'The Hot L Baltimore' was originally a play by Lanford Wilson, set in a seedy residential hotel that had seen better days (the missing 'E' in the sign symbolised the hotel's deterioration) to the point where the hotel was now renting rooms to prostitutes. The play was considered racy and daring at the time, but now seems quite tame. The most notable aspect of Wilson's two-act play was that it took place in real time; the stage set (the hotel's lobby) included a prominent clock that kept track of time during the action, with the interval between the acts equalling a gap in the play's action.
In 1975, it's unlikely that anyone but Norman Lear would have dared turn this play into a sitcom. Unfortunately, he removed everything that made Wilson's play interesting, replacing it with the usual Norman Lear liberal posturing and self-congratulation. It didn't help that several of the regular roles were cast with perennial members of Norman Lear's stock company (James Cromwell, Richard Masur, Gloria LeRoy), making this sitcom look and sound a lot like every other Norman Lear sitcom.
The opening credits featured an excellent jazzy ragtime theme by Marvin Hamlisch, climaxing with a shot of the hotel's neon sign 'Hotel Baltimore' as the first E blew out, explaining the title.
April and Suzy were the prostitutes in residence; the former had an annoying tendency to refer to herself as 'this WORKING girl', in a manner implying that women in her profession are the *only* women who really work for a living. April was played by Conchata Ferrell, repeating the stage role that Wilson had tailored especially for her talents. Suzy was a Latina and an illegal alien; one episode centred on her desperate attempts to find a U.S. citizen willing to marry her so she could avoid deportation. Bill was the desk clerk-manager, played by the underrated James Cromwell. (I'm pleased that, in recent years, Cromwell has finally received the acclaim he deserves.) Mr Ainsley (Richard Masur in an atypically unsympathetic role) was the agent of the absentee landlord, always threatening to clean up the place and get a better class of guests. The other residents were elderly waitress Millie; Jackie, an enthusiastic young counterwoman at Woolworth's; angry old man Morse; and hot-head radical Bingham. George and Gordon were the two gay men who shared a room. Lear's scripts were careful to avoid the 'cissy' stereotypes but made these two characters prissy rather than swishy. In one episode, Gordon had a tantrum because George had forgotten their 'anniversary'. As usual, Norman Lear wants to have it both ways, getting humour at the expense of these gay men while congratulating himself over avoiding the most obvious pansy jokes.
As is often the case in sitcoms, this one included a perennially offstage character who is constantly mentioned but never seen: in this case it was Moose Bellotti, a very dysfunctional young man who never left his hotel room, and who was constantly nannied by his mother ... played by Charlotte Rae in her full nasal screech mode. Charlotte Rae is the single most annoying performer in the entire history of US television, narrowly beating out Alice Ghostley.
But, in this sitcom, consistently the most annoying character was Charles Bingham. I'm a great admirer of the talented actor Al Freeman Jnr, but his character in this series was all left-wing posturing and pretentiousness. In one episode, Bingham announced with great fanfare that he had written and printed a list of all the contributions made to society by the CIA. He then proceeded to hand out a blank sheet of paper. Ha bloody ha. We're meant to admire Bingham for his left-wing opinions, but I can't respect someone who devotes his energies to empty gestures like this while professing his desire to change the world. Freeman did give a splendid performance in one episode with guest star Ron O'Neal as Bingham's friend, an incurable confidence trickster.
The best episode of this brief series spotlighted the relationship between Bill and April, when he impulsively decided to take her on a date. ('I got a date with a lady!' he proclaims, handing a corsage to the prostitute.) The two of them have a very enjoyable (and G-rated) evening, harmonising on 'Down by the Old Mill Stream'. Yet afterwards, Bill couldn't bring himself to date her again. Was it because of April's profession? Or perhaps because of her notable girth? Cromwell gave a very sensitive performance, conveying that he genuinely cared for April as a person but that he was repelled by the idea of an ongoing relationship with her.
Ultimately, 'Hot L Baltimore' is unworthy of revival. Its good points were too few. The left-wing posturing of Bingham (echoed by Bill and several other characters) made this show too strident.