ABC'S "The Jackie Thomas Show," about a crassly self-centered TV star, has been getting a few highly publicized bad reviews since it premiered Nov. 30. But in ratings, it's been doing just fine.
The series started with a potent built-in advantage: the time slot right after a big hit - TV's biggest hit, in fact, "Roseanne." Any new show following a success of this magnitude picks up lots of carry-over viewers, who initially tend to stay tuned (although remote-control devices and other factors have been dissipating this historical pattern).
"Jackie's" copping of this prize spot was no accident. Its title role is played by Tom Arnold, husband of "Roseanne's" title star, Roseanne Arnold, who is one of ABC's main draws. Yet whatever internal maneuvering may have garnered "Jackie" its coveted position, it has heroically vindicated itself.
It has done so even in light of the much higher expectations - a kind of ratings handicap - that broadcasters place on any series given such an edge. The problem with being scheduled after a mega-hit like "Roseanne" is what network number-crunchers like to call the "falloff" factor, meaning the tendency of the next show quickly to lose most of the big audience it has inherited from the hit preceding it.
In the case of "Roseanne" and "Jackie," we're talking big numbers. About 35 million viewers have been watching "Roseanne" weekly, and so far some 30 million have stayed tuned to see "Jackie." That gave "Jackie," in its first week, more viewers than NBC and CBS combined.
But why this impressive success for such an off-putting character even though well-played? Partly because "Jackie" has joined a rather notable tradition going back to Shakespeare and earlier. Slobs, boors, and cads - as TV characters especially - have cut a wide swath over the years. With the right twist, they can win a place in some hard-to-explain corner of an audience's heart.
Decades ago "The Life of Riley" - a perennially popular series on radio and later TV - featured a dolt who muddled through despite his low-brow lifestyle. In the durable CBS series "Alice," the grunting, greasy, churlish Mel, owner of a diner, had quite a following during the show's long run (1976-1985).
Biased, blue-collar Archie Bunker of "All in the Family" inaugurated a whole new kind of sitcom. Crude Al Bundy has a lot to do with the fact that "Married With Children" is one of Fox's top shows, even though Al is a caricature of a husband and father. (Guess who's at the very top of Fox's list? "The Simpsons.")
Jackie, for his part, can gross you out with the best of them, but he's sleeker and more glib than most of his predecessors. His brand of obnoxiousness comes in a mindless flow of insults, and in offenses like plucking the neck off an ice swan that's been carefully crafted for a party. "Great news," he said in a recent episode, "The Hee Haw Honies are coming" - a clue to both his tastelessness and sexism.
If a gentleman, as one classic definition has it, is someone who never offends unintentionally, Jackie is the complete anti-gentleman, not comprehending the damage he's doing. But though his bad form may be packaged in an unusually fast-talking character, its basic nature is an old story.