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 Hackett, DAVID SCHRAMM as Roy Biggins, REBECCA SCHULL as Fay Cochran, TONY SHALHOUB as Antonio Scarpacci, and AMY YASBECK as Casey Davenport.
Most Wings fans will tell you there’s a descent in quality between Seasons Six and Seven. Some attribute it to changes in the writing staff and the blossoming style of these newer scribes. Others may blame it on changes within the ensemble dynamic – a departure, an elevation, and a new narrative development. Whatever the cause, the results prove the point: there are fewer classics and more mediocre entries in Season Seven than there were in its direct predecessor; Seven simply isn’t as strong as Six (which I think is the only year that could rival the latter half of Three, what I’ve labeled Wings’ “Golden Age,” as the series’ finest showing)… However, I’m hesitant to claim that this season’s success rate is less distinguished than others – specifically, Four and Five – because it’s still easy here to pick ten worthwhile shows. What’s changed, rather, is the baseline standard that defines the season. That is, it’s still possible to find great episodes in Seven, but only if our expectations change in accordance with the year’s own relative decline. This is how we can navigate the season’s new directive, where laughs (and the stories that help achieve them) trump character, for as mentioned last time regarding the liminal Season Six – liminal for a variety of reasons, including its team of writers – these final years find a further aesthetic drift away from the character-building middle era and into a period where big hahas have enhanced prominence. In this generally commendable quest to increase the series’ humor, however, comes greater narrative risks – goofier, less motivated, and not-as-believable stories. And as a result of these comedic intentions, if an outing doesn’t get its laughs, then it’s basically, in a word, a stinker; there’s little middle ground where character concerns are relevant enough to boost an episode’s appeal. Fortunately though, for Wings, unlike most series, the strong MTM-rooted construction keeps the year from yielding too many completely unredeemable turkeys.
Instead, these less successful entries can be defined as middling, mediocre, and ultimately forgettable (which may be a worse sin than outright failure, but I digress)… If the scripts no longer do consistently “right” by their players, said players were initially designed so well, and then explored (in Seasons Three and Four) so well, that it’s difficult for these new writers to screw up or negate their strength. So, an imperfect episode is allowed to be just an imperfect episode. The problem, of course, is that there are more of these in Seven – and Eight – than in most years past (including Six, which had similar aesthetics). But if this is attributable to the changing risk-taking, laugh-seeking, character-subjugating style, why is Seven a big comedown from Six? Well, because there’s a greater commitment to this style — perhaps as a result of staff turnover. This year is again run by the funny show-changing duo of Reisman and Gewirtz, and their team does include many of the same scribes: Richman, Gittlin, Gurvitz (who ascends mid-year to EP), Sardo, Byron and Kapstrom. But there are also replacements for several key departures, as newbies Lori Kirkland (Frasier, Desperate Housewives, Instant Mom) and Christopher Vane (Love Boat, Dream On, Suddenly Susan) supplant Shelly Landau and Steven Levitan. Irreplaceable, though, are Six’s part-timers; Wings is now down former showrunner Dave Hackel, who offered no scripts last year but still consulted, and regular contributor David Lloyd, the MTM legend with an unrivaled comedic gravitas. It’s hard to say if the absence of these veterans is directly responsible for this lesser quality. However, style comes from the top (Reisman, Gewirtz), and while last week gave an indication of what was to come, without the grounding presence of folks who had written for Wings’ brief Golden Age, there’s nothing tethering the show to the character concerns responsible for that era’s hard-won viability.
However, most viewers focus more on the year’s external changes. The biggest difference is the absence of Lowell, as Thomas Haden Church left for his own series (Ned & Stacey). He appears only once here, in a contrived story-driven installment designed to explain his departure. (I’m no fan, for it’s not character-driven.) The show tries a recurring replacement, Budd Bronski (Budd Haley), but he’s nebulously defined and is rightly phased out by the year’s conclusion. (Sigh.) It’s easy to miss Lowell now, for he’s always been one of the ensemble’s most consistent purveyors of comedy, although, frankly, in this period of heightened textual humor, the show doesn’t need him to bolster its laughs as it once did… And yet, lamentably, I think his loss does coincide, and perhaps partially results, in the semi re-emergence of the two-tier ensemble structure… Let’s rewind. I charged the early years with stifling the show’s potential by placing Helen and the Hacketts above the rest of the cast, even though the aforementioned trio was less funny and too often stuck in story trappings. Then, after the Joe-Helen relationship was swept away by a new group of writers, the show became a more sincere ensemble piece – the core characters still served as anchors (especially Joe), but the scripts didn’t blatantly prioritize certain players over others. For even as the middle years tried hard to emotionally explore Brian, regulars like Antonio, Roy, and Fay were seldom shortchanged of comedic bits and subplots. This wisely cultivated format surprisingly maintained even after Joe and Helen’s reunion in Season Six… But, following Haden Church’s leave, the group once again becomes factionalized, for Lowell was one of the most persuasive arguments for an equitable ensemble design, and without him, the non-anchoring members lose relevance — it’s not as bad here as in Two, but it’s noticeable. Also, that loss isn’t all that contributes to this restored focus on the top tier. Rebecca Schull only appears in 22 of these 26 episodes – destroying Fay’s perfect attendance.
However, a larger cause for the return of the two-tier structure comes not from the bottom, but from the top. With last year’s introduction of Amy Yasbeck as Casey, a well-defined character whose portrayal and textual presentation was nevertheless one-dimensional and not believably comedic, the show looked like it was flirting with the two-couple design it had first tried with Alex. That flirtation is serious now. It seems the writers’ goal going into Season Seven was two-fold: make Casey multi-dimensional, and help Yasbeck become believably comedic. In fact, I think fixing and elevating Casey for increased usage, while nurturing Yasbeck, is Seven’s whole purpose, for Casey starts the year only slightly more comedically poised than at the end of Six, but emerges from it as the show’s funniest female — the worthy second banana to Helen, played by the good-but-not-great Bernard, and capable of finding laughs in many of these broader, less relatable stories… Now, many fans associate Casey with Wings’ descent in quality, but it must be noted that following her rocky performative beginnings, she’s most adaptable to the writing’s new style — embodying its strengths (big laughs) and its weaknesses (questionable character merit). So, I think that, generally, a dislike for Casey following this year is a dislike for the many developments that have occurred (and will occur) under this current staff of writers, because she represents the change — the change in priorities, structure, and episodic success rate. Unlike last year, though, she’s not terrible. First, the characterization adapts to her circumstances and loosens up as a result, freeing Yasbeck to be loonier – and without the rejection of definition that plagues older characters when broadened. Second, the year wisely decides (early on) to eschew a romantic arrangement with her and Brian. They’ll be partners, all right, but not as a couple – just combative friends with an occasional dalliance. This is a fresh, original take on what looked predictable, and it guarantees each one more individual story, while still utilizing them as a comedic duo and counterpoint to Joe and Helen.
You see, an additional reason that Casey is forced to become stronger in Season Seven is that Joe and Helen are now married. Like Casey, I think this matrimonial development divides the fanbase. Some love the marriage simply because they’ve long rooted for Helen and Joe. I’m not one of those people – although I do recognize that their coupling was part of the show’s thesis and believe Wings is smart to make good on this promise. Actually, I’m closer to the folks who find their usage in this era weaker – for they’re often mired in development-motivated story, which is both unoriginal and far too disconnected from the rest of the ensemble (thus furthering the re-cultivation of the top-tier/bottom-tier structure) to laud. However, I don’t necessarily think that the characters are ill-served by the marriage itself. That is, I’ve already gotten on-board with the show’s decision to hitch them, because Six was successful in motivating their reunion and delivering comedic returns. Also, I’ve always had some issues with Helen and Joe, both together and apart, so I don’t think the disparity in quality here is as great as some assume… Ultimately, as with Casey, I think the main concern with the marriage is that it also represents the changes associated with the way things are now being written – gaggier, less character-wise, and not as consistently satisfactory. As we’ve explored, those terms could define Season Seven in total. For with Joe and Helen trapped in a narrative construct and Lowell’s leave disrupting the balance of the ensemble, Casey rises and gives the show some very funny moments, emerging next season as one of its greatest assets (even if it is within this troublesome aesthetic design). She represents a victory on this final era’s terms, although this does contribute to, and stem from, a bifurcated ensemble, less realistic stories, and plenty of mediocrity… Yet, let’s take a breath here, for through it all, there are still great laughs… 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 123: “Burnin’ Down The House (I)” (Aired: 09/19/95)
Joe and Helen return from their honeymoon to find the house in ashes.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Jeff Melman
One of the other elements that reinforces the rebirth of the two-tier ensemble structure, with the Hacketts and the Chapels on top, is the thematic continuity that opens and closes the season: one couple burning down the other couple’s house. Brian and Casey accidentally destroying the newlyweds’ home is a comedic, if story-driven, way to launch the new season, contend with Brian and Casey’s quasi-relationship, and keep the foursome under one roof for another year. While these narrative goals do threaten to squelch the comedy, and it indeed gives me Cheers flashbacks (to when Rebecca burned down the bar), the Victory in Premise nature of the concept elevates the installment. I can’t say it’s expressly character-rooted, or that the teleplay is stellar, but it’s memorable, funny, and isn’t plagued by the poorly rendered heavier moments that exist in Part II. (Although the second half, weaker overall, still contains the two-parter’s funniest scene — Helen enacting revenge on Casey.) Amiable start to the season.
02) Episode 125: “Death Becomes Him” (Aired: 10/10/95)
Joe substitues for a corpse when he picks up the wrong body for a funeral.
Written by Mark Reisman & Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
With the past few seasons’ aggrandized comedic objectives — we saw this last week too — also comes an occasional utilization of a comedic form that Wings seldom employed in its early years: farce. Yes, good ‘ol door-slamming, secret-spilling, light-as-a-feather farce (the kind that Frasier, incidentally, often did quite well). As with several entries last year, like the strong “Nuptials Off,” this installment is loaded with laughs and utilizes an inherently enjoyable premise: Joe substituting for a corpse that he’s supposed to deliver for a funeral. Now, typical for Season Seven, neither the idea nor the proceedings are as characer-driven as they need to be, but the comedy is so gosh-darn good that we can’t help but enjoy the fun. Marian Seldes guests.
03) Episode 128: “She’s Gotta Have It” (Aired: 11/14/95)
Joe and Helen get their insurance check while Brian and Casey try to date.
Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Jeff Melman
This was one of those lists where eight (or so) episodes were guaranteed inclusion, leaving only two spots over which a handful of “Honorable Mention” quality excursions could figuratively fight. I decided that this installment was among the least offensive of the bunch. Okay, that’s a backhanded compliment. Actually, this is a funny one, credited to the duo responsible for several of last year’s funniest (their batting average isn’t as good this time around) and there’s a lot to enjoy. Some may be attracted to the semi-resolution afforded to the initial arc of the razed down house, for Joe and Helen get their insurance check. But I enjoy the Brian/Casey subplot, which contends with the nature of their relationship, delivering laughs and defying expectations.
04) Episode 131: “The Big Sleep” (Aired: 12/12/95)
After a fight, Joe dreams that he and Helen are in a plane crash.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Jeff Melman
Dreams have been common fodder for the sitcom since the days of radio — check out our bi-monthly coverage of The Jack Benny Program — and while they often seem an excuse to employ humor that’s not beholden to either an established structure or rules of traditional realism, they can also serve as great insight into characters and their relationships. In this case, Wings is somewhere in between — it’s neither absurdist (à la “It May Look Like A Walnut”) or revelatory (“I Confess”). Instead, it’s a story device — Joe has dreamed of a crash and is doing everything he can to avoid it — and the entry’s merit comes from the fact that it’s a tightly rendered ensemble piece, with just enough comedic juice to keep it flowing… gimmick notwithstanding.
05) Episode 132: “‘Twas The Heist Before Christmas” (Aired: 12/19/95)
Joe and Helen throw an unfortunate Christmas party.
Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Jeff Melman
Of all the installments here, this is perhaps the best showcase for the ensemble as a single collective entity, for although the narrative design naturally places Joe and Helen (and to an extent, their respective siblings) above everyone else, the story gets the whole crew together at the same place at the same time — including Gilbert Gottfried, who returns as Carlton’s obnoxious nephew Lewis, Casey’s date to the party. (He’s broad, but he gets his laughs.) It’s another fine addition to Wings‘ holiday collection, and if it’s unspectacular in comparison to past Christmas outings, the entry’s teleplay is effortlessly funny, and though customarily silly, it gives us what we want in Season Seven: a solid, amusing ensemble show (minus Fay).
06) Episode 137: “The Team Player” (Aired: 02/06/96)
Antonio sparks a controversy when he delays a hockey player from making a game.
Written by Howard Gewirtz | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Once again, I consider this to be a Victory in Premise for the very idea — Antonio creating a media firestorm around Sandpiper when he unknowingly delays a hockey player from making a flight that will deliver the guy to an important game — is comedic, filled with conflict that’s related to the show’s airport setting and design. The notion itself may not be as rooted in character as the series’ true finest, but Gewirtz’s teleplay knows the players, so it’s able to use them to flesh out this Victorious Premise. Also, elementally, any show is benefited from making good use of its particulars — of location, concept, etc. — so given the series’ construction, this is a plot that could only happen on Wings. That makes it more valuable. Leno makes a cameo.
07) Episode 144: “The Lady Vanishes” (Aired: 04/23/96)
Antonio tries to track down a woman he met in the airport.
Written by Ian Gurvitz & Michael Sardo | Directed by Jeff Melman
If there’s any member of the lower tier that gets the most utilization and comes the closest to breaking away from this restrictive positioning, it’s Shalhoub’s Antonio, who was added to the cast in Season Three to bolster the ensemble’s combined power. While this is a story, like “Hooker, Line, And Sinker” (a top Honorable Mention contender), that’s guided by the specifics of its individual narrative, it’s well-motivated by what we know of Antonio and his desperate-for-love characterization. Furthermore, as with many on this list, the scripting is funny enough to keep the proceedings fun (and here, noir-ish). Also, I love the small, ideal subplot with Helen and Brian, as he teaches her how to emotionally analyze strangers from afar. Plus: Anne Francis!
08) Episode 145: “Life Could Be A Dream” (Aired: 04/30/95)
The Hackett brothers and Chapel sisters find their 20-year-old time capsule.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Jeff Melman
It’d have been very easy to purposely exclude this entry from a list of Season Seven’s best. Not only is this a gimmicky anthology show that’s designed solely for broad humor within separate intentionally unrealistic fantasy sequences, but it’s also one of the more blatant examples of the top tier gaining an unfavorable narrative dominance over the bottom. Yet, this is a season where the standards are lower, and if these failings are few and the laughs can overcompensate, it deserves to be highlighted. Also, the fantasy sequences are indeed meant to provide insight into the four characters, whose shared histories make their relationships all the richer. So, despite the shameful story gimmick, one comes away knowing the players better. And that’s dandy.
09) Episode 146: “The Lyin’ King” (Aired: 05/07/96)
Joe lies to Helen when he goes to see a friend perform at a strip club.
Written by Christopher Vane | Directed by Jeff Melman
Choosing this excursion as my Most Valuable Episode from the year wasn’t a difficult decision, for while there are installments here that pack the same number of laughs, none of those do as right by character, particularly our anchor (Joe). Now, one of the complaints I often hear about the show’s utilization of Joe as a married man is that his characterization changes — he loses a lot of his sensitivity in deference to stories that make him the addled, “typical” sitcom husband. But I actually think, while I will have problems with his inconsistent usage in Season Eight, this year is business as usual, and you can see it in this episode. First, his choice to lie to Helen about going to a nursing home, when he’s really going to see a friend at a strip club, reflects Brian’s influence on the otherwise Goody Two-Shoes Joe. Then, his decision to actually go to the nursing home, so that the lie isn’t a lie, reveals the triumph of his own characterization. So, this is a great examination of him. What’s more: the script is hysterical, making time for a memorable guest appearance from riotous Phil Leeds, whom Joe and Brian drag to the strip joint.
10) Episode 148: “Grouses, Houses, And Bickering Spouses” (Aired: 05/21/96)
Joe and Helen prepare to move into their own house.
Written by Jeffrey Richman and Lori Kirkland | Directed by Jeff Melman
The year’s finale, this installment employs a welcome thematic cohesion with the premiere, when Brian and Casey accidentally burned down Joe and Helen’s house during a lovemaking session. This time, at the very end of the offering, Joe and Helen do the same to Brian and Casey, just as the two pairs plan to finally secure separate living quarters. That callback is naturally amusing, but because it’s an idea alone, it’s not enough to earn the outing a place here. Rather, the episode works because the lead-up is fairly enjoyable, especially in the scenes exploring the foursome’s growing agitation with each other, when each player gets the chance to exhibit and display his/her established characterization. It’s not stellar, but it’s good for Season Seven.
There are a lot of mediocre episodes this season that could be addressed as Honorable Mentions. But if there are too many Honorable Mentions, then none are honorable. So, frankly, the only other entries that had a real chance of being seen above are: “Hooker, Line, And Sinker,” “When A Man Loves A Donut,” “Bye, George,” and “Lynch Party.” (Incidentally, you may be wondering why I didn’t feature the seemingly popular “B.S. I Love You,” in which a man claims to be the Hacketts’ grandfather. Well, I find the story so narratively predictable that it neuters the intended emotional punch. It’s a typical “sitcom” premise — in the pejorative sense of that word we love (i.e. familiar, obvious) — and its character concerns are superficial. Credit the show for trying? I could… if other parts of the series’ obligation to the audience were met: specifically, the humor motive, which is much stronger elsewhere in Seven.) I do want to mention one more episode though — interestingly enough, it’s a GIANT BOMB that nevertheless deserves attention — “Love Overboard,” which guest stars John Ritter as Casey’s ex-husband and is achingly, gut-wrenchingly broad… yet is surprisingly key in cementing both Yasbeck’s comedic viability and her character’s evolved definition. I hate it, but it’s pivotal.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Wings goes to…
“The Lyin’ King”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!