What does Becker have to do to get some respect? Despite having entrenched itself in the Nielsen top 20 since its November 1998 debut, regularly pulling in more viewers than its flashier time-slot competitor Ally McBeal, and boasting a career-remaking performance in Ted Danson’s refreshingly cantankerous doctor, the CBS sitcom is still smarting from symptoms of critical disinterest. ”We don’t get as much attention as the show deserves,” says Danson. ”But people are watching, so I’m happy.”
As it turns out, the series’ biggest drawback may just be its A-list star, who’s learned that prime-time reinvention is a double-edged sword when everybody knows your name. According to Becker exec producer Dave Hackel, the ghost of Sam Malone looms large over Danson’s misanthropic doc. ”Ted Danson’s biggest competition is … Ted Danson, every night at 11,” Hackel says. ”A lot of the negativity [is] about people not wanting their Ted to be this guy.” Danson counters that Becker is actually a likable — if woefully disenchanted — character: ”He feels betrayed by humanity. It’s as if he thought he was doing something right early in his life, then some huge betrayal made him say, ‘Aw, just f— it.”’
The fact that many critics greeted Becker’s debut with that same sentiment may point to a collective hangover from Ink, the disastrous 1996-97 sitcom Danson starred in alongside wife Mary Steenburgen. Says Hackel of Becker’s detractors, ”I think [they] said, ‘We already made a big deal about his return to television; let’s reserve judgment before we make a big deal again.”’
Season 3 of the sleeper series promises more righteous wailing from the good doctor, some of it in the name of self-exploration. ”By the end of the season, he’ll either be in the arms of a therapist or a priest,” says Danson. He’ll also take another crack at quitting smoking, date a much younger woman, and try to rekindle his relationship with an old college flame, to be played by an as-yet-unnamed guest star.
The one thing Becker fans will never see, however, is fireworks between Danson’s doc and Reggie (Terry Farrell), the fetching hash slinger at his local coffee shop. Ever. According to Hackel, that twist is effectively prohibited by Danson’s five-year Cheers romance with Shelley Long. ”The Sam-and-Diane relationship is so classic, and, well, I’ve got Sam. I can only invite comparison.” Instead, he says, Reggie serves as a ”spy on the other team” to assist the socially inept physician in his dating travails. But don’t expect her to be too helpful. Explains Danson, ”The fun is to keep him unbelievably lonely, and unable to relate intimately with another human being.” Sounds like a laugh riot to us.