Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week is the second in a series of posts where I’m (briefly) discussing 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 or more) that I think best represents the series at large. There’s no formal theme to the shows this time, but they’re mostly workplace (or half-workplace) comedies…
BIG WAVE DAVE’S (Aug-Sept 1993, CBS)
Premise: Three friends move to Hawaii to open a surf shop. One has a pregnant wife.
Cast: Adam Arkin, Patrick Breen, David Morse, Jane Kaczmarek, Kurtwood Smith
Creator/Writers: Ken Levine & David Isaacs, Dan Staley & Rob Long, Larry Balmagia
Thoughts: This professional character-based ensemble workplace comedy from veterans of the great Cheers is likable and unique, despite an inherent premised leap: that three friends could and would leave everything and move to a new state to start a new business — one with a wife who quickly reveals she’s pregnant. That’s only a concern for the pilot though… the rest of the series has to deal with the ramifications of employing a fish-out-of-water premise with a cast that has all been transplanted; in other words, if everyone’s a fish-out-of-water, then nobody is. The best moments occur with Smith as the local — he contrasts well against leading man Arkin. Sadly, there aren’t enough episodes here to really say if a second year was deserved.
Episode Count: Six episodes were produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All six.
Key Episode: #6: “The Old Men And The Sea” [a.k.a. “Him”] (09/13/93)
Why: Even though it takes the cast out of the workplace, it does so with a generally setting-specific (that is, Hawaii) premise that literally makes them fish-out-of-water… or humans-on-water, as it were. Also, the Hemingway metaphor provides color and substance in addition to the usual character-based charms.
MUDDLING THROUGH (July-Sept 1994, CBS)
Premise: A woman in prison for shooting her cheating husband gets out and moves back in with her two daughters — learning that the eldest is now married to the cop that sent her away. The family runs a small town diner and motel in Michigan.
Cast: Stephanie Hodge, D. David Morin, Jennifer Aniston, Aimee Brooks, Scott Waara, Hal Landon Jr., Hank Underwood
Creator/Writers: Barton Dean, Clay Graham, Daniel Palladino, Larry Spencer, Nancylee Myatt, Rob Kurtz & Eric Brand
Thoughts: Aniston, right before Friends! (The last few episodes were shot concurrently with Friends’ first few.) It’s a broad, blue-collar comedy where Hodges — in between two sitcoms — chews scenery as a salty broad with a chip on her shoulder. Scripts go for easy laughs, but that’s not a complaint. Aniston is the most natural, but Rachel creeps in… especially at the end. It’s not as low-concept as the era’s most popular entries and storytelling possibilities don’t seem bountiful. A curio — not terrible, but not suggesting that it could get better.
Episode Count: Ten produced; nine broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All nine broadcast episodes EXCEPT “Dog Duty” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?”
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” [a.k.a. “The More Things Change, The More They Stay Insane”] (07/09/94)
Why: It’s the funniest.
GOOD COMPANY (Mar-Apr 1996, CBS)
Premise: An aspiring artist works at an ad agency with a group of eclectics.
Cast: Jon Tenney, Lauren Graham, Timothy Fall, Elizabeth Anne Smith, Jason Beghe, Terry Kiser, Wendie Malick, and Seymour Cassel
Creator/Writers: Dan Staley & Rob Long, Bob Sand, Bob Keyes & Doug Keyes, Howard Margulies
Thoughts: Another ensemble workplace comedy from Cheers vets, this is an easy watch with a great cast. The generic workplace setting is something we explored here with NewsRadio — it’s a concept that’ll be epitomized later on The Office. But without a defining sensibility, or gimmicky format, like the mockumentary, this pure workplace construct can feel sterile. The moments that land best are the personal ones — Tenney’s scenes with his ex (Graham) or with his boss (Malick), who has a crush on him. Ultimately, this is a professional effort in a professional space that never had time to develop. (Maybe there are too many characters, too…)
Episode Count: Six episodes were produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All but “Day 1340: Death”
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “10,000 Days” (03/04/96)
Why: There are no gems from what I’ve seen — who knows, maybe the one I’m missing is the gem? — but the premiere is probably the most engaging, with the Tenney/Malick scenes of primary note.
TOWNIES (Sept-Dec 1996, ABC)
Premise: Three friends in a small Massachusetts town navigate life and love.
Cast: Molly Ringwald, Lauren Graham, Jenna Elfman, Ron Livingston, Billy Burr, Joseph D. Reitman, Dion Anderson, Lee Garlington, Jeff Doucette, and Conchata Ferrell
Creator/Writers: Matthew Carlson, Linwood Boomer, Jill Condon & Amy Toomin, Laurie Parres, Rob Hanning, Bruce Rasmussen, Jordan Hawley & William Schifrin, Bill Barol
Thoughts: Decent scripting and likable cast members are undone by a lack of focus — is this a “hang-out” sitcom with three women, a hang-out sitcom with guys and gals, a workplace comedy, or a family series? It’s hard to tell — the strongest moments (and this is the idea in the pilot) are when the three women are central (with Ringwald being the ring leader), but with love interests, family members, and co-workers, their core bond is undermined in deference to weekly story. We’re looking for the point — either it’s that they all work together or that they all hang out together… everything else is a distraction. The fact that so early in the series, it’s so scattered — when usually early episodes are thematically myopic and hit the premise over and over again — doesn’t auger well, despite the scripting and the cast.
Episode Count: 15 produced; 10 broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All 15 entries.
Key Episode: #1: “Townies” (Pilot) (09/18/96)
Why: It’s got the most potential because it sets up the women as the focus; the rest of the series fails to live up to this promise… even though Elfman is fun and episodes like “Christmas” show narrative creativity.
UNION SQUARE (Sept 1997-Jan 1998, NBC)
Premise: Folks hang out in a New York diner.
Cast: Constance Marie, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jim Pirri, Jonathan Slavin, Christine Burke, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, Michael Landes
Creator/Writers: Marco Pennette, Fred Barron, Michael B. Kaplan, Gary Murphy & Neil Thompson, George McGrath, Donald Todd, Eric Abrams & Matthew Berry, Nora Lynch & Phil Palisoul, Colleen Taber
Thoughts: Here’s an ensemble of decidedly different, distinct personalities, but with no emotional core at the center. It was originally a vehicle for Mel Gorham, whose unaired pilot has that core but suffers for her try-hard hysterics. Replacement Constance Marie is more relatable, but not interesting enough to be a lead… neither is her intended love interest Landes, who was dropped mid-run. Pirri’s bad boy later fills that void, with shades of Sam/Diane, especially when Marie’s character becomes a waitress there — a way to unite what had otherwise been a disparate ensemble. (Also James Burrows directs.) But the writing isn’t stellar — no memorable episodes — even with funny performers like Harris, Slavin, and Gunter.
Episode Count: 14 produced; 13 broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All 13 broadcast entries and the original unaired pilot.
Key Episode (of Seen): #10: “The First Christmas Show” (12/18/97)
Why: There’s no excellent episode here, but this one has some laughs and gives an indication of the Marie/Pirri romantic future. The holiday theme also adds a focus missing from the ensemble, and unlike many of the later episodes, it’s not based around any guest star.
THE CLOSER (Feb-May 1998, CBS)
Premise: An ad exec at a crossroads starts his own agency.
Cast: Tom Selleck, Ed Asner, David Krumholtz, Suzy Nakamura, Hedy Burress, Penelope Ann Miller
Creator/Writers: Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, Ron Burch, David Kidd, Tad Quill, Howard Busgang & Mark Blutman, Bill Wolkoff, Shari Brooks & Ethan Banville, Rina Mimoun, Tom Burkhard
Thoughts: Many of the other shows in this potpourri series come from folks who found great success elsewhere and otherwise established, with hindsight, a fine pedigree. That’s not the case for this Tom Selleck vehicle, which is about 75% a workplace comedy and the rest about a divorcee, his ex (Joanna Kerns), and his daughter. Frankly, the home life stuff is a drag and the workplace — littered with great folk like Asner and Nakamura — isn’t sufficiently compensatory comedically. In short, this is a sitcom short on com. Forget it!
Episode Count: Ten were produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All except “Dobbs Takes A Holiday” and “The Rebound”
Key Episode (of Seen): #6: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (04/06/98)
Why: Bernadette Peters guest stars as Jack’s old flame in this surprisingly creative entry that’s an admittedly atypical segment of the series — culminating in a catchy and well-choreographed fantasy musical number that earned an Emmy nod. For such a lifeless series, this episode has a vigorous joie de vivre. I could watch it again and again.
LATELINE (Mar 1998-Mar 1999, NBC)
Premise: The behind-the-scenes of a late night news show.
Cast: Al Franken, Megyn Price, Miguel Ferrer, Ajay Naidu, Sanaa Lathan, Catherine Lloyd Burns, Robert Foxworth
Creator/Writers: Al Franken & John Markus, Earl Pomerantz, Steve O’Donnell, Steve Lookner, Martin Weiss, Kimberly Hill, Cindy Collins, Billy Kimball, Chris Downey
Thoughts: In the vein of Murphy Brown, this insider, politically left-leaning “behind-the-scenes of a TV news program” comedy benefits from a greater sense of realism (than, say, Murphy Brown) and memorable cameos that put the series more in league with the ambitious (and rebellious) Larry Sanders. Funny writing and a strong ensemble of unique performers with well-set characterizations help make this one of the best shows in this post, although the short run — a six-episode first season and a 13-episode second (some of which aired later on Showtime) — doesn’t yield any true gems; the show is still deriving stories based on their premise, not on the characters and their relationships, which are all being cultivated. Also, Franken’s shtick is not the main attraction here — we care most about the story-drivers: Price, Ferrer and Foxworth.
Episode Count: 19 produced; 12 broadcast on NBC, several others aired on Showtime — the rest premiered on DVD.
Episodes Seen: All 19.
Key Episodes: #7: “Pearce On Conan” (01/06/99)
#9: “The Minister Of Television” (01/14/99)
#10: “Kids ‘N’ Guns” (01/20/99)
#13: “The Seventh Plague” (Showtime)
#14: “The Christian Guy” (Showtime)
#19: “Eine Kleine Office Problem” (DVD)
Why: At this point, we’re looking at Victories in Premise — that’s why gaudy shows like “Pearce On Conan” and “The Seventh Plague” stand out. Narratively, “Kids ‘N’ Guns,” “The Christian Guy,” and “Eine Kleine Office Problem” are news-related home runs, and “The Minister Of Television” is worthwhile simply for the guest appearance of Allison Janney. Note: all of the above were produced for Season Two, which should tell you that things were improving.
BATTERY PARK (Mar-Apr & Jun 2000, NBC)
Premise: Cops in a Manhattan precinct.
Cast: Elizabeth Perkins, Justin Louis, Jacqueline Obradors, Frank Grillo, Bokeem Woodbine, Robert Mailhouse, Jay Paulson, and recurring Sam Lloyd and Wendy Moniz
Creator/Writers: Gary David Goldberg & Chris Henchy, Chuck Brian, Mark Banker, Jane O’Brien, Paul A. Kaplan, Shiela R. Lawrence, Mark Torgrove
Thoughts: Based on an unsold ABC pilot starring Charlie Sheen called Sugar Hill, this cop sitcom has a lot of characters and a lot of story. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what purpose they serve — both in the fictional workplace and on the show. There’s a so-so sense of humor, and it’s easier to follow who everyone is the more episodes we see, but there’s too much going on and no focusing agent to encourage emotional investment or ground the comedy — even though it’s not terribly broad. I think it probably did deserve more of a chance than it got from NBC when it was behind Frasier for four weeks, but I don’t feel like it was yet a mistreated gem. (It’s now best known as a footnote: Henry Winkler got an Emmy nod as Perkins’ character’s husband in an episode scheduled to air in April before the series was pulled. It was eventually shown in a one-off broadcast that June, as episode #5, “Walter’s Rib,” but by then, the Emmy deadline had passed and his nomination was withdrawn.)
Episode Count: Seven produced; five broadcast. | Episodes Seen: The first four broadcast. (I also have a script for the final aired entry, the aforementioned “Walter’s Rib.”)
Key Episode (of seen): #4: “You Give Law A Bad Name” (04/13/00)
Why: There’s not a lot of character stuff in any episode — most of the comedy comes from inherently funny ideas. This one is the most notable because it has the funniest ideas.
Ultimately, I say there’s value in studying LateLine… and treading lightly with the others, except for the ignore-worthy and most forgettable, Union Square. (Also and of note, the most interesting episode on this list is the selected pick from The Closer.)
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!
As you make your way through the 1990s, I admit to being somewhat disappointed by your bypassing the long-running but still unappreciated COACH. I know you have plans to cover EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, which I am really looking forward to, and I am very glad that you covered NEWSRADIO.
But as we head into the new century, I am curious whether you’ll do a season-by-season on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (seeing Linwood Boomer’s name here reminded me of it), ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT or EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS. I think they’d all be worthy subjects for review.
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I haven’t made any plans regarding sitcoms that premiered in the 21st century. Once we finish our look at the ’90s, we’ll be moving back to the ’50s and ’60s and hitting some shows I missed the first time. Keep checking out the Coming Attractions page for updates.
I saw at least one episode of all of these but LATELINE was a fave and I saw all of those.
Hi, bobster427! Thanks for reading and commenting.
It’s also the only one here released on DVD — so you can see them all again!
Thanks Jackson. Had forgotten about many of these shows. I had always lamented that some of the most wasted timeslots in TV history where the numerous shows that NBC placed after hits like Friends, Seinfeld, Frazier, ect however had forgotten how many cloned shows other networks had aired as well.
Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, the FRIENDS “hang out sitcom” made its way to ALL the networks, not just NBC!
UNION SQUARE was a real dissapointment. LATELINE and BATTERY PARK had potential.
And I admit to finding MUDDLING THROUGH funny the few times I watched.
Any chance we’ll see ALMOST PERFECT in a potpourri? How about WORKING?
Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Both ALMOST PERFECT and WORKING are on my radar, but I’m not yet sure of where/when they’ll appear or if they’re even suited for the potpourri series.
Two quick thoughts:
I agree with your positive assessment of LATELINE. In fact, I’ll go further than you do, and say that LATELINE was an absolute gem of a show that deserved a long run. Of the many things I like about it, I appreciated the actors’ low-key, conversational delivery. There were times when it felt like you were really eavesdropping on people in a workplace, not simply watching sitcom actors performing for — and pandering to — a studio audience. No one was belting it out to the cheap seats or talking in punchlines. It was a refreshing change.
In your description of UNION SQUARE (a show I remember seeing), you wrote that it had “no emotional core at the center.” You just summarized the problem with most sitcoms of the past 30 years — especially the three-camera shows.
With most of them, it’s hard to imagine the creators had any passion about the premise. Most sitcoms feel like the end result of corporate groupthink run amok, with safe, predictable elements determined by whatever is already popular, or what tested well with a focus group. And UNION SQUARE is a textbook example.
I’m not trying to sound too negative. When a sitcom works, it can be wonderful. But for that to happen, the people involved have to be passionate about the subject matter and the characters. And it’s hard to believe anyone felt passionate about the cookie-cutter FRIENDS clones that the networks were cranking out in the ’90s.
Hi, Tgibbs! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I’m not as enthusiastic as you are about LATELINE, as I don’t think it yet proved itself to be capable of episodic gems — it was only just starting to progress out of premise-driven stories into the kind of character-rooted ideas more indicative of an ability to maintain quality. Rather, like most short-lived shows, I think it had *the potential* for greatness, which went unfulfilled as a result of its abbreviated life.
I also don’t think it was as unique as you do — I find it very in-keeping with the era’s flirtation with single-camera knowingness (faux-naturalness) and premised-based media-centricity. More interesting, to me, is its contrast of grounded comedy against Franken’s broader, yuk yuk sensibilities. They’re at odds, but the juxtaposition doesn’t cause any chafing… yet.
As for today’s comedies, I don’t think it’s fair to say most writers/creators aren’t passionate about the work they produce; that’s not true. But it’s hard to generalize now because there are so many shows from so many different places. All I can say is sitcoms should make us laugh — making us smile is not enough — and they should find these laughs through character, not premise, nor story, nor gimmick. It’s the same today as it was in 1950, but perhaps it’s harder to do those things now because the competition is greater and securing eyeballs becomes more important than sustaining them. Accordingly, plot and premise are bigger than ever, and character consequently means less.