Today, we look at when Florence briefly checked out from The Jeffersons before quickly checking right back in after her spinoff, Checking In, promptly flopped.
This is Back Door Blues, a feature about “backdoor pilots.” Backdoor pilots are episodes of regular TV series that are intended to also work as pilots for a new series. Sometimes these pilots get picked up, but a lot of times they did not get picked up. I’ll spotlight examples of both successful and failed backdoor pilots.
December is a month of Back Door Blues!
CONCEPT: Checking In – A starring vehicle for Marla Gibbs’ Florence, as she becomes the executive housekeeper of a high end hotel in Manhattan
SERIES IT AIRED ON The Jeffersons
The tale of Marla Gibbs’ failed spinoff, Checking In, is interesting for two reasons. First off, it was the first time that a spinoff from a Norman Lear show flopped. Lear had had some failed shows by this time, of course, but all of the spinoff shows were successes up to this point, with the All in the Family spinoffs, Maude and The Jeffersons both being hits, and the Maude spinoff, Good Times, also being a hit (“spinoff” is a stretch for Good Times, as it was more a case of a concept existing, and then using an established character to fit into the predetermined concept, rather than Esther Rolle’s Florida Evans being spun off and a show being built around her). Archie Bunker’s Place was more of a sequel series than a spinoff, but if you count that, then that’s another one that did well. So when it came time to have Marla Gibbs be spun off of The Jeffersons, everyone assumed that it would work at the time.
Everyone, that is, except for Marla Gibbs, which leads to the second interesting thing about the show. Gibbs was approached about a spinoff in Season 5 of the show, with the producers feeling that the show was starting to wind down. Gibbs refused the attempt (as she joked, she’d rather be #9 on a hit than #1 on a flop), and she believed the original show still had legs, and sure enough, ratings went back up in Season 6.
Finally, though, she agreed to be spun out of the show in the Season 7 finale, “Florence’s New Job,” where George is working on trying to get the dry cleaning contract from a big Manhattan hotel, but the owner (played by the great John Anderson) instead wants to hire Florence as his executive housekeeper. Part of her job includes handing out the hotel’s cleaning contracts, so George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) was in the weird position of wanting something GOOD to happen for Florence, as her new job could benefit him, as well.
So the rest of the two-part episode shows Florence adjusting to her new job, and her annoying boss, played by Larry Linville (a few years removed from his departure from M*A*S*H), her assistant, played by Liz Torres, and the hotel’s inept detective, played by Patrick Collins. She notably has to fire a maid soon after she starts, which is a big deal for someone who has been a maid herself for so long like Florence.
DID THE PILOT GO TO SERIES? Yep. Again, no Lear spinoff had failed at this point, so of course this one was picked up. Heck, The Jeffersons even ended early in Season 7 to give Checking In a chance to start during the 1980-81 season rather than waiting for the start of the 1981-82 season! However, the writer’s strike of 1981 meant that only four episodes were produced before the show debuted (The Jeffersons ended in March 1981, then Checking In aired throughout April 1981)…
It flopped in the ratings and was quickly canceled (had they filmed more episodes, I bet they would have aired them, and perhaps that would have made a difference, or perhaps not), but Gibbs had cleverly worked out a deal where she was allowed to return to The Jeffersons if her new job failed (and since Checking In was canceled so quickly, they couldn’t screw her over like Three’s Company did with Norman Fell, who made a similar arrangement when The Ropers got their own show, but he STILL got screwed out of returning to the original hit show). Not only that, but they would have to pay her for any episode of The Jeffersons that she missed after her show ended while they came up with a way to bring her back (so she had four episodes of her show. At that point, they had to start paying her as a cast member of The Jeffersons whether she was on the show or not, giving them an incentive to write her back into the show as soon as possible. Thus, the “clock” started tolling with the fifth episode of The Jeffersons Season 8. She was back in the sixth episode.
Lear would have a SECOND spinoff disappointment the following year with Sally Struthers’ Gloria being a nonstarter.
SHOULD IT HAVE? Gibbs is outstanding, but probably not. There wasn’t enough “there” there. Gibbs rightly pointed out that the problem was that the owner of the hotel specifically hired Florence, so Linville’s character didn’t really have the power to fire her, so there was a lack of tension between the two that existed with Florence and George Jefferson. The first “official” episode of the series also involved Florence proving that a room in the hotel isn’t haunted by sleeping in there over night. How is THAT the plot of your FIRST episode on your own?!
Okay, that’s it for this installment of Back Door Blues! I KNOW the rest of you have suggestions for other interesting backdoor pilots, so drop me a line at email@example.com (don’t suggest in the comments, as this way, it’ll be a surprise!).