“Working Girl” (1990)

It’s interesting to see a TV show or movie an actor appeared in early in their career, and they’ve already latched onto the character archetype that would later make them famous. Bosom Buddies was only the third screen appearance for Tom Hanks, yet he had already perfected the charming everyman role for which audiences would quickly come to love him, with very few deviations. Winona Ryder is still playing the edgy, misunderstood rebel, nearly thirty years after Beetlejuice. Nobody plays the cute, plucky, girl next door like Sandra Bullock, who has honed that role with the precision and attention to detail of Hattori Hanzo.

Because Bullock was (and remains) so effective at playing the regular gal who is just awkward and insecure enough that neither men or other women will feel threatened by her, she seemed to be a curious choice to play the role originated by Melanie Griffith, the 80s answer to Marilyn Monroe (blonde, baby voiced, overtly sexy), in the TV adaptation of Working Girl.  Nevertheless, she was (or rather, she was second choice, when The Facts of Life‘s Nancy McKeon, an even less suitable replacement for Melanie Griffith, turned the role down), to decidedly unspectacular results.

Working Girl, a mid-season replacement that ran for just four months in 1990, might be one of the most egregious examples of a movie into sitcom spinoff so stripped of its original components that it becomes almost unrecognizable. Other than the title, the name of the main character, the theme song, and the setting, everything that made the movie a clever, timely comedy about a woman, written off as a brainless bimbo, who uses her smarts and scrappy personality to succeed in the business world, is either removed entirely, or given a lesser replacement. Lead character Tess McGill, who in the movie describes herself as having “a head for business, and a bod for sin,” is now just a spunky but humble young woman who seems to succeed at her job mostly because she’s just so darn likeable. Tess’s best friend Cynthia, played by the flawless Joan Cusack? Gone, replaced by a new character, Lana (Judy Prescott), who does little more than crack wise in an accent that makes her sound like a minor character in a episode of The Sopranos.  Tess’s sexy thug boyfriend, played by a young, astonishingly handsome Alec Baldwin? Removed in favor of the young, astonishingly irritating Anthony Tyler Quinn. Tess’s sleazy co-worker, played in a memorable early role by Kevin Spacey? Ixnayed for overly earnest go-getter George Newbern. Tess’s silver fox love interest, played by Harrison Ford? Gone entirely.

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After all that, it so little resembles the source material that all they needed to do was change the main character’s name and call the show A Lady Executive?!? and no one would have been the wiser. The episode I watched doesn’t even show Tess working until the last two minutes, focusing largely on an interminable “will they/won’t they” plot. It also manages to land two racist jokes within the first five minutes, one having to do with human trafficking, and the other involving a Japanese businessman whose only words in English are “Herro, nice to meet you,” which is pretty impressive even by 1990 standards.

The episode opens with Tess about to attend her first “fancy” office party (which takes place, as fancy office parties often do, at the office). Sal (Anthony Tyler Quinn), her friend/maybe more since high school who lives immediately upstairs from her (New York is such a small town, after all), demands that he drive her there. Sal is the kind of guy who manipulates, if not outright forces, his way into every aspect of Tess’s life, convinced that they’re meant to be together. The audience is evidently supposed to find this charming, and root for these two crazy kids to work things out.

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Sal refuses to leave the office party after dropping Tess off, disguising himself as a waiter and becoming so incensed by a co-worker complimenting Tess on her perfume that he dumps a tray of margaritas on his crotch. Tess is mortified by his behavior, but her snobby boss, Bryn (Nana Visitor), finds something attractive about this blue collar meathead, and she and Sal begin dating.

Sal’s motivation in dating Bryn is solely to make Tess jealous, while Bryn is coded as a slut who will take her action wherever she can get it, even if she behaves with Sal as if she’s Dian Fossey among the gorillas. When Sal’s plan doesn’t succeed (though it sort of does, as Tess is clearly hurt when she sees them together), he breaks up with Bryn, barges into Tess’s apartment and demands that she agree to a date with him. Tess does, then disagrees when Sal suggests that their date consist of “a picnic on my bed.” They instead kiss, after which Tess insists that it didn’t do anything for her. Naturally, after Sal leaves (parting with a hearty “You want me!”), Tess’s knees wobble and she almost falls down. Ah ha ha, see, fellas, this is why you never take no for answer!

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Only one episode of Working Girl is currently available online, and not much information about the other eleven (only eight of which were aired) can be found. However, Anthony Tyler Quinn as Sal is listed as appearing in every episode. With the exception of the cold open, he’s in nearly every frame of this particular episode. That’s too much Sal. That’s a medically inadvisable amount of Sal. The character alone, a sentient ball of “ay yo, red sauce and Frank Sinatra” cliches in acid washed jeans, is annoying enough, but even more so when he and Tess engage in that most tiresome of sitcom tropes, the platonic friends who spend years farting around as they figure out if they have feelings for each other or not. Think of how insufferable Ross and Rachel’s relationship became during the last few seasons of Friends–now think of it with a character who is, implausibly, even less likeable than Ross.

Further emphasizing how infuriatingly removed Working Girl as a TV show is from the movie, Sal clearly exists to keep Tess grounded, as she bridges the gulf between working class Staten Island and rich, glitzy Manhattan. This is emphasized when, at the company party, Sal sneeringly refers to Tess’s male co-workers as wimps and wusses (a network television friendly version of calling them faggots) and makes a disparaging remark about the office building being so fancy it has a lobby. Somehow, the audience is supposed to buy that Tess, originally written as an ambitious, tough broad who trucks ill behavior from no man, is truly meant to be with a guy who is both unfamiliar with, and threatened by, the concept of lobbies.

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Sandra Bullock is fine as Tess. She’s always fine. Sandra Bullock has made a successful career of being fine, rarely stretching herself beyond the “aw gee, guys, I just don’t know” nice girl role which won her a People’s Choice Award ten times. Nevertheless, Tess McGill isn’t supposed to be a nice girl. She isn’t supposed to spend her time away from work dithering over whether or not she really likes her asshole neighbor. She’s supposed to be making a plan for getting what she wants and successfully going about it, despite being undermined and underestimated every step of the way. Tess in the movie publicly humiliates a client for hitting on her. Tess in the TV show seems like she’d be embarrassed to ask where the copy paper is stored.

Original airdate: May 14, 1990

Watch it here

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