Open Forum: Help Me Pick the Last Show(s) of the Year

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I need your help. Following coverage of The King Of Queens, Sitcom Tuesdays are preparing for eight weeks of That ’70s Show. After that, there’ll be eight more weeks left in the year, and before we circle back to cover some overlooked comedies from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, I want to utilize 2019’s remaining time to wrap up our look at ’90s/turn-of-the-century essentials. But I don’t know what to choose.

The top two contenders at this moment are Will & Grace and Becker. But I’m open to ANYTHING that either premiered in the ’90s or counted the majority of its run during that decade. So, in the comments section of this post, please tell me which show(s) you think I should spend the last eight weeks of 2019 covering — and if you would, tell me why you think our study of this era in sitcommery would be incomplete without it/them!

Now, for the sake of giving you parameters, I’ll ask that you confine your suggestions to half-hour American comedies that premiered between 1988 and 1999. And, let’s say that they had to have run at least THREE seasons… Now, don’t worry about lining up eight years exactly — anything a couple of weeks shorter or longer than eight is okay. Also, know that this isn’t a determinative poll, but the more persuasive you are in your comments, the better!

Here’s a list of possible shows (but certainly not all of them)…

  • Empty Nest
  • Roseanne 
  • Coach
  • Evening Shade
  • Home Improvement
  • The Nanny
  • Ellen
  • Cybill
  • Caroline In The City
  • 3rd Rock From The Sun
  • Cosby
  • Spin City
  • Dharma & Greg
  • Sex And The City
  • Will & Grace
  • Becker
  • Norm

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Queens!

The Ten Best THE KING OF QUEENS Episodes of Season Six

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing coverage on The King Of Queens (1998-2007), which, I’m happy to report, has been released in full on DVD!

The King Of Queens stars KEVIN JAMES as Doug Heffernan, LEAH REMINI as Carrie Heffernan, and Jerry Stiller as ARTHUR SPOONER.

It’s unfortunate that Six has to follow what we’ve already defined as The King Of Queens’ two-season peak. Although this is another fine year, the simple fact that it isn’t as excellent as its predecessors — mainly because the episodic returns say so — is enough to make the whole collection seem a disappointment. Well, I’m here to caution against that perspective, for while Six is a comedown in quality — and a notable one, because there are fewer classics — it still features a handful of great episodes. In fact, I’d even urge you to keep in mind something mentioned several weeks ago: if you want to be more generous than I and give Queens a three-season peak instead of a two-season one, then lumping Six with Four and Five is equally as valid as pairing them with Three, and in this case, it may even be MORE valid, since there are no major changes in the show’s creative personnel. That is, Six springs from the same basic creative well as the peak years, and this gives Six an aesthetic that makes it feel like the golden era — with similar comedic sensibilities. Now, if you’ll recall, my main criticism of Three, and why I couldn’t consider it part of the series’ apex, is that it was overly cautious with its characters; it knew how they best functioned, but refused to accelerate the use of their flaws in comedic story that fulfilled the show’s growing laugh quotient while also answering the question at the heart of its dramatic thesis. Ironically, Six gives me pause for a similar cause: it knows how the characters best function, but for a few different reasons, including what we’ve been monitoring over the past few weeks — the series’ growing prioritization of the comedic idea over the central couple’s relationship, which has led to a comedic broadening that, unlike with Five, is starting to come at the expense of the characters — doesn’t use Doug/Carrie as often to fulfill the show’s growing laugh quotient or answer the question at the heart of its dramatic thesis. In other words, it’s all about character (or not, as far as Six is concerned).

The most obvious issue is mentioned above: the series’ increasing fixation on the comedic idea — the funny bit, the amusing story — which is beginning to overtake Doug/Carrie. As usual, even the episodes I’ve selected below to represent the season at its BEST prove this critical point, for while most are okay for the leads, or manage to embed enough interplay to satisfy their depictions in this peak-adjacent season, too many scripts derive their comedic mojo from an idea — an external framework into which the characters are forced. (For instance, the idea that Arthur is comparable to Deacon/Kelly’s kids in “Switch Sitters” or the notion that Holly is a downstairs wife in “Awful Bigamy.” These are both great, but it’s the concept motivating the hahas.) We saw an increase in these idea-based interests between Four and Five, but it wasn’t a problem because the latter provided an abundance of classics, and did so with much character in support. Six fails in this regard, and I think it’s because it doesn’t try. Why? Two outside things happened that threatened the premise. One) Kevin James lost weight over the summer, theoretically making society’s view of the physical differences between Doug and Carrie less of a comedically extreme argument against which the thesis’ POV could rail. And Two) Leah Remini became pregnant, further shrinking the disparity in size between the two leads and forcing the year, as it wore on, to engage in typical sitcom tricks to disguise her delicate condition. (Remember, if the show made Carrie pregnant, it would have had to commit to ending the characters’ emotional journey, for a baby has been established, rightly or wrongly, as their endgame.) As a result, Six seems to actively shy away from episodes that directly relate to the usual Doug/Carrie tension, instead hoping to ignore their physicalities after dealing with his change once in a welcome two-part premiere that addresses Doug’s weight loss sincerely, yet buries the legitimate drama within a bloated production that puts value elsewhere.

But the truth is that neither development, despite their combined implications, are good reasons to avoid what the series does best: big-laugh stories motivated from the accentuated individual flaws of the series’ central couple, whose imperfections act as the ongoing reinforcement of the thesis. Furthermore, neither James’ weight loss nor Remini’s weight gain is big enough here to nullify everything we’ve come to know about these characters or, even, how the series asks us to see them physically. There’s no need to avoid stories that use society’s view of their incompatibility as a counterpoint because, after five years, we already take that as a given. Accordingly, the only real issue is that, at the end of the season, the very pregnant Remini’s usage is reduced, which limits the show from great Doug/Carrie stories because it limits Carrie. However, that’s only relevant in the last few weeks; otherwise, Six rejects stories that affirm the central premise without just cause, and at the same time, defers to plots that are more idea-led. And in utilizing plots that minimize the people, the big laughs that come attached to these inherently amusing notions start to exist at the expense of them… if they aren’t starting to undermine the show entirely. (That’ll be something we see soon, as the series continues to broaden, without motivating it through the characters’ flaws.) Yet, while all this explains why I can’t link Six to Four/Five, I must remind you NOT to count it out. In addition to the same staff imparting the same basic comic energy, the ensemble is especially great, as Kelly returns, rounding out a supporting cast that includes consistent haha-providers like Spence and Holly (who probably has her best year ever). And, on the whole, Six is strong enough, both creatively and commercially, to prove that CBS was right in moving it outside of the Monday block, for even in a competitive slot on Wednesdays, the show still pulled a sizable audience, certifying that Queens wasn’t just a wannabe Raymond; it could stand on its own two feet, and make us laugh in the process… So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.

 

 

01) Episode 127: “Doug Less (II)” (Aired: 10/01/03)

Doug and Carrie are stuck in the woods.

Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller

Season Six opens with a two-part premiere — originally broadcast on CBS in a single hour-long block — that’s meant to address James’ recent weight loss, which, unlike Remini’s own upcoming change in appearance, is allowed to transfer over to his character as well. I talked a bit about “Doug Less” above, because I give credit to this two-parter for actually recognizing the development; in openly talking about the character’s appearance, and specifically forcing Carrie to grapple with the fact that society no longer views her as SO MUCH more physically desirable than her husband, the show gets to deal (for one of the few times this season) with a thesis-related conflict that ties into WHY these characters have such a hard time believing what the show believes: that they are compatible. Additionally, any time Carrie is allowed to be petty and jealous, it’s a lot of fun — both because this imperfection is exactly what we need from her character, and also because Remini relishes it. (Naturally, Doug’s appearance hasn’t changed THAT much, but that’s a concern for later…) Now, I must confess that I still don’t love this offering. The single-cam “lost in the woods” scenes are unnecessarily gaudy and their idea-based particulars consume the character riches at the center, even as the teleplay tries to blend them. Also, the subplot is another idea-driven affair (Spence and Danny doing their tired old “mock gay” bit). However, like I said, we appreciate this show for not shying away from conflict, and unlike Part I, which is all build-up, Part II pulls no punches and is stronger for it.

02) Episode 128: “King Pong” (Aired: 10/08/03)

Doug trains with Arthur so that he can beat Carrie at ping pong.

Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller

Back to its normal half-hour length, Queens returns to a less ostentatious form of storytelling, creating a plot that speaks to some of the core thesis motifs by proving the leading couple’s rightness for each other. This time, the currency for compatibility is their mutual competitiveness, as Doug is determined to finally beat his wife in ping pong, and must turn to the master — Arthur, the one who taught her — for lessons on how to do it. It’s an amusing premise — and it’s a great entry for Jerry Stiller, who gets to occupy space in the A-story (for once) — but it allows for an unflattering depiction of Doug, and couldn’t work unless he was so uncompromisingly dead set on being better than Carrie at the game. So, it ends up being a pretty good character story, after all. Meanwhile, I have to mention the funny subplot, in which Spence is upset over the attention that Denise (Rachel Dratch, in her penultimate appearance) is getting now that she’s a cocktail waitress, which motivates him to try using Holly to make her jealous. It’s a fun B-story that makes time for physical comedy, adding to the overall appeal.

03) Episode 131: “Affidavit Justice” (Aired: 10/29/03)

Doug pretends to be a lawyer at Carrie’s firm so that he can compete on their softball team.

Written by Kevin James & Rock Reuben | Directed by Rob Schiller

This is a prime example of Six being more enamored of its comedic ideas than its own potential Doug/Carrie interests, for this is a story that, amusing premise aside, could have rooted itself in a more solid character-driven place. You see, a story about Doug being hired to “work” at Carrie’s company as a lawyer so that it can take advantage of his softball prowess could have been about the ways in which Carrie is embarrassed by her husband out in public, for after all, she thinks she’s better than him (which is why his recent weight loss galled her). While that’s certainly there a little bit, the script is actually much more concerned with the amusing prospect of Doug pretending to be a lawyer and taking a job with a rival company who poaches him. Fortunately, even though this focus is unideal, it’s still funny — enough to make this outing a winner. (Also, I like that I get the chance to highlight a show with Victor Raider-Wexler as Carrie’s boss. Normally work episodes separate our primary couple, and so this fine character actor hasn’t gotten his due here. Finally, he does!) What’s more, it probably boasts the funniest subplot of the season, as Arthur is determined to pay reparations for slavery to the only black person he knows: Deacon. They’re an unusual B-story pair, but they make for hilarity.

04) Episode 134: “Thanks, Man” (Aired: 11/26/03)

Carrie makes a stranger wait outside the house for his ride on Thanksgiving.

Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller

I think this entry is overrated by fans, and I’d guess it’s gotten a little extra attention in the years since it aired because it includes Nick Offerman, the Parks And Recreation cast member who — like Bryan Cranston — has become someone whose presence is often able to drive up any offering’s appeal. Well, as usual, I’m not wowed by his simple inclusion, and in fact, I don’t think he’s really able to shine here. Rather, this is an idea-driven affair about a strange man (with an eye-patch) showing up on Thanksgiving as he waits for someone to pick him up, and Carrie forcing him to stay outside on the freezing porch instead of inside with all the guests for dinner. It’s totally situational and it only works because of the natural distinction between Doug and Carrie’s characterizations — he welcomes a mysterious stranger, while she is skeptical and mistrusting. (At least the story into which they’ve been shoehorned depicts them believably…) Yet if I seem too harsh on this installment, I must say, it’s also loaded with character moments — thanks to the design, which essentially puts the entire supporting cast (sans Arthur) at the same place and same time (and you know how I feel about the unity of time and place — it makes characters pop). And so, although I don’t necessarily like the story — or the fact that it’s terribly predictable — I think it goes above and beyond with justifying rewards.

05) Episode 137: “Dougie Houser” (Aired: 01/07/04)

Doug and Carrie remember the decision-making that went into buying the house.

Written by David Bickel | Directed by Rob Schiller

A seemingly gaudy excursion, this is the year’s flashback affair, and more than any of the previous forays into Doug and Carrie’s past, this one looks like the flashiest and most unnecessary as far as the depiction of their relationship goes. However, that’s misleading, for the story is revealing for the central couple, and indeed, it even sets itself up for this from the jump, as the whole reason that the characters remember the process of securing their house is that it was a seminal moment in determining the roles each would play in their marriage. Here, we get a tangible explanation as to why Doug is the bumbler: he picked a retro house that was totally impractical (and even the dumbwaiter about which he was so excited turned out to be a bust). And we see why Carrie is the taskmaster who’s able to boss him around: that was the deal they made after his screw-up. With this character foundation in place, we’re then much freer to appreciate all the comedic bells and whistles. And, frankly, if more plots this year were as properly predicated, their ostentatious idea-led natures would be easier to endure.

06) Episode 139: “Switch Sitters” (Aired: 02/11/04)

Doug and Carrie force Deacon and Kelly to babysit Arthur, just like they babysit the kids.

Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Switch Sitters” earns that distinction simply because it’s the most successful on the precise terms that The King Of Queens is beginning to use more and more exclusively to define its episodic greatness: comedy. That is, it’s the funniest of the season, and true to the sensibilities of Six, it is an idea-led narrative with a very definite Victory In Premise, but in this case, there’s enough character support here to both excuse any qualms we have over the design and to deliver above and beyond with the laughs. For you see, with a premise that compares Arthur to Deacon/Kelly’s kids, the teleplay is already working with a rich comic notion that works for the character of Arthur (yes, he’s in the A-story again, and well-used, too!), but more than that, it also engages the conspiratorial nature of Doug/Carrie’s relationship, as they scheme to pawn off her father on the Palmers as a negotiation tactic for watching the actual kids. This is one of the old-school ways that Queens is able to reinforce the central couple’s rightness, for if you’ll recall, shows that pair Doug/Carrie — specifically against another couple, like Deacon/Kelly — allow them to function as a single flaws-filled unit, taking their compatibility for granted because, hey, they’re operating as one. It’s a smart design, and even though it’s become less popular than it was in early seasons, it’s no less effective… Yet, in addition to this extra smart construction — which works for all THREE of our main characters, including the central couple — it’s ultimately the laughs that push this one over the edge, for there’s no other entry this week that makes use of as many big HAHAs (let alone ones that ride the fine line of being spawned by the idea, but anchored by the characters). Truly, this is the best of what Season Six has to offer — its nicest ambassador.

07) Episode 141: “Damned Yanky” (Aired: 02/18/04)

Carrie is mad when she learns that Doug fantasizes about other women.

Written by Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller

Admittedly, this isn’t one of my favorites. Like “Dougie Houser” and “Doug Less,” all the flashy bells and whistles overshadow the character meat that makes this kind of spectacle possible, but unlike the aforementioned two, which I think are more rooted in the relationship, this one gives the edge a little too obviously to the so-called pomp and circumstance… That said, it’s probably among the year’s most memorable, and while I deliberated about whether or not to include it over the top-tier Honorable Mentions cited below, I must confess that I’m still drawn to its comedic idea, of Carrie putting limitations on Doug’s ability to fantasize about other women, as that, at the very least, speaks to a character flaw — insecurity — and again reinforces her imperfections. Also, it’s always nice when a story reverses expectations; we anticipate that Doug, who feels that Carrie is too good for him, would have more of a problem with Carrie fantasizing, but Carrie taking issue is more surprising — and that’s part of the fun. And, as is always true with outings that get featured here, the laughs are an obvious boost. (Trivia: both of the stars’ real-life significant others make appearances in the characters’ respective fantasies.)

08) Episode 145: “Foe: Pa” (Aired: 03/24/04)

Arthur tries to make amends for everything he’s ever done wrong to Carrie.

Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller

If you’ve been following our coverage of this series, you’ll notice that there aren’t a lot of “Arthur episodes” that make these lists. I think that the reasons why have already been sufficiently laid out, but, briefly, Arthur — contrary to the pilot — is NOT a major conflict within the Doug/Carrie relationship, and since Doug/Carrie is our focus, we don’t really care about Arthur for the sake of Arthur (beyond the natural comedic abilities of Jerry Stiller). However, I do appreciate when Arthur can be used in the Doug/Carrie A-story, usually because a situation has arisen in which he IS in the middle of a Doug/Carrie clash, typically as a thorn in Doug’s side… Well, this installment offers a somewhat rare alternative, as Arthur is a thorn in Carrie’s side — an arrangement that typically isn’t as satisfying, because we only care about their relationship as it pertains to Doug/Carrie’s, and that’s less invoked in Carrie/Arthur stories than in Doug/Arthur stories. But I say all this now to note that “Foe: Pa” actually works because, even with a Carrie/Arthur conflict, it’s Doug who’s stuck in the middle, trying to make things right. And this design is smart and helps foster the kind of character comedy we can appreciate, especially in Season Six. (Also, Holly really shines as Doug’s sidekick.)

09) Episode 146: “Tank Heaven” (Aired: 04/07/04)

Doug deliberately sabotages Carrie’s attempts to make new friends from work.

Written by Rock Reuben | Directed by Rob Schiller

After having lost her job earlier in the season, Carrie went through an out-of-work period before finally settling at a new place two segments prior to this one, which utilizes this semi-serialized character arc to create an episodic story that makes fine use of Doug’s imperfections, as his attempts to avoid hanging out with Carrie’s new coworkers (whom she’s trying to turn into friends) showcases the scheming, selfish nature of his own characterization: the very thing that the peak era often reinforced with Carrie, even though Doug’s flaws are just as paramount (and often very similar). Accordingly, this is a premise — a Victory In Premise, in fact — that is perfect for the King (of Queens), allowing him to assume the comedic driver’s seat (which is imperative at this time because Remini is very heavily pregnant). Naturally, Doug’s behavior is extreme and somewhat idea-led, but it’s very funny and memorable, too. The same goes for the Arthur/Spence subplot, which, as with most Arthur/Spence narratives, reiterates what a great pair they make in these otherwise inconsequential B-stories.

10) Episode 149: “Awful Bigamy” (Aired: 05/19/04)

Doug enjoys having two “wives”: Carrie upstairs and Holly downstairs.

Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller

One of the most popular offerings of the entire series, this is another prime example of how Queens — particularly in this era — crafts an entire narrative around a singular comedic idea, deriving pretty much all of its value from the situational comedy inherent to these given prospects. And, as we noted last week, it comes from a familiar source: the presentation of marriage. While several shows last year built entire stories around the jokey idea that characters who weren’t married acted like they were (Doug/Arthur, Doug/Deacon, Carrie/Deacon), and we’ve seen, even on this list, cases of Spence/Danny doing their “mock gay” routine — which will last until the series finale — this one gives us a slight variation, as Doug is conscious of the arrangement and knowingly exploits the joke to his gain. For with Carrie upstairs loaded with “work” to do (this is to keep the very large Remini seated and occupied), Holly moves in downstairs, after a breakup, and begins taking over Carrie’s domestic chores — and does them not only better than Carrie, but in a way that caters to Doug specifically! Of course, he likes this arrangement and tries to prolong the idea of having an “upstairs wife” and a “downstairs wife” (and even a “Coliseum wife” on the side, too) for as long as possible. And this is why, of these “faux marriage” shows, this is the best: it makes Doug explicitly self-aware about the design and allows him to scheme to ensure its survival. As a result, there’s something of a character foundation, grounding the broad and very idea-driven humor.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two shows that feature a nicely matched pair of Heffernan schemers, “Frigid Heirs” and “Precedent Nixin,” along with “Cheap Saks,” which features Janeane Garofalo and benefits from an unflattering depiction of Carrie, but is a little too gimmicky and guest-star-geared for my tastes — and, for once, perhaps too unpleasant in an unmotivated way. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are two shows where Carrie is out of work, the desperate “American Idle,” and the entry where she joins Doug at work, “Santa Claustrophobia,” which has a better premise than execution. Also, Part I of the season premiere is a de facto recommendation. (Incidentally, I find the seemingly well-liked “Trash Talker” to be more idea-driven than most, with a teleplay that never rises to the occasion, instead relying on a cheap on-location fight sequence to cement its value.)

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The King Of Queens goes to…

“Switch Sitters”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!

Summer Sails Away

Welcome to this month’s Musical Theatre Monday! As summer sails away for so many of us out there, I thought the perfect way to perk up our spirits was with the jaunty collaboration of Noël Coward and Elaine Stritch: Sail Away (1961). Fans of this fun, melodious musical — one of my favorite cotton candy Coward scores — have two whole albums with Stritch to enjoy, the Original Broadway Cast, and the following year’s London Cast. (I slightly prefer the London version — both the orchestrations and the leading lady seem to be having more fun.)

Much has been written about the changes made during the show’s tryout and of its history in general. But I want to share something less known here: a live audio of the November 1999 concert production, which boasted Stritch recreating her role alongside a cast that included — among others — Jerry Lanning, James Patterson, Andrea Burns, and Marian Seldes.

For subscribers who comment below to alert me of their interest, I will send you access to this tracked audio, which includes the heretofore unrecorded Overture (excerpted above), and of course, the one-of-a-kind Stritch, whose big 11 o’clock spot you may remember from her one-woman show. Here it is — “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” — from this audio.

 

 

Come back next month for a new Musical Theatre rarity! And stay tuned for more Queens!

When A Good Pilot Isn’t Good Enough: A Look at CHARLIE LAWRENCE (2003)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing with you the pilot of a short-lived show — so short-lived that only two of its seven produced episodes (including the pilot) ever made it to air. Broadcast by CBS on June 15, 2003 (and again on June 22), Charlie Lawrence was created by Jeffrey Richman (Wings, Frasier, Stark Raving Mad  — and later Back To You, Rules Of Engagement, Modern Family) as a vehicle for Encore! Encore!‘s Nathan Lane. Here, Lane played the eponymous Charlie Lawrence, an openly gay TV star — from a Touched By An Angel-esque series called “Do Unto Others” — elected to Congress as a representative from New Mexico. The ensemble included Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf as Lawrence’s hardcore, straight-edged chief of staff, T.R. Knight as a befuddled intern, Stephanie Faracy as an obsessive fan who’s also the office manager, and Ted McGinley as a neighbor and political rival with whom Lawrence nevertheless forms a friendship. It’s a great ensemble — each person is well-chosen and believable. And the teleplay from Frasier‘s Richman is hilarious — a master class in joke-writing (it’s a lost art these days). It establishes well-defined characters with immediate precision, and introduces an entire world brimming with possible story.

But I think it never should have been ordered to series. No, it’s not because of Nathan Lane, whose track record with attempted sitcom success was already a cautionary tale despite his recent Broadway triumph (The Producers). It’s actually because of the premise: it’s way too high-concept and idea-led for the era, where network comedy — this is 2003, folks (Arrested Development would premiere on FOX later that fall) — was dominated by easily categorized, simplistic genres, like the “fat goofy husband and hot mean wife show” or the evergreen “young singles in a big city looking for love.” Charlie Lawrence simply did not resemble the hits of 2003, which is probably — more than the proposed concern over his character’s sexuality — why the network chose to bury this intended mid-season replacement later in the summer, and then pulled it after only two weeks (in a Sunday slot where ratings were bound to disappoint). There simply was no reason to believe it could be a hit… However, more than just the premise being out-of-place for network TV at the time, it was also probably wrong for the country at the time. Less than two years after the tragedy of 9/11, I’m not sure viewers were so eager to laugh at the perennial foolishness of Washington during the year that saw the start of the Iraq War. (And note that a premise about a TV star in D.C. was seen as broad and silly in 2003; it wouldn’t inspire the same type of laughs if done today, where the context is different…)

To that point, given the mood of the country, Charlie Lawrence was unwilling and/or unable to offer biting satire — at least, not in the way that we see now (and saw, even through a more character-driven lens, in Veep, which premiered in 2012). And there’s something almost delicate and romantic about this series’ view of Washington. Take the second (and last) broadcast episode, for instance, where Lawrence wants to sit with the popular lawmakers in the cafeteria — where there’s a hierarchy too easily compared to high school, since everyone in D.C. wants to be liked. That’s pretty gentle commentary. And even though I personally appreciate a look at our government that’s LESS acrimonious than is commonly depicted on TV, I also think there’s something very limiting about doing a series that spoofs Congress… but is unable to comedically critique it with any sort of significance. In other words, Charlie Lawrence was not only the wrong show at the wrong time (given what network TV was then doing), it also wasn’t even able to fully commit to being as wrong as it could (and should) have been, substituting ginger (jokes about Hollywood) for vinegar (jokes about D.C.)…

Nevertheless, it’s a great pilot for all the reasons stated above: the cast, the comedy, the possibility. And so even though I don’t think it ever could have worked as a series in 2003, it’s a perfect reminder to us that sometimes strong pilots aren’t meant to be ordered to series. (Also, three quick pieces of trivia. One: among the five shot but never aired episodes, one included The King Of Queens‘ Anne Meara as Lawrence’s mother. Two: one of the staff writers meant to provide D.C. accuracy was Kristin Gore, daughter of the former Vice President. And Three: the premise is not unlike Norman Lear’s never-aired 1979 sitcom, Mr. Dugan, in which a black football player became a congressman.) Now, the second entry, also by creator Jeffrey Richman and discussed above, was already a comedown in quality, so I won’t share that with you here. Instead, I’ll share Charlie Lawrence at its probable finest: the aforementioned premiere, entitled “A Vote Of No Confidence,” which was written by Richman, directed by Jerry Zaks, and telecast just once by CBS — after a Becker rerun — on June 15, 2003. 

 

 

Come back next week for a new Wildcard Wednesday! And stay tuned Monday for another Musical Theatre rarity!

The Ten Best THE KING OF QUEENS Episodes of Season Five

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing coverage on The King Of Queens (1998-2007), which, I’m happy to report, has been released in full on DVD!

The King Of Queens stars KEVIN JAMES as Doug Heffernan, LEAH REMINI as Carrie Heffernan, and Jerry Stiller as ARTHUR SPOONER.

As the second season in the previously defined two-year peak, Season Five’s charms have already been addressed. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to keep the year’s commentary brief. After all, I think these episodes speak for themselves… Yet, before we get to the list, what you need to remember from our previous discussion about Queens’ peak is that while I think both years each individually offer the series’ healthiest understanding of its characterizations and how they’re best used to narratively answer the central question within the show’s genre-defining thesis — and they do so while satisfying the series’ love of the outrageous comic idea without requiring too much suspension of disbelief — I made a distinction between the two seasons’ ultimate metric of superiority. I called Four the height of character, and Five the height of comedy. That is, I think Four is the literal peak of the show’s understanding of its characterizations and how to use them in story — it commits to knowing that Doug and Carrie have to lead with their mutually pungent flaws in order to affirm the thesis’ belief in their compatibility, and this is what makes everything click. But since no improvements will be made — there’s no new revelation or previously unknown story template that better elucidates who they are and why they belong together — Season Four is the apex, the top of the ride, for Doug and Carrie. Five, meanwhile, also remains generally good for character (in comparison to the rest of Queens’ run), but it doesn’t add to, or make itself more conscious of, their dynamic. In fact, if there’s room for criticism, it’s that this year actually becomes more enamored of the comedic idea, and more than ever before, it’s putting added stock in funny notions and Victories In Premise. (Example? The “faux marriage” bit — something so easy it gets repeated several times, with Doug/Arthur in “Arthur, Spooner,” with Doug/Deacon in “Business Affairs,” and with Carrie/Deacon in “Loaner Car.” And of course, the Danny/Spence relationship will settle into a variation of this concept — “mock gay” — for the rest of the run.)

Furthermore, the year’s three-week sweeps arc about the Heffernans’ house getting treated for mold — this season’s version of last year’s heart attack trilogy — is less successful than its predecessor for precisely this reason; its less about the characters and more about the comic possibilities that arise from the narrative… Thus, although I do consider this a strong year for character, I must remind that it’s not their peak, due to these rising alternative priorities… However, there’s some really good news about Season Five too, and it’s two-pronged: One) the majority of the year’s comedic ideas are incredibly funny and Two) unlike Season Six and every year thereafter, these ideas are not yet harmful to the characters or a threat to our faith in what is and isn’t outside the realm of series-specific plausibility. In other words, not only is the year’s idea-driven nature not a problem (as it will soon become in Six, when the episodic returns first decline, thereby making it a problem), it’s also so successful that the year warrants being called, to repeat, “the height of comedy…” Now, again, these episodes can speak for themselves, but if I was choosing only one list to be Queens’ champion in a battle of Sitcom Tuesdays’ finest, it would be this one, because — classics from Four notwithstanding — this is probably the truest representation of what Queens always wanted to be: a very funny show with two very funny characters at its center. (Even peripherally, this season finds added success comedically, adding Anne Meara to the recurring ensemble as Spence’s mom and casting the hilarious Rachel Dratch as his temporary girlfriend, Denise, who appears four times this year. Both are great for subplots, and with Holly around too, Arthur’s “dance card” is full.) So, though Season Five might not be the characters’ peak, it’s probably the peak on behalf of the show and its more boldly laugh-seeking comedic intentions… And on that note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest. (They are, as always, listed in AIRING order.)

 

01) Episode 102: “Window Pain” (Aired: 09/30/02)

Carrie tries to correct a bad impression left on the new neighbors.

Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller

“Window Pain” is one of the most straightforward examples of excellence within the peak era, proving why Season Five (which has a handful of entries like this) is indeed part of the series’ creative apex. The plot finds the Heffernans — and particularly Carrie — desperately trying to impress their new neighbors (played by Marcia Cross and Michael Lowry, in their first of two appearances), an endeavor made difficult both by Doug/Carrie’s constant and loud arguing — which is impossible for the neighbors to ignore — and by Doug’s own bumbling ineptitude, when he insults the husband by pouring out good scotch and then lying about it. It makes perfect use of their imperfections — Doug is a scheming moron, and Carrie is consumed by manic rage when she’s unable to ensure that other people have a positive view of her. The crowning moment of the half-hour is Carrie’s self-aware realization that the Heffernans have replaced the Sackskys as the neighborhood freaks, for this tells us exactly what’s happened in this peak; now that Doug/Carrie are being led by their flaws, they are no longer reacting to bad behavior — they ARE the bad behavior. This is much funnier, as “Window Pain” makes clear… Oh, and also, there’s an amusing subplot with Arthur, Spence, and the subway that shows why those two characters work so well together. The first of several MVE contenders.

02) Episode 103: “Holy Mackerel” (Aired: 10/07/02)

Doug and Carrie discover the seeming magic of prayer.

Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller

Another installment that embraces the leading players’ personal defects, especially Carrie’s, who drives the action in a way that’s specific to this peak era (not exclusively, but unique in its consistency), this is a terrifically funny Doug/Carrie show with an A-one Victory In Premise. Here, petty, angry, image-conscious Carrie all of a sudden turns to prayer when she believes it was responsible for getting her a raise, while her husband, petty, bumbling, always-scheming, Doug, resents the way she’s using God and then accordingly decides to use HIS prayers to counteract hers, which he believes are un-deserving (unlike his). The prayer battle between the two of them is the highlight of the episode — one of the funniest (and least talked about) centerpieces of the entire series — and it’s something that stands out as perfect for Queens, whose tonal sensibilities and relationship between character and story allow for this kind of broad laugh-yielding fun. If you need an easy explanation for why Season Five is the peak as far as comedy goes (while still not screwing up the depictions of the regulars), “Holy Mackerel” should do it… Plus, note that Joe Flaherty, introduced in last year’s “Veiled Threat,” makes his third of five appearances as the family priest. Again, another favorite — MVE contender.

03) Episode 108: “Flash Photography” (Aired: 11/11/02)

Danny gets blamed for a prank Doug pulls at a family wedding.

Written by David Bickel | Directed by Henry Chan

Although I could classify the above as a Victory In Premise led by its idea, I nevertheless think that it uses the characters’ flaws to justify its existence. This popular outing, though, is less dependent on the characters for its comedic premise: that Doug is inspired to use one of the cameras at a family wedding to play a prank and take a picture of his genitalia. This is the kind of fare that would work on many of the era’s “dumb husband” shows, and I’m not automatically impressed with it (okay, I also hate Doug’s family)… That said, since we’ve charged Queens with helping to define this genre within a genre, even though this story might not be exclusive to the show, none could probably do it as well as Queens (which has some of the funniest versions of these personas). Furthermore, just because there are a lot of dumb husbands doesn’t mean Doug isn’t a dumb husband too, and proof of Five broadening its comic intentions (which is obviously the case here), and losing some of its character prioritization WITHOUT hampering its understanding of them, is the fact that we do believe this is something Doug might do. Also, there’s a hilarious character moment when Doug shows Carrie the picture, after she’s argued for him to come clean and exonerate Danny, and she changes her mind (because she’s embarrassed by what the photo says of her) — which, again, proves why the peak is the peak.

04) Episode 109: “Connect Four” (Aired: 11/18/02)

Doug and Carrie try to create the perfect couple from two uneven pairs.

Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller

Even though they’re quite different in terms of overall premise and their weekly story operations, I think there’s something of a comedic kinship between The King Of Queens and Seinfeld — and it’s not just the hilarious Jerry Stiller. No, both shows share a comic tonality built on irreverence — the idea that nothing is more important than a good laugh, and while Seinfeld was more enamored with how story was structured (as opposed to the purely comic idea, which is Queens‘ main interest), they both, to a certain extent, are willing to maneuver their characters in pursuit of what they consider the ultimate triumph: the funniest premise, the cleverest construction… I say all that here because I think “Connect Four” reminds of a Seinfeld idea, for the premise of Doug/Carrie looking for a new couple to hang out with and deciding that they like the wife of one pair and the husband of another, feels trivial and petty. And when Carrie is so inclined to encourage the break-up of one of the pairs so the Heffernans can create the “Franken-couple” of their dreams, it’s very reminiscent of Elaine and Jerry swooping in to keep a separated couple from reuniting (“The Wait Out”), for in this era of Queens embracing its flawed characters, Seinfeld — particularly the Seinfeld from the end of Larry David’s tenure, when everyone was nasty doesn’t seem far out of reach. And like most Seinfeld episodes, we like this one for the funny idea and the way it’s used in story.

05) Episode 110: “Loaner Car” (Aired: 11/25/02)

Doug loans Carrie out to Deacon as a homemaker in advance of Thanksgiving.

Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller

Noted above in my seasonal commentary as an example of the year’s idea-led comedic nature — not to mention the repetition starting to shape the series’ idea-led comedic nature — this, Five’s third entry with an amusing plot featuring the forcefully implied metaphor that characters other than Doug/Carrie are coupled (the “faux married” bit), is probably some fans’ least favorite of the above-mentioned trio, which also includes “Arthur, Spooner,” where Doug/Arthur are suggested as a couple, and “Business Affairs,” where Deacon is called Doug’s “work wife.” But I think, while all of these offerings are hinged, again, around a comic notion and are therefore not as inherently satisfying as the more character-rooted samples here, “Loaner Car” works the best because it does the best job (from this trio) of engaging Carrie, and making use of her flaws, for although “Business Affairs” rightfully clashes our central couple, “Loaner Car” — in addition to being the more original idea — actively exploits Carrie’s shortcomings, both with Deacon, who grows unable to tolerate her, and Doug, who relishes the free time away from her. As such, I think this is the most interesting for Doug/Carrie, and probably the funniest of the season’s “faux married” too because of this character work. (However, I’d guess that many find the other two’s ideas themselves funnier.)

06) Episode 111: “Mentalo Case” (Aired: 12/16/02)

Doug searches for a toy while everyone is confused about who’s getting what for Christmas.

Written by David Bickel | Directed by John Fortenberry

A much-beloved addition to the series’ catalogue of irreverent Christmases — which, again, I think are typically great for The King Of Queens because at this mawkish time of year, we’re grateful for this series’ instinctive tonal aversion to sentiment — “Mentalo Case” is another outing that I know would probably make many fans’ MVE… But, as with the popular “Flash Photography” highlighted above, I think this is an episode that skews more towards the year’s premise fixation, exploring how plot/idea can generate big laughs, as opposed to the characters and their central dramatic relationship. Accordingly, even though I enjoy Doug’s crusade for the “Mentalo” toy from his childhood and think it, basically, works for this not-too-bright, conspiratorial character, I also believe the script lets the premise overwhelm and guide its character moments. The same goes for the amusing, but plotty narrative with Carrie, Arthur, and Holly where they think they know what they’re receiving as gifts. We’re laughing because of the situation, not necessarily because of the people in it. And, ultimately, I don’t think we have enough of a Doug/Carrie core to make this a classic… That said, the peak era knows how to employ these funny ideas with support from (and no harm done to) the characters. Thus, I think this is an amusing, memorable installment — hard to forget.

07) Episode 112: “Jung Frankenstein” (Aired: 01/06/03)

Carrie uses Doug’s therapist to cure her husband of all the things she finds annoying.

Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller

Dave Foley (NewsRadio) guest stars in this underrated gem as a therapist Doug sees to help him combat overeating. Already, we’re dealing with a solid character-specific premise, for we know that Doug’s love of food is something that both he and Carrie consider a weakness, and indeed, it’s tied to the disparity in their physical appearances and how the world perceives them — which, as we know, is tied to the central dramatic question of their compatibility. So, from the jump, “Jung Frankenstein” is in smart shape… yet it gets even smarter, capitalizing on the flaws-forward design of both characters by having Carrie decide to manipulate the therapist into correcting ALL of what she perceives to be Doug’s flaws (like his addiction to TV). This points not only to the fact that Doug is obviously imperfect, but also that she, scheming in a manner that we see often with Doug (and occasionally from them as a pair) but seldom from her individually, is morally questionable, and therefore imperfect too. And this means, as we’ve seen time and again, that they are two who belong together, for they’re both terrible — and, comedically so, for as this entry indicates, the boldness within the show’s presentation of their flaws makes for boffo laughs, which is what the series wants more than anything. And by being an example of how well-defined characters and big funny ideas aren’t counterintuitive, this MVE contender makes for another exhibit in our “peak era” case.

08) Episode 119: “Cowardly Lyin'” (Aired: 03/31/03)

After being caught in a lie, Doug confesses that he’s scared of Carrie.

Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller

My choice for the best episode of the season (MVE), “Cowardly Lyin'” is exceptional for many familiar reasons, but I must confess that, unlike in past weeks, choosing just one to stand alone as this year’s best wasn’t as easy or straightforward as it has been. That’s because, you see, there are a plethora of excursions here — and again, this is the collection that I’d most want to have represent Queens if it went up against other sitcom competition —  that benefit from an ability to maximize both Doug and Carrie’s imperfections so that the show is not only reinforcing the central belief at the heart of its dramatic question (that YES, they are a compatible pair), but also doing so in a way that, from heightened and boldly unflinching comedic intentions, delivers BIG laughs at the same time… So what gives this one the edge over all the rest? A couple of things. First, I like that the main A-story with Doug/Carrie directly influences the subplot with Spence and his new girlfriend, Denise (played by the hilarious Rachel Dratch, who appears four times this season), and that this subplot is actually funny and additive to the outing’s overall appeal. Second, I think the A-story with Doug/Carrie probably makes the best use of BOTH characters’ personality defects. Several of the above have gone all out in emphasizing Carrie’s temper, her pettiness, and her obsession with her own image, but this one manages to address all of that while also allowing the King (of Queens) to be just as boldly bumbling and scheming, like when he attempts to get out of going to the opera by having Deacon leave a voicemail… something that Carrie sees right through, forcing Doug to reveal that he lies to her because he’s scared of her — which speaks to a very real, and very big, flaw: her temper. (Unlike “Fatty McButterpants,” there’s no need for a fake imperfection.) And from that, there’s lot of fun stuff, like the moment where Carrie asks Holly if she’s scary, and the scene where Doug confesses all his lies (while Carrie tries not to explode). But for the absence of Arthur, I would cite “Cowardly Lyin'” as The King Of Queens in its most perfect form.

09) Episode 124: “Taste Buds” (Aired: 05/12/03)

Doug learns that he can manipulate Arthur into helping him get what he wants from Carrie.

Story by Trevor Dellecave | Teleplay by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller

If you’ve been following our coverage of this series over the past few weeks, you know that I typically try to feature the one installment every season that I think makes best use of Arthur in a Doug/Carrie A-story, for as we’ve seen (and can even see this year), he’s often relegated to subplots with Spence, or Holly, or (now that she’s been introduced in a recurring capacity), Veronica. Well, “Taste Buds” is the entry that I believe best fits this superior A-story bill, for it uses the Doug/Carrie relationship and showcases how Arthur fits within their dynamic as a complication. Now, to deny that this is an idea-led Victory In Premise — with more juice in its conception than its execution — would be difficult, but I just couldn’t in good conscience highlight any other Arthur offering, for while “Arthur, Spooner” is amusing and well-liked, it says absolutely nothing about the central couple, because Carrie is involved elsewhere in a subplot. And though, for instance, something like “Queens’bro Bridge” gives him added depth with the introduction of his brother, Carrie is surprisingly removed from the action (again). This is the only one that makes great use of the three primary regulars as the funny, outstanding unit that they deserve to (more often) be — and with everyone’s depiction well-drenched in their known and established flaws, Season Five once again is flexing its peak era muscles.

10) Episode 125: “Bed Spread” (Aired: 05/19/03)

When Doug and Carrie get twin beds, they start to enjoy doing things separately.

Written by Owen Ellickson | Directed by Rob Schiller

There’s a nice full-circle quality to the season, as the premiere dealt with Doug being upset that Carrie was absent from their bed (because she was in her own subplot — a separation that also accounts for the relative disparity in quality), while this, the finale, finds both characters, together, deciding to sleep apart. It’s a fun premise, and though there’s a little bit of effort to get them there (they’ve got to break the bed, go to the store where Steve Hytner’s the salesman, establish that they’ll have to stay in twins until a new bed comes, and then make the decision not to push the twins together), because the idea is so fresh, none of that actually matters. And, sure, this is another idea-led outing — but, hey, that’s what The King Of Queens tends to do best, and whenever it can do so while also saying something about the characters, we should celebrate without complaining. That’s what this episode makes me want to do — celebrate without complaining — for in the characters’ decision to do separate things, they’re giving into the idea that they’re different and perhaps incompatible, believing that recognizing this fact will make them happier. But of course, Queens is too romantic for this perspective to last (despite its irreverence, it’s still feel-good), and so the characters realize that they do want to do things together, affirming the thesis’ answer to the series’ question. It’s a wonderful ending to the year and to the show’s peak (aside from an Arthur/Lou subplot that, well, ain’t the best).

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the much-referenced “Arthur, Spooner,” which does the amusing “faux marriage” bit with Doug/Arthur and has a fine subplot with Carrie (and Holly) in the workplace, but like “Dog Shelter,” which also has two funny ideas (including a subplot with Arthur, Spence, Veronica, and Denise), doesn’t say anything notable about Doug/Carrie — still the most important thing in this peak season. Those two were the closest to the above list, along with “Steve Moscow,” a popular showing — the end of the mold arc — that features Charles Rocket as a Russian contractor. Meanwhile, there are lots of Honorable Mention-worthy outings, including the aforementioned “Business Affairs” and “Queens’bro Bridge,” along with two premise-y shows, “Flame Resistant” and “Clothes Encounter,” and two Doug/Carrie offerings that are well-intentioned but not comedically competitive, “Attention Deficit” and “Prints Charming.” 

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The King Of Queens goes to…

“Cowardly Lyin'”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Six! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!