The Innovative "United States" TV Show Failed in America

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

On March 22, 1980, NBC debuted something very daring.

It was a unique new show called, United States, which was developed by Larry Gelbart, who co-created the M*A*S*H television series (which was based on the 1972 feature film).

States starred Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver as Richard and Libby Chapin, a married couple with two sons. Thus, the title: the united states...of marriage.

So far, sounds like any other regular TV show, drama, or comedy, with a too-cute title, right?

Well, not really.

United was videotaped with no laugh track, no theme music, and no one was really sure if it was comedy or drama. The term, dramedy, had not yet been invented; Buffalo Bill and The Wonder Years were still little ways into the future. And at least those shows were filmed-half hours (as were earlier 30-minute programs like That Girl and Gelbart's previously-mentioned M*A*S*H).

It didn't help its case, of course, that United States was broadcast from 10:30 to 11:00 PM.

Now, everyone knows that the 10 to 11 PM time slot is for dramas, variety specials, or at least documentaries. But a half-hour show that is beyond description or definition; one that no one really can pigeonhole in the first place?

Not so much.

To top it all off, United States aired in the second half-hour of the hour, instead of at least the first.

What was up with that?

Nobody knew - and nobody wanted to know, as United States swiftly left the airwaves after only a few episodes.

That's sad, because anything different or innovative that makes it to television, usually has the potential to be a hit (i.e. All In The Family, Kung Fu, Life Goes On, 24, to name just a few ground-breakers).

Ultimately, States was simply not given a fair shake. Someone at the network probably looked at it and said, "What the heck is this? I don't understand it, and no one else is going to either. So let's bury it at 10:30 PM on Tuesday nights."

So much for thinking out of the box.

Personally? I liked the show. In fact, I remember being somewhat excited about it. And yes, that is most likely because I have always loved television. Though I should probably state that, I have always been obsessed with television. While my college chums were taken in a basketball game or a roll in the hay, I was enthralled with this new quirky series called United States - a program that ultimately united no one else at home, my place or otherwise.

At the same time, maybe that was the problem? Maybe such an innovative idea was and should be best enjoyed outside of the home, as in a movie theatre?

Yeah - that's the box-office ticket. Maybe one day, the world will be ready for a feature film version of United States? Or maybe, as innovative as television has become all these decades later since United States debuted; maybe the small screen is ready for a reboot of United States?

In either case, would it be produced on full-blown video, with the old fashioned-film style, or in a digital format?

The innovative possibilities are endless.

Thank you for reading.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, writes for the Television Academy and Emmys.com, and is the host of THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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