The first feature-length narrative written by Mary Tyler Moore Show guy James L. Brooks—who later conquered the big screen with Terms of Endearment (1983) and other films—the TV movie Thursday’s Game is a funny, insightful, and warm study of an everyman in crisis. Gene Wilder, operating at the height of his powers, plays Harry Evers, the producer of a low-rated daytime TV quiz show based in New York. For the past four years, Harry and his pal, clothier Marvin Ellison (Bob Newhart), have been part of a casual weekly poker game with several friends.
One night, despite worries that his job is in danger, Harry agrees to make the game more exciting by playing for big cash, and he wins a major haul—only to have his “friends,” except for Marvin, say they’re unwilling to pay their debts. A fistfight ensues, which is an amusing spectacle because Newhart and Wilder look ridiculous trying to trade punches with fellow working stiffs, but Harry and Marvin bond during the brawl. Thus, they decide to continue meeting every Thursday for boys’ nights. Then, when the inevitable happens and Harry gets fired, he uses the Thursday getaways to escape home pressures once his wife, Lynn (Ellen Burstyn), starts pushing him to find another job or at least sign up for unemployment, which Harry considers humiliating.
What unfolds from this relatable scenario is surprising and touching, because Harry goes nuts watching Marvin follow the opposite trajectory—Marvin achieves business success even as his marriage to Lois (Cloris Leachman) crumbles. Thursday’s Game plays to all of Brooks’ strengths, allowing the writer-producer to gently satirize careerism, male ego, marital politics, and other issues. Brooks clearly defines each character, even those who drift in and out of the story quickly, and his script is filled with great one-liners and memorable bits. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Harry has an infuriating showdown with his agent (Rob Reiner), who reveals he didn’t actually know he was Harry’s agent during the last several years—even though he collected 10 percent of Harry’s salary the whole time.
Director Robert Moore wisely stays out of Brooks’ way, letting the expert script and marvelous actors dominate. The cast is filled with people who made ’70s TV lively, including Norman Fell, Valerie Harper, and Nancy Walker in addition to those already mentioned, and each performer contributes a new, sardonic flavor to the mix. Wilder is wonderful, reeling back his tendency toward overacting but still providing a few of his signature slow-burn moments; Newhart strikes a droll balance of likeable insecurity and tentative swagger; and Burstyn grounds the film with a potent dramatic performance as a woman torn between devotion and the need for honesty. Particularly given its ignoble release—Thursday’s Game was shot in 1971 but not aired until 1974—this is a rewarding comedy that deserves to be seen by many more people.
Thursday’s Game: GROOVY