Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004, ABC). 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, KATHY KINNEY as Mimi Bobeck, and CRAIG FERGUSON as Nigel Wick. JOHN CARROLL LYNCH recurs as Steve Carey.
Season Six, a year that Drew Carey would later publicly admit wasn’t “one of our best,” is when the chickens start coming home to roost. All the threats to quality we’ve been tracking over the past few weeks finally become tangible impediments — making for a season that never really finds its core. If Two was about the balance between work and home, Three was about heavier character arcs, Four was about comedic mini-arcs, and Five was about the long-awaited central coupling… Six is about… well, your guess is as good as mine. After years of favoring stories set in the home over those set at the office — despite a valiant effort made in Season Five to revamp Winfred-Louder (we’ll see the same thing happen, more aggressively and less successfully, next week) — Six is the epitome of The Drew Carey Show’s seeming avoidance of workplace stories, perhaps rooted in the belief that the soil there is not as fertile. In fact, many episodes this year make it their mission to get Drew away from Winfred-Louder — like in the early arc where he goes to work in his old high school cafeteria, or the February Sweeps story where he’s in a coma (more below). Although I’ve said before that balance between the premise’s two primary spaces — work and home — was key to success in the Golden Age (Season Two), the gradual pivot away from the office wouldn’t be as troubling if the other stuff was compensatory. The problem at this juncture is that Drew’s home life is a bit of a mess, too. You see, after a whole year dedicated to stringing out the new romance between Drew and Kate, whom the series initially positioned as a possible central couple, Six decides — for whatever reason; maybe the writers found the relationship narratively constricting — to break them up in November Sweeps. As a development unto itself, I’m not complaining — I only rooted for the pairing because the series wanted me to, not because it had been well-motivated.
But, true to form, the break-up isn’t well-motivated either, as the show gets uncharacteristically serious and splits the two over the question of having kids (a dilemma for these characters in this episode and this episode only), thus beginning and ending a year of Drew/Kate-ness with not enough character motivation in support. Where have we seen this before? Oh, right… with Kate/Oswald. And just as with Kate/Oswald, the aftermath of Drew/Kate creates the crux of the problem, for while it’s impossible to sweep everything under the figurative rug — like Season Four did with the earlier couple — the show wants to emotionally return its characters to their status quos, where they’re still part of the core four friend group, which, in the absence of great workplace stories, has to pick up the slack and carry the season’s episodic narratives… Yet the audience can’t go back to the status quo, and neither can the characters, no matter how much the show tries. Because of these efforts to pretend like a huge development was less important than it actually was, we divest emotionally from the whole foursome. (Incidentally, one of the only consistent dynamics is Drew/Mimi, whose relationship gets slightly more nuanced when she becomes mother to his nephew. More below…) Furthermore, the relationship becomes an “elephant in the room,” and while it does get more mention that Kate/Oswald, it’s still unwanted emotional baggage. It’s not funny and not helpful to the show’s ability to tell comedic stories… and it only exists because the show dragged it out and didn’t properly dispose of it — a permanent reminder that a big story has happened, even though the characterizations don’t regularly acknowledge it. That is, they haven’t changed. And big story followed by no growth? That does the opposite of providing new opportunities: it stifles them. Season Six, with its semi-self-imposed workplace problems, really can’t afford any more limitations.
As a result, it feels like the show is scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of plot, looking, as always, for gimmicks — particularly in Sweeps. (You’ll notice from my picks that the reduced baseline has made it impossible to ignore stunts like the “What’s Wrong With This Episode” contest, which never lives up to its promises.) The gaudiest narratives come at the expected times: in November, Drew returns to work, splits with Kate, and marries Mr. Wick so the latter can get his green card; in February, Drew is in an accident and goes into a coma right before his nephew is born (to Mimi and Steve); and in May, there are two two-parters, the second of which ends with Drew being put in a mental hospital, setting up Season Seven for a doozy of a time getting him out… As you’ll see below, the February shows work the best, because they’re a little more inventive and the heavier character stakes (life and death) serve as a good counterpoint to the show’s comedically-geared drama-deflating sensibilities. However, it’s impossible to pretend this year is as good as even the one that came before. (It’s the difference between having eight “must includes” and six.) And the first half of the year, while not obviously inferior to the second, is nearly starved of gems… The irony, though, is that, as ABC’s second most-watched sitcom, the Alphabet Network was so eager to hold on to one of its most valuable properties that it went into the seventh season with a guarantee through a ninth! Just like Frasier at the end of its relatively disappointing eighth season, this is a bit of a head-scratcher — could ABC not see that the trajectory was downward? It would have taken a lot to course correct this ship; fortunately, the show wasn’t done trying…. But that’s for next week. In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.
This year’s writers include: Clay Graham (Benson, Who’s The Boss?, Anger Management), Robert Borden (Pride & Joy, The Brian Benben Show, The Late Show With David Letterman), Linda Teverbaugh & Mike Teverbaugh (Who’s The Boss?, Roc, Last Man Standing), Brian Scully (Out Of This World, The Simpsons, Family Guy), Dan O’Keefe (Seinfeld, The League, Silicon Valley), Paul Lieberstein (The Naked Truth, King Of The Hill, The Office), Terry Mulroy (According To Jim, Still Standing,Outsourced), and Mitch Hunter & Jana Hunter (According To Jim, The Middle).
01) Episode 129: “Be Drew To Your School” (Aired: 10/18/00)
The group feels responsible for Drew’s failures.
Written by Robert Borden | Directed by Gerry Cohen
After a premiere that removed Drew from Winfred-Louder and concluded with his unmotivated engagement to Kate, Season Six continues with a mini-arc in which Drew works in the lunchroom of his high school cafeteria. It’s a silly, goofy idea, but its short-livedness keeps it from insulting the characterizations. Additionally, while it’s clear that such maneuverings are born from an inability to craft rewarding stories for Drew in his regular workplace, this setting harkens back to the shared history of the core four — best evidenced here with the gimmicky flashbacks (to 1975-1979), where the group remembers various moments that could have helped contribute to Drew becoming a loser. They’re light and ultimately extraneous, but they’re a fun, memorable gimmick — helping this one stand out among Six’s creatively muted first half.
02) Episode 135: “Drew And Kate Become Friends” (Aired: 11/29/00)
Drew tries to move on from Kate.
Written by Mike Teverbaugh & Linda Teverbaugh | Directed by Gerry Cohen
November Sweeps 2000 was a busy period for Drew Carey, with a live episode, the break-up of the series’ central couple, and the introduction of the “Drew marries Wick so the latter can get his green card” storyline (which is textbook sitcom gimmickry). As the month concludes, the show has an important function: getting Kate and Drew back to a place where the core four friend group can continue to exist as it had before. As discussed above, things will never quite be the same — principally because the show tries to make them the same, at the expense of character-rooted truth. However, this offering, despite its functionality, actually gets to reckon with needed emotional continuity. And while the competing couplings are broad, the direct depiction of Mimi’s libidinous cousin (Jamie Luner) provides great conflict and comedy.
03) Episode 139: “The Warsaw Closes” (Aired: 01/10/01)
Mimi gets The Warsaw’s liquor license revoked.
Written by Jana Hunter & Mitch Hunter | Directed by Sam Simon
To the show’s credit, the relationship between Mimi and Drew has remained rich, in spite of the move away from the office. This is due largely to Mimi/Steve, a pairing that isn’t ever comedically excellent (because of his lack of distinction) but brings Mimi into Drew’s personal life. And with the introduction of Drew’s nephew — in just a few — Six actually gives the Drew/Mimi relationship some surprising nuance, adding latent believability to a dynamic that, while rewarding, could also be considered one-note. I make this observation here to point out how an outing like such, which itself isn’t stellar, truly represents the year and where its unique strengths lie, for its pure Mimi vs. Drew conflict is something Drew Carey can still do well, even when both the personal and professional realms aren’t at their peak operations.
04) Episode 141: “All Work And No Play” (Aired: 01/24/01)
Drew’s marriage to Wick causes problems for him at work.
Written by Spiro Skentzos | Directed by Gerry Cohen
I must confess: my feelings for Nigel Wick are a bit complicated. I think Ferguson is a one-of-a-kind performer who brings so much to the show (and an energy that’s sorely lacking in the years where he’s virtually absent), but the character is often allowed to broaden in ways that aren’t always helpful to the episodic dramas. With regard to this marriage storyline, I make the leap — and all the leaps that go along with Wick’s depiction — only because I’m A) interested in the series capitalizing specifically on the Drew/Wick bond and B) excited to see the show find a plot that bridges the personal and professional in an era where neither is functioning well on their own. This installment, in particular, may be the best work/home show of the season.
05) Episode 142: “Drew’s In A Coma” (Aired: 02/07/01)
Drew hovers between life and death.
Written by Les Firestein | Directed by Gerry Cohen
The decision to do an arc in which Drew, the series’ anchor, is put into a coma is gutsy — and I think a large part of the appeal, and why it’s (generally) a success, is because it’s a creative risk. Oh, yes, it’s also definitely a shameless gimmick timed precisely for February Sweeps, but Six — as I’m sure it’s already clear — is in a bit of a rut, and so anything that breaks the series out of this rut, while bringing laughs and not weakening our connections with the characters, is a happy occurrence. This episode, where the stakes are literally life and death, capably walks a fine tonal line — the show spares itself from anything maudlin, as that would be jarring (no matter how narratively earned) and we know Drew will be fine, but we’re still invested in the story based on both the humor and the relative freshness — gimmick or not. Ben Stein guests.
06) Episode 143: “Drew And The Baby” (Aired: 02/14/01)
Drew trades places with his newborn nephew.
Written by Dan O’Keefe | Directed by Bob Koherr
Continuing the events of the previous, this outing combines the brief stunt where Drew is put into a coma with the arc-born development the series has been planning for February Sweeps since last May: the birth of Steve and Mimi’s child. The ideas are ingeniously dovetailed when Drew temporarily is reincarnated as the spirit of his nephew (voiced by Jon Polito). It’s an extraordinary font of comedy — just the idea of Mimi trying to breastfeed Drew is a riot, based not only on the absurdity of the gimmick, but also on the well-crafted relationship between the two; Drew’s horror is rooted in six years worth of history, and if Mimi knew what was happening, her disgust would be equally as grand. In this way, the silliness is supported by the audience’s knowledge of character, and because this is a unique entry that typifies the oft-mentioned “anything can happen” freedom palpable during the series’ Golden Age, I consider it the year’s most memorable, which here, is enough to make it my Season Six MVE.
07) Episode 144: “Hush Little Baby” (Aired: 02/21/01)
Mimi can’t soothe her baby unless Drew is there.
Written by Chris Bishop | Directed by Sam Simon
Based on this list and the placement of chosen shows, it may seem like the year has stumbled into a creative streak, but the disparity between Six’s 2000 episodes and 2001 episodes actually isn’t so wide; rather, the coma and the birth of the baby are simply notable events in a season where, again, the show is spinning its wheels both in the office and the home. Also, once Mimi gives birth, there’s a tangible and much-needed change for the characters — one not born of any unmotivated couplings/uncouplings or the obvious desire to get Drew away from Winfred-Louder. Once again, though, the key to this one’s appeal is something old and reliable: the relationship between Drew and Mimi, which always delivers laughs, even when it’s maturing as a result of the child — a fact already being displayed in this otherwise one-joke offering.
08) Episode 146: “Drew And The Motorcycle” (Aired: 03/14/01)
Drew pretends to be his bad boy biker brother named “Kyle.”
Written by Paul Lieberstein | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Admittedly, this is one of those installments that wasn’t a “must include” on this list, but because the season has a reduced baseline, there are good-but-not-great outings that must be bumped up to round out a full ten. In this case, though, this actually is an enjoyable entry and I’m glad it’s here, mostly because of its Victory in Premise, which has our titular lead (who got a motorcycle at the end of the previous episode) courting a woman while pretending to be the “late” Drew Carey’s bad boy biker brother, Kyle. With mistaken identities, this is a classic set-up for farce, and the script does a good job of maximizing the “little things,” especially in the requisite scenes set in a biker bar (which, frankly, are funniest on paper).
09) Episode 147: “Kate And Her New Boyfriend” (Aired: 03/21/01)
Kate has a new boyfriend, and Mimi and Drew call a truce.
Written by Les Firestein | Directed by Bob Koherr
Structurally, this is the cream of the crop for Season Six, as both the A and B-stories, while not narratively complementary, thematically indicate an interest in character development. The subplot involves the comedically reliable Mimi/Drew dynamic and acknowledges their growth since the baby, built on an idea that the two have called a truce that is basically a game of chicken, as they wait for the other to break their agreement. The main story, meanwhile, is something rarer: an opportunity to show self-awareness and provide more emotional continuity for Drew and Kate in the wake of their break-up, recognizing that, hey, they used to be together. This provides credibility, which had been lacking in them, the foursome, and the show in the absence of the romance’s unmotivated plotting and the lack of follow-through (both on the macro story level and even the micro dialogue level) with the characters.
10) Episode 148: “What’s Wrong With This Episode? IV” (Aired: 03/28/01)
Lewis becomes religious.
Written by Terry Mulroy | Directed by Sam Simon
Evidence of the reduced baseline quality relative to the previous years’? The fact that I can’t avoid highlighting one of the annual stunt excursions, which, I maintain, never manage to rise above their gimmickry and prove their individual merits. My feelings are generally the same here, although of all the “What’s Wrong With This Episode” episodes, this is probably the most memorable, for it rests a lot of the comedic burden on Stiles’ Lewis, a comedic presence seldom well-explored via weekly story. So, even though this idea is reminiscent of something we saw in Season One (with Drew), and is done now with both increased broadness and a dreadful stunt laid on top (example: there’s an all-CGI scene), it’s one you’re unlikely to forget.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Drew Live II,” which is less sloppy than the previous live show but still isn’t as riotous as such spontaneity would suggest, “Drew’s Life After Death,” in which Drew, out of his coma, is declared dead and volunteers at a crisis center, and “The Easter Show,” an entry built around one joke: a block single-cam sequence where the group delivers Easter baskets of messy melted chocolate. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Mimi’s A Partner,” which smartly makes Mimi a partner in Buzz Beer but then doesn’t know what to do, “The Pregnancy Scare,” which splits up Drew/Kate with drama that arises seemingly out of nowhere, and “Oswald’s Dad Returns,” which is a complete letdown, but features Tom Poston and is footnote-worthy, if nothing else.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Drew Carey Show goes to…
“Drew And The Baby”
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!