'The Happy Days of Garry Marshall': TV Review

ABC PHOTO ARCHIVES
Funny, respectful and manipulative in a way Garry Marshall would have appreciated.
5/12/2020

ABC pays tribute to the late creator of 'Happy Days' and 'Mork & Mindy' with a star-studded special featuring the likes of Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, Anne Hathaway and Julia Roberts.

Late in ABC's two-hour tribute The Happy Days of Garry Marshall, the special's cavalcade of stars is recalling the late TV and film legend's 2016 death in emotionally exacting detail. Voices crack. Tears are shed.

I'm not going to pretend that I didn't get just a bit sniffly myself, though I pondered whether or not this was all a bit too shamelessly manipulative. I thought about it for maybe two seconds before realizing that director John Scheinfeld had actually crafted a perfect celebration of the man behind Mork & Mindy, Beaches and Pretty Woman.

Garry Marshall wasn't an artist of subtle tones. As he and his myriad collaborators emphasize throughout The Happy Days of Garry Marshall, he was a populist with an instinct for art that made audiences laugh, experience warm fuzzies and, ideally, perhaps even cry. Never mind if the resulting TV shows and movies didn't win Emmys or Oscars.

I don't know from awards here, but The Happy Days of Garry Marshall absolutely made me laugh, caused my heart to swell and, even if it didn't wring full-on tears from me, it generated a surge of emotion in the end. For all the places it could have offered more depth or detail, it did those things instead, and I'm sure Marshall would have approved.

The thing you come away from The Happy Days of Garry Marshall feeling, with the most certainty, is that people loved working with him. You probably already suspected as much from the loose, spirited joy of his early TV hits and even from the star-glutted excesses of the holiday-themed trilogy that capped his career.

What's instantly recognizable here is how packed with reverential testimonials this tribute is and, not just that, how appropriately sincere talking heads like Anne Hathaway and Julia Roberts and Richard Gere and Julie Andrews are. These are people who could have politely passed on doing a broadcast TV documentary, or who could have sat down for five minutes, offered bloodless platitudes and called it a day. Instead, you see the debt that these A-listers feel toward Marshall, but also the respect and adoration they feel, the responsibility to tell vivid stories, to relay favorite in-jokes, to point at the performance beats that never would have been there under other circumstances.

To some degree, Scheinfeld is willing to let the star status guide the documentary a little. The Happy Days of Garry Marshall spends an appropriately long time on Pretty Woman, complete with Jeffrey Katzenberg explaining how he took a dark script and decided that what it needed was that Garry Marshall touch. Maybe Runaway Bride wasn't quite as worthy of the attention it receives here, but Roberts and Gere were already seated and talking. The same is true of The Princess Diaries and then Valentine's Day, what with Hathaway's presence.

The early years of Marshall's TV career are still wonderfully represented, with Ron Howard and especially Henry Winkler leading recollections about Happy Days; David Lander and Michael McKean (plus Cindy Williams) telling great stories about Laverne & Shirley; and Pam Dawber admirably paying dual tribute to Marshall and the late Robin Williams in discussing the hold-on-for-dear-life-unpredictable production on Mork & Mindy. There are outtakes, footage from original pilots and all manner of efforts to explain why these classic sitcoms worked as well as they did and to situate them within a broader '70s context.

As Marshall puts it, "I never wanted to change the world. I wanted to entertain the world."

There are gaps. To my mind, The Flamingo Kid was Marshall's best film and I'm not sure it's even acknowledged here, though I don't know if that's because of a lack of interest on Scheinfeld's part, a lack of participation from the movie's surviving cast or a perceived lack of star power in a talking-head segment from somebody like Janet Jones or Fisher Stevens. Overboard, a movie that I don't like but that certainly has devoted fans, is mentioned only in terms of when Goldie Hawn's daughter Kate Hudson first met Marshall before later teaming with him on Raising Helen.

Then there are a few participants who sent me actively scurrying to IMDb to find the connections. I definitely knew that Marshall was a consultant on Fox's short-lived Grandfathered, but I didn't remember that factoid until John Stamos popped up here. I definitely didn't remember that Marshall was a guest star on ABC's Brothers & Sisters, so I assumed that Rob Lowe must have been in the ensemble of one of the holiday movies (he was not). Cary Elwes was in both New Year's Eve and Georgia Rule. Who knew? Some better effort could have been put into contextualizing some of these outlying cameos.

Those head-scratching moments didn't lose me, though. I loved the stories of Marshall's many allergies, his refusal to take left-turns when driving, his marriage of 52 years. Would ABC have even been airing this special now were it not for the challenges of finding original programming in this age of quarantine? I don't know, but as with the network's Norman Lear restagings, it's another example of the network smartly celebrating its own TV past and the artists who shaped that legacy.

Premieres: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)