Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! To complement coverage of Murphy Brown (1988-1998, CBS) running concurrently on Sitcom Tuesdays, today’s entry marks the first of our three-week sojourn into the best moments from the series for which creator Diane English left the aforementioned, Love & War (1992-1995, CBS), a flawed romcom that’s never been released on DVD, but can be purchased via YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and Google.
A New York newspaper columnist falls for the new owner and chef of a local bar. Love & War stars JAY THOMAS as Jack Stein, SUSAN DEY as Wally Porter, JOANNA GLEASON as Nadine Berkus, JOEL MURRAY as Ray Litvak, SUZIE PLAKSON as Meg Tynan, and MICHAEL NOURI as Kip Zakaris. CHARLES ROBINSON as Abe Johnson replaces JOHN HANCOCK as Ike Johnson during the course of the season.
Welcome to the most mediocre show we’ve ever covered — flawed, but not terrible; watchable, but not rewatchable; interesting, but not memorable… Let’s dive in. As Diane English relinquished control of Murphy Brown, leaving her former underlings to handle the notably tricky aftermath of both a baby and a political feud, she moved her sights to this series: a new romantic comedy starring Jay Thomas (the twice Emmy-winning actor for whom she wrote on Murphy Brown) that would follow her former series on Monday nights. Love & War was among a handful of “romcom” sitcoms to debut that season — others included Mad About You (1992-1999, NBC), the most successful of this lot and a series you’ll see here on Sitcom Tuesdays early next year, Hearts Afire (1992-1995, CBS), Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s starry meeting of John Ritter and Markie Post (you likely won’t see it here due to a personal lack of interest), and Flying Blind (1992-1993, FOX), a single-season vehicle on the burgeoning fourth network, which will be Wildcard fodder within the next 18 months. So what makes Love & War stand out from this similarly conceived fare? Its style. While one could argue that all of the aforementioned series had their own individual aesthetics — especially the work of Bloodworth-Thomason, whom I’ve charged as being all style and little substance (particularly because her characters have less agency in establishing the tone) — Love & War is itself unique, based on the specific predilections of its creator, whose work we’ve been following in our Murphy Brown coverage. As we’ve seen, English’s intentions are to be character-driven, but she’s too often side-tracked by story goals, political leanings, or in the case of Love & War, a superseding stylistic objective — to be the reincarnation of the classic romantic comedy of the Old Hollywood era — that complicates her ability to motivate laughs through character. Same problem, different package.
Everything about this series’ design hopes to reinforce these nostalgic notions of the iconic “opposites attract” sophistication of romcoms in the studio era; from the musical score, which is beautifully Gershwin-esque, to the way the Tracy/Hepburn dialogue is constructed — including the controversial inner monologues that the two lead actors pause and give directly to the audience (’tis very Strange Interlude!) — this is a piece with a weighty stylistic mission statement. At first, this is delightful and fresh, and as someone who appreciates the genre’s embracing of theatrical conventions (like asides to the audience), these artistic choices do make the show stand apart. The problem, as always, is that style alone cannot be the show’s thesis; a reliance on anything other than character-driven comedy is worrisome. As we’ve seen, English has always had trouble on this front, even though Murphy Brown‘s style was tied into the memory of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was supremely character-rooted and therefore kept the former’s intentions noble (most of the time). In contrast, Love & War sets itself up to treat character as second fiddle — or more specifically, to work the characters within the guiding aesthetic construct. Meanwhile, the comedy struggles in tandem with the tonal conflict that exists between the aforementioned nostalgic aesthetic (romance) and the reality that the socially conscious English always strives to project (“a real relationship”). Part of this realistic bent is supposed to be invoked by the setting: a New York bar, populated by utterly New York characters — jaded and unglamorous. One might guess the hope is to contrast the primary relationship, which is launched to be all romance and magic, with the bleak concreteness of actual life… but that result is never achieved, for the inherent and unshakable English attempt at “reality” becomes counterintuitive to the show’s structure and doesn’t allow any actual juxtaposition between elements. In other words, the series never fully commits to either style (or the conflict between them), and instead tries to dabble a bit in both all at once. (There’ll be more on the romance vs. reality dilemma when we examine HBO’s Dream On, coming soon…)
This failure to commit to a singular intention leaves the series to wallow in a liminal space where the strengths that both angles have to offer are nullified: the bland hallmark of a mediocre sitcom. Additionally, we find problems in both of the show’s pre-narrative constructs: relationship and setting. The decision to place the series and its primary couple in a bar, while using the other patrons and staff to fill out the ensemble, just begs the audience to compare the series to Cheers (1982-1993, NBC), the more character-driven and tonally straightforward show that was concluding during the ’92-’93 season. In fact, as noted in coverage of Murphy Brown, while that series was English’s attempt to model and revamp The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS), I’d argue that this time she’s aiming to present her own version of Cheers — one that reflects her more romantic ideals and, unfortunately, her incapability of writing characterizations as dimensional as those created by the Charles Brothers, who actually studied at the MTM school of comedy. Similarities are easily seen (Meg is Carla, Ray is Cliff, Kip is Frasier, etc.), but at no time does this series look good in comparison. Obviously, had the show not been set in a bar, it could have avoided this unholy association, and yet, even without the specter of better sitcoms, the show still isn’t characterly commendable based on its poor use of the ensemble. Despite a decent cast (Joanna Gleason is a supreme talent), the series is populated by underexplored characters who lack the nuances to be regarded as authentic. As folks like Meg and Nadine go over-the-top, Ray and Abe, who replaces Ike (following Hancock’s passing early in the season), retreat into characterlessness (although Abe is more appreciated than his predecessor). So even worse than being derivative, the show is wasteful: it has an ensemble that could be explored in the same manner as Cheers’ or Taxi‘s — but the shortcomings imposed by English keep that from happening.
Of course, the ensemble also gets short shrift because the year’s primary consideration — perhaps not surprisingly or unwisely, given its stated objective — is the relationship between the two “opposites”: political columnist Jack (Thomas) and yuppie chef Wally (Dey). Much has been written about the latter’s unsuitableness for series comedy, but, while I do think she doesn’t have traditionally comedic instincts, I also think that blaming Dey for the first year’s problems doesn’t get to the heart of why it doesn’t work; as usual, the play’s the thing. With the tonal struggles in full force — are we to accept the fantasy of the immediate love-at-first-sight dynamic or demand the reality the show is telling us it’ll deliver by exploring real modern-day issues that urban couples face? You see, this unanswerable question speaks to the crux of the show’s character issues and is compounded by a believability problem. We meet the pair single, and then we see them get together so quickly — without any time to assess whether or not they should be together. (If the series had already started with them together, we’d accept that as fact and wouldn’t have the same trouble, for the show wouldn’t need to explain it to us so quickly or explicitly.) As a result of our not finding the development believable, their entire relationship feels forced and writer-driven, instead of motivated by the characters, who have now become subjugated to the narrative in this process. Also, it certainly doesn’t help the crusade for believability that Thomas and Dey are too very different performers who each make their chemistry hard to muster; he plays to the live studio audience and has a sense of straightforward-but-unsubtle comedy that’s more consistent with what we find in the medium, and she plays to the camera, incapable of portraying anything (comedy or drama) that isn’t specifically found in the truth of her given circumstances (read: she can only sell what already works on the page). In other words, while he’s going for the laugh, she’s going for honesty, and while they’re at cross-purposes, English’s show can’t satisfy either’s needs.
The results are, again, mediocre, for after the initial show of promise based solely on the interest aroused by the nostalgic aesthetic, the writing quickly proves itself to be below our collective standards. The series, naturally, improves as time progresses, specifically with regard to the audience’s consistent understanding of both the mechanics of the ensemble and the show’s narrative intentions (within the stylistic conundrum), but when the returns English feels she should be getting aren’t actually delivered, she seems to pinpoint the problems all on Dey, deciding to turn the series against its leading lady. First, the show tries to force Wally to be funnier — they make her character more flawed, which is a good thing for laughs and story, but comes packaged with a shift in point-of-view, as the series goes from finding Wally the more sympathetic and likable of the two, to supporting Jack almost exclusively, presenting him as clearly more relatable. Also, and more disastrously, the scripts coerce Dey into playing broader, which she can’t do… and I’d guess the show knew she couldn’t do it when they gave it to her. So by the end of the season, when other characters are slowly growing, hers is unraveling as a result of the material being thrown at her. And it’s not simply a case of Dey being unable to handle the direction in which the show is moving (although, that is nevertheless true) — this is a case of the show not being good enough to meet the inherent challenges imposed by her presence, and then blaming her alone for why it’s not working. Thus, the first year ends bleaker then it started, as a confirmed disappointment. The sensible fix? Pick a style (either romance or reality) and focus all remaining energy on developing the characters — all of ’em — in ways congruent to the tone. English’s fix? Fire Dey and start the romance over… But that’s for next week. In the meantime, I have picked ten 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 may be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember that, as always, hour-long installments are regarded as two separate episodes — as they would in syndication.
01) Episode 3: “Step 2” (Aired: 09/28/92)
Wally and Jack are intimate for the first time.
Written by Diane English | Directed by Lee Shallat
Although the tonal disparities are ever in play, some of these earliest episodes work because we’re still bemused by the fantasy that could potentially be invoked from this decidedly different series. I’d argue that in this offering, which introduces two new regulars in both Kip, Wally’s ex-boyfriend (the Frasier of our piece), and Nadine (the Diane in spirit, but not function), we’re moving closer to reality, although moments of English’s lofty style still shine through. This entry lands because we remain open to the pair’s dynamic; they’re trying their best.
02) Episode 4: “Check, Please” (Aired: 10/05/92)
Jack and Wally have their first official date.
Written by Shannon Gaughan | Directed by Lee Shallat
One of the main complaints about the series is that it’s always predictable — and we’ll see this in weeks ahead too — for the show always takes us through the same old clichéd relationship developments that every couple-based series aims to explore. While the pair got their sexual intimacy out of the way early (how very ’90s — again, more realism than fantasy), this episode is then concerned with their first date. It’s included here because, while mostly ridiculous, the show is commendable for trying to use the two characters’ differences as the source of conflict.
03) Episode 7: “Voyage Of The Damned” (Aired: 10/19/92)
Jack and Dana’s weekend getaway goes awry.
Written by Marc Flanagan | Directed by Lee Shallat
If this episode was more comedic, I’d consider it among the series’ finest. But, because it’s merely adequate in the humor department, I’m forced to contend with seeking my enjoyment elsewhere — specifically from the fact that the bulk of the episode is just our two leads in the car having a conversation (or thinking to themselves — that’s one of the tropes that’s phased out over the course of the series). Exploring character seems paramount again, and Flanagan’s scripts — in the first season, anyway — tend to be fairly satisfying, so this is no surprise.
04) Episode 14: “The Prima Dava” (Aired: 01/04/93)
Wally is jealous of Jack’s friendly old flame.
Written by Marc Flanagan | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Tracy Ullman, whose series for which Flanagan wrote, won an Emmy Award for her work in this episode as an Israeli dancer who used to have a relationship with Jack. The characterization is the broadest employed throughout the entire first season, and while it does feel a bit jarring, it’s appreciated for two reasons. First, Ullman is so good that we’re too busy enjoying her performance to analyze if it’s right for the show. And second, the series clearly needs a jolt of energy at this time. In fact, this is the moment where the show, I think, turns against Dey.
05) Episode 16: “Whitewashed” (Aired: 01/18/93)
Wally tries to persuade Jack to clean his apartment.
Written by Matt Goldman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
As attempts are made to make Wally as flawed as Jack in the latter half of the season, the show is able to deliver a handful of episodes that work better than most of the stuff previously seen. As mentioned in my seasonal introduction, this upswing is mostly because the characters are gaining more definition, but also because the show is trying to make itself more tangibly comedic (that’s really the crux of what they’re trying to do with Wally, even though it’s not gelling). At any rate, we’re still interested in the couple’s dynamic, so this is comparably solid.
06) Episode 17: “Two On The Aisle” (Aired: 02/01/93)
Jack and Wally go to the movies.
Written by Stephen Nathan | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Reminiscent of an anthology two-parter from the third season (stay tuned to see if it makes that year’s list), this episode’s comedic centerpiece has Jack and Wally going to see their first movie together: a male-bashing film that inspires differing reactions from the two of them. It’s an easy story with very predictable results, but it represents what’s going on this season — Jack is crystallizing and Wally is flailing, as attempts are made to loosen her up and make her more “sitcom friendly.” Surprisingly, this one’s sustained by a few memorable bits.
07) Episode 18: “Tattoo You” (Aired: 02/08/93)
Wally and Jack argue over her new tattoo.
Written by Shannon Gaughan | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Yet another of the more solidly rendered couple-driven installments from the back half of the season, this entry finds Wally getting a tattoo and being shocked that Jack dislikes it. This whole premise can be viewed in two valid ways. The first recognizes that the show is trying to make Wally more interesting and likable (instead of cool and distant, which she had been), while the second could accept that perhaps the show is trying to explain that she’s becoming more like Jack, which helps justify her exit. Either way, it’s decently written and not terribly flawed.
08) Episode 20: “The Big Lie” (Aired: 02/22/93)
Wally learns that Jack has lied to her about another woman.
Written by Elaine Pope | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Elaine Pope, who would spend one sole season on Murphy Brown (its seventh), is one of the strongest and most truthful writers on this series (Murphy Brown may be another story) — you’ll see more of this next week. Her scripts seem best able to negotiate stylistic mismatches through sensible construction and noticeably character-driven dialogue. Sometimes the premise is too story-heavy (probably the case here), but the figurative gold comes from the character moments within it. This is one of the more realistic outings for Jack and Wally as a couple.
09) Episode 23: “Opening Day” (Aired: 05/03/93)
Wally joins Jack and Meg at opening day at the ballpark.
Written by Matt Goldman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
One of the things only touched upon in my seasonal commentary above is the show’s embracement of its own theatricality, which is something, as I’m sure most regular readers here know, I respect (as I think television is supposed to be theatrical). So this series does a lot of long scenes between few characters — like the entire ballpark sequence with Jack, Wally, and Meg, as the latter two bond (it’s an interesting moment — too self-conscious and forced, but nevertheless appreciated), and the show really opens itself up for Wally’s upcoming departure.
10) Episode 24: “Croton-On-Hudson” (Aired: 05/10/93)
Wally caters a wedding for Nadine’s daughter.
Written by Marc Flanagan | Directed by Peter Bonerz
By the time this episode and its predecessor aired, it had already been announced that Dey would not be returning for the following season, and this knowledge fuels our understanding of this outing, which clearly shows the Wally character growing more emotionally distant from Jack than she’d ever been before. It’s interesting to watch because it makes more sense than them simply being head-over-heels. Also, this episode actually makes time for the ensemble, as the show goes to Nadine’s house (and we meet her husband, played by director Peter Bonerz).
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “A Christmas Kvell,” a “cute” entry that deals with the couple’s differing religions (I love the idea — I so wish it was funnier), “PMS, I Love You,” a more traditionally premised offering, about a food critic who dies, that simply suffers from being both unoriginal and not having cultivated the ensemble well enough to use them as they should be used, and “Friends And Relations,” in which Wally’s parents meet Jack’s mom, played by future Emmy winner Eileen Heckart, who has a MUCH better showcase on this series very soon…
Come back next Wednesday for my thoughts on the best from the second season! And tune in on Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!