Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! To complement coverage of Murphy Brown (1988-1998, CBS) running concurrently on Sitcom Tuesdays, today’s entry continues our 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 chef of a local bar. Love & War stars JAY THOMAS as Jack Stein, ANNIE POTTS as Dana Palladino, JOANNA GLEASON as Nadine Berkus, JOEL MURRAY as Ray Litvak, SUZIE PLAKSON as Meg Tynan, MICHAEL NOURI as Kip Zakaris, and CHARLES ROBINSON as Abe Johnson.
Season Two of Love & War finds Diane English employing a deus ex machina (a starry recast) that, for this one year, indeed nurses the nearly terminal series to health. The replacing of Susan Dey, who the show decided couldn’t handle its comedic objectives, with Annie Potts, a sitcom veteran then coming off Designing Women, comes packaged to a broad shift that zaps away a lot of the romanticized aesthetics upon which the show had hinged itself, but only half-heartedly embraced, in its debut season. This gives the show the focus needed to go from being about “opposites” to being about “alikes” — essentially choosing realism over romance — with the development of a logical relationship being a narrative intention actually allowed to take precedent over any overarching style. Additionally, in the introduction of a leading lady who is more capable of handling material that, let’s face it, needs someone who can do more than play what’s merely on the page, the series also becomes significantly funnier, and thus, more satisfying as a traditional situation comedy. (Evidence of improvement: Potts was even nominated for an Emmy for her work — albeit, in an oddly chosen episode not highlighted below.) In this regard, the second season presents Love & War as a less original series than it was initially, but nevertheless a better one, more worthy of our attention. As always, increased exposure to the characters allows both the writers and audience enhanced understanding of who the players are, making them more conducive to material rooted in the particulars of their depictions. While, true to English’s form, the characterizations we see here are never totally satisfying, there are significant strides being made. Attempts are put forward to better explore thinly rendered regulars like Ray and Ike, while the series seeks to humanize broadly crafted caricatures like Kip, Meg and Nadine, the latter of whom drops the affected voice and becomes a more natural and relatable presence — one of the better deliverers of laughs, too. Each member of this ensemble gets one or two episodes here of exploration, and once again, we see a truly talented ensemble of players who could thrive with better scripts.
Meanwhile, in the reduction of a dominating, distracting style and a concerted attempt to better utilize the ensemble, the series seems to become even more like Cheers (1982-1993, NBC) than it was initially — even going so far as to replace the “forgone romance” with the “will they or won’t they?” tension of Sam/Diane (who were actually crafted more like Jack and Wally, but utilized more like Jack and Dana). This is, obviously, not good for the audience’s ability to appreciate Love & War‘s own creative merits, because the fundamental characterization struggles keep the latter from ever being as comedically or dramatically rewarding. However, it’s an interesting point for discussion about derivativeness and what the audience should be willing to expect in terms of originality. We read time and again that there are only so many stories (and premises) out there for exploration, so if one wants to keep a show relatively low-concept, there’s certainly going to be lots of idea overlap. Additionally, there can only be so many The Mary Tyler Moore Shows and All In The Familys — fare that changes the course of the genre — meaning that most works are going to be more traditional and conformist. But is it okay if a work is familiar and derivative, as long as it’s affable? As usual, that’s a subjective assessment that must be rendered situationally, but I do think the key (for me) will forever be to find the freshness, the uniqueness, the originality, within the characters; familiar constructs and recognizable stories can be made new by dynamic characters — but the alternative is not true. So, Love & War‘s lack of originality is troubling, especially when there aren’t enough positive results to make the series’ tenuous creativity seem more complex — and most of this is linked to characterization shortcomings that handicap the series’ comedy: its purpose.
But while I think it’s important to contextualize the series within its own mediocrity, I also want to recognize that the second season is far and away the show’s best. Thomas and Potts have a significantly better chemistry than he shared with Dey, as both the actors and characters are more evidently compatible. Unlike Wally, Dana is purposely drawn to be temperamentally like Jack, and as a result, they make a much more believable match — more like partners. Even better: because their relationship is still the focus, this dynamic is better able to supersede story. In other words, their pairing has the power to undermine and mitigate the show’s emphasis on non-character-driven episodic narratives; while the guiding desire to explore their sexual tension and join them together is narrative-driven, the relationship focus is fundamentally more character-rooted, placing its emphasis beyond simple story constructs. This moves the show’s storytelling goals in a more positive direction. However, it’d be a stretch to claim that all this isn’t predictable, because it is: we know precisely that the show is going to take the entire season to join them together — a slow-burn reaction to the prior too-hasty romance. But it’s really a smart, welcome move, for just as Cheers was reluctant to rush Sam and Rebecca together following the departure of Diane, Love & War knows that it has to build to a rootable combustion. The problem comes in the plotting, which is too clichéd and undercooked to excuse. The two leads start out antagonistic, quickly become friends, and it’s clear by November that they both have feelings for each other, which means that the show then needs to find organic reasons to delay their inevitable coupling. Yet… the scripts don’t do it. Instead the two date a little bit, flirt a little bit — with no actual conflict to keep them from coming together. The results are vanilla, free of the tension that Cheers knew how to create so well (Sam’s brother, Frasier, Janet Eldridge, etc.). Once again — this is a sign of mediocrity.
And yet, the show is much healthier and likable than it was before, often delivering episodes that, while not masterpieces, entertain as intended. The series isn’t ever hysterical, but it actually has a better sense of both its humor and its self — which has become independent of the initial nostalgically romantic style (now reserved to underscoring, episode titles, and the theatrical staging) — and serves as a fascinating reminder of how greatness (or, more accurately, goodness) can be found in overall mediocrity. That’s something I wanted to discuss, because as you know, I find mediocrity a cardinal sin in sitcoms and something with which I generally refuse to contend. Covering this series has therefore been a creative exercise for me, and one that’s really crystallized in my mind the merit of mediocrity in our ability to determine what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, while I don’t intend to cover many more series like this in the future, I’m glad that I’ve been able to better recognize why mediocrity is so prevalent: it’s easy, harmless, and sometimes, likable. And in the case of Love & War, it doesn’t always exist in a vacuum — there are explanatory factors sometimes worth discussing — and it’s not always so simply discussed. For instance, this season is enjoyable. It’s actually enjoyable, for with content now trumping style, a strong cast, and a compatible duo, Love & War‘s second season presents a cute B-level sitcom. (Lord knows we’ve seen worse on Sitcom Tuesdays — Night Court Season Eight, anyone?) In fact, if I ever choose my favorite sitcom episodes of the ’90s, I’d try to have this series represented somehow during the ’93-’94 season. (Keep that in mind!) 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 may be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 30: “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (Aired: 10/25/93)
Dana invites Jack over to her house for dinner.
Written by Stephen Nathan | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Following a string of episodes in which the show pushes too hard with its new character, this installment — the sixth aired in the year — is the first in which Dana begins to feel like a real person (which is imperative now that the show has fully embraced reality). The entire second act has just the inevitable-couple interacting in her apartment, and the audience gets to see the ways in which they’re both similar and different, making it essential for the establishment of character and relationship. This episode is also the first where their feelings are both obvious.
02) Episode 33: “I Got Plenty Of Nothing” (Aired: 11/15/93)
Jack and Dana both go to the doctors.
Written by Elaine Pope | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Were I to choose an MVE for this season (which I rarely do for Wildcard Wednesday shows — that’s usually a Tuesday honor), this installment would be a contender, for, like many of Pope’s scripts — not all, but many — the results are both believable and comedic, with an eye to using the characters as best as possible. It’s another entry, like many on today’s list, that is focused specifically on the two leads, and while I don’t think that’s conducive to longterm success, it is what the audience wants to see this season and reflects the year’s storytelling well — better than usual. Also, note that Dream On‘s Wendie Malick plays the doctor who examines Jack.
03) Episode 35: “Let’s Not Call It Love” (Aired: 12/06/93)
Jack and Dana go out as friends and are mistaken as a couple.
Written by Shannon Gaughan | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Seinfeld fans will delight in seeing the cameo appearances of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who appear as themselves as a “thank you” to Diane English for letting Kramer appear on Murphy Brown two seasons before. But that’s incidental to why this episode makes my list; it’s here because it’s another decently written entry focused on the two leads, and like the two above, the structure is very theatrical — with lengthy scenes centered on the two characters. In the process, we get to know them a little better each time. Not hilarious, but pleasant.
04) Episode 36: “Something’s Gotta Give” (Aired: 12/13/93)
Jack and Dana get stuck in an elevator at the Empire State Building.
Written by Robert Rabinowitz | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Predictability and the unfortunate usage of clichés is something that plagues the series throughout its run, and an episode like this — which uses ye olde “stuck in an elevator” gag as the narrative, and of course, to further tease the audience with the Jack/Dana romance that we know is coming — is predicated entirely on familiarity and a lack of surprise. But there are character moments to be found along the way, as is often the case, again, when the setup is theatrical and dependent only on two characters in a dialogue. (If only it were funnier!)
05) Episode 38: “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (Aired: 01/10/94)
Meg’s new beau has a strange resemblance to Jack.
Written by Lisa A. Bannick | Directed by Michael Lembeck
We’ve seen and will see this idea on other sitcoms (heck, the same could be said for almost every episode of this series, but I digress…), yet it’s appreciated because the intentions are to explore and utilize relationships among the ensemble, particularly the friendship between Jack and Meg, a character who’s always been an easy deliverer of laughs, but too often suffers from a broad and false depiction (both on the page and sometimes in performance). This episode, which of course, is no more than mediocre, does help flesh her out.
06) Episode 41: “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?” (Aired: 01/31/94)
Jack loans money to Dana and then regrets it.
Written by Matt Goldman | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Again, we see this idea explored all the time on sitcoms — everything from Everybody Loves Raymond to Cheers. As expressed above, it’s unfortunate that the show invokes the memory of the latter series (and in this case, the episode “I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday”) in terms of this show’s ability to hold any claim on originality. But the results aren’t so dire, especially when the story seems to fit these characters and does indeed help us better understand Dana, in particular. Also, there are some worthwhile moments of comedy within the art auction.
07) Episode 42: “How High The Moon?” (Aired: 02/28/94)
Ray is angry when Meg reveals that he’s a virgin.
Written by Elaine Pope | Directed by Robert Berlinger
There’ll be more to discuss regarding Meg and Ray next week when the series, having a better understanding of both of their characters, has more imagination with how to utilize them. But here in Season Two, and specifically this episode, we see a dynamic that’s both comedic and worthy of our emotional investment. The reveal that Ray is a virgin is a great starting place for the continued evolution of his character, which has always been consistently rendered but rather insubstantial. This installment goes a long way for turning him into a story contender.
08) Episode 43: “You Make Me Feel So Young” (Aired: 03/07/94)
Jack’s mother spends the night with Dana’s dad.
Written by Diane English | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Another possibility for the year’s MVE, this episode earned Eileen Heckart, who was introduced last season as Jack’s mom, an Emmy Award (her first and only). It’s actually well-deserved, for Heckart, who is such a dynamic performer that she sometimes overwhelms material (particularly when it’s not great), turns in a performance here that’s both hilarious and truthful — a strength that seems to reflect the elevated nature of the script. Also, Alan King guest stars as Dana’s dad and Heckart’s paramour — a perfect parallel to the soon-to-unite Jack and Dana.
09) Episode 44: “Bali Ha’i” (Aired: 03/14/94)
Nadine falls for a literature professor with a secret.
Written by Marc Flanagan | Directed by Robert Berlinger
This episode uses Nadine well, as the story has her falling for a literature professor (a dilemma because she’s married), not knowing that he actually has no interest in her because he’s gay and more attracted to her friend Jack. It’s sort of a typical sitcom story in that we’ve seen it done before and better (like on Taxi), but it comes as a surprise for a series that’s become so traditional, and the dinner sequence with Jack, Dana, Nadine, and her date is made lively by moments of unique comedy that could be qualified as creative. Flanagan’s best script this year.
10) Episode 46: “Slow Boat To China” (Aired: 05/09/94)
Jack and Dana finally go out as a couple.
Written by Shannon Gaughan | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Season Two ends with the inevitable: Jack and Dana, after months of inexplicably not entering into a relationship, even though there was no conflict and little doubt that they had feelings for each other, finally starting a romance. In this regard, it’s a functional episode with a mission that overtakes its comedy, and because of the elongated promise, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. However, the Chinese dinner scene is pretty situationally amusing, and despite not being as character-rooted as it should be, it still delivers more laughs than most outings.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “All I Really Need Is The Girl,” which follows the premiere and attempts to transition away from its predecessor’s clichéd posturing, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” in which Jack bets Dana that he can get a woman’s phone number (it’s a fine premise but it’s so story-driven), “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” in which Jack and the gang go to a department store (a close contender), “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue,” in which Jack and Dana go shopping in an electronics store, and “Are The Stars Out Tonight?” which features a memorable scene in a planetarium and concludes the mini-arc of Ray’s crush on Dana (another close contender).
Come back next Wednesday for my thoughts on the best from the third season! And tune in on Tuesday for more Murphy Brown.