Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion of our series on the best of Dream On (1990-1996, HBO), one of the premium cable network’s earliest and most fondly remembered comedies. As of this publication, only the first two years have been released.
A divorced editor at a small Manhattan-based publishing house has a unique perspective on life, love, and parenting. Dream On stars BRIAN BENBEN as Martin Tupper, WENDIE MALICK as Judith Tupper Stone, CHRIS DEMETRAL as Jeremy Tupper, DORIEN WILSON as Eddie Charles, and DENNY DILLON as Toby Pedalbee. MICHAEL McKEAN recurs as Gibby.
When we started coverage of Dream On last month, one of the things I thought would be interesting to discuss is how and why the series, as HBO’s first critical success of the ’90s, didn’t get to represent either the best of what the pay cable channel had to offer or how it would attempt to define itself throughout the rest of the decade. Instead, I posited that The Larry Sanders Show, which will make its debut on this blog next week, better embodied the ultra-knowing and realism-purporting attitudes for which HBO would become known – free of the heavy pangs of romance that, until Sex And The City, didn’t really have a place on the channel’s comedies outside of Dream On. But aside from this romance, which quickly proved itself vital when giving the channel’s darker “realism” something to counterbalance (thus forming the show’s comedic modus operandi), the series also took the figurative back seat to Larry Sanders because of significant identity problems that crept in during the middle years, as co-creators Kauffman and Crane were phased out. So, having gone through several seasons now in which the calibration between the glamour and grit needed to make Dream On humorously salient had been ill-modulated, the series came into its final year – another full one with 27(!) half-hours – without the creative strength or favorable reputation of a major comedic contender. (I remember reading a review from 1994 in which a critic summed up the difference between HBO’s two most popular comedies as something – I’m paraphrasing – like: “Dream On is good. The Larry Sanders Show is brilliant.”) Adding to this sense of defeat was the series’ poor performance in syndication on FOX, where good reviews did not yield good ratings — or renewal.
Thus, Dream On’s final year, from the start, knows it has to work hard to salvage its critical “street cred.” Following a short fifth season with an entirely new writing staff (save team leader Stephen Engel), Season Six continues the prior’s determination to keep every episode hilarious, but does so while also purposely trying to reintroduce elements of Dream On’s aesthetic that had been muted along the way. The series has always striven to remain character-driven in spite of its gimmick-based premise and its predilection, especially after Kauffman and Crane’s departure, to go after Victories in Premise. But this final year sees the return of social issues – like drug abuse and homelessness — as a recurring source of “edgy” narrative fodder. However, once again, these stories don’t quite do enough for the characters to justify their inclusions; they simply feel like perfunctory attempts to stylistically return to a better era. Similarly, to counteract both the series’ unsubtle evolution into an unabashed romantic comedy – more below – and Season Five’s attempted “clean-up” of its content, Season Six, at least in the first 60% of its run, makes a pointed effort to mire the show in nudity, sex, and raunchy stories that the network once encouraged and the scripts have always used as a vital comedic counterpoint to sentiment. (I like to think this recommitment was maybe sparked by Kevin S. Bright, who split his time with Friends and returned this year as one of Dream On‘s executive producers.) Yet, having gone at least a season with reduced salacity, the intentions to re-engage such elements – while appreciated (and evident below) – feel gratuitous, at best, and extraneous, at worst.
Nevertheless, it’s sporting to credit the series for recognizing that something was needed to balance this romanticism, especially because, once it became clear the show would be concluding, Dream On finally had to activate what seemed to be its plan all along: reconciling Martin and Judith. This narrative development — which occurs in the year’s 17th outing, the last before a two-month hiatus — has become the season’s defining characteristic, for while most fans championed the chemistry these characters shared and actively rooted for their reunion (mostly because the show instructed us to), once it actually happened, the quality of the Engel-led elevated comedy plummeted. Naturally, the relationship seemed responsible, but is correlation causation? Only partly; I’m inclined to believe the decision to put them together is not, itself, unwise. Not only was this both the show’s narrative intention for a long time and a tonal inevitability ever since the middle years’ romantic drift, but it was also smart to make ten full episodes with the pair reunited before the finale – giving the audience a better idea of how these characters will exist beyond the show. (This is how to build towards a proper ending — no 11:59 surprises!) And yet, a heavy focus on the relationship — too much romance, not enough realism — doesn’t actually do great things for the characters. While the ensemble players get hastily found “growth” (the kind most shows muster upon receiving word of their impending demises), the two leads are subjected to story-heavy plots that are more functional than character-concerned — moving forward the arc, but not the players. Additionally, because Judith has always had a spotty history with comedy, putting her with Martin is not a rollicking humor-filled scenario; emotion-based and gratifying for the show’s thesis, yes, but not overly comedic…
And so, it’s easy to see why many then credited the series’ final descent, after an attempted rally, on this grand reconciliation. However, I think what’s most troubling about the end of this year is the series’ resignation to become a trite romantic comedy, without the realism with which even the first two-thirds of Season Six hoped to reconnect. It feels like surrender, as these final episodes indicate an aesthetic battle that the show, by bowing to its own troubling intentions, ultimately loses. Only, now the audience realizes just how misled it’s been for all these years about the show’s identity. The key words in that last sentence are “all these years,” because while I too think the final ten offerings of this season are generally hackneyed, I also believe the series was building to these entries since at least Season Four, so I can’t heap all – or even most – of my disappointment on these final episodes. Instead, I’ll credit the early part of the year for its attempts to recapture some of Dream On‘s initial spark and note how in its evolution into a more “traditional” (read: comparable to material on the broadcast networks) entity, the show cultivated a host of writers who would go on to find additional, enjoyable successes where their ideas might better thrive – not just Kauffman and Crane, but also folks like Stephen Engel, Eileen Conn, Andrew Gordon, Tom Maxwell, and Don Woodard – all of Just Shoot Me! – and, in this season, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who would create Will & Grace. So Dream On, though not the prime legacy-holder for HBO, still represents a unique time in cable comedy history, giving rise to a lot of talent who would affect the genre for the next few decades. So, on a positive note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 95: “Try Not To Remember” (Aired: 07/19/95)
Martin visits a therapist and is haunted by a memory of potential abuse.
Written by Bill Prady | Directed by Robby Benson
Season Six opens with a concerted attempt to return the show to material more shocking and “edgy” — made clear by the premise of Martin suffering from impotence and then believing it to be the result of long-buried sexual abuse he endured as a child — along with a desire to reinforce the very thing that makes the series special: its use of clips from MCA Universal’s Film/Television library as “thought bubbles.” As we eventually learn, Martin’s supposed memory of abuse is actually a clip from a 1961 episode of General Electric Theatre starring Red Buttons and a young Ron Howard, in which the the two sing a song about tickling while the latter is in the bathtub. (Yes, you read right.) While the construction of a story around a clip is a detestable gimmick, it does invoke the series’ raison d’être, making this a Victory in Premise. Louise Fletcher plays the frightening doctor whom Martin visits for help with his impotence.
02) Episode 96: “Bess, You Is Not My Woman Now” (Aired: 07/26/95)
Martin is shocked when an old friend is more interested in Judith than him.
Written by Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard | Directed by Robert Ginty
As discussed above, the early part of the season is very unsubtle — this has become a very unsubtle show in the years since Kauffman and Crane left, in general — about its attempts to reignite the saucy part of its identity, utilizing premises that are more sexual in nature than we’ve seen since, again, Kauffman and Crane departed. After a third season episode — a rather novel and ingenious offering — in which Martin had to compete with another woman for his new girlfriend’s affections, this offering takes the kernel of that idea and makes it more personal, as an old friend (Annette O’Toole) of his and Judith’s, to whom he is attracted, reveals herself to be a lesbian interested in Judith. It’s a singular idea with comedic merit and because it, again, admirably attempts to restore for Dream On some of its original identity, it gets featured here.
03) Episode 98: “Significant Author” (Aired: 08/09/95)
Toby begins dating a famous author whose business Martin would like to get.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by Michael McKean
Ray Wise guest stars in this episode as Toby’s new boyfriend, who just happens to be a famous author whose next book Martin would like to snare. But while the episode initially sets its conflict as being about how Martin will land the account, as it were, it turns into a more interesting Victory in Premise about the author using Toby as the (unflattering) subject of his book — romancing her solely for the sake of his work. There are several Toby episodes this final year (not surprising, because of her inherent humor), but even though she doesn’t drive the story, this is one of the better ones. Of course, this installment is also benefited by guest appearances from Toby’s family, including Jon Polito, Valerie Landsburg and Doris Roberts — the latter of whom gets a big ol’ kiss from Martin in the entry’s funniest moment.
04) Episode 99: “9 1/2 Days” (Aired: 08/16/95)
Martin’s new prudish girlfriend leads him into a threesome.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Nick Marck
If there’s any evidence as to the weakened nature of this season — in spite of its honorable attempts at premise rejuvenation — it’s the fact that, although the show is recycling old story ideas, the lack of competition means that unoriginal entries still end up making this list. This installment is the most obvious and unfortunate recycling case — featured due to a lack of competition and my inability to elevate any of the Honorable Mentions — of another Season Three premise, in which Martin and Eddie have a threesome with a woman played by Courteney Cox. Here, the idea’s revisited when Martin’s girlfriend lures him into a threesome with another lady. The former is the better story, exploring characters and their relationships, but this entry is covered, again, because of its appropriate tone and our lowered standards. (Hey, it’s Season Six.)
05) Episode 104: “Tie Me Sister Lu Down, Sport” (Aired: 09/27/95)
To get a promotion, Martin agrees to date Gibby’s bizarre sister.
Written by Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard | Directed by Ron Wolotz
From the premise alone, this is an episode that I anticipated loving — for not only are we guaranteed to get plenty of Michael McKean as Gibby, who is always a go-to source of laughs (especially in generally uncomedic stories), but we’re also going to get an installment that makes time for sex and introduces another loon in the Gibby mold: his sister, played by Morwenna Banks. But when I first saw the episode (out of context), I was disappointed — because I felt the show was trying too hard. Having seen all six years chronologically, I’m now able to recognize the entry as indeed yet another Victory in Premise, but actually one of the better outings here, with more laughs than most, fewer leaps in logic, and a consistent through-line for the Martin character and his motivation. So, now I can say it’s one of the year’s best.
06) Episode 106: “Flight Of The Pedalbee” (Aired: 10/11/95)
Martin dates a self-help guru who has a profound impact on Toby.
Written by Ellen Idelson & Rob Lottersten
There are two other really meaty Toby episodes that follow this installment, and while one of them, a rather casual entry that’s featured as an Honorable Mention (as the closest to making the above list for its casualness), is decent, the other (which guest stars Curtis Armstrong) is a narrative-driven mess that attempts to give her a character-developing arc to close out the season (a pregnancy that manifests into a birth — guest when — yes, the finale). So I consider this the last great Toby show, and in addition to another appearance by Doris Roberts (always a pleasure), the action affords Toby an extended musical number that’s really charming — perfect for the character, indicative of the series’ nice (if too often uncalibrated) optimism, and perhaps the most memorable material ever thrown to her character. Enjoyable, thoughtful.
07) Episode 107: “Am I Blue?” (Aired: 10/18/95)
Martin begins a secret career as a screenwriter for porn films.
Written by David Kohan & Max Mutchnick | Directed by John Landis
It wasn’t easy, but this is my choice for the year’s best episode, and I suppose the simplest explanation for my favor is that it’s the most victorious of the Victory in Premise offerings. The story is naturally funny, doesn’t force us to make leaps with regard to Martin’s characterization, engages — from the concept alone — with the core differences and dichotomy of sex being both fantasy and reality, and represents the series enjoyably and honestly. Additionally, it’s the first of two scripts (the other is too close to the end, and therefore has some comedically obstructionist narrative objectives that disqualify it) written by Kohan and Mutchnick, the future creators of Will & Grace, who seem to have a decent grasp of the characters’ voices, particularly Martin’s — but without the lazily self-aware sameness that sometimes plagues long-time scribes. That is, theirs are pairs of fresh eyes, and because the story works so well for the series, it’s a hit.
08) Episode 109: “Little Orphan Eddie” (Aired: 11/08/95)
At a surprise birthday party, Eddie learns that he’s adopted.
Written by Christopher Vane | Directed by John Landis
Were I to choose any other episode as my seasonal favorite, it would be this surprisingly well-rounded entry, which also happens to be written by a newcomer to the series (who, too, wrote two scripts — the other one isn’t featured either), Christopher Vane (The Love Boat, Wings, Suddenly Susan). The premise is a bit ostentatious in its desire to make good on its character-centric aims, but it nevertheless is character-centric, as Martin hosts an ill-fated surprise party for Eddie in which the latter’s parents learn of his illegitimate daughter (introduced in Season Four), while he learns that he was adopted. Both scenarios would seem a bit too heavy for the series at this point, but the script is actually quite funny, keeping an excessive amount of honesty (and character integrity) intact, while reveling in the gaudy star power that includes Madge Sinclair, Richard Roundtree, Marla Gibbs, and my favorite, LaWanda Page. Genuinely great.
09) Episode 111: “The Weekend At The College Didn’t Turn Out Like They Planned” (Aired: 11/22/95)
Martin and Judith reconcile when they accompany Jeremy on a college visit.
Written by Jeff Greenstein & Jeff Strauss | Directed by Ron Wolotzky
The last episode before a two-month hiatus, this is the installment to which the entire series has been building: the moment in which Martin and Judith passionately reunite. There’s no denying — even as someone who wishes her character was more comedically defined and recognizes how too much romance was corrosive to the series’ sense of self — that there’s a certain narrative satisfaction, and completion on behalf of the series and these characters, when they reunite. In fact, because this was such a big episode, departed head writers Greenstein & Strauss (who really laid down the romantic gauntlet during their year when they killed Richard Stone) returned to pen the script. And despite the obviousness of the development, this episode gains credit for not telegraphing its ending from the start. A storytelling triumph (if not a comedic one).
10) Episode 117: “Hey Diddle Diddle” (Aired: 02/28/96)
Martin and Judith open up to each other about sexual self-gratification.
Written by Stephen Engel | Directed by Betty Thomas
This is the only installment from the final post-reconciliation run that I’m featuring in today’s list. For although I, 1) appreciate the first episode following the break, which attempts to handle the clash between romance and realism despite giving into the former a little too handily, 2) think the two-part finale has moments of enjoyability (despite its aggrandized nature), and 3) enjoy the unspectacular Toby episode mentioned both above and below, this is the only one of these ’96 entries that feels like Dream On. That’s due to the sexual premise of Martin and Judith discussing self-gratification (she claims to have never done it), which makes time for risqué comedy, but doesn’t preclude the script from furthering its relationship story goals. And in fact, from the elevated humor and premise connectedness, the characters and the arc both benefit.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Long Distance Runaround,” another star-studded Hollywood lampoon (that’s more gimmicky than anything else) in which Eddie goes to Hollywood to star in a sitcom, “Second Time Aground,” the first episode after the hiatus that launches the series into its full-tilt “romcom” phase (while continuing everyone’s very unsubtle character growth) and nevertheless works better than most of its successors, and “Tenants, Anyone?,” a good-but-not-great Toby episode that actually was the closet to making the above list because it’s the most normal of all the ’96 offerings. Also, I’ll recommend watching both parts of the finale for the narrative closure, the guest appearances, and the attempted utilization of screwball sensibilities.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Dream On goes to…
“Am I Blue?”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of The Larry Sanders Show! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!