1988: c.10.
21 Lawler, Syvlia. “CBS Shutters ‘Frank’s Place.” Morning Call. 4 Apr. 1988: D.04.
22 “The Final Season Ratings.” USA Today. 20 Apr. 1988: 03.D.
23 Bianco, Robert. “Back on Air, Frank’s Place Still Victim of Schedule Juggling.” Ottawa Citizen. 19 Jul. 1988: A.17.TE.
24 Weinstein, Steve. “CBS Puts ‘Frank’s Place’ Out of Business.” Los Angeles Times. 5 Oct. 1988: 10.

Image Credits

1 From TV Guide, September 12th, 1987, Page 36.


3 Comments

  • Reid’s character technically didn’t decide to “stay and run the place.” One of the restaurant’s employees put a mojo on him, causing him to experience some incredible bad luck that disappeared when he returned to N’awlins, if I remember the episode right.

    I was pretty bummed when they cancelled this show–one of TV’s best missed opportunities.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    IF “FRANK’S PLACE” had been produced as a cable network series, I honestly believe at least 65 episodes would have been crafted to be enjoyed on DVD “box sets” to this very day. Then, as now, there’s no room for “esoteric” or “offbeat” series on network television. Series such as “ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT” survived (despite a small “cult” following and praise from virtually every influential TV critic in print) because Fox not only owned the series, it TRIED to keep it going as long as it could. But it was just too “weird” for a mass audience. “MAD MEN”, even though AMC cable doesn’t own it, renewed it for a third season, even though it has the same kind of “cult audience”, and “average” viewers don’t have the patience to sit through a typical episode because it’s just as “esoteric” as “FRANK’S PLACE” was.

    You want revenge? NONE of CBS’ new comedy series for 1989-’90 (the season after “FRANK’S PLACE”) survived that season. I guess that’s how much scheduling savvy Kim LeMasters had before he resigned in December 1989.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    I beg your pardon- just ONE new comedy survived CBS’ 1989-’90 season, to continue for another four seasons: “MAJOR DAD”.

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