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.
After heeding network “advice” as a condition of renewal, the second season of The John Larroquette Show saw a significant reduction in its trademark darkness. Many fans mourned the loss of this series-defining tonal directive, as the “light” further exposed weaknesses in the ensemble and gaps in their development — some of the very things that, I believe, those mandated tweaks unknowingly aimed to fix in the first place (under the super-objective of building an audience and becoming more commercially viable, of course). Yet while the absence of the show’s desired tonal hook didn’t necessarily have to represent a rejection of John’s (and the series’) identity — because this could have been motivated by a believable evolution in his character — the implemented changes weren’t well-supported by his growth, and what’s more: they didn’t foster exploration or dimensionality for the other players either. Instead, the year became fixated on a ham-fisted love triangle between the cleaned-up (but still undefined) ex-hooker and the squeaky clean (and forever undefined) girl next door — a story-driven affair with two plot devices and only one solid, albeit diluted, man in the middle… Meanwhile, the show, lacking a way to identify itself through John Hemingway and the tone he inspired, found another stylistic calling card: metatheatricality. In Season Two, this led to throwaway jokes about the retooling and winking references to other NBC shows — all perhaps an act of rebellion against the network that kept renewing the series, but with more and more strings attached. The John Larroquette Show ended year two in the Top 50, which wasn’t great (especially behind Frasier), but was okay enough for a third season. Still, though, more tweaks were “requested”…
The entire company in the station would switch to the day shift (continuing the trend away from darkness — metaphorical and visual), the bum would become a paperboy and then a shoeshine man (so no more “dregs” in the ensemble — you’ll notice the drag queen disappears, too), and gone would be all talk of John’s alcoholism, which was perceived to be a “turn-off” for many initial viewers… However, despite this seeming acquiescence to the demands of the brass and an admitted recognition (from NBC) that Larroquette was still better than most of the potential newbies, the show was banished from the network’s Tuesday night “B” comedy block and sent to Saturdays where it could, presumably, fade away when it inevitably didn’t maintain the audience it was already struggling to keep when behind Frasier… But NBC never got to find out what would have happened to the series in exile, for when its Tuesday replacement, The Pursuit Of Happiness, tanked after five weeks, Larroquette was deemed the best candidate to return to the slot. And indeed, looking at the first third of the year, I’d have to say it’s the strongest stuff produced since Season One. For the first time since the great “12 Steps” plan, there are good decisions being made — counteracting all those questionable network-imposed ones from above. First, since the show was forced to stick with Catherine, the undefined better-than-a-hooker love interest introduced in Two, the year decides that it needs to integrate her more with the ensemble. So, she buys the bar from her romantic rival, Carly (who in turn loses her integration, but not her definition, since she never had any anyway), and becomes a regular presence at John’s work. This coalesces more of the action around the ensemble and the terminal, and marks a first step towards better defining Catherine through a smarter utilization.
Additionally, Season Three enforces “Sam/Diane 101” and decides to keep John and Catherine apart, which is vital if the show ever wants us to root for their reconciliation (because, remember, they got together before she had definition, and before the move was motivated). This gives the writers the chance to examine them — and hopefully her — individually, while continuing to explore the idea of their re-coupling with a teasing sexual momentum… Furthermore, I think the year recognizes the importance of maintaining John’s bonds with the other members of the ensemble, particularly the ones with whom he has the richest relationships: Mahalia and Dexter, the latter of whom moves in with John, giving the pair even more joint story opportunities. Okay, as with last year, I can’t say all of these opportunities are seized upon; the Dexter/John roommate scenario isn’t played enough, the integrated Catherine still eludes definition because she only exists in relation to John, and the contrived plot-driven triangle drags on — mostly to guarantee the predictable, and undeserved, cliffhanger (that soap-coms like Friends made NBC think was necessary)… But we don’t know any of this until the year reaches its midpoint; in its first trimester, all of the above makes the season seem ripe with possibilities, and it almost feels as if The John Larroquette Show, even with some kinks still to address (like the de-integrated, de-hookered Carly and how she fits in the cast now), is in a decent place. Heck, even the ratcheting up of last year’s metatheatricality — an easy, jokey distraction from character — isn’t proving counterintuitive to the year’s presentation of these regulars. There’s two reasons for this. The first: because it’s still at the network’s expense.
In Season Three, the show uses its self-awareness to double down on its explicit lampoon of network TV — with jokes about Frasier, Friends, and ER all within the first two episodes, and later, stories that parody COPS and The Real World. And there’s no mercy shown to NBC for the changes that the show knows have been frustrating to viewers. For instance, there’s an oft-discussed running gag with an elephant that wanders around the streets for months and eventually settles in the bus station. It’s meant to symbolize John’s alcoholism, which is only mentioned (about) four times throughout the whole season — and once in a bit about how they don’t talk about it anymore. Thus, with the audience and the show in on the jokes against the network, these moments feel cathartic… The second reason this works is that the year marries its winking TV-literate sensibilities to the show’s early reputation for being a “sitcom noir,” and indeed plays to this identity, with music cues, narrations, and stories (like John getting back into writing — a runner that opens up more individual plots for him that aren’t as “dark” as his AA meetings). And because this feels like a small return to the character-rooted tone of the past, but in a lighter (more laugh-driven) manner reflective of how the show evolved, the metatheatricality — in Three’s first half — also feels connected to character, and therefore excusable, especially when the results prove worthwhile. (The laugh quotient instantly increases between the end of Two and the start of Three.) Now, I’m hesitant to pin all of this initial success on changes within the writing staff, but there’s got to be some correlation — after all, this was the first year run by new EP Mitchell Hurwitz (the Golden Girls scribe whom I’m sure you know as being the creator of Arrested Development, another winking, rebellious network comedy).
Joining Hurwitz at the year’s start were a whole crop of writers new to the show, including Martin Weiss (The Golden Girls, 8 Simple Rules, I’m Dying Up Here); Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal (The Golden Palace, The Single Guy, Working); Pam Brady (The Single Guy, Just Shoot Me!, Lady Dynamite); John Ridley (Martin, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, American Crime), who left early in the year; and Creative Consultant Richard Rosenstock (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Arrested Development). But this season’s crew saw a lot of turnover — which may account for the descent in quality discussed below. There’s too many names to list all — including part-timers who got a Creative Consultant credit (like last year’s David Richardson), one-script contributors (like PA Catherine LePard), and even a former showrunner (Reo, of course) who is credited with his wife as having penned two early teleplays. The most notable mid-year additions were Jeffrey B. Hodes & Nastaran Dibai (Living Single, The Nanny, 3rd Rock From The Sun), who lasted nine episodes and weren’t credited with any scripts, the returning Jim Vallely (The Golden Girls, Two And A Half Men, Arrested Development), back for the season’s last seven entries, and three scribes who’d snag permanent spots next year: John Levenstein (Brotherly Love, Arrested Development, Silicon Valley), Don Seigel (The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls, Bob), and Will Gluck (The Single Guy, Working, The Michael J. Fox Show). As you can imagine, it’s rare to find two consecutively broadcast episodes in Season Three that feature the same configuration of writers on staff. I’m sure this instability hindered the year’s chances of settling into a working rhythm.
Whatever the cause though, the season’s quality begins to deteriorate around the midpoint; all the potential — for exploration of the long-neglected ensemble, a defined personality for Catherine, and a reason to root for a romantic reconciliation between her and John — again seems wasted. Following our initial excitement at the year’s renewed vigor and the immediately gratifying self-aware gags, it becomes clear that the show’s storytelling is still struggling to be character-driven, as scripts continue to rely on episodic gimmicks to gin up excitement — like a Golden Girls reunion, an arc with Gigi Rice’s real-life husband Ted McGinley (then still on Married… With Children), and more stunt casting (George Hamilton and Harry Anderson appear in an entry). And in the absence of solid character work, this rebellious form of self-awareness is broadened out to become a general lack of regard for logic and the rules of the universe that we’re supposed to accept as true (in order to maintain faith in these players). The dangerous side of metatheatricality — disconnection — rears its head, due, I think, to an inability to sustain believable, definable characterizations. By the time we reach the end of the year, with weekly stories that have John running for state senate and tracking down corruption at a local newspaper, the series feels like it’s not even trying to deliver on behalf of its objective — which, even starved of its original brooding intent, is still supposed to be about John Hemingway and his associates at the bus terminal… So, truly, for as much promise as the first part of the year indicates (validating the renewal and a move back to Frasier’s side), the end of the year makes the opposite case… And yet, still in the Top 50 and with no better replacement, the show got one more renewal; would it get a chance to improve upon its new reputation? Well, that’s for next week… In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this season is directed by John Whitesell.
01) Episode 49: “More Changes” (Aired: 09/30/95)
John proposes to Catherine and switches to the day shift.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
I have a tendency to discount premieres and finales on this blog, for I believe such story-driven, cliffhanger-resolving (or establishing) installments don’t set good examples of how character should be used in the situation comedy. However, the strength of the first quarter of this season is undeniable, and even in this two-part opener — which has to separate John and Catherine (while also not pairing him with Carly), get Catherine a job in the bar, and switch the entire company to the day shift — the comedic strokes of the teleplay joyfully keep those objectives from encroaching upon character. And, yes, while the gimmick of a Frasier crossover (well, Mahalia calls in to Frasier’s show, and we see archive footage of Grammer and Gilpin) isn’t character-rooted either, it’s a shining sample of the year’s TV-spoofing commitment.
02) Episode 50: “Even More Changes” (Aired: 10/07/95)
John and Catherine split and she takes over the bus bar.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
A continuation of the premiere, this installment works for many of the same reasons as the above; in spite of its heavy narrative functionality and all the story points that must be addressed, the quality of the laughs is ace, particularly when in support of the metatheatricality (here there are jokes about Friends and Wings), which isn’t character-driven but also supplies the series with some of the joie de vivre that had been missing since it was forced to remove its initial stylistic hook. And, to the year’s credit, this does make the show different from all the rest of its NBC contemporaries… Now, this entry’s “Catherine is a terrible singer” centerpiece is broader than anything above, but it’s a comedic hat to hang upon her thin characterization.
03) Episode 51: “Rachel And Tony” (Aired: 10/21/95)
John is horrified when his son and daughter unknowingly date.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
There’s a wonderful excitement running through this excursion — one of only two episodes this year credited to creator Don Reo and his wife Judith D. Allison — and in both of the otherwise unconnected stories. The A-plot, an inherently amusing idea in which John’s two young adult kids (played by Mayim Bialik and Omri Katz) meet and go out on a date, is handled deftly — it’s believable and not overinflated. And the subplot, in which Mahalia lusts after a man whom she learns — in the confessional — is actually a priest, affords Liz Torres (the series’ second most important player), the chance for some typically terrific laughs. Also, evidence of the year’s new stylistic bent comes in a sequence with Catherine and a Donny & Marie clip.
04) Episode 52: “A Moveable Feast” (Aired: 11/04/95)
John enters a writing contest and hopes to win a romantic trip to Paris.
Written by Martin Weiss
One of the first episodes to re-embrace the “sitcom noir” description that the series earned back when it was actually dark and brooding, this offering makes grand use of John’s narration — a device that future outings will continue to selectively feature — as the plot seeks to reignite John’s interest in writing. This aspect of his character, clearly designed as a way to open up new story for him, will also persist throughout the rest of the show’s duration, and it’s a wise inclusion, for it allows a sense of introspection that can better motivate the series’ metatheatrical tendencies. (This entry’s “short story” sketch, gaggy and not brilliant, is a great example of how this can be used.) The ending is a bit too obvious, but the humor obscures most concerns.
05) Episode 53: “Johns” (Aired: 11/14/95)
John tries to stop Catherine from dating a man who thinks she’s a hooker.
Written by Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal
One of the year’s funniest teleplays, this outing weaves together several different stories and manages to unite them in a centripetal sequence in which John and Mahalia seek to crash Catherine’s date with a man who’s given his name as “John Johnson” (because he thinks Catherine is Carly, the former hooker), while Eggers and Hampton cruise around with the COPS camera crew (in the offering’s contribution to the year’s TV-literate, fourth-wall-blurring wave), and Dexter goes on the run after he accidentally holds up a bank (it’s the least believable story, but it’s not bad for his character, because it plays with the racial tensions that he was designed to address). There are many funny beats here — like the “VD” bathroom scene, and then later when Mahalia is mistaken for Linda Ronstadt and can’t resist singing.
06) Episode 55: “An Odd Cup Of Tea” (Aired: 12/19/95)
John visits his boyhood home — and finds his long-missing father.
Written by John Ridley
Richard Mulligan, just off NBC’s Empty Nest, makes a surprising guest appearance as John’s long-lost father in this wonderfully character-rooted episode that sort of catches us off guard. For while the subplot of Hampton mistakingly believing that he received flowers from the doctor who did his physical (there’s a hysterical sit-up scene, by the way) is gaggy and somewhat Seinfeld-ian in its triviality (and more in-keeping with what we expect from this lighter era), the A-story deals with the protagonist’s messy past — a source of great conflict that’s been neglected in the ongoing creep towards a sanitary, brighter form of storytelling. But as this installment indicates — like in the scene where John learns that his father now has another son (also named John) whom he didn’t run out on — the show is really missing out on a lot by not doing more plots like such. Also, the A-story throws long scenes to John and Dexter — wisely!
07) Episode 57: “Master Class” (Aired: 01/02/96)
John and Dexter enroll in a writing class together.
Written by Pam Brady
Brenda Strong, who’d make her Seinfeld debut as Sue Ellen Mischke later in the month, appears here as a woman in the writing class in which John and Dexter have enrolled. (It’s a great character-based story that puts these two key players together for more fun.) Following a brief romance with John that goes sour, she writes and reads a piece in class about him that he feels the need to rebut in a hilarious, spontaneously improv’d (for the character, not the actor) rant that makes the whole episode. Meanwhile, Carly, Catherine, and Mahalia take out their rage on John in an anger seminar; it’s broad, but it shows self-awareness on behalf of these characters (one of whom is well-defined, two of whom aren’t). Also, Seinfeld‘s Warren Frost guests.
08) Episode 65: “Here We Go Again” (Aired: 03/12/96)
Betty White convinces John to help her stage a Golden Girls musical.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely and Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal
There’s a base, hard-to-deny entertainment value that comes from seeing Betty White — this entry’s special guest star — reuniting with Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan in a story built around the production of a campy musical version of The Golden Girls (in which White stars opposite the cast of The John Larroquette Show; John is Dorothy, Eggers is Sophia, and Mahalia is Blanche). But it’s also a base, hard-to-deny gimmick that isn’t character-driven and, while a showcase for the series’ metatheatrical and televisually referential modus operandi, stands as a shocking deviation from what this series initially promised to be. Ultimately? The laughs win out, and I can appreciate the stylistic conventions — which play with the noir-sensibilities via an explicit Sunset Boulevard parody — because they represent the year accurately (if not favorably). Fans of The Golden Girls should see it, because it’s written by two pairs of familiar scribes. (Also, note that White, whose autobiography inspired the episode’s title, won an Emmy Award.)
09) Episode 67: “A Night To Remember” (Aired: 04/09/96)
John recalls a visit he made to the bus station way back in 1987.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely
Regular readers of this blog know that I typically take a hard-line approach with flashback offerings, for I find them a narrative gimmick — often professing a relevance for character that’s never truly delivered. (That is, we wouldn’t miss anything by not seeing the past, for the clips are story-heavy and don’t reveal anything new.) None of my usual concerns are actually mitigated in this installment, but in this era — the back-half of Season Three, where broad, big stories are the norm — an episode whose only contrivance is a flashback feels simpler and less ostentatious. Also, with a script credited to the year’s two most talented scribes, there are a lot of laughs — including, most specifically, a memorable Shelley Long dig. (See? More TV literacy!)
10) Episode 69: “Hello, Baby, Hello” (Aired: 04/30/96)
Catherine asks John to father her child.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely
My choice for the strongest episode of the year, this installment is the most honest and equally enjoyable encapsulation of Season Three. For instance, the A-story is centered around John and Catherine, who have been separated since the year’s sophomore excursion, but have been poised for a potential reconciliation (à la Sam and Diane) ever since. This outing doesn’t provide her with much of a pinpointable characterization, and it uses an episodic narrative that overwhelms the quieter, character beats possible — but it’s actually hilarious: loaded with great moments (the “either diaphragm” joke is my favorite). So the humor, in a teleplay again written by the year’s most acclaimed duo, saves the story… Meanwhile, the subplot, though perhaps condemnable for a similar reason — it’s a gimmick that’s more story-led than character-driven — finds merit both in its laughs (again, there are many) and in the simple fact that it’s an exhibit of Larroquette‘s newly chosen means of differentiation, when Dexter goes on a TV show clearly meant to spoof The Real World, and the script gets to exert its irreverent brains by mocking the industry of which we, the audience, know this series is a part. So, this entry displays most of the year’s particulars — its strengths and weaknesses — and satisfies thanks to an amusing script.
Other episodes that warrant mention here include: “Night Moves,” which utilizes one of the funniest John/Catherine stories of the year, introduces a humorous recurring presence in Mr. Soulaymanulo, and suffers only for the subplot with Dexter, his mother, and Carly’s new beau (played by Gigi Rice’s real-life husband, Ted McGinley), “John’s Lucky Day,” a tight, if mediocre entry that’s credited to the series’ creator and features Larroquette’s former Night Court co-star Charles Robinson, “The Housewarming,” which oddly pivots away from John/Catherine to tease the back-burner’ed John/Carly (but with just an intermittently amusing teleplay), and “Happy Endings,” the season’s finale, which is dogged by its unmotivated John/Carly reconciliation but… has a handful of comedically memorable beats.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The John Larroquette Show goes to…..
“Hello, Baby, Hello”
Come back next week for my thoughts on Season Four! And tune in tomorrow for another Wildcard Wednesday!