Supporting characters can nudge a good sitcom into greatness or drag it down into mediocrity. One surefire indication that a character is a success is applause from the studio audience when he or she makes an entrance. It’s happening every week on NBC’s Seinfeld whenever Michael Richards’ Kramer bursts into Jerry’s apartment looking like a frightened moose. Kramer takes things hard: He might be sent into a mackerel-flopping-on-the-floor fit by the sound of Mary Hart’s voice on the television. Take Kramer out to a Yankee game and he’s beaned by a foul ball, his Tinkertoy body sent sprawling across the roof of the dugout. Richards has reinvented the pratfall, and audiences love his bug-eyed, witty fearlessness.
But some supporting characters just don’t work out; their entrances are marked by thudding silence. So it is with Julia Duffy’s Allison Sugarbaker on CBS’ Designing Women. Allison has been a spiteful wet blanket since the start of the season, and Duffy won’t be back next year. The actress was so good on Newhart, it’s tempting to pin the blame elsewhere: distracted writers? the producers’ fuzzy, unformed concept of the character? It’s hard to be a good supporting character without receiving some support yourself.