Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation 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.
Last week, I tried to keep myself from comparing Wings to the other two shows on which creators Angell-Casey-Lee also claimed significant involvement, Cheers and Frasier. But it was practically impossible, for while I knew there was no way to measure my regard for Wings alongside my favor for either of those aforementioned classics, the facts remained: Wings IS structurally like Cheers (it may not be “Cheers in an airport,” but there sure are commonalities) and it’s NOT as good a torchbearer for the MTM legacy as Frasier. We had to hit these points directly because, even if we can divorce such justified-but-nevertheless-unfair comparisons from the show’s self-contained merit, putting Wings in the context of similarly constructed (and written) series helps explain what works here and what doesn’t. Therefore, going forward, my intention is keep such associations confined to necessity – like when there are crossovers (ex: a Norm and Cliff appearance — see below) or narrative elements too shamefully alike to ignore (again, see below). Unfortunately for Wings, while it’s easier to mute thoughts of Frasier, the design-based parallels to Cheers remain potent, and Season Two, for all intents and purposes, is the most aggressive in its mimicking. This comes mostly from the Joe/Helen relationship, which I teased last week as being a hindrance to the show’s development. However, to perhaps the surprise of some diehard fans, my primary concern with their depictions – and specifically, the narrative machinations that strive to make them the series’ central couple – are less situated on their future plot-driven engagement and perfunctory marriage (more in upcoming weeks) as they are on this first foundational period in which the pair unites, dates, and splits. All of these story developments happen quickly here in the busy Season Two, which incidentally, secured an official spot on NBC’s esteemed Thursday line-up — soon to be called “Must See TV” — in January of ’91; ready or not (spoiler alert: NOT), Wings was in the big leagues.
Prior issues from last year remain — one being an emphasis on the three leads (Joe, Brian, and Helen), for while the second-tier members of this classically designed ensemble (Fay, Roy, and Lowell) are easily comedic and well-defined, the folks on the upper-tier, especially Joe and Helen (whose usage and positioning is comparable to early Sam/Diane) are forced to indulge in narrative-driven romantic entanglements with unmotivated emotional beats. And it’s still too early for the performers to elevate such story-heavy contrivances – they don’t yet know these roles well enough. But there’s already some good news: they’re getting better. In fact, it’s clear that if these scripts weren’t so reliant on the top-tier, more could be done with the ensemble as a collective, and every character would benefit… Another concern that lingers is the writing’s inability to propel comedic brilliance; greatness is in short supply. While those Cheers veterans knew how to construct a show and define its regulars (on paper, anyway), they’re responsible for only three of this season’s 22 scripts. The rest of the work falls on their assembled staff, which I’ve already implied is going to become better… later. In the meantime, there’s, again, at least some improvement. While Dave Hackel and Philip LaZebnik are both back (the former will continue to assume greater responsibilities, while the latter will fade after this season), there are several new additions, including one-seasoners Bryan Winter (The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air) and Bruce Rasmussen (Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show ). Even better suited for Wings are the incoming team of Bill Diamond and Michael Saltzman, who’d leave after Season Three for Murphy Brown, along with the legendary David Lloyd, an MTM icon. If Lloyd doesn’t manage to helm anything for Wings that’s as notable as “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” at least his scripts elevate the discourse on character, providing needed morale – especially as Frasier looms.
Hopefully, you’re noticing a trend: everything’s an improvement over the short and hardly representative Season One. Here in Wings’ first full year, the scripts are better, the performances are growing, and naturally, the audience is becoming endeared to the regulars. What stands currently as the biggest impediment to excellence is the very thing on which the year is placing most of its metaphorical chips: the Joe/Helen relationship. This is where memories of Cheers are explicitly invoked – a development most frustrating, for you’d think the show would take pains to ensure greater differentiation. Instead, it does the unpredictable thing: the predictable thing. (A network mandate? Perhaps.) First, it reveals the burgeoning Brian-Helen tension to be a red herring meant to obscure the more palpable weight surrounding her relationship with Joe, the show’s true anchor. No surprise there. This launches the inevitable course of romance for Helen and Joe, which starts and ends at breakneck speed – inorganic chemistry and improper build be darned! With little subtlety and a hyper sense of pace, Joe and Helen have their first real date during the season’s ninth aired episode, and following two momentum-disrupting (but perhaps more enjoyable) outings, they become an official couple in the year’s 12th. That’s only 18 episodes into the run – with a tension-killing four-month hiatus in between. Needless to say, the show doesn’t crescendo to this development like it should (like Cheers did with Sam/Diane)… Although, to Wings’ credit, Joe and Helen are given a history that indeed helps explain their feelings for one another, so when we doubt why they’re together, their past is said to provide the answers. However, we’re told this; we don’t see it. Because the audience – along with the show itself – still doesn’t know these figures as well as they apparently know each other, it’s nevertheless hard to root for them without actually seeing the legitimate bond develop. So even if our “why?” question is answered, the “why care?” one, at this point in the run, isn’t.
However, if starting the anticipated central romance before the show has earned one seems unwise, there’s an even odder choice: a mere ten episodes after the couple’s union comes their disunion. Naturally, this clichéd cliffhanger break-up occurs in the season’s finale, making it seem like a pre-ordained happening – one that doesn’t care if the narrative opportunities for this pairing haven’t been maximized to secure our necessary latent investment. And unlike their coupling, the break-up doesn’t have the “history” to fall back upon as justification. In fact, their split is painfully contrived, especially when the feuding lovers engage in a brawl that stands as the single most egregious invocation of Cheers, as Wings’ attempt to outdo Sam-and-Diane’s slap fight turns the sequence into a cartoonish embarrassment – with lesser performers, lesser characters, and no motivation whatsoever within the story or teleplay. Because it’s been designed in a manner so similar to something seen on Cheers – but bigger – this scene not only fails from the aforementioned lack of character-based logic, but it also makes the derogatory “Cheers in an airport” slam seem valid. We’re no longer talking about a familiar structure or writing style; we’re talking repeated ideas… ones that don’t work as well here. And this is the point to which the whole season has very obviously been building. As a result, I think Season Two – though not the worst (it’s got better scripts than last year, for instance) – offers the most troublesome look at the series, basing its identity on story-driven maneuverings that don’t make sense and force unfavorable comparisons. The Helen-Joe stuff monopolizes the year’s focus — limited by and limiting the text, which yields no gems… Fortunately, Wings is about to turn a corner… In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that all 22 installments broadcast this season are directed by Noam Pitlik.
01) Episode 10: “Sports And Leisure” (Aired: 10/19/90)
Roy joins the airport gang for an evening of Trivial Pursuit.
Written by David Angell
One of the strongest from the show’s first era (which I’d say narratively constitutes the opening two-and-a-half seasons, but aesthetically covers just the initial two), this entry is the first to make good use of the ensemble, emphasizing both their individual characterizations and their power as a collective while exploring the ensemble dynamics, particularly crotchety Roy’s integration with the rest of the regular cast. Its aims are rooted in character and enhanced, in Angell’s teleplay, by big laughs — especially those coming from Haden Church’s Lowell, a fairly broad figure in comparison to his cohorts, but one who’s reliable for comedy (as long as we’re able to sustain our believability). The Ann-Margret gag is fondly remembered by fans.
02) Episode 12: “It’s Not The Thought, It’s The Gift” (Aired: 11/09/90)
Joe and Brian compete over Helen’s birthday gift.
Written by Peter Casey & David Lee
If my above commentary left any doubt as to how I feel about the Joe/Helen coupling, I’ll reiterate here that I’m not drawn to any episode simply because it contends with the pre-determined narrative plot points surrounding their romance. (In fact, these shows usually have to work harder to earn my investment.) So, an installment like such, which is the most ambitious pre-first-date outing for Joe/Helen (and no surprise, has a script credited to two of the series’ creators) is highlighted here almost in spite of itself. But there are several good reasons to be complimentary — one of which is the strengthening bond between the brothers, which thrives when they’re in competition. Another is the convenient history that explains why Joe and Helen should be a couple. It may take more than a cameo to make me root for them, but an entry that cements their shared past (in an active, visual way) is commendable. Worthwhile.
03) Episode 13: “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Policewoman Scorned” (Aired: 11/16/90)
Brian dates a policewoman in the hopes that she’ll drop his parking tickets.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
I debated about whether or not to include this installment on today’s list, for while I find it inherently funny (it’s the first script by Saltzman and Diamond, who persist through next year’s staff additions and then make one more contribution in the season thereafter), I also find it narratively predictable and therefore a bit too convenient — a potential threat to realism. However, it’s elevated by those aforementioned laughs, many of which come from the always hilarious Sharon Barr, best known here for two memorable guest spots on Cheers (as Connie, the woman who wins Woody in an auction, and Dot, Norm’s IRS agent), and the amusing subplot afforded to Lowell, which also gives opportunity for a well-choreographed slapstick scene.
04) Episode 15: “Friends Or Lovers?” (Aired: 12/07/90)
Joe and Helen go on their first date.
Written by David Lloyd
The first Wings script by MTM legend David Lloyd (as mentioned above, his most famous work is probably “Chuckles Bites The Dust”), this is an important outing that exists primarily to showcase Joe and Helen on their first date, effectively ending these initial 15 episodes’ faux suspenseful love triangle… but, as discussed, without us having first enjoyed the necessary slow-burn crescendo to make this development sensical and investment-worthy. And yet, aside from the nebulously motivated narrative machinations with which the script must contend, Lloyd’s work, if not hilarious (in this case), does maintain the sanctity of these still-gestating characters, and even finds ways to develop Helen and Joe inside this lumbering story objective.
05) Episode 17: “A Terminal Christmas” (Aired: 12/21/90)
The crew spends Christmas with Fay, who’s mourning her late husband.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
Although I seldom see this installment cited by loyal fans as being among the show’s best (or even the year’s best), I consider it to be a standout, for it follows in the tradition of the beloved “Sports And Leisure” in that it’s basically an ensemble show that mines humor from the cast’s relationships, interactions, and the strength of their collective existence. It’s also the first of Wings‘ Christmas entries, and while holiday shows are a gamble when it comes to my favor (because too often they’re an excuse for unearned sentiment), this one bases its heart in some justified moments of depth for Fay. Furthermore, Diamond and Saltzman’s teleplay knows how to bring laughs — even silly ones, like when Fay’s late husband winds up in the dust buster. HA!
06) Episode 19: “Love Is Like Pulling Teeth” (Aired: 01/10/91)
Joe is torn between caring for Helen and going to watch a basketball game.
Written by Dave Hackel
Critiquing actors (and even writers) who aim to do their best work is always uncomfortable, so when I talked last week about Bernard being comedic but not relatively spectacular in comparison to other Must See TV divas, I was being as diplomatic as possible. The truth is that I think the show is occasionally handicapped by her presence — in the sense that, if she was truly and consistently great, the material would come across so much better, even and especially in these early romance-heavy seasons. That noted, it’s a welcome treat to point out when Bernard is an asset, because she has a unique voice (figuratively and literally) and can get laughs; I consider this episode to be a good showing for her, even though it’s designed more for Joe.
07) Episode 21: “My Brother’s Back And There’s Going To Be Trouble” (Aired: 01/31/91)
Brian loses the plane while Joe is in the hospital.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
Here we have another entry whose inclusion on this list wasn’t so assured. (The sign of a comparatively middling season? More Honorable Mentions than classics. Fortunately, this’ll improve as early as next year.) While other installments mentioned below offer more dramatic weight, they either shortchange the comedy or find themselves too ensconced in the year’s misguided Joe/Helen focus. In contrast, this excursion is thrown to Brian, the third member of the upper-tier, one half of the show’s most engaging relationship (the two brothers), and the figure responsible for a lot of the trio’s more comedic stories in these first two years. This installment makes able use of him, which won’t always be such a cinch for the series.
08) Episode 23: “Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places” (Aired: 02/14/91)
Joe and Helen endure a miscommunication on Valentine’s Day.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
Frankly, even though I’ve chosen this as the year’s MVE, I think there may be both funnier and more dramatically memorable installments highlighted above. But it earns my favor in this post for being a good representation of the year — blending a portrayal that’s accurate, while also positive. That is, it’s a Valentine’s Day show centered around the season’s focus, Joe and Helen, who’ve just gotten together but are apparently having problems (again, we’re told this more often than we see it). Therefore, it’s a truthful exhibition of what the season is trying to accomplish — and how it’s going. Also, Diamond and Saltzman once more boost its appeal through comedy (a bridge over troubled water), making this one of the year’s funnier Joe/Helen outings. And lastly, the excursion introduces Tony Shalhoub’s Antonio, who’ll soon join the second-tier ensemble and become a reliable purveyor of laughs — representing the future.
09) Episode 26: “Mother Wore Stripes” (Aired: 03/14/91)
Joe and Brian are reunited with their mother.
Written by David Lloyd
As the second of two scripts written this season by David Lloyd (whose son, Christopher, will join the staff next year), this entry is like his previous contribution in that it’s a solid exploration of the characters — never hysterical, but still funny enough to keep the welcome story afloat during this period of characterization-building (coloring, if you will, between the lines of these already outlined Angell-Casey-Lee sketches). The installment packs the most earned dramatic gravitas of this initial era, for the story contains the return of the Hackett brothers’ mother (played by Barbara Babcock, whom we’ve seen all over the place) and gets to mine angst from a previously known source of trauma for our two main male regulars. Again, it doesn’t give us all we need by way of laughs, but it succeeds on behalf of these two characters. ‘Tis vital.
10) Episode 21: “Murder She Roast” (Aired: 03/21/91)
Brian is convinced that Fay is a murderess.
Written by Dave Hackel
In contrast to the entry featured above, this Hackel offering is all about laughs, and therefore resembles his other highlighted excursion here (“Love Is Like Pulling Teeth”), which keeps humor at the forefront of its objectives. There’s no serious character stuff, for the plot, of Brian suspecting Fay of being a murderer, is cartoonish and hackneyed — we’ve seen it before and it always breaches a significant amount of logic. (What good friend would really believe the other is capable of murder?) But it’s hard to deny the copious supply of laughs that arise within this knowingly broad story. And because laughs, once again, can help bridge any troubled plot — and be good for character by giving them a comedic direction — it’s not un-worthwhile.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: the crossover featuring Norm and Cliff (as if we needed another reason to think of Cheers) entitled “The Story Of Joe,” which actually attempts some motivated exploration of Joe and Brian, and “There’s Always Room For Cello,” an offering produced for Season One that features a script by Casey and Lee (it’s simply too green to stand alongside the rest of Season Two). Of more Honorable Mention quality are three overrated entries that suffer for being too heavily steeped in the show’s central couple — “The Puppetmaster,” the year’s opener, which plays up the triangle bit and prognosticates the upcoming Joe/Helen coupling, yet within a contrived premise that undercuts our investment in their growing chemistry, “Airport ’90,” which employs forced jeopardy as a means of drawing Joe and Helen officially into a relationship (yawn), and the already discussed season finale, “Duet For Cello And Plane,” which arises inorganically and is shamelessly derivative… but nevertheless exists as one of the show’s most memorable outings.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Wings goes to…
“Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!