Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990, Showtime), an early cable sitcom and an important chapter in the genre’s evolution. I’m happy to note the entire series has been released on DVD.
A neurotic stand-up comic is aware that he’s a character on a television sitcom. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show stars GARRY SHANDLING as Garry Shandling, MOLLY CHEEK as Nancy Bancroft, SCOTT NEMES as Grant Schumaker, and MICHAEL TUCCI as Pete Schumaker. Recurring players this season include BERNADETTE BIRKETT as Jackie Schumaker, BARBARA CASON as Ruth Shandling, IAN BUCHANAN as Ian McFyfer, and PAUL WILLSON as Leonard Smith.
As suggested last week, Season Three finds the show beginning its descent from the peak represented in the year prior. There are a few inherently inevitable reasons I’d like to explore as to why the show is now finding itself amidst a creative struggle, but first I think it helps to contextualize the series’ trajectory in the acknowledgment of an external factor that would ultimately have an impact on both the show’s quality and its reputation: its pick-up by FOX, which began airing the series in syndication in March 1988, just as the second season was concluding. With extra cash and hopes that the show would now be able to build a stronger audience, the series’ deal with this new broadcast network essentially meant that It’s Garry Shandling’s Show had another boss — one that censored content (not gratuitously, but still menacingly) and shoehorned commercials into a product intended to run uninterrupted. (This eventually led the show to consciously try sticking to a more traditional running time of 23-24 minutes, standing in stark contrast to the early years, in which episodes varied in length from approximately 20 to 28 minutes.) But these creative restrictions — not necessarily disruptive unless the show allowed them to be — ended up being “small potatoes” in comparison to the issues that arose once the series was subject to the Nielsen ratings system at FOX. No longer could It’s Garry Shandling’s Show be called a hidden gem available to a select few — now it was available to a broader audience. The ramifications next season would prove lethal.
But let’s discuss quality… With only two seasons (33 episodes worth) of material for FOX to broadcast, it wasn’t long until the network caught up with the series as it was airing on Showtime, and while one could argue that the limitations FOX imposed on the previously produced content helped to display the series in a less favorable light to said broader audience, it wasn’t as if Showtime was seeing a miraculously better product. For at the same time that It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was sold to the network, the series could no longer hide the problems that were now beginning to manifest themselves more overtly — principally, the dilemma suggested by a high-concept premise that undervalued characters and made them difficult for which to write. These past few posts have implied, but danced around, this issue, for novelty and creative construction staved off this eventual discussion. But now, with novelty wearing thin and construction disappointing, we can no longer ignore problems, as the third season finds the rebellious foundation going from asset to liability, revealing the inescapable hollowness that’s been supporting this series’ storytelling. Now, any show that features a premise or even an episodic story that overwhelms its characters is problematic (because, as we all know, story should be dictated by character), but It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, while doing the above constantly, also complicates its prospects by employing a metatheatrical premise about the fiction of television — essentially forcing its audience to recognize that these characters are neither realistic nor multi-dimensional, but rather products of something artificial (albeit, loveable).
As a result, no matter how “realistic” or “ordinary” the cast manages to be, we’ll never be able to take them with the same gravitas as characters who, even in shows that operate with a burlesque wink (like the upcoming Married… With Children), still exist in a universe that the show itself is committed to keeping intact — real or surreal. So, because of the show’s own irreverence for television convention, its choice to not only make metatheatricality a stylistic choice, but also part of the premise, thus handicaps the series in the one place that EVERY single narrative work must find its center: the characterizations. And this is ultimately why, for all the influence It’s Garry Shandling’s Show would have on future disruptive works (see the commentary from Season One for more on this subject), very few shows would choose to reflect such disruption in the very fabric of their existence — the premise. Most fourth wall breaking from now on will be tonal or situational — and even when this wall is damaged, reality will be somehow suggested on both sides for the sake of the characters (see: The Larry Sanders Show, coming up here next year). In light of this position, I’d like to emphasize my belief that self-awareness is not fundamentally corrosive to works of fiction, because there are ways to elementally use this aesthetic choice for narrative and comedic gain (see: Married… With Children); as always, it’s the improper use of self-awareness (like in this case of the explicitly self-aware It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which hangs its entire premise on this concept) that proves unworkable – just as the improper use of realism can eventually do the same (see: late Seinfeld).
But this self-aware movement isn’t just creatively stifling due to characterization problems – the series is now also having to face the consequences of its own dissident reputation: the need to retain and constantly reinforce this identity. Unlike a show that was built and packaged traditionally and can opt when it wants to surprise and break form, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is expected to break form every single week; its form is breaking form. So, in the pursuit of material that will satisfy these demands, the third season has the writers working overtime to create single episode hooks that will not only substantiate the show’s bold reputation, but also continue to shock and push boundaries, the foundation of the show’s thesis. This season claims, to name a few, a multi-part guest star driven outing (the horrendous “Save Mr. Pecks”), a live show, and a musical entry — all hallmarks of a series turning to gimmicks in desperate search of life. It’s troubling on a traditional show and it’s troubling here – for reasons both generic (gimmicks themselves never satisfy; it’s character that counts) and specific to the series’ identity. With regard to the latter, when It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was easily exerting its differentness in seasons past, it wasn’t giving in to TV convention to do so; now it’s doing exactly that, and as this kind of writing occurs with regularity, the audience begins to recognize that non-conformity is no longer a natural part of the show’s identity, but rather an element being imposed by some outside force — an outside force who has to conform to non-conform. And that leads to a terrible disconnect from which the show doesn’t have the necessary tools to recover.
Adding to the season’s disconnect is the year’s vacillation between the aforementioned gimmicky, heavily concept-driven episodes, only a few of which work (particularly in the beginning of the season, which seems to be riding off the fumes of the two years prior), to rather dull stories in which fourth-wall-hijinks are foisted upon a script that would otherwise be suited to a mediocre sitcom in the traditional network format. In the second category, we find the show recognizing that it has to do a better job with its characters, choosing then to spend the non-gimmicky parts of the year trying to better utilize every member of the ensemble – even going so far as to give Nancy a recurring love interest in the form of Ian (played by a soap actor then on General Hospital, Ian Buchanan). But “it’s too little, too late” with characters who were both underdeveloped for several years and also situated within a concept that made giving them integrity difficult. Additionally, the series was never meant to do “typical sitcom” stories in a “typical sitcom” manner, so whenever it comes close to engaging in such foolishness without the necessary subversion, the show loses the ability to be itself… And that’s where we are in Season Three, as the show’s problems have finally caught up to the scripts, the relationship between the premise and the execution of its promises is inconsistent, and the results are surprisingly mediocre — “surprisingly” because you’d expect them to be blatantly bad. But the series’ attempts to stay connected to its thesis keeps it from the failure we’ll see in Season Four, when the series treks a course of redemption that flops miserably… That’s for next week; in the meantime, I have picked eight episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. 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 eight best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 16 of the 20 episodes this season are directed by Alan Rafkin; any offerings highlighted below that aren’t directed by Rafkin will be noted.
01) Episode 35: “Pete’s Got A Secret” (Aired: 10/28/88)
Garry tries to find out the cause of Pete’s recent hostility.
Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss
Note that this is the first script by Jean and Reiss, who are currently producers on The Simpsons. To be brutally honest, they’re not among this show’s best writers — they just don’t seem to understand the tone completely — but many of their scripts will be highlighted in these last two seasons, simply because there’s not a lot of good competition. Now, harsh critique aside, I think this may actually be their most cohesive effort for the series, for it makes use of the live audience, has a traceable story that’s character-related, and features delightful TV-themed jokes, like one about Tucci’s stint on The Paper Chase. Very solid entry — a favorite here.
02) Episode 36: “What’s Happening To Me?” (Aired: 11/04/88)
The cast puts on a musical about Grant going through puberty.
Written by Tom Gammill & Max Pross & and Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling
For shows that are usually all dialogue, musical episodes have always been a gimmick — they were even a gimmick way back when Lucy went to Scotland — but I’d like to give this series credit for bucking the trend, for non-diagetic musicals were simply not common on television in 1988, and that’s one of the reasons why it makes a lot of sense for a musical entry to be explored by this series, which delights in being unconventional. And, in fact, I’m going to take the stance that this episode is actually well-constructed around funny ideas, and so even though an obvious third season dog-and-pony show, it’s one that I would qualify as a success. A hit.
03) Episode 37: “Live Election Show” (Aired: 11/08/88)
Garry hosts a live election results show in which he declares the wrong winner.
Written by Alan Zweibel and Tom Gammill & Max Pross
Now, live episodes were a gimmick employed occasionally on network television in the ’80s, but It’s Garry Shandling’s Show un-conventionalizes the shtick by choosing to go live on the night of the U.S.’ 1988 presidential election. The episode is built both on the idea of Garry Shandling, of all people, choosing to do live coverage of the results, and also that he chooses what everyone in the audience realizes is the wrong winner. It’s sort of a one-joke outing, but it’s a little more inspired than a lot of other entries produced this season, so that’s how it got bumped up to the list. Also, there are a couple of good laugh-out-loud moments. (Sorry, Barbara Bush.)
04) Episode 39: “Home Sweet Home” (Aired: 12/30/88)
The condo association intends to vote on whether or not Garry should be evicted.
Written by Ted Bergman
In this season of mediocrity, not every episode that I’ve highlighted here is truly extraordinary, and that’s a fairly big change from the first two years, during which I really was able to spotlight those that I felt were most deserving. But in these lesser times, I have to pick episodes that are merely better than their peers. And that’s sort of the case with this episode, which isn’t brilliant, but does a lot of things right — like wonderful guest appearances by Dena Dietrich, future recurring guest Roy Brocksmith, and special guest star, Rob Reiner, who, of course, had appeared on the series in a memorable first season episode. These parts make a strong sum.
05) Episode 40: “Vegas (I)” (Aired: 01/06/89)
The cast flies to Las Vegas for Leonard’s wedding.
Written by Ed Solomon
It’s a wonderfully amusing idea that — out of nowhere — the show gives a story to Leonard, as the cast ventures to Vegas for his upcoming nuptials. We actually learn a lot about his character in this episode, particularly in the surprisingly effective guest appearance of the comedically shrewish Joy Behar (you’ll see her again next week) as the ghost of Leonard’s late wife. The story also grants Garry and the writers airplane shtick, and in its best moments, parodies of the tropes that usually comprise sitcom airplane stories. Part I is much funnier than Part II, in which we meet Leonard’s finance (who seems to be Carol Kane lite). Enjoyable.
06) Episode 45: “Ruth’s Place” (Aired: 02/17/89)
Garry is annoyed when his mom incessantly plugs her pet shop on his show.
Written by Ziggy Steinberg
This is another entry that takes its place on today’s list for several solid reasons rather than any collective superiority. In addition to the very meta idea of Garry being incensed that his mom is using the show to advertise for her small business, the comedic climax is a terrific gag in which the cast (including guest Marcia Cross) goes to the General Hospital set and television worlds collide in a bizarre crossover that only this series can really do. This scene also offers the show the opportunity, and I’m sure they were hoping to do this from the very beginning, to make use of the fact that new recurring player Ian Buchanan was then also a regular on General Hospital.
07) Episode 51: “Garry Goes Golfing” (Aired: 04/07/89)
Martin Mull invites Garry to a golf tournament in Boysville.
Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss | Directed by Don Mischer
Martin Mull makes his first guest appearance on this series in a workmanlike outing that gains distinction both for his presence and for the story’s strong use of the recent “Garry becomes a Big Brother arc,” generally a big ol’ waste of time save for the moment in this outing in which Garry inadvertently knocks the boy out with a rogue golf ball. It really justifies this episode’s existence, which aside from Mull’s appearance, again, doesn’t represent anything other than an average outing from a show limping to the finish line. Am I being a bit too harsh? Yes, but that’s only because the show used to be able to do an episode like this much better.
08) Episode 53: “Worry Wart” (Aired: 04/21/89)
Garry finds a growth on his neck and inadvertently jeopardizes Nancy’s relationship.
Story by Tom Gammill & Max Pross and Al Jean & Mike Reiss | Teleplay by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling and Elaine Aronson & Larry Levin | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Finally, at the conclusion of the series’ longest season we have an outing that feels the most like a “Golden Era” episode of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and for that reason, it’s the one that earns the distinction of being this year’s MVE. With a terrific metatheatrical A-plot involving Garry discovering, by watching the tape of an “episode” (one we’ve never seen, by the way), that he has a potentially dangerous growth on the back of his neck, and a dovetailing B-plot involving Ian and Nancy, we actually have a construction that works for the series: story and showmanship in mutual support of each other. It’s not quite as good as Seasons One and Two, but it’s definitely the best of Season Three and a quality to which the rest of the series would have been lucky to match. If you watch only one entry here, make it this one.
A notable episode that narrowly missed the list above is “Ruth’s Place,” which amusingly structures a routine Rashomon story with an inventive Mahjong game, but isn’t actually spectacular (despite being this week’s closest call). Other entries of more honorable mention quality include: “Goin’ Places,” the season premiere, which features a fun gag involving Garry’s George Burns inspired television and introduces Ian Buchanan as Nancy’s new recurring beau, “Garry Acts Like A Moron,” which has an amusing idea of Garry watching and conversing with his brain but never really rises into anything brilliantly made, and “Mum’s The Word,” a fine episode for Barbara Cason in which Ruth does a lounge act that embarrasses her son.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!