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. BRIAN POSEHN recurs as Kevin.
As we’ve seen, the series’ decline following its third season peak has been continuous, with every year thereafter failing to deliver episodic gems of the caliber of its predecessor. With each season, it’s also become more apparent just how little effort has been put into growing the characterizations, for they’ve become more unable to sustain the show’s weekly generation of plot. Instead of legitimately evolving the regulars, this series has employed temporary narrative developments — like Finch’s marriage, Jack’s split from Allie, and Maya/Elliott’s romance — which all came and went without providing very much story (ironically), and worse, without progressing the characters or altering their status quos. The result has been emotional stagnation, with a diversionary emphasis on gimmicks, cameos, and other tricks that could encourage viewership without actually pushing the series out of its self-inflicted rut. After all, it’s much easier to have David Spade clown than to figure out how Dennis Finch can grow (because that would first require figuring out exactly who Dennis Finch is, and that’s become far more nebulous as the years have progressed and he’s become the star of tired, repetitive sex-driven stories, where sometimes he’s a dork and sometimes he’s a stud, depending on what the script needs; but I digress)… Yet for NBC, all that matters of this Thursday night Must See TV hammock is that it keeps people watching. In fact, the show’s “promotion” to the network’s most prestigious block of comedy has helped enable and encourage its destructive tendencies, relishing — for the second year in a row — in a litany of hit-and-miss guest star cameos and appearances, from folks like Snoop Dogg, Amy Sedaris, Ray Liotta, Tiffani Amber Thiessen, David Hasselhoff, Huey Lewis, Kate Spade, and three gents from NewsRadio, Dave Foley, Stephen Root, and Joe Rogan. Some of their turns aren’t horrendous — and will be highlighted below — but rest assured, they certainly don’t help in the long run.
This list below aims to offer a sample of the season’s best, but we’ve reached the point where the season’s best is below other seasons’ worst— meaning that we’re now reckoning with degrees of “it’s-not-terrible”… akin to the kind of material we saw in the post-Bill days of NewsRadio and the post-Kate years of Drew Carey. But unlike those two series, which had a major shake-up that helped half-erroneously explain why quality rescinded — although in both cases, they were already moving in the downward direction anyway — Just Shoot Me! comes to this moment without any dramatic flourish or structural change. To the contrary — it comes to this moment precisely because there’s no dramatic flourish or structural change. Okay, yes, Nina becomes a grandmother and Finch goes to college, but neither one evolves, and Six offers merely more of the same old, same old… gimmicky stories and not enough consideration of character, even though they remain fairly distinct figures who COULD — they still COULD — drive story. And sadly, this is the least character-centric year of the series; that’s why this is the season, I think, where Just Shoot Me! jumps the proverbial shark. Indeed, NBC left this year feeling the same, for while the other comedies on Thursday in the network’s comeback ‘01-’02 season managed to maintain or improve upon their performances from the year prior (remember the Friends “renaissance”?), Just Shoot Me! fell in both rating and ranking. Again, there’s no direct link between viewership and quality, but I think it’s appropriate to leave you with this: Friends progressed its characters for the first time in ages and had a banner year, while Just Shoot Me! continued to avoid progressing its characters and found its popularity waning. Sure, they were never in the same league, but seasons like this show why… So, I have mustered up the strength to, somehow, pick ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
Notable writers this year include: Moses Port (Mad About You, Happy Family, Aliens In America) & David Guarascio (Mad About You, Happy Family, The Goldbergs), Donick Cary (The Simpsons, New Girl, Parks And Recreation, The Odd Couple), David Hemingson (Jesse, How I Met Your Mother, Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23), Allison Adler (Chuck, Glee, The New Normal, Supergirl), David Walpert (Ellen, Sports Night, New Girl, House Of Lies), Brian Reich (Late Night With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Brett Baer & David Finkel (Norm, Joey, 30 Rock, United States Of Tara, New Girl) , Maria A. Brown (Step By Step, Cybill, Mad About You, The Exes, Fuller House), Joe Port & Joe Wiseman (New Girl, The Crazy Ones, Me, Myself, And I), and Jessica Kaminsky (Hope & Faith, Dog With A Blog).
01) Episode 105: “The Two Faces Of Finch (II)” (Aired: 10/18/01)
Finch dates the woman whose personality he stole.
Written by David Walpert | Directed by Pamela Fryman
The very funny Amy Sedaris guest stars in this two-parter as Finch’s old acquaintance, whose personality he appropriated and has been using ever since. I struggle with this concept inherently because I don’t think Finch has had a set persona over the course of the show’s six seasons — he’s gradually become less complex and more like his portrayer, David Spade. So, while the show tries to tell me what his personality is — and that he’s had it since high school — I simply don’t buy it. It’s for this reason that Part I couldn’t be highlighted, but Part II, which explores why two people who are exactly alike wouldn’t work out together romantically, is more interesting and viable. Also, this one’s Maya/Jack subplot is affiliated to the initial thesis.
02) Episode 106: “Bye Bye Binnie” (Aired: 10/25/01)
Nina carries around the ashes of her late friend, Binnie.
Written by Maria A. Brown | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Although this installment seems to be one of the year’s more fondly recalled, I’m sorry to say that it’s not spectacular, and I really am sorry about that, for the A-story, in which Nina’s oft-mentioned friend Binnie dies off camera and Nina carries around her ashes, deals with mortality — a theme that is always great fodder for the sitcom, inspiring different characters to react in different ways. Here, I appreciate that there’s an attempt to supply Nina with some depth (in general, this is a better year for her than most of her cast mates), but I don’t think it ever comes… and I don’t think the laughs do either. Yet I celebrate the effort, and I also like that it’s the start of the arc of Finch going to college — something that, like all narrative developments, could be a tool used to evolve him… even though, by now, we’re pretty sure it won’t.
03) Episode 107: “Maya Judging Amy” (Aired: 11/01/01)
Maya’s attractive new assistant makes waves in the office.
Written by Donick Cary | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Tiffani Amber Thiessen begins her trilogy in this outing as Amy, Maya’s new voluptuous assistant who uses her sexuality to charm the men in the office, thereby threatening the women. It’s an interesting, if unoriginal, concept because it plays to some of the series’ original thematics, like the function of beauty/sex in the world and what that does to “normal” people (read: Maya). To wit, what makes this episode work — better than the other two Amy offerings (at least one of which is prime Honorable Mention fodder — see below) — is that it’s centered around our long-ago-but-occasionally-revisited anchor, Maya, who isn’t so much threatened by Amy’s beauty as she is annoyed by the way the woman uses it to manipulate others, instead of relying on talent, skill, or brains. In this regard, it’s a great conflict to throw at our central character, directly hitting at her insecurities. Accordingly, while there are funnier shows this year, I’m not sure there are any that’s as good for character. That’s why it’s my MVE.
04) Episode 112: “Nina Van Mom” (Aired: 01/10/02)
Nina meets the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago.
Teleplay by Brian Reich | Story by Joe Port & Joe Wiseman | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Paula Marshall, who’s appeared on this blog several times — most notably in a Wildcard post about the single-season Out Of Practice — is often derogatorily referred to as a “show killer” because so many of her sitcom efforts have been short-lived. She obviously doesn’t deserve credit for her failures, but it is fair to say that she’s not an undiscovered gem. So, her casting as Nina’s daughter doesn’t exactly elevate this entry the way it could… although, to be fair, this two-part story is hinged around the idea that not only are we learning about Nina having a daughter and giving her up for adoption, but also that the daughter turned out to be a BORING strait-laced intellectual: exactly her mother’s opposite. That’s a bit expected, frankly, and again, though it’s suggested that Nina might get some depth, this is a promise only half-fulfilled… especially when there aren’t big enough laughs to sustain her along the way. But…
05) Episode 113: “Nina Van Grandma” (Aired: 01/17/02)
Nina bonds more with her granddaughter than her daughter.
Written by David Walpert | Directed by Pamela Fryman
…The good news is that this, the second half of the storyline, is much funnier and indeed gets its laughs — so many, in fact, that it was legitimately the only other contender for MVE and one of the few here that I could enjoy beyond the confines of this subpar season. As per the title, this outing continues where the previous concluded, with the revelation that Nina isn’t just a mom, but also a grandmother. Now, true to form, just as Nina didn’t have much in common with her daughter, genetics have skipped a generation, because her granddaughter, Tess (Sasha Barrese), seems to have been made in Nina’s image. Again, it’s a bit predictable and Nina doesn’t really evolve — primarily because, after this two-parter, the development is hardly ever addressed again (we only see Tess once more) — but it does provide for much more comedy, particularly in the centerpiece where Nina tries to stop Tess from sleeping with Finch.
06) Episode 114: “Liotta? Liotta!” (Aired: 01/31/02)
Ray Liotta tries to give up the spotlight so that he can date Maya.
Written by Allison Adler | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Ray Liotta makes his second of two appearances — following a Christmas entry that’s highlighted below as an Honorable Mention — when he reignites his brief relationship with Maya (making a plea for her on The Tonight Show — yes, Leno appears again), for whom he promises to give up the limelight. Naturally, Ray — whom we learned in his first episode is related to Kevin (Brian Posehn) — can’t do it for longer than the offering’s 21-minutes, but there are some big hahas in the meantime, particularly in the office scene with the sandwich. The climax itself may be lacking, and the subplot with the guys is below average — even for Six — but it’s stronger than Liotta’s earlier effort, which is less funny and more story-reliant.
07) Episode 116: “Friends And Neighbors” (Aired: 02/28/02)
Finch leaves his new roommate, Kevin, after getting a chance to live in a college dorm.
Written by David Hemingson & Maria A. Brown | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Another excursion that seems to be a bit more popular than I think is deserved, this is one of those foolish Finch-heavy shows that sets up a decent premise and then denies it in favor of spotlighting Spade. In this case, the premise of Finch moving in across the hall from Maya with his new roommate, Kevin, the mail guy who appears more this season than any other — he’s an easy source for laughs, but he lacks depth and therefore represents the primary problem with this era, pomp without circumstance — is better than the story, which has Finch getting into a college dorm and trying to connect with his peers. Instead of developing a relationship between a regular and a recurring cast member, we get a not-hilarious story that, as usual, gives Finch nothing. But, hey, as was true in Season Five, beggars can’t be choosers this year…
08) Episode 118: “A Beautiful Mind” (Aired: 03/25/02)
Maya dates a man who’s far less than her intellectual equal.
Written by Allison Adler | Directed by Pamela Fryman
After Andy Dick made an appearance two years ago, Six is the year of cameos from NewsRadio, the former Brillstein-Grey NBC sitcom that would have so desperately relished being added to MSTV Thursdays (even though it may have been creatively grateful, in hindsight, for not bearing that burden). In premise-based installments not highlighted in this post, Stephen Root and Dave Foley guest, and in this episode, Joe Rogan appears. He plays a plumber who’s far beneath Maya intellectually — an appropriate story for her, even if we’ve seen elements of it before… like when she dated the male model in Season Two, and when she slept with Dean Cain (who also turned out to be married) in Season Five. But it’s a decent exploration of the show’s theoretical central character, and because it’s solid, it’s an easy offering to enjoy. Incidentally, this segment aired in a special Monday night slot after Fear Factor and opposite Raymond.
09) Episode 119: “Educating Finch” (Aired: 03/28/02)
Jack hires Finch a tutor, as Elliott displays a nude photo of Maya without her consent.
Written by Jessica Kaminsky | Directed by Pamela Fryman
While it would be a stretch to even try pretending like this outing is one of the year’s strongest, I have to admit that I find some value in both stories. In the Finch A-story, which ties into his overall “arc” of going to college (which otherwise yields little resembling anything worthwhile), the season does its most overt and noble job of flirting with some actual growth for him, as Jack insists that his assistant take this opportunity seriously… Speaking of flirting, this is also the only entry this year that toys with the possibility of a reunion between Maya/Elliott, the series’ central couple, in a subplot that’s both funny and enjoyable because of the emotional history between the two. Obviously, the show was no better with them together than apart, but their relationship, even as friends, should be a font of story, and I like when it’s well-used.
10) Episode 122: “The Burning House” (Aired: 04/18/02)
A documentary follows Finch as he produces a film for college.
Written by Donick Cary and David Walpert | Directed by Pamela Fryman
As we’ve discussed time and again, magic is seldom recaptured, and in this offering, which feels like a companion to the single-camera documentary from Season Four that looked at Nina Van Horn’s life story, this behind-the-scenes piece on the making of Finch’s college film fails to live up to the audacious outside-of-the-box creativity that made that aforementioned predecessor so special. Now, I’ve said before that Just Shoot Me!‘s best episodes tend to be its most atypical, and that would seem to indicate this one as also being ripe MVE material, but the problem is… this doesn’t feel special anymore because gimmicks and cameos — David Hasselhoff appears — are now way too typical of the series, and sincere character showings are what’s become rare. Thus, this one feels more comedically try-hard than similar stunts, and though it’s memorable and probably a must-include, it’s not a series classic or even a seasonal gem.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Impossible Dream,” the final part of the Amy trilogy, which is Seinfeld-ian in its climax where Finch and Elliott talk about being, combined, the perfect beau, and “About A Boy,” a so-so farce that was the closest to the above list because of some funny moments when Finch pretends to have a child so he can bed an attractive au pair. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Christmas? Christmas!,” which features the first appearance from Ray Liotta and posits him as a holiday fanatic, and, by default, the previously mentioned “The Two Faces Of Finch (I).” I also wish the premiere with Snoop Dogg, “Finch In The Dogg House,” wasn’t so dreadfully logic-starved.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Just Shoot Me! goes to…
“Maya Judging Amy”
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!