Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Last week’s entry on Occasional Wife (1966-1967, NBC) was designed only to exist alongside this piece on Ned And Stacey (1995-1997, FOX), the series for which Thomas Haden Church left Wings. Because both utilized a similar premise, I was interested in comparing the two and seeing how they were each influenced by their respective eras. Then the figurative tables flipped. This week’s essay now only exists here because I was determined to discuss Occasional Wife — not for its quality, but for the cultural and historical peculiarities that made it ideal for coverage — as, sadly, Ned And Stacey is a dire affair, and frankly, there’s no other reason that I should spend time on this not-so-good curio. (I see shades of The Ropers and other troublesome shows to which a part of me regrets giving space on this site.) But, I’m in too deep now, so I’m pressing forward with brief coverage — no list of best episodes, no episodic excerpt (because you can buy the complete series on DVD). My brain can only take so much, so l’ll be short and sweet (and harsh — stop now if you love this show).
As with Occasional Wife, Ned And Stacey is about two single people in New York City who make a marital arrangement — only this time, they actually do get married! Haden Church plays Ned Dorsey, an unscrupulous (but doltish) ad executive who, like his ’60s predecessor, takes a wife for the sake of career advancement. He selects Stacey Colbert, played by a pre-Grace Debra Messing, a liberal journalist who can’t stand Ned but loves his apartment and is eager to move out of her parents’ home. So, they get hitched, legitimately, but are allowed to carry on with their individual lives — i.e. they can date other people. Their best friends are Ned’s co-worker Eric (nicknamed “Rico”), played by a pre-Ally Greg Germann, and Eric’s wife, Stacey’s sister, Amanda, played by the sardonic Nadia Dajani. Recurring players include Harry Goz and Dori Brenner as the girls’ parents, James Karen as Ned’s boss, and John Getz as Ned’s colleague. After a first season of exploring the fake marriage arrangement, the second season finds the couple divorcing, while remaining roommates. Meanwhile, to further keep the core foursome connected, Ned and Amanda, who otherwise detest one another, decide to go into business together with a muffin factory. During this time, Marcia Cross appears in an arc as Ned’s girlfriend, while Eric and Amanda plan to have a child. The second season ends with Ned and Stacey confessing their feelings for one another after their divorce is final and she moves out.
The series was created by Michael J. Weithorn, who went on to craft The King Of Queens alongside Ned And Stacey scribe David Litt. Other staff writers included Tony Sheehan (Barney Miller, Fish, The King Of Queens), Jennifer Glickman (Melissa & Joey, The Big Bang Theory), Del Shores (Dharma & Greg, Queer As Folk), Amy Welsh (Roseanne, Courting Alex), Jill Condon and Amy Toomin (Friends, Grounded For Life), Jay Kogen (The Simpsons, Frasier), Bryan Behar and Steve Baldikoski (8 Simple Rules, Fuller House), and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York). Broadcast by FOX on Monday nights, the show’s 24-episode first season didn’t even make the year’s Top 100. But Ned & Stacey was nevertheless renewed and returned in November of ’96 on Sundays before The X-Files. After two-and-a-half more months (and a January switch back to Mondays), the show was pulled again. The final 11 installments of the 22-episode second year made their debuts in syndication.
Ned And Stacey attempts to solve the main problem we saw with Occasional Wife — the lack of definition afforded to the regulars, who instead were used merely to support the series’ premise — by giving its two eponymous leads some pinpointable character traits (including flaws). But, while Weithorn’s commitment to defining them is noble, the particulars of this decade demand more when it comes to believability, realism, and motivation. In other words, just because a character is well-defined doesn’t mean it’s well-designed; we still seek humanity (the kind anticipated from network sitcoms of the ’90s — even on FOX). In the case of both Ned and Stacey, who are crafted oppositionally for the sake of both maximum conflict and comedy, their extremes make the high-concept premise even more difficult for the audience to figuratively swallow. (To wit: if these two people hate each other, why enact this arrangement? And why hang out as friends all the time?) There’s also some tragic irony here though, for both the series’ premise and the odd acrimony that defines the core relationship actually both seem like calculated moves to make the show stand apart from other more traditional “singles in the city” fare (the rut of the mid-’90s), which Ned & Stacey, simultaneously, also physically resembles (young people hanging out in New York). In this regard, the series is very much a product of the time… even if its premise and its boldly defined players are “throwbacks” that seem misplaced.
Yet, I’m not keen on blaming the premise for Ned & Stacey‘s sub-mediocrity, for character is king and the show doesn’t do right by its two leads… Of course, I don’t think the casting helps either. Messing, who was green even at the start of her most famous role, isn’t up to elevating material, and Haden Church is simply playing a variation of Lowell — only less likably and in a different wardrobe. Truthfully, the only bright spots here come from underserved supporting players Germann and Dajani, who in a blasted Catch-22, most reinforce the bland “singles in the city” design with which Ned And Stacey can’t help but associate itself, especially in the second year when the show moves away from its original premise and contrives reasons to keep the ensemble intact. The muffin shop is the most overt attempt at re-formatting (giving the show not only a new set, but also new recurring cast members Ford Rainey and Eddie McClintock, neither of whom open up great possibilities). I have nothing constructive to say about this, but let the record show that I rolled my eyes… Meanwhile, the second year looks everywhere for story: work places, love interests, and finally, the inevitable possibility of Ned and Stacey as a romantic couple. But, this last development, clichéd and predictable, works better than one might anticipate, for we finally get a sense that maybe this otherwise misbegotten series had a purpose after all: exploring the gradual emotional bond between the two title characters. It’s not enough to justify such inferiority, nor does it matter (because by then, the show had already been pulled by FOX), but it’s a semi-positive note on which I can end this essay.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!