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, REBECCA SCHULL as Fay Cochran, and TONY SHALHOUB as Antonio Scarpacci.
After two weeks of reinforcing my belief that the quality of its episodic text – i.e. the scripts – was largely culpable for Wings’ initial inability to qualitatively compete with shows that shared a similar construction and/or pedigree, I am thrilled to report that the third season finally remedies this shortcoming with a handful of key new staff additions. While Dave Hackel, who (aside from the three creators/EPs) has the most seniority and is therefore chief among this year’s regular script providers, the only writers lingering from the previous season are Bill Diamond and Michael Saltzman, the two-year duo who crafted many of the second season’s finest offerings (but whose style is more jarring within this Season Three crowd – now the pair’s broader, less character-wise), and contributor David Lloyd, the classic MTM scribe who helms three scripts here – his highest annual count. Joining this above bunch are Larry Balmagia, who wrote for several different ‘70s classics (MASH, Barney Miller, Rhoda) and had spent the previous year (’90-’91) on Cheers, and Steven Levitan, a relative newbie who’d soon realign with a few members of this team on Frasier, and later would go on to create both Just Shoot Me! and Modern Family, the latter of which he’d birth with Lloyd’s son Christopher. Speaking of the junior Lloyd, he pulls up a figurative chair and also becomes a Wings regular this season, after having written for the first four years of The Golden Girls, back when it was an interesting blend of MTM and Lear-ian sensibilities. (He, too, would go on to Frasier, where he’d play a big role in maintaining its MTM legacy.) Adding to this heavy Cheers-Frasier vibe, which no doubt reveals itself in the overall uptick in quality, is the seasoned team of Ken Levine and David Isaacs; they offer two scripts each to this year and the following — the era in which Wings clearly boasts its finest crew.
This above group takes the inherently solid, if familiar, design supplied by creators Angell, Casey, and Lee – who will forever remain Wings’ executive producers despite their diminished involvement (and only one script comes from them this year, courtesy of Angell) – and turns it into something that not only looks good, but is good. If these characters were finely made wheels in need of a little greasing, then this new staff finally takes out that overdue oil and puts forward the muscle vital to their all becoming workable wheels – or, discarding this tortured metaphor, sustainable comedic characterizations built from consistently well-written and laugh-begetting scripts. These writers’ mastery finally grants Wings the opportunity to counter those “Cheers in an airport” charges with substance – not a rebuttal (that may be impossible due to the creators), but ample rewards that prove the viability of the format and mute the sting of most criticisms. Part of this newfound success simply stems from the experience we’ve now had with the characters; just as with all ensemble comedies in the MTM vein, a “getting to know you” period is crucial. And part of this elevation also comes from an intentional shift away from last year’s big problem: the show-dampening Joe-Helen relationship focus, which segregated the ensemble into two tiers (with Helen and the Hacketts on top, and the rest of the ensemble below), pointing out Wings’ clearly ungreased wheels by drawing an unnecessary link to Cheers’ central relationship. This bifurcation never completely evaporates, but the lines do indeed blur… to everyone’s benefit. And indeed, it really is this new combination of writers that should be praised for all the aforementioned developments. Their words, which hone the characters and seek to find laughs motivated from their established personas, finally allow us to know the players as much as we need. Now the series can truly be as character-driven as intended.
Also, the subliminal de-emphasizing of the two-tier structure means the show is no longer so beholden to the elements that have heretofore under-delivered (read: Joe and Helen), and can instead emphasize the other well-defined players who, individually and collectively, provide the effortless palpable humanity that typically defines MTM and its descendants. Yes, the Hackett brothers will always be the show’s nucleus (Joe, especially), which is fine because their performances are now starting to reflect the strength that emanates from the scripts’ regard for their dynamic. However, now the series feels freer to look outward, and utilize — with almost equal time — the ensemble that’s been built around this center. Speaking of the ensemble, it’s also bolstered this year by Tony Shalhoub’s Antonio, who becomes the airport’s resident cab driver after his memorable guest appearance last season as a waiter. Now, I’ve seen a few fans point toward the broadness that later comes into Antonio’s comedy as having contributed to a descent in the show’s text-based dramatic merit. But, truthfully, he’s no broader than Lowell, and because the outer ensemble will always remain Wings‘ best asset, I think it’s beneficial at this qualitatively progressive time to receive some reinforcements – particularly from someone who can both offer quick laughs from a tangibly different perspective and provide these new writers with some fun; he’s the only wheel they get to build here (instead of just exercise and oil). Of course, this collective ensemble focus is also, for us, about moving away from Cheers and abandoning the icky and improperly plotted romantic mumbo jumbo of Season Two… But it doesn’t happen right away. Season Two still imposes its troublesome will on Three – mostly at the latter’s start, as these new writers must extricate the show from the mess of the prior year’s story-driven treatment of the Joe/Helen relationship. (Refresher: we weren’t given enough time to either root for their romance or to understand why they were splitting.)
In what is perhaps a Catch-22, the year must address this lingering narrative residue boldly and directly with a couple of ostentatious plot-heavy outings that also suffer from unmotivated writer-enforced characterization swings. But the final goal is to move the series beyond this moment in time. So, we have to endure the ridiculous notion of Helen in a strip joint, the unjustified absurdness that has her mowing down Joe’s office (more than once) with her car, and the gimmicky centerpiece in which they both appear in court, all in order to reach the good stuff. Fortunately, this is only a narrative concern in the first three episodes… unfortunately, the emotional toll on these characters casts a pall over the first half of the year. The comedic winds don’t fully shift until the season’s midway, when the new writers find their “sea legs” (or “air legs,” since this is Wings). This is when the show really takes off – and we can thus divide Season Three into halves. 3A is the rocky continuation of Season Two, and 3B is Wings’ Golden Age – featuring its best staff, some great usage of the ensemble, and a rate of episodic success that will never again be as high. (To wit, I like every Season Three episode – all 11 – that aired in 1992.) In fact, I may surprise you later by not eviscerating the series’ final years as much as some other fans do (for despite not boasting stronger scripts, they do a decent job of meeting the genre’s implicit comedic objective). I note this now to point out that there’s only one upcoming year that could rival the second half of Three for representing what I think constitutes Wings at its best. But because this is when the show finally becomes worthy of being 1) a staple of the pre-Must See TV Thursday lineup, 2) a product created by former Cheers scribes, and 3) an ensemble comedy with MTM roots, there’s no era more exciting than the final half of this important year. So, on that 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Andy Ackerman.
01) Episode 35: “Crate Expectations” (Aired: 11/14/91)
The crew plans a surprise party for Joe.
Written by Dave Hackel
After powering through its knowingly flawed opening installments, Season Three eventually gets itself on a much better track, and by the time the year reaches this outing, the seventh aired, we’re starting to see just how well the show is going to exist under this new staff during this rejuvenating era. As mentioned above, this means we find an elevation for the lower-tier half of the ensemble, such that the entire cast, now seven (up from last year’s six), is functioning regularly as a cohesive group. The strength of this excursion, written by this crew’s de facto leader (in the creators’ steads), is in its utilization of the ensemble, which is centered on Joe, but tightly and humorously uses everyone — even Helen, who’s still smarting from her opening arc.
02) Episode 36: “Ladies Who Lunch” (Aired: 11/21/91)
Helen befriends Joe’s new girlfriend.
Written by Kathryn Baker
While the above episode dealt tangentially with the Joe/Helen break-up, as Helen started dating again, this installment (written by freelancer Kathryn Baker, of Murphy Brown, Melrose Place, Sunset Beach) is the year’s most overt narrative utilization of their dynamic since those first three troubled outings. Perhaps it’s the fresh voice in the script, perhaps it’s the staff’s new objectives already working their magic on the series, or perhaps it’s just a funny idea, but this Joe/Helen excursion actually works, as the premise of Helen befriending Joe’s new girlfriend (Gretchen German) is naturally funny and provides for some character moments… even if they build to an obvious story goal: the inevitable separation of Joe from his temporary love interest.
03) Episode 39: “The Bogey Man” (Aired: 12/19/91)
Joe joins Brian, Roy, and Lowell at a timeshare lecture.
Written by Larry Balmagia
Best remembered for the Antonio subplot in which the cabbie entertains the airport with a version of “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” that he’s titled “My Goat Knows The Bowling Score,” this well-regarded outing frankly never lives up to its hype. Oh, sure, that’s a terrifically funny gag — and represents a semi-milestone in the audience’s faith in both Shalhoub and his character — but the A-plot, which features the remaining male members of this ensemble leaving the regular sets and going off together to a tropical timeshare resort, never reaches the heights of hilarity anticipated by the premise. However, the story emphasizes character-based interplay, and if your comedic expectations are adjusted, it can become a quasi-classic.
04) Episode 41: “Divorce, American Style” (Aired: 01/16/92)
Helen is distraught to learn that she must wait to divorce Antonio.
Written by Steven Levitan
The second of a gaudy two-part narrative that’s notable for being the first story centered around Antonio, this is another case where I’m celebrating the nature of the script rather than the quality of the premise. The story is the old tired sitcom gimmick of one character marrying another for the purposes of securing a green card (not even Taxi was immune from its siren call — although that show was so well-written that it worked). I just don’t like it on principle. But I do like the way these characters are written here, I’m thrilled that the laughs have increased significantly from years past (because of what’s being done with the players), and the season’s energy really starts gaining traction around this time, marking the start of Wings‘ Golden Age.
05) Episode 42: “Stew In A Stew” (Aired: 01/23/92)
Fay and Joe argue over a denied raise.
Written by David Angell
Although this isn’t among the year’s funniest (by a long shot), there’s an enhanced dramatic weight that reveals its author — one of the show’s three creators, David Angell, in his only script for the season and the year’s only offering from the mighty Angell-Casey-Lee triumvirate. Its story is focused on the relationship between Joe and Fay, a heretofore meaty dynamic for which this installment aims to supply a depth — kitschy flashback and all. So, if the teleplay falls short in really hitting the target number of laughs that this new crew is starting to institutionalize as a standard, it does valuable things on behalf of these regulars (Fay, especially) and their humanity, thus offering a reward for the audience: some welcome character history.
06) Episode 43: “This Old House” (Aired: 01/30/92)
Brian and Joe learn their old childhood home is to be demolished.
Written by David Lloyd
Speaking of history, this is another entry that’s steeped in it. While the above aimed to flesh out the Joe-Fay story (and the origin of Sandpiper), this installment sets its sights on the show’s maintained center: the relationship between two brothers. This concept makes room for flashbacks as it fills out even more of the backstory the series has already done a decent job of building for the Hacketts, and manages to be another fine offering for the characters — the top-tier ensemble, especially. Note that this is the second of three installments this year written by David Lloyd. (Incidentally, his first outing is not highlighted; it has laughs, but suffers from the gimmicky casting of the Emmy-nominated, but overwhelming, Tyne Daly.) He has a developed understanding of character, knows how to layer in motivated comedy, and generally constructs his scripts well. Although there are funnier, its character concerns make this my MVE.
07) Episode 44: “Planes, Trains, And Visiting Cranes” (Aired: 02/13/92)
Helen confronts Frasier Crane when he hosts a seminar on the island.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
You know, for as much trouble as this series creatively had (and will always have, honestly) due to fundamental comparisons that critics and audience members would make to one of the finest sitcoms of the 20th century (Cheers), Wings certainly didn’t shy away from using this genuine behind-the-scenes association to its benefit. After guest appearances from Norm and Cliff last year, this installment sees the arrival of Frasier and Lilith, as the latter is leading a seminar. Naturally, with the well-defined and expertly written Drs. Crane on hand, there’s an excess of laughs (even though it makes us realize just how much better defined they are than the others here). Fortunately though, this installment, written by Cheers vets, is really about the Wings folks, forcing members of the top-tier to work through lingering resentments. Also, Grammer was nominated for an Emmy Award — in the Lead category — for this appearance.
08) Episode 45: “Das Plane” (Aired: 02/20/92)
Charity inspires the Hacketts to fly an obnoxious codger cross-country.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
A popular excursion written by Diamond and Saltzman, funny scribes who enlivened the troublesome second season but whose style I personally believe has become out-of-place now in Season Three, I don’t think the installment comes anywhere close to its hype. It’s broad and premise-driven. That said, it’s a memorable, if story-heavy, outing that introduces the recurring nuisance Carlton Blanchard (William Hickey), whom the series overuses and never utilizes as well as it does here (but I digress…). It also manages to predicate great humor on the way the other characters react to him — primarily Joe and Brian, whose combativeness is paralleled in Blanchard’s recount of his own problems with his brother. Not brilliant, but comedic.
09) Episode 48: “The Bank Dick” (Aired: 04/23/92)
Brian gets a second job, while Helen and Joe argue over baseball tickets.
Written by David Lloyd
David Lloyd’s third and final script for the season, this is like several of the above in that I’m not overly thrilled with the premise — well, let me be more specific, it’s not the idea that I dislike, but rather the way that the story progresses — but I include it here for the strength of its funny, well-written teleplay. In fact, although the true calling card of this ensemble is the comedic mastery of its rapid fire interplay, especially in the entry’s first half, there are several really smart, amusing ideas used. While the forced jeopardy of the robber in the plane doesn’t work for me, I like both Brian getting a second job as a bank guard and the argument between Helen and Joe (who, thanks to this staff, are now able to share stories and not hinder an outing).
10) Episode 49: “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” (Aired: 04/30/92)
Joe is jealous when a high school athlete looks to break Joe’s old record.
Written by Steven Levitan
This is the year’s penultimate and it’s a bit of a sleeper — centered on Joe, and maximizing its comedic gains based on his foibles (which thus far in the series’ life have been less visible and harder to pinpoint). In this case, he’s afraid of his own mortality (something to which most of us can relate) and lets his own jealousy and pride impede a young baseball player’s chances of breaking Joe’s set record. How wonderfully human! This not only creates the opportunity for laughs, but it also goes a long way in making Joe a more viable character, which has been one of the big problems for the top-tier ensemble, the show’s central romance, and its nucleus: the relationship between the two brothers. This episode is merely indicative of what this staff, in general, set out and was largely able to accomplish. A fine representation of the year.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include three outings in contention for the above list: Diamond and Saltzman’s “Try To Remember The Night He Dismembered,” a fondly regarded entry that’s focused on the ensemble (the year’s raison d’être), but is premise-driven and alienatingly broad in comparison to the season’s other gems, Levine & Isaacs’ “I Ain’t Got No Bunny,” which is ostensibly a Lowell offering, but really thrives for the amusing teleplay and the sequence in which his wife makes passes at both Brian and Joe, and Balmagia’s season finale, “As Fate Would Have It,” which holds an enhanced dramatic gravitas because Helen’s music career returns to prominence, the ensemble is heavily featured, and there’s some legitimate jeopardy that — for once — doesn’t feel forced. Of more Honorable Mention quality in this comparatively strong season are: Christopher Lloyd’s “The Taming Of The Shew,” David Lloyd’s “My Brother’s Keeper,” Christopher Lloyd’s “Marriage, Italian Style,” and Dave Hackel’s “Four Dates That Will Live In Infamy.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Wings goes to…
“This Old House”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!