One Season TV: 'Thanks'

Post by: Rick Ellis 26 November, 2020

The 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of television shows built around truly insane concepts. A mother reincarnated inside a car (My Mother The Car), a comedy set inside a German WWII prisoner-of-war camp (Hogan's Heroes), a show about a group of inept calvarymen and the Native Americans who cheat and trick them (F-Troop). That type of television has mostly fell out of favor by the 1990s, but briefly resurfaced later in the decade with shows such as The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer and the 1996 short-lived CBS comedy Thanks.

Thanks was created by Phoef Sutton and Mark Legan, both of whom had impressive TV credits. Legan was just coming off of stints on Dave's World and Grace Under Fire. And Sutton had previously worked on Bob and Cheers. So if anyone could pull off a comedy about the Puritans settling in America, these two guys could do it. And having watched all six episodes recently, the resulting show has some brilliant moments. But I also have a feeling that there was some network pushback about the execution, because there is definitely a shift in tone after episode four.

The series begins with the Pilgrim's first spring in the New World. There has been more snow and a lot less food than they had expected and a lot of the humor is based around the hunger and the group's puritan ways. Mark Dutton plays James Winthrop, who runs the local general store with his wife Polly (Kirsten Nelson). They have three children - Abigail (Erika Christensen), Elizabeth (Amy Centner) and William (Andrew Ducote). The family also includes James's mother Grammy Winthrop (played by Cloris Leachman). Jim Rash plays John Cotton, the self-described "village idiot," and the role feels as if it was originally written for Chris Elliott.



There are a couple of running jokes in the first group of episodes, including one involving a long-winded, the very religious Reverend Goodacre (Keith Szarabajka) who sees the hand of the devil in even the most everyday activities. There are lots of jokes about potential sinful behavior and the hypocritical behavior of the townspeople. When confronted with tobacco for the first time, the magistrate suggests it must be a sin and should be abolished. "But shouldn't we try something before we say it's a sin?," asks someone. "We never have before now," he replies. People are thrown into the stocks for dancing and in one episode Elizabeth is thrown into the stocks for seemingly predicting a future that sounds a lot like our modern-day lives.



In fact, ten-year old Elizabeth is part of one of the most consistent running gags in the show. She is constantly suggesting better ways of doing things or wondering out loud whether the world might someday change in an unexpected way. When examining the incredibly small carrots the villagers grew in their first harvest, she wonders out loud if someday someone might be able to sell the wee carrots for extra money by claiming that they are "gourmet." "Marketing," she explains to her father. "It's all about the marketing."

Cloris Leachman doesn't have much to do in the first couple of episodes, but episode three has her lobbying for her own room and it gives her a chance to show off her impressive ability to chew up scenery and deliver a punchline. She's also the center of episode five, in which she falls for a traveling salesman played by Orson Bean. That episode might have the funniest line in the series: "My mother always told me, you don't buy a mule before you ride it."



Episode six is the final episode and it is probably also the most consistent. Viewers are finally introduced to the local Native American tribe, who teaches them how to grow crops and catch turkeys. The episode ends with a Thanksgiving meal and a bunch of jokes that mock the impact the Pilgrims would eventually have on this new world (or at least, a world that is new to them).

The episodes do take a bit of a shift in tone midway through the season. A lot of the jokes about sinful behavior and the stocks go away, which makes me suspect that the network was concerned some viewers might be offended by the light-hearted mocking of religion. Regardless, Thanks has some funny moments and I suspect if it had received a longer episode order (and hadn't been burned off in August), it might have survived and lasted several seasons. 

Several of the cast later had memorable roles in other television shows. A decade later, Jim Rash played Dean Craig Pelton on the NBC sitcom Community. Kirsten Nelson went on to play police chief Karen Vick on Psych and Erika Christensen has appeared in a number of movies and television shows, ranging from Traffic to the character Julia Braverman-Graham on Parenthood. 

The entire premiere episode of the show is posted below and you can click here for an episode guide for the series.




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Last modified on Thursday, 26 November 2020 16:45

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