Your own private Buffalo-of-the-mind: Revisiting Dabney Coleman as “Buffalo Bill”

Comparable to the science behind vintage wine, some art-forms become more palatable and more complex, when allowed to mature.

An example would be the astounding kitsch architecture that rose in mid-century Seattle — but the locals may not have appreciated the design-triumph while slurping milkshakes in a so-called googie diner, before rolling down Denny Way to the 1962 World’s Fair. So, too, if you step back a few more centuries and hop over a continent, it seems likely that the enduring output of the Flemish Masters could only have been denigrated at inception by inappreciative or jealous art dealers.

You might not think the same principles would apply to U.S. TV situation comedies, especially those from the fallow period of the early 1980s. When revisiting the network skeds for the ‘82-’83 season, you instinctively want to firmly grab hold of your brow and yank it back up several notches higher.

It was a year of revolting old formulaic pigswill (“Diff’rent Strokes,” “Happy Days,” “Archie Bunker’s Place”), diluted leftover servings of the preceding (“The Facts of Life,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Joanie Loves Chachi,” “Gloria,” “The Jeffersons”), re-imagined Hollywood films stretched into episodic half-hours (“Alice,” “Fame,” “9 to 5,” “Private Benjamin,” “The New Odd Couple,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”), and doddering male leads cast in unlikely roles. I refer here to Jack Klugman as keen-eyed coroner “Quincy, M.E.,” and William Shatner as stalwart street-cop “T.J. Hooker.” Subtract from this the N.F.L. players’ strike that shortened the football season by around half – we plan on returning to that subject another time – and it’s safe to say there wasn’t a whole lot to remember on the boob tube that year.

Except for Buffalo Bill, which slipped into NBC’s Wednesday-at-9:30 p.m. slot as a summer-of-‘82 replacement for the quintessential Reagan Era sitcom, “Family Ties.” The premise of the new program seemed tolerable, offering up Dabney Coleman as the caustic host of a lackluster local afternoon chat-show in Buffalo, New York.  Despite positive critical response and several Emmy nominations, Buffalo Bill failed to find an audience, and the series was canned after 26 episodes, which were shown over the course of two seasons.  The shows were gathered for a DVD box-set in 2005, which I bought off some guy in Minnesota for five bucks, a couple of weeks back.

A fiver well spent. As much as the series enjoys a fair afterlife reputation, and is vaguely remembered approvingly up here in the Buffalo/Toronto metroplex, Buffalo Bill after 30 years of steeping and mellowing comes as something unexpected (but let’s be clear, it’s the film-stock and its contents that have steeped and mellowed; never me, your reviewer.)

I certainly don’t mean to proclaim the show was years ahead of its time. In fact, today Bill seems outdated in most respects. However, its nuanced storytelling comes across as surprisingly deep, vivid and rewarding. The effect of watching the 26 parts sequentially, on a 50-inch screen without station breaks and commercial interruptions, allows you to see Bill for what it was and is: something akin to a distinguished mid-century novel as set down by, say, late-life Joseph Heller.

The eponymous “Buffalo” Bill Bittinger – the ironic use of quotation marks represents one more of the producers’ bemused in-jokes – is a bitter prick. Each installment begins with him sitting alone on the city’s Inner Harbor, skimming a rock across a body of water, with the burg’s grey skyline looming. Then, as the opening credits are screened, we see our man, a local broadcast legend, driving a boxy 1980s sedan with his name emblazoned on the doors, on his way to appear at a series of civic events.

He is Dabney Coleman, familiar filmdom heel, foil to movie good guys from Elvis on down. But within the sitcom, Dabney is Buffalo Bill, egocentric host of an hour of mundane teevee chatter on an unexceptional program in Nowheresville, USA.  Bill works with a spirited support team, each of whom may be taken as a recognizable type: the driven career-gal, the meek middle-aged gofer, the eager researcher, a pair of sassy African-American technicians, a well-intentioned boob of an executive who is in way over his head. They are bound by their contempt of their unpleasant local celeb, which in turn stems from his resentment of their casual acceptance of mediocrity.

This is old sitcom terrain, trod bare from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “WKRP in Cincinnati,” with many stops between. Or is it? Bill is no simpleton, no Ted Baxter manqué, and none of the characters emerge as they first present themselves. In fact, nothing in this Buffalo-of-the-mind is what it seems. The kick-off episode sees a simmering Bill convinced that he is about to be hired to replace a just-deceased on-air personality on 60 Minutes. He is a middle-aged man about to fulfill his longtime dream of attaining a national stage. Twenty-six chapters later, at the series conclusion, he is out of control, having burned through what he would consider to be his talent, along with his youth, his ambition, and even his hairline, in obscurity – all made worse by the realization that he’s a mere eight-hour drive from the Manhattan limelight.

Bill, vengeful ex-husband, deadbeat dad, and subversive employee, is the essential ingrate. He values nothing except his own right to dominate, and refuses to take any heed of his milieu, convinced, as he is, that it’s only a temporary detour on the route to greatness. That’s the motif common to each episode, but the inflections, and what is revealed in the margins, can be incendiary.

Pan, instructing Daphnis in pipe-playing
Actor John Fiedler, who portrayed Buffalo Bill’s Woody

It emerges, for example, that Woody, Bill’s gormless factotum, leads a parallel life as a self-made entrepreneur who runs a string of successful local businesses, and even owns the swinging bachelor pad in the luxury apartment building where Bill paces the floor and snaps gum nightly. Woody has taken it upon himself to cultivate the worthwhile inner-Bill, an obscured figure of decency that only Woody cares to see. It’s a preposterous notion — except in the mythic sense. This view would cast Woody in the role of Pan, the Greek wood-god. Pan is the son of Hermes, who was messenger to all the gods: exactly how the delusional Bill might regard himself. (Adding some further resonance to the Woody-as-Pan construct is the high, piping voice of actor John Fiedler, who also spoke as Piglet in the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons.)

Similarly, each minor character is an ornament to the story, acted by rising stars such as Academy Award winner Geena Davis in her breakout role, with other parts undertaken by multiple-Oscar nominees Martin Landau and James Cromwell.

In the series wrap-up, Bill vents every one of his bottomless frustrations on a visiting Catholic priest, during an unforgettable interview-gone-bad. He gratuitously accuses the man-of-the-cloth of molesting orphans. Bad call. The priest is first baffled and then outraged, and the predominantly Catholic community of Buffalo comes together to demand the firing of the blasphemous TV host.

This would count as edgy stuff, back in 1983. However, in light of what we now know occurred in church-administered orphanages throughout North America and around the world, it must be seen as Bittinger’s prescient send-off, foreshadowing a much more complicated tomorrow, in which bitter backbiting would become common coin.

The decision by the show’s creators to make light of the unspeakable topic of child abuse, 30 long years ago, in some way may be in keeping with the term Buffalonians use to describe their region: the Niagara Frontier. It’s no coincidence that the character of Buffalo Bill was a kind of frontiersman of the eighties, a comedic advance-scout blazing a trail for a coming generation, which came in the form of toxic broadcasters such as Glenn Beck, a new crew who failed to understand Bill’s premise, that outrage is supposed to be mined for yuks. Consequently, the series’ one last laugh lodged in your throat is Bill’s signature sign-off line: “Be good to yourselves, and be good to Buffalo.”

If only.

2 thoughts on “Your own private Buffalo-of-the-mind: Revisiting Dabney Coleman as “Buffalo Bill”

  1. The episode, “Hit the Road, Newdell,” was the last performance of Esther Phillips. She will die someafter this episode.

  2. Remember John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet. Ironically, Paul Winchell died one day prior. Piglet and Tigger. Together again, God bless.

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