Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our look at the best of The John Larroquette Show (1993-1996, NBC), a fascinatingly different never-quite-a-hit that stood in contrast to much of the Peacock Network’s mid ’90s fare. The series is currently unavailable commercially in any form, but I have access to off-air recordings of 83 of the 84 produced episodes (and I found the final draft teleplay for the one I’m missing), so let’s discuss!
The John Larroquette Show stars JOHN LARROQUETTE as John Hemingway, LIZ TORRES as Mahalia Sanchez, GIGI RICE as Carly Watkins, DARYL “CHILL” MITCHELL as Dexter Walker, CHI McBRIDE as Heavy Gene, LENNY CLARKE as Officer Adam Hampton, ELIZABETH BERRIDGE as Officer Eve Eggers, BILL MOREY as Oscar, and ALISON LaPLACA as Catherine Merrick. JAZZMUN recurs as Pat.
Following a first season that was well-received (and is now fondly remembered), The John Larroquette Show entered its second year as a Nielsen flop. Yet because it had been scheduled opposite #4’s Roseanne and because the NBC brass still liked it better than a lot of their other programming options, the series was granted a reprieve. It would remain on Tuesdays, but now it would play behind a critical and commercial success story, Frasier. Together, NBC hoped these two comedies would weaken ABC’s grasp on the night, where, after some Alphabet Network maneuvering, they’d now be going up against Home Improvement and Grace Under Fire (which ended the previous year as #2 and #5, respectively). But Larroquette’s renewal was conditional: changes were in order. The hooker would go straight (buying the bar and becoming a respectably professional woman), the near-weekly AA meetings would no longer be a staple (and the alcoholic talk would be, as a result, lessened), and John would move into a nicer apartment where he would launch a relationship with his across-the-hall neighbor, a squeaky clean nurse named Catherine (to be played by the queen-of-short-lived-’90s-comedies, Alison LaPlaca). This was all part of the show’s re-branding, which many viewers today recall as the moment where Larroquette stopped being worthwhile. However, as mentioned last time, while I think the ultimate conclusion is correct — these efforts would not lead to wholesale improvements — the oversimplification of what was altered, and why, has many overpraising the first season and underpraising those that followed. For while all these changes were indeed part of a concerted effort to make the “dark ride” noticeably brighter — and, in NBC’s mind, more commercially viable — I’m of the opinion that the first year asserted itself as being in serious need of some tweaking, and the show’s overreliance on its tone was truly part of the problem.
If you’ll remember from last week, we noted that when Reo and Larroquette established the series, they claimed to have planned the first 13 episodes to represent the “12 Steps” of AA. This sexy story hook was also reflected in the way scripts were written — angsty, brooding, and filled with the same kind of harsh, dramatic moments that played more often on Barney Miller and (early) Night Court than on anything then being offered by the Big Three. For many, this seemingly fresh stylistic choice — although not entirely unique: egged on by cable and descended from the wave of rebellious content brewing underneath network TV comedies in the late ‘80s — was the primary source of the show’s merit. And, to this point, the scripts were often exciting (in those first 13) because the tone was well-applied as a manifestation of John’s character, his internal demons, and the external damage they’d done… But this fixation on the style and how the show could assert its differentness through an aesthetic objective distracted the writing, I think, from giving some needed attention to the other members of the ensemble. And when the series became slightly less “dark” at the midpoint of its first year, the “light” exposed some of these weaknesses… Thus, in addition to wanting to make Larroquette more upbeat and welcoming — for commercial purposes — I also think the impetus behind the mitigation of the series’ tone came (partly) from the need to do better on behalf of the other characters… whether or not the network (and the show) was even cognizant of this at the time. As a result, not all of Two’s structural and narrative decisions are outright condemnable. For example, losing the first year’s undefined bus driver and elevating the easily comedic hobo makes sense; the latter has an inherently richer point-of-view — making him better for laughs and story.
Additionally, although this may not be a popular position, I can get on board — at this point (less so in Season Three) — with the decision to de-emphasize John’s alcoholism, which had been a weekly story point in Season One. Not only did the show need to spend time with the other characters by crafting stories where they could be more included, but also, if we’re going to argue that the series’ initially “dark” mode of operation was only in existence because of John’s emotional and mental state, then the healthier he gets, the lighter the show should get, too — and the less necessary it should become to build story specifically around his sobriety. (This was what the network allegedly argued, and what Larroquette echoed to the skeptical press…) Now, all this noted, I also think that cutting back the use of this one narrative source is different from the choice (in Three) to completely ignore a major part of the character’s history and how he’d been defined since the pilot. And I also think that the show’s jump from the end of Season One to the start of Two, particularly with regard to John (who is supposedly setting the tone), is jarring and not motivated. This all warrants valid criticism… On the other hand, what I think is actually somewhat motivated (more than it’s given credit for being) is Carly the hooker’s change in profession. Yes, it’s the most blatant and therefore easily lampoonable example of the show “cleaning itself up,” and it indeed robs the series of some admittedly appealing grit. But I can buy that if she wants to romance John (a believable turn following the first year’s cliffhanger), then she’d also want to change professions and improve her life. It’s character-driven, even if ill-explained. Also, when Carly was a prostitute, she was defined by the profession, so perhaps giving her something less one-note could be a way of supplying her with a more nuanced and story-motivating personality — especially now that she’s better integrated with the ensemble.
So, you see, I can understand how much of this retooling could have been seeking noble character-driven conclusions… but alas, the year never takes great advantage of these opportunities. For in the absence of heavy AA stories, the show still doesn’t build up its ensemble players; even with a new job, Carly still remains undefined; and without a tonal gimmick upon which to rely, the show finds yet another non-character-rooted element on which it can focus its comedic energy… But hold that thought — I first want to address the big narrative reason why I think a lot of the above changes don’t achieve the desired results: Catherine, the character played by Alison LaPlaca. Where do I begin? Well, I’ll start with the fact that she’s never defined. Ever. And part of the problem, obviously, is that she’s designed from the get-go to be a love interest for John — not a character in her own right, not a new member of the ensemble, and not even a source of increased laughs. No, she’s a story-driven love interest: a lighter, brighter, and friendlier match for the star than the ex-whore who’s lingering around for some clichéd triangle shenanigans. This type of problem isn’t unique to Larroquette; we’ve seen before how story-based relationship constructs, particularly when they involve new characters, can rob players of the definition needed to actually motivate their stories and garner our investment. Sadly, great care is not taken here — the show structurally places Catherine far away from the rest of the ensemble, eschews opportunities to define her in the year’s first two outings (there’s one terrible scene that seems to delight in giving the audience nothing), and quickly throws her in a relationship with John by episode three. Catherine is not a fix; she’s an albatross — and she symbolizes all of this season’s tinkering… even though she’s the worst embodiment of the year and nullifies any changes that could be considered potentially beneficial.
Okay, but back to the nugget I dropped above: “…the show finds yet another non-character-rooted element on which it can focus its comedic energy.” Remember last week when I encouraged you not to underestimate the show’s determination to stay unique (no matter the cost)? Well, now, without a dark, edgy tone, the series decides to dip back into another facet of that late ‘80s anti-establishment trend: metatheatricality (a.k.a. self-awareness). As we’ve seen elsewhere, this self-awareness is a laugh-driven stylistic choice that’s, by design, not character-oriented. Now, whether it’s worthwhile or not is a personal opinion, but, for me, it’s a case-by-case matter based on the comedic results, the degree of gimmickry, and the damage done to the characters. Generally, there’s nothing damaging in Two. (Distracting, perhaps, but not damaging…) While Season Three will go bolder with this choice, crafting long-running gags and even stories that play with the self-referential TV literacy established here (not to mention the show’s earlier reputation for “noirism”), this year sticks to throwaway jokes that begin, I think, as a figurative “middle finger” to the brass. For instance, in the premiere — aptly titled “Changes” — Catherine says of John’s new apartment: “Wow, it’s so bright in here.” Self-awareness about the aesthetic retooling? Check. Later, when he raises a (non-alcoholic) drink to her, and says “Cheers,” she responds, “Seinfeld.” Self-awareness about the expectations placed on the show? Check. And then the jokes keep coming — there’s one episode below where Catherine casually admits that she’s been on five failed shows. That’s a pretty bold breaking of the fourth wall — acknowledging that this is a TV show and these are actors; the stories are meaningless and these characters don’t exist — and admittedly, just like last year’s hard-boiled edge, this is exciting to see… even if it doesn’t do anything for defining her persona or helping the ensemble. (Naturally, the ratings-motivated stunt casting doesn’t do any good either — there are a lot of examples here, but the Boyz II Men gag is particularly contemptible.)
Fortunately, though, this meta trend isn’t overwhelming in Season Two (it’s made more of in Three — for better and worse; stay tuned…), and I like to think that the year really does try to do more with the ensemble, even if the end results don’t necessarily indicate a lot of sustained progress. As was the case before, the most usable story participants are Mahalia and Dexter — given how the pilot drew their bonds to John — and when these scripts dedicate much more time to the lead’s involvement with his two lady loves, it’s impossible not to feel that the staff is focusing on the wrong things… There’s improvement to be made (on some fronts, that is) in Season Three though, when Mitchell Hurwitz assumes an Executive Producer credit and essentially begins running the show (amidst even more network-dictated changes)… As for Season Two, written by many of last year’s same scribes (the only new additions are David Richardson, of Empty Nest, Malcolm In The Middle, and Two And A Half Men, and Teresa O’Neill, of Night Court, My Two Dads, and Pearl), I’d like to tell you that the episodes featured below are great. But they’re not. This is a collection of adequate (sometimes good) sitcom offerings. However, if you’re interested in tracking all of these varyingly successful alterations and are fascinated by some of the alleged behind-the-scenes machinations, then Season Two makes a significant study. Also, it’s important to note that the season made the year’s Top 50 and squeaked out a renewal. So, it may not have been great — and certainly wasn’t qualitatively better than its debut year’s first 13 — but Two did okay enough to make a Three… And in the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two (in AIRING ORDER). 21 of the 24 entries were directed by John Whitesell. Any outings not directed by Whitesell are noted.
01) Episode 25: “Changes” (Aired: 09/20/94)
John moves into a new place and falls for his neighbor.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
Placed on this list more for its curiosity value than for its individual merits, this entry — the season premiere — is the first in a trilogy designed to transition the series into its new modus operandi: John, in a new apartment, with a new girlfriend (Catherine), while the hooker who loves him is no longer plying her wares — just drinks at the terminal’s saloon. I’m highlighting this installment simply for the details mentioned above — the rumblings of self-awareness (about the new apartment’s “brightness” and then the Cheers, Seinfeld joke) that would come to define the series in the absence of the first year’s grit. It’s not terrific, but it’s buoyed by the inherent energy of a new season with new rules. Worth seeing for the reconfiguration alone.
02) Episode 28: “Good News/Bad News” (Aired: 10/18/94)
Gene and Mahalia find love while John tries to get healthy.
Written by Eve Needleman
Evidence of the show — especially in the early part of Season Two — trying to better showcase the other members of its ensemble comes in an excursion like such, which has an A-story involving John and Catherine (made worthwhile by a really funny scene between John and Graham Jarvis as his doctor, who later dies) but is otherwise supported by a pair of thematically connected subplots in which both Gene and Mahalia embark on new love affairs. Gene’s is with an ice skater (played by Cosby‘s T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh) that he’ll soon marry, while Mahalia’s is with a con she meets at a group for “Single Latinos over 30 who’ve recently remembered childhood abuse through hypnosis.” The devil – and the laughs – are in the details.
03) Episode 29: “The Tutor” (Aired: 10/25/94)
John tutors Dexter while Oscar prepares for a visit from a social worker.
Written by J.J. Wall
The first step to producing a good episode of The John Larroquette Show in its post-AA era? Give the star the chance to have lengthy scenes with either of the ensemble’s two best defined characters: Mahalia or Dexter. This installment pairs him with the latter, as Dexter needs a tutor to help pass the high school equivalency exam. There are many laughs there, based in the contrast of their two personalities. Somewhat connected to the A-story is the subplot, in which Mahalia seeks John’s help in her plan to clean up Oscar (the bum) before he receives a visit from a social worker, played, incidentally, by a young Jane Lynch. As with the above, this is another entry that caters to John but also works with the strongest members of the ensemble.
04) Episode 32: “The Book Of Rachel” (Aired: 11/15/94)
A young woman tells John that he might be her father.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
Mayim Bialik, then starring in the final season of Don Reo’s Blossom, makes her first of three appearances here as Rachel, a young woman who tells John that he’s one of a handful of men who may be her father. Her very presence is a gimmick — an NBC star guesting on this fledgling NBC show (Matthew Perry and Tim Daly also did time this season) — but whenever the series derives stories from John’s relationships with his family, particularly the kids from whom he’s estranged, there’s a certain reconnection to the show’s origins, where this kind of alcohol-based dysfunction fueled a lot of John’s internal and external conflict. Also, Chris, the man who thinks he’s Jesus, is introduced. Funny and character-rooted (for John, that is).
05) Episode 35: “A Cult To The System” (Aired: 12/06/94)
John is chagrined to learn his son has joined a cult.
Written by Jim Vallely
Given the less impressive nature of this season (in comparison, even, to last year), there are a couple of offerings on this list that never rise beyond the shackles of adequate — I’d cite this outing as one. However, it’s here because it’s among the more notable and memorable. For instance, it deals again with John’s relationship with his kids — this time, his son Tony, whom we met last season. (The story itself is familiar and won’t win any prizes for originality, but it’s a narrative arena that makes sense for the show and these characters at this transitional time.) Also, the subplot, in which Eggers’ parents visit, sees more stunt casting — Marion Ross and Dick Martin — but, for TV lovers, this kind of gimmick is at least amiable, if not rewarding.
06) Episode 37: “Faith” (Aired: 01/10/95)
Good luck occurs when Jesus Christ appears on a wall in the terminal.
Written by David Richardson | Directed by Gil Junger
A companion piece (of sorts) to last year’s “God,” this is another Barney Miller-esque installment in which John must deal directly with his relationship to faith and God. Consequently, this is probably the Season Two offering that feels the most like something we could have seen in the (latter half of the) first year. The narrative is sparked by a likeness of Jesus Christ that is discovered on a wall in the bus terminal, leading to a comedic character-driven prayer sequence and a string of good luck that’s seemingly connected to the image of Jesus. Of course, as it turns out in this cynical, irreverent show (still — even with brighter sets, a clean-cut leading lady, and less drunk talk), it’s really just an old poster of Willie Nelson that’s been covered in paint.
07) Episode 38: “The Defiant One” (Aired: 01/17/95)
John gets himself and his friends arrested.
Written by J.J. Wall
I look to this episode as being the year’s most self-aware — not necessarily of itself and its own particulars, but of the television world in which we (the audience) know that it inhabits. With jokes about Seinfeld (precipitated at a movie theatre following a trivial discussion that leads to a Kramer reference), Urkel from Family Matters, Angie Dickinson in Police Woman, and even the aforementioned Blossom, this outing leans into the show’s sustained reputation for winking dissidence — via the burgeoning current of metatheatricality that’s grown in the place of thematic darkness. The jail story is routine, as is the unnecessary Kinky Friedman cameo, but the laughs are consistent and the force of this new aesthetic directive is potent and critically engaging. Also, a very young Mila Kunis appears just this once as Mahalia’s daughter.
08) Episode 40: “Whipping Post” (Aired: 02/07/95)
Carly’s younger brother falls for Catherine.
Written by David Richardson
Joey Lawrence, another regular from NBC’s Blossom, guest stars in this genuinely unique installment as Carly’s 21-year-old brother, who instantly falls for Catherine. Although built around a guest, instead of the regulars who still need more definition — like Catherine and even Carly — this is a better story for John, Catherine, and Carly than some of the romantic or arc-minded entries in which they’re elsewhere mired. Here, their characters are allowed to interact without heavy structural or plot-minded interests. Also, the idea is saved by the teleplay, which is filled with jokes and even features the most “meta” moment of the year: when LaPlaca casually says, “It’s hard to believe I’ve been on five sitcoms that have bombed. Nobody gets me.” For those ten seconds, there is no fourth wall and John Larroquette is edgy once again.
09) Episode 43: “In The Pink” (Aired: 03/07/95)
Mahalia’s severe dieting lands her in the hospital.
Written by Teresa O’Neill
Liz Torres, who’s one of this series’ most reliable players (and was given one of its best defined characters), was nominated for her work in both of The John Larroquette Show‘s first two seasons — and this is one of the offerings that she submitted to represent the year. (The other was “Faith.”) The story has her going on a crazy crash diet that lands her in the hospital. It’s potentially heavy subject matter, but it’s born from the insecurities and flaws of the characters and works both because of her performance and the teleplay, which (in keeping with the rest of the show) doesn’t stop being funny. (For instance, the office scene is a hoot!) Also, there’s a choice, hilarious dig at NBC in an otherwise broad moment featuring Oscar the bum.
10) Episode 45: “Rachel Redux” (Aired: 05/09/95)
John sees his daughter in a nude magazine.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
My choice for the year’s best episode, this installment gains distinction not because of the terribly crass guest appearance of Matthew Perry, then starring in the first season of the network’s breakout hit Friends, in a broad (albeit easily amusing) Eggers story, but rather because of how the A-plot, which features the return of John’s daughter Rachel (again, Mayim Bialik), pieces together two big elements explored during the second season… and manages to display them both well — those being the character of the daughter herself, and the relationship between John and Catherine. These two threads are united thematically when Rachel appears topless in a magazine, and later, when Catherine exposes her own breasts to Rachel (and Rachel’s boyfriend). This is the meeting of John’s two worlds — a consequence of his reckless past, and the consequence of his cleaned-up (network mandated) present. Also, this is simply among the year’s funniest — and even if the Perry subplot is disgraceful, at least it represents the kind of foolishness that the show employed (or was forced to employ) to drum up the ratings. Therefore, it’s a good, accurate, mostly favorable representation of Season Two.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: “Wrestling Matches,” which guest stars David Cassidy, who sang the show’s original theme song, and the installment where Gene gets married, “The Wedding,” one of two excursions preempted during the original season and first shown later on NBC during that August’s rerun schedule. (Interestingly, because this offering ran in the summer, the first show of Season Three features a joke in which John, though present at the “wedding,” is shocked to discover that Gene got married.) I also suggest watching the second and third un-honorable episodes of the season, “Hiding Out” and “A Bird In The Hand” — not because they’re great, but because they continue the reformatting begun in the season premiere, and are therefore fascinating from a developmental perspective.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The John Larroquette Show goes to…..
Come back next week for my thoughts on Season Three! And tune in tomorrow for another Wildcard Wednesday!