Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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.
Like many of the shows we cover here, Just Shoot Me!’s second season is the year that most satisfies the terms of its thesis — in this case, the father/daughter relationship that provides Frasier-esque personal stakes within the otherwise professional world. However, this doesn’t make for the series’ most enjoyable collection of episodes, because heavy Maya/Jack stories tend not to be terribly funny, especially in comparison to those anchored by Finch and Nina, the two characters most capable of handling broader laugh-out-loud comedy. Accordingly, the show naturally works better when it plays to its strengths, and given its inherent design as an ensemble workplace comedy, the more narratively equitable the weekly stories can manage to be — making time for Finch, Nina, and even Elliott — the better off the show will be… Of course, at the same time, too much haha hijinks from Spade and Malick without the equitable emotional support (of a Maya/Jack or something of a similar substance) is also unideal, and is less enjoyable than a balance between the two… Honestly, though, despite the show’s fine structural intelligence, which pushes character to the fore, I’m not sure that Just Shoot Me! can ever claim such a perfect calibration between uproarious comedy, suggested by its regular utilization of Finch and Nina, and sincere character drama related to its thesis, Maya/Jack. For while Season Two offers key moments by way of the latter — including episodes that deal directly with the themes of the pilot, like one in which Maya must accept her career decision to work at a women’s magazine (“Sewer!”) and another in which she addresses her gratitude towards her father (“Rescue Me”), both of which seem like significant turning points in their relationship — it’s not until Season Three that the show really kicks into comedic overdrive and caters to its cast members appropriately. In Two, we have the emotional core… but relatively muted laughs, and in Three, we have those big laughs… but a relatively weaker core.
Ultimately, you’ll see that I prefer Season Three, and it’s because, even though Maya/Jack is structurally essential, the show won’t feel self-actualized until it can increase its comic quotient and deliver gems like — spoiler alert — “Slow Donnie” and “Hostess To Murder.” Furthermore, the mitigation of Maya/Jack as an emotional focal point isn’t a detriment to Three. Not only are their episodes seldom stellar in Two, but this year actually does a pretty good job of wrapping up the dramatic tension between them. In other words, their arc feels finished by season’s end (in the installment produced as its finale but aired earlier), and doesn’t need to be hit regularly in weekly story; just as long as there are moments acknowledging the realities of their dynamic, and stories that can mine natural conflict from the collision of the personal and the professional, Maya and Jack’s relationship is good to go. Instead, the reason to want an emotional core in something equivalent to Maya/Jack — aside from the constructional advantages granted to the premise that we discussed last week — is that it provides opportunity for growth, or motivated change, adhering to a course resembling an arc. And the problem with not having something like this is that such character evolution, which is necessary in a long-running sitcom predicated on its sustaining regulars, tends to be more difficultly earned. Indeed, we’ll eventually learn this to be true when the show becomes even more of an ensemble piece — pushing Maya and Jack down among the other characters — and none of them are supplied arcs that can enable earned growth… In Season Three, the first year where the show is comedically self-actualized and Maya/Jack are no longer more prominent than, say, Finch/Jack, this lack of growth is not noticeable. (It’s only as the years progress that we become aware of the dilemma.) Because of all this, Three gets to be the favorite… even as it lacks Season Two’s appreciated, but not gem-yielding, Maya/Jack narrative bedrock.
Yet I don’t mean to praise Three at the expense of Two. It’s a good season, making the kind of improvements over One we expect, for both the show and the audience know the characters better because of these episodes. Unfortunately, that’s no thanks to the year’s heavy reliance on the comedic idea. Yes, so many stories (particularly in the fall) spring not from character — which, again, is ironic given the character-forward structure and style to which creator Levitan was accustomed — but from funny notions. I don’t necessarily mean these are Victories In Premise, for these aren’t great sitcom stories — they’re stories built on jokes, like the idea that a bad assistant is like a bad dog, or the sight gag of an underwear-clad Finch locked in a giant bird-cage. And sometimes they derive their entire aesthetic by parodying a known quantity, like King Lear or Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Occasionally this configuration of characters into a known template helps them shine, and sometimes a script is so darn funny that it justifies an idea, but usually these are just as unsatisfying as the uncomedic, predictable Maya/Jack episodes that do have some legitimate character meat. In fact, Just Shoot Me!’s second year, despite knowing its characters better by sheer practice, isn’t as narratively sharp as the first or as comedically pronounced as those ahead. Creatively, it never asserts the show as being a titan, even with good ratings behind Frasier and critical expectations that it could become the network’s next big thing. Frankly, this year’s good-but-not-greatness is why I don’t think the series ever could have been seen as a viable replacement for Seinfeld at 9:00 in NBC’s MSTV Thursday block… or, heck, even for Friends at 8:00, where it was intended to move in the fall of ’98 after first being slotted behind that series at 8:30 for several weeks in the spring (where its retention was fine — but never translatable). And while Just Shoot Me! did end up comedically rising to the occasion in year Three — when it replaced Frasier as Tuesday’s 9:00 anchor — it was actually a late bloomer in terms of hilarity; here in Two, we’re still waiting for those buds to flower… So, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
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), Jack Burditt (Mad About You, Frasier, 30 Rock, Modern Family), Marsh McCall (The Naked Truth, Last Man Standing, Fuller House), Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard (Flying Blind, Dream On), Danny Zuker (Arsenio Hall, Roseanne, Modern Family), Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin (King Of The Hill, Out Of Practice, Maron), and Pam Brady (The John Larroquette Show, South Park, Lady Dynamite).
01) Episode 7: “The Experiment” (Aired: 09/23/97)
Maya proves her own theory that good-looking people have an unfair advantage.
Written by Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
Season Two opens, much like other series with short first years (see: Seinfeld and NewsRadio), with a greater sense of confidence, but also unsurety, for now there’s more to worry about than merely maintaining quality within a contained order — the show must now be written with regularity, consistency, and a mind for longevity, thus necessitating some characterization tweaks. This year gets off to a good start, though, with a thematically excellent story for Maya in which her noble intent to challenge the beauty-driven magazine industry reveals her to be a giant hypocrite when she begins dating a hot dumb guy (who’ll be back later), instead of an unattractive smart guy. Not only is this a subtle indication that Maya’s changing as a result of accepting this job — at least as far as story is concerned — it’s also a chance to build to a choice sight gag where, in a collision with the subplot, the dumb guy chokes on a toy that Jack has bought for Hannah. It’s “worth the price of admission” — and helps overcome the other subplot, in which the guys prank Nina; it’s more cursory than clever.
02) Episode 8: “The Assistant” (Aired: 09/30/97)
Jack fires Maya’s incompetent assistant, while Elliott and Finch prank Nina.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
Saturday Night Live‘s Cheri Oteri guest stars in this outing as Maya’s obnoxious and incompetent assistant, Cindy (who’ll be back later, too). Her outrageous depiction brings the episode more into sketch-like territory than legitimate character-driven land, for it’s impossible to believe that any human being would act as she does, and the comedic idea that drives the story (and brings it back to a Maya/Jack place) is the notion that a bad assistant is like a bad dog — a recurring gag that certainly doesn’t help with the guest’s humanity… And yet, I nevertheless think Oteri is such a unique performer that she manages to earn all her laughs and quell most concerns, making for a show that’s simply too memorable to ignore here. And adding to this unforgettability is the subplot — in which the guys once again prank Nina, but this time with a more clever ruse: her word-a-day calendar that they’ve supplied with fake words, just before she’s going on an intellectual radio show (hosted by Larry Miller). It’s an idea-based comedic centerpiece, to be sure — there’s not a lot of character in the laughs — but it’s fun.
03) Episode 10: “La Cage” (Aired: 11/04/97)
Elliott warns Finch about dating a woman with peculiar fetishes.
Written by Jack Burditt | Directed by Lee Shallat Chemel
As with the above’s one-joke Cindy premise, this offering is built around a comedic notion that I referenced in my seasonal commentary as an example of the non-character-rooted stories Just Shoot Me! was too often employing in its second year. I don’t like that this entry, and its appeal, seems to revolve around the image of Finch (and later, Elliott) in the giant bird-cage, and I maintain that this type of storytelling isn’t ideal, especially for a series that now needs to be constructing regulars that can last for a long duration, and also for a series where character is theoretically central and could so easily be used to drive weekly plot… However, I think this one ends up being a great building block for Finch’s character and the show, indicating a whole genre of stories — involving his dating life — that he’ll anchor more often in the latter half of the run, and it goes a long way in furthering Finch’s depiction, primarily with regard to his function within narrative. Also, there are some small, worthwhile moments, like in the Jack/Nina subplot, and the teasing Maya/Elliott scene (an episodic requisite in this early era).
04) Episode 12: “My Dinner With Woody” (Aired: 11/18/97)
Maya dates a Woody Allen impersonator.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by John Fortenberry
This episode, which tries to emulate Woody Allen’s style and Annie Hall in particular, aired the week after a show that contrives to crescendo into a parody of King Lear. In both cases, I wish our regulars were shaping the plot more than the writers, and as we’ve discussed, I think it’s a shame that such a character-centric series is having trouble using them to craft story so early in its run. But they both have their moments… With only ten slots on this list, though, I couldn’t add the King Lear show — it’s more cartoonish and in spite of trying to circle back to a thesis-born Maya/Jack core, it simply isn’t as funny as “My Dinner With Woody,” which, in another hurdle it has to overcome, is a loving tribute to a man who’s become more controversial in the years following this broadcast. Indeed, it’s this script’s pronounced comedy — built, yes, on some kind of knowledge of the oft-imitated Woody Allen ethos — that elevates it, and while I won’t ever think of it as a good sample of Just Shoot Me! or of character-driven sitcoms in general, I think it commits and is more successful than most of this year’s competition.
05) Episode 14: “Sweet Charity” (Aired: 12/09/97)
Maya tries to get the magazine involved in charity work.
Written by Marsh McCall | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
If the above offerings represent a concession to the year’s gaudier, more gimmicky shows, then let the record show that several of the following installments are more straightforward, character-y segments that I’ve selected OVER ostentatious outings (like “King Lear Jet,” “Rescue Me,” and “The Emperor” with Dana Carvey). This is a great character piece that I don’t think gets the appreciation it deserves, for it boasts a strong Maya/Jack narrative that’s actually able to be comedically competitive, primarily in the big climactic reveal when Maya, after toiling to engage the company in charity work and being annoyed that Jack — who only donated money, not time — is being honored for his generosity, falsely believes a supermodel is to be awarded as well… not knowing that it’s really Maya herself who is being given the special tribute. It’s a dynamite chance for our anchor to show some fallibility, and within a story that plays up the premise-based contrast between father and daughter. Underrated.
06) Episode 18: “In The Company Of Maya” (Aired: 01/20/98)
Maya is accused of sexual harassment and Elliott dates a commercial actress.
Written by Pam Brady | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Reportedly inspired by the writing staff having to watch a poorly executed video on harassment in the workplace, this is another inconspicuous entry from Season Two that seldom manages to grab attention away from the flashier excursions. But it claims both character value and plot-centric, idea-sparked merit. To the first point, the A-story puts Maya in the center of the conflict and once again shows how her environment forces her to go against “type” (her usual behavior) — this time, it’s due to Nina, who encourages her to be forward with a cute employee… not realizing that he’ll take it as harassment. So, you see, despite working backwards — to get to the video — this is something of a character story… especially compared to the Elliott subplot, in which he has trouble dealing with the fact that his actress girlfriend is best known for a hemorrhoid cream commercial. Its aggrieved triviality is Seinfeld-ian and worth mentioning given that it’s exactly the moment where Just Shoot Me! was hoping to be the next Seinfeld.
07) Episode 19: “Pass The Salt” (Aired: 01/29/98)
Finch’s father think his son is gay and Maya wants Jack to visit her apartment.
Written by Jack Burditt | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
Brian Dennehy makes his debut as Finch’s father in this episode — broadcast at the start of February Sweeps in the 8:30 Thursday spot behind Friends — and there’s no doubt that this was considered a more prestigious and buzzworthy outing than several of the above. Interestingly, it’s centered around Finch, whose portrayer will grow to become more heavily featured as the years progress — to the benefit of weekly comedy, but at the expense of character development. (Frankly, Finch invites idea-based gimmickry, and the show does a particularly poor job of evolving him in relation to the amount of plot they want him to provide). But I digress… The Finch A-story is funny enough, but I like that it’s paired with the Maya/Jack subplot, in which she tries to prove to him that her neighborhood is safe so that he’ll come over more often. (Carol Ann Susi, one of my favorite character actresses, is hilarious as Maya’s neighbor.) It’s the thematic cohesion — of father/child bonds — that sells this one.
08) Episode 24: “The Kiss” (Aired: 03/19/98)
Elliott asks Maya to pretend to be his wife so he can get a nice apartment.
Written by Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard | Directed by Darryl Bates
When crafting lists for years like these — where there are lots of good offerings, but not too many great ones — I try to go macro, and think about which installments are strong examples of that whole television season and would be seminal were I to include a look at its entire output’s finest, or I go micro, thinking about what kinds of episodes a show’s season offers and which ones are yet to be represented here. This time, I went micro, for I felt it essential to highlight at least one that was heavy on Maya/Elliott, an apparently inevitable MSTV trapping that the show willingly teases in almost every script throughout this second season, but then only begrudgingly seems to commit to well after we expect it to happen (late in Season Four). We’ll talk more about their pairing in the weeks ahead, but right now I’ll say that this year is adept at making them look like a believable, rootable couple, and this story, in which she agrees to pretend to be his wife, is textbook fare for future sitcom couples. Kathryn Joosten guests.
09) Episode 25: “Bravefinch” (Aired: 03/26/98)
Finch is threatened by Jack’s new personal assistant and Maya mistakes Nina’s nicotine patch for a band-aid.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
Coming the closest this year to matching the unbridled (and slightly more character-driven) hilarity of the show’s peak third season, this outing is my MVE. It’s a classic workplace showcase, where the characters all bounce around between several stories that, like we often saw on NewsRadio, are literally trapped by the confined office setting. The A-story involves Finch being threatened, first emotionally and then literally, by Jack’s cheery new personal assistant (Jim Wise), who’s been hired to teach Finch a lesson. It’s not exactly an original storyline — the “X threatened me, but nobody believes me” is, by now, a chestnut — yet it gives Spade a chance to clown, and this time with a sturdy dramatic foundation: the relationship between Jack and Finch. The brilliant comedy, meanwhile, comes in the broader subplot, where Nina tries to quit smoking (and becomes extra horny), which helps deliver a Season Three-esque (and Seinfeld-ian in its dove-tailing) comedic centerpiece in which Maya, while giving an interview about her piece on drug abuse, is hyper because she’s mistaken Nina’s nicotine patch with a band-aid. (And she also has powdered sugar on her nose from the donuts that Jack’s assistant had given him earlier.) I’m always glad when Maya gets to be hilarious — leaning into the madness in which she’s been engulfed ever since joining this strange world. Season Two truly has none better.
10) Episode 27: “Amblushed” (Aired: 04/16/98)
Maya is confronted by a women’s organization and Nina wants to stage a comeback.
Written by Pam Brady | Directed by Pamela Fryman
I seldom see this offering singled out for praise, but it’s actually one of the year’s best ruminations on the thesis-born conflict involving Maya and her decision to work at a magazine and in an industry that she intellectually (and morally) opposes. Although this plays to the father/daughter dynamic — which is what we want — it’s less about them than it is her own individual arc, which opens it up for more character comedy. And while she’s already come to terms with the decision she’s made, it’s always good for episodic story (and laughs) when she’s challenged for it — like she is here, when a women’s forum, headed by Will & Grace‘s Megan Mullally, confronts her for denigrating women… and uses an article she recently wrote (but with a title that was changed against her will) to prove it. I love this premise, and I love that the final climactic gag ties into the subplot — again, it’s Seinfeld-ian, when Nina, who’s donned gold body paint for a shoot and can’t get it off, becomes a walking embodiment of the accusation that Blush Magazine views women as trophies. Very funny — and again, underrated.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: three memorable entries closest to the above list, “King Lear Jet,” one of those ostentatious excursions predicated on an outside work that struggles to make the necessary associations (but does thankfully benefit from a father/daughter core), “Eve Of Destruction,” which guest stars Jessica Walter as Maya’s mother but doesn’t completely live up to the high expectations that come from both the character and her casting (Frasier‘s Dan Butler also appears), and “Rescue Me,” which tries to be a character-revealing Taxi-esque anthology flashback show but is hit-and-miss, despite a conclusive Maya/Jack moment. Of more Honorable Mention quality are the too-on-the-nose “Old Boyfriends,” the syrupy and tonally anachronistic “The Walk,” the Nina-centric “Nina’s Bikini,” and the gaudy Dana Carvey’s showcase, “The Emperor.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Just Shoot Me! goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!