Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re launching coverage on the best of Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003, NBC), one of my favorite workplace comedies of the ’90s. I’m happy to report that the entire series is available on DVD.
Just Shoot Me! stars LAURA SAN GIACOMO as Maya Gallo, GEORGE SEGAL as Jack Gallo, WENDIE MALICK as Nina Van Horn, ENRICO COLANTONI as Elliott DiMauro, and DAVID SPADE as Dennis Finch. CHRIS HOGAN is Wally.
After covering NewsRadio and The Drew Carey Show back-to-back, I’ve decided to go out of sequence so that we can feature Just Shoot Me! and complete our look at the finest workplace (or half-workplace) comedies of the late ‘90s. (Sorry, Spin City, Suddenly Susan, and Veronica’s Closet, there just isn’t enough time…) Discussing these three next to each other has made it easier to compare them, and while I don’t think there’s any way to definitively crown the trio’s best — I prefer different things about each one — this order allows me to highlight what makes each series special (and especially worth studying). If NewsRadio showed us what a pure workplace comedy should be — one that seldom leaves the office and at times feels constrained by the, so to speak, nine-to-five grind, and Drew Carey delights by its sheer inventiveness — encouraged by a multi-layered work/home construct (that indeed became harder and harder to balance) — then Just Shoot Me! has something much simpler to offer: its characters. Yes, of these three workplace comedies, I think Just Shoot Me! can claim the premise, the structure, and the writing with the most solidly rooted character-based foundation. This begins, as usual, from the top — with creator Steven Levitan, who had two classic workplace shows already on his resumé with Wings and The Larry Sanders Show, and who had left a stint on Frasier — during its best era — to run his own show. Comparing his credits to those of NewsRadio’s and Drew Carey‘s creators is instructive. The latter’s Bruce Helford is an outlier in that his most notable prior job had been on the domestic comedy Roseanne (which we could say, in a reach, may have been an omen of just how difficult it would be for Carey to hold onto the half of its premise predicated on the workplace), but NewsRadio’s Paul Simms, like Levitan, also worked on Larry Sanders, another office-set comedy that rarely left it. The difference, however, between Simms and Levitan — and NewsRadio and Just Shoot Me! — is a little show called Frasier.
Now, this isn’t about quality. Remember, Sanders’ ability to synchronize its tone with its primary characterization represents a form of character writing evocative of the MTM gold standard. That’s greatness… But while Frasier also adopted the voice of its protagonist, it actually went further in aligning itself with those great MTM classics by anchoring itself around a character who could traverse between his work and his home (like Drew Carey). Thus, unlike Larry Sanders and NewsRadio, Frasier claims elements of both domestic and workplace comedies, with professional stakes and personal ones… Of course, this comparison isn’t fair, for although Frasier has workplace stories, it’s much more centered in the home (again, like Drew Carey), where we find the series’ intended emotional core of Frasier/Martin — and later, Frasier/Martin/Niles. (The radio station, and Roz, were a secondary emphasis, and just as Carey struggled with balance, even the more character-driven Frasier toiled to keep its office characters engaged…) Just Shoot Me!, though, follows Frasier’s example by mirroring the strained father/son relationship with a father/daughter hook, providing a personal substance absent from NewsRadio and, to an extent, Larry Sanders. (All right; Sanders had personal substance in its lead’s neuroses, but it wasn’t satisfying when we went to his home, and by Season Three, anything personal was filtered through the professional lens, for the work world was the series’ world… like in Murphy Brown.) So, I’d argue that Maya/Jack exists because Levitan knew the importance of Frasier/Martin. (One could also say that Wings‘ Joe/Brian is an apt structural comparison, but Frasier was a refinement of Wings — especially in character-writing — and certainly more of a template for success.) And yet, unlike Frasier, Just Shoot Me! isn’t a half-workplace/half-domestic comedy with tenuous claims on comparability to the all-workplace NewsRadio. No, it’s more akin to Wings, and it, like NewsRadio, IS an all-workplace comedy… because it makes a crucial decision: it puts the father/daughter relationship in the office.
This structural choice is at the crux of why Just Shoot Me! has the better hold on character, for by putting its emotional core in the workplace environment where Levitan feels most comfortable (based on Wings and Larry Sanders), he avoids the biggest criticisms we had with NewsRadio and Drew Carey. First, the father/daughter bond creates a vested emotional stake… something NewsRadio never had, as it struggled to explore its characters’ personal lives after only defining them professionally and within a premise that never wanted to leave its office confinements. Second, by putting the home conflict within the workspace, Just Shoot Me! doesn’t have to worry about balance, like Drew Carey, which had to contrive reasons to bring Mimi home or get Lewis/Oswald into the store. Instead, it’s able to have the smart relationship foundation of Frasier in a character-rich workplace ensemble… and that’s exactly why the character of Wally, Maya’s roommate — intended, in the MTM vein, to serve as her Rhoda — is inessential: we’ve already got our Mary/Rhoda in the office, where there’s also the greatest congregation of characters… From this design, Levitan is able to have Just Shoot Me! focus on defining its leads, building their relationships, and using these established dynamics to motivate story. And with experience on two of the finest comedies of the decade (Larry Sanders and Frasier), Levitan is already adept at doing all of that; his pilot, which went through several iterations (including an entire reshoot to include a new character for David Spade) does a textbook job of establishing personalities, themes, and premise. And because of this early foundation, I’ll go so far as to say that Just Shoot Me!, with only six episodes, has a better first season than NewsRadio, with seven, and Drew Carey, with 22. Every script is key in some regard: there’s the thesis-born pilot, the follow-up thesis restatement, entries that showcase the comedic and narrative possibilities with Finch and Nina (the show’s two biggest clowns), and two more built around the ensemble, one with an eye towards a potential romance, and the other towards a broad comedic style. In contrast to what the NBC brass believed at the time, each episode has a purpose.
But this high praise is not the end of the story. Things can’t stay the same as they are in Season One and satisfy in Season Two. There needs to be improvement — and there will be. The characters will become better defined, the storytelling will become more original, and the jokes will become sharper. Also, I’m not saying, despite how Just Shoot Me! sets itself up with character, that it’s flatly better written or funnier than NewsRadio or Drew Carey. Heck, those last two’s comedic styles may both be more unique than Just Shoot Me!’s, which at times, feels a little bit like ALL of the other shows mentioned above — a bunch of things we’ve seen before, but in a different order. (Reviews at the time found its aesthetic “edgier” than most net fare, but I certainly think it’s more audience-friendly and less rebellious than NewsRadio, for one. And it’s certainly not as uninhibited as classic Drew Carey.) Additionally, even with this solid base of support, the series isn’t as gem-filled and consistently excellent as Frasier, or as creative and seemingly revolutionary as Seinfeld, or as popular and emotionally captivating as Friends. It’s on that second shelf with the other two network workplace multi-cams we’re discussing… and just like them, it’s going to get better and then worse — with many of its problems beginning, I think, from the mitigation of the Maya/Jack emotional core (which Frasier always kept prominent, in some form, via the three Cranes). Initially, the subjugation of heavy father/daughter story in deference to more ensemble-driven ideas, often led by the cast’s dynamos (Spade and Malick), isn’t a concern. In fact, we welcome it — the father/daughter plots early on don’t make for the funniest episodes (we’re not at all interested in Jack and his new baby), and in essence, the show is just finding and following “the funny”… And, frankly, it makes sense: there’s not that much room for trackable evolution with them and their relationship… which, for a character-driven comedy, is essential to narrative fertility.
But eventually the show will go too far in devaluing this central relationship, thereby losing its thesis. It’ll then become nothing but a collection of characters in a place — the workplace specifics growing more irrelevant too (not as irrelevant as NewsRadio’s, but this setting is certainly not the font of story that Larry Sanders’ was) — and this genericness will be worsened as it becomes clear that none of the characters have grown enough to sustain their story-driving capabilities. That is, clowns like Spade will dominate in high-laugh episodic plots to the benefit of temporary weekly comedy… but at the expense of any character maturation that could make future story easier. Clowning isn’t an adequate substitute for Maya/Jack, and neither is a central relationship that the show doesn’t know how to handle (Maya/Elliott); we need motivated change — from anyone in this ensemble — and we don’t get it. The trajectory of Just Shoot Me!, then, is like most sitcoms’ — first we follow the defining and refining of the characters until they reach a sweet spot, and then they either broaden or dilute until they lose their believabilities and/or definitions. Sure, like all sitcoms with a specific premise, the show can use a little loosening with regard to its weekly storytelling — I mean, we don’t need heavy Maya/Jack every week (nor do we want it). But when it loosens too much, everything suffers, and because of this fine design where character is central, it’s especially wounding to watch them be the cause of narrative malaise… Yet all of this is just a taste of what’s to come. First, we need to get through the first season, which premiered behind Frasier and then took the Wednesday at 9:30 berth (after the dying Wings, which, actually, it may have been spiritually replacing) for four of its five remaining entries. I’ve already told you how highly I think of this collection — compared to most first seasons — so I could have picked any number of episodes to highlight. However, I’ve kept to my statistical average and only selected two to exemplify the year’s finest.
Notable writers this year include: Steven Levitan (Wings, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Modern Family), Andrew Gordon (Mad About You, Dream On, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory) & Eileen Conn (Mad About You, Dream On, DAG, K.C. Undercover), Stephen Engel (Dream On, The War At Home, The Big Bang Theory), Marsh McCall (The Naked Truth, Last Man Standing, Fuller House), and Tom Martin (The Naked Truth, The Simpsons, Talking Tom And Friends).
01) Episode 2: “The Devil And Maya Gallo” (Aired: 03/05/97)
Maya has big plans to change the direction of Blush Magazine… at first.
Written by Marsh McCall | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Believe me — it was tough to make this brief list and not include the pilot, which is a terrific set-up for a great first season and an amusing introduction to the show’s premise, thematic interests, and characters. But, this sophomore excursion that, like all sophomore excursions, essentially has to restate everything established in the pilot but in a seemingly fresh way, is smarter. For starters, it naturally gets to be more indicative of what a typical episode of the series will look like — because it doesn’t have to worry about setting the father/daughter exposition and can instead make more use of the workplace environment where we know the show will be spending the bulk of its time. Second, it also has an even clearer understanding of the characters — particularly of Finch (who was added to the second filmed version of the pilot, and was probably the murkiest defined there) — and boasts a much better usage of their varying relationships. So, because this one is like the excellent premiere, but more in tune with the rest of the series and its characterizations, it makes this abbreviated list.
02) Episode 6: “Lemon Wacky Hello” (Aired: 03/26/97)
Maya struggles to complete her first magazine as the staff gets high on candy.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
This beloved offering deserves its popularity — but its appeal comes from a bait-and-switch. Most who laud this installment do so because of the amusing narrative twist in which the office gets high on a candy that Jack has brought back from Hong Kong (amusingly called “Lemon Wacky Hello”), but it’s really the character opportunities with Maya, and as the thesis would have it, Maya and Jack, that cement this as a valuable entry and the perfect first season finale. Okay, there are many hilarious moments inspired by the Lemon Wacky Hello — too many to list here — but it isn’t exactly an original premise, and as far as being character-driven, well, it’s not. Yet what I genuinely love about this teleplay is how it uses this gimmicky concept as a means of exploring the characters further; based on how everyone reacts while “high,” we get a better understanding of who these people are while not high. And in addition to those revealing throwaway moments of comedy, the story bones themselves suggest a greater purpose, as Maya takes a step forward in her personal growth by having to arrange the entire magazine by herself… hoping to please her father. By addressing the show’s primary relationship and progressing its arc, there’s a substance that makes all the outrageous comedy — with gags we don’t expect this early in the run (usually it’s a stunt for a later season) — icing on the cake, as opposed to merely icing. You see, eventually Just Shoot Me! will be icing upon icing that’s masquerading as cake, and we need both. This one has both, and it’s my MVE.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: all of them. The pilot, “Back Issues,” was the closest to the above list, because it’s incredibly adept at doing everything it needs to do as a premiere, but I also thought about highlighting “Secretary’s Day,” a broader Finch-heavy outing that suggests the series’ future fascination with ideas and cameos (to the detriment of the characters), and “In Your Dreams,” which is a fine ensemble show with a predictive Maya/Elliott focus. I also enjoy “Nina’s Birthday,” a showcase for the always hilarious Wendie Malick. So, you see: they’re all worthwhile and series-building.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Just Shoot Me! goes to…
“Lemon Wacky Hello”
Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!