Saturday, July 23, 2011

Today, kiddies, we visit FRESNO the delicious CBS miniseries: Crammed with Passion...Stuffed with Lust.


A band of Spanish explorers comes upon a California valley where grapes are plentiful. "The grape is good. It will sustain us," proclaims the No. 1 conquistador, ordering the group to put down roots right there. But wait: here come two more men with a load of grapes from the next valley over. The commandant takes a taste, then spits them out with a grimace. "You call these grapes?" he cries. "They taste like Fresno!"

A few city fathers may not appreciate the etymology lesson that opens the 1986 CBS miniseries, Fresno. But Creator Barry Kemp (of TV’s Taxi and Newhart fame) could not help noticing that Fresno, the world's raisin capital, wound up last in a 1984 ranking of American cities according to quality of life. To be sure, the quality of life for the raisin-growing Kensington family has been drying up for years. The family patriarch was crushed to death 20 years ago in a dehydrator accident. Now his widow Charlotte (Carol Burnett) spends her time sipping Bloody Marys and being chauffeured around in a Chevrolet station wagon while the Rolls is being repaired.

Charlotte's eldest son Cane (Charles Grodin) tries to save the family’s business from the clutches of a rival tycoon (Dabney Coleman) by striking a shady deal with the local toxic-waste company. Meanwhile, his randy wife Talon (Teri Garr) roams the farm looking for bed mates; his younger brother Kevin (Anthony Heald) takes a vow of celibacy to protest the killing of sperm whales; an adopted sibling named Tiffany (Valerie Mahaffey) embarks on a search for her real parents; and a mysterious stranger (Gregory Harrison) shows up with his own dark secrets -- not the least of which is why he never wears a shirt.

Satiric jabs at specific soaps? Well, the California wines of Falcon Crest have puckered into raisins. The Southern accents (in California?) have migrated from Dallas. Garr's drop-dead wardrobe and a female catfight are straight out of Dynasty. And when Tiffany searches for her father at a costume party, she assembles all the men who are dressed as clowns and demands, a la Lace, "Which one of you bozos is my father?"

Fresno was an ambitious television experiment -- a comedy miniseries parody of prime time soaps. But in the 80s - a nighttime soap-opera era of evil look-alikes, characters miraculously resurrected from the dead, and whole seasons that turn out to be dreams - it’s hard to tell the parody from the real goods. In fact, Fresno seems almost oddly overqualified: it’s better plotted, acted and directed than most of the shows it satirizes.

Fresno had only two network TV airings in the United States, (the repeat screening was a shortened version - with an added laugh track!) The series was subsequently never repeated on regular networks and has oddly never been released commercially in any video format. Write your congressman.

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