The Ten Best THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW Episodes of Season Four

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our coverage on the best of The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959, CBS) — a.k.a. You’ll Never Get Rich, a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko — which is currently available in full on DVD from Shout Factory.

The Phil Silvers Show stars PHIL SILVERS as MSgt. Ernie Bilko, HARVEY LEMBECK as Cpl. Rocco Barbella, ALLAN MELVIN as Cpl. Steve Henshaw, BILLY SANDS as Pvt. Dino Paparelli, HERBIE FAYE as Cpl. Sam Fender, MICKEY FREEMAN as Pvt. Fielding Zimmerman, MAURICE GOSFIELD as Pvt. Duane Doberman, and PAUL FORD as Col. John T. Hall. AL DE CAPRIO is the series’ resident Director.

When we talk about the last two “Hiken-less” years of The Phil Silvers Show, we tend to lump them together, for they’re both collectively inferior to the stellar first season and the almost-as-stellar second. This makes sense; not only do Three and Four lack Hiken’s complicated storytelling structure, they’re also less creative in story cultivation, which means, like all idea-driven shows in the sketch comedy vein where success is predicated on the weekly plot, a drought in great ideas means fewer episodic gems. Fortunately, there’s never a period in Phil Silvers’ run with a legitimate drought — there are fine writers at work here still, including Neil Simon, and they easily indulge the series’ need for funny situations. But, frankly, without Hiken, the funny situations are not as correlated to the Bilko persona, and as a result, the last two years have more shows with premise-ignorant gimmicks, like guest stars and flashy settings, along with metatheatrical show biz-based narratives — a theme that Hiken himself implanted. However, there is a definite difference between Three and Four — it’s that the final season is more obvious about its pursuit of story outside the premise, with a slight revamp that finds the entire company moving from Kansas to a small base between L.A. and San Fran where the writers acknowledge their need for big city plots and more guest stars. This forthrightness is a symbol of a season that, generally, takes more risks: it has bigger stories, bigger laughs, and bigger leaps in logic, as the only true constant is the Bilko persona — everything else, like the situation, is flexible. To that point, these aren’t Hiken-era scripts, but they “get” the Bilko character, and with a funny show by funny writers who know funny situations, I don’t have a lot of complaints. To wit, I think this is a bolder, and therefore more interesting list than Three’s, and even though the Academy was done awarding it Emmys, the fact that the series would bow out at THIS level of quality is impressive (the superiority of the first two seasons notwithstanding), and indeed, the ten episodes I have selected to exemplify this season’s finest also prove my thesis: The Phil Silvers Show deserves to be discussed as one of the seminal sitcoms of the 1950s. It’s been a pleasure doing so these past few weeks. (Also, with regard to the below list, I don’t count the partially lost hour-long live variety special Keep In Step as an episode of the series itself.)

 

01) Episode 109: “Bilko’s Vampire” (Aired: 10/03/58)

Bilko makes a horror-obsessed Ritzik think he’s turning into a vampire.

Written by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Bilko’s Vampire” is one of those well-liked offerings that ably illustrates the broader, bolder nature of the year, with stories less rooted in traditional logic than those from the Hiken era. Sometimes this is a distraction and a detraction, but laughs can justify anything, and if a show commits to big comedy and actually achieves it, I enjoy rewarding it — especially, in this case, when it reflects the season itself so well. Additionally, the story is built around a Bilko scheme that’s a little plotty, so it’s reminiscent of the Golden Age, for Bilko’s attempts to convince Ritzik, who’s given up on the weekly poker games to stay home and watch horror movies on TV, that the latter is turning into a vampire, is a wonderfully elaborate ruse and it only gets better, and more Bilko-esque, when he then tries to capitalize upon the idea. It’s just lots of fun, and easily the final year’s most unforgettable.

02) Episode 111: “Bilko, The Potato Sack King” (Aired: 10/17/58)

Bilko tries to sell the Army on a new uniform made out of burlap.

Written by Neil Simon & Terry Ryan

Although I think this idea owes something of its foundation to a more memorable Lucy outing in which the husbands convince their wives that potato sack dresses are the latest Parisian fashion trend, this Bilko scheme is nevertheless highly comedic too, particularly the climactic sequence where it’s clear burlap is not all the Master Sergeant is cracking it up to be.

03) Episode 112: “Bilko Vs. Covington” (Aired: 10/24/58)

Bilko finally meets his match in a new sergeant.

Written by Neil Simon, Terry Ryan, & Arnie Rosen

Throughout the course of the series, Bilko has occasionally been outsmarted by others — his former recurring love interest Joan Hogan, for instance. But this installment heightens and zeroes in on this premise by giving him a true rival (Keefe Brasselle), who’s capable of engaging in a similar type of psychological warfare. Accordingly, this is a show that uses its lead very well.

04) Episode 113: “Bilko Joins The Navy” (Aired: 10/31/58)

Bilko and two soldiers find themselves on a Navy ship headed to Alaska.

Written by Neil Simon & Terry Ryan

This popular excursion was featured on the initial “best of” DVD release (one of only two entries from Season Four), and I must admit that I’m not quite sure why it’s so beloved — it’s not the guest appearance by Larry Storch (in his first of two episodes this year). But I do know why I like it: the Navy setting is an extension of the Army and it therefore feels familiar — allowing the show to seem like it’s engaging its premise — despite being nevertheless fresh.

05) Episode 117: “Bilko And The Chaplain” (Aired: 11/28/58)

The Colonel assigns a chaplain to accompany Bilko on a trip to the city.

Written by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby

Another well-liked outing, this half-hour earns a spot on this list because it’s one of those rare examples where Bilko isn’t leading the action. Actually, that honor belongs to the Chaplain, who accompanies Bilko to the city and uses him to make good on a charitable endeavor. Naturally though, Bilko’s way of doing things lands the Chaplain in jail! A solid show.

06) Episode 120: “Bilko’s Giveaway” (Aired: 12/19/58)

Bilko creates his own crooked quiz show to unload prizes he doesn’t want taxed.

Written by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby

The series has already spoofed the TV quiz show craze back in Season Two with Fred Gwynne, but true to this year’s form, this installment takes that notion and goes more extreme, lampooning the then-current quiz show scandals by having Bilko create his own crooked “giveaway” program. They’re easy laughs, but they’re big. Morey Amsterdam guests.

07) Episode 121: “Bilko And The Medium” (Aired: 12/26/58)

Bilko hires a phony medium to help him get money from the Ritziks.

Written by Neil Simon & Terry Ryan

Charlotte Rae, who first appeared in the classic first season outing “The Twitch,” is back in this episode as a phony medium that Bilko has hired to cheat the Ritziks out of their money, which is otherwise being given to another phony medium that Bilko is able to successfully disprove. It’s, again, some really broad sketch-like comedy, but the hahas are hard to deny.

08) Episode 130: “Bilko’s Ape Man” (Aired: 03/20/59)

Bilko tries to make a soldier into the next Tarzan.

Written by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby

A show biz entry, this perfect showcase of the fourth season’s interests has many choice comedic moments, but they’re all overshadowed by the Lucille Ball cameo, as the great Redhead appears (un-billed) as a woman that Bilko has hired to sell an audience on his recent “ape man” discovery via a phony scream and faint… which she does, brilliantly.

09) Episode 136: “Bilko’s Small Car” (Aired: 05/08/59)

Bilko replaces the Colonel’s new car with a reformatted Army jeep.

Written by Neil Simon & Terry Ryan

The only rival here to my chosen MVE, “Bilko’s Small Car” is, in contrast to “Bilko’s Vampire,” a little more rooted in reality and thus more reminiscent of the earlier Hiken era that was largely superior. But instead of embodying Hiken’s storytelling sensibilities, like my aforementioned MVE, this one earns its distinction for its Victory In Premise, which makes brilliant use of the Bilko character, who literally becomes a sleazy “new” car salesman courtesy of an imaginative plot that feels like something only this show could do. One of my absolute favorites.

10) Episode 142: “Weekend Colonel” (Aired: 06/19/59)

When the Colonel installs cameras at the base, Bilko hires a lookalike Hall.

Written by Neil Simon & Terry Ryan

Much has been made about this series finale, especially in discussions about Seinfeld, which not only connects to Phil Silvers through its idea-drivenness, but also because it self-reflectively ends with its characters behind bars. More than that though, with a fourth-wall-breaking “that’s all, folks,” this is yet another performance-led show that reiterates the final year’s loosened grip on reality, as Bilko hires a Colonel Hall lookalike to fool the new surveillance cameras installed around the base. It’s a kooky scheme that devolves into the Colonel watching Bilko on TV — isn’t that the whole series in a nutshell? (Note that this is also on the “best of” DVD.)

 

Other memorable premises can be found in: “Bilko’s De Luxe Tours,” “Bilko Presents The McGuire Sisters,” “Bilko’s Bopster,” “Viva Bilko,” “Bilko’s Formula Seven,” “Guinea Pig Bilko,” “Doberman: Missing Heir,” and “Bilko In Outer Space.” (I want to like “Bilko’s Big Woman Hunt,” but it doesn’t at all feel like a Phil Silvers show.)

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Phil Silvers Show goes to…

“Bilko’s Vampire”

 

 

Come back next week for Leave It To Beaver! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!

2 thoughts on “The Ten Best THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW Episodes of Season Four

  1. You must not be a fan of “Bilko’s Sharpshooter”. :-)

    I agree that this is a stronger list than Season 3’s. Silvers was reportedly bitter about the cancellation, but I think the show ended at the right time. You can see signs that a fifth season would have likely represented a significant drop in quality.

    I was glad to see Storch’s episode make the original DVD release, since we got a rare DVD commentary from him. Both of his episodes during this season are good ones (I’d probably rate “Bilko Joins the Navy” as one of the season’s top 3, along with Vampire and Giveaway). Bilko’s influence on F Troop was undeniable, and Storch was incredibly funny on CAR 54 as Charlie the Drunk.

    • Hi, Hal! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think “Bilko’s Sharpshooter” is a predictable ANNIE GET YOUR GUN parody in which the series’ specifics feel tangential to the comedic idea. I don’t think it’s bad, just mediocre.

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