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. FARRAH FORKE recurs as Alex.
When discussing Wings’ creative evolution, fans tend to divide the run into three eras – the early years, which must include both Seasons One and Two, the middle years, which mean both Four and Five, and the final years, which claim both Seven and Eight. However, Seasons Three and Six are more transitional. Six can either be lumped together with the middle years, due both to the continued inclusion of Lowell and the perceived descent in quality within Seven and Eight, or the later years, which also feature Amy Yasbeck as Casey and contend with the re-coupling of Joe and Helen. Three, meanwhile, is like an even split. In fact, as we saw last time, it can easily be regarded as two entities: the first half, which aligns itself with Season Two because of the narrative residue that the new writers have to wipe, and the second half, which I labeled the series’ Golden Age, where the scripts are consistently well-crafted, the ensemble is ably showcased, and the quality is just generally high – a far cry from Two. Of course, how we conceptually view and breakdown the series has little bearing on how we should determine enjoyment. But it’s a helpful exercise for examining Season Four’s liminality, for many readily acknowledge its predecessor’s ties to both its surrounding years, but don’t do the same for Four. That is, I want to frame this discussion on Wings’ fourth year by using both Seasons Three and Five as reference points. Let’s start with the idea of Four being like Three and the notion that the former is but a tonal continuation of the latter… Actually, there’s truth here, for the two years’ script-providing rosters are similar, with only a few exceptions – for instance, Diamond & Saltzman (who joined in Season Two, left after Three, but offered one more outing this year) are replaced with one-season-wonder Adam Belanoff, who’d go on to join the same duo on Murphy Brown, and future power-player Ian Gurvitz, who accompanies this crew mid-season as a new producer. Otherwise, the rest of last year’s talented contributors are still around: Hackel, Lloyd, Lloyd, Levitan, Balmagia, and Levine & Isaacs. So, Four is again in good hands.
Yet, even with the same people constructing the scripts and imbuing the year with that vital comedic energy and strong character-driven intention, there remain quality-based differences that separate Four from Three. Remember last week when I said the second half of that season was Wings’ Golden Age? And how I noted that there’d only be one other year ahead that could potentially rival that half-season for being regarded as the show’s finest representation? Well, despite the aesthetic similarities inherent to the style carried over from this staff, I neither made mention nor was alluding to Four. There’s a simple reason for this that’s based on results: episodic quality. Pretty much every installment produced at the end of Season Three was a winner, yet that’s not the case here in Four. Now, don’t misunderstand me though – the year still claims a favorable success rate, but it has a few stinkers and isn’t as classic-filled. This is important… And yet, to be fair, if last year hadn’t been so exceptional, then I’d be defining this season as another solid showing with noble character-exploring aims and a respectable base level of quality. Also, and more fundamentally, we have to remember that Season Three is benefited by novelty. It’s only Wings’ second full season and the first in which the characters actually click. So, there’s a freshness that’s naturally less potent thereafter. In fact, I think the staff realizes this very principle and thus sets out in Season Four to avoid coasting on recently claimed glories, and instead makes sure the series is progressing and changing. Last season they added Antonio; this year, they use a similar strategy and bring in another new player: Alex, a tough helicopter pilot played by Farrah Forke, who recurs in Four before being made a regular in Five when her character becomes a permanent love interest for Brian. Alex and all her narrative implications are the crux of why Four and Five are often validly linked as Wings‘ middle era.
This year, Alex is used to suggest another potential triangle featuring the Hackett brothers – following Helen, whose prominence, incidentally, isn’t threatened by Alex’s arrival (contrary to the backstage ego scuttlebutt). After all, the two-tier structure hardly exists anymore – yes, the brothers are the focus and Helen is the leading lady, but episodically, there’s more equity. So, there’s no need to make room for Alex on the upper level. (However, I do think Bernard’s lack of brilliance was a big factor in the series’ constant desire to make use of another female regular – first Alex, then Casey.) But, the triangle construct alludes to painful memories of the first two seasons, and even though this year’s narratives aren’t too dependent on the upper tier (and the characters have now become more multi-dimensional courtesy of stronger scripts), I nevertheless think that such story-based, arc-minded pursuits are an impediment to character-driven comedy – especially in this case. You see, romantic maneuverings – who wants whom, who’s had whom – intend to be relationship-focused, implying a zoom-in on two players. But these beats are usually mired in both story and seasonal plot-demanded developments… with little time for the character moments we love and need. Also, as we saw with Helen and Joe, motivation is a key issue: we need to believe and know why characters feel and do the things they do, like coupling. And this is especially crucial when someone is an outsider, or a newbie who still needs definition, for too often in these romantically designed scenarios, the foreign presence only becomes defined through the relationship — not as an individual — which then precludes the show from enjoying human-dipped comedy and motivating its chosen story arc. All of the above is a problem for Alex, for while there are a few scant efforts to define her away from the Hackett brothers, too much of her material is in response to them, and, sadly, Forke isn’t funny enough to help expand upon non-story based sources of humor and identity.
More to the point: I don’t think Alex does great things for Wings. I don’t think she helps either Seasons Four or Five elevate their episodic success rates. I don’t think she offers comedic support to the ensemble (or is able reinforcement for Bernard). And I don’t think she truly allows the show to grow the character of Brian – at least, not organically. (That is, once he’s been through these two years of Alex, he’ll be able to claim an experience that provided growth. But during it, the lack of motivation, regardless of how he wavers within these individual stories or what the show tells us about his change, is glaring.) We can take a breath now though, for this is a smallish concern until Season Five, when Alex is made a regular, the show doubles down on its utilization of unmotivated relationship trappings, and the most character-wise scribes leave for Frasier… Tangent time: I’m not meaning here to insult upcoming writers – actually, while they might not be as character-worshipping, they’re a funny bunch, thanks to staffers like Gurvitz, who’s credited with one script here after joining mid-season. (Also, let’s note that, although they aren’t credited with penning any specific outings this year, Joyce Gittlin and Jeffrey Richman are added as Executive Script Consultants for the entire season. They’re the only other big crew change between Three and Four, and another tangible link between the latter and Five.) And, ultimately, if Alex doesn’t work as well as she should — under both this staff and the following — we can at least commend them for their ambitions, for her arc is meant to deepen the characters (especially the brothers), bolster the ensemble, and keep the show from growing stale. It may not succeed with the first two goals, but it certainly meets the last one, for Wings is still flying at a fine altitude – and in a prime spot (NBC’s Thursday line-up). So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) 18 of the 22 installments this season are directed by Andy Ackerman. Any highlighted entries not helmed exclusively by Ackerman will be noted as such below.
01) Episode 53: “Noses Off” (Aired: 10/08/92)
Brian considers getting a nose job after Joe’s is broken.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Following two opening episodes that had to deal with the narrative ramifications of last year’s cliffhanger (which was melodramatic, but couched initially in a tight character-focused script), this installment brings Wings back to its regularly scheduled programming. As if the decision to introduce a character like Alex (a few episodes from now) isn’t indication enough of the year’s intention to maximize its usage, in particular, of Brian, then an ordinary, but funny and well-written excursion like this one proves just how serious the series is in its commitment to this goal. And Levine and Isaacs’ script is one of the year’s funniest — it could have been an MVE contender — with a breezy hilarity that persists throughout the entirety of this plot.
02) Episode 54: “Blackout Biggins” (Aired: 10/22/92)
Roy becomes infamous when he faints while singing the national anthem at a ballgame.
Written by Steven Levitan
Early on in our Wings coverage, I noted that Fay and Roy were a bit like Cheers‘ Carla and Norm in that they were wonderfully performed and written, vital ensemble players… who nevertheless made better reactive agents in weekly stories than active participants. As with the two aforementioned characters, there are always exceptions — made especially delightful because of the relative novelty. I consider this amusing entry, with a uniquely comedic premise (yes, it’s probably best labeled a Victory in Premise), one of Roy’s best, for even though the calling card, as it were, of the teleplay (credited to Levitan) is the story, the idea fits Roy’s persona and the scripting makes time for many funny character moments. Among the year’s most memorable.
03) Episode 57: “It’s So Nice To Have A Mather Around The House” (Aired: 11/12/92)
Lowell moves in with the Hackett brothers, who take a shine to his housekeeping.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by David Lee
The final show credited to Levine and Isaacs, who stepped back to write more Cheers and ready their own series (Big Wave Dave’s), this is another hilarious excursion with a crackerjack script. Unlike the two above, the story is far less original — the unwanted houseguest with the now-predictable turnaround (hey, he can cook!) — but it’s enlivened by the character work inherent in both this duo’s writing and the cast’s playing, particularly from Daly, Weber, and Haden Church, the latter of whom is always a good source of laughs due to his naturally comedic presence. In many ways, I think this is classic Wings — the narrative beats are familiar and unoriginal, but the outing is saved by how it features the well-drawn characters. A hit.
04) Episode 60: “The Customer’s Usually Right” (Aired: 12/17/92)
Joe challenges a VHS rental rewinder and feels guilty when she ends up in the hospital.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Season Four’s Christmas contribution, the series’ second (of six — never again will a year miss one), is a stellar entry from Wings‘ holiday catalogue, for while regular readers may remember that I find offerings of this ilk usually too concerned with undue, rote sentiment, I have to credit this particular show for boasting deliciously amusing and unique efforts in this variety. In fact, this year’s is one of the most clever, giving Joe the opportunity to not be so relatively stoic and dull (compared to the other members of the ensemble, that is). The premise, which starts with his contesting a rewind fee incurred on a video rental, works because it’s borne of his principled penchant for rule-following. That’s amusing enough, but then it gets even funnier…
05) Episode 61: “Exit Laughing” (Aired: 01/07/93)
Helen dates Joe’s friend, who has an unusual laugh.
Written by Larry Balmagia
Incidentally, of all the staff writers introduced and confined to the two-season mini-era that consists of years Three and Four, the well-experienced Balmagia (with credits on MASH, Rhoda, Barney Miller, Dear John, and Cheers) is probably the scribe whose work is the most overshadowed by his equally impressive cohorts’ (not including, of course, this year’s newbie, Belanoff). Last week, only one of his credited episodes made the list, and this week, that stat remains the same — despite his consistently solid efforts… At any rate, this is another Victory in Premise that’s a little broader than the standard fare, taking its laughs from the gaggy concept of a man (Steven Eckholdt) with an odd hyena laugh. It’s worthwhile for the second half’s treatment of Helen.
06) Episode 62: “What The Cabbie Saw” (Aired: 01/14/93)
Antonio fears for his life after testifying against a robber.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by Judy Pioli
Once again, we’re dealing with an episode that engages a premise that I typically find story-driven and uninspired, not something that’s well-rooted in character or unique to the series’ concept and its aesthetic. But Levitan’s script delivers laughs, and primarily through these newly well-defined characters (whose definition has now also been well-reinforced, and consistently, through the writing). This entry makes the list simply for affording several strong moments to members of the outer ensemble — particularly Antonio and the other men — like the riotous sequence in the Hackett living room. Interestingly, Levitan is the only third season addition to the staff who makes it beyond this year, so his name will soon be on more prestigious stories…
07) Episode 64: “I’ve Got A Secret” (Aired: 02/04/93)
Alex learns that someone blabbed about her having posed for Playboy.
Written by Adam Belanoff
Two of the four Honorable Mentions highlighted below feature stories that make use of the year’s new recurring player, Alex, and I considered selecting either one of them for this list’s temporarily vacant tenth spot. But I ultimately chose this episode, by one-season-wonder Belanoff, because I think it does the most for Alex, specifically. That is, it’s not about Alex’s relationship with Joe or Brian (as both “The Key To Alex” and “Date Package Number Seven” are), but about her alone, and we actually learn more from her here than we do at any other time this season. Also, the outing tries to develop a fresh relationship between Helen and Alex, which is appreciated if the latter is to be viable. It’s not a major success, but it’s a valued effort.
08) Episode 67: “I Love Brian” (Aired: 02/25/93)
Brian tries to impress Alex by claiming to know musician Clint Black.
Written by Ian Gurvitz
This is the year’s sole contribution from Ian Gurvitz, who joined as a producer mid-season and would continue in future years to ascend the ranks, becoming one of the final era’s chief architects. The premise is another showcase for Weber as Brian, allowing him to anchor the action and traffic in a broader comedy that’s actually justified by the rather smart, but intentional and overt parallels to I Love Lucy, which this installment consciously and with-tongue-in-cheek tries to emulate. Understanding this stylistic choice is key, for otherwise, this is one more episode of Wings that’s not as based in common sense as it should be. In knowing the association, we’re freer to enjoy the hammy laughs. Also, Kirstie Alley appears as Rebecca Howe.
09) Episode 69: “The Houseguest” (Aired: 04/15/93)
Helen takes in Carlton when he falls down at her house.
Written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
I may have surprised some readers last week when I not only didn’t make “Das Plane” my MVE, but I also expressed that I found the installment overrated. Well, that sentiment was due largely to the recurring presence of Carlton Blanchard, whom I don’t think is nearly as funny as his reputation suggests. However, when an individual excursion does what it needs to do on behalf of both its regulars and its comedic obligation to the audience, it’s easy to appreciate how his contribution affects these results. That was true for “Das Plane” and it’s true here in “The Houseguest,” the final script by Diamond and Saltzman (who wrote Carlton’s first appearance and returned for this one), which hilariously pairs him with other members of the ensemble.
10) Episode 70: “Goodbye, Old Friend” (Aired: 04/29/93)
Lowell’s friend dies and Helen has to remain awake following a concussion.
Written by Christopher Lloyd
My selection for the season’s best episode, I have to confess that it wasn’t an easy choice, for many of the installments on this list operate with a base level of quality that, for all intents and purposes, is commensurate. (As mentioned in my seasonal commentary, there also are fewer classics — not as many standouts.) But what impresses me most about this showing is how well it serves almost every member of the core ensemble while also making it look so easy. Now, it comes in two separate and non-connecting stories, but both really work for the players and the series. In one plot, the laugh-driven Lowell gets a chance for depth, as he grieves and must contend with the death of his friend. It’s potentially dark and tragic, yet around all these moments of sad feeling are many accompanying beats that provide levity. Meanwhile, the trio formerly on the ensemble’s top tier, usually embroiled in over-earnest relationship mumbo jumbo, get a broad, slapstick story in which the Hackett brothers try to keep Helen from falling asleep. This allows all three cast members to engage in some wild comedy that they, frankly surprisingly, do terrifically well. Both parts buck expectations and are made the better for it — aided by the outstanding teleplay credited to Christopher Lloyd, the former Golden Girls scribe whose Wings contributions (this is his last) have made the Honorable Mention category before, but have heretofore not been highlighted. He usually was charged with heavy narrative outings, but this time, there’s more character, and I’m happy for this chance to both praise an episode credited to him (and as MVE) and point out that his tenures on both Wings and Frasier contain most of each series’ finest moments; I don’t think it’s a coincidence…
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: the year’s two scripts by David Lloyd, “The Fortune Cookie,” which is comedically broader than most of the above, and “The Key To Alex,” which is actually one of the more character-driven shows of the Brian-Alex-Joe attempted triangle, along with Belanoff’s “Mathers Of The Heart,” which plays with some ensemble dynamics interestingly because (and in spite) of a gaudy episodic story, and the season finale, Levitan’s “Date Package Number Seven,” which finds its humorous moments outside of the preordained Alex/Brian narrative tripe.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Wings goes to…
“Goodbye, Old Friend”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!