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Norman Lear’s “The Baxters”
by Cary O'Dell
For his entire television career, producer extraordinaire Norman Lear has used his weekly, primetime programs to stimulate dialogue. “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” had all, in living rooms all across the land, engendered many diverse (and probably quite loud) discussions long after they rolled their end-of-show credits.
But in 1979, Lear decided to take that a step further by actually taping and broadcasting those after-the-show discussions.
Hence was born the hybrid TV show “The Baxters” which aired in US syndication from 1979 to 1981.
For “The Baxters,” every half-hour episode was divided in half. In the first half (about 11 minutes once the commercials are excised), we followed the lives of a somewhat typical looking, traditional “sitcom” family: white, middle-class, mom and dad, three kids (one boy and two girls).
Each week, the family—the Baxters—encountered some sort of issue, some sort of problem. There were a few punchlines and “situations” along the way but basically everything in the first few minutes of the show was build-up…and no resolution.
After the program came back from its middle-of-the-show commercial break, the Baxters were gone, replaced by a small audience of “everyday” men and women who sat on uncomfortable looking chairs in rather barren TV studios and, aided by a microphone-wielding host (think “Donahue”) and discussed the problem the Baxters had presented. Whether they came to a conclusion or a consensus depended on the audience, and your perspective.
Regardless of what that discussion yielded or didn’t yield, the show ended at the half-hour mark.
Actually, as Hal Erickson notes in his book, “Syndicated Television,” this EXACT type of television interaction wasn’t entirely new. It had first been done back in the late 1950s with a TV show titled, appropriately enough, “Talk Back.” This syndicated series presented moral dilemmas (sometimes from a religious angle) in a brief dramatic form and then turned it over to a local studio audience and a local host (sometimes a clergyman) for people to debate and decide the outcome.
Something similar occurred as well (minus the fictional element) on 1956’s “Stand Up and Be Counted.” On this CBS daytime series, a real-life person got up and stated a problem they were having or an issue they were facing and then the studio audience came up to the front of the stage and gave advice. Sometimes they agreed with other audience members; sometimes not—with some surprisingly agitated results.
Nevertheless, the name recognition of Norman Lear helped make experiment of “The Baxters” much better known than any of these prior series.
Actually, Lear did not create the series himself. It originated over WCVB-TV in Boston in the late 1970s, as part of producer (and ex divinity student) Hubert Jessup’s “New Heaven, New Earth” local public affairs program. It was on “New,” in five-minute snippets, that the Baxter family first began. After the pretend family’s short scenario was shown, a studio audience chimed in on the problem presented to them.
After first airing on Sunday mornings, Jessup talked the station into moving his show to a week night. There, it developed a devoted local following.
Always interested in the new and the daring, Norman Lear became aware of the program and purchased the rights to it and, ergo, “The Baxters.”
Broadway vet Anita Gillette (who had just recently starred in Lear’s other odd syndicated show “All That Glitters”) was cast as Mrs. Nancy Baxter, a stay-at-home wife and mother. Larry Keith was cast as her husband, Fred, an insurance salesman. Their three kids were played by Darin Altay, Chris Peterson, and Terri Lynn Wood.
Any station that decided to broadcast “The Baxters” had a choice: they could either re-air the LA studio audience discussion that was done or produce one of their own, at their own studios with their own locally corralled audience to provide site-specific commentary.
Stations coast to coast (in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York, California and, of course, Boston, among others; 60 all tolled) all signed on to carry “The Baxters” with most stations deciding to produce their own, local discussion show. The local angle was, no doubt, part of the appeal of “The Baxters”—rather than seeing some far-off group weigh in on these topics it was YOUR chance to speak your mind and the same for your neighbors!
While stations in such major markets as New York and Boston could produce slick looking “Baxter” “after-shows,” many smaller stations created shows that looked almost public access in their production values. Additionally, “Baxter” duty did not seem to be a highly sought-after gig by station personnel and the local after-shows’s host was usually a new-ish, on-air reporter, low down in the station’s pecking order.
While anyone seemed to be welcome to come and comment on a “Baxter” episode, audiences either sometimes attracted various issue-driven individuals or stations purposefully invited specific individuals (heads of local political organizations, for example) to amp up the discussions.
In January of 1980, “New York Daily News” columnist Beverly Stephen recapped one, local post-“Baxters” discussion in her newspaper. The “Baxters” discussion she covered was about women’s role in marriage—traditional or no?
First Stephen belabored the “heavy-handed” approach of the “Baxter” installment to set up the topic/debate and then she related the in-studio discourse: “[B]oy, let me tell you, it wasn’t long before that audience got into a heated discussion…. It felt like being in a therapy group…. Several of the more conservative women in the audience were aghast that this nice married couple was fighting IN PUBLIC. …
“Of course the discussion quickly got off the track. People started arguing about what divorce was doing to children and whether the money a husband earns is his, hers or theirs.”
Another episode took on the slightly less heated topic of energy conservation. At the height of the great energy crisis, one of the Baxters had been gifted an electric stapler. Should they use it? Wasn’t this part of the problem? Or what did it matter?—how much electricity does it even take to staple something? But what if everyone thought that?
Another episode had Mr. and Mrs. Baxter contemplating a late-in-life pregnancy. But would it be fair to have a baby knowing that by the time he/she is in their tweens and teens, Mom and Dad would be ready for Social Security?
Despite the novelty of it, the local approach and of course the cache of the Norman Lear name, after a strong start out of the gate (mainly form the curious?), “The Baxters” did not build much of an audience.
Stephen was right—much of the show’s set-ups were heavy handed, but, then again, how could they not be? So much to do and very little time to do it in. Additionally, the first half of the show was meant to be a sitcom…? But, despite the presence of a few punchlines, the jokes never really landed. Further, the absence of a laugh-track, believe it or not, made this sitcom set-up seem oddly strange, even other-worldly. Then, to follow that up with an often awkwardly produced local encounter group discussion, it was just an odd, jarring mix.
In time, the production costs of “The Baxters” began to outweigh the proceeds it was generating for Lear and company. Thus, after one season, “The Baxters” ended.
Actually, the series was still doing very well in Boston and a few other markets. So, after the end of the Lear version of the series, it was relaunched by a Boston station that produced new episodes far more cheaply up in Toronto.
The revised “Baxters” had an all-new cast of mostly Canadian actors (including a young Megan Follows, pre-“Anne of Green Gables,” as the youngest daughter). All of the Baxter’s first names got changed as did dad’s occupation; he was now a school teacher. Mom had also returned to the workforce.
Though mainly produced for the Boston area, the “new” Baxters” was distributed to a few other stations including WFLA in Florida. Episodes of the revived “Baxters” approached such weighty (and, interestingly, today, still timely) topics as capital punishment and sexual harassment in the workplace and were, of course, followed by a locally-produced discussion.
Counting both series, “The Baxters” ended up with a respectable three-year, first-run syndicated run. But, obviously, there were not enough episodes to ever be rerun and neither incarnation of the show was ever successful enough to take its place alongside Lear’s more exalted TV achievements, so, “The Baxters” is not well recalled. In the end, “The Baxters” remains a bold experiment now rendered a curio.