It's A Living Debuts with Delicious, Hard Working Charm
by Kristin Battestella
The thirteen episode 1980-81 debut of ABC's It's A Living gets right to the high rise scandalous situational comedy at the shiny Above The Top Restaurant as virginal waitress Vicki Allen (Wendy Schaal) braves the dating scene in the “Pilot” thanks to advice from her lady colleagues – married Lois Adams (Susan Sullivan), sultry Cassie Cranston (Ann Jillian), ditsy Dot Higgins (Gail Edwards), and single mom Jan Hoffmeyer (Barrie Youngfellow). Stern hostess Nancy Beebe (Marian Mercer), however, objects to the coddling, making sure their service runs smoothly even when everything goes awry.
It's A Living introduces everyone as they arrive to work, giving the audience a realistic chance to meet each lady's troubles, sassy, or headstrong. Immediately discussing sexual topics and critical views on marriage, mistakes, and a woman's right to say no establishes their tight knit relationships as well as our endearment for the girls against their brash boss or pinching cheeks patrons. Maybe sexual topics defining the women as mother, prude, or easy generalities are old hat, but the plots are well balanced, individual, and mature, not crass. When their families are away in “The Intruder,” the ladies gather for a slumber party amid local burglar scares and debates on if it's worth wearing pants a size too small if you look good. It's A Living shows the women at home, however they aren't traditional television homemakers – just women laughing over hair, nails, and being juvenile. Sure it's contrived that they all have off to be together at the same time, but it's a chance to address individual fears and their united stance. Our dames object to being called chicks because they are women who aren't helpless. Unfortunately, home and work collide in “Fallen Idol” when visiting dad Richard Schaal (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) has a surprising dalliance. He's cool with the bordering on tart skimpy uniforms, laughs at the generational jokes, and lends his bathrobe the next morning. The then shameful shocks regarding consenting adults may seem like an overreaction today, but it's delicious to see our waitresses deduce the innuendo with great comedic timing and punchlines. Despite perhaps too many innocent plots to start, the series first utilizes its rooftop restaurant to the fullest in “Up on the Roof” as problem tables and a fire in the hotel below lead to customers who can't leave, slow service, cranky couples, and bad music to keep them going. Our ladies must pull everyone together amid evacuation waits, hysterics, fanatical ministers, and worried employees who don't want to be last in the rooftop rescue. Rather than regular sitcom standards, It's A Living uses its setting in a crisis to standout.
There are, however, several dated hindrances on It's A Living – namely an obnoxious laugh track and over-editing with an up close cut for every comeback rather than any ensemble camera staging. On the other hand, the cast is crowded this season with similar girls, generic sitcom plots, and the occasional eighties grandiloquent child actor. It's unrealistic when the waitresses are all in the back solving a problem leaving no one to mind the restaurant, and at first, It's A Living doesn't seem to know how to use its dining establishment to its advantage. Today a series also doesn't have the luxury of dragging on with early, basic stories while we hang on for the banter and personality. Then again, the rotating door of waitresses to come would be a contemporary excuse for edgy, gritty issues and seedy, titillation drama. Fortunately, there's no real clunker in this abbreviated start, and by the second half It's A Living finds its characters' strengths in “Our Man Barry” as two girls become interested in the same man amid dieting plots, employers weighing the girls, and their having to share, starve, and take it for the highest paying waitress job in town. Friends, romance, red dresses, and food cravings don't mix! The lighthearted conflict and petty confrontations eventually remind the ladies that this guy can't be a real catch if he wants to string both of them along, but our mothers argue, too, when a porn magazine ends up in a daughter's backpack in “Kids.” These days, it's downright hysterical how they thought sex was everywhere in 1981 because it was so easy for a kid to see a dirty magazine on the rack at the grocery store! Some ladies are shocked, a few have a good look, others say it is time for frank conversations with youth, and they all recall how their mothers wouldn't even say it – just maybe spell it. None of them want kids to learn the wrong way with jokes and rumors, but they also think curious boys and dad's naughty sock drawer are to blame. Girls aren't supposed to look at pornos! Will telling a ten year old too soon ruin her attitude about sex? But porn certainly provides unrealistic expectations, doesn't it? The women's perceptions of each other change when their sexual ideas and child rearing clash, and it's fascinating to study how this taboo is addressed then and now. Today, a kid with smut on his computer is so ubiquitous, it can't even be a heavy hitting plot device like the well done here.
Barrie Youngfellow's (Barney Miller) divorced single mother Jan is also going back to school and doesn't have time for crap from customers. She pulls an all nighter so she can be free to take her daughter to an Andy Gibb concert, and the only thing that would have made that sweeter would have been if we had seen him! Jan vowed that her daughter wouldn't be denied anything because she has one parent, and if her her priorities make her a terrible waitress, that's too bad. Determined to pay for ballet lessons in “Super-Mom,” Jan takes a second calligraphy job. Her coworkers cover for her and help with the invitations while trying to make Jan realize this is really about her doing it all. Jan has to take the reprimands on the chin or lose her job, and It's A Living shows what it can do with the serious, single mom disappointment. Jan also waits until the semester's end to accept her professor's overtures in “Making the Grade,” but when she has a terrible time, he nonetheless insists on more or he'll fail her. He doesn't want to be psychoanalyzed for his ways, but she doesn't want to be assaulted – and a teacher holding a sexual threat over a student is no different than a guy with a gun in a parking lot. This story focuses on how the women feel, dropping the insinuations, asking real questions, and making better statements in 1981 than we do now. Ann Jillian's (Babes in Toyland) risque Cassie, by contrast, is said to date anything once and wears her skimpy waitress uniform on the street. Three weeks without makes one a saint, and all agree with her expectation to die in bed. Cassie objects to the other ladies' mother hen ways with surprising asides and steamrolling zingers – a Ma West innuendo married with sharp, under the radar writing and deadpan delivery. Though fresh and selfish, Cassie isn't heartless, but she can't admit when she's caught feelings for an exotic jet setter in “Cassie's Punctured Romance.” She's tired of pedestrian boys, but she can't keep a suave man when she's pretending to cook while the girls actually prepare dinner. They think she should take a chance on taking it to the next level, but Cassie fears something serious and hates women who cry over a man. Likewise iron-fisted hostess Nancy Beebe demands formality, and Marian Mercer's (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) dame is not willing to be fair. She dislikes children in the restaurant and is always ready to fire anyone – although she can apologize when she's wrong and has a begrudging respect for Jan's moxie. Nancy enjoys insulting their looks, inspecting the ladies, and demeaning their weight because she herself is the epitome of class and respect. She's quite flirtatious, too, even with a firefighter over the phone. While Nancy doesn't realize not everyone has made this restaurant their lives, she is correct that there is always something happening with these waitresses. She suspects they are late to annoy her so she must keep them on their toes. Briefly, Nancy wonders if she works them too hard, but realizes she doesn't care because they are trying their best and that's what makes it tragic. When Nancy claims the new boss has fired her in “You're Not Old, You're Fired” because he is dissatisfied with her work, the waitresses refuse to believe that could be the reason when she is impeccable with the customers. They can't think of nice things to say or good times they've had together, but it's clear the restaurant can't run without Nancy. The girls find out she was fired for being old, for men can have gray, lines, and experience but not women. Dignified Nancy, however, stands up for being perfect in every way but age – she's really forty-five not forty-two.
Top billed Susan Sullivan (Falcon Crest) remains level headed as unofficial waitress leader Lois. She always has the final word for the backhanded insults about being too old or not being as old as she looks, but her headstrong is too similar to Jan. Though played as friends, in real life they would be competitive rather than besties. Lois wonders why everyone asks her advice, but she readily tells one what they don't want to hear. Her marriage is said to be perfect, but an old flame makes her wonder what she missed in “The Lois Affair.” When he offers her his room key and a nightcap, Lois insists it can be an innocent chat. Despite the temptations, good old Lois won't give in to anything stupid, and she's hurt when her daughter is embarrassed by her job in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Speaking at school career day, Lois realizes there is nothing with a consistent job that puts food on the table – especially when her husband's work has thin times. This is a great entry showcasing the unnecessary inferior treatment of service professions, yet it serves as a natural conclusion for Lois to hang up her apron for her family. Wendy Schaal's ('the burbs) Vicki is our ingenue – the innocent country girl who won't go away for the weekend with a guy and is home by midnight once she eventually goes out for dinner and dancing. Although it's odd to have similar episodes back to back early, “Roomies” puts Vicki and sassy Cassie under the same roof for wholesome opposites, wise cracking two-handers, personality, and standing up for oneself. At times, however, Vicki's dunce innocence is too much like Gail Edwards' (Full House) habitually late wannabe actress Dot Higgins. Though best friends, Dot often doesn't notice something amiss with Vicki, and her aloof provides humorous side plots until a man comes between her and Vicki. Perhaps Vicki was meant to be the youthful, relatable character, but she matures by the end of the season, and her character's arc feels closed by her final appearance at the end of the season. The ladies turn to Bert Remsen (Dead Ringer) as cranky chef Mario this season for war stories and advice, but he has little else to do beyond hating food and complaining when they are overwhelmed and overbooked or everything is behind and under cooked. He takes the girls' side against Nancy, but his humor and wisdom are too few and far between, and ultimately, the friendly old man among the women is unnecessary in a series about ladies who can handle themselves. Likewise, I don't recall Paul Kreppel's (That 70's Show) piano playing Sonny Man being so obnoxious and annoying! He's not that good with the music, changing the lyrics if a line can move in on the ladies and clinging to his piano jar during a fire evacuation. It's bizarre to have bad singing for unnecessary comic relief – as if the terrible man is supposed to be what's really funny on It's A Living, not the stand up women. Sonny feigns colds, wants them to serve him tea, and bemoans how he never gets compassion from the waitresses. When Dot does appreciate his casual honestly after Sonny feels impotent over a few bad dates, he responds by returning to his would be lothario ways, and Nancy says he's just a clown in a cheap tuxedo. Ouch!
Sure the video is flat, but there's something to be said for opening credits that set the mood, and It's A Living's intro remains memorable thanks to a brassy, catchy jingle and a shiny elevator capturing the classy fun. Some openings are shorter than others – perhaps new syndicated brevity – and fade in transitions may also be edited shavings. Beyond outdoor stock footage and typical, redressed domestic sets, most of the humor takes place between the restaurant, kitchen, and dressing lounge. There's a pay phone for personal calls, too, and the one-sided conversation acting is bemusing rather than phoned in like today. The off the shoulder peasant tops, frilly sweaters, overalls, wedges, wide belts, and fringe would be a choice today, too – yet I like how the fashions remind me of then. Tight jeans, barrettes, feathered hair, and choppy bangs look so much older but have a pre-millennial innocence. Despite the black and beige suave dining schemes, the clothes are bright and colorful teals, purple, and pinks, and the four different waitress uniforms range from stylish black formals to wench-like skirts and sashes with each gal in a different color. Objections to the then risque strappy dresses are a topic of conversation on It's A Living, with the ladies assuring they don't have to wear rubber bands to be svelte. Enchanting though they are, compared to outrageous acrylic nails and unrealistic perfectly coiffed stars; our women look like waitresses – refreshingly normal people alongside whose struggles, success, and humor we can enjoy. After toiling with few reruns post syndication and no video releases most likely due to song rights, It's A Living feels more obscure than it deserves. Thankfully new streaming and retro over the air television options have brought It's A Living to a fresh audience. The ladies here get on just fine without being defined by their relationship to a man to tell us who they are, and there's something special about nostalgic laughter and progressive sitcom charm for the whole family.