Short-Lived Sitcom Potpourri (I)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m introducing a series of posts — there’ll be at least three, but if they prove popular, there could be more — where I’ll (briefly) discuss several of the short-lived sitcoms I never had the chance to highlight, in full Wildcard treatment, during our look at the best of the ’90s. These are shows that lasted under two full seasons — less than 40 episodes — and my drive-by commentary (again, it’s brief) is based only on what I’ve seen of the show, culminating in an episode or two (or three or four) that I think best represents the series at large. There’s no formal theme to these shows, but they’re mostly connected to Friends, Seinfeld, and the “Singles In The City” “hang out” sitcom we’ve talked about…

 

THE BUILDING (Aug-Sept 1993, CBS)

Premise: A commercial actress moves back to Chicago after a failed romance. The show follows her, plus friends and acquaintances, in her new apartment building.

Cast: Bonnie Hunt, Mike Hagerty, Richard Kuhlman, Don Lake, Tom Virtue, Holly Wortell

Creator/Writers: Bonnie Hunt, Elaine Arata

Thoughts: It’s low-concept in the vein of Seinfeld with Second City vets (some of whom would go on to star with Hunt in her next few sitcoms) bringing an improvisational, theatrical quality that is realistic in its best moments and affected in its worst. There’s some palpable humanity — decently defined characters, too — and a few moments that play for romance or character drama (with dubious success). But not a lot of big laughs (many scenes don’t end on jokes — that’s jarring in the multi-cam), even with guest stars like George Clooney, David Letterman (producer), George Wendt, Richard Kind, Donald O’Connor, and Jim Belushi.

Episode Count: Six produced, five broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All five broadcast entries

Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (08/20/93)

Why: It feels like a one-act play, which is where this show’s writing and performances feel most comfortable. Also, it’s very low-concept, giving us a good look at character and how the premise compares to shows like Seinfeld (and also Mary Tyler Moore). More laughs here than in the ensuing installments, too.

 

WILD OATS (Sept 1994, FOX)

Premise: A square guy dates his swinging roommate’s ex-girlfriend. The other regular is the ex’s roommate. Recurring players include a set of Scandinavian twins and a geek.

Cast: Tim Conlon, Paul Rudd, Paula Marshall, Jana Marie Hupp, Timothy Fall

Creator/Writers: Lon Diamond, Stephen Sustarsic, Mark Nutter, Tom Straw, Barbara Wallace, Thomas R. Wolfe

Thoughts: It’s more stilted than Friends because of its higher concept of “ex dating roommate” premise. Only the guys are defined, but thinly — one is a lothario (Conlon), the other a gentleman (Reiser). Nobody else is well-established, other than a recurring geek who appears in two shows. Friends was more appealing — more low-concept, but more importantly, more real and relatable. This one tries too hard and doesn’t have anything near the character support to make it worth our while (even though I suppose folks today will watch because of Rudd…)

Episode Count: Six produced, four broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All four broadcast entries.

Key Episode (of Seen):  #4: “Slice O’ Life” (09/25/94)

Why: The premise has the foursome appearing on a Real World knock-off, thus forcing the drama between the two roommates and the girlfriend — which is the series’ thesis. Also, the reality show construct presents the opportunity for slightly more degrees of differentiation between the characters.

 

PIG STY (Jan-May 1995, UPN)

Premise: Five guys share an apartment together: a writer, a dweeb, a hick, a workaholic, and a womanizer. The writer loves the beautiful lady superintendent.

Cast: Brian McNamara, Matthew Borlenghi, David Arnott, Timothy Fall, Sean O’Bryan, Liz Vassey

Creator/Writers: Dan Staley & Rob Long, Tom Leopold, Tim Berry, Phil Baker & Drew Vaupen, Howard Margulies, Scott Krager & David Pavoni, Bob Sand, Shari Hearn

Thoughts: There’s decent joke writing alongside well-defined characterizations and a cast with good chemistry. Although it probably could have been done with four guys instead of five. (The writer and the womanizer feel the least distinguished.) As the first sitcom on UPN, the audience for this series wasn’t big, but based on the premise, I think it could have had a mainstream appeal (it was developed for NBC) with men; unlike The Secret Lives Of Men (see: an upcoming potpourri post), this feels like a show about guys written by guys. It’s typical low-concept in the “hang out” era and while no episodes are brilliant, they’re breezy. Paul Willson makes several appearances as a cop.

Episode Count: 13 produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All except the last two, “Tess Makes The Man” and “Leap Into An Open Grave”

Key Episode (of Seen): #7: “Party!!!” (03/06/95)

Why: The party premise allows for many moments where all five of the principal male characters interact, which just like in Friends, make for the strongest scenes. Also, John O’Hurley guests.

 

PRIDE & JOY (Mar-May 1995, NBC)

Premise: There’s a Manhattan couple with a newborn (and housekeeper) plus another couple across the hall. Both men stay at home while their wives work at an advertising agency.

Cast: Craig Bierko, Julie Warner, Jeremy Piven, Caroline Rhea, Natasha Pavlovich

Creator/Writers: Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford, Robert Borden, Wil Calhoun, Leslie Eberhard, David Pollock & Elias Davis, Caryn Lucas, John Frink, Don Payne

Thoughts: Well, it’s got a painfully “likeable” cast (that is, very little edge to them), but there’s seemingly no definition for the two leads in the main couple, which is devastating. Rhea and Piven shine brighter, but that’s from their own personas. The series is often compared to Friends, but it reminds me much more of Mad About You… although it’s not nearly as honest. I doubt seeing more would improve my opinion very much.

Episode Count: Six produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: Only #3 “Terror At 30,000 Feet” (04/04/95)

Key Episode (of Seen): Well, #3: “Terror At 30,000 Feet” (sorry…)

Why: It’s the only one I’ve seen and Maggie Wheeler appears as a flight attendant. Unfortunately, the ensemble is separated as the main couple is flying in from his parents’, so it’s not an ideal representation.

 

PARTNERS (Sept 1995-Apr. 1996, FOX)

Premise: Two architects in San Francisco find their relationship changing now that one is engaged and the other is hopelessly single.

Cast: Jon Cryer, Tate Donovan, Maria Pitillo, Catherine Lloyd Burns, Corinne Bohrer

Creator/Writers: Jeff Greenstein & Jeff Strauss, Oliver Goldstick, Adam Belanoff, Paul Redford, Ari Posner & Eric Preven, Bernadette Luckett, Maryanne Melloan Woods

Thoughts: Created by two writers staffed the previous year on Friends, this is an effortlessly funny series with a decent understanding of how to plot episodic story. Unfortunately, it lacks the previous show’s well-built characterizations — these three leads are defined more by circumstance than personality. (I still can’t tell you what’s different about the two guys except for the fiancée.) Cryer has a very watchable energy, Burns is interesting, and the recurring presence of Bohrer is great for story. Ultimately: amiable, but not memorable.

Episode Count: 22 produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All 22 entries.

Key Episode (of Seen): #17: “Follow The Clams?” (02/12/96)

Why: This is one of four scripts credited to the series’ creators; collectively, theirs are the strongest showings. The character work is never great, but all their efforts have a grand sense of humor balanced alongside an appealing emotional gravity (reminiscent of Friends) that gives the characters needed substance. This particular one is notable because it features Donovan’s real-life girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston. For Friends fans, this is a must-watch, but the episode is more than just its shameful Sweeps gimmick; the trivial plot is amusing and it culminates in a surprising moment between Cryer and Pitillo. It’s the most unforgettable episode here. (The runner-up, incidentally, is the Halloween show, “Who Are You Supposed To Be?,” in which Cryer, dressed as Ricky Ricardo, is torn between two “Lucys.”)

 

CAN’T HURRY LOVE (Sept 1995-Feb 1996, CBS)

Premise: A woman in the big city searches for love alongside three best friends.

Cast: Nancy McKeon, Mariska Hargitay, Louis Mandylor, Kevin Crowley (replacing David Pressman from the pilot)

Creator/Writers: Gina Wendkos, Tom Palmer, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Maria Semple, Bill Barol, Susan Fales, John Frink & Don Payne, Lenny Ripps and Rob Dames, Colleen Taber & Ellen Svaco, Pat Dougherty, Nick LeRose, Pam Veasey, Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger

Thoughts: Often derided as a Friends clone, this seeming “hang out” sitcom uses its smaller cast to its advantage and everyone is well-defined because of the clash of opposites; McKeon is uptight, Hargitay is loose; Mandylor is macho; Crowley is sensitive. Because of these distinct personas, the pilot is outstanding — Friends-ish but with a bawdier, bolder, more laugh-out-loud energy. Second episode continues this… but then it’s not continued. The show is cleaned up, everyone becomes generic, there’s less hanging out (they seem like less of a friend group as the show goes on, honestly — even though they’ve spent more time together) and there’s more focus on the weekly plot. And there’s lots of gimmicks (like an Elizabeth Taylor cameo). With so much promise in the beginning, it’s sad when it’s dashed, and after Tom Palmer leaves midway through, all hope is lost.

Episode Count: 19 produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All 19 entries.

Key Episodes (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (09/18/95) and

             #2: “Truth, Dare And A Rodent” (09/25/95)

Why: The pilot, the only script credited to creator and showrunner Wendkos, is the funniest — so funny that even though this resembles Friends, its sense of humor and specific characters give it a raison d’être. (Hargitay is particularly delicious as a saucy counterpoint to McKeon — that’s lost later when her edge is taken.) The second episode, the only script credited to Palmer, is nearly as good, and should be highlighted for the brilliant way it further establishes the leads: with an easy game of “Truth or Dare” where the friends are each given a dare that not only fits what we know of them, but tells us more.

 

JENNY (Sept 1997-Jan 1998, NBC)

Premise: A New Yorker moves with her best friend to L.A. after discovering that her dad was a B-movie star who willed her his house. The two girls have a guest home rented by two guys.

Cast: Jenny McCarthy, Heather Paige Kent, Dale Godboldo, Rafer Weigel, George Hamilton

Creator/Writers: Mark Reisman & Howard Gewirtz, Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilla, Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom, Lori Kirkland, Jennifer Glickman (mostly Wings alums)

Thoughts: This illogical premise that requires too many leaps in logic is founded on the idea that two beautiful women will be fish-out-of-water in L.A. Everyone’s starved of I.Q. points and the “young singles” aspect never gels. However, the women share good chemistry, and Kent is allowed a few choice one-liners. But the writing is generally gaggy and moronic, with too many slapstick sequences the performers can’t handle — think Cybill, but with a decidedly younger sensibility (and sans a selfish star). Also, George Hamilton appears in one-joke video clips, but was revealed to still be alive in later episodes only telecast internationally.

Episode Count: 17 produced; 10 broadcast. (The rest aired internationally.) | Episodes Seen: All of the broadcast entries, except #10: “A Girl’s Gotta Get It”

Key Ep (of Seen): #3: “A Girl’s Gotta Work” (10/12/97)

Why: It’s the least ridiculous — it deals with a real premise in which the girls have to find a job. Richard Libertini makes his first appearance in what looks to have been a recurring role as their boss.

 

IT’S LIKE, YOU KNOW… (Mar 1999-Jan 2000, ABC)

Premise: A New York writer moves to stay with a rich college friend in L.A. while writing about why he hates his new city. He joins the rich guy’s friend group, which includes an heir, a masseuse, and Jennifer Grey.

Cast: Steven Eckholdt, Chris Eigeman, Evan Handler, A.J. Langer, Jennifer Grey

Creator/Writers: Peter Mehlman, Jeff Astrof & Mike Sikowitz (S1), Bill Masters (S2), Carol Leifer (S2), Richard Doctorow, Jon Hayman (S1), Jill Franklyn (S2), Amy Welsh (S1), Allison Adler (S1), Etan Cohen (S2), Jennifer Eolin (S1), Dawn Urbont (S1)

Thoughts: I could do a whole post on this one, although it’s not necessarily exceptional. I’ll try to be brief… This obviously comes from a Seinfeld scribe; the rhythms, the jokes, the fixation on the comedic idea (more than well-defined characters) — it’s all familiar. This is jarring and unpleasant at first: so hypernatural that it’s not. But the show eases out of this by its second year when the idea-driven nature of the premise (people who hate L.A. but stay there anyway) is undermined in favor of idea-driven episodic narratives. The show is funny, but it’s not because its leads are memorable; it’s because the writers can spin L.A. specific (and later, non-L.A. specific) experiences comedically. (Jennifer Grey is most interesting playing a version of herself; it seems unique, but in the post Larry Sanders era, it’s not.) And for a “hang out” sitcom, the show doesn’t get its five regulars together often enough to justify the ensemble series’ existence. Scripts are just a vessel for funny story… with little regard for character or core beyond the one-joke premise, and without very many efforts to justify thematically or narratively why ideas co-exist (as Seinfeld took great pride in doing).

Episode Count: 26 produced. (13 for Season One, including an hour-long pilot counted as two entries, and 13 for Season Two.) Eight episodes were broadcast as part of Season One, ten in Season Two. The remaining eight were first shown in cable syndication.

Episodes Seen: All 26 entries.

Key Episodes (of Seen): # 3: “The Getaway” (03/31/99)

                          #13: “Arthur 2: On The Rocks” (10/19/99)

                          #15: “The Sweet Smell Of Success” (11/02/99)

                           #22: “Walking Tall” (Syndication)

Why: They’re all idea-driven, but they’re the most memorable. I like #3 because its premise — of the gang watching a high-speed car chase — gets them all together at the same place at the same time. I like #13 because of the comedic notion of Langer getting upset when her quote about Eigeman’s book is reduced in the paper to “Um… no.” I like #15 because the primary idea, of a billboard poster highlighting a new Val Kilmer movie taking L.A. by storm when everyone initially assumes it’s a message from God, unites a couple of stories — which is rare for this usually scattered series. And I like #22, seen only in syndication but produced for Season One, because the show parallels interracial dating with the very L.A. (and very funny) idea of a driver dating a “pedestrian” (someone who walks) in a culture where driving is simply a way of life.

 

Ultimately, I say there’s value in studying The Building, Pig Sty and It’s Like, You Know… and recommend that you should check out the selected episodes of the aforementioned, along with those from Can’t Hurry Love and Partners. You can ignore Wild Oats, Pride & Joy, and Jenny.

 

 

Stay tuned soon for more of our Sitcom Potpourri, and come back next week for another Wildcard post! Also, don’t forget that Tuesday will bring more on Just Shoot Me!

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2 thoughts on “Short-Lived Sitcom Potpourri (I)

  1. I liked “The Building” a lot, but I’ve always been a fan of Bonnie Hunt. However, her best sitcom was CBS’s “The Bonnie Hunt Show” (aka “Bonnie”), which sadly only lasted 13 episodes (2 unaired) in 1995-96.

    • Hi, deepdishdrama! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Stay tuned for some thoughts on THE BONNIE HUNT SHOW in an upcoming potpourri post!

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