Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week we’re discussing Whoopi (2003-2004, NBC), a single-season sitcom starring comedian Whoopi Goldberg that was created and produced by That ’70s Show‘s Bonnie and Terry Turner. Scheduled as the 8:00 anchor for NBC’s Tuesday night comedy block — headed by 9:00’s Frasier, then going into its last season — Whoopi marked the eponymous EGOT-winner’s first stab at sitcom success since the poorly received and behind-the-scenes nightmare that was 1990’s Bagdad Cafe, in which she played the owner of a desert motel and diner. The premise for Whoopi, as it turned out, was similar; only now she’d been upgraded from a motelier to a hotelier, and relocated from the desert to the cultural watering hole that is New York City… a post-9/11 New York City.
This last fact is important, for Goldberg’s intrinsic comedic genius has always been matched by an outspokenness, especially when it comes to politics, and so this vehicle to showcase her talents was also made to house her “views,” which, in the era that saw the start of the Iraq War, were largely anti-Bush and not overwhelmingly popular. So, even before Whoopi premiered, articles swirled about the series’ unlikelihood of finding success — not only because of its star’s most recent financial unpopularity, but also because of its perceived controversial nature, which went beyond her divisive politics and included her weekly chain-smoking. (By that time, even Becker had quit!) In other words, this was a show subject to extra scrutiny even before its debut, and true to its leading lady, Whoopi certainly wasn’t going to disappoint its critics…
Wait. Let’s back up and start from the top. The premise of Whoopi, a multi-camera sitcom shot and set in New York, has Goldberg playing Mavis Rae, a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, very opinionated former one-hit-wonder from the ’80s (“Don’t Hide Love”) who now runs a small boutique hotel. In the pilot, she reconnects with her brother Courtney (Wren T. Brown), a Republican lawyer — recently unemployed courtesy of Enron — whom she gives a place to stay, even though they disagree on almost everything, including his new girlfriend: a jive-talking, braids-wearing white lady named Rita (Elizabeth Regen). Rounding out the cast is Mavis’ only true companion in the hotel, her handyman, Nasim (Omid Djalili), a native Iranian who frightens the guests and hates being called an Arab (since, after all, he’s Persian).
Watching the aired pilot is difficult, for Goldberg, otherwise hilarious and a natural at knowing what’s funny and what isn’t, pushes too hard in all her scenes, especially the centerpiece, where she and Nasim go down to scare a dishonest TV salesman (Just Shoot Me!‘s Enrico Colantoni) into giving her a refund. Rendered broadly and without nuance, it’s hard to emotionally invest in her, no matter how joke-filled the Turners’ teleplay… Fortunately, Goldberg’s performance is immediately more measured by the second installment and we can attribute most of the pilot issues to “first night” jitters… More permanently troubling, meanwhile, is the support; every single regular around Mavis is a cliché, designed solely for the political jokes they can enable — the conservative brother who “acts white,” the obnoxious white girl who “acts black,” and the begrudged Middle Easterner who apparently is only allowed to talk about this fact. There’s absolutely no substance here: Rita is a one-joke caricature that grows old by the second scene, and Nasim is a one-dimensional stooge, impossible to care about — not because he’s from Iran, but because there’s nothing else to him. And most importantly — Courtney, with whom Mavis is supposed to have the series’ grounding emotional bond, is used merely as an excuse for Goldberg to complain about Bush and the then-current state of world affairs… All this, with the familiar and played-out hotel setting as a backdrop… Needless to say, YIKES.
That’s the pilot though. Things get better, and the second episode introduces three more characters: Jadwiga (Gordana Rashovich), the hotel’s mouthy Eastern European housekeeper; Sophia (played by Broadway diva Mary Testa), Mavis’ plain-talking smoke buddy who owns the restaurant next door; and MaryAnn Hu as an unnamed saleswoman with whom Mavis clashes when she (and Nasim) go down to Chinatown to score a knock-off bag. Jadwiga and Sophia instantly become regulars, and this is immediately gratifying, for Sophia, used exclusively in her first few episodes for one-off scenes where Mavis goes outside to take a smoke, is an effortless confidant — and unlike Nasim, Courtney, or Rita — free of political clichés. Jadwiga is valuable, too — she’s a joke-peddling tertiary character who takes care of the other end of Whoopi‘s problem: keeping Nasim preoccupied and away from A-stories with Mavis. That is, because Mavis herself needs someone of a more well-rounded humanity as her counterbalancing partner, Nasim’s stereotypical caricature doesn’t cut it. Therefore, by giving him someone more complementary, another goofy stereotype working in maintenance at the hotel, the show takes care of two birds with one figurative stone: it gives him something to do, and frees Mavis for partnerships that are less forced and make more emotional sense in story.
The unnamed saleswoman, meanwhile, doesn’t pop up again until the eighth episode, when she becomes Soo Lin, a member of Mavis’ weekly poker group, which meets in the kitchen and also includes Sophia, Rita, and Danielle Lee Greaves as Danielle (a working mom). From this point on, the poker group appears in every episode but one, becoming a mainstay of the series — a breather from story, and a place for Mavis and her friends to riff on whatever the weekly plot happens to be. Even with the unbelievable and divestment-inducing Rita present, these poker scenes become easily the series’ best moments… and we’ll talk in a bit about why. First though, it must be said that this isn’t what the show was designed, or even wants, to be. It doesn’t want to be the Mavis and Her Friends Show; it wants to be a controversial, political show that deals with the realities of the present moment, busting racial stereotypes in the process.
To the first point — the present moment — that’s well-addressed, but mostly in story: ostentatious Victories In Premise that are driven by their situation, and not so much by the characters and their flaws-forward, but goal-seeking choices. To the second point — the busting of racial stereotypes — that’s not well-addressed, simply because mocking clichés doesn’t ruin them. Humanity — a dose of honesty — is what proves them to be untrue, and sadly, Whoopi is a little too enamored of using race for easy comedy to actually say something substantive or thought-provoking. And while I’ll never knock a sitcom for emphasizing its “com,” I will knock a sitcom that is turning to something else — story, politics, clichés — to emphasize its “com.” It should come from character! And that’s fundamentally a problem here — never solved… And yet, Whoopi WANTS to be this way, so there’s a tension that starts to exist between the episodes that are overtly political in situation (and/or generally more idea-led and meant to support the show’s notion of itself) and the ones that have discovered a more character-forward design, usually with Mavis and characters other than her chosen leads.
There are two ways — and to my eye, only two ways — the show is able to reconcile what it wants to be vs. what it more naturally should be: through the fortification of Mavis’s central relationship and the strategic use of the poker group. With regard to the relationship, it’s clear that Courtney, her brother, is structurally the person with whom Mavis has the most at stake emotionally. We therefore expect their dynamic to be the heart and soul of Whoopi… However, the series — and early episodes especially — make us doubt this by pairing Mavis more often in story with Nasim, who is her partner in crime for broad situational hijinks… even though he’s not developed enough to have anything more than a light, trivial, bantery bond with anyone (see: his relationship with Jadwiga). Even worse, the series sticks Courtney with Rita, who, in my mind, embodies one of the show’s main concerns because she’s built only for comedy — it’s funny in the first scene, but never again — with little regard to her functional usage, and by having her “act black,” the series is actually reinforcing a stereotype, not rejecting it.
Furthermore, because she’s comedically absurd and gets Mavis so annoyed, Rita allows scripts to misdirect what should be the central tension of the show: the weekly battles between a liberal woman and her conservative brother. That is, with Rita around to bother Mavis and serve as the thorn in her side — and get easy jokes based on the way she talks — it gives the show an excuse to avoid the natural conflict that it built, based on the characterizations between two people who inherently should form the central relationship. The fact that the series, which desperately wants to be politically relevant, designs itself as such and then goes out of its way to avoid hitting it head on (and with scant humanity) is astounding… I mean, Mavis and Courtney can only be Meathead vs. Archie if their differing positions are underscored by something deeper, like the rivalry/shared love for the “little goil.” Which brings us back to the first way I believe the show is able to reconcile its identity — fortifying their relationship. You see, there are only a few episodes here where theirs seems like the most important bond, and they feel believably connected as human beings, which is the first step towards using their political differences in conflict that isn’t just political, but actively character-rooted.
The second way the series is able to marry what it wants to be with what it’s discovering it should be is in that aforementioned poker group. I noted above that it makes for some of the series’ best scenes, allowing episodes to break from story and have characters riff on the action… But that’s not all; this poker group, consisting of women of all different colors and backgrounds, serves as a sort of proxy The View, where Whoopi Goldberg can lead the rest of the table in a jokey discussion of the week’s designated social or political subject matter. Different ideas are represented, supporting the notion that these ladies have contrasting characterizations (that aren’t solely clichéd or based on race), while Whoopi, er, Mavis, gets to reign supreme, and frame the conversation with her overruling perspective. In these moments, Whoopi gets to be exactly the kind of political show it wants to be, but it also takes advantage of a setup that is intrinsically more character-forward, and free of the major problems that otherwise plague the use of the other regulars, particularly Nasim and Rita. Finally, Whoopi makes sense.
Now, the question at the heart of all this is whether or not Whoopi‘s politics were the cause of the show’s short-lived status. For starters, I’d remind that any time a series has a priority that ISN’T the motivated and comedic use of its characters within stories that explore them, there’s likely a creative problem, evidenced by the episodes themselves. But, I don’t think there’s a version of Whoopi that isn’t political — because that’s part of the Goldberg package; at this point in her career, she wouldn’t be part of something that didn’t afford her that opportunity. Accordingly, as I hope to have indicated, the show had a couple of ways it could have alleviated its issues — through character. (And, to play armchair quarterback, I’d have had the show build up the poker girls, especially Sophia — she should have been Mavis’ best friend and story partner — and hit the conflicts between Courtney and Mavis directly. This would mean dropping Rita, a distraction who offers nothing good for the show, but keeping Nasim, who, once romantically linked to Jadwiga, could be the perfect provider of subplots.) Ultimately then, while politics complicated matters, it didn’t have to be fatal, and thus wasn’t…
… At least, not creatively. Commercially? Well… although Whoopi opened to decent numbers — premiering two weeks before the rest of the season, so it (and its lead-out, Happy Family) could get a head start on the forthcoming juggernaut that was American Idol — its returns naturally declined from there, so much so that after it got a full order, it was on the bubble for the rest of its run. So, when it was canceled, there’s no doubt its numbers — it was ranked #88 by April — were why. Now, there are contrasting perspectives on how involved the network was in censorship, but I’ve not found any direct link between the show’s content and fate, other than the already established acknowledgment that its anti-Bush lead was going to turn off a significant portion, if not majority, of the audience. That the show later got somewhat smarter about couching its politics within the poker group is immaterial; the series’ reputation preceded it. And just as the naysayers warned from the beginning, the highly politicized show’s chances for success were small… especially at 8:00. (Alas, it would have fit better at 9:30 after Frasier, but NBC was still trying hard with the bland MSTV reject, Good Morning, Miami.)
How does Whoopi look today? Well, it’s a show that never solves any of the problems mentioned above with regard to caricatures being used in place of characters, for politically opportunistic jokes rule the day. It’s also never a great character-driven show; most stories are situational, led by politics, the premise, or cheap guest star cameos. And it remains seriously lacking in what we often call “heart.” But there are moments of great comedy, and when the show stumbles upon the poker group, there’s a sense of purpose that’s far greater than anything Whoopi had earlier, for its star uncovered an early iteration of her next big gig: moderating The View, where she could share her opinions and make people laugh. (In that order.)
So, because there are moments that work within Whoopi‘s 22-episode run (all of which I’ve seen), I am able to make a list of favorites — see them below in AIRING ORDER. The series was on Hulu several years ago, but has since been removed. It’s currently unofficially available on YouTube and is otherwise easy to find, as far as these short-lived shows go…
01) Episode 6: “The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy” (Aired: 10/14/03)
Mavis finds herself invited to the White House to see President Bush.
Written by Larry Wilmore | Directed by Terry Hughes
This is the first entry that comes close to using the series’ desired politics in a way that’s ideal, as the story — in which President Bush stops by the hotel — features the siblings’ relationship as a bedrock for its drama, framing the action and supplying substance to something otherwise situational. But it is funny, especially following the centerpiece with Bush — in which Mavis is unable to tell him off because he compliments her and stuns her into a quick photo op that suggests to the world she’s one of his supporters — for Mavis is then invited to the White House, where she gets into a brawl with a pair of black Republicans. Why does that work so well? Because Mavis’ feelings about them hint to her underlying issue with Courtney.
02) Episode 7: “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Partner” (Aired: 10/21/03)
Mavis continues to feud with her ex-singing partner after their other partner dies.
Written by David Regal | Directed by Terry Hughes
The great Sheryl Lee Ralph guest stars in this offering as Florence, one-third of a singing trio that consisted of Mavis and another woman who’s sadly just died. Unfortunately, while both surviving women adored the dead singer, they can’t stand each other, leading to a lot of great, bitchy moments (broad, Mavis-drugged-at-the-funeral bit notwithstanding). Actually, this installment is valuable for other reasons, too — it takes its story from an established aspect of Mavis’ character (her former singing career) that is both comedic and non-political, and it’s used as the fulcrum around which other subplots are allowed to revolve, like those with Nasim and with Rita, who’s jealous that Courtney and Florence once had a tryst of their own.
03) Episode 8: “Rita Plays Poker” (Aired: 10/28/03)
Rita and Courtney split after she begins hanging out with Mavis’ poker crew.
Written by Terry Turner | Directed by Terry Hughes
Credited to co-creator Terry Turner, this script is a gem in spite of its chosen story, which gives plenty of air time to the most difficult character in the entire series, Rita, who, as noted above, is simply too one-dimensional to be worthy of our emotional investment. Here, we really don’t care that she and Courtney temporarily split; in fact, our only wish is that it would be permanent. But the quality of the teleplay is jokey enough — and filled with smarter jokes than is this series’ norm — to help smooth over some of these concerns, and with the formal introduction of Mavis’ show-elevating poker group (with an early self-acknowledging The View reference thrown in for good measure), “Rita Plays Poker” is seminal for the series.
04) Episode 12: “American Woman” (Aired: 01/06/04)
Mavis deals with pot smokers in her hotel as Nasim plans for his citizenship exam.
Written by Mike Larsen | Directed by Terry Hughes
Honestly, I’m not typically bowled over by special guest star appearances, and Whoopi manages to sneak in a handful during its short life. So, this entry isn’t here because Rue McClanahan and Eli Wallach play a married couple who’ve taken a room in the hotel where they and their friends plan to get high on medicinal marijuana, which isn’t legal but has been prescribed to help alleviate them of their ails. But, it isn’t NOT here because of them either… for although the subject matter gives the series a chance to be mildly political (ganja talk, prior to its legalization), and there’s an appropriately political-ish subplot with Nasim, there is an inherent novelty to seeing the ever-funny Rue McClanahan toking it up and shocking Whoopi Goldberg.
05) Episode 15: “The Last Dance” (Aired: 02/24/04)
Mavis’ old friend-with-benefits has found God.
Written by Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman | Directed by Terry Hughes
Again, this memorable installment isn’t here because it includes the special guest appearance of Whoopi‘s former Ghost co-star Patrick Swayze, playing an old lover of Mavis’ who shocks her when he reveals that he’s found God and given up smoking, drinking, dancing, and worst of all… the very thing she was most looking forward to: sex. It’s an easily comedic premise, built for Whoopi to play temptress and for the two to hit the dance floor for a brief bit. But the real boon here is the teleplay, credited to a pair of former Golden Girls vets (reuniting with series director Terry Hughes, incidentally) — their work not only has a great grasp of comedy, but their poker scene practically teems with the aforementioned series’ similar high-laugh conversational charm, showcasing the poker group’s potential within Whoopi at large.
06) Episode 16: “No Sex In The City” (Aired: 03/02/04)
Mavis and the girls go out for Soo Lin’s bachelorette party.
Written by Nick LeRose | Directed by Terry Hughes
Notable as being the only entry that features the poker group as the source of its story — I think it would have been used more often if the show had been allowed a second season — this offering is a fine characterization-building effort for the ladies at the table, especially Soo Lin, introduced way back in the sophomore outing as an argumentative and no-named Chinatown knock-off saleslady who’s finally fleshed out now as we meet her family and learn that she’s soon to be married… Honestly, though, the plot is incidental; this is just a chance to get Whoopi and the women out to a club where she can interact with characters with whom she shares a better, non-political rapport, especially the hilarious Mary Testa as Sophia.
07) Episode 18: “Don’t Hide Love” (Aired: 03/23/04)
Mavis has a Republican convention and a lesbian wedding booked for the same day.
Written by Alison McDonald | Directed by Terry Hughes
Definitely the strongest episode of the entire series, “Don’t Hide Love” is Whoopi‘s most successful confluence of every major part of its identity — starting with a jokey teleplay that utilizes, for 2004, an inherently political storyline. (Mavis’ cousin wants to use the hotel for her wedding… to a woman.) This puts Mavis in natural opposition to her most important emotional counterpoint — her brother, who’s been hired as part of Bush’s re-election campaign and is having an event at the hotel the same day — while also enabling the now-routinized poker group to give The View style reactions on the then-much-more-controversial subject of gay marriage, about which Goldberg naturally wants to gab. Furthermore, the script uses Mavis’ established past as a singer of a one-hit-wonder to its comedic advantage, weaving it into the narrative for a relevant, but character-rooted climax. There’s no better sample of Whoopi.
Other notable entries include three later shows that try to use the siblings’ differing politics for story — “What Child Is This?,” “Strange Bedfellows,” and “Sins Of The Sister,” the last two of which benefit from the start of the Nasim/Jadwiga affair — along with “Mother’s Little Helper” and “The Squatter,” two terrible shows that otherwise feature big guest stars: Diahann Carroll and Celeste Holm (with Krysten Ritter), respectively.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more That ’70s Show!
Great commentary. Reminds me of your MURPHY BROWN coverage.
Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Absolutely — politics isn’t disqualifying if it’s used for the exploration of character; but too often shows that deal in politics are unable to keep their characters above their agenda. MURPHY BROWN is a prime example.
Great piece. Now I’m dying to read about the fiasco that was BAGDAD CAFE, especially the backstage turmoil. I seem to remember Whoopi bailing as soon as GHOST made her career hot again. True?
Hi, Mark! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, but only after participating in a tortured creative retooling for which she pushed and the installment of a new set of producers, with whom she clashed (just as she had the earlier set).
I agree that the show fell short of its goals in some ways. While I enjoyed the interspersing of commentary on politics of the time, some of the stereotypes discussed were not—as you mentioned—helped any by the manner in which they were presented. I did, however, find Elizabeth Regen’s portrayal of Rita to be entertaining and well-executed. Maybe some of the story lines didn’t need her as much; but she added an interesting contrast in many cases where I don’t think Mary Testa’s Sophia would’ve offered as much diversion from the tone of Whoopi’s Mavis.
Hi, Justin! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Not every character is meant to function in the same way. If the principal drama of the show is to be in the contentious relationship between Mavis and her brother, then using Rita as the main “contrast” to Mavis, or primary source of conflict, distracts from the thesis by supplanting it — and with a one-joke bond in which we, and they, are less emotionally invested. The fact that Rita’s entire definition lacks nuance is merely “the cherry on top” with regard to her utilization, and it poises her for disappointment, while Sophia, whose initial blank slate of a characterization is incrementally colored as the short-lived series progresses, gives her prospects the allusion of abundance, rather than constriction (like Rita).
Also, given how Nasim’s own issues with a lack of nuance quickly became clear, the series’ need to provide Mavis a new ally in story became greater than its need to focus on Rita as an antagonist, especially because it was already splitting the difference there in several different directions, and often relying on outside characters and/or story mechanics to supply drama anyway, ignoring *both* Courtney and Rita as often as it included them. In fact, Rita became less valuable, while Sophia became more — simply because their purposes differed. This brings me back to my first point: not every character is meant to function in the same way. And, generally, if they do, there’s a problem.