Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Comfort TV Career of Meredith Baxter

The Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 credits for Meredith Baxter; 90 of them are for television. Her career began in an era when TV stars rarely crossed into film, but even after such transitions became commonplace she apparently had no such aspirations.  Next month, she joins the cast of The Young and the Restless.

I decided to write about her because I don’t think enough people do. 

Some TV actors are taken for granted, perhaps because consistent proficiency in a wide range of projects is not as esteemed as a single transcendent character or performance. Meredith Baxter starred in one of television’s best dramas and one of its best-loved situation comedies, appeared as a regular or recurring character in three other shows, earned four Emmy nominations and headlined enough TV movies for a Lifetime network marathon that would last a week.

Whatever she was in, she made it better, and that’s something you can’t say about a lot of performers with higher-profile careers. That’s why I’ve channeled my inner Ralph Edwards to celebrate her television achievements – This is Your Comfort TV Life, Meredith Baxter.

Her first year with professional credits – 1971 – includes a memorable appearance on The Partridge Family, in the season 2 episode “Where Do Mermaids Go?” In one of her rare screen performances as a brunette, Baxter plays a bohemian heiress, whom the Partridges first meet when she is skinny-dipping in a rural pond (talk about making an entrance!). In return for the family’s kindness, she deposits one million dollars in their bank account. 

Hippie characters in this era of television were usually played somewhat broadly, with a lot of now-archaic slang. Baxter brings a grounded, melancholy, mature-beyond-her-years quality to an often-clichéd role. And in her close-ups, you may be entranced as I was by the most stunning blue eyes of anyone on TV, with the possible exception of Lara Parker from Dark Shadows.

Just one year later she was headlining her own series, one created by Partridge Family creator Bernard Slade. Baxter played Bridget Teresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic school teacher who falls in love at first sight with cab driver Bernie Steinberg. “I think we have a problem,” they realize, and that was the introduction to Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973).

The couple’s inter-religious marriage and the culture clash of their respective in-laws was the launching point for many of the episodes, but the topics were not explored with the frankness and harder edge of All in the Family, which debuted the previous year. Instead, Bridget Loves Bernie was a sweet and gentle sitcom that worked because of the chemistry between Baxter and costar David Birney, whom she married (and later divorced).    

Despite being ranked fifth in the ratings among all shows that season, CBS shut it down out of concern over adverse reactions from a vocal minority of intolerant viewers. More than 40 years later it’s still the highest-rated TV series to be canceled. Not one of television’s prouder moments.

Following guest appearances on Barnaby Jones, Medical Center and Police Woman, as well as leads in several TV movies (one of the best being The Night That Panicked America, a dramatization of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds), Baxter played Meg in a miniseries adaptation of Little Women, featuring Greer Garson, Dorothy McGuire and a cast rich in classic TV stars, from Susan Dey and Eve Plumb to William Shatner and Robert Young.

But it was her next series, Family (1976-1980), that for me still resonates most amidst her remarkable resume. Meredith Baxter joined the show in season 2, taking over the role of Nancy Maitland from Elayne Heilveil. 

Family is one of the best shows of the ‘70s and its not accessible anywhere now, outside of a discontinued DVD release of the first two seasons. Maybe we’ve lost the capacity to appreciate shows like this. After 20 years of sensationalized reality TV, the idea of dramatizing the normal low-key reality of life with one Pasadena family now seems like an incomplete pitch; what’s the hook? Is the father psychic or is the mother leading a double life? Does the son have super powers? Is the daughter a Muslim or a pop singer or something else that will bring in a broader demographic?

When the writing and the acting are as perfect as they are here, no other incentive should be necessary. To watch Family is to be wholly drawn into the joys and sorrows and relationships of fictional characters, and to believe that every word they say is extemporaneous, and could not possibly have been typed by someone else months earlier.

And to think we’ve come this far without even mentioning Family Ties (1982-1989), the show for which the actress is certainly best-known. Baxter was top-billed but quickly ceded the spotlight to Michael J. Fox, who Arthur Fonzarelli-ed the rest of the cast into supporting roles. Still, many of the show’s best episodes feature Elyse Keaton, whether she was dragging Alex home from an alcohol-fueled party (season 2’s “Birthday Boy”) or going on a blackjack binge in Atlantic City (season 3’s “The Gambler”).  

When you factor in all of Meredith Baxter’s post-Comfort TV credits – from a Emmy-nominated performance in A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story (1992) to more recent appearances on Brothers & Sisters and Cold Case and Glee, it all adds up to time well spent in one’s chosen profession. And by all accounts she’s a pretty nice person too.

Not sure I’ll be watching her on Young and the Restless – even Daisy Duke joining the cast could not turn me into a regular viewer – but it makes me happy to know she’s still somewhere on television.

1 comment:

  1. Did you ever catch Ms. Baxter's guest appearance on "The Streets of San Francisco," Mr. Hofstede? Genie Francis of "General Hospital" fame made her first TV acting appearance on "Family." A LOT more episodes of "The FBI" were produced than episodes of "Family," yet "The FBI" STILL didn't fare too well in syndication. To my knowledge, "The FBI" isn't being shown on TV anywhere in the United States at the moment, though most of the seasons have been released via manufacture-on-demand DVD. Ms. Baxter never did a single episode of "The FBI," did she?

    In any case, Mr. Hofstede, do you think that Marcy Walker, an Emmy-winning soap actress who's now retired from the entertainment industry, should at least have been as successful in prime time as Meredith Baxter has been? It seems to me that Marcy should have been.