Sophistication on FOX? No, Not Really: A Look at FLYING BLIND

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s post, I’m sharing my thoughts on the short-lived Flying Blind, which ran for 22 episodes on FOX during the 1992-’93 season. Scheduled in the sitcom’s no-man’s-land of 10:00, and in between Herman’s Head (1991-1994), an underrated show I’d like to cover here at some point, and Woops! (1991), a brief post-apocalyptic comedy that was doomed before it began, Flying Blind seemed ideal for coverage at this point because it was part of an interesting trend that was especially hot in 1992-’93: the couple comedy (or “couple-com”). Although the husband-wife/boy-girl series (sans kids in this sub-category) has always been sitcom fodder, this particular year seemed to produce a higher volume of efforts. In addition to FOX’s Flying Blind, CBS offered two variations in Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s politically charged Hearts Afire (1992-1995) and Diane English’s sentimentally inclined Love & War (1992-1995) — discussed here last year — while NBC, of course, had the series we’re discussing on Sitcom Tuesdays, Mad About You (1992-1999). I don’t have to tell you which of these four I consider the most worthy of our attention.

However, Flying Blind, not yet on DVD, is particularly noteworthy because it was surprisingly well-received — for a FOX show — and was considered by many critics “sophisticated” — again, for a FOX show. A typical response to the premiere is evidenced by this review from People‘s Ken Tucker, who gave the pilot a B+ and succinctly summed up the plot, stating: “Corey (thirtysomething) Parker plays a nice bourgeois Jewish boy who has just started, with some ambivalence, a corporate marketing job his father got him. Then he meets a flighty, sexy girl (Téa Leoni) who drags him into a bohemian, anything-goes demimonde. Suddenly Parker finds himself torn between two worlds—the office and the all-night party—neither of which he feels comfortable in. Parker brings an amusing, Woody Allen—like tone to the role, and Leoni is a fetching firecracker. The show may never again attain the sustained comic brilliance of last week’s pilot. But this is a rarity for Fox: a sophisticated and clever sitcom.” With many respected critics echoing similar thoughts and praising the show as such, I wanted to see if Flying Blind could live up to the hype. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

But before we get into all that, let me give you more of the low-down. In addition to the central couple, Parker and Leoni, playing typical opposites — he: buttoned-down Neil, she: barely clothed Alicia — Flying Blind‘s regular ensemble featured Neil’s nebbish father, Jeremy (Michael Tucci, you may remember him from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), his ambitious co-worker, Ted (Marcus Giamatti), and Alicia’s two roommates, eccentric Megan (Clea Lewis, soon of Ellen) and the nebulously defined Jordan (Robert Bauer), whose existence is solely to point out that — gasp — Alicia is so sexually free to be living with a man! Recurring cast members included Cristine Rose as Neil’s mother, who appeared in six of the first 12 episodes, and two characters who were added later in the run, when Neil changed careers and followed his dream of going into filmmaking: SNL‘s Charles Rocket as a director (and Alicia’s ex-husband) and Mary Woronov as Neil’s new boss (and a former porn star). Notable guests included Wings‘ Thomas Haden Church as Alicia’s domineering painter ex and Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Peter Boyle as Alicia’s hard-boiled spy father, both of whom appeared twice.

The series was created and executive produced by Richard Rosenstock (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, The Marshall Chronicles, The Big Bang Theory, Arrested Development), and regular writers included Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom (Wings, Jenny, Still Standing, Just Shoot Me!), Bob Stevens (Night Court, The Wonder Years, Dear John, Murphy Brown, Malcolm In The Middle), Terri Minsky (Doctor Doctor, Sex And The City, Lizzie McGuire, Less Than Perfect), Michael Borkow (Roseanne, Friends, Malcolm In The Middle, Mom), and Mark Reisman (Dear John, Wings, Frasier, Jenny, The Exes). Douglas Wyman (Barney Miller, Family Ties, Newhart, Davis Rules, Murphy Brown) was Co-EP for 12 episodes following the pilot, only to then be replaced in the back nine by Tom Maxwell and Don Woodard (Room For Two, Dream On, Just Shoot Me!), who joined at the same time as Rick Copp & David A. Goodman (The Golden Girls, Babes, Rhythm And Blues, Wings; Goodman only: Stark Raving Mad, Futurama, Family Guy). Linwood Boomer (Silver Spoons, Night Court, 3rd Rock From The Sun, Malcolm In The Middle) was a credited consultant.

When I screened two episodes of Flying Blind several years ago to assess whether it would be suitable for future coverage, I was enthused. This seemed to be a screamingly funny series with laughs as bold as Married… With Childrens, but alongside a sense of contemporary romance that both harkened back to the Barefoot In The Park-inspired couple-coms of the ’60s (Love On A Rooftop, Occasional Wife, He & She, etc.) and looked forward to the optimistic relationship-driven material that would soon be prized on NBC’s Must See TV Thursday (Mad About You, Friends, Caroline In The City, etc.). I can’t say it was “sophisticated” — its theme may have reminded of sophisticated programming, but its tone certainly wasn’t — but it did fulfill its primary objective: entertainment. So, when Herman’s Head coverage was placed on the back burner — thus seemingly delaying Flying Blind‘s Wednesday appearance — I decided that this series’ subject matter made it a suitable companion for Mad About You, too… However, when I sat down to watch all 22 episodes in early 2018, I was disappointed — not because my initial observations were invalid (no, the show was still screamingly funny and it still offered an interesting take on the “couple-com”), but because that’s all there was to it.

What am I saying? Well, the show has big laughs and an engaging premise — a classic clash of opposites within a seemingly more frank look at the sex lives of young singles in the big city — but when it comes to character, I’m afraid there isn’t a lot there, for everyone’s painted in broad strokes: so big, bold, and extreme, that a nice counterbalancing dose of relatable, genuine humanity is required… and then not delivered. It’s the exact opposite of Mad About You! These characters are caricatures, and while it’s easy when just watching an episode or two to ignore the problem because of both the rapid-fire jokey scripting and the general leeway we extend to new series, when you’re eight episodes into the run, and everyone — Leoni and Parker, included — is still being directed towards his/her next laugh with not a lot of grounded realism in support, this becomes a more glaring issue. (If you’re wondering why this is a problem on Flying Blind and not, say, Married… With Children, I think the latter was clear about its satirical intentions, and didn’t make us expect emotional depth. When dealing with a show whose stories are to be motivated by characters in a relationship, more dimensionality is needed. Again, it’s the exact opposite problem faced by the comically muted Mad About You.)

I was so turned-off by this lack of character work that I almost didn’t make it past the first 13 episodes. But when I stuck it out, I started to see improvement — mostly on two-fronts. The first front is structural; the series wrests Neil from his office job in episode 14, and then puts him in the avant garde filmmaking world, with more “out there” recurring characters and stories. This, instead of having the anticipated effect of further broadening the show and these regulars, actually contextualizes their extremes and makes them look more realistic and relatable in comparison. Additionally, this gives the writers better, and more fun, ideas with which to play. The second front is emotional; with more time spent in these players’ spaces, a natural bond begins to form between character and scribe, and by proxy, character and audience. So, although I think the show still doesn’t make this investment easy — despite a concerted effort to tone down some of its outrageousness (phasing out the mom and Neil’s family, making Alicia more emotionally available and less joke-driven, and giving Neil story outside of Alicia) in the “back nine” — I have to admit that Flying Blind does find a way to make me care about the characters beyond its laughs. I still maintain that they lack nuance and depth, but now I can also say that Flying Blind — while not living up to the hype — also has some legitimate merit. (Unfortunately, it aired 10:00 on a Sunday night, a terrible time to build an audience.)

Now, I could go through a list of seven favorite episodes with info, pictures, and commentary — which is what I initially planned. But, because my study indicated that Flying Blind was never more enjoyable than when only one offering was allowed to represent the series’ inherent strengths and all its presumed possibilities, I’m just going to share my favorite installment. First, however, because I did take the time to decide what I consider the series’ most rewarding/memorable, here’s a no-frills bullet-point list for those who are gung-ho to see more:

  • Episode 01: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/13/92) – see what the critics saw: big laughs, “sophisticated” premise
  • Episode 09: “The Heartbreak Id” (Aired: 11/08/92) – an episode that first made me think Flying Blind was better than it was
  • Episode 12: “Dad” (Aired: 12/13/92) – Peter Boyle debuts as Alicia’s father — his presence is script-elevating
  • Episode 16: “Escape To New York” (Aired: 03/07/93) – the most believable and human Neil and Alicia ever are; a favorite
  • Episode 17: “My Dinner With Brad Schimmel” (Aired: 03/14/93) – SEE BELOW
  • Episode 18: “Unforgiving” (Aired: 03/21/93) – an entry that uses Clea Lewis well and tries to be relationship-based
  • Episode 19: “The Bride Of Marsh Man 2: The Spawning” (Aired: 03/28/93) – the new filmmaking premise is used comically

The installment I’m sharing with you is the above mentioned “My Dinner With Brad Schimmel,” which was written by Rick Copp & David A. Goodman and directed by MTM’s Stan Daniels. The premise has Neil using Alicia to impress his old snobby friend (Bradley White, later to have an arc on Mad About You), who, incidentally, is engaged to be married to a young lady played by Lisa Kudrow (of two series we’re covering this year on Tuesdays, Mad About You and Friends). I like this excursion best because it boasts a comedic teleplay that utilizes the central relationship in a way that makes them seem human and true, while also building to an amusing and appropriately humorous climax (in which Kudrow shines).

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Mad About You!

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4 thoughts on “Sophistication on FOX? No, Not Really: A Look at FLYING BLIND

  1. How were you able to watch this show? I see you posted one episode from vimeo but I can’t find any other episodes there. I haven’t been able to find this show anywhere.

    • Hi, Scott! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      As with most of the unreleased shows discussed here, you can find homemade sets of off-air recordings on sites like iOffer and sell.com.

  2. I’ve about halfway through rewatching this series (why didn’t I ever think to check ioffer for this before?!?), a show that had stuck in my memory for decades after its too-short initial run. One thing that hasn’t surprised me is that I don’t love it nearly as much as I did then. . . but what has surprised me is that I *do* still find it genuinely funny and interesting, and in some minor ways, even daring (for its time). The biggest gripe I have– but it’s a pretty big one– is about the style of joke-writing. The “one liners” (please) in this show make the baroque, overly-intricate, too-detail-laden punch lines of “Murphy Brown” seem snappy in comparison. Frankly, I love the thread of the intended jokes about 25% of the time when it comes to these absurdly long, breathless punchlines (most, but not all, of which are delegated to Neil). By the time these “analogy jokes” get to their point– “I’ve never been so embarrassed for anyone since that time my Uncle Schlomo. . . [something]”– I often forget what the character was referring to in the first place. I have immense respect for the performers who pulled it off. Aaron Sorkin dialogue is Mamet-esque in comparison. Corey Parker generally pulls it off, but the only one who REALLY manages to turn these tortured lines into something resembling human speech is Tea Leoni, thanks to a breathless, dreamy delivery which opens up opportunities for pauses in these overloaded lines that I’m quite sure weren’t indicated by the lines themselves. While Parker does a mostly great job handling these overstuffed lines, you can feel him searching for beats, and he never feels so totally a Woody Allen clone as when he’s trying to make this sort of overwritten dialogue play. When he’s given more natural dialogue, and rarely, more natural jokes, he handles them beautifully.

    I may add another comment after I finish revisiting the whole season– I haven’t gotten to the semi-format change where Neil leaves the corporate job yet, and you seem to clearly see signs of improvement in the back half of the season that I haven’t seen since the early 1990s, so it will be interesting to see how I react (I honestly have no memory whatsoever of this phase of the show, so perhaps I’d drifted away by that point, but I seem to recall this being one of a small handful of shows I made a point of watching.) Based on your description, Jackson, without having rewatched the shows yet, it would seem that they were already laying some groundwork towards improving the show before many sitcoms that became true classics only in their second season, after the creators had time to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t. One episode that impressed me greatly so far focussed on the character I found the least interesting, least funny, and least appealing by far, Neil’s officemate Ted, whom the show managed to find a small degree of believable humanity in, by hooking him up with Megan (another character who was in dire need of some depth). It’s not major, by any means, but it was an attempt at deepening the characters, arrived at solely by mixing up two characters who’d never interacted before, and to me, that demonstrates real smarts on the part of the producers’writers that would likely have flourished if the show had a chance to breathe a bit more in a second season.

    Alas.

    But I’m still finding the show genuinely entertaining– and even occasionally shocking– 30 years later. There are individual jokes that I didn’t remember I remembered till seeing these episodes again and recalling some punchlines a millisecond before seeing them delivered again. If the writers could have divorced themselves from the interminably overwritten analogy/memory punchlines and made the characters more relatable in a second season, I think this had the potential to become a great sitcom. As it stands, given the one season (well, really, the half season I’ve rewatched so far), I think it was a show that had enormous potential, and very talented people working in front of and behind the cameras, but I can’t claim that what I’m rewatching is convincing me it’s a lost classic. A lost *potential* classic, perhaps! And as fitfully entertaining as any fledgling series I’ve seen. So many– even MOST– all-time classic sitcoms didn’t really find their groove till their second year. Some took even longer.

    A true delight for me to find your writeup to compare notes with– I hadn’t seen it till now!

    • Hi, WGaryW! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think your criticism with the show’s style of joke-writing — which I share — is endemic of the core problem: the shallowness of the principal characterizations, which rather than having distinct ways of speaking that reveal their individual (and story-motivating) personas, instead indicate an overarching singular voice. Most good shows can claim a unique tonal perspective, but the best of the best let their characters impart it, not the writers.

      By the same token, I think it’s telling that I, having not been around to sample the show upon its first broadcast, had (like you) a similar change of heart between my first peek several years ago and my later more formal study: I found it initially very funny and thus, a good candidate for coverage. When I revisited it, with a more critical eye, I was underwhelmed. I wasn’t just looking for laughs this time, I was looking for sustainability — character — and that was less satisfying.

      As for the show’s current reputation, I have to tell you that I can’t think of a single short-lived series (less than three years) covered here that I truly believe was a “lost classic” on par with the long-running gems we now revere. (Not even my beloved HE & SHE is great; it has moments of greatness and suggests potential that, unfortunately, went untapped.)

      But you’re right; shows improve as they get to better understand their regulars. No show is a classic, in my eyes, until it’s defined and remembered for its characters — not its pomp and circumstance. That’s hard for any single-season series, no matter how well-written.

      Indeed, FLYING BLIND was getting to know its characters better by season’s end. But I wonder if it ever could have been more than its pomp and circumstance — its rapid-fire jokiness, its flagrant sexuality, its archetypal leads…

      I think an interesting counterpoint is MAD ABOUT YOU, another couple-com that premiered during the same season. While FLYING BLIND defined its main couple by clichés, MAD ABOUT YOU *avoided* really distilling its primary leads (frankly, to its consistent detriment, too, I believe).

      Accordingly, neither has the type of memorable characters that populate our favorite series. But MAD’s calling card isn’t its comedy — which, I’d argue is the case for FLYING BLIND — it’s its humanity, embodied by the chemistry of its two leads. Reiser and Hunt picked up the slack for their characters, doing what great writing SHOULD: making us invest and believe in their goals. I’m not sure that I ever cared as much about Neil and Alicia or what they wanted.

      And for a romantic comedy, that’s not ideal.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

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