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, TONY SHALHOUB as Antonio Scarpacci, and FARRAH FORKE as Alex.
I’ve come around on Wings’ fifth season; it’s better than I often give it credit for being. But let’s rewind. (Beat.) Following my survey of the series, I was ready to launch coverage of this year by labeling it the weakest of Wings’ six middle seasons. With the personnel turnover that erupted partly because of the newly minted Frasier, and the enhanced problems stemming from the inclusion of Alex, this year seems more fatigued and labored than we’ve seen since the early “get me out of this mess” episodes of Season Three. With regard to Alex, I’ll spare my usual ramblings and give you the so-called “skinny.” After all, I think my perspective on the character was well-documented in our Season Four commentary. In fact, I’ll be a recycler and copy-and-paste the highlights: “…for while there are a few scant efforts to define [Alex] 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.” In other words, the characterization is stymied by the plot-based demands that contextualize her definition in relation to the Hackett brothers – with dubious motivation for all, due in part to her performance. This is all still true in Season Five, even as the love triangle becomes a coupling that intends to evolve Brian. But, as I noted before: “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.)” Ultimately, Wings‘ noble Alex objectives become ignoble when they fail to deliver the goods.
I also saw, and still see, these relationship-focused intentions (“relationship-focused” is a slightly more character-keen way of saying “story-based,” for usually the mechanics of a couple’s dynamic overtake the individual exploration that could occur within it) reflected elsewhere in the season – beyond Alex and Brian – and with similar results. I’m writing specifically of Helen, who’s embroiled in a 21-episode long-distance romance – her first serious beau since Joe in the troublesome second year – with the wealthy Davis Lynch (Mark Harelik). His appearances are few, but his presence lingers over Helen and her stories throughout the season’s near-entirety. Now, I’m not complaining about his reduced screen time; he’s a functional being whose characterization, only really displayed in his debut excursion, is but a means to an end. I’m not compelled to care about seeing him more, and yet it’s for this reason that Helen’s arc comes up figuratively short. If we’re generous, we can proclaim that the Helen/Davis pairing has the same goal as Brian/Alex’s: to evolve its respective principle. But we’re starved of watching two proxy-humans regularly and believably interrelating, so there’s no way to invest in that construct, which is vital for the narrative’s objective. That is, we don’t have to like Davis or care about him a ton, but we should be interested in what happens to Helen. Because her partner is such a half-baked non-entity, it’s hard to muster the necessary concern or enthusiasm. Also, anything that Helen gets out of this relationship is generally, like Davis, not shown — it’s simply told to us later. As a result, it’s difficult to see the coupling and not recognize it for its heavy story interests: giving Helen something to do, allowing the show to write plot that doesn’t require a terrific knowledge of character, and ultimately, helping to propel the Joe/Helen reconciliation. (Stay tuned…)
A lot of the above is based, I think, on: “the personnel turnover that erupted partly because of the newly minted Frasier.” Just as we’re ready to stop comparing Wings to the similarly designed and unavoidably superior Cheers, since the former has grown good enough to stand on its own figurative feet and the two shows’ shared writers have become so few, now we have to contend with the latter’s offspring, the remarkable Frasier, coverage of which begins soon. I’ve already worked, briefly, through most of my thoughts on the difficult-to-ignore relationship between Wings and Frasier, so I won’t do so again. All that we should note here is that the ’93-’94 season, the first official year to utilize NBC’s “Must See TV” brand for its Thursday line-up (of Mad About You, Wings, Seinfeld, and Frasier), also saw the premiere of Frasier, which would absorb a lot of Grub Street’s attention. Both shows’ triumvirate of creators (David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee) had by then reduced their presence on Wings. (Angell’s last scripts came in Season Four. Casey and Lee hadn’t written one since Season Two.) So, Frasier’s diversion of their collective focus isn’t a big concern. But there are a few other unfortunate staff losses – not only have Ken Levine & David Isaacs departed (initially for their own Big Wave Dave’s, and then to consult on Frasier), but Christopher Lloyd has also jumped ship, while father David splits his time contributing to both. Additional non-Frasier drops between Four and Five include Larry Balmagia, who went over to the short-lived Big Wave Dave’s, and Adam Belanoff, who joined Diamond & Saltzman at Murphy Brown. This left a group consisting of David Hackel, finally promoted to Executive Producer (as he’d been around and practically running the room for a while), Steven Levitan, Ian Gurvitz, who joined the staff in the middle of Season Four, the team of Joyce Gittlin and Jeffrey Richman, who joined last year as consultants but were credited with no scripts, and of course, two-per-year contributor David Lloyd.
New hires include future Executive Producers Howard Gewirtz (Taxi, The Larry Sanders Show, Just Shoot Me!) and Mark Reisman (Frasier, Dear John, Flying Blind), along with two-season wonder Shelly Landau (Growing Pains, Step By Step). Also, MTM vet Bob Ellison joins mid-year as a creative consultant, replacing the briefly employed Lloyd Garver (The Bob Newhart Show, Family Ties, Home Improvement). This is probably a less cohesive and like-minded group than the show enjoyed in Seasons Three and Four, and as you’ve already deduced from past comments, I don’t think this staff – or any upcoming stuff – is as shrewd as the prior had been with character development and exploration. Perhaps, of course, they also didn’t have to be; the requirements changed after the Season Three team worked their long-due magic… This noted, I’m happy to proclaim that future crews, thanks to scribes like Reisman and Gewirtz, really do a lot for maintaining and elevating the show’s commitment to its comedy – which, for a perennial laugh-seeker like me, is a fundamental positive… Sure, it’s going to take these newbies a little while to settle in, navigate this liminal period (the last in which Hackel leads and contributes scripts), and work through the aforementioned narrative shlock that isn’t as great for character as it needs to be. But, fortunately, evidence persists of their ability to keep Wings at a certain quality, and in fact, to return to this essay’s start, I have to tell you that the fifth season isn’t nearly as weak as I typically presume. I let all the above relationship shortcomings, and the hit-and-miss nature of this current staff’s selected stories, hamper my perception of the entire season. That’s not exactly fair, for just in skimming over this list, you’ll notice several dynamite offerings. So, while some things don’t work – specifically the Alex/Brian episodes – there’s still more than enough to enjoy. In this regard, Season Five is very much like Four, but from different voices… So, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 74: “Terminal Jealousy” (Aired: 09/23/93)
Roy manipulates conflict for Brian, Joe, Alex, and Helen.
Written by Mark Reisman | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
The first teleplay credited to future EP Marc Reisman is a terrific ensemble showcase that places Roy at its center, giving him one of his best episodes of the series thus far. With thematic — and narrative — cohesion resulting from his gleeful meddling in several of his co-workers’ lives, the offering not only gets to boast a tight construction, but also a genuine understanding of the Roy character and how he’s best used. Laughs are in big supply, and while the Helen portion of the story (in which she insults an old school bully, unaware that the woman is also the health inspector) gets some memorable story-sparked hahas, the entry also gains points for smoothly transitioning away from the Joe-Alex-Brian love triangle to the Alex-Brian coupling.
02) Episode 78: “A Black Eye Affair” (Aired: 10/28/93)
Helen feverishly tries to prepare for a date with Davis.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Throughout my coverage of Wings, I can freely admit that I’ve been harsh — or more accurately, reluctant to overpraise — Crystal Bernard and her portrayal of Helen. I’ve tried to effectively communicate my belief that she’s a naturally comedic performer who supplies an interesting energy to the series… but never truly is able to elevate her material in a manner that could earn her the distinction of being considered brilliant (like several other leading ladies of the early ’90s). However, every now and again, the show gives her the opportunity to be really funny — usually in broader centerpieces that maintain their connectability through a textual understanding of her character. Like last year’s MVE, this is one such occasion. It’s among the year’s funniest — and features the best use of Helen’s new relationship. MTM-rooted.
03) Episode 79: “Joe Blows (I)” (Aired: 11/04/93)
Joe is tasked with solving everyone else’s problems.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by David Lee
A well-liked two-parter that reinforces Joe’s paramount position within this otherwise equitable ensemble (in which Brian and Helen also theoretically maintain a slightly elevated importance, even though, in practice, this seems to be more formality than truth), I’m not quite as enthused about this installment as most of the fanbase. Many celebrate its tight focus, which builds to Joe’s combustion wherein he storms out and forsakes his responsibilities. But I find all that to be a story-based concern… in which I’m uninterested. Rather, while I can appreciate the intentions within the plot, I’m featuring the entry here because it suggests a decent understanding of every character (which, incidentally, is no surprise; it’s credited to three-year vet Levitan).
04) Episode 81: “2 Good 2 Be 4 Gotten” (Aired: 11/18/93)
Joe worries when a woman who was obsessed with him in high school visits.
Written by Rick Copp & David A. Goodman | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Valerie Mahaffey, who’s popped up here several times (most recently in the delicious The Powers That Be, which folded the season prior) makes her debut in this excursion, credited to a pair who’ll return next year for her sophomore outing. I consider her character, Sandy — a nuisance whose obsession with Joe borders on the insane — to be a lot like Carlton: a hit-and-miss recurring presence meant to agitate a member of the ensemble. As with Carlton, I tend to find her installments overrated, mostly because they’re predicated on the single joke of her obnoxiousness. In fact, you may be shocked to even see this entry now… However, as with Carlton’s debut, it’s Sandy’s finest — funny and surprising, as the joke on which her whole character is founded remains new. (Her upcoming appearances are neither funny nor surprising, but they are surprisingly audacious in their aversion to believability — precluding inclusion.)
05) Episode 82: “Come Fly With Me” (Aired: 12/02/93)
Brian, Helen, Joe, and Lowell head to Boston for a singles party.
Written by Howard Gewirtz | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
I wanted to include this offering to illustrate just how much improvement the writers from Seasons Three and Four made on Wings by turning well-crafted characters into defined characterizations. You see, one of the main things that I like about this episode, which utilizes a gimmicky story and could have been replaced by an Honorable Mention, is exactly the big complaint with which I harangued the first two years: the focus on the “top tier” ensemble. In this installment, that trio, and Lowell (one of the ensemble’s best laugh-getters) go to a singles soirée in Boston that ends up being a meeting place for hookers and their potential johns. Again, the story is hacky, but the characters provide the value — as it should be!
06) Episode 84: “Ready, Teddy, Go” (Aired: 01/06/94)
Helen is upset when she learns that Davis bought her a negligee.
Written by Joyce Gittlin | Directed by Andy Ackerman
The first offering credited to Joyce Gittlin, who joined the series as a consultant last year (with partner Jeffrey Richman), this is another commendable entry afforded to Helen, attempting to make the most of the narrative mishegoss that best describes her seasonal romantic arc. It’s not as perfectly tailored or good for the ensemble as the aforementioned “A Black Eye Affair,” nor does it quite afford Bernard the opportunity to individually display her own skill set. But it’s as good an episode for Helen’s character, reaffirming things we already know while also fleshing them out a little bit. Also, while it’s commendable for making good on this otherwise totaled storyline, I appreciate the relative smallness of the premise, which strikes one as Seinfeld-ian.
07) Episode 86: “The Faygitive” (Aired: 01/27/94)
Fay worries when she’s stalked by a private investigator.
Written by Shelly Landau | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Although I seldom see this episode listed among fans’ favorites, I think it’s a surprisingly enjoyable one, especially because it’s only the second offering credited to two-season staffer Shelly Landau, whose contributions to the series won’t be a major presence on her years’ respective lists. But there’s actually a lot to enjoy here. If the A-story with Fay is a bit tritely plotted (Why exactly is she so fearful? Why is the detective so cagey? Why doesn’t she get to the bottom of things sooner?), it at least affords us the chance to both get to know Fay better and watch as this info is used comedically. (The DeVay jokes are supreme!) Also, the subplot with Antonio and Roy serves both characters well and fills out the excursion’s humor quotient.
08) Episode 88: “Hey, Nineteen” (Aired: 02/10/94)
Joe dates a 19-year-old.
Written by Howard Gewirtz | Directed by Peter Bonerz
In contrast to the above, this is an outing that I’m led to believe is quite popular. Not surprisingly, when I usually make such a statement, I do so to note that my enthusiasm for it is relatively tempered. In this case, I think it’s more a Victory in Premise than anything else: a comedic story for our protagonist, whom we like to see take the lead (especially since Daly’s gotten to become a better performer over the past few seasons), and one that’s relationship-driven, which is a rarity for Joe at this point in the run. Nevertheless, I think there are laughs here… not so much in the clichéd May-December romance, but in Joe’s cockiness and eventual rejection, following his mistaken belief in her overblown feelings for him. So it is good for Joe.
09) Episode 92: “Boys Will Be Girls” (Aired: 04/07/94)
Joe and Brian prank a mean-spirited high school coach, who dies in his sleep.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Peter Bonerz
My pick for the best episode of the season, this is one of the year’s two contributions from the iconic and immortal David Lloyd. (His other outing, perhaps the best Brian entry of the season, is noted below as an Honorable Mention.) It’s a great show for the brother dynamic, which remains Wings‘ heart and soul, and makes use of the history that they share on this tiny island. The premise has the two pulling a prank on a nasty old football coach from their high school, when they sneak into his hotel room and dress him up like a woman. But the joke ends up on them when the man is found dead the next morning, and everyone is led to believe that he was a secret transvestite. Inherently, the premise is victorious — no matter which characters are involved — but the icing on this cake is that it is character-wise, especially as Lloyd’s script makes sure the situational humor is balanced and often motivated through the players. It’s the closest thing this series will ever come to the mortality-focused, classically riotous “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” and it’s fitting that David Lloyd is the guy to provide it. MTM-rooted.
10) Episode 93: “Roy Crazy” (Aired: 04/14/94)
Roy’s ex-wife returns to seduce him and Helen has an admirer.
Written by Mark Reisman | Directed by Peter Bonerz
This list started with a great Roy entry credited to new scribe (and future EP) Mark Reisman and it ends with a great Roy entry by the same no-longer-new scribe (and now Co-EP, with Gewirtz, in preparation for next year’s big promotion). This time, the A-plot plays with Roy’s history and gives him the opportunity for some depth, but it’s really not the story itself that makes the show meritorious. In fact, the plot alone isn’t a great fit for the series — the other characters’ involvements are forced and limited, by design. And yet, the teleplay is a delight, filled with laughs in unexpected places, especially in the subplot, where a waiter from the crab house (seen in a prior outing this year), played by the hysterical John Hawkes, fawns over Helen.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include three installments that are enjoyable and recommendable, if overly familiar and not nearly as strong as previous efforts in similar veins: “Happy Holidays,” a Christmas excursion that pales in comparison to past holiday showings (but serves Antonio well), “Oh, Give Me A Home Where The Mathers Don’t Roam,” which is a comedic retread of an amusing story idea better explored last season, and “Say Uncle Carlton,” the final outing with the one-note (but shockingly still popular) Carlton Blanchard that also introduces his obnoxious nephew (Gilbert Gottfried). The closest contender to the above list is “Exclusively Yours,” a David Lloyd entry that does the best job of using the Brian/Alex relationship to showcase and explore his personal growth. The latter could have easily been swapped for one of the weaker episodes discussed this week.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Wings goes to…
“Boys Will Be Girls”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!