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, CRAIG FERGUSON as Nigel Wick, and JOHN CARROLL LYNCH as Steve Carey.
We’ve reached the point in Drew Carey’s run where every new season sparks another decline in quality. This ongoing descent was so noticeable, in fact, that it was then necessary for Carey and company to publicly brand each of these last few years as a reset, either a return to form or a redeveloping that would beget a return to form. Going into Season Seven, the consensus was that Six had been a disappointment, and last week we discussed some of the reasons why, like the mounting misuse of the Winfred-Louder workplace and the emotional corrosion among the core four friend group, brought about by the equally unmotivated coupling and uncoupling of Kate and Drew. Both of these made story difficult, stifling the show at the office and at home. This year, the initial solution appears to surround a restoration of the “anything can happen” slaphappy spontaneity that, indeed, was a vital ingredient to the show’s identity in earlier, better seasons. Unfortunately, too much of this rests upon the comedic idea (at best) or the gimmick (at worst), as opposed to any genuine character-based solutions that would help propel the eighth and ninth years, both of which were guaranteed… However, the interesting thing about Seven is that it’s founded upon a fundamental dichotomy, for while it is saddled with one-off gimmicks and casting stunts, there are also efforts made to revitalize the show on a textual, structural, and “traditionally sitcom” basis. That is, for every gimmick, there’s an entry with a straightforward story, about characters who talk to each other and are slightly more relatable. Eight’s re-branding will seize upon this notion of mitigated gimmickry, positing that a return to character sanctity is imperative. Yet just as Seven’s less aggressive tactics could have indicated, it was too little, too late… But first, let’s start where this year does: with a one-hour “back to school” sketch show that has nothing to do with the series, these characters, or last year’s finale, which trapped Drew in an asylum — sans motivation (and comedy).
Not only is this sketch show unfunny, it’s also an extreme: the series’ abandonment of sustaining characterizations that should theoretically be motivating plot. It’s the antithesis of the sitcom and in some ways, represents why Drew Carey was running into more trouble — it shied away from giving support to characters that could eventually be supportive. More practically, it’s a premiere stunt (postponed one week due to 9/11) designed to increase ratings and distract from the terrible corner into which Six’s finale backed Drew. You see, by ignoring this cliffhanger dilemma in the premiere, the show deemphasizes its fidelity to narrative — making all bad ideas less relevant. The next episode — the third half-hour — has to deal with it though, literally doing a song and dance to get Drew out of the institution (literally, a song and dance), for the ridiculous premise can only be met with a ridiculous conclusion, and a gimmick that, by now, has become too much of a chestnut to praise. But the show knows exactly how rotten last year’s residue is, so the third entry quickly launches a high-concept mini-arc that is so ostentatious that it leaves no time to dwell on the past. It’s the story-heavy, idea-driven and emotionally unearned multi-episode plot where Drew elopes with the returning Nicki (Kate Walsh) and then, after Kate also confesses to still loving Drew, does the same thing and elopes with Kate, making him a duplicitous bigamist… Now, I have mixed feelings about this arc. I think it’s led by its story interests and requires huge leaps on behalf of character. At the same time, the episodes are pretty funny — comedically liberated and yet narratively focused… The big problem, though, is that this story doesn’t fix anything on the home front — in fact, it makes things worse, for if we already know the core four friend group is suffering in the aftermath of Drew/Kate’s break-up, than their second break-up, caused by his ill-motivated deception, is devastating: alienating them even further and making it more difficult for the show to keep its foursome together, regardless of whether or not it explicitly acknowledges these developments.
As with before, this weakens the show’s structural standing, highlighting the strain when episodes, ignoring gimmicks, try to be sincere with their characterizations. And at this point, unless this arc is to be a stepping stone in the ultimate pairing of Drew/Kate for good, the duress under which this futile narrative puts these characters — who, for once, actually address how much things have changed — helps prove the tragically deserved point: this is finally the end for the foursome. That’s right; the core four friend group dies here in Season Seven… well before Christa Miller’s Kate makes her true farewell. (More on that next week…) As a result, any personal victory can only be either peripheral, like in the arc where Lewis and Oswald build their own house in a neglected public park, or connected to the office, like in the trilogy where Drew dates the company’s new efficiency expert, Christine (Wanda Sykes), who’s a better character/presence than her episodes otherwise suggest… Speaking of the office, most of the more textually realistic outings are based there, particularly in the second half of the year, when there’s yet another new boss (Jim Piddock), who gives his spoiled daughter, Milan (Jessica Cauffiel), dominion over Drew, Mimi, and the employees. These new players — especially Milan, with her well-defined rich girl trappings — are meant to inspire fresh story rooted in the clash of personalities. We’ll see this more next week, but even now, the disparity of investment between characters we’ve known for seven years and characters we’ve known for seven minutes is glaring, and doesn’t solve a core problem: that our only concern is better material for the characters we already know… By the end of this year, the series is ready to reset again, because obviously, Seven’s mix of gimmicky shows (see the Honorable Mentions for more of these) and underwhelming no-nonsense entries have proved detrimental… Fortunately, there’s more change ahead; unfortunately, magic is seldom recaptured… 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), Bruce Rasmussen (Wings, Roseanne, The Middle), Les Firestein (In Living Color, Nikki, Wanda At Large), Linda Teverbaugh & Mike Teverbaugh (Who’s The Boss?, Roc, Last Man Standing), Dan O’Keefe (Seinfeld, The League, Silicon Valley), David A. Caplan (Dinosaurs, Norm, George Lopez, Roseanne), and Mitch Hunter & Jana Hunter (According To Jim, The Middle).
01) Episode 158: “Married To A Mob” (Aired: 10/10/01)
Drew tries to keep his two wives from finding out about the other.
Written by Clay Graham | Directed by Gerry Cohen
For as many problems as I have with this bigamy arc — the unmotivated way it’s introduced in the previous entry, the fact that it’s so high-concept and plot-driven, and that it’s ultimately destructive to the core four friend group, providing a point of no return for Drew/Kate — I think that this, the middle part of its initial trilogy, is the year’s rip-roarin’ funniest, coming the closest to matching the unbridled, but earned lunacy of the show’s golden era. Yes, it’s tracked more by its story beats than by its character concerns (which is never commendable), but the strong teleplay still finds moments of great character humor, particularly with Mimi, who uncovers Drew’s little secret and uses it to make him forgive her for the mental institution (thus wrapping up that terrible storyline). It’s all a screwball comedy, with uniquely fresh Drew Carey moments, and because this outing doesn’t have to deal with the arc’s introduction or conclusion — it just gets to benefit from any humor mined from the scenario — we can enjoy the better-than-the-baseline laughs at face value. No other episode here is as fun — that’s why it’s my MVE.
02) Episode 159: “When Wives Collide” (Aired: 10/17/01)
Drew’s wives wise up to his bigamy.
Written by David A. Caplan | Directed by Bob Koherr
Honestly, this is one of those years — like Six and all those following — that sadly can’t support a list of ten great installments; instead, there are about six “must-includes” (vs. the earlier years and their say, eight), and the rest are good-but-not-great showings that have been promoted, typically because they’re less aesthetically disqualifying than the other Honorable Mentions. This offering basically rides the fumes of its excellent and surprisingly creative predecessor, shining in the moments with Drew, Mimi, and Wick, but losing steam in the anticipated climax — where Drew’s wives’ revenge doesn’t live up to the hype and instead yields a single-cam dramatic moment that spoils Drew/Kate and the foursome forever… A turning point.
03) Episode 162: “How Beulah Gets Her Groove Back” (Aired: 11/07/01)
Drew learns from Mimi that his dad has never given his mom an orgasm.
Written by Dan O’Keefe | Directed by Sam Simon
In this season of reduced quality, there’s another form of not-so-character-based gimmickry that we haven’t really mentioned: an increase in stories predicated on “blue” humor. (Read: they’re dirty.) Drew Carey has always made room for gleeful ribaldry, but it seems ratcheted up this year, like in this excursion, in which Drew and Steve try to talk to their dad (Stanley Anderson) about giving their mom (Marion Ross) an orgasm, after the latter reveals to Mimi that she’s never had one. The premise occasions many dirty jokes — some of which, I admit, are screamingly hysterical — but what saves this one from being cheap is that it’s based on established familial relationships, providing more character support than at first glance.
04) Episode 164: “Eat Drink Drew Women” (Aired: 11/21/01)
Drew is smitten with the office’s new efficiency expert.
Written by Jana Hunter & Mitch Hunter | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Wanda Sykes makes her first of three appearances as Christine, an efficiency expert Winfred-Louder hires to whip the company back into shape. Although her character isn’t enough to save the workplace, she does succeed in (temporarily) whipping Drew into shape, and this funny installment is the only one to maximize Sykes’ inherently comedic presence while exploring the possibilities proposed by heavy interaction between Drew and this new, potentially recurring love interest. (There’s also a fun scene where he ends up at her family’s dinner.) More than anything else here, this entry represents the kind of traditional, character-based storytelling that the year explores in tandem with its heavy stunts. A success — but unfulfilled promise. (Note: Dale Godboldo, Sykes’ future Wanda At Large co-star, appears as Christine’s brother.)
05) Episode 166: “Hotel Drew” (Aired: 12/12/01)
Needing money, Drew rents a room to an elderly gay couple.
Written by Terry Mulroy | Directed by Bob Koherr
Gimmick alert! It comes, as usual, in the form of casting — this time, Adam West (best known as Batman) and Max Gail (best known as Wojo from Barney Miller) play a gay couple temporarily renting a room from Drew, who needs extra money after Wick cuts all the employees’ salaries. (The episode ends with Drew leaving Winfred-Louder, yet again, for a brief, unnecessary arc.) I don’t think there’s any doubt that the appeal of this offering is due entirely to the casting, for the comedic idea — of the gay couple decorating Lewis and Oswald’s new home and having no taste at all — is one-joke… and not a hilarious one. So, this is, like much of Seven, not as good as promised, but hey, it’s far less troubling than most of the Honorable Mentions.
06) Episode 167: “Drew And The King” (Aired: 12/19/01)
Drew and Kate think they’ve found a rare recording of Elvis.
Written by Dan O’Keefe | Directed by Sam Simon
Once again, I can’t pretend this is anything but a decent outing (without the insurmountable hurdles plaguing many of the Honorable Mentions) that’s been bumped up so that I can still offer a full list of ten. The truth is, it’s a comedically undisguised entry with an idea-driven premise (I’d call it a “Victory in Premise” but it’s not that good)… yet it does have character interests at its core with Drew and Kate, whose relationship the show admits has been distant. Here, Drew, temporarily out of work from Winfred-Louder (the show is sputtering its wheels), takes a job at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so that he can be close to Kate (who now works there). In doing so, the show acknowledges the drama it’s foisted upon the two and can use this self-awareness to bring them to a better place. If only it were enough… (Micky Dolenz guests.)
07) Episode 175: “Never Been To Spain” (Aired: 03/27/02)
Drew tries to make it to Spain for Milan’s birthday party.
Written by Adam Faberman | Directed by Sam Simon
The third episode featuring Milan, an attempt to rejuvenate the workplace by introducing a new character designed for conflict, this odd segment takes place mostly in the airport, where Lewis and Oswald have conveniently been employed in the security line, as Drew — in a simple, un-complex premise — tries to make a flight to Spain, where he’s been invited (by Milan) to hang out with a bunch of models. There’s a surreal, logic-defying quality to this unique episodic plot and its simultaneously familiar (remember “Good Vibrations”?) setting… but the silliness works in the show’s favor, especially in the loose opening, where Mimi and Drew battle with canes. All in all, there’s a freshness here; it’s not classic Drew Carey, but it’s still fun and funny.
08) Episode 178: “What Women Don’t Want” (Aired: 05/01/02)
Lewis is depressed when he thinks he’s going to end up alone.
Written by David A. Caplan | Directed by Bob Koherr
One of the year’s most popular, this Lewis-focused show is a novelty. As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, Stiles has always been one of the series’ comedic tentpoles, inspiring some of its spontaneity, even though Lewis has largely been ignored in story. So, whenever he’s allowed to step up to the figurative plate, we take notice… Frankly, we seldom get a gem (Lewis just isn’t defined well enough) and this entry isn’t quite choice MVE fodder, but it does get to stand out as one of his best — principally because it introduces June Lockhart, in a very amusing turn, as his mother, who reveals that Lewis is a technical genius, qualifying for Mensa. Funny idea + gimmicky guest + some character interest = great… for Season Seven.
09) Episode 179: “Look Mom, One Hand” (Aired: 05/08/02)
On Mother’s Day, the moms are shocked when their babies are outed as porn users.
Written by Kristen Marvin | Directed by Bob Koherr
Ah, in a season riddled with casting gimmicks — everyone from Jenny McCarthy to Henry Winkler — this takes the figurative cake, contriving a Mother’s Day scenario that includes Marion Ross (Drew’s mom), Adrienne Barbeau (Oswald’s), June Lockhart (Lewis’), the recently introduced Richard Chamberlain (Wick’s; this casting, first seen earlier in the season, doesn’t work in a universe where Steve used to be a cross-dresser), and Phyllis Diller (Mimi’s grandma). But instead of keeping a simple plot that affords time for these outrageous characters to shine, there’s a high-concept, sexually charged premise that ends up in court when the four guys and Kate (whose mom doesn’t appear; instead she gets a small subplot with her young step-mom) are outed as ubiquitous porn users. It’s a Victorious Premise, adding more pomp and circumstance to the already circus-like proceedings. There’s not enough character meat here to make it an MVE, but there certainly are laughs — June Lockhart is a scene stealer.
10) Episode 180: “The Eagle Has Landed” (Aired: 05/15/02)
An eagle takes over Drew’s house.
Written by Julie Ann Larson | Directed by Sam Simon
I’m surprised that I enjoy this episode. Believe me, it’s in spite of the ostentatious casting — no, not just Kathy Griffin, whose profile has certainly, ahem, risen in the years since this airing, but also, Richard Libertini, who plays the animal control guy come to see the eagle terrorizing Drew’s house. Yet he’s actually quite funny, particularly when paired with avid bird watcher Nora (one of the funniest recurring workplace characters)… Nevertheless, I also like it in spite of the premise, which is built around animals — the eagle and Griffin’s character’s little dog. Just like kids, I usually detest shows built around animals… however, this teleplay has an “anything goes” comedically elevating energy. It’s most evident in the opening scene, where Griffin and Carey share great chemistry and we learn that she used to be Mimi’s old strip club rival (I wish more was done with this), but it continues throughout, like in the great Lewis/Oswald subplot, and in the final climactic sight gag involving bird and pug. It’s better than its plot portends.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Drew Gets Out Of The Nuthouse,” which uses a flashback musical number to show how Drew escaped the asylum and then rushes into the Nicki/Kate bigamy storyline, “Mr. Laffoon’s Wild Ride,” a disjointed entry that feels like three scripts rolled into one, “The Enabler,” a straightforward Wick-focused show where Drew realizes the former is only brilliant when he’s drunk, and “Rich Woman, Poor Man,” which is here for the casting of Julia Duffy as Milan’s mom. Of more Honorable Mention quality are three subpar installments just too memorable to ignore: “It’s Halloween, Dummy,” in which Henry Winkler plays the new boss who hates Mimi but loves Drew and promotes him just before keeling over (it would be good — if not for the interminable scene where Lewis is turned into Frankenstein and the contrived ventriloquism subplot, which may be amusing on paper, but is beyond belief in execution), “Busted,” which features an iconic martial arts scene between Drew and the still-angry Kate, and “Drew Live III,” the year’s listless live broadcast that features John Ratzenberger as himself.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of The Drew Carey Show goes to…
“Married To A Mob”
Come back next week for Season Eight! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!