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.
The third season of Just Shoot Me! is the series’ best; it’s the first, last, and only year with classic episodes that can challenge some of the best of the era’s other titans — Frasier, Friends, etc. And, indeed, more than just one or two terrific half-hour segments, the year is blessed with a consistently higher quality — one that guarantees against stinkers and makes certain there’s something to enjoy in every installment, even in the last stretch of the season, which isn’t as gem-laden as what came before but still is more solid than other years’ entire outputs. However, even with this higher regular quality, the classics remain the classics, and this was BY FAR the easiest list to make because I knew exactly the ten that needed to be here, with few Honorable Mentions even in contention for a slot. In contrast to what this suggests — a limited number of great shows may indicate a weaker season — it’s actually most often true that the easiest lists to make belong to the stronger years, for excellent work speaks for itself, making my job much simpler: identifying, not measuring… We’ve already previewed why this year is able to be so generous with its gems, but to reiterate: this is the first season where the show’s Maya/Jack core isn’t addressed every week via narrative. That is, their dynamic is no longer the primary focal point, for now there’s a more equitable episodic split — the father/daughter stuff still gets play when it suits a story, but more often than not, the scripts are leaning into the idea that this is a workplace series with an entire ensemble of strong comics and it’s “following the funny” by more regularly exercising the muscles (or funny bones, if you will) of its most unique and laugh-providing players, like Malick’s Nina, and more notably, Spade’s Finch. In other words, the year shifts its eye-line from a substantive character-based thesis that isn’t always funny and instead makes its thesis the funny. Naturally, this means funnier scripts and funnier stories…
But just as we discussed last week, losing that substantive character-based thesis isn’t entirely something to celebrate, because — well, as I said, “the reason to want an emotional core in something equivalent to Maya/Jack — aside from the constructional advantages granted to the premise… — 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… 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.” Now that all the characters have been established, this is when we’d expect to see them begin to evolve — with motivation — and while there are developments that seem to suggest growth, like the increasing tension between Maya and Elliott, which is no longer teased on a weekly basis but is still A-story fodder and cliffhanger bait, and Finch’s marriage to model Adrienne (Rebecca Romijn), it’ll take a while before we realize that the seeds of change haven’t truly been planted. As I said last week, “[i]n 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” — after all, we’re dazzled by the uptick in comedic proficiency and still enjoying the characters (as first defined), so we don’t care yet whether or not they change… even though they should. Yet once we learn that the temporary Adrienne won’t have long-lasting implications for Finch — at least, not in terms of trackable character growth (he does change, but that’s more because the show, being led by its funny, uses him more and more without supplying a foundation) — and also realize that Maya/Elliott aren’t a font of story nor something the show wants to engage with for long, then it finally becomes clear: Season Three, while representing the show at its peak, also dropped the ball on the sustaining maintenance required to carry the series through a healthy run.
But again, this is information we glean in hindsight. Yes, it’s already clear just how much the show is starting to rely on what it considers its comedic heavyweight (Spade), but although it’s featuring him more, it’s not doing so to the detriment of the series itself yet (in the short term anyway), for rather than dominating and taking away from the others, his increased usage is really part of the expanded purview given to the ensemble as a collective — where everyone gets something and they’re especially strong together. And with more than just one or two comedic personas, this evolved perspective is what frees Just Shoot Me! to become funnier, making it finally a show that deserves to be discussed alongside the ‘90s classics it always hoped to replace and/or stand beside. This season, while it didn’t make the MSTV-A block on Thursdays, it did get to inherit the network’s third most important anchor spot, Frasier’s old 9:00 berth in the MSTV-B block on Tuesdays, where it didn’t do nearly as well in the numbers as its predecessor, but still managed to be NBC’s best comedy in the line-up. Critics were taking more note of the series as well, as were the award committees, with five Golden Globe nominations given to the show during the run of this third season and four Emmy nods following it (both of which were records — never again would Just Shoot Me! be so popular). In this regard, the series was flying high, and I suppose one can see why creator Steven Levitan thought it was strong enough now to survive without him, hence his choice to limit his day-to-day involvement in Season Four as he went to work on Stark Raving Mad, which we discussed here. It’s debatable just how much of a blow his absence will be to quality, but one thing that can be said: never again will the show be so consistent or so full of must-see excursions. So, as usual, I have picked the ten that I think exemplify the year’s best. These also happen to be the show’s best.
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), Danny Zuker (Arsenio Hall, Roseanne, Modern Family), Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard (Flying Blind, Dream On), Moses Port (Mad About You, Happy Family, Aliens In America) & David Guarascio (Mad About You, Happy Family, The Goldbergs), Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin (King Of The Hill, Out Of Practice, Maron), Pam Brady (The John Larroquette Show, South Park, Lady Dynamite), and Stephen Engel (Dream On, The War At Home, The Big Bang Theory).
01) Episode 32: “What The Teddy Bear Saw” (Aired: 09/22/98)
Finch panics after he fools around with Jack’s new nanny.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
After the tentativeness that marked the beginning of Season Two, Just Shoot Me!‘s third year opens with a sexy confidence, epitomized by an understanding of character and the pivoting general directive towards a broader, more palpably laugh-out-loud funny sense of humor. Although this isn’t one of the absolute classics on this week’s list, it’s nevertheless an entry that I knew had to be included because it’s simply loaded with laughs, particularly in the A-story that features Saturday Night Live‘s Ana Gasteyer as Jack’s new nanny (for Hannah), with whom Finch has an affair when he goes home to spy on her. The comedic meat, however, comes when Jack reveals he hid a security camera in a teddy bear; now Finch and the nanny must destroy it before their liaison is revealed. You see, it’s a broad, plot-driven idea, and it takes the show out of the workplace, making it, generally, not an ideal story… but it’s just so funny that we don’t care. Ditto to the somewhat nasty subplot where Elliott forgets to pick up Maya from the dentist and then lies to her about what happened while she was in a drugged state. It’s twisted… and hilarious… and it works much better than it should. Welcome to Season Three.
02) Episode 36: “Two Girls For Every Boy” (Aired: 11/10/98)
Finch tries to set Maya up with a lesbian.
Written by Moses Port & David Guarascio | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Admittedly, this popular excursion isn’t one of my top-tier favorites (nor do I think it’s one of Three’s top-tier favorites). Rather, it’s, like the above, another prescient offering that reveals things about the direction of the season and also manages to elevate its narrative interests with a teleplay that’s generous and plentiful with its laughs. The subplot is especially amusing, as Jack encourages Elliott and Nina to treat him like anyone else in the office — they should joke with him, and mock him, like they do each other. But when they really do that, he becomes sensitive and decides to get them back — with chairs that emit electric shocks. Again, it’s broad, but it’s hysterical, and I like that character relationships and interoffice dynamics are being used for plot… However, it’s the A-story that usually gets all the attention, as Finch schemes to create some “girl on girl action” between Maya and a hot model. I don’t think it’s as unique or uproarious as others do, yet I think it is revealing in the sense that it not only indicates Finch’s increased importance (which will also continue to grow), but it also suggests a tweak in his persona: he’s now more sex-driven. This’ll guide his characterization until the end.
03) Episode 37: “The Withholder” (Aired: 11/17/98)
Elliott promises to help Finch get back at an ex-girlfriend.
Written by Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin | Directed by Leonard R. Garner Jr.
In contrast to the above, this episode isn’t so popular, but I believe it’s a great run-of-the-mill example of the third season, with funny story-elevating writing and character moments for everyone in the ensemble, particularly Elliott, the least flashy of the characters and the one who typically gets the fewest laughs (perhaps because his persona is caught between what the page suggests and what the actor brings, but I digress). Here, Elliott gets the comedic centerpiece when he dates Courtney (Megan Gallivan), the woman with whom Finch did “the tango” back in Season Two’s “The Walk,” and then intends to humiliate and dump her just like she did to Finch… that is, until he falls for her and keeps prolonging the planned revenge. It’s a good showcase for him and a fine addition to this list for that reason alone, but the subplot is also worth mentioning, for Jack makes a weight loss bet with his perennial rival, Donald Trump, a cultural figure whose current job has further raised his worldwide name recognition.
04) Episode 38: “Puppetmaster” (Aired: 11/17/98)
Maya dates the host of a children’s puppet show.
Written by Pam Brady | Directed by Pamela Fryman
3rd Rock From The Sun‘s French Stewart guest stars in this memorable and well-liked offering as the host of a puppet-based children’s show who starts dating Maya. There are shades of a classic Murphy Brown installment when Maya discovers that her new beau is mining their relationship for material and using his puppet show to passive aggressively air out his unspoken resentments — leading, naturally, to an on-air altercation between our leading lady and the puppets… Frankly, I don’t think this one comes close to matching the strength of Murphy Brown‘s aforementioned take on the idea (which also came earlier), but I think it’s nevertheless a strong segment for Just Shoot Me!, because it puts Maya at the heart of a conflict and pushes her so far that she acts out — in ways that she wouldn’t normally — allowing for a more well-rounded depiction of her and great hahas throughout… Meanwhile, there’s some fun in the subplot when Elliott tells the guys that sometimes he wishes he was a woman. (Note: this entry aired in a special 9:30 slot, directly after “The Withholder.”)
05) Episode 41: “How The Finch Stole Christmas” (Aired: 12/15/98)
Finch plans to ruin Christmas after he learns he’s getting a bad gift.
Written by Stephen Engel | Directed by Jean Sagal
Kelsey Grammer narrates this Grinch-inspired holiday outing that, like “My Dinner With Woody” and “King Lear Jet” before it, derives its aesthetic by paralleling a well-known outside work — in other words, it builds itself not around character, but around an external (yet perhaps inherently funny) idea. As you know, this is never my preference, and yet, I have to admit that this is one of my favorite episodes of the season and the series, and it’s both because of the laugh-a-minute teleplay, and also because of the association between The Grinch and Finch, which feels appropriate. And while the whole narrative construct with Grammer and the Dr. Suessian rhymes is a gimmick that contextualizes the action and keeps it from being a truly character-based affair, I’m sufficiently satisfied by the character moments from this A-story, and from the subplots, like the one in which Nina meets her own Santa Claus in J. Crew (“Yes, Virginia, There Is A J. Crew…”) and another in which Elliott gets a lame tree and the show spoofs Charlie Brown. Yep, it’s essentially a hodgepodge of Christmas tropes — mocked in ways befitting these characters and with a welcome sense of humor, making it all seem fresh.
06) Episode 42: “Slow Donnie” (Aired: 01/05/99)
Maya learns that Elliott’s brother is faking a mental disability.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by Steven Levitan
Ah, this is probably the most famous segment of the entire series — and the only one to get creative recognition with an Emmy nomination (for its writing). This installment guest stars David Cross (Mr. Show, Arrested Development) as the eponymous Donnie, Elliott’s brother who fell out of a tree years ago and has been “slow” ever since. Delighting in the sort of twisted “you can’t do that!” sensibility that underscores several ideas this year (like the premiere subplot with Maya and Elliott), the script quickly reveals that Donnie is faking his mental disability in order to stay coddled and receive whatever he wants. It’s a delicious turnaround and one that ensures this narrative’s originality, for few series in ’99 would have been bold enough to utilize a story like this, in which a character manipulates a disability for personal gain — and not just ye olde fake wheelchair gag, which seems to be a less sensitive subject matter. (The closest companion I can think of is “The Jimmy” episode of Seinfeld.) So, the fun of this offering is that it’s an unexpected premise — not just within the show, but within the very landscape of the situation comedy — and that surprise is what makes for heightened comedy. And, for me, it also helps excuse the fact that so much rests upon a guest star and not our primary characters, who, don’t get me wrong, still have moments to shine — especially our leading lady, who’s once again pushed to her limit and forced to step out of her character (which is great for comedy, too) — but otherwise don’t get the biggest laughs and can’t steal the show back from Cross. However, with such originality — this is an outing that you won’t forget — any criticism is rendered no more than a quibble. Thus, there was never a doubt about it: this is my MVE.
07) Episode 45: “Nina Sees Red (I)” (Aired: 02/09/99)
Finch is uncomfortable when his dad dates Nina.
Written by Jack Burditt | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Brian Dennehy returns for this two-part Sweeps installment as Finch’s father, and seizing upon a spark of an idea only hinted at during his first appearance in Season Two, ol’ Red Finch, recently divorced, begins a relationship with Nina. This is a classic sitcom story — one character dates another’s family member, making for an awkward dynamic — and it crescendos, here, in the predictable way, with a hasty engagement that we’re pretty sure will be cleared away soon enough so that the status quo can return and this guest star can go back to the off-screen netherworld he usually inhabits. If not for the year’s better-than-average writing, this wouldn’t be an A-story to write home about, but it’s funny and leaves room for character… More side-splitting, though, are the subplots, in which Jack gets a stun gun and zaps Elliott just before the photographer is about to meet the woman of his dreams, Tyra Banks, rendering him a gibberish-squealing fool who’s so scary that he gets pepper sprayed in the face. It’s a hysterical climax (especially when the kids who’ve been touring the company with Maya — an amiable little runner — join in the fun), and while it’s repeated several times in Part II, just like the conclusion of Nina/Red, the idea never gets any more amusing than it is in Part I.
08) Episode 47: “Hostess To Murder” (Aired: 02/23/99)
Maya’s murder mystery party is enlivened by a real death.
Written by Pam Brady | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Although my selection for the year’s MVE was never in doubt, this one came the closest to earning top pick, for it’s a strong ensemble showcase with unexpected laughs and memorable character moments for all our regulars, along with several iconic guests, including Fred Willard as a beleaguered actor looking to catch a break, and Derek, the dumb dinosaur-obsessed male model that Maya dated in the funny second season premiere. The murder mystery party premise is something we’ve seen before — in fact, Frasier did a similar storyline that same season, in which a real death occurs while guests play a murder parlor game. According to Levitan, the legendary David Lloyd apparently said Just Shoot Me!‘s take on the idea was funnier, and I have to agree — not only because for Frasier (which is stronger and has higher standards), it’s not one of their classics and therefore doesn’t warrant the “Aha!” that comes when we see something better than the baseline, but also because Just Shoot Me! knows how to ratchet up the relative absurdity, yielding higher-octane laughs. I attribute this to several specific decisions — A) having everyone take on characters that they’re supposed to play during the game and B) the presence of the bell that keeps the game moving forward, ensuring that there’s never any time for Maya, the exasperated straight woman, to convince the others that the dead man on the floor really is a dead man on the floor. This keeps up the pace and the humor, so even though the story’s atypically set in the home, and not the office, its character moments and infectious comedy make this an A+ episode. John F. O’Donohue, Philip Bruns, and Dina Spybey also appear.
09) Episode 48: “Toy Story” (Aired: 03/02/99)
Finch makes Elliott think that Maya is into kinky sex.
Written by Danny Zuker | Directed by Pamela Fryman
More than any other show — even the finale below — this is the one that most makes the inevitability of Maya/Elliott seem like something for which we should root, for after concocting a fun scenario in which Elliott is on board with the idea of beginning a sexual relationship with Maya, we also learn that she would be interested in starting something with him… And with both characters clearly after the same goal — stating it for the first time — we want them to achieve it. However, I think this is the peak of that investment; even when they’re together or almost-together next season, we’re not as interested in them getting what they want, and I think it’s because none of “their” entries are ever as funny as “Toy Story,” which lets the year’s comedic focus, Finch, drive the action when he switches Maya’s birthday gift to Elliott (a video game) with Persky’s gift to Elliott (a box of sex toys), creating awkward scenarios where the former, referring to her gift, offers to “play” with Elliott and Persky, thinking of his gift, believes that Elliott wants to “play” with him. Rooted in Finch’s carefree penchant for practical jokes, we get a lot of good character stuff in addition to the big-laugh farcical premise. And with its kinky undertones and its free-flowing hahas, Maya and Elliott look like an attractive option; is this peak Just Shoot Me!, with possibility aplenty? Well, it is downhill from here…
10) Episode 56: “The Odd Couple (II)” (Aired: 05/25/99)
Finch plans to marry Adrienne before her ex tracks them down.
Written by Marsh McCall | Directed by Steven Levitan
The year’s two-part finale, which originally aired in a single one-hour block, is interesting because, as discussed, it essentially contends with two new developments that could perhaps speak to evolving characterizations — motivated evolving characterizations — in advance of Season Four. And seeing that we’re really looking for character growth at this time, there’s a certain excitement that comes from the show finally moving forward with some big happenings for the regulars, regardless of how impermanent we already know them to be. Yes, I’m thinking now of Finch’s marriage to model Adrienne (Rebecca Romijn), which besides not lasting long, also won’t truly affect him as a character. What it will affect however, is the way he’s written, and as this year has tracked the start of his increased usage, its finale, fixated entirely around him, indicates just how much more he’s to be used in the years ahead, and just how much his love life (or sex life) is going to be fodder for story. Part I, with Bob Odenkirk, is a great example of how unsatisfying these stories can be, for it’s a little too myopic; there’s not enough time for the other regulars about whom we care. Part II works better precisely for this reason — there’s more of everyone else, including Elliott and Maya, who end up getting married in a contrived cliffhanger that’s only enjoyable because it’s original and because it looks like it’ll finally lead to their coupling, which, at this point, is something the audience has been promised. In some ways, this is a turning point; it’s the moment where big, necessary change could happen, but the show unintentionally reveals what actually lies ahead: more of this new gimmicky normal…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the closest to the above list, “How Nina Got Her Groove Back,” which guest stars Christine Ebersole as Nina’s rival and gives the pair a couple of fun moments but fails to live up to its promise (there’s also a Victory In Premise with Maya and the man who likes to be shirtless — it feels very Seinfeld-ian); along with “The Mask,” a Halloween show with a solid father/daughter core and a Psycho parody involving Binnie; “Funny Girl,” a glorified prank show with Maya at the center that’s never as funny as it wants to be, despite being memorable (and including an appearance from Steve Carell); and, of course, the aforementioned other halves, “Nina Sees Red (II),” which utilizes all the same ideas as Part I, but without the comedic benefit of featuring them for the first time, and “The Odd Couple (I),” which I cite only for its amusing subplot with Jack and the paintings. I’d also be remiss for not mentioning “The List,” which guest stars Mark Hamill as himself.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Just Shoot Me! goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!