Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our look at the best of Wings (1990-1997, NBC), one of the Peacock Network’s long-running ’90s comedies and an early entry in Thursday’s official Must See TV line-up. The entire series is available on DVD.
Two brothers operate a small airline in Nantucket. Wings stars TIMOTHY DALY as Joe Hackett, STEVEN WEBER as Brian Hackett, CRYSTAL BERNARD as Helen Chapel, THOMAS HADEN CHURCH as Lowell Mather, DAVID SCHRAMM as Roy Biggins, and REBECCA SCHULL as Fay Cochran.
With just six episodes in its abbreviated premiere season, you may be wondering why I’ve chosen to separate Wings’ first two years (containing only 28 entries) into two posts. I could say that I wanted to take this space to share some broader thoughts on the series and let readers know what to expect during the remaining weeks of coverage, before I dive into year-specific commentary with Season Two. That’s partially true. But the more honest and simple answer is that this is the result of scheduling: I needed an extra week here so Frasier could begin cleanly in January. In fact, you may remember that I initially planned to discuss Wings right after Seinfeld, whose first season (following its July ’89 pilot) succeeded the former’s debut stretch in the same post-Cheers timeslot. Yet when I began my chronological survey of watching and note-taking, I ran into a bit of trouble – more on this below – and decided to postpone coverage so that I could place the series next to Frasier, which shares the same trio of creators. I also opted to give each year of both Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show its own post, and then chose to fulfill my promise with Newhart. This left 2017 with eight more weeks and only one show that fit. So, that’s the exciting story of why Wings is getting eight posts when it deserves seven. Now, you may also be wondering why, for a first season that broadcast six episodes (and actually produced seven – one was held over for the following year and will be counted among next week’s output), I’m choosing only one favorite to highlight. Statistically, it does make more sense to feature two. However, I’ve decided to break from tradition, for I feel that the quality of Wings’ abridged debut season actually doesn’t warrant any entries being counted among the show’s finest (especially in a post of their own)… And yet, because I need to feature something here (and can certainly pick the year’s strongest of the six), selecting one seemed a compromise.
It’s no secret now that I consider Wings‘ first season to be rough going in comparison to what’s ahead. The usual reasons apply: adjusting characterizations, tentative performances, fewer laughs – just some run-of-the-mill greenness. Naturally, the material fit for discussion will improve as the seasons progress – you know, like with every sitcom that intends to be character-driven and thus needs a firm projected understanding of its players to both earn the audience’s investment and inspire organic comedy. But I mentioned above that I ran into some “trouble” when I began this survey back at the start of the year (following Seinfeld). Let me rewind a bit. Wings has always been a series that I could pop in casually for a nice feel-good representation of the (rightly-or-wrongly) overshadowed NBC comedies of the ‘90s. Though part of the network’s prestigious Must See TV Thursday line-up (formally introduced in ’93), the show nevertheless seemed more comfortable differentiating itself from the brand ambassadors (Seinfeld and Friends) and instead harkened back to some prior Peacock offerings – like Taxi, Night Court, and, of course, Cheers… Ah, Cheers – the show from which Wings’ creators, David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee, all hailed when they left during its seventh season to develop their own series. (As you may be aware, Wings has often been derisively labeled “Cheers in an airport.”) Going into this coverage, I wanted to examine the show with an eye towards where it fit within the MTM tradition, for Cheers and Frasier are arguably their respective decade’s clearest and strongest ancestral links to this classically designed brand of ensemble-based, character-driven comedy. “So, where does Wings, halfway between the two, actually fit in the MTM lineage?” I wondered. I was sure I didn’t want to be predictable and make heavy Cheers/Wings comparisons, because that wouldn’t be fair; one is brilliant, the other is good. Yet I wouldn’t be able to avoid obvious structural commonalities (or the fact that the two would go on to share several writers) – especially initially – even though I refused to base enjoyment of Wings on anything but Wings.
However, I was still disappointed with what I screened (up through Season Three, which, incidentally, is relatively good). Coming from Seinfeld, and with both Cheers and Frasier on the brain, I can only guess that my expectations weren’t properly adjusted. In fact, my initial response was such that I very nearly decided to hinge these posts around a sole nagging question – why, with a similar design and many of the same guiding comedic minds, does Wings pale in comparison to the latter two gems? Ideas raced through my mind. (I’ll get to a few below; while I’m determined NOT to let any outside series influence my enjoyment, it’s still important to recognize when this show, on its own, falls short – and use related works as reference points.) Meanwhile, because I was still committed to not overindulging the Cheers/Wings relationship, I instead thought I might focus on this series’ place alongside Frasier, which got to carry the MTM torch throughout the ‘90s as the brand’s supposed heir, leaving Wings standing on the sidelines as an oft-ignored step-child. (It’s partly why I moved the two shows’ coverage back-to-back.) But now, with several series in between, I have a clearer perspective. I’ve abandoned all notions of basing this analysis on Wings’ relationships with Angell-Casey-Lee’s two surrounding efforts, and I’m again more able to appreciate the show on its own. As a result, I’m not going to do too much with the Frasier angle, for I’d simply be harping on why it got to be the better character showcase of the two (in short: it went back to basics and was defined by the voice of its protagonist and the timbre of his relationships, like in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show; not by its setting or any premise-based narrative constructs, as in Wings). See, I don’t want to disparage Wings here during its coverage just to compliment Frasier, the next show in our queue. After all, most of you reading this love Wings. If I, too, start from this same truth, I think we’re poised to have a better discussion.
But, honestly, everything I’ve written above is trivial and tangential. Let’s get to the good stuff – the show itself! As previously mentioned, Wings was created by three Cheers writers/producers who left the hit series in the middle of the ’88-’89 season with the intention of readying a new show for the fall. The trio conceived of an ensemble workplace comedy (in the same figurative vein as Cheers, no doubt) set in a small airport. As the network came to like the idea, following some tweaks – the initial concept was about two ex-spouses running rival airlines in the same building – the series wouldn’t be scheduled until late in the ’89-’90 season (premiering, eventually, in April). Casting is often cited as one of the biggest reasons for the delay, as the network considered Wings a top priority and the producers were committed to finding the right ensemble. They really did well for themselves with the supporting players – casting David Schramm as the smarmy rival airline operator (Roy), Rebecca Schull as the dotty ticket counter and announcer (Fay), and Thomas Haden Church as the dullard mechanic (Lowell, not in the initial concept). All unique; all hilarious. Meanwhile, Tim Daly and Steven Weber were cast as the more narratively prominent Hackett brothers (Joe and Brian), two pilots who’ve been estranged for years (over a woman) and are now reunited, living together, and working side-by-side. One is a fastidious introvert, the other a fun-loving extrovert – classic opposites – and with their rich history, they form the heart and soul of the series, offering great potential for humor and pathos. Joining the two men in the show’s elevated focus is their old childhood friend Helen, who works the airport’s lunch counter. Proving to be the hardest role to cast, future stars like Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally (who was given a guest role this season), and Frasier’s Peri Gilpin auditioned – the latter favorited, but vetoed by the brass.
The part was finally given to Crystal Bernard, then coming off the syndicated run of It’s A Living and the only cast member with major sitcom experience. Helen and the brothers collectively constitute the show’s focal point – assuming the same narrative function as Sam & Diane in early Cheers – and two separate ensemble tiers emerge. Those three are on the top; the others are on the bottom. (You see, it’s impossible, by design, to ignore the comparable constructions!) However, Angell-Casey-Lee were conscious of differentiating the two shows, and despite some of the obvious similarities in terms of structure (along with how setting is used), the brother dynamic ensures that any future romantic entanglements between the three leads (which is asserted as a possibility right from the start) is fresh. Furthermore, while I think a case could be made for Brian and Joe representing two different, broadened sides of Sam Malone, Helen is no Diane when it comes to background, voice, or temperament. She is different, even though her narrative functionality may seem familiar… Not surprisingly, there is more unavoidable Cheers talk to come with these top-tier players over the next few weeks – most of it confined to Seasons Two and Three, which feature the predictable, and ill-handled, romantic relationship between Joe and Helen. (I’ll spoil right now that the treatment afforded to this narrative development within the first three years is perhaps one of the elements for which I am the least able to muster enthusiasm; stay tuned for much more here…) In the meantime, there are only a few obstacles that hold back the first season of Wings from brilliance – aside, of course, from the general MTM-rooted necessity of knowing and exploring characters over a period of time before any truly satisfying comedy can be motivated. One issue is the current writing staff. The other is the initial nature of – a few – specific performances.
To the first part, this tiny year has a comparatively small staff – only the three esteemed creators, who collectively and individually wrote four of the seven produced outings, along with Dave Hackel (Webster, Out Of This World, Dear John, Becker), who’ll assume more responsibility as the above trio’s influence dwindles, and Philip LaZebnik (Day By Day, The Torkelsons, Almost Home), who’s only around for these first two seasons. Neither of these last two had any concrete MTM experience (although Hackel’s work on Dear John comes close), and frankly, Wings’ best writers are still to come. The quality will improve dramatically once a stronger team is on-hand to turn well-designed roles into well-functioning characters. In fact, if there’s anything that keeps Wings from reaching the Cheers level, I think it’s that Cheers not only had well-defined regulars from the jump, but it also supplied them with consistently strong scripts throughout, and especially at the beginning of, its run. (Unlike Frasier, Cheers mirrored Taxi in that it was always defined by the ensemble’s interplay in a single setting, instead of a single character’s perspective in different settings. However, the reliability of Cheers’ text and the unanimous excellence with which every single character was crafted made the show both a standout in the MTM mold and one worthy of being considered among the finest of this type – even if it broke from the early ‘70s template that Frasier would revisit.) Wings, in contrast, doesn’t really get the same script quality and consistency until its middle years (say, mid-Season Three); because of this slow start, the characterizations always feel like they’ve gotten off on the wrong foot and are making up for lost time. Future staffs still have to build as late as Season Three, as opposed to just being able to explore. Neither Cheers or Frasier had this problem. It’s a big difference (to put it mildly).
Second roadblock: the core trio is relied upon too much at this point – and they’re not great (here especially, but this may always be a lingering subliminal concern). Textually, the brother dynamic is strong. But in practice, neither is a great comedic force: Daly’s restrained, and Weber pushes – requiring the scripts to oversell and overexert in the development of their bond. Fortunately, things will improve with them from the sheer benefit of time and exposure. The same is true with Helen, for although Bernard is a unique, laugh-seeking presence whose energy enlivens the show, she never has the wowing gravitas of a Kirstie Alley, a Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or even a Helen Hunt. (All Peacock powerhouses!) This is a bigger issue during these romance-heavy first seasons than those ahead, and while she’ll get better about securing motivated laughs, the show will forever try to compensate by enhancing the cast’s feminine contributions. Happily, Wings’ biggest asset right now – and always – is the rest of its crew. Sure, one could quibble about Fay and Roy being better reactive agents than active ones (see: Norm and Carla), and Lowell being a bit broader than the rest of the universe (see: Woody), but these problems aren’t problems. Those three are each defined well enough to both get laughs in dialogue and satisfy when anchoring stories… if a story, by conception, is well-built. This also goes, aforementioned complaints notwithstanding, for the primary trio. What’s working for them right now, as we saw in Cheers, is the low-concept premise that frequently plays with a unity of time and place, thus highlighting character interaction. If only the pre-ordained structural and narrative hoops, like the relationship tripe, didn’t sometimes get in the way… (This wasn’t as big a concern on Cheers, because what couldn’t be motivated generally didn’t occur.) But, ultimately, I’ll never be too disappointed: Wings’ intentions are noble, and its results are often rewarding (or they will be in a few years). So, without further ado, here’s my pick for the short first season’s best episode.
01) Episode 6: “All For One And Two For Helen” (Aired: 05/24/90)
Joe is jealous when Brian and Helen go out on a date.
Written by Dave Hackel | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Setting aside all the particulars that define this series and its truncated debut season, there’s something rather obvious about this first year’s finale being the most satisfying excursion of these six episodes. As mentioned above, this kind of character-driven writing that MTM came to typify (and for which Wings, as a descendant, strove to emulate) was designed so that our emotional attachments to the regulars could build over time — in tandem with the show’s own understanding of them. Thus, the more we get to know the characters, the better we like them, and not only does episode Six, by design, have a finer understanding of Wings‘ identity and its characterizations than episode One (for instance), but also, if we’re watching in chronological order, then we care more in Six than we do in One. That’s the obvious part. Yet, interestingly, this was actually the fourth produced installment of the year’s seven, so it’s not even the most learned of this lot (even though its position makes it seem as such). Now, what, beyond scheduling, accounts for the perceived strength? Well, although I’d cite the show’s pilot as being Season One’s best written (see below), this entry, the second by Dave Hackel (his first is funny, but a bit rough-around-the-edges) is a finer blend of being well-crafted and comedically steeped. Furthermore, even though it features the most heavy utilization of the love triangle narrative construct (which I mentioned above as being a hinderance in the show’s journey to develop its core players and be competitive alongside other character-rooted series), this relationship focus actually does build some character here, strengthens the performers’ chemistry, and gives us an indication of Wings‘ objective (however flawed) in these first two seasons. Thus, it’s the best representation of the year, and sans the pilot’s heady (but vital) exposition, it’s got the most room to explore the series’ raison d’être within laughs that aim to emerge from our burgeoning understandings of the characters. It’s this output’s most effective contribution.
The only other notable episode meriting mention is the premiere, “Legacy,” which sets up everything like a textbook pilot — it’s structurally perfect — and stands as a good example of how to launch a sitcom. Is it the most enjoyable here? Obviously not. But it does what needs to be done. (If I went with formality and chose another entry, it’d clearly be this one.)
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from Season Two! And tomorrow — it’s Wildcard Wednesday!