Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In today’s post, I’m sharing my thoughts on (and selections for the best episodes from) the single-season sitcom Ink (1996-1997, CBS), which was executive produced by Murphy Brown creator Diane English and starred Ted Danson, in his first regular post-Cheers role, alongside his real-life wife Mary Steenburgen as a pair of divorced journalists at a New York newspaper where she, in the premiere, becomes his boss. The ensemble included former Night Court and Love & War vet Charles Robinson, playing a straightforward police reporter, Saul Rubinek (whom sitcom fans may remember best as Donny from Frasier) as a nebbish financial analyst, Christine Ebersole as a worldly society columnist, and Jenica Bergere as the team’s sarcastic assistant. The rest of the cast included Alana Austin as the primary couple’s daughter and Jonathan Katz as a company executive. With an impressive ensemble headlined by Danson — whom all the networks hoped to snag — CBS put a lot of faith in the series and gave it a full 22-episode order. (It was part of the network’s comedic offensive against both mighty NBC and solid ABC. The ’96-’97 season alone also saw the CBS premieres of Cosby, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Pearl, a vehicle for another Cheers alum, Rhea Perlman, which I hope to discuss at some point.) But Ink had the most troubled history.
The show was originally created and executive produced by Jeffrey Lane (Mad About You), but after a disappointing pilot and three additional episodes that showed too little improvement, the two stars insisted to CBS that major changes were in order. It seemed that Lane’s original concept for the show — an homage to His Girl Friday — was slight and oddly conceived, existing in some strange era that eluded definition. So, a month before the scheduled premiere, the network decided to scrap the first four episodes and called upon Diane English to help them start again. English was an appropriate fit for this premise — not only was she already interested in these nostalgic The Front Page sensibilities (which she herself has noted as being one of her inspirations for the newsroom-set Murphy Brown, then in its ninth season), but she also had experience writing for acrimonious tension-filled romantic leads on Love & War, many writers from which joined English in her attempt to reprint Ink. With English leading the series’ 11th hour redevelopment, Ink‘s premiere was pushed back a few weeks while the team reformatted and recast, working feverishly to get episodes in the can and ready for broadcast. Their troubled start kept them behind the entire season, guaranteeing that they’d never be a step ahead.
Although we’ll probably never know what the Lane version looked like, everyone involved seemed happier with English’s take on the concept. Of course, having seen the entire 22-episode run, I can say that the first few episodes are especially rocky, even for a new series. For while English and her regulars seem to strike an appreciated humorous tone (more along vintage Murphy Brown lines than the troublesome Love & War‘s) the premise itself is a difficult one — filled with clichés (many shared by Love & War): chief of which is the divorced couple who work together but can’t stand each other, even though they secretly still love each other. It’s terribly unoriginal, and even when attempting to harken back to the screwball comedies of yesteryear, the caution here is two-fold for Ink, because in addition to the risk that these narrative “will they reunite?” maneuverings pose to individual investment-worthy character development, the star-crossed lovers’ dynamic is also naturally going to be compared to Danson’s past with Sam/Diane (which English has her own history of attempting to replicate). And spoiler alert: Ink is no Cheers. Furthermore, the whole situation of Steenburgen’s character buying the paper where her ex-husband works is a contrivance that’s never rationalized, particularly because the actress never feels believable in the role. Likable, yes; believable, no. This would be interesting fodder for conflict, if the series decided to explore how ill-suited she was as the boss, but instead we get more flip-flopping in the leads’ reconciliation. (Do they like each other this week or hate each other? We never can guess; it seldom tracks.)
But the show does improve after its first few episodes, as it minimizes focus on the ex-spouses’ relationship with their daughter, who is perfectly nice but a distraction from the series’ other more interesting elements, and both the audience and the writers begin to know their characters better. By mid-season, during which the show is explicitly exploring its leading couple’s chemistry (which, despite the pair being lovers in real life, isn’t as hot or fiery as the aforementioned Sam/Diane), the show seems to be fairly creative, with several engaging story ideas and a well-remembered, but comedically average, arc with Harry Hamlin as a bodyguard who stands in the way of the leads’ reunion. (His introductory two-parter is an honorable mention.) In fact, I’d argue that Ink finds English at her wisest and most studied. It’s not as fresh as early Murphy Brown, but it’s much funnier than Love & War and has a better understanding of how to organically create conflict within the combative couple construct. (It’s still not always believable, but it’s certainly better written.) Additionally, English has learned from the stylistic problems she had in Love & War, and though Ink always retains its His Girl Friday/The Front Page aesthetic structure, she’s able to invoke that sense of prestigious wit, all the while creating a work that’s decidedly of the ’90s and more appropriate for the current television landscape. There’s no fantasy vs. reality here — this is a more straightforward attempt at modern reality, and because the show commits to this choice, it works significantly better.
Yet, while there were many lessons learned from Love & War (and even Murphy Brown), several of the show’s prime faults — which were inescapable, even when the critics started to come around during the latter half of the year — are the same ones that we’ve found in English’s prior work. For instance, like Murphy Brown, Ink is only too glad to rely on gimmicks — specifically casting gimmicks. In addition to three guest appearances from Jay Thomas as his Jack Stein character from Love & War, Danson’s former Cheers co-star Kirstie Alley makes an appearance, as does Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown herself. These are all terribly easy and unwarranted, and if not for the simple fact that, as the series’ anchor, we’re rooting for the show to give Danson capable scene partners (because, let’s face it, Steenburgen doesn’t have Alley’s humor or Bergen’s presence), we wouldn’t be able to excuse these ploys. So, several of these episodes are highlighted because they’re either memorable or funny in spite of the flashy construction that too often subverts character. Meanwhile, the show also squanders some of its natural resources — in addition to the familiar relationship, the show also mirrors Love & War‘s inability to properly use its strong ensemble cast. Robinson is always a solid presence, while Rubinek and Bergere are delightfully humorous. Also, Ebersole, who’d been a regular on The Cavanaughs, is hysterically funny as a vapid columnist. But the show never explores any of them with the aim of increasing their depth, nor does it truly allow the scripts to benefit from their comedic contributions in a significant manner. So instead we’re left with a predictable combative couple and episodic gimmicks — which aren’t meritless… but also aren’t conducive to longevity.
Nevertheless, this wastefulness is endemic of a larger problem: the series can’t write to its newspaper-based premise. Most of the scripts take their big centerpiece away from the office, and too few stories actually relate to the journalism industry. This is unsatisfying, for the premise promises the audience a workplace sitcom that will deal with plots that are centered in this environment, making use of the setting as inspiration. (Even The Naked Truth did a better job with this.) Because this doesn’t happen, Ink never really dries as it should. Of course, in the end, its fate all came down to one thing: the bottom line. Ratings were adequate (#37) and reception was fairly positive, but the show was far too expensive (thanks mostly to the two stars’ top salaries), so CBS cancelled the series after its first season. Although this decision would free English to return for the farewell of her eldest child, Murphy Brown, Ink didn’t deserve a canning based on quality. It had a wobbly foundation thanks to a contentious inception, but it grew to become moderately enjoyable — one of the more affable Wildcard series we’ve examined. (And, hey, if it was good enough for Jay Sandrich…) So, though unreleased on DVD, I’m sharing my selections for the best episodes — listed below in airing order.
01) Episode 5: “The Sandwich” (Aired: 11/25/96)
A man dies while eating a sandwich named after Mike.
Written by Jhoni Marchinko | Directed by Jay Sandrich
More a Victory In Premise than anything else (that is, this outing wins mostly because of its amusing premise instead of anything actually done by the script), this installment is the first episode of the series not to feel like an uphill battle. Note that this script is penned by staff writer Jhoni Marchinko, one of several writers on this show who will move on to help give Murphy Brown its improved final season (to be discussed this upcoming Tuesday). Enjoyable.
02) Episode 8: “The Black Book” (Aired: 01/06/97)
The Manhattan Madame gives the paper her black book.
Written by Jeff Filgo | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Out of the entire 22-episode run, this is the only installment that I feel does an admirable job of using both the ensemble and the newspaper setting as the show promises they’ll be utilized. This installment has Cheryl Ladd playing a madame (with whom Belinda — that’s the character played hilariously by Ebersole — claims she went to school) who drops off her little black book at the newspaper. The problem? One of the names in the book is somebody in the office…
03) Episode 11: “The English-Speaking Patients” (Aired: 02/03/97)
Mike and Kate visit a therapist who insists they be honest with each other.
Written by Stephen Nathan & Mark Flanagan | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Richard Benjamin, who’s appeared on this blog before during coverage of He & She and who had a history with English after appearing in the third season of Love & War, guest stars in this episode as a therapist that Mike and Kate visit after getting into an unmotivated (but inherently comedic) food fight. Separately, they both reveal that they still want to sleep with each other, and once both learn as much, they go ahead and indulge. This is one of the series’ strongest episodes, for not only is their forward movement in an arc that is otherwise half-hearted and stagnant (if they’re going to do an arc, we want it to propel forward), and the script is comparatively sharp — all the Benjamin scenes work especially well. An MVE contender.
04) Episode 14: “Life Without Mikey” (Aired: 02/24/97)
Mike’s obituary is accidentally printed by mistake.
Written by Jack Burditt | Directed by Jay Sandrich
We’ve seen variations on this story before — a character is falsely declared dead and gets to see how the rest of the world reacts to the news of his/her demise. This series doesn’t actually do anything terrifically fresh to the idea, but we’re in a period of the show’s brief lifespan where it’s starting to know its characters and is becoming a more obviously comedic property. This episode, the second of Jay Thomas’ three appearances, benefits from this elevated base level.
05) Episode 15: “Breaking The Rules” (Aired: 03/03/97)
Kate’s sister tries to seduce Mike, who is trying to seduce her.
Written by Diane English & Craig Hoffman | Directed by Robert Berlinger
This is the memorable Kirstie Alley episode, in which she plays Kate’s sister, a much-married author who decides to prove to her skeptical sis that the advice in her latest book on how get a man actually works — by trying it out on Mike. Of course, Mike is trying to prove that he can trap her. Meanwhile, Kate is considering using the advice with her bodyguard. The evident thematic cohesion is appreciated, but this episode is all about the humor, and while the casting of Alley is a sorry gimmick, her chemistry with Danson is unbeatable (it’s better than the on-screen dynamic he has with Steenburgen), and the laughs here are fast and furious — with several indelible gags (like the subtitled advice). Another MVE contender.
06) Episode 21: “Murphy’s Law” (Aired: 05/12/97)
Mike reunites with his friend-with-benefits, Murphy Brown.
Written by Diane English | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
Another gimmicky guest appearance? Yes, this time English calls out the big guns and has Candice Bergen, then in her ninth season as Murphy Brown, crossover for a memorable episode that, despite a trite situation, finds the character’s voice more authentic than it’s been in years. Of course, this is no surprise because this is the first time English has written for Murphy since 1992, presaging what’s to come next season. Also, Regalbuto makes a cameo as Frank.
07) Episode 22: “Going To The Dogs” (Aired: 05/19/97)
Mike accidentally takes some dog tranquilizers.
Written by Stephen Nathan & Jack Burditt | Directed by Joe Regalbuto
The final episode, this anachronistic outing has Danson going for broad Van Dyke-ish laughs when he accidentally ingests tranquilizers intended for the dog they’ve just adopted. It’s a naturally amusing premise that delivers its necessary laughs (in spite of feeling out of place), but my appreciation of the episode is aided by the fact that it’s based on a true story that happened to English when she was first asked to take over Ink: she was high on doggie downers.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “High Noon,” which features a decent battle of the sexes and the first appearance of Jay Thomas (a contender), “Devil In A Blue Dress,” which gives the three women the chance to perform the eponymous song, both parts of “The Bodyguard,” which are the first two of four entries featuring Hamlin, “Face Off,” in which Jack and Kate appear on TV (a little too broad and contrived to make the list), and “The Debutante,” which is notable for a single scene where a horny society woman corners Mike (Danson) in her bedroom, while Belinda (Ebersole) hides in the closet (a contender).
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!