Creatively, Fame is now a better program than ever before. And as Fame has left NBC's nest and learned to fly, it's also taught TV producers and executives how to effectively and lucratively produce series for a buyer other than CBS, NBC or ABC.
Fame isn't the first network program to land on its feet after cancellation (look at Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show). Nor is it the first syndicated drama series to claim a loyal following (go back 32 years to Highway Patrol, which was never shown under network sponsorship).
What Fame is, though, is the most popular dramatic series produced for first-run syndication, as well as a strong entry in the very short history of credible, high-quality, entertaining programs about high school education.
In terms of comedy, that chain begins with Mr. Peepers in the '50s, includes Room 222 in the '60s and '70s, the short-lived Making the Grade and the current Head of the Class in the '80s. In terms of drama, the chain is just as short: Mr. Novak in the '60s, The White Shadow in the '70s and '80s, and Fame in the '80s.
The White Shadow, created by the producers of NBC's St. Elsewhere, took great risks and made great strides by mirroring the annual changes of academic life. Hence, at the end of every season, students graduated (which meant that some of the show's stars were released). In one show, a student, portrayed by one of the series' most popular actors, was unexpectedly killed.
Last month on Fame, the same thing happened. Three of the show's performing-arts students were involved in a car accident; two survived. The character of Nicole, played for three years by Nia Peeples, was the unlucky victim, making Peeples the latest to leave Fame. But by no means the first.
The first was Irene Cara, who starred in the movie and sang its title song, then left to pursue fame rather than take part in an NBC series spinoff. Several of her co-stars, though, reprised and substantially enlarged their roles for TV, including Debbie Allen (Lydia Grant) and Albert Hague (Mr. Shorofsky) as teachers and Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy) and Lee Curreri (Bruno) as students.
Rounding out that initial 1982 cast were Carol Mayo Jenkins (Mrs. Sherwood), Lori Singer (Julie), Erica Gimpel (Coco), Valerie Landsburg (Doris) and Carlo Imperato (Danny). Fame was scheduled where The Cosby Show now resides - 8 p.m. Thursdays - and was the lead-off batter for what NBC correctly dubbed "the best night of television on television": Fame, Cheers, Taxi and Hill Street Blues.
Very quickly, Fame the TV show established itself as superior to Fame the movie, which was overly emotional, unbelievable and uncreative.
The series, which grew up along with MTV, was nothing if not creative. Fans of the recent "Taming of the Shrew" episode of Moonlighting would surely have been impressed by the "Fame Goes to Oz" segment on NBC's Fame, in which Doris was Dorothy, Mrs. Sherwood was the Wicked Witch of the West, and the entire program was a mini-musical homage to The Wizard of Oz.
Such inventive approaches are relatively common on Fame, which already this season has mounted an elaborate Busby Berkeley tribute, and which this Saturday presents an episode, directed by series co-star and choreographer Debbie Allen, saluting the swashbuckling style of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn.
What's most exciting about Fame, though, is its evolution. Mrs. Sherwood is gone, having quit to write novels. Leroy left, then came back as a teaching assistant, but Coco, Doris, Bruno and Julie left for good.
Of the original company, only one of the students, Lori Singer, has enjoyed subsequent success, and hers, as co-star of Footloose and of Don Johnson's Heartbeat video, has been moderate. In fact, the only breakout star to emerge
from any of the Fame casts, other than multi-talented Allen, has been Janet Jackson - who, like Allen, has a famous sibling. Allen's is Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show; Jackson's is, of course, Michael.
Jackson portrayed insecure, wholesome and friendly Cleo Hewitt on the 1984-85 season of Fame, yet garnered little attention, either from the press or from the show's producers at the time, Patricia Jones and Ronald Reiker.
"Maybe we missed the ball," says Reiker, who with Jones, his wife, is now working on a forthcoming NBC high school series starring Ed Asner, tentatively titled The Bronx Zoo.
"In a series, it's a little more difficult to give an unknown that much meat until she's proven," he said.
In the programs featuring her, Jackson was hardly dynamic. Compared to her aggressive strut in her "Nasty" video, Jackson on Fame was sleepdancing.
It's been the one weak spot of Fame all these years, actually - that the students in this supposedly state-of-the-performing-arts school are so marginally talented, or at least so poorly showcased. Except for Gene Anthony Ray as Leroy, whose dancing has been exciting and inventive since the first season, there's been no real bumper crop of Fame co-stars. Until now.
This season, there have been three students added, and all are intriguing. The one with marquee value is Carrie Hamilton, who plays the punkish free spirit Reggie. Hamilton is Carol Burnett's daughter, and carries herself with a confident comedic air. Elisa Heinsohn, as Jillian, is, it is now clear, a replacement of sorts for the just-departed Nia Peeples.
The best addition, though, is Michael Cerveris, who plays British guitar whiz Ian Watt. Cerveris' accent is fake, but his talent is real. As with so many musicians of that age, he is constantly jamming, adding to the general noise level of the show. He also has given Hague's Mr. Shorofsky a much-needed dramatic foil, filling the void created when Curreri left three years ago.
It's a good time to discover - or rediscover - Fame, because the students (like the actors playing them) are still learning about one another. It's such a good draft year that, by the looks of it, Fame will live, and fly, at least into the next decade. Given TV's volatile, competitive climate, that pretty much qualifies as forever.