Short-Lived Sitcom Potpourri (III)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week we’re finally getting to the third in our potpourri series, where I (briefly) discuss several of the short-lived sitcoms I never had the chance to highlight, in full Wildcard treatment, elsewhere 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 that I think best represents the series at large. There’s no formal theme to the shows this time, but some of them have an Everybody Loves Raymond connection…

 

ROOM FOR TWO (Mar 1992-July 1993, ABC)

Premise: Combative mother and daughter work together on a local New York morning show — the daughter as a producer, the mother as the talent.

Cast: Linda Lavin, Patricia Heaton, Bess Meyer, John Putch, Peter Michael Goetz, Jeff Yagher, Paula Kelly, and Andrew Prine

Creator/Writers: Rick Kellard & Wendy Goldman, Russ Woody, Don Woodard & Tom Maxwell, Lisa Loomer, Kathy Slevin, Dana Coen, Emily Levine, Becky Hartman Edwards

Thoughts: Having only seen five episodes, I’m unable to render any opinion on the series’ evolution, particularly during its second season, which judging from loglines, used more guest stars BUT became more relationship-driven… Yet what I can say about the show and the way it was developing is that it’s notable mostly because two strong performers — Lavin and Heaton — form the core relationship. Otherwise, this has a familiar odd couple premise — even though they foolishly stop living together after week two — and a weak ensemble. Furthermore, the two leads annoy each other, but only mildly — it’s all too sweet, and there’s never any real conflict (you know, the kind we’re seeing on Raymond, where heavy drama leads to big laughs). Because Room For Two is so tame, like early Raymond, it’s not as funny as it needs to be.

Episode Count: 26 produced; 24 broadcast. (11 for Season One; 15 for Season Two.)

Episodes Seen: Only the first five of Season One.

Key Episode (of Seen): #3: “Whose Mouth Is It Anyway?” (04/07/92)

Why: It’s got the biggest conflict of all the ones I’ve seen, and gives both ladies obvious flaws.

 

THE BOYS (Aug-Sept 1993, CBS)

Premise: A horror novelist moves to a small town outside Seattle and befriends a group of older men who used to hang out with his new house’s previous — and now dead — owner.

Cast: Christopher Meloni, Isabella Hofmann, Richard Venture, John Harkins, Ned Beatty, Doris Roberts

Creator/Writers: Dan O’Shannon, Clay Graham, Dan Staley

Thoughts: Airing next to Bonnie Hunt’s The Building, this was one of several short-lived CBS shows from late summer 1993 (another being Big Wave Dave’s). The opening stanza, about a horror novelist who befriends a group of men 30-ish years his senior, indicates great character writing — thanks to its creator, a Cheers alum — but it’s fundamentally dark, both visually and thematically, as the whole premise is that “the boys” are trying to turn Meloni’s character into a viable replacement for their dead friend, whose deadness is reiterated over and over. So, I can see how the premiere, which didn’t give viewers a flashy, hooky reason to watch — would be inherently off-putting, even though the older cast is charming, including Doris Roberts, who plays a much daffier, sweeter version of Marie Barone.

Episode Count: Six produced; five broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All five broadcast, except #4: “The Writing Class”

Key Episode (of Seen): #5: “95 In The Shade” (09/17/93)

Why: This fascinating low-concept episode takes place entirely on the porch, meaning that it’s all about the characters and their interactions. No gimmicks… This design lets us revel in just how relatively well-defined they are… albeit undynamic. That is, the entry also shows us why the series would be, for many, unappealing (in addition to the relative darkness mentioned above) — there’s no humorous hook, nothing jazzy to get viewers into the door… And, in fact, this may actually speak to a real problem with the series; What is its comedic engine? Meloni’s fish-out-of-water-ness… well, why isn’t that better reinforced in story? Your guess is as good as mine because we really need a stronger propellant. Here, amiable characters aren’t enough.

 

THE BONNIE HUNT SHOW [a.k.a. BONNIE] (Sept 1995-Apr 1996, CBS)

Premise: Updated Mary Tyler Moore Show, with Bonnie playing a Midwestern gal starting out in big-city TV news — this time as a features reporter. The ensemble is filled out with her colleagues at the station, some of whom also live in her building.

Cast: Bonnie Hunt, Mark Derwin, Brian Howe, Don Lake, Tom Virtue, Holly Wortell, Janet Carroll, Richard Gant, Eamonn Roche

Creator/Writers: Rob Burnett, Bonnie Hunt, Steve Faber, Bob Fisher, Michael Short, Elaine Arata

Thoughts: We’ve seen many wannabe Mary Tyler Moore reduxes here, but this one comes the closest to capturing the fresh-faced, palpably humane spirit of the original, thanks to a similar and similarly story-conducive setting, and also to a dynamic leading lady backed by a collection of funny ensemble players, many of them Second City vets — some of whom had appeared earlier with Hunt on The Building (a much more experimental series that we discussed here). This one plays by more traditional rules than her prior effort, essentially giving us a straightforward ensemble workplace comedy, à la that great MTM show, but with a burgeoning love triangle (in the era of Friends, all hits must have a little soap)… However, there’s still plenty of room for Hunt to improvise, particularly in the single-camera “on the street” pieces that Bonnie goes out to do once per episode. By controlling the wackiness (yes, there remains a playful spontaneity to the rest of the scenes, too — but not like we saw in the loosey goosey The Building), the show can then focus on building its character-driven comedy, making The Bonnie Hunt Show — retitled Bonnie when it returned in March ’96 after being pulled the prior October (where it had aired in the slot that Raymond would take a season later) — a stronger piece, and indeed, one of the best we’ve featured in this potpourri series, with a lot going for it by way of our usual character metrics and Hunt’s own unique improvisational charms.

Episode Count: 13 produced; 11 broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All 11 broadcast entries.

Key Episode (of Seen): #9: “Hair Today, Gone Merlot” (03/24/96)

Why: The Victorious Premise — of Bonnie spilling wine on a co-worker’s toupee and then feeling bad when rumors circulate that he’s an alcoholic — is a fine workplace story that indulges Mary Tyler Moore associations, particularly with Bonnie’s character, who like Mary, wants to do the right thing… without hurting any feelings. It’s funny, it’s human, and it’s a good representation of the show. It’s probably the best after the pilot, which is, otherwise, the most exciting sample of the series. (The aired finale has some strong moments as well.)

 

THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN (Sept-Nov 1998, ABC)

Premise: Three divorced men hang out together now that they’re all single again.

Cast: Peter Gallagher, Bradley Whitford, Mitch Rouse, Christine Dunford (replacing Sofia Milos in the pilot)

Creator/Writers: Susan Harris, John Levenstein, Jill Condon & Amy Toomin, Jill Franklyn

Thoughts: Fixation on gender forces additional scrutiny: how different does the show think men are from women? It’s unclear. The show is set primarily in public places (a locker room, a bar, a golf course) as opposed to the typical and more personal spaces (like private homes, for instance), and this suggests that there’s more emotional distance between close guy pals compared to their distaff counterparts. Yet the storytelling remains highly reminiscent of past Harris efforts and other all-female shows… Ultimately, it’s a disconcerting, but secondary concern; the problem is the usual: the characters aren’t well-defined enough to motivate plot. Okay, actually there are small details that make them seem like real human beings, but their personalities aren’t designed for functional use. And once again, there’s an emotional distance — as if scripts really aren’t sure what secrets there are in the lives of men…

Episode Count: 13 produced; seven broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All seven broadcast entries.

Key Episode (of Seen): #3: “Sex, Lies, And Videotape” (10/14/98)

Why: There are no great — or even close to great — episodes of this series, but this one (penned by Harris) spends the most time in the three guys’ homes, which makes it unique and does surprisingly a lot for cementing their bonds and our interest in them as a trio. Also, the script services all three guys with story, so if you want to see how they’re written to be different from each other (however slight), this is the one to watch.

 

THANKS (Aug-Sept 1999, CBS)

Premise: A family lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts… in 1621.

Cast: Tim Dutton, Kirsten Nelson, Jim Rash, Erika Christensen, Amy Centner, Andrew Ducote, and Cloris Leachman / Recurring: Glenn Shadix, Keith Szarabajka, John Farley, Elizabeth Anne Smith, John Fleck, Kathryn Joosten, Robert Machray, and Jane Carr

Creator/Writers: Phoef Sutton & Mark Legan

Thoughts: High-concept show set in Puritan times was inspired by the British Blackadder (obviously), along with the early ‘80s Best Of The West (which I will cover at some point before this blog ends) and it suffers because its gimmicky concept and setting-based humor makes it more like sketch comedy than the character-driven sitcomery necessary for a sustaining series… However, there’s better character work here than expected — thanks to another Cheers alum serving as co-creator — and it’s indeed funny, filled out by a superlative regular and supporting cast, including Cloris Leachman, Glenn Shadix, Kathryn Joosten, and Jane Carr… Incidentally, given the high-concept humor (which was also compared to both Monty Python’s and Mel Brooks’ work), this is a show that would probably find more success in today’s niche marketplace, where the British template of fewer episodes per season — like six — is more common. Not only would the narrative burden on Thanks be lessened in this arrangement — and its dependence on gaudy idea-based story all but requires fewer chances to overexert and run dry of inspiration — but also, the setting is a nice place to visit… but we wouldn’t want to live there; six weeks a season is great, 22 would have been comedically lethal. So, it’s easy to see why this couldn’t catch on, even though this limited run is outrageous fun.

Episode Count: Six produced and broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All six.

Key Episode: #5: “Spring” (Aired: 08/30/99)

Why: This idea-based series is one where any offering could be highlighted as worth watching — they’re each unique and narratively notable — but I’m going to guess that one of the main draws for most viewers today would be Cloris Leachman, so I’ve picked one that gives her the most to do. Here, she gets a love interest in the form of Orson Bean. The ending is great anti-Puritan fun when Grammy takes her beau out for a test “ride” and then rejects his proposal when his performance doesn’t live up to her standards…

 

LOVE & MONEY (Oct 1999-July 2000, CBS)

Premise: A rich girl shocks her family by running out on her wedding day to resume an old affair with the son of their building’s super.

Cast: Brian Van Holt, Paget Brewster, Brian Doyle-Murray, John Livingston, Judy Greer, Swoosie Kurtz, and David Ogden Stiers

Creator/Writers: Dan Staley & Rob Long, Daphne Pollon, Howard Margulies, Phil Baker & Drew Vaupen, F.J. Pratt & Dan Cohen, Ross Abrash, Cindy Collins, Bob Sand

Thoughts: This old-fashioned show about a couple coming from different backgrounds with oppositional families goes back further than even Staley & Long’s recent George & Leo, and it’s beset by the same problems that plague most of the shows in this category: a boring central couple. While the family members, particularly the rich ones in this case, are allowed to be flawed and larger than life — in a manner nevertheless too predictable for its own good — those more driven by love than money are too noble to really make mistakes… or be interesting (read: funny). Thus, the cast — which is good all the way around (Greer, Kurtz, and Ogden Stiers, especially) — is too often let down by a premise that’s not only soured by the inherent familiarity (that viewers found clichéd), but also forces unevenness, where some members are overly broad, while others have absolutely no comedic mojo whatsoever.

Episode Count: 13 produced; only five were verifiably broadcast. | Episodes Seen: All 13.

Key Episode: #1: “Pilot” (10/08/99)

Why: It’s terribly predictable and clichéd, but it’s got the funniest script, and frankly, the most believable conflict. Feels like the third act of a 1930s screwball comedy… one we’ve seen before, but still enjoy… The rest of the series is just stuff we’ve seen before.

 

Ultimately, I say there’s value in studying all of the shows above, with the exception of the mediocre Room For Two and the dreadful The Secret Lives Of Men. And aside from the truly strong and notable The Bonnie Hunt Show [a.k.a. Bonnie], the others — The Boys and Love & Morey — are flawed but not abominable, and I suggest enjoying Thanks for what it is.

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard post! Also, don’t forget that Tuesday will bring more Raymond!

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

  1. Don’t remember the first two but really liked THE BONNIE HUNT SHOW. THANKS was cute but obviously not meant to run for very long. It would have gotten old fast.

    THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN was terrible and LOVE & MONEY was so disappointing. What a great cast wasted.

    Any more pot pouri posts planned?

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