FUN FRIDAY: The Powers That Be

Every so often a TV show comes along that the audience just isn’t ready for. It should be a guaranteed hit, but it just doesn’t work. In the past, these shows would have been long forgotten, or part of the occasional “brilliant but canceled” TV retrospective. In today’s content-hungry world, though, more and more of these old TV shows are availably with the tap of a button. That gives us the opportunity to see what might have been.

Like an alternate universe

Canceled TV shows are like an alternate universe. There are the stars you know, but they’re in different roles. These are the same people you think are brilliant, but somehow they’re a little less brilliant in these roles. You have to wonder if Jennifer Aniston would be the celebrity she is today if she had to rely on a body of work without Friends. (You don’t have to wonder; Leprechaun and Muddling Through are both available to stream. By the way, both are awful.)

This week’s Fun Friday article looks back at one specific alternate universe: the 21 episodes of a sitcom called The Powers That Be that ran in 1992 and 1993.

I believe in the powers

The Powers That Be was a sitcom created by the great Norman Lear. This is the guy who did some of the defining sitcoms of the 1970s: All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. We think of him as a national treasure today. By the 1990s though, his currency was fading. He had come off a string of poorly received shows and had an idea for a comedy about a pair of politicians who were related by marriage. It would be the perfect opportunity to lampoon the politics of the day and keep the audience laughing. Those were two things that worked well for Mr. Lear in the past and everyone expected this to be a big hit.

The cast were made up of mostly unknown actors, with the exception of John Forsythe who was known to the world from his work on Dynasty and other shows.

By the standards of the day, the comedy was very dark. The elder politician was having an affair with a staffer (something that was, ironically, about to happen in real life) and had a child out of wedlock. The younger politician was perpetually suicidal. The housekeeper was harassed to the point of torture. One female lead was anorexic and another was clearly emotionally damaged. Of course all this was played for laughs.

Why didn’t it work?

You would think this would be an easy question to answer. That moment in time was a bad one for sitcoms; NBC’s reign of “must see TV” was on a temporary wane as Cheers and The Cosby Show grew increasingly arthritic. The nation was becoming increasingly interested in CNN and other cable channels as broadcast networks’ hold on the entertainment world began to slip for the first time ever. While The Powers That Be had ratings that would certify it as a hit today, those same ratings meant that it was deemed a flop at the time.

The real problem was that the show was just ahead of its time. Today, the same subject matter would be handled more deftly by a streaming service and you’d get something like Succession. But, in the early ’90s it needed to be a laugh-a-minute. In a time when serialized storytelling was rare, the show tried to bring up recurring themes. Audiences weren’t ready for that, since few people were even recording TV at that point.

The legacy

The amazing thing is how many people associated with this show went on to have really stellar careers after it aired. David Hyde Pierce brought his A-game to Frasier. Peter MacNicol went on to star in Ally McBeal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt spent time on 3rd Rock from the Sun before moving to films. Robin Bartlett went to Mad About You. Holland Taylor and Valerie Mahaffey have both done amazing work for decades, and of course the series’ co-creators, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, spent the next ten years helming Friends.

The Powers That Be should have been a hit. But it was just in the wrong time and place. Even that sincere amount of talent couldn’t get people to watch. The country wasn’t ready for it. The funny thing is that watching it today it hardly seems daring or dark at all. That’s how far we’ve come. You can check the show out on Crackle, which has nearly every episode. It seems like a typical ’90s yuckfest, far worse in overall quality than Friends or Frasier, but if you pay a little more attention, you will realize that there’s brilliance there. It’s just smothered by the shoulder pads, the laugh track, and the incredibly huge cell phones.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.