Frank's Place, an exceptionally innovative half-hour television program sometimes referred to as a "dramedy," aired on CBS during the 1987-88 television season. The program won extensive critical praise for the ways in which it used conventions of situation comedy to explore serious subject matter. As Rolling Stone writer Mark Christensen commented "rarely has a prime-time show attempted to capture so accurately a particular American subculture--in this case that of blue-collar blacks in Louisiana."
In 1987 Frank's Place won the Television Critics Association's award for outstanding comedy series. In 1988 one episode, "The Bridge," won Emmy awards for best writing in a comedy series (writer and co-executive producer, Hugh Wilson) and outstanding guest performance in a comedy series (Beah Richards). Tim Reid, star and co-executive producer, received an NAACP Image Award. In spite of its critical success, however, the show did not do well in the ratings and was not renewed by CBS.
Frank's Place was developed by Wilson and Reid from a suggestion by CBS executive Kim LeMasters. Wilson, an alumnus of the heyday of MTM Productions, had previously produced WKRP In Cincinnati, a sitcom favorite in which Reid played super-cool disc jockey, Venus Flytrap. The premise for their new show centered on Frank Parrish (played by Reid), an African-American college professor from Boston who inherits a New Orleans restaurant from his estranged father. Wilson, who had directed for film as well as television, decided against using the standard situation comedy production style--videotaping with three-cameras in front of a live audience. He opted instead for film-style production, single camera with no laugh track. Thus, from the beginning, Frank's Place looked and sounded different. Changed, too, were the broad physical humor and snappy one-liners that characterize most situation comedies. These were replaced with a more subtle, often poignant humor as Frank encountered situations his formal education had not prepared him for. He's the innocent lost in a bewildering world, a rich and complex culture that appears both alien and increasingly attractive to him. And he is surrounded by a surrogate family who wish him well but know he must ultimately learn from his mistakes.
The ensemble cast included Hanna Griffin (played by Daphne Maxwell Reid), a mortician who became a romantic interest for Frank, and Bubba Weisberger (Robert Harper), a white Jewish lawyer from an old southern family. The restaurant staff included Miss Marie (Frances E. Williams), the matriarch of the group; Anna-May (Francesca P. Roberts), the head waitress; Big Arthur (Tony Burton), the accomplished chef who rules the kitchen; Shorty La Roux (Don Yesso), the white assistant chef; Tiger Shepin (Charles Lampkin), the fatherly bartender; Cool Charles (William Thomas Jr.), his helper. Reverend Deal (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a smooth-talking preacher in constant search of a church or a con-man's opportunity, was another regular.
Frank's journey into the world of the southern working-class African-American begins when he visits Chez Louisiane, the creole restaurant he inherited and plans to sell. The elderly waitress Miss Marie puts a voodoo spell on him to ensure that he will continue to run the restaurant in his father's place. After Frank returns to Boston, his plumbing erupts, telephones fail him, the laundry loses all his clothes, his girlfriend leaves him, and his office burns. Convinced he has no choice, he returns to New Orleans, to the matter-of-fact welcome of the staff, the reappearance of his father's cat, and the continuing struggle to turn the restaurant into a profitable venture.
Story lines in many episodes provide comic and pointed comments on the values and attitudes of the dominant culture. In one story, college recruiters bombard young basketball star Calvin with virtually identical speeches about family and tradition and campus life. Calvin's naive expectations of becoming a professional athlete contrast with Frank's concern about academic opportunities. In another episode, the chairman of a major corporation stops in for a late night dinner. Commenting on efforts to oust him, he eloquently condemns speculators who use junk bonds to buy companies they know nothing about and with which they create no real value or service. The plot takes an ironic turn when he realizes his partners may have made mistakes in plotting the takeover and he enthusiastically schemes to thwart them.
Class and racial issues emerge in many story lines. On Frank's first night back in New Orleans, he wonders why there are so few people in the restaurant. Tiger explains with a simple observation: their clientele are working people who eat at home during the week--and white folks are afraid to come into the neighborhood at night. In a later episode Frank is flattered when he is invited to join a club of African-American professionals. Not until Anna-May pulls out a brown paper bag and contrasts it with Frank's darker skin does he understand that those who extended the invitation meant to use him to challenge to the light-skin bias of the club members.
Throughout the series tidy resolutions are missing. A group of musicians from East Africa, in the United States on a cultural tour, stop at Frank's Place. One of them, who longs to play the jazz that's forbidden at home, decides to defect. Frank refuses to help him and he is rebuffed by jazz musicians. But in the closing scene, as he sits listening in a club, he gets an inviting nod to join the musicians when they break. The final frame freezes on a close-up of his face as he rises, suspended forever between worlds. In another episode, a bum moves into a large box in the alley and annoys customers by singing and begging in front of the restaurant. Nothing persuades him to leave until one evening Frank tries unsuccessfully to get him to talk about who he is, where he's from, the reasons for his choices. When Frank steps outside the next morning, he's gone. A final image, as Frank dusts off the hat left on the sidewalk, resonates with a recognition of kinship and loss. Visual sequences in many episodes suggest the loneliness of Frank's search for father, for self, for his place in this community.
Various explanations have been offered for the decision to cancel Frank's Place after one season. In spite of a strong beginning, the show's ratings continued to drop. Viewers who expected the usual situation comedy formula were puzzled by the show's style. Frequent changes in scheduling made it difficult for viewers to find the show. CBS, struggling to improve its standing in the ratings, was not willing to give the show more time in a regular time slot to build an audience. The large ensemble and the film-style techniques made the show expensive to produce. In the end, it was undoubtedly a combination of reasons that brought the series to an end.
Frank's Place, however, deserves a continuing place in programming history. It did, as Tim Reid told New York Times reporter Perry Garfinkel, present blacks not as stereotypes but as "a diverse group of hard-working people." Hugh Wilson attributed this accuracy to the racially mixed group of writers, directors, cast and crew. Authenticity was heightened by the careful researching of details. Individual stories were allowed to determine the style of each episode. Some were comic, some serious, some poignant. All of them, however, were grounded in a compelling sense of place and a respect for those who inhabit Chez Louisiane and its corner of New Orleans.
Hugh Wilson, Tim Reid
Frank Parish................................................ Tim Reid
Sy "Bubba" Weisburger......................... Robert Harper
Hannah Griffin........................... Daphne Maxwell Reid
Anna-May................................. Francesca P. Roberts
Miss Marie................................... Frances E Williams
Mrs. Bertha Griffin-Lamour................... Virginia Capers
Big Arthur ...............................................Tony Burton
Tiger Shepin..................................... Charles Lampkin
Reverend Deal.................................. Lincoln Kilpatrick
Cool Charles................................ William Thomas, Jr.
Shorty La Roux......................................... Dan Yesso
Hugh Wilson, Tim Reid, Max Tash
September 1987-November 1987 Monday 8:00-8:30
December 1987-February 1988 Monday 8:30-9:00
February 1988-March 1988 Monday 9:30-10:00
March 1988 Tuesday 8:00-8:30
July 1988-October 1988 Saturday 8:30-9:00
Christensen, Mark. "Just Folks." Rolling Stone (New York), 10 March 1988.
Collier, Aldore. "Hollywood's Hottest Couple." Ebony (Chicago), January 1988.
Garfinkel, Perry. "Frank's Place: The Restaurant as Life's Stage." The New York Times, 17 February 1988.
Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Hill, Michael E. "Frank's Place Serving Rich Television with No Calories." Washington Post TV Week, 16 December 1987.
"Host." People Weekly (New York), 25 April 1988.
Newcomb, Horace. "The Sense of Place in Frank's Place." In Thompson, Robert J., and Gary Burns, editors. Making Television: Authorship and the Production Process. New York, Praeger, 1990.
O'Connor, John J. "Two New Series in Previews." The New York Times, 15 September 1987.
Reeves, Jimmie L., and Richard Campbell. "Misplacing Frank's Place: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" Television Quarterly (New York), 1989.
Rense, Rip. "Tim's Place: The Executive Suite." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania) 16-22 April 1988.
Spotnitz, Frank. "Tim Reid." American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1990.
Thompson, R. J., and G. Burns. "Authorship and the Production Process." Millimeter (New York), March 1988.
White, Mimi. "What's the Difference? Frank's Place In Television." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), July-October 1991.