Welcome to Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting the best of The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004, ABC), one of the most free-spirited comedies of its era. Unfortunately, only the first season has been released on DVD. But as of this publication, you can find reruns on Laff!
The Drew Carey Show stars DREW CAREY as Drew Carey, DIEDRICH BADER as Oswald Harvey, CHRISTA MILLER as Kate O’Brien, RYAN STILES as Lewis Kiniski, and KATHY KINNEY as Mimi Bobeck. Recurring guests this year include KATY SELVERSTONE as Lisa Robbins, ROBERT TORTI as Jay Clemens, and KEVIN POLLAK as Mr. Bell.
Covering The Drew Carey Show immediately after NewsRadio was intentional. As contemporaries — premiering within six months of each other — both are ostensibly ensemble workplace comedies that enjoy breaking the rules of conventional sitcomery. But the application of their workplace interests is very different and marks the biggest delineation between the two; while NewsRadio specifically sets its sights on the office and doesn’t want to leave that space — physically or emotionally — Drew Carey, from the pilot, gives itself a wider purview: an MTM-like structure that follows a starring anchor at the office and at home. As a result, NewsRadio‘s growing need to leave the workplace and take the characters to literally broader places was at odds with the show’s thesis, especially because the regulars couldn’t support emotional stakes outside the office. Drew Carey, in contrast, gives itself room to broaden, not only in Drew’s life at the office, but also in his life at home with a group of childhood friends, who, yes, resemble the “Singles In The City” conceit that exploded in the fall of ’95, thanks to Friends. (Seinfeld was another commonly cited comparison in reviews of the time.) Yet that’s a good thing. Covering Drew’s personal life gives the series license to explore romance and relationship-driven stories… the kind of material that helps us invest in the characters (which was hard with NewsRadio for this very reason), as long as their choices remain motivated (stay tuned)… Also, this seemingly clichéd design is freshened by the Cleveland setting, which is in-keeping with ABC’s Midwestern brand (Roseanne, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, etc.), making the characters less glossy and chic, and more relatable and everyman. Plus, there’s that good ol’ dose of metatheatrical rule-breaking fun — stemming from Carey’s stand-up and improv roots — which undercuts anything that plays too seriously.
Although it sounds like I prefer Drew Carey to NewsRadio, that’s only partly true. I find this show much easier to enjoy… but, also, much easier to loathe. To the first point, there’s less angst with Drew Carey because the characters are simpler. If some of NewsRadio’s players were nebulously defined and generally depth-less, then Drew Carey’s are not dissimilar — if lucky, one or two adjectives is enough for each (and “weird” is sufficient for most). Yet while that means depth is rare here too, the show’s structural capacity for plot variety means that their characterizations are less of a hindrance to narrative (again, when there’s some motivation). In this way, the lack of nuanced definition is less of a problem for Drew Carey than for NewsRadio, and the accompanying simplicity of character means more rope for this series (to hang itself — or, to be more specific, broaden to disconnect-worthy absurdity)… Interestingly, as with NewsRadio, Drew Carey initially uses realism as the foundation for its audience relatability before deciding, near the end of Season One, to change course and connect to viewers by telegraphing a sense of self-awareness, via metatheatrical gimmicks and a brand of logic that recognizes the bounds of the genre and the medium (but without any resentment). With these aforementioned characterizations and the lower stakes that come from their surface definitions (we don’t consider them real, so when they’re BIGGER than life, it’s not a cardinal sin), the tension surrounding the show’s inevitable broadening is reduced. Instead, we’re free to enjoy the heightened comedy and love the show for it… until we aren’t. You see, Drew Carey is also so much easier to loathe because without the low-concept yet RIGID structures of NewsRadio (the workplace confinements, specifically), this series’ rule-breaking also has lower stakes: it means less to us. And when it starts running out of gimmicks and must repeat them, the deplorability of the stunting makes the show seem far cheaper than NewsRadio ever did.
What do I mean? Well, the gimmicks — the live shows, “what’s wrong with this episode” stunts, and other assorted one-off ploys — feel more hackneyed on Drew Carey than they did on NewsRadio, and this is because the former, arguably, has less of a need for them. Again, NewsRadio closed itself in and didn’t have characters that could support the premise’s constrictions — it had to do something to break out of the box. In contrast, Drew Carey gives itself a fertile playground for story and boasts characters who are loose enough to motivate a lot of foolishness… so turning to stunts seems more of an unnecessary shame; the box is already wide open. To wit, the great tragedy of this good comedy isn’t just that “it ran longer than its reputation would have preferred,” but actually that it doesn’t seize all the opportunities that it lays out for itself, instead choosing desperate measures that are usually only called upon in desperate times. That is, there’s so much possibility within the workplace, the bar, the home, and all the characters — regular and supporting — that when the show increasingly forsakes natural possibilities in favor of stunts and clichéd rom-dram hooey, we’re not just dealing with a good show backed into a corner, but a good show that chooses to back itself into a corner because it doesn’t quite know how to function otherwise. To be fair, though, a certain amount of gimmickry is allowed by the series’ tonal aesthetic and indeed something that contributes to its appeal — that feeling that “anything can happen” is important — BUT when the gimmicks increase, the audience is more forced to pay attention to the thinness of the characters. And at some point, we’ll no longer be crediting them for their simplistic sketch-like designs, but condemning them for not supporting the premise in a way that would keep the stunts few — and therefore special. Also, because Drew Carey is ubiquitous in its inconsequentiality, it feels less dramatically sound than NewsRadio… despite its better design.
This design is key, however, in determining how the show best operates. The marker that I’ll use to determine the series at its peak is when it can claim a healthy balance of all its structural parts — particularly the office and the home — and can weave in its joyful zaniness (again, a contributor to its core appeal) through the conjoining of these two worlds. The show’s most comedic relationship — Drew and Mimi — resides at the office, while the richest in terms of story and emotional opportunity are with the four friends at home (and the bar)… Season One, which is otherwise tonally muted for the first half and unideal based on the series’ emerging standards, instinctively knows that hopping between the two is vital, but we’ll really begin to see in Two — probably the show’s best year by this metric — how the worlds can intermingle. Starting in Three, Drew’s personal life will dominate more aggressively, and by the time we get to Five, when Drew and Kate pair (as the second coupling within the core four) and Mrs. Louder makes her last appearance, that sought-after balance is effectively destroyed. This, obviously, is a narrative limitation — an unnecessary restriction — especially for a show that, getting longer in the tooth, needs as many sources of story as possible. Some will argue that by focusing on Drew and his friends outside the office, the show is honing in on its strengths (and that it’s easier to bring Wick and Mimi into the home than it is to bring Lewis and Oswald into the workplace), but it’s undeniable that the show’s extended rope — its ability to broaden and offer episodic gimmicks with reduced complaining from audience members — is cut off when the show cuts itself off. And the increased broadening certainly doesn’t pair well with more rom-dram crap, the kind that Friends always had to counteract with both comedy and character growth — only one of which Drew Carey can prove itself adept at offering.
The saving grace here is the very thing that will make it a non-starter for some: its intentional lack of gravity. Drew Carey is lighthearted, inconsequential, and irreverent… but not cynically — it’s rather jovial and optimistic: all for laughs. In other words, this is not a sitcom with palpable humanity — these characters aren’t designed to be “deep” and as emotionally gratuitous as the Friends. Surely, we’re supposed to care… but sincere moments on Drew Carey only work if there’s a punchline waiting around the corner. (I can think of only a few moments throughout the run where a dramatic moment, sans laughs, plays without feeling unearned.) This sensibility means that every failure is less serious and every success is less real. Again, we’re dealing with lower stakes… And, as for why The Drew Carey Show isn’t as popular today as some of its long-running contemporaries, I think these low stakes hit to the heart of it. The sitcoms people tend to love and revisit are the ones that take themselves seriously. (Now, not so seriously that it’s mockable, but serious enough that they don’t actively camp themselves.) For example, Friends is very serious in following its characters’ emotional journeys, Seinfeld is dead serious in propelling its complex episodic narrative design, and Everybody Loves Raymond (coming up next year) is über serious in maintaining truth in its established familial relationships. So, any live action show (animated hits like The Simpsons, linked to this series via the presence of Sam Simon, play by different rules) as unserious and unbound as Drew Carey is seldom considered substantial… However, insubstantiality is no more a curse than a boon, and these posts are going to show why… Here in Season One, the best is yet to come, and while signs of rom-dram foolishness exist (see: Lisa and Jay, two undefined love interests), the work/home balance is laudable, and once the year builds enough confidence to gain comedic momentum in its back nine, The Drew Carey Show begins proving itself to be an easy show to enjoy. Thus, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s finest. (They are listed in AIRING ORDER.)
Notable writers this year include: Bruce Helford (Roseanne, Norm, George Lopez, Anger Management), Clay Graham (Benson, Who’s The Boss?), Les Firestein (In Living Color, Nikki, Wanda At Large), Robert Borden (Pride & Joy, The Brian Benben Show, Late Show With David Letterman), Jeff Lowell (The George Carlin Show, Spin City, Two And A Half Men), and Lona Williams.
01) Episode 9: “Drew And Mrs. Louder” (Aired: 11/29/95)
Drew becomes Mrs. Louder’s personal assistant.
Written by Clay Graham | Directed by Sam Simon
Only two episodes from the year’s first 13 have made this list, for the back nine — en masse — operate at an elevated quality that can’t be denied. Most of the entries preceding this one are a little too earnest; that is, they take themselves seriously in a way the rest of the series doesn’t, and although I’ve argued that this is as much a positive as a negative, it’s nevertheless true that the early shows don’t reveal the Drew Carey we know and love (even if there are signs of it, like in the trilogy where Drew is sued for creating a hostile work environment with a risqué cartoon). This outing gets to be the first singled out for praise, however, because it’s a good example of the show combining the personal and the professional (thanks to an otherwise undefined device called Lisa), and because it introduces Mrs. Louder (Nan Martin), a vital character in cementing the workplace as a field that’s as fertile for story as Drew’s foursome friend group.
02) Episode 12: “Isomers Have Distinct Characteristics” (Aired: 12/20/95)
Drew is caught in the middle when the employees go on strike.
Written by Jeff Lowell and Clay Graham | Directed by Gary Halvorson
In terms of broadcast order, this is basically the point in the season where the year gets that the work/life balance is not just essential to the series structurally, but that it’s also the key to greater rewards — especially when the two actively mingle. In this case, the story sets this up perfectly, for the employees (including Kate) go on strike, leaving Drew stuck in the middle between the workers and the management. From inception, this is a winning idea… but then this entry also knows how to comedically exploit the concept when all the non-striking staffers are forced to operate the department store. This means Drew, Nora, and Mimi (the latter finally behind the cosmetic counter — her ambition) are down on the floor earning big laughs.
03) Episode 14: “Drew And Mr. Bell’s Nephew” (Aired: 01/10/96)
Drew teams with Mimi to take down the boss’ nephew.
Written by Christy Snell | Directed by Dennis Erdman
Although produced within the first 13, this outing demonstrates the knowingness of the year’s back nine. What’s most exciting about this installment is that the show, and the audience, already has a decent understanding of character — from their straightforward depictions and the episodic indications of their relationships — that it can invert expectations and play with the “usual” to procure additional comedy. Here, it’s the teaming of enemies Drew and Mimi, the duo who have the show’s most comedically contentious dynamic (and the richest as far as jokes are concerned), when they join forces to oust Mr. Bell’s obnoxious nephew. Their conjoining — something that becomes more common by necessity later on — is a welcome novelty at this juncture and it even, dare I say it, adds some nuance to their back-and-forth, as well.
04) Episode 15: “There Is No Scientific Name For A Show About God” (Aired: 01/17/96)
Drew considers becoming a minister.
Teleplay by Lona Williams and Jeff Lowell | Story by Robert Borden | Directed by Sam Simon
One of my favorite episodes of the season, this offering is among the first to embody the intoxicating feeling that “anything can happen” on The Drew Carey Show, and not in the sense that there are wild gimmicks and uproarious musical numbers peppering every scene, but in the sense that the show’s tonal looseness — and the freedom this concept has provided to traverse between work, home, and the bar — creates an environment where all laughs are fresh and unpredictable, even if the story beats are somewhat familiar. This is perhaps a combination of the writers and the cast simply having fun — building a newfound rhythm. The entire scene with the Ouija board is a delight, as are the first moments in the church with Keene Curtis.
05) Episode 16: “Drew’s New Assistant” (Aired: 01/31/96)
Mr. Bell appoints Mimi as Drew’s new assistant.
Written by Robert Borden and Clay Graham | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Another installment predicated on the great-for-laughs relationship between Drew and Mimi, this terrific workplace outing practically bleeds with the enhanced humor and character knowingness that all the scripts from the second half of the season display. There’s some choice character work in this entry, in particular, though, both from the construction of the story — which starts with the notorious loathrio Mr. Bell appointing his previously introduced girlfriend Suzie as his personal assistant — and also in the interplay between Drew and Mimi, as the latter’s elaborate prank has the former thinking that she may be harboring a secret crush on him: a sometimes mentioned psychological underpinning that isn’t without logic. Also, on the home front, the friends are developing a palpable chemistry — and it makes a big, joyful difference.
06) Episode 18: “Playing The Unified Field” (Aired: 02/14/96)
Drew dates a wild hairdresser while on a break from Lisa.
Written by Les Firestein | Directed by Brian K. Roberts
Jamie Lee Curtis plays an over-the-top danger-seeking hairdresser in this Sweeps episode that, frankly, isn’t one of the top-shelf gems on this list of highlights. As I often note with offerings that put too much of their eggs in the guest star basket — or heck, even the guest character basket — the comedic emphasis is then taken off the regulars in whom we’re most interested, and that’s never a good thing… narratively or humorously. However, I think it’s a memorable and decently written show — definitely helped by the era in which it was built, where everything is fresh and exciting — and it ties into the broader arc about Drew’s relationship with Lisa. It also sets up the next great installment, which, spoiler alert, is my MVE…
07) Episode 19: “Atomic Cat Fight” (Aired: 02/21/96)
Drew has to choose between Kate, Lisa, and Mimi for a promotion.
Written by Lona Williams | Directed by Sam Simon
Yes, this is my MVE because it’s the perfect representation of the year’s calibration of personal emotional stakes with workplace drama, benefited by a heavy side of Drew/Mimi contention and the loosey-goosey sensibilities that are already becoming a Drew Carey hallmark. The premise, as teased at the end of the prior, once again puts Drew in the middle of a juicy conflict — he can choose to promote his best friend (Kate), his girlfriend (Lisa, who would be able to date him openly if she got the job), or his nemesis (Mimi, whom he’d no longer have to deal with on a daily basis). Set mostly in the workplace — which, frankly, is my preference, as long as Oswald and Lewis get a moment or two as well — the episode’s structure is easy, with a competition where Lisa shines, Kate bungles, and Mimi gets into a physical fight. Ultimately, Drew decides to give the job to Lisa, thus progressing their personal romantic arc while Drew’s status quo with Mimi and Kate remains the same. It’s the most predictable outcome, but happily, the comedy — most of it from character — and the ideal episodic construction, justifies it.
08) Episode 20: “Drew And Kate And Kate’s Mother” (Aired: 02/27/96)
Kate’s mother visits and suggest that Kate date Drew.
Written by Jeff Lowell | Directed by Brian K. Roberts
Susan Saint James guest stars in this excursion as Kate’s mother, who comes to town and doesn’t take a liking to Kate’s boyfriend, Jay (who, frankly, I don’t like so much either — mostly because, like Lisa, he’s not-so-well defined). Instead, Kate’s mom suggests she go against type and date someone like Drew. Hindsight will tell us how prescient this story is, but actually, the year’s third installment (not discussed here — it’s way too green) already set up the idea that Drew has always been in love with Kate, and to that end, an offering like this feels rooted in the regulars’ history and connected to some larger arc that the series may one day choose to pursue further… if it can ever find a way to do so while neither taking itself too seriously or insulting their (nevertheless thin) characterizations in the process. Even without hindsight, this is telling.
09) Episode 21: “Drew Gets Motivated” (Aired: 05/01/96)
Drew pitches a commercial idea to Mrs. Louder.
Written by Matt Miller and Barrie Nedler | Directed by Gary Halvorson
This isn’t one of the sharpest outings on this list — in fact, it’s credited to two scribes who never wrote for the series again. However, it’s narratively indicative of what’s to come in the years following, as the inclusion of Mrs. Louder, a delightful and great conflict-providing character who makes her second appearance here — begets a workplace-rooted story that reminds of a certain gaseous classic that many remember from the series’ sophomore year. Yet while that popular aforementioned entry is quite broad, this one — which ends with a bull and a camel invading the Winfred-Louder boardroom — doesn’t seem to earn the same moment… not, in this case, because it’s too big to motivate, but almost because it’s not big enough…
10) Episode 22: “Buzz Beer” (Aired: 05/08/96)
The group decides to make their own beer when it looks like Winfred-Louder is being sold.
Teleplay by Les Firestein and Robert Borden | Story by Clay Graham | Directed by Gerry Cohen
In the first season finale, the series adds yet another plentiful progenitor of story in the title character’s personal life while also ridding itself of a gag in his professional one that, next year, will encourage richer and more memorable possibilities. To that last point, the firing of Mr. Bell (whom we finally get to see), a character who was supposed to be heard and never seen, is very smart, setting the stage for a boss who can be an actual physical presence… guaranteeing much more by way of ideas and laughs. As for the personal, the introduction of Buzz Beer will prove to be a wise narrative tactic for keeping the foursome linked in episodic story, and it’ll also help with furthering the series’ definition as a more Midwestern, everyman, and relatable variation on the half-workplace/half “Singles In The City” premise. A great end to the year.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the aforementioned trilogy where Drew is sued for creating a hostile work environment by posting a risqué cartoon, particularly its last two episodes, “Drew Meets Lawyers,” which guest stars Penn & Teller but suffers for the inclusion of the neighbor girl next door (from a family the show tries to make work in these early scripts, to no avail), and “Drew In Court,” which finally broadens the heretofore way-too-earnest narrative. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Science Names Suck,” which introduces Jay and doesn’t really disguise the predictable ending, “Drew And The Unstable Element,” which guest stars David Cross as a basket case and puts too much stock in his portrayal, and “The Front,” the only entry from the back nine not mentioned above (because it’s a rom-com show where not every action is well-motivated). Also, I’d single out the “Pilot” for ably earning early Seinfeld comparisons, finding gold in Mimi, and knowing narratively to bridge the office and the home with Kate and her new job at the store.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Drew Carey Show goes to…
“Atomic Cat Fight”
Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!