Who’d have thought that after all these years producer Norman Lear would have enough bile left in him to oversee a series as energetically nasty as The Powers That Be? This low-down satire of Washington politics and the American family offers the broad laughs and sly cunning of a first-rate Broadway farce; Lear has directed the show’s debut episode, complete with intricately choreographed slamming-door exits. After the dismal failure of Lear’s mirthless CBS sitcom Sunday Dinner last year, the snap and vigor of The Powers That Be is startling.
Dynasty’s John Forsythe stars as William Powers, an ineffectual but good-hearted senator from an unnamed New England state. After 26 years on Capitol Hill, Powers has an easy work load and a gorgeous Georgetown brownstone, as well as the passionate devotion of both his tough, ambitious wife, Margaret (Bosom Buddies’ Holland Taylor), and the beautiful administrative assistant who is also his mistress, Jordan (Almost Grown’s Eve Gordon).
An amiable dimwit, Powers also dotes on the attention he receives from his daughter, Caitlyn (Valerie Mahaffey), who’s all smiles for Daddy but who is actually so fiercely demanding that she regularly drives her neurotically depressed congressman husband, Theodore (David Pierce), to attempt suicide. Pulling down Theodore’s jacket sleeves to cover his wrists, Caitlyn says primly, ”Your bandages are showing.”
Powers is blissfully unaware of all the deviousness, pain, and power brokering that surrounds him; he’s a happy fellow who sold out to everyone around him long ago. Short of being asked by Joe Biden to help grill a controversial Supreme Court nominee, what could go wrong in his awfully good life?
Well, just as Powers is about to announce his new Senate run, Sophie Lipkin (Robin Bartlett) shows up. This bold 37-year-old working-class woman announces she’s Powers’ long-lost love child, the result of an affair he had during the Korean War. Margaret, Jordan, and Caitlyn view Sophie with horror — as the skeleton in Powers’ closet who will ruin the senator’s political future and, by extension, their lives. Powers, on the other hand, welcomes Sophie into his roomy house as one of his own.
Lear and the show’s creators, Marta Kaufman and David Crane (the duo behind HBO’s Dream On), don’t shy away from the fact that Sophie is a lively Jewish woman invading an uptight WASP household. On All in the Family, Lear used Archie Bunker’s bigotry to both elicit laughs and expose its venality. Here, Margaret refers to Sophie as a ”Jewess” with immense disdain, and it’s clear the Lear crew wants to take a poke at both anti-Semitism and Reaganesque conservatism: Liberal Sophie urges her father to vote for a day-care bill his advisers had nixed.
Indeed, Sophie is supposed to be the comic element that sets The Powers That Be in motion and gives the show its heart. But instead, in the two epi- sodes I’ve seen, she’s the one who drags it down. Sophie is written as a pushy whiner, a dreary voice of conscience and dull common sense — I felt sorry for Bartlett, stuck in this drab role.
The rest of the cast, however, has a great time. Forsythe has pulled off a career-reviving coup similar to the one Leslie Nielsen achieved with the Naked Gun movies; Bill Powers is Blake Carrington as a lovable dunderhead. It’s obvious that Bill and Margaret are supposed to remind us of the revisionist image of Ronald and Nancy Reagan: a harmless duffer manipulated by his steely wife. Of course, this bit of satire arrives on TV about 10 years too late, but it’s still wickedly funny.
Holland Taylor makes Margaret’s hatefulness exhilarating; her class snobbishness and iron will-to-power results in a great running joke that’s going to offend lots of viewers — Margaret’s ongoing abuse of the family maid, Charlotte (Amadeus’ Elizabeth Berridge). Early in the debut episode, Margaret, her teeth clenched in fury, tells Charlotte she has found ”a lint ball on one of the guest towels.” Charlotte, dowdy and meek, just stares blankly at her employer.
Then Margaret’s hand flashes out and she slaps Charlotte, hard. It quickly becomes clear, though, that Margaret belts the maid around like this all the time, and that Charlotte is supposed to be both a critique of the servant system and slapstick comic relief. Flinching, fainting, and falling, Berridge has the timing of a skilled silent comedian, and she makes funny what might have been an awkward, even repellent role.
As ambitious, alluring Jordan, Eve Gordon wears some of the shortest skirts in prime time and yet transcends sexist cliché. Less of a cartoon than the other characters, Jordan is a woman who truly enjoys her illicit relationship with Powers while using it to further her career. She’s aided in her scheming by a press secretary played by Peter MacNicol (Ghostbusters II), whose nattering nervousness gets annoying real fast.
Best of all, perhaps, is Mahaffey, who somehow makes Caitlyn — a snappish ”recovering anorexic” — both poignant and hilarious. Mahaffey gave a terrific, very different sort of performance as lawyer Vincent Bugliosi’s wife in the recent TV movie Till Death Us Do Part, and she is great playing Eve to Adam Arkin’s Adam on Northern Exposure; Caitlyn might make her a star.
That is, if people watch this show. Satire is what Empty Nest exists to deny on Saturdays, and the underlying messages of The Powers That Be are cynical downers: that our leaders are primarily concerned with advancing themselves and their peers; that women achieve power only through men. It’s unlikely that any of this will shock TV viewers in 1992. No, the real shock is seeing an ensemble cast this sharp and lively on the sleepy Saturday prime-time schedule. Powers could prove to be an upscale, uproarious All in the Family for the ’90s. A-