MSTV Flops: A Look at THE SINGLE GUY

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s post, we’re looking at the Must See TV Thursday flop of all Must See TV Thursday flops: The Single Guy (1995-1997, NBC), which ran for two seasons, mostly in the cushy post-Friends slot at 8:30 on Thursdays, hammocked between that aforementioned hit and Seinfeld. I don’t know about you, but when I think of “MSTV Flops,” the first show that comes to mind is The Single Guy. Although it wasn’t the first comedy to strike out under this brand umbrella (you remember Madman Of The People?) and it didn’t manage to eke out visible mid-level runs — like Veronica’s Closet and Suddenly Susan, despite definite mediocrity — The Single Guy is rivaled only by Caroline In The City (which premiered that same season after Seinfeld) as the most physically reminiscent hammock of the two low-concept “singles in the city” tentpoles. This was intentional. As we’ve explored, NBC wanted to replicate the look and feel of its two Thursday successes so that their sizable audiences would stick around and become fans of these new series, thereby allowing the network to evangelize and spread its sitcom dominance to other nights. (Like it did by moving Frasier and Wings to Tuesdays in 1994-’95, and Mad About You and Hope & Gloria to Sundays in 1995-’96.) But none of NBC’s past and future attempts, while sometimes qualitatively worse, is as egregiously responsible for the negative connotations associated with the “singles in the city” template as The Single Guy, which unlike Caroline, never proved it could stand on its own outside Thursday.

Now, we mentioned in yesterday’s post about how the presence of physically similar series of a “lesser” quality eventually influenced critical reception of Friends, which was then resented because its success inspired the network to green-light inferior copycats (and on other networks too; ’95-’96 was loaded with short-lived “singles in the city” variations — so many that it was only natural to be sick of them). And then, after Friends was thoroughly resented enough, the opposite occurred — annoyance with Friends, regardless of its basically maintained quality, became a roadblock in these new MSTV shows’ ability to secure early critical approval. (Never mind that Friends remained impressive in the Nielsens, both in the totals and the desired 18-49 demo.) But this post isn’t about Friends… even though it sure feels like it. After all, with a premise centered around a young man in New York City looking for love… well, take your pick: are we describing Joey, Chandler, Ross, or Jonathan Eliot? Obviously, we’re talking about Jonathan, a struggling bachelor and writer played by David Schwimmer lookalike (and not to mention, his old school friend) Jonathan Silverman, who had worked with Kauffman and Crane on an unsold pilot prior to Friends called Couples (gee, sounds kinda similar, huh?), and then later guested on a first season episode of Friends as the doctor who delivers Ross’ son.

Another Friends face in the main cast was Jessica Hecht, better known today as Susan Bunch. Cast as Janeane, Jonathan’s married friend with a kid, Hecht had the unenviable task — with co-star, Mark Moses (Desperate Housewives) as her husband, Matt — of representing the boring normalcy that Jonathan professed to desire, but had heretofore avoided. In contrast — or rather, not contrast enough — were the secondary couple, who’d just been married, the manic Sam (Joey Slotnick, Boston Public) and the uptight Trudy (Ming-Na Wen, ER). They, a little less happy and perfect, represented perhaps a more attainable goal for Jonathan, who was, amongst his group of pals in the big city, “the single guy.” Rounding out this regular cast was Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine, playing Manny, the doorman for Jonathan’s building; he’d dispense advice, even if he wasn’t the best dispenser. Beyond the Friends associations, meanwhile, were the Seinfeld associations, which began with series creator Brad Hall (Saturday Night Live, Watching Ellie) — husband of the latter’s leading lady (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) — and included the use of the same backlot (you’ll recognize the Seinfeld street here, redressed time and time again), and, unlike Friends, an individual lead at the center of the ensemble (á la Jerry).

In addition to the problem that plagues most of the short-lived series we cover here — a lack of definition afforded to the regular players, and I mean all the regular players; in this case, the bland protagonist included — one of the reasons that I think The Single Guy failed to creatively ignite in its first season is related to these associations with Friends and Seinfeld. Unlike those two hits, which had tonally appropriate perspectives (romantic optimism and cynical realism, respectively) supporting its characters’ comedy, Hall’s The Single Guy lacks a well-articulated tone and doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. A romantic comedy, like its lead-in? Or a narratively sarcastic prestige piece, like MSTV’s biggest hit? This nonexistent thematic purpose is translated in the series’ projection of its comedy, which is perennially muted — stories are seldom inherently funny, they often lack a big comedic centerpiece (which both Friends and Seinfeld were pros at ensuring), and, to the bigger point mentioned above, they’re not inspired regularly enough by the personalities of the regulars. As always, it comes down to character. While we root for Jonathan simply because of his centripetal position (a.k.a. “the title tells us to”), we never really get to know him well enough to predict how he’ll react; I mean, we know how he’ll react after a “comedic” set-up because the series is rarely surprising, but this isn’t because we know his character. Rather, we know the clichés — the familiar jokes and stories.

Additionally, a talent of Borgnine’s stature is, needless to say, completely wasted (and narratively superfluous — a variation of the “cop on the beat” that NBC first wanted shoved into Friends to expand its demos), while each of the non-single regulars eludes tangible definition. Sam and Trudy ultimately feel more comedically inclined than Janeane and Matt — and part of this comes from the fact that, within the pilot, the first two actually are thrown some laughs, thus suggesting potential flaws — but that’s perhaps because we know the former couple has two seasons of airtime, and the latter couple (Hecht and Moses) only has one. That’s right, there was a Season Two, but changes were in order. Even though the show earned a renewal because it came in as the year’s #6 most-watched series, with a smaller deficit from its lead-in (#3’s Friends) than #4’s Caroline In The City (from #2’s Seinfeld), The Single Guy was still NBC’s lowest-rated program of the night (excepting Boston Common, which was tested at 8:30 in between February and May Sweeps, and came in at #8). Because of this, and not-so-great reviews, the Peacock brass decided that, unlike Caroline, Jonathan was not yet ready to make it on his own in a different night… This meant, however, that sometime during the 1996-’97 season, the show needed to find its sense of self, its own audience, and, eventually, its non-Thursday time slot. And this couldn’t happen without some tweaks.

Yet the big issues — defining the characters so that they could motivate plot, locking into a sense of comedy-massaging tonal identity — were ignored in favor of surface changes, “facelifts,” if you will. Obviously, the most boring of the two couples was dropped and replaced by two single characters — a blonde British divorcée named Marie (played by The Wonder Years‘ Olivia d’Abo, who appeared as a different character in the 1995 pilot) and Russell (Shawn Michael Howard), a young law student working at the local bagel shop where, guess what, now all the regulars “hang out.” (Sound familiar?) Marie was clearly positioned as a new love interest for Jonathan, and her introduction into the main ensemble as a vehicle that could make him no longer “the single guy” — a.k.a. the physical vessel through which he finds growth (and that’s part of the problem; Jonathan’s objective is external and dependent on narrative concerns, not on anything intrinsic that is to be explored within his persona) — is perhaps smart given the premise. But it also represents an attempted shift to a thematic identity closer to Friends’ rom-com sensibilities. And, for as much as the audience would decry the series for becoming even more like its two superior neighbors than it was in Season One, the show itself wasn’t interested in adopting Friends‘ optimistic conceit. Neither was the network, apparently, as the year’s premiere (entitled “Pilot Redux” and written by Hall) — which established the course for Jonathan and Marie — was shelved until June 1997, after the cancellation.

The ratings were not improving — they remained good, by the standards of any other night, but not Thursday — and the show wasn’t any better received. In fact, as indicated, some felt the network was being too ham-fisted in its attempts to make the series look more like Friends/Seinfeld. So, after leading the first half of the second season, creator Brad Hall left and the show-running reins were handed over to Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal (The Golden Palace, The John Larroquette Show, Working), who had joined the staff at the start of the year. The series then pivoted; it added another new regular — a womanizing neighbor (played by Dan Cortese) who could make Jonathan feel self-conscious — gave Sam and Trudy a baby, and dropped the Jonathan/Marie angle in favor of a relationship between Marie and Russell. Additionally, an arc was planned where Suzanne Pleshette as Jonathan’s mom would date his new boss, played by Keene Curtis. (You remember him as John Allen Hill on Cheers.) But after an introductory episode under Hall’s tenure, and an additional script without his name (but likely conceived when he was still around) — that also included Peter Boyle (then on Everybody Loves Raymond) as her ex-husband — Pleshette was dissatisfied with the third script she was handed, and following production, decided not to do any of her additional shows.

As for the other changes, the primary issues remained… The second year has a slightly better sense of comedy than the first, although the ideas feel cheaper and less earned (from character). More to the point, these new regulars are no better defined than the old ones; by this time, Sam and Trudy look the best by default, simply because they’re not as bland and underexposed as the other ensemble members. Dan adds nothing to the cast but a pretty face, and while the Marie/Russell relationship is far more interesting than the Jonathan/Marie idea (which, I nevertheless think was an understandable, if predictable, new hook), neither have personalities consistent from week-to-week. Marie, generally, is an airy actress, but her utilization in story is all over the map, and Russell, sorry to say, is seldom able to do anything but set up stories by setting up jokes. Furthermore, though I love to see Pleshette and think her episodes are among the show’s most enjoyable, she wouldn’t have been a fix either. You see, The Single Guy, in knowing it was weak, decided not to address the root cause of its malaise (character), and instead resorted to all sorts of get-ratings-quick tricks and gimmicks to push past and ignore its shortcomings. (Because, hey, if you’re a hit, then it doesn’t matter if you’re still s**t.)

A lot of these stunts came from casting — most of which occurred during Sweeps periods and concerned bona fide stars, although others were more “TV famous.” Here are the highlights. Season One saw John Kassir, Illeana Douglas, Jack Black, Conan O’Brien, George Plimpton, Marie Osmond, Renee Taylor, Paula Abdul, and Amanda Peet — along with Boyle, and two MSTV connections, David Schwimmer, who appeared as Ross in an episode highlighted below, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who donned a bad wig and played “Danger Girl” (in an episode also highlighted below). Season Two featured turns from Mariska Hargitay, Brian Doyle-Murray, Arye Gross, Maureen McCormick, Rodney Dangerfield, Jeffrey Combs, Dana Ashbrook, Davy Jones, Wendie Malick, Al Roker, Jenna Elfman, Molly Shannon, Don Rickles (as Sam’s father, in an entry discussed below), Jonathan Lipnicki, Paula Marshall, Ellen Travolta, Kristin Davis, and Dan Butler — along with Boyle, Pleshette, and Curtis… As you can see, it’s a long list, and while some weren’t treated as star turns (and a few of these names had their big successes in the years after The Single Guy), they nevertheless collectively prove the point: the show was resorting to superficial gimmicks instead of working through practical long-lasting fixes. Thus, when the series was moved to Wednesday nights in late March ’97 — as the final test of its ability to survive outside the Thursday incubator — its fate should have been a forgone conclusion.

When we discuss the series today, we discuss it in relation to MSTV. We talk about how it resembled Friends and Seinfeld, but wasn’t as original as either of them. Many also talk about how, after a substandard first season, the show was retooled to become — not more unique, but rather more like the shows to which it had previously been compared. That’s all true and valid, and I’d argue that The Single Guy was, indeed, the first BOMB in this category — the first failure so obviously patterned off the hits. Yet the main takeaway I have for you now is that all of those concerns are secondary compared to the fundamental reason the show didn’t work: The Single Guy relied on its homogenized premise, believing this to be the principal reason for the success enjoyed by similarly constructed Thursday night hits, and it not only didn’t offer characters as comedically story-providing or emotionally engaging as its neighbors’, but it also didn’t take the opportunity to remedy these issues when, based on the ratings it earned simply because of its location, the series had the chance after Season One (and again in the middle of Two) to “make good” and work through solutions that could have turned the series from forgettable, familiar tripe to decent MSTV companion piece. There was no real improvement.

But it’s seminal for those studying the phenomenon that was Must See TV, for again, it’s one of the first misbegotten shows to define the genre. Also, it featured the work of many talented scribes who’d have better endeavors elsewhere, including David Kohan & Max Mutchnick (Boston Common, Will & Grace), Steve Paymer (Mad About You, Soul Man), Jay Kogen (The Simpsons, Frasier), and John Masius (St. Elsewhere, Touched By An Angel) in Season One, and Gayle Abrams (Spin City, Frasier), Rachel Sweet (Dharma & Greg, Hot In Cleveland), and Will Gluck (Working, The Michael J. Fox Show) in Season Two. Accordingly, I am able to share a list of notable episodes. Notice, however, that I’m featuring “notable” episodes — not best. There aren’t enough objectively worthwhile outings to make that list, but there are more than enough “fascinating because of X, Y, Z” offerings to highlight. So, here are twelve episodes of The Single Guy worth paying attention to — if you can find ’em. As of this writing, the series has not been released on home video, but the entire run circulates. They are listed in AIRING ORDER.

 

Season One (1995-1996)

01) Episode 6: “Neighbors” (Aired: 11/02/95)

Jonathan hangs out with Ross, while each believes the other is gay.

Written by David Kohan & Max Mutchnik | Directed by Sam Weisman | Production No. 100105

On the first night of November Sweeps, as Lea Thompson was popping in on Friends and both Matthew Perry and Jonathan Silverman had cameos on Caroline In The City, David Schwimmer’s Ross crossed over to The Single Guy, participating more heavily than any other guest in this big Thursday gimmick. Schwimmer and Silverman were old buddies, and they have chemistry here, although the narrative — of each thinking the other is gay, born from a variety of small misunderstandings (like the fact that Jonathan is staying with a gay couple, his neighbors, while his own place is repaired) — is a thin, one-joke, not-character-driven premise that lacks a big crescendo. I wouldn’t recommend this if not for Ross. However, note the credited authors: Kohan and Mutchnik, who’d later explore similar ideas on a hit MSTV series of their own…

02) Episode 7: “Mugging”  (Aired: 11/09/95)

Jonathan dates a woman who is only excited when in dangerous situations.

Written by David Kohan & Max Mutchnik and Richard Doctorow | Directed by Sam Weisman | Production No. 100107

Seinfeld was notorious about not indulging all the network’s cross promotional stunts… unless there was a personal connection, like when Seinfeld allowed Kramer to appear on Resier’s Mad About You, and here, when Louis-Dreyfus did a favor to her husband and made an ostentatious appearance as “Danger Girl,” Jonathan’s latest love interest, who only gets aroused when there’s some sort of threat to her life. It’s a comedic idea — a Victory in Premise — and Louis-Dreyfus is always fun to watch… even if the teleplay doesn’t inlay great character stuff for anyone else, and the comedy, as usual, lacks a climactic punch to instill a sense of memorability. Again, if not for the appearance of one of MSTV’s finest, I wouldn’t be singling out this episode of The Single Guy. But for its inherent curiosity value, you won’t want to miss it. Also, Mimi Kennedy guests.

03) Episode 8: “Sister” (Aired: 11/16/95)

Jonathan can’t stop sleeping with Janeane’s sister Paula during her Thanksgiving visit.

Written by Steve Palmer | Directed by Sam Weisman | Production No. 100108

Still in Sweeps, Illeana Douglas guest stars — in her first of two appearances — as Janeane’s sister, who becomes a, ahem, “friend with benefits” to Jonathan over the course of her visit for Thanksgiving. This isn’t an original premise — we’ve seen this kind of fare before — and as usual, the show doesn’t add anything to the proceedings by way of comedy that indicates this telling to be in any way superior. However, for the standards suggested by the show itself, this is one of the better outings — the Thanksgiving dinner (with Jack Black, who makes the first of two appearances himself as Sam’s inept employee) comes close to being a great crescendo… until it, naturally, is let down by a Jonathan/Janeane scene… Nevertheless, I’d highlight this entry even without Douglas or Black, because it really is slightly better than most.

04) Episode 10: “Midnight” (Aired: 12/14/95)

Jonathan wants to reunite with an ex whom he sees out with a date on New Year’s Eve.

Written by Jay Kogen | Directed by Sam Weisman | Production No. 100110

John Kassir and Steve Hytner (Kenny Bania on Seinfeld) make small appearances in this episode, which is otherwise free of any major star turns. (No surprise, though; those are primarily reserved for Sweeps!) What I appreciate about this installment is that there’s actually an indication that the five young regulars can function collectively as an ensemble (à la the Friends) — and it comes in a single moment of physical comedy where they all try to retrieve Jonathan’s terrible date’s cell phone number, so they can call her into work and he can be freed to go pursue an ex that he sees with another man (Hytner) and for whom he’s been pining. Also, there’s a unity of time, place, and action for most of the entry that contributes to its quality.

05) Episode 12: “Nineteen” (Aired: 01/11/96)

Jonathan dates a 19-year-old and Janeane tries to prove she’s still young.

Written by Jim McCoulf | Directed by Sam Weisman | Production No. 100113

Another Victory in Premise, this outing contends with the naturally comedic idea that Jonathan would date a 19-year-old, a fact that further becomes uncomfortable when he meets her father and realizes just how much they have in common. Yet again, this isn’t something unique that we haven’t seen before — Wings did a similar episode with Joe and a 19-year-old, and heck, Friends did a story the season prior with Monica and an even younger man. But this is another offering with a slightly elevated comedic brain, and I appreciate that it thematically connects the A-story to the B-story with the otherwise boring Janeane, who tries to prove her own youth by getting a tattoo (thus beating Friends to one of its similar stories by a month).

06) Episode 18: “Poetry” (Aired: 03/07/96)

Jonathan falls for a columnist who eviscerates his latest book.

Written by Paul Barrose | Directed by Craig Zisk | Production No. 100117

After excluding all of the February episodes, which were generally built around guest stars (and not the kind fascinating for us because of their MSTV connotations), I’m highlighting the first of only two excursions that aired in between the two Sweeps periods. This is a relevant outing because it introduces the first love interest for Jonathan who has any sense of permanency, Jensen Daggett as Charlie McCarthy, a contrarian critic who gives his latest book a terrible review, and for whom he, predictably, falls — setting up an arc that’s intended to carry the show into the next season, where “the single guy” may no longer be single. Once again, we’re not dealing with anything original or hilarious, but the sense of focus increases its engagability.

 

Season Two (1996-1997)

07) Episode 23: “Mounted Cop” (Aired: 09/19/96)

Jonathan fears retribution when he dumps a cop; Trudy seeks contraband bras from Marie.

Written by Rachel Sweet | Directed by Craig Zisk | Production No. 100203

Although the intended premiere (discussed below) was indeed scheduled to air as the season opener, it was bumped at the last-minute in favor of this offering, which was considered a stronger comedic showing. (Personally, I think both episodes are relatively funny, and the disruption in continuity wasn’t worth the swap…) Leaving viewers to piece together the clues of all that has changed, this entry operates with a sense of narrative dovetailing reminiscent of Seinfeld, as Jonathan’s finite romance with a cop (Mariska Hargitay) and his fear of retribution from her family of cops (including Brian Doyle-Murray) meets a subplot in which Trudy asks Marie to score her some imported Cuban bras, leading to a climactic (yes!) NYPD Blue parody.

08) Episode 32: “Deepest Cut” (Aired: 12/12/96)

Jonathan accidentally stabs his abrasive mother.

Written by Stephen Godchaux | Directed by Kim Friedman | Production No. 100211

This is the last produced episode for which creator Brad Hall remains credited as an Executive Producer, and it’s the first appearance of Suzanne Pleshette as the title character’s mother. She was right in insisting that her role was never better written than in the debut, and that’s interesting, because this sense of nuance — evidenced here and slightly muted in her later appearances — isn’t felt for other big guests in the first half of Season Two, which is largely forgettable en masse. But, the idea is easily funny — man accidentally stabs his obnoxious mom — and the guest actress’ presence gives an added legitimacy that the series often lacks (even with Borgnine as one of its regulars). Also, former NBC sitcom star John Mendoza appears.

09) Episode 38: “Mother Love” (Aired: 02/06/97)

Jonathan’s mother dates his boss; Marie develops feelings for Russell.

Written by Suzanne Myers & Cody Farley | Directed by Andrew Tsao | Production No. 100217

In her last of three offerings — the second of which featured Peter Boyle, then in the first year of Everybody Loves Raymond, making his last of two appearances — Suzanne Pleshette’s Sarah begins a romance with Jonathan’s boss, played by Keene Curtis (who recurs three times in the back nine). During production week, the leading lady from The Bob Newhart Show took issue with the depiction of her character, and despite some of her concerns being rectified before it was filmed, she decided not to appear again. Frankly, this isn’t the best of her trilogy, but there’s nothing inordinately and unbelievably stereotypical in her characterization either, and although her inclusion isn’t a fix for broader issues, it would have been nice to see her again. Meanwhile, in the notable subplot, the show introduces, sans much motivation, Marie/Russell.

10) Episode 39: “Big Baby” (Aired: 02/13/97)

Sam’s father visits as Sam and Trudy get their adopted child.

Written by Rachel Sweet | Directed by Andrew Tsao | Production No. 100218

Right in the heart of February Sweeps, Don Rickles appears as the show’s latest special guest star, playing Sam’s dad and exhibiting the indelible persona evidenced in all of his television work. There’s no doubt that this installment’s legitimate enjoyability is derived more from what he brings to the table, as opposed to what the show provides for him. But to the teleplay’s credit, it marries the visit of Sam’s dad (and all the laughs therein) to a larger arc that the show has been building, in which Sam and Trudy decide to adopt. In this episode, they’re surprised when they’re given a son a little older than they thought. The thematic tissue connecting both father-son stories is smart and counters Rickles’ effortless hahas with welcome weight.

11) Episode 41: “Johnny Hollywood” [a.k.a. “Jonathan Hollywood”] (Aired: 04/02/97)

Jonathan goes to Hollywood to talk about adapting his novel into a screenplay.

Written by Rob Cornick & Cory Jachnuk | Directed by Linda Day | Production No. 100220

The last few episodes are credited to authors who weren’t on staff, but instead of feeling disconnected to the rest of what was produced (because the show never really locked into a definable identity), there’s a freedom here at the end of the run that is both cathartic and conducive to greater risk-taking, which, by design, leads to greater rewards. This is another premise-led offering, sans much character, but it’s a cheeky commentary on the series itself, for the A-story (which includes Sex And The City‘s Kristin Davis as a Hollywood executive) is about Jonathan’s attempts to remain true to his artistic vision in the face of studio interference. There’s one meta joke where Jonathan says they want his lead character to get married, even though he’s supposed to be single! (Two weeks later, Jonathan would get married.)

12) Episode 44: “Pilot Redux” (Aired: 06/01/97)

Jonathan loses his apartment, his job, and his girlfriend on the same day.

Written by Brad Hall | Directed by Craig Zisk | Production No. 100202

Pushed aside in September for what was deemed a funnier entry, this is an important show that introduces Marie — her divorce, her career, and the projected romance with Jonathan that Season Two looks to follow  — and gets the show out of its cliffhanger with Charlie McCarthy, so that “the single guy” is single again. But beyond being narratively needed, it’s actually one of the most comedic teleplays — with great planting and pay-off for several gags. Also, Dan Butler (of Frasier) guests… Now, guides cite this installment as un-broadcast, but my research shows that NBC did make it available to affiliates for June 1st, where it could have been offered as last in a block of (otherwise rerun) comedies following an NBA play-off. As a result, it was seen selectively in (mostly) Pacific and Mountain Time Zones, where the game was carried live.

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Friends!

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