Fresno (1986)

Ah, “Frenso.”  What the hell do we do with “Fresno?”  It’s definitely a miniseries, on the longer side no less (“Holocaust” is only an hour longer and that takes place over nearly a decade). It definitely has a slumming cast (everyone in it is slumming by virtue of showing up, but there are legends here who should know better), it leans towards the romance side of the miniseries genre, or more so than it does history or adventure.  “Fresno” is a saga that takes place among the great raisin-growing Kensington and Kane families of Fres…wait, raisins?  Not oil?  Not wine?  Not even figs?  Raisins!

And thus, the problem, or part one of the problem.  “Fresno” ranks as THE ONLY miniseries created as an intentional comedy.  It’s unique in that way, but the second part of the problem is that it’s consistently un-funny.  With Carol Burnett at the helm, it should be so much better, but instead, desperate writers keep stuffing in her schtick so that at least a few minutes are bound to work here and there.  Okay, there is fun to be had here with maybe a dozen good lines, character names, a station wagon and a perfectly white t-shirt, but not nearly enough.

Ostensibly, “Fresno” was created to spoof “Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest,” “Knots Landing” and even some of the less successful prime-time soap operas (although some of the character names are spoofs of daytime soaps) .  Rich people manipulating each other, but willing to die to keep their business going (that applied for the oil of “Dynasty,” the oil of “Dallas” and the wine of “Falcon Crest,” but I’m honestly not sure what anyone did for a living on “Knots Landing).  It completely forgets to spoof the miniseries format, which is lazy and bizarre, instead sticking just to soaps, which can’t hold anyone’s attention for this much time.  “Fresno,” apparently, was only shown once on American TV, proving that comedy does have a very short shelf life and also that the shelf life is even shorter when the comedy is bad.  It will wither as quickly as, well, as raisins on the vine.

In an early episode of “Falcon Crest,” the grande dame of evil magnates Angela Channing (Jane Wyman) tells her grand-daughter-in-law that if she didn’t sign over rights to her dead father’s vineyard, she would “be the raisin queen of the Tuscany Valley.”  Perhaps that was the inspiration for “Fresno.”  If only anything else here were as clever as that stinging line…

In 1581, Spanish Conquistadors are in Northern California and have found grapes, “the fruit of life,” to the excitement, but there’s a problem.  “They taste like fresno!” the leader says, spitting them out.  Paging Mel Brooks.

I will admit that the opening credits are amusing, because they nail the opening credits of the great 80s soaps.  Huge cameras swooping around for miles, a wildly orchestrated score, three-way split-screen pictures of the actors.  And of course an aerial view of the show’s central mansion. 

Raisin baron Charles Grodin reminds his foreman Luis Avalos that the survival of his empire depends on getting a particularly shipment of raisins to Sacramento.  Who can’t sympathize with that?  Sacramento without raisin?  What would be the point of ever going?  Plus, with this shipment, “were not just making raisins, we’re making history!”  Trouble hits Luis immediately when his truck is stopped by rival raisin workers.  They have heard about his boss’ new raisins, that “taste like crunchy whole wheat,” and they throw the raisins to the ground (sorry, Sacramento). 

As they are trashing the truck, out of the mist and dirt comes Gregory Harrison (as Torch), wearing skin-tight jeans and a shirt thrown over his shoulder.  “Problem?” he asks.  “No problem,” says the head bad guy.  “I have a problem,” says Luis, a knife held to his throat.  Just then rival raisin giant Dabney Coleman shows up in his big car, let’s his boys off the hook and has his driver back the car up over the raisins about 15 times.  Gregory doesn’t understand what is so special about these few raisins.  “They are bran raisins…the cereal is already inside them,” Luis explains.  If you aren’t laughing at anything yet, don’t worry, nothing has been funny.  The jokes go by, older than when Plautus first used them and the actors pause after every one, as if hearing imaginary laughs, thus killing the momentum over and over. 

Naturally, the First Family of Fresno lives in a big mansion with a huge gate and a huge drive populated by huge trees (just like Southfork or Falcon Crest, natch).  The family is on hard times, having to dine at the kitchen table.  There is matriarch Carol Burnett (who is Southern for no particular reason), Charles’ wife Teri Garr (as Talon), and siblings Valerie Mahaffey, managing to mention always that she’s adopted, to great eye rolls from Carol, and nerdy Anthony Heald.  Not a bright bunch, this family.  Carol wonders if they can “do the same thing with toast” as they did to the bran raisins.  “You mean put a whole piece of toast in a raisin?” Teri snaps?  The stuffed raisin jokes are already old and it’s only been 10 minutes.  Charles goes through the sad state of family affairs, but Valerie cuts him off.  “Do we always have to talk about who is on top of who?  It’s so unpleasant,” she whines.  Brother Anthony has a topic: “I have decided to become celibate for two years to protest the killing of sperm whales.”  Carol Burnett has to push hard with lousy material, but her “that’s nice” to him is pretty damn funny. 

In the foyer (and we know it’s a foyer because the title cards tell us), Teri and Valerie get their first look at shirtless Gregory.  “Torch?  You want to tell me where that came from or should I just let my imagination run wild?” Terri asks sucking on a celery stalk from her Bloody Mary.  Carol hires him on the spot and then Charles launches into a tirade that is apparently meant for the folks in the balcony two counties away when he finds out the bran raisins have been destroyed. 

Carol shows Gregory around the estate.  He asks where her husband is.  “Dead…I assumed you knew,” Carol says, proving her comedic timing is still intact, stretching that line as far as it can be stretched.  The rest of her family history has to be delivered as the two fight their way through cobwebs because Charlotte notes, “I haven’t kept up with the place as much as I should have.”  Echoing the Digger Barnes-Miss Ellie-Jock Ewing triangle, Carol explains that her late husband and Dabney used to be best friends in business together, but had a falling out and then her husband had his fatal “accident.”  A flashback shows us television’s first, and, as far as I know, only, death by raisins.  Gregory indulges in a bit of spoof that actually is halfway amusing.  He asks her why she assumed it was an accident, considering her husband got a late-night phone call from a stranger, went to the dehydration facility and believed he wasn’t being set up.  It used to happen all the time in primetime soaps.  Things would happen on dark stormy nights, brakes would fail, children would appear, but no one questioned anything!

A running joke is that Luis is constantly asking for a meager raise (Gregory was hired instantly, but Luis is always turned down).  He stops Carol to tell her the money he wants “is for my family, for food and clothing.”  “I’ve seen what you eat and what you children wear, surely they can’t cost that much…the world is made of haves and have nots.  I have, you have not,” Carol says.  “So do I have the raise?  “No, you have not.”  “Who’s on First” this definitely ain’t!

Wanna-be country singer Teresa Ganzel, the maid who dusts wearing big white boots, is grabbed from behind by hubby Bill Paxton (she’s Bobbi Jo Bobb and he’s Billy Joe Bobb, so aren’t you glad I’m actors’ names?).  “What are you doing here?  You know they don’t allow no one inside who’s perspiring,” she says in that nasal voice that was a staple in early 80s movies.  This happens right outside Charles’ office, where he’s been meeting with Jeffrey Jones.  Charles has asked Jeffrey to pollute a man-made lake, for cash, of course, that is between his property and Dabney’s.  Charles thinks Teresa, who harbors a lifelong passion to be a country singer, has heard the conversation, so he offers to put her on a singing show broadcast from…and you sitting down?…one of the capitals of song…BAKERSFIELD!  Except she’s too dumb to realize what is going on and hasn’t heard anything.  She kisses Charles as thanks and of course wifey Teri, perpetually with a drink in her hand, is not happy to see that. 

Like the family meals on “Dallas,” everyone dresses for dinner, but unlike “Dallas,” they have to crowd around the table to do it.  One by one, each child gets upset over something and leaves (Charles throws the first of MANY drinks in Teri’s face as she snaps, “it’s okay, I was about to take a sip anyway”).  “I wish just once I could finish a meal with just one of my children still at the table,” Carol huffs, as poor Valerie almost chokes in sorrow. 

Valerie is struggling getting a saddle on a horse when Gregory, who has taken a shine to her, walks over (t-shirt in pocket now so both hands are free).  “Why don’t you ride bareback?” he asks.  “You mean the horse, right?” she replies in an awfully racy joke for this movie. 

The polluted lake is actually on Louise Latham’s property and Dabney wants to buy it from her to cut off his rivals’ water supply.  Louise lives in a trailer with ticking clocks.  Ticking clocks.  Wow, that’s funny.  No, no it’s not.  Louise refuses to sell and Dabney angrily tells her, “I’m coming back again.  And again.  And again.  And each time it will be more unpleasant because each time I will offer you more money!” he says while the clocks chime “cuckoo.”

One of the funnier ongoing jokes is that chauffeur Charles Keating (a refugee from daytime soaps) is constantly telling the family that the Rolls Royce is not working.  This forces them to use a beat up old station wagon.  Watching Carol Burnett, in a big Alexis Colby hat, being helped into the way back seat with her knowledge of physical comedy is what this miniseries should have more of. 

Carol and Charles have to go to Dabney’s office to plan a masquerade ball, the highlight of the raisin community’s social season (what’s the lowlight?), which Carol has always hosted, no matter her financial status, because her late husband insisted.  Dabney wants the ball at his home, and Carol is furious.  “That was his pride and joy.”  Someone says, “I thought roses were his pride and joy.”  “Roses and balls.  It’s impossible to tell which he prized more,” she responds with an amazingly straight face.  Dabney still argues.  “You didn’t serve food last year.”  “We did so,” Charles pipes in.”  “Crackers and canned cheese.”  “We had raisin mousse jubilee and you know it,” Carol hisses.  A vote sends the ball to Dabney’s place. 

With everyone having left the room, Dabney and Carol can duke it out.  He makes yet another offer on her business and she refuses.  It all comes around to the competition between Dabney and her late husband.  “You aren’t half the man he was,” she notes.  “He’s dead.  Right now I’m double the man he is,” he replies (in an honest-to-goodness funny line).  Drink #2 is thrown in Dabney’s face. 

Poor Bill is all upset that Teresa is off in Bakersfield (I think he’s upset that she’s off, he can’t be jealous of Bakersfield) and slinks home to his trailer, where Teri is lounging with a drink.  Running the competition in a bar in Bakersfield is Jerry Van Dyke, who gives a painful speech to all the hopefuls before Teresa wants to tune her guitar.  “Tune her guitar?  I thought you said this was an amateur contest,” another hopeful asks Jerry.  Terri wants to sleep with Bill as revenge on their perhaps wayward spouses, and Bill is incensed.  In a line that has him talking about “looking smart because sometimes I’m shirtless and the sweat glistens off my chest,” he insults Teri, who throws drink #3 and responds with #4, which is actually a spraying beer can. 

Valerie catches Gregory in the dehydration plant, where he says he’s investigating “how 37 tons of raisins could fall on someone.”  “How could they?” she blankly asks.  “They couldn’t, that’s the problem.”  Meanwhile, nature-loving Anthony discovers all of the fish in the lake are dead (and tries to give mouth-to-mouth to one of them in an incredibly lame bit). 

Bill listens to the radio show on which Teresa will be singing.  She thanks Charles for getting her there, which Bill of course misinterprets.  “Just because you’re a migrant worker, don’t mean we got a migrant love” is the first line of a song that doesn’t get any better (and I’m not sure I even understand that line).  Fortunately, Bill shoots the radio so put us out of misery hearing the rest of the song.  Unfortunately, the bullet goes through the radio, through his trailer, into Louise’s and kills her. 

Charles informs the family of the previous night’s events.  “I’m just surprised you could sleep through it all.”  “Being married to you proves (say it along with me folks) I can sleep through anything,” Teri snarls.  “I got him the best lawyer money can buy,” Charles reassures everyone.  “Can we afford that?” Carol asks.  “It’s a public defender, the county pays for it, Mama,” he says.  Huh?  Just a tweak to Charles’ line would have been a perfect set-up for Carol’s question and his answer.  But, hey, I’m just writing about “Fresno,” not writing it.  And if it were the other way around, I wouldn’t be taking any credit. 

At the police station, Bill confesses to the crime, since it was an accident anyway, but just then in comes his lawyer, Melanie Chartoff (as Desiree DeMornay).  “What took you so long?” one of the cops asks.  “It takes me a while to get ready, OKAY?” she answers.  Uh huh.  There’s a “joke” that could have been cut without losing ground.  The charge will be second degree murder because Bill “shot that radio in anger.” 

Since Carol understands what it means to lose a spouse, she offers to go to Louise’s widower Pat Corley and use her “wiles” to get the water rights.  “The man is a slobbering imbecile.  I will have not have my mother debasing herself by coming onto a vile disgusting creature like that.”  Wait for it.  “We’ll have [Teri] do it.”  Zing!  “I’m still the head of the family…if anyone is going to get debased, it’s going to be me!” Carol insists. 

Dabney beats Carol to Pat’s trailer, where Pat says he’s just lucky to have the crime scene outline of his wife for memories, but then turns into a shrewd negotiator and wants to hear the other side’s offer and give both of them terms.  “You drive a hard bargain,” Dabney says.  “No, I drive an Impala.”  Even Dabney rolls his eyes at that one.

Anthony decides to find out what’s at the bottom of the lake, but unfortunately, he shares the scene with Luis, whose nonsense about never getting a raise was old the second time we heard it.  Anthony discovers the barrels of toxic waste at the lake bottom (talk about the 80s!).  He tells Charles what he’s found, issuing all kinds of threats to the person who did it and dropping a dead fish on the table, which Charles throws over his shoulder into the pool (no, not to worry, Charlene Tilton in her heels is not at the pool, no harm done).  Charles immediately calls Jeffrey to warn him. 

Gregory feels “drawn to” Valerie.  “I know you’re an orphan.  I’m not an orphan myself, but I only had one parent.  I never knew my father,” he explains to Valerie’s wide-eyed stare.  He plants the notion of finding her real parents into her head, somehow for the first time in her life. 

The only thing amusing about Jeffrey Jones’ toxic waste plant is that parking spots are marked on decaying oozing waste drums.  Anthony is there to sputter and stammer and threaten, so Jeffrey slips into the bathroom and orders a hit on the annoying do-gooder.  The hitmen (one is Michael Richards pre-“Seinfeld”) plant a bomb in Anthony’s truck…except, and you predicted this from the moment they parked next to each other in matching cars, it’s Jeffrey’s truck that blows up.  Uh huh.  I know, not at all funny.  Not even a chortle, let alone a mild giggle. 

Even more dire is the scene with Bill in prison.  Valerie visits him with a gigantic raisin pudding.  The guard checks it with his hands as a couple takes advantage of his turned back to sneak an arsenal of guns through.  Teresa, who has stolen a bus to get back to Fresno, arrives at the prison, but Bill is upset all over again because Charles’ name comes up.  He stalks away after yelling at her.  “Something’s

Better is when Teri tarts it up and goes to seduce Gregory.  She drops her top and Gregory says, “fellas, will you excuse us,” revealing a gaggle of massive shirtless men playing pool.  “I only did it because I don’t like to have company when I let a lady down,” he explains.  She actually thanks him.  “For what?”  “For saying something to me no other man ever has.  You know, I’ve been called a lot of things in my time: tease, trick, trollop, come-on, a tramp, vixen, harlot, slut, but you are the first man who has ever called me a lady” she says and departs with her top slung over her shoulder a la Gregory. 

It’s time for Carol’s big seduction scene.  We first see her draped head to toe in a long fur coat with hood and she calls for the car.  Only the station wagon is available, though she elects to sit in the front seat this time.  I couldn’t tell you what the script said, but my guess is Carol Burnett knew better than to make physical comedy lightning strike twice.  No one else seems to have that problem anywhere in “Fresno.”  After some amusing pleasantries where Carol is grossed out by Pat over and over, she finally drops the coat to reveal a ravishing Bob Mackie (who better to spoof Nolan Miller than the man who did it all first, though jokingly?) evening dress, with a swooping wig and lots of jewels.  Pat is excited until Dabney’s teenage niece comes out of the trailer bathroom, infuriating Carol.  In the middle of her wacky monologue, she says that her son was against her coming and wanted to send his wife, to which Pat says, “and she is welcome to come,” but Carol stalks out in a rage.  The scene so missed the mark by not giving Carol nearly enough to play with.

In the middle of an argument between Charles and Teri (where he throws drink #5 in….oh, it’s a trick, the glass is empty!), Carol barges in full of fire, explaining what happened.  “He sent his niece, you sent your mother,” Teri says dryly.  “Maybe it’s time to face it.  I don’t think we’re gonna win,” Carol cries.  “I’ll go to my grave before I see this family ruined!” Charles declares.  “You’ll go to your grave,” Teri deadpans again. 

I would say skip the scene where Luis slips into Carol’s bedroom with a gun (which isn’t loaded) to force a raise out of her, but it has a decent punch line.  Carol agrees not to involve the police.  “It was your greed that got you into this and it’s your greed that must be punished.  Tomorrow you will go back to work for half of what you were making before,” she says, full of gusto. 

Dinner that night is sparsely attended (following the ratings slip, no doubt).  Teresa decides to devote all of her time to freeing Bill and will perform “wherever there is a stage, klieg lights and an audience.”  Charles answers the phone when the man he hired to kill Anthony calls, handing the phone to Anthony so we can hear the Peter Lorre-esque voice tell him to come to the dehydrator for the umpteenth time, but Anthony refuses, not after the bomb scare!  “Death threat or not, I think the polite thing to do is to go out and see what the man wants,” Charles erupts and then goes to the dehydrator “to tell whoever is out there that [Anthony] is not coming!”  The hit man is awfully dim, giving Charles yet another excruciating scene to overact, pretty much all by himself, and then he uses a fake voice to tip off the police that Anthony is guilty of “environmental insanity” and was part of a conspiracy to kill Louise. 

Charles hightails it over to Pat to make a deal, but Pat says Dabney is coming at noon with $250,000.  “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?  Why, it’s worth double that, I’ll give you $300,000,” Charles says, never losing his fake smile.  Pat agrees.

As for Mama Carol, she’s off to prison so save her baby.  “It’s just like in the movies,” she says to the prison guard.  “Except here the creeps and social deviants are for real,” the guard unhelpfully tells her.  This visit to prison gives Carol Burnett something meatier to sink her teeth into (albeit briefly), namely a Scarlett O’Hara speech, but with a twist.  “I know you didn’t do anything wrong and I will not allow a Kensington to be treated like this and if this town thinks it can keep you here then it’s wrong.  Maybe it’s time someone realized that without the Kensingtons, Fresno would be nothing.  You see, Kensingtons are fighters.  And more than that, the Kensingtons are spenders!  And if I have to spend every last nickel we’ve got, I will!  As God is my witness, no Kensington will ever have to spend a single night in this hell hole of incarceration!” she rips out, building and building until turning her head to the guard, “Guard how much is the bail?”  Upon hearing the number, there is a pause, and all we see is the back of Carol’s hat.  She turns back to Anthony with amazing precision.  “Are they treating you all right, son?”  Now THAT is vintage Carol Burnett!  Just reading this, you can see in your mind how she would play it.  It ends on another high note.  “You are my son, I’ll sell my hats if I have to!”

A not-so-funny comedy of errors occurs at the bank.  Charles rushes in with the $300,000 that Jeffrey gave him, pushing ahead of everyone in the line.  “The entire Kensington fortune is on the line!” he begs and the customers in line agree.  Eh, okay, that one works a little.  As soon as he leaves, Dabney comes in to request $250,000 and on his way out, he runs into Carol, who begs the bank for money, offering as collateral everything from her jewels to those “galloping gobs of little boxes of raisins,” but the bank managers tells her Charles has just been in depositing $300,000, so it’s not a problem.

Valerie summons Gregory to lunch.  “That you for meeting me here.”  “You don’t have to thank me for that.”  “Well, I know they require a shirt,” she replies and he looks down at his covered body (though most of the buttons are undone).  She informs him that she intends to find her real parents.  “This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since yesterday afternoon!” she declares.  Gregory agrees to help, but the scene is ruined by the obnoxious presence of Peter Scolari as a rude waiter for absolutely no reason. 

In prison, Bill and Anthony put their clues together and realize Charles is behind all of their troubles.  Teresa is living up to her promise to sing until Bill is freed and she sings in an outdoor mall with the help of an organ store manager (Raleigh Bond).  At the end of the long song, a policeman shows up to bring her to the jail and escorts her bus (she’s still using the damn bus).  All along, he’s been jealous of her and Charles, though nothing has happened, so when he tells her Teri had been at his trailer, she is incensed and leaves in a huff.

It’s deal time at Pat’s trailer, where Charles and Dabney are there to battle for his water rights, but Pat calls the bank to verify Charles’ check and finds out the check will bounce.  With Charles sputtering on the phone with the bank, Louise’s lawyer shows up and says there will be a will reading at 2pm the next day.  Only Charles is excited because it’s bought him time.  Charles gets the groaner line to end the episode.  “I’ve always believed where there’s a WILL, there’s a way.”  Wow, we ended on that pun?  Can’t wait for the next installment.

Despite Jeffrey having told he he will pay no more extortion money, Charles returns to him for another $300,000.  “I just gave you $300,000 an hour ago!”  “My mother spent it,” Charles replies.  “She used it to get my brother out of jail.”  “I gave you that money to keep him in jail!”  Jeffrey orders his hitmen to take Charles “to the high country” as “he’s about to commit suicide.” 

At the “Fresno Home for Poor Orphan Children,” Valerie and a returned-to-shirtless Gregory hope to find out who her real parents are.  There is no record of Valerie’s adoption.  “Is it possible you’ve lost the records?”  “Anything is possible.  We haven’t lost a record in 81 years, but it makes sense we would have lost yours,” the snarky woman tells them.  Gregory says maybe the hospital will have a record of Valerie’s birth.  “If not, be sure to ask if they lost it.  They’ll love that,” the matron shouts after them.

In desperation, Luis goes to Dabney for a job.  “I’ll pay you twice what they are paying you, if you work as a spy,” Dabney tells him (and for those of you doing the math, that would be the original salary because Carol had cut it in half a while back).  He has no choice but to agree.

The hitmen discover there is no high country in Fresno and the only place high enough for a suicide (after going through a gaggle of not-high-enough ideas) is the water tower in the municipal square (why is there a water tower in the center of town?).  The scene’s only humor comes from watching Charles Grodin’s face as he listens to the two nitwits plan the execution.  For once, he doesn’t have to overact and he’s just fine.

At the hospital, Gregory and Valerie find out that a Jane Doe baby was born to a Dorothy Doe mother and the doctor who delivered her is the family doctor!

There’s a great deal of physical nonsense involving trying to throw Charles off the water tower, and coincidentally, cameras are present to cover Anthony’s release from prison.  Anthony sees Charles and rushes to help him as the hitmen yell, “hey look, someone is trying to commit suicide, let’s help him,” which is genuinely funny.  Anthony makes it to the top of the water tower in time to save his brother, only to start choking him as the reporters turn to Carol for her input on the importance of family as the two chase each other around the water tower. 

Carol is still hopping mad when she gets her boys home, demanding that they “settle their differences like civilized people, with a cocktail!”  Luis is there reading and Charles finally notices him in a dumb bit of business.  Charles’ solution to both problems (Anthony’s safety and the money for the water rights) is to put Anthony back into prison.  As they argue, Luis comes back, this time to water the plants.  Carol agrees, that Anthony going back to jail is the best solution, but what of Charles’ life?  It’s in danger too.  “I’ll just have to live by my wits.”  “Oh, honey, that really would be suicide,” Carol says.  UGH!

Dr. Tom Poston is awakened in the middle of the night by Valerie and Gregory for what he assumes is an examination brought on by “trouble” by the shirtless man, who has to wait outside.  Instead, Valerie gets the truth out of him.  “Then I must know, where can I find Dorothy Doe?”  The whole scene is infused with these infuriating rhymes.  Dr. Tom takes his time getting to the truth, finally admitting that, “your mother, my dear is” her own mother!  “You mean, Mom is Mom?”

Inspired by Teresa and Bill (who reconciled and broke up again in one scene at the prison), Teri tries to seduce Charles with memories of their early life together and a particularly snug negligee.  “You mean when I was cheating with you on my first wife?”  Outraged, Teri reaches into the closet and snags one of a zillion furs, darts out the door and almost trips over Luis, who is now not only spying, but acting as Charles’ bodyguard.  Teri rails that she wishes Charles had been killed and he throws drink #5 (this time there is liquor in the glass) at her. 

At breakfast the next morning, as soon as Charles sits down, Teresa and Bill’s son (unseen up until this point) throws drink #6 at Charles.  “Where did you learn to behave like this?” he roars.  Carol is upset, feeling the family is falling apart because the table is empty.  “What’s with you and breakfast anyway?” Charles lashes out at Carol and then turns on the kids, summing up the events of the movie so far.  “Now that we know where everyone’s Mama is, do you think we could get back to something important like saving this ranch?  Good God, you would think this is ‘Roots!'”  That line is of particular interest here as it’s the first time in the whole movie that “Fresno” remembers it’s also a miniseries and not just a plodding spoof of primetime soaps. 

Having spent the entire night on Dr. Tom’s front porch, Gregory finally gets Valerie to understand the only way she’ll know about her past is to ask Carol.  “You’ve always been honest with me,” she tells the hunky stranger.  “Yes…more or less,” he replies before a paper boy throws the morning edition at her head, though with one of the stupidest lines yet.  “What time is it?  Why didn’t you wake me?  We have to go home!” Valerie chirps. 

Teresa returns to Jerry Van Dyke’s to sing again for bail money, and he convinces her that she needs a telethon and, with one call, finds out that “all three networks and PBS” are theirs for 24 hours starting that night.  That’s a commentary on mid-80s television, a wasteland if ever there was one. 

Luis is doing well as Dabney’s spy, on the phone spilling details when Charles comes in, which leads to a maddening scene where Luis has to pretend it’s his cousin with Charles telling him to get off the phone and Dabney trying to understand the code.  Four-year-olds could have written this scene better.  Eventually, Dabney understands that Charles poisoned the water with Jeffrey and calls a press conference, where reporters aren’t sure what’s going on.  “I’m just a reporter, I don’t ask questions,” one notes.  Dabney reveals the toxic waste scheme and implicates Charles.  Dabney rushes back into his car without answering any questions and a call from Jeffrey, who proposes a solution to their mutual problem: kill Charles.  “I can live with that,” Dabney says, giving Jeffrey 48 hours to make it happen. 

When Carol sees the press conference, she goes running into Charles, asking him if she really just saw what she saw, or is she on a soap opera or losing her mind…and other inane “blathering” as Charles calls it.  He’s saved from having to explain when Valerie wants to have a serious discussion with Carol.  “Is there somewhere we can go that’s private?”  “Why don’t we go up to your room, no one ever looks in there,” Carol says.  When Valerie says they have to talk about “you and me,” listen to Carol drop her voice to say, “oh really” and it’s the great Carol Burnett for another brief moment.  As Valerie launches into the story, Carol asks, “is there anything like a bar up here?” 

Actually, Carol nails this scene because Valerie isn’t trying to hog it from her like Charles does.  “There are so many times I wanted to tell you, to unburden myself, but something always came up,” she cries.  “Like what?” “The phone would ring or there would be someone at the door.”  Here’s the story: in mourning, a man “preyed on my confusion” and “took advantage.”  Pregnant and afraid of scandal, she “went to Africa on a safari for seven months” and returned just in time to give birth.  “No one recognized you?” Valerie asks.  “I dressed down,” Carol admits.  This staple of soaps, both day and night, still doesn’t answer who the father is.  “If you have any feelings at all for the woman who bore you and took you into her own home, you will not pursue this!” Carol orders, giving Joan Van Ark and Michele Lee at the same time.  But Valerie insists on finding out.  Carol calls the father and begs to meet him at the masquerade ball that night.  She’ll be dressed as Scarlett O’Hara (she and Bob Mackie just had to pull that costume out of storage).

Gregory goes home to find Teri in his bed and delivers, bar none, the best line of the entire miniseries: “I just came to pick up a clean shirt.”  Teri tells him that she spent the night “barhopping” and came up with one conclusion, that she’s a “decent woman” who deserves an affair with a “decent man” and he’s the only one she knows.  Gregory pushes her off, saying “I think I’m in love with your sister-in-law.”  Teri figures out he’s “not just some stranger” and he says he’s not sure who he is, but “it’s possible I might be your illegitimate half-brother-in-law by your second marriage.”  Valerie walks in to find Teri sprawled out on the bed and, for no particular reason other than the laws of soap opera inevitability, they have a cat fight.  Their stunt doubles crash around the room breaking everything as Gregory, showering outside, laughs at what he thinks are “ranch hands.”  Once the furniture is done, they move on to whatever food is handy and are only broken up by Louise’s lawyer, telling them he needs the whole family at the will reading as they are benefactors.  He then has to tell Dabney the same thing. 

Thankfully, the pace is picking up, due to the movie’s sudden realization that it’s soap opera cliches that give it more zing.  In under an hour, we’ve done the surprise press conference, the revelation of a true parent, a cat fight and more money woes for Luis.  Now it’s time for another big cliche: the reading of the will.  The lawyer begins.  Pat is left all of his wife’s “earthly possessions…with the following exceptions.”  She leaves a saddle to Valerie, her buffalo head nickels to Charles and Teri in the “hopes that one their avarice will be as extinct as those animals.”  “Are these things worth anything” Teri asks?  “About $40.”  Dabney gets the Elvis clock.  Carol is left a lucky clock. Neither are excited.

What about the water rights?  Weeeeeeeeell, she didn’t actually own them (“Do I still get the $300K?  How about the Impala?” Pat asks Dabney).  She was just taking money from both raisin families for use of the water on behalf of a dummy corporation with a Swiss bank account.  “You mean some yodeler has got all our money?” Charles says feverishly. 

With that done (and done well because it was done QUICKLY), we skip to our next delightful cliche, the masquerade ball.  Every soap had one, a yearly event, usually during sweeps, when the entire cast of the soap would be together under one roof.  Secrets were spilled, old plots wrapped up and new ones started.  “Dallas” has the “Oil Barons Ball” and Falcon Crest had “Founder’s Day” (the latter was far goofier, because no one ever needed to see Susan Sullivan or David Selby dressed in 19th Century clothing–only vets Jane Wyman and Lana Turner could make that work, old hands at wearing studio costumes). 

Charles goes as the Devil, which is a one-joke outfit that has him asking the following question of his wife: “Have you seen my tail?”  “Not in years,” she sniffs.  Teri is Lady Godiva, with nothing but hair cascading down her body.  Carol’s outfit starts by hanging onto the bed post so her rather large African American maid can do up her corset, while she watches the WHIP telethon (Women with Husbands In Prison).  Hell, they are watching it in prison, where the boys cheer on Bill for being married to a babe like Teresa.  And we hear “Number One With a Bullet” again. 

Unfortunately, most of the costumes at the ball are not made by Bob Mackie, but rather someone’s mother who is only mildly handy with a needle and thread.  Jeffrey is a beekeeper and his henchmen are bees.  Gregory is in some sort of helmet and torch outfit and when he cuts in on Valerie’s Little Orphan Annie wonders how she guessed it was him (he’s shirtless, of course).  Even the man who was the mayor of Fresno at the time (so the title card tells us) is there, given a cameo asking Carol to dance.  He does better with his one line than most do with chunks of script.  When Valerie goes to the powder room, a “strange hefty” woman in a mantilla comes in to whisper “your father is a clown” and disappears.  Gregory gathers every clown (costume) at the party, where she explains her history to them.  “So, tell me, which one of you Bozos is my father!” That’s now the second time “Fresno” has referenced being a miniseries, burying “Lace” in a 1,000-year-old joke.  With that, she faints from drinking whatever was in her glass. 

Apologies.  Charles’ costume leads to TWO jokes.  He tells his friends he and his family are boycotting the party’s food since they are not hosting, and one asks if he can put aside the feud long enough to have a (want to say it along with me?) Deviled Egg.

The hitmen report to Jeffrey that they have taken care of Charles by poisoning the punch, which he happens to be drinking.  People fall all over the room.  Carol goes to the gazebo to wait for Valerie’s father, who, you knew this from the onset, is Dabney.  Dabney confesses his eternal love for her as she struggles to get away from him.  “Together we could rule Fresno!  Together we could have a raisin dynasty!” he pleads.  “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” she says until he kisses her so strongly that she can’t help but admit the truth (and with a face full of clown make-up).  Gregory and Valerie have watched the whole thing from the bushes.

The next morning, Carol and Dabney wake up in bed together happily.  “Can we put the past 20 years of blackmail, bitterness and death behind us?  Pretend they never happened?” he asks.  “I don’t see why not,” she says happily.  She won’t stay for breakfast, okay, one muffin, she says as she walks into the bathroom and comes out a half-second later in full Scarlett regalia.  As for Valerie and Gregory, they repeat their scene at Dr. Tom’s office, having stayed up all night in front of the bush.  Gregory has confession for Valerie.  He does know who his father is, told by his mother on her deathbed and that’s why he came to Fresno.  His father is Carol’s dead husband.  He wants to know who killed his father.  Valerie realizes how selfish she’s been and utters a line that truly could have come from any gooey soap scene: “Maybe it’s time I stopped thinking of myself and started thinking of US!”  The two go in for a kiss, but Valerie stops.  “Can we make love?” she asks.  “You don’t have to ask,” he says, but that’s not why she’s asking.  Aren’t they related.  He does the math for them and yes, they can make love.  They go in for the kiss again when the sprinklers go on.  Hey, let the sprinklers do their worst, they finally kiss anyway! 

Charles finds out from Charles Keating that his mother spent the night at Dabney’s.  Charles Keating appears to have been the mantilla lady.  Charles bursts into Dabney’s house to see his mother at breakfast with Dabney and she confesses her love.  Charles dives into the deep end of the overacting pool with the news, yelling so loudly even the microphones run away to hide.  “They only way you two will be together is over my dead body!” he brays dragging Carol out.  “Fine by me,” Dabney says and calls Jeffrey to remind him of his promise to kill Charles. 

Gregory goes to the only person who might know the truth about his father’s death, Charles Keating.  Charles, showing off his Shakespearean chops, launches into a monologue about that night and Gregory has to stop him.  “The weather was good, right,” he says, getting him to skip ahead.  The only detail he has to add to the story is that he saw the Rolls outside the dehydrator and it was back in the garage at the morning.  Why didn’t he say something?  “I guess I didn’t pay it proper attention, until now” and remembers that the only other person with a Rolls back then was Dabney.

After Charles rips into Carol again, it’s Valerie’s turn.  “Two days ago I was an orphan and perfectly happy and today I have two parents and I’m miserable,” she says, pouring a drink.  Carol is shocked by this.  “Now that I know who my relatives are, I might as well begin acting like them,” she chirps and downs it in one gulp.  When she throws drink #7 at Carol, the latter says, “you are a Kensington!” 

“I think I have the problem with the Rolls solved,” Charles Keating tells Charles Grodin as it explodes from the bomb the hitmen have put in there.  “Now tell me how much a mechanic would have charged for that,” he adds sourly.  When Dabney finds out Charles is not dead, he’s furious and threatens to do it himself.  Gregory, playing pool boy, overhears this admission of guilt and confronts Dabney.  The latter pulls a gun on him, but Gregory taunts him about his shaking hand enough to annoy Dabney into shooting him.  Luis discovers his body and drags him out of the room in yet another really awful bit of physical business.

There is yet one more cliche to explore: and that’s a trial.  Nothing will ever beat “Dynasty” introducing Alexis through a trial, but every soap ended up in court over and over again.  Carol, drenched in fur, tells Charles Keating to bring around the Rolls.  “The Rolls exploded, ma’am,” he tells her.  Teri, drink in hand, and Valerie are equally dressed up when Luis barges in with the news that he’s rushing to the hospital and “stopped by to see if anyone wanted to rush with me.”  Valerie of course wants to go!

When Carol tells Dabney she knows Gregory has been shot in his study, Dabney admits it, but in self-defense, and for her because he was her husband’s illegitimate child.  “He cheated?  On me?” she says with a warped face only she can manage.  “Hey, you got your son’s trial, good luck with that one” Dabney says to a still-shocked Carol. 

As we near the end, we have our first real potty joke (I was hoping to get away clean).  In the hospital, Gregory awakes and tells Valerie and Luis, “I have to go.”  “Help me find the bedpan,” Valerie tells Luis.  “No, I have to go to the trial.  I have vital information,” Gregory says through his tubes. 

There are two trials going on in the same building at the same time.  Anthony and Billy are being tried for murder, which sarcastic Melanie, who will be dumped as their lawyer as soon as the money from Teresa’s telethon is available, says “is not first degree murder, but just stupid.” 

Then there is the Water Commission’s hearing pitting Charles and Dabney against each other.  Dabney is suave, puffing on a cigar as he talks to the commission, but Charles is in trouble, because the Chairman says
“I will not have outbursts of any kind at this hearing,” and that’s the only way Charles has communicated since the movie began. 

After prosecution lawyer Dakin Matthews finishes with Pat Corley, Melanie is asked if she wants to cross-examine the witness.  “I wouldn’t have any idea what to ask your honor,” she wines.  The next witness is Charles, who is at the other trial.  Dabney thinks Charles should go to the other trial, where he will be under oath, so the Chairman moves their hearing to the other trial.  Thank goodness!  I was getting dizzy going back and forth.  Unfortunately for Charles, telling the truth at one trial does not square with the truth at the other.  Dakin nails that with his first question, asking which truth he wants to tell, the one that will implicate his brother or the one that will implicate himself.  “Maybe if I tell the truth this one time, it will make up for all those times I lied,” Charles tells the judge, with the twinkly catharsis music behind him…and then sells Anthony down the river.  Everyone pops up with an opinion, but Dabney has the only good line, and said with the utmost sincerity: “Your honor, if that man has perjured himself, I move he be given the death penalty.” 

Anthony insists that Teresa testify about the meeting she saw and though she doesn’t know what was said, it’s enough to send Jeffrey, who has continually jumped from his seat to say something confusing and then take the fifth, to do that same again, but this time he’s not only taking the fifth, but “taking a cab” and runs from the building.  Just as the judge has decided that he will listen to testimony by pointing at specific people, Gregory is wheeled in saying he knows the truth.  Dabney tries to deny it, but Gregory knows it was his Rolls there that night.  “You drove my Rolls?” Dabney explodes…at Pat!  Yes, Pat did because Dabney wouldn’t let him drive (say it together) the Impala.  Pat killed Carol’s husband on Dabney’s orders and tells the whole story.  “I know what I did was probably wrong, but I didn’t do it for hate or nothing.  I did it for a car,” he adds. 

“I rest my case,” Gregory says.  But the judge reminds him this isn’t the murder case of his father, but of Louise Latham.  So Pat confesses to that one too, because she was so obsessed with her clocks and on the night in question, he was cleaning his gun when she said, “why you stop cleaning that gun and come over here and clean my clock?  See, temptation, your honor, so I did just that,” he confesses.  Luckily, Bill shot the radio at the same time, so Pat was able to get away with it.  Pat and Dabney are taken are charged with murder, but Carol stops Dabney on the way out.  He says he killed her husband because he loved her and she says she could never love a man who killed.  “I feel like a complete fool,” he says, shocked by that revelation. 

Only one question remains: what is DDDLP, the company that owns the water rights?  It’s the old man who has been sitting in the back of the courtroom, Don Diego De La Pena (talk about slumming, he’s played by the legendary O’Neill director Jose Quintero).  He launches into a story about how he owns the land and has only been able to visit it once before, on a trip where he met many beautiful women, one of them being Louise, whom he let live there so she could collect the water rights money.  And with another woman, he left a son.  Luis’ grandmother was Rosarita Gonazles!  “That’s not exactly an uncommon name with your people,” Charles notes.  Grandfather and grandson are united.  “Wait a minute, if he owns the land, what happens to us?” Charles asks.  The judge says whatever the rightful owner wants them to do and frees Anthony and Bill. 

Luis is given all of the land.  “I will want to show your family the same kindness you have always shown to me,” Luis says.  He adds that they can stay on the land, but at twice the price.  Carol dresses down Charles with the inevitable, “from this day forward, I no longer have a son!”  Teri chimes in to say she’s leaving him.  “I can’t stand by a man who can’t stand by his brother.  I just can’t stand it,” she says, working as hard as she can to give her character one last possible moment, not that the line allows for much. 

Outside the courtroom (way too much time went into the silly antics in court without any punch line at all), Jeffrey wants to know how the hitmen plan on doing away with Charles and they guarantee that this time, they have made sure he’s a goner.  They have planted bombs in every car in the area.  We watch as they blow up one by one.  Except the station wagon, of course.  “I’ve lost all the men I love,” Carol tells Charles Keating.  “There’s still one man who has always loved you.  Loved you from afar,” he says.  “Really?  Where?” she asks, looking around.  “Here, madam,” he says and she orders him into the way back seat with her until the realize that means no one can drive the car.  “It’s not going to work, is it?” she asks glumly.  “No, madam.” 

“Thank God, tomorrow is another day,” Carol says for the last line (except another “yes, madam” from Charles Keating) and then the movie ends with Luis dancing in his fields.  Wow, after everything, we just sputter out?  Did no one even try to put an ending on “Fresno?” 

If “Fresno” was the only comedy miniseries ever made, is it also the biggest missed opportunity?  Did it kill the potential for other comedy miniseries?  No, absolutely not.  Even if it had been better, the answer is still no.  The miniseries format is not suited to comedy.  The kind of comedy being used in “Fresno” is the stuff Carol Burnett had been doing her whole career, but in front of a live audience where it could build from the laughter.  The reason that so many of the jokes fall completely flat here is that there is no one to laugh at them.  An audience can make any joke land, no matter how bad it is, through laughter.  Okay, okay, not all sitcoms are filmed live and the elementary school humor certainly suited people like Mel Brooks who did full-length films.  Well, sitcoms are less than 30 minutes and Mel Brooks was a one-of-a-kind genius, but not all of his movies were successful.  That style of comedy died in the middle of his career and his latter movies were duds because of it. 

I don’t see how “Fresno” could have possibly worked.  Shave two hours off of it and perhaps it would have been crisper, but it’s aim was to spoof primetime soaps (which were at their zenith in 1986 and should have been a very easy target) and that leads to two problems.  The first is that it takes a long time to get to all the cliches (making it miniseries length), but the second is far more important.  What no one here dealt with was the fact that primetime soap operas were already spoofs.  By the time we got around to “Who Shot J.R.?” at the onset of the 80s, the soaps took full advantage of their popularity and went haywire.  If you watch the first season of any of the big 80s soaps, you will probably be bored.  The first season always set the tone, introduced the characters and the plot lines that would run through the whole series (control of Ewing Oil, control of Falcon Crest, control of the cul-de-sac), but they were not typically outlandish yet.  It was the second season (when Joan Collins joined “Dynasty” and David Selby joined “Falcon Crest”) where the creators let loose.  By 1986, all of the big soaps had long surpassed trials and questionable parentage.  By 1986, whole seasons were dreams, there were aliens, cartels taking over the world, crazy women in wedding dresses holding people hostage in the basement.  Hell, there was even a “Dynasty” spin-off with Charlton Heston!  Supplant wooden movie star John Forsythe with even more wooden movie icon Charlton Heston and you have just gotten so self-referential that it can’t be sustained. 

Therefore, since the soaps were already grand jokes on purpose, what could a spoof add?  Touches of gentle humor?  Thanks, but no thanks.  We can watch the real thing and have a lot more fun. 

There must be SOMETHING good about “Fresno,” right?  A lot of things are good, but good doesn’t stretch over the length of a miniseries very well.  Bob Mackie’s costumes are absolutely hysterical in every scene, but, as noted above, so were Nolan Miller’s because the fashions of the 80s were pure lunacy, so Bob Mackie didn’t have to actually spoof anything; he could simply do exactly what Nolan Miller was doing.  Carol Burnett has some fantastic moments, but she’s Carol Burnett and she has fantastic moments when she sleeps.  A two-hour movie can rely on her, but not this.  With Charles Grodin battling her comedic style with his loud obnoxious one is irritating and since she’s the bigger talent, he loses.  Dabney Coleman does okay as the straight man, and there is fine support from Pat Corley, Valerie Mahaffey, Gregory Harrison and especially Teri Garr, who would be a lot better if she had any decent material.  The idea of a raisin feud is cute, but only for a TV Guide description.  As with the soaps, the commodity over which everyone argues is not really what the shows were about (after Julia left “Falcon Crest” no one took over her job as the only scientist there to make the wines), so any chance of finding humor in raisins is dead after a few minutes.  Unfortunately, this is not a cast you want to see rolling around in bed any more than we wanted to see Larry Hagman doing it, so any sex factor is definitely out of the question (which is why poor Teri Garr has nothing to do).  So, the costumes, a few jokes and Carol Burnett unfortunately do not add up to a miniseries.

The miniseries demands a different kind of grandiosity than primetime soaps.  The miniseries has to sustain itself over a longer span than soaps, which were all just an hour at a time.  The emotions and plots need to be epic even in the tinier stories.  The two television formats are really not the same.  Joan Collins certainly learned that lesson trying to play “Sins” and “Monte Carlo” as Alexis and turning them both into immediate camp by doing it.  And, if soaps and miniseries are not the same, what the hell can a spoof of soaps as a miniseries hope to accomplish?  Since 1986, I’ve been asking that question and I still don’t have an answer.

Comments?  Questions?  Email me at hpmaraka@gmail.com and we can chat or have more laughs at “Fresno.” 

Categories: Romance Miniseries

4 Comments to “Fresno (1986)”

  1. LizMoore65 27 July 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    [“Ah, “Frenso.” What the hell do we do with “Fresno?” It’s definitely a miniseries, on the longer side no less (“Holocaust” is only an hour longer and that takes place over nearly a decade).”]

    I can think of a number of miniseries that were a lot longer than “FRESNO”.

    [“We can watch the real thing and have a lot more fun. “]

    We? Do you claim to be speaking on behalf of all American television viewers? Because you’re not speaking on my behalf.

    • Bj Kirschner 9 August 2015 at 11:29 am #

      I do not claim to be speaking on behalf of a single person other than myself. This is a personal blog where I discuss personal feelings and information. Nowhere on here do I say otherwise. That is the great part about blogging. I welcome all feedback, positive or negative. If you are looking for an opinion-free site where you can find just general information, I would suggest IMDB or Wikipedia. If you want irreverent humor accompanying my theories, keep reading here. There will be a lot more of it.

  2. Richard-PA 24 May 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    Amazing the things you find on the Internet…I enjoyed Fresno when it first aired…taped it every night…and I’ve been enjoying it on YouTube again.

    Had Fresno spent more time on the characters and less on the plot, it might have done better. As it was, I especially enjoyed Valerie Mahaffey, Jeffrey Jones, and Teri Garr in this…Garr for comic desperation, Jones for his stereotypical, nasally-voiced bad guy, and Mahaffey for her deadpan.

    Thanks for the effort you put into the website – it was fun to read through the synopsis end-to-end and recall the plot points I’d missed!

    • Bj Kirschner 12 November 2016 at 1:11 pm #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes I watch Fresno and can barely crack a smile, while other times I roar. The further from that time period we get, the less pack the spoof punches and I cannot imagine anyone who didn’t live through 80s TV finding it amusing. On its own, it just is no strong enough.


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