The Ten Best PHYLLIS Episodes of Season Two

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re concluding our coverage on the best episodes of Phyllis (1975-1977, CBS), the second spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS). Unfortunately, the series has yet to be released on DVD, but has enjoyed moderate success in syndication and will undoubtedly be released one day. 

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Changes are in store for Phyllis when she gets a job working in the office of a city supervisor. Phyllis stars CLORIS LEACHMAN as Phyllis Lindstrom, HENRY JONES as Judge Jonathan Dexter, JANE ROSE as Audrey Dexter, LISA GERRITSEN as Bess Lindstrom, CARMINE CARIDI as Dan Valenti, JOHN LAWLOR as Leonard Marsh, GARN STEPHENS as Harriet Hastings and JUDITH LOWRY as Mother Dexter.

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The second season of Phyllis puts the titular heroine in a new working environment, the office of a city supervisor, which seems to knowingly emulate WJM’s newsroom: we have a gruff boss (Caridi), a goofy bigwig (Lawlor), and a cynical co-worker (Stephens). On the home front, Jonathan and Audrey are still underused (Rose was apparently ill, and she looks it — especially in the beginning of the season), while Mother Dexter continues to be milked for all her comedic worth. But tragedy struck Phyllis again. Two weeks before CBS aired Mother Dexter’s wedding, actress Judith Lowry passed away. (Burt Mustin followed less than two months later.) Her character’s departure marks the end of the show’s humor, and the fact that the biggest laughs came from an 86-year-old guest-turned-regular illustrates how otherwise depleted the series had become. Additionally, the new office stories don’t work (because of the single-dimensionality of the new players), Jonathan and Audrey are unnecessary talking heads (and barely factor in the stories), and Phyllis has all but lost her comedic edge (the most egregious sin this series ever committed). What was once purposely flighty about the character is now uncomfortably so, for her personality fluctuates week to week — and even scene to scene. Is she growing and becoming less self-involved, or is she regressing and trying to remain the show’s major source of comedy? Either way — the supporting cast isn’t strong enough to help sustain the series during the character’s inconsistent rendering.

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But then, three weeks before the end of the season, the series is given a jolt when Bess elopes. The final three episodes, in which Phyllis runs around in utter shock, presents a new and fascinating dynamic — especially when Bess announces her pregnancy in the finale. But this development was never to be explored, as the series was cancelled at the end of the year. Truthfully, the season is no worse than Rhoda‘s third (which aired concurrently), but the city supervisor concept doesn’t work, and Phyllis’ growing lack of definition spoils the show from ever clicking. But, this is still an MTM series and Cloris Leachman is always hilarious, so there are a handful of great outings. Thus, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.

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Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)

 

01) Episode 25: “The New Job” (Aired: 09/20/76)

Phyllis seeks new employment.

Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels | Directed by Jay Sandrich

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The first thing viewers will notice about the second season is Leachman’s new short hairdo, which is remarked upon by Phyllis herself in the hysterical opening scene in which she competes with another sad sack for an uninterested bartender’s sympathy. It’s probably the highlight of the episode, even though there is a great sequence with John Ritter as a grifting city supervisor who hires Phyllis just before his sins hit the fan. Otherwise, this season premiere is almost like a second pilot, as a whole new format has to be established. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as promising as last season’s initial debut, but it at least presents us with a handful of laughs.

02) Episode 26: “You’re Not Getting Better, Just Older” (Aired: 09/27/76)

Phyllis tricks Mary into coming for a visit.

Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Jay Sandrich

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Mary Tyler Moore crosses over for the second and final time (but the first time in which she and Leachman actually get to interact) in this very funny episode in which Phyllis, in an attempt to prove she has friends, beckons Mary to San Francisco on the pretense of some emergency. When Mary learns that she’s been deceived, her anger is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in her character before — exciting, hilarious, and warranted. Comedic highlights: the gag where Phyllis tells Mary she’s pregnant (see the screen capture above) and the bit between Mary and Mother Dexter (in which each one tries to shock the other). One of this season’s few true gems.

03) Episode 32: “The Wrong Box” (Aired: 11/08/76)

There’s a mix-up when Phyllis has Lars’ body shipped from Minneapolis.

Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by James Burrows

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What a strange episode! I’m most impressed by the unique premise, which has Phyllis arranging for Lars’ body to be transported from Minneapolis to San Francisco, just so she can have the pleasure of visiting him in a cemetery. Unfortunately, there’s a mix-up and Phyllis is accidentally shipped a puma. The comedy continues, however, when Phyllis tries to redo the funeral with a crowd of uninterested guests. It’s very comical; one of the few times that Phyllis is creatively on all cylinders — even though the cylinders are (appropriately) bizarre. Yet bizarre means originality, and when a fresh premise meets a funny script, I have no complaints.

04) Episode 34: “Bess Airs Her Views” (Aired: 11/29/76)

Bess is expelled after advocating for a fired teacher who posed nude.

Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by Asaad Kelada

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Lisa Gerritsen was one of TV’s best child actors. However, as she aged, her even vocal delivery (and refreshing underplaying) sometimes works against the comedy. This is always a detriment to the Bess-centric Phyllis episodes, and they usually only work because of either Leachman or the premise. In this episode’s case, it’s both, as the wonderful story has Bess publishing an article for which she poses nude in protest of the termination of a teacher who also posed nude. Bess is expelled and Phyllis wants her to apologize. The comedic climax is Phyllis’ striptease to the college officials (including David “Larry Tate” White) who’ve expelled Bess.

05) Episode 35: “Mother Dexter Cohabitates” (Aired: 12/06/76)

Mother Dexter moves in with her boyfriend.

Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by Tony Mordente

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This is the first of a two-episode arc that sees Mother Dexter married off to Burt Mustin’s Arthur, a character introduced in last season’s “Honor Thy Mother Dexter.” (Of course, by the time these two episodes aired, Lowry had already passed.) In this installment, the family is shocked to learn that the geriatric lovebirds have decided to live together out of wedlock because she refuses to marry him. Phyllis attempts to intervene, but it isn’t until Bess manages to propose a logical and compelling argument that Mother Dexter changes her mind. The funniest stuff occurs at the end when Mother Dexter admits that Arthur is not her first. Hilarious!

06) Episode 36: “Mother Dexter’s Wedding” (Aired: 12/13/76)

Phyllis forgets to pick up Mother Dexter for her wedding.

Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by Asaad Kelada

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Phyllis’ most famous episode is also probably one of its best. Yes, this is the episode in which Lowry’s Mother Dexter walks down the aisle. However, Phyllis is in charge of arranging the event, and in typical Phyllis fashion, she forgets to pick Mother Dexter up from her trailer park. It’s a clear homage to “Rhoda’s Wedding” (which Phyllis mentions —  with rare self-awareness!) and it works: not only is it hugely comical, but the behavior is perfectly in fitting with the Phyllis character. This isn’t the jokiest episode of the season and it doesn’t have the most laughs, but it’s the most exciting and the laughs here are big. Judith Lowry is a national treasure. Great.

07) Episode 42: “Broken-Hearted Bess” (Aired: 01/30/77)

Phyllis tries to cheer up Bess after a breakup.

Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by Noam Pitlik

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With Lowry’s passing, the show briefly turned its focus to the characters in the office. Because Dan and Harriet proved unfunny, the only workable comical character was Leonard, and yet he, like the other two, lacked definition. This episode is an interruption of this string of narrative mediocrity, as the focus returns to Phyllis’ relationship with Bess. In this installment, Bess meets her soon-to-be husband. This one is enjoyable because of the final scene, which takes place in a sleazy motel where Phyllis tries to cheer up a jilted Bess, and in the process, pops a hole in the waterbed. The scene is funny, and helps render the whole episode most memorable.

08) Episode 46: “The Elopement” (Aired: 02/27/77)

Bess elopes with Dan’s nephew, Mark.

Written by Laurence Marks | Directed by Doug Rogers

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Three episodes before the end, the show gets bold and marries Bess off to her not-so-clean-cut boyfriend. It’s a wonderful shock to Phyllis, whose reaction is predictably hilarious (and earns her a bottom smeared with “wedding pizza”). It’s a marvelously hilarious script, and the story, which has Phyllis attempting to split up the newlyweds, only to inadvertently patch up a secret fight between the two, is amusing and well-constructed. I especially appreciate the final joke in the second act in which Phyllis tries to warn her new son-in-law that insanity runs in the family. “I know,” he retorts. With this episode, the show launches into its final (very funny) arc.

09) Episode 47: “The Apartment” (Aired: 03/06/77)

Phyllis hopes Jonathan will invite Bess and Mark to live with them.

Written by Laurence Marks | Directed by Noam Pitlik

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The middle episode of this rejuvenating trilogy, this installment finds the newlyweds leaving the motel for a small (un-tastefully decorated) apartment. Phyllis tries to get them to move into a better place and schemes to have Jonathan offer the pair a room at his house, by showing the Dexters, via a cramped dinner, Bess’ uncomfortable new place. This episode works because Phyllis is presented as intelligent and resourceful (although she lacked self-awareness, she was never dumb, as much of Season Two paints her), and because Dan, being Mark’s uncle, is now better integrated into the series, giving him a connection to Phyllis beyond just a boss.

10) Episode 48: “A Baby Makes Six” (Aired: 03/13/77)

Mark walks out on Bess, just as she learns she’s pregnant.

Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by Noam Pitlik

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As mentioned in my introduction, the series makes another bold move and has Bess get pregnant. The story allows for another incredibly funny script, with every scene employing sharp lines and good laughs. The office scene in which the staff argues about what Bess should do to get her estranged husband back is memorable, as is Bess’ pregnancy reveal to Phyllis, who has just explained how she revealed her condition to Lars. The episode is so strong that it leaves us with a spark of promise as to what could have been an interesting third season. Phyllis as somebody’s grandmother? There could have been some great, original, laughs there.

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Out Of The Closet,” in which Phyllis encourages her beau to come out as gay to his family and friends (it’s a rare issue-oriented episode of this series, and the one that came closest to making this list), “Phyllis And The Jumper,” in which Jerry Stiller plays a suitor who goes out onto a ledge when Phyllis rejects him (but the script is way too story-driven, and loses its humor after the first few scenes), and The Christmas Party,” which features a beautifully choreographed scene in which Phyllis alternates between enjoying herself at the office Christmas party and pretending to be hard at work each time her boss comes in to check on her.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Phyllis goes to…..

“Mother Dexter’s Wedding”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first two seasons of Three’s Company! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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12 thoughts on “The Ten Best PHYLLIS Episodes of Season Two

  1. “You’re Not Getting Better, Just Older” is, if not my very favorite, one of my favorite episodes of the series. Having Mary on board somehow seems to let Phyllis be “herself” in a way that happened successfully too seldom on this series.

    Do you think the presence of a Mary Richards-like character as a regular would have benefitted the series?

    If not that, what do you think it would have taken for this series to have really worked, to the extent that it could ever have worked, given it was built around a character who probably had no business ever being anything other than a second banana.

    • Hi, James! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I too consider “You’re Not Getting Better, Just Older,” to be among the series’ finest episodes for precisely the reason you named: Phyllis is the character whom we met in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. She has definition, she’s outstandingly funny, and there’s a much needed consistency.

      I have gone over in my mind quite a bit as to what would have been needed to make the series work, but I ultimately always end up back with the simple truth that Phyllis Lindstrom is too grand a character to anchor an ensemble show.

      As for having a “voice of reason” figure like Mary, I would say that the pilot, which was developed as expertly as possible, gave us two: Jonathan at home and Julie in the office. With this design, the series looked like it could work. Phyllis’ locale and situation changed, yet the combination of characters (which included Leo and Audrey as unique and humorously exploitable figures) allowed the star to remain her TMTMS self, with several regulars who could keep her in check without reproaching her. But when Colby died, the tragedy haunted the studio setting for the rest of its run, and the balance was forced to shift to the home, where the laughs weren’t as plentiful as initially promised (because Jonathan and Audrey didn’t invite a lot of original stories). The comedy quotient was given a boost when Mother Dexter arrived, but her presence did the character of Phyllis no favors, for they were rarely able to interact with one another in a way that was congruous with who Phyllis was before the series started. In other words, Mother Dexter made Phyllis into a reactor, and she just wasn’t suited for that!

      Similar to your pondering about a character like Mary existing on the show, I have wondered if it could have worked as a two-person vehicle. The key, as always, would have been to keep Phyllis comedically prevalent without making her flaws so broad that they alienated the audience. Her partner could have been the more logical one, allowing Phyllis to do shtick, keeping her from becoming a reactor, and ultimately inviting the audience to find Phyllis charming (as Mary did). But, because Lars could NEVER have been satisfyingly depicted, it would have been hard to justify giving a whole new character the same prominence as Leachman.

      I have also wondered if more emphasis on her relationship with Bess could have benefited the series, as the last few episodes certainly present a dynamic worth exploring. However, Gerritsen wasn’t comedically equipped to play the stories as an equal, and I don’t think theirs was a relationship that could have singlehandedly carried the series.

      And thus, we’re once again back to the fact that Phyllis should never have had a show. As for any fixes, I don’t think I could have improved upon what the producers first presented. Harsh fate and the inevitable difficulty of writing for this character were just too much to overcome.

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the posts! Stay tuned for coverage on our next MTM series, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, coming up in October!

        • I intend to cover NEWHART, however, because the series is gradually being released on DVD, I am not going to do so until every episode is available. Thus, it will probably be a while before it’s featured here, but I have confidence that it will be.

          Although I haven’t given the show much thought because we are a while away from entering the ’90s, EVENING SHADE will likely not be covered here. Only one season is out on DVD, and from the 10 or so episodes I have seen, I find it no more than mediocre.

  2. Mother Dexter reminds me an awful lot of Sophia, from THE GOLDEN GIRLS, except that Sophia was better integrated into the series and could serve as a full-fledged character, both in having stories built around her and in interacting with the rest of the cast. Mother Dexter was more what I once heard described as a “hit-and-run” character. She comes into a scene, does her bit, then leaves, rarely actually participating in the story itself.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      That’s a great way to describe Mother Dexter. We see characters like this a lot — they’re great for comedy, but not always ideal for storytelling.

  3. I’ve gone over in my head many ways in which PHYLLIS could have been improved, but I’ve decided that you’re right. While things could have been done to give the series a boost, none of them could fix the fact that Phyllis Lindstrom just wasn’t a character you could successfully build a show around, not without radically reconceiving the character, at which point she wouldn’t be Phyllis anymore, so what would be the point?

    I imagine MTM would have had the same problem if they’d tried to build a spin-off around, say, Ted Baxter or Sue Ann.

    • Hi, Thomas! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      We are in complete agreement! Although spoiled by the advantage of hindsight, I believe Lou and Rhoda were the only two TMTMS regulars who had the complexity (and simultaneous likability) to make them adaptable to anchoring their own shows. (Of course, lord knows that RHODA, in particular, had its share of issues, most of them stemming from the difficulty of writing for the title character.)

  4. So I too have thought way too much about Phyllis …

    – It was at times a really funny show, particularly in S1. It was funnier, I would argue, then most of Rhoda. And it did it without a lot of really good characters (Mother Dexter excepted). In many ways, it reminded me of the post-Rhoda years of MTM: Farcical, big laughs, aggressive humor. The Rhoda spinoff reminded me of the Rhoda years of MTM: Very homey, smaller laughs, with an emphasis on relationships and dating.

    – Phyllis leaving MTM, unlike when Rhoda left, didn’t hurt the flagship show (IMO). She was kind of an annoying character anyway, and Sue Ann and Ted were much funnier foils. What’s interesting is on MTM, Phyllis was a very specific type: Politically involved (and self-involved), pseudo-intellectual and pretentious. All that is played down in the spinoff, particularly the political stuff. (Which is a shame, because that had potential. Here is a good-hearted but obnoxious woman bumbling through various causes. Kind of like Maude.) In any case, Phyllis was clearly much easier to take on the spinoff. She was so toned down, that it didn’t always make sense when the other characters insulted her. It often came off as mean.

    – MTM had one of the all-time great ensembles, and none of the other MTM comedies were able to replicate it. You could get rid of all the spinoff characters but Phyllis, Bess, and Mother Dexter and no one would care. I don’t think anyone really mounted the end of the photography studio, except that her second office was worse. (Maybe moving her to a different office every year would have been fun, because she couldn’t keep a job. Oh well.)

    – Apparently there were plans for a post-MTM Ted Baxter spinoff (at WJM) that never came to fruition. Betty White’s post-MTM vehicle had her playing a character very much like Sue Ann, with Georgia Engel as a sidekick. That didn’t work either.

    How about a Murray spinoff? Obviously Gavin McLeod proved later he can carry a show. He was a likable, if nondescript, character. But I don’t think there was much demand for that.

    Anyway great blog! Keep up the great work!

    • Hi, Rob! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Be sure to check out our other MTM posts — including those on RHODA and THE BETTY WHITE SHOW — if you haven’t already!

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