Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re concluding our coverage on the best episodes from one of the jiggliest sitcoms in primetime history, Three’s Company (1977-1984, ABC). I’m thrilled to announce that every single episode has been released on DVD.
Chef Jack Tripper lives with two single girls in an attempt to save expenses, but there’s a catch: he must feign homosexuality to subvert the suspicions of their conservative landlord. Three’s Company stars JOHN RITTER as Jack Tripper, JOYCE DeWITT as Janet Wood, PRISCILLA BARNES as Terri Alden, RICHARD KLINE as Larry Dallas, and DON KNOTTS as Ralph Furley.
The final season of Three’s Company, with recycled stories, thinning characterizations, and a growing schism between the easy going titillation of the late ’70s and the coming sleekness of Reagan’s ’80s, is indicative of a show past its prime. While there are a handful of enjoyable shows with “throwback” premises, the series begins shedding its constructs, focusing more on Jack, and reducing the other characters to unnecessary time-fillers. As Janet devolves into a whiny loon who drives far too many of the misunderstandings to ever be called, as she once was, the “straight man” or “the voice of reason,” Terri suffers from a disease that plagues so many underdeveloped characters: personality-less-itis, which grows more and more dire as the show progresses. Who is Terri? With only a few stories in which she’s integral, and even fewer laugh lines per episode, Terri is emblematic of the show’s running out of steam: neither here nor there, but here and there anyway.
Meanwhile the finale, which exists only to set-up the spin-off Three’s A Crowd (which we’ll discuss in tomorrow’s Wildcard Wednesday post), is one of the situation comedy’s worst, with forced laughs and bizarre “big event” developments, marring a vital ability to enjoy the last few episodes as the classic Three’s Company episodes they should be. But despite my harsh complaints, there were plenty of worthy episodes to include in today’s list, because even though the scripts are noticeably weaker, the cast, and Ritter in particular, still manage some BIG laughs. And each of the shows highlighted here offer something special or worthwhile; the comedy can still be found. So 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.
Here are my picks for the best episodes of Season Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by Dave Powers unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 151: “Jack Be Quick” (Aired: 09/27/83)
Jack’s girlfriend asks him to father her child.
Written by Martin Rips & Joseph Staretski
Joanna Kerns guest stars in this episode as Jack’s girlfriend who propositions him with a unique offer: the chance to father her child. With extended scenes between Jack and his girlfriend, this launches a growing trend towards more Jack-centered stories. (It’s even more obvious with hindsight, of course.) However, the moments between the regular characters still manage the most laughs, as the misunderstandings that develop (Janet thinking Jack has already gotten the woman pregnant and is refusing to marry her) carry much of the comedy. It’s a surprisingly adult episode — one of the few this season that feels fitting for these maturing characters and doesn’t insult the sensibilities of the audience or the logic of the characters. Well done.
02) Episode 152: “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” (Aired: 10/04/83)
Larry convinces Jack that one of his roommates has the hots for him.
Written by Arlan Gutenberg & Babette Will
Most appealing about this episode is its theatricality; this is one of the few shows without any guest stars. It’s just Jack, Janet, Terri, and Larry, as the foursome contends with a rather basic premise about a magazine quiz that seems to implicate that one of the girls is crushing on her male roomie. In addition to the shades of “A Black Letter Day,” this installment also invokes memories of cabin-living in “A-Camping We Will Go,” also from Season Four. Based on a traditional and nicely plotted misunderstanding, this is Three’s Company at its comfort television best, making us laugh with simple stories and an effortless execution. It’s not really appropriate by this point (and for characters who know each other so well), but it’s uncomplicated fun.
03) Episode 154: “Out On A Limb” (Aired: 10/25/83)
Jack tries to steal back a nasty letter he sent to a food critic.
Written by David Mirkin
Exactly how many shows have done episodes about a character trying to steal back a hastily written piece of mail before it arrives to the sender? (It’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is too high to count.) Despite the unoriginal premise, this installment once again benefits from its theatrical staging, which allows the farcical nature of the proceedings to play with appropriate broadness. Furthermore, this is one of the few true ensemble shows of the season, with great bits given to Jack, Janet, and yes, even Terri. Without a doubt, it’s one of the funnier, and fresher, offerings from this mediocre-at-best Season Eight. (Incidentally, this episode rated a series low, ushering in a wave of less-than-impressive numbers.)
04) Episode 155: “Alias Jack Tripper” (Aired: 11/01/83)
Larry takes Jack’s place on a date with Janet’s friend.
Written by Mark Tuttle
Although we value episodes that feature a much needed recognition of the characters’ maturity, the truth is that the best and funniest installments are built on misunderstandings, the classic Three’s Company template, and those general arise from a breakdown of logic. This episode makes use of mistaken identity, as Larry masquerades as Jack (giving Richard Kline the opportunity to relish in his John Ritter impression, which he does exceptionally well) to take out Janet’s old friend, whom they anticipate to be homely. Naturally, things are complicated when the woman stays in town longer than anticipated, forcing Jack into some fancy maneuverings to keep Janet from learning about their deception.
05) Episode 156: “Hearing Is Believing” (Aired: 11/08/83)
Janet thinks Jack’s girlfriend is a hooker.
Written by Neal Marlens
This is undeniably one of the most laugh-heavy installments from the final season, no doubt due to both the tried-and-true misunderstanding format and the show’s increasing ability to be a little bit more direct about its sexuality (Jack’s date is a sex therapist!). Unfortunately, this is the episode to which I most often point in illustration of Janet’s loss of sanity, as her hysterics force us to reshape our image of the once smart and put together roommate. (I blame some of this on the writers not being able to write for Terri, forcing Janet into this zany role.) If you can get past the machinations that force Janet’s overboard shtick, this will be a favorite, for it’s everything else that a good Three’s Company should be, with a fresh premise in support.
06) Episode 157: “Grandma Jack” (Aired: 11/22/83)
Larry enters Jack in a females only baking contest.
Story by Garry Ferrier & Aubrey Tadman | Teleplay by Mike Weinberger | Directed by Bob Priest & Michael Ross
Admittedly, as the second episode in which Jack dons drag (the other was Season Four’s “Jack On The Lam,” which deserved to make that year’s list, but didn’t due to the high volume of classics that season), this installment is inferior to its predecessor in every single way. However, Season Eight has less competition, and because of the infectious fun that John Ritter has as Grandma Tripper, this becomes a classically silly episode of Three’s Company — one that hinges entirely on his clowning and subverts the otherwise unbelievable plot beats (not to mention the simple fact that Jack Tripper does not make a convincing woman, no matter how hard he bakes). It’s definitely not a personal favorite, but it’s strong for this season.
07) Episode 159: “The Odd Couples” (Aired: 12/06/83)
Terri lies to thwart the perceived advances of her boss.
Story by Neal Marlens | Teleplay by Ellen Guylas & Shelley Zellman
As perhaps the only episode of the season that puts Terri at the focal point of the story (and even gives her a lengthy scene at the hospital without either Jack or Janet), this installment automatically sticks out from the rest. Otherwise, it’s another really broad farce, as Terri spins a web of lies when she suspects her boss of making passes at her, leading to a visit from the doctor and his wife, as Jack pretends to be Terri’s crippled husband and Janet and Larry play a pair of French houseguests. Unfortunately, Jack’s girlfriend and some other predictable obstacles, like the doctor’s wife’s proficiency in French, make this rouse a difficult one to last. A delightful one-act. Dumb, but enjoyable, and this year’s only Terri showcase.
08) Episode 163: “Itching For Trouble” (Aired: 01/10/84)
Jack’s old flame’s husband suspects his wife of having an affair.
Written by Chet Dowling & Sandy Krinski
Despite the declining ratings, one thing noticeable about the final season is how many episodes feature large sequences on non-regular sets, which means that the show must have had a bigger budget (and the writers were desperate seeking new stories). In addition to a park set, this episode also builds the living room of a couple’s house, where Jack’s clandestine meeting with his old flame is difficult to hide from her jealous husband when the pair comes down with poison oak, from the park bush in which they earlier hid. What I appreciate most about this episode, aside from the performance by Don Knotts (who may be MVP), is the freshness of the premise. In a year of recycling, originality — not to mention laughs — are most valued.
09) Episode 164: “Baby, It’s Cold Inside” (Aired: 01/17/84)
Jack and Mr. Furley get locked in Angelino’s freezer.
Written by Chet Dowling & Sandy Krinski
Here we have a story that we’ve seen all over the place on sitcoms before and since. I sometimes refer to them as “bunkhouse episodes,” which trap two characters in one location for a seriocomic dialogue. In this case, Jack and Mr. Furley get trapped in the freezer at Angelino’s when they are held up by a burglar. Knotts and Ritter share a wonderful and unique chemistry, and they carry the entirety of the episode, which, honestly, isn’t brilliantly written. But there are plenty of laughs, and more surprisingly, moments of dramatic weight (that actually play, and don’t feel hokey or forced — as they sometimes do on shows not accustomed to the transition). So it’s a special installment, and an understandable fan favorite.
10) Episode 166: “Jack’s Tattoo” (Aired: 01/31/84)
Misunderstandings abound when Jack goes in for elective surgery.
Story by Ron Bloomberg & Al Gordon and Prudence Fraser & Robert Sternin | Teleplay by Ron Bloomberg & Al Gordon
Without a doubt, the funniest episode of the season! This installment features multiple layers of brilliantly constructed misunderstandings, incorporating all the characters, including Terri and her occupation as a nurse. When Jack gets drunk with his old navy buddies and gets an embarrassing tattoo on his butt (“The Love Butt”), he goes in to have it removed. Janet overhears a conversation and jumps to the conclusion that Jack is having a vasectomy, while Mr. Furley overhears another conversation and believes Jack is having a sex change. There are some gigantic laughs in this episode, particularly from DeWitt and Knotts, who are driven by their separate mistaken beliefs to hilarious crescendos. Brilliance — this show’s last great showing.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Janet Shapes Up,” in which Jack is blackmailed into dating Janet’s new boss at an aerobic studio (unenjoyable story, but lots of great moments for Ritter), “Jack Takes Off,” in which Jack poses nude for a neighbor’s art class (ditto to the above), “Forget Me Not,” in which Jack feigns amnesia after wrecking Janet’s car (jokey, but very unoriginal and gimmicky — an insult to brains), and “The Heiress,” in which Janet meets Phillip (and there are some surprising laughs, despite the series’ obvious maneuverings).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Three’s Company goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Soap (1977-1981, ABC)! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!