Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983, ABC), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Laverne & Shirley stars PENNY MARSHALL as Laverne and CINDY WILLIAMS as Shirley. With MICHAEL McKEAN, DAVID L. LANDER, EDDIE MEKKA, LESLIE EASTERBROOK, and PHIL FOSTER.
The critical consensus rightfully says that Laverne & Shirley dies when it loses Shirley in Season Eight, for the show breaks its premise as a buddy comedy and can no longer live up to its identity. But that’s an over-reported story compared to what happens here in Seven, when nearly a third of the year’s output barely features either Laverne or Shirley, and a handful of others only involve one of the two, leaving half the season without the two stars together, such that the title becomes a lie. This is devastating, for although the show has tried to cultivate an ensemble under an amiable “hangout” design, and these supporting players are sometimes able to deliver the series’ necessary physical comedy, they’re underpowered — Edna has left and Lenny & Squiggy are reduced. What’s more, they all lack both the depth and authority to anchor stories that don’t make clear a relational relevance to Laverne and/or Shirley, who are the premise and therefore structurally essential. No good Laverne & Shirley is without them. Meanwhile, episodes that separate Laverne from Shirley, in addition to undermining the concept and thus robbing the series of its only real “heart,” are unable to take advantage of the “tag team” slapstick they do so well, which means these installments also have less of the show’s winning physical humor. Instead, Seven has to compensate by doing more with the two emotionally — narratively mainstreaming, via consistency and continuity, the previously only-episodic suggestion that the endgame for this series will see the duo’s separation, following successful romantic pursuits. This acknowledges maturation for the leads as a goal, which requires them to become less heightened, more realistic. Indeed, fans are eager to credit this season for “growth.” The problem? As always, these leads don’t have the definition, dimension, or practice to believably drive plot, let alone foster trackable evolution — a limitation that renders most emotional stories (and moments) false, especially without the premised support of the central relationship, the only sincere element about which we can care. And, again, minus the kind of humor that serves as the series’ primary calling card, these episodes inevitably fall entirely flat, leaving this season uniformly unsatisfying outside of a few rare segments that boast Laverne & Shirley as Laverne and Shirley — an identity Eight will officially destroy, following Seven’s abuse…
01) Episode 136: “It Only Hurts When I Breathe” (Aired: 10/27/81)
Shirley accidentally punches Laverne in the jaw before their big high school reunion.
Written by Al Aidekman | Directed by Tom Trbovich
From a season where Laverne and Shirley are seldom together, this installment — almost a two-hander for the pair — is a clear outlier, giving them their most one-on-one time of the year. It’s also a strong showing, with enough physical comedy — particularly in the beat where Shirley socks Laverne — to satisfy the series’ broad humor quotient, while also boasting a plot more thoughtful about the ladies and their relationship. Now, as usual, relying too much on the characters does make obvious the show’s inherent limitations compared to other series and other leads, but in the context of Laverne & Shirley, specifically, this episode is far better than most and one of the few true highlights of Season Seven. An MVE contender.
02) Episode 138: “Young At Heart” [a.k.a. “Teenage Lust”] (Aired: 11/10/81)
Laverne and Shirley attend a college party.
Written by Dana Olsen | Directed by Tom Trbovich
In evidence of the show’s intended maturation, letting the audience realize that Laverne and Shirley are growing up, this outing verges into familiar Mary and Rhoda territory, as the leading ladies head to a college party where they find themselves feeling very old. Of course, while Moore’s series’ take on this idea was more emotionally geared, tailored to the characters — their humanity — Laverne & Shirley’s is broader, putting the women in “youthful” attire and forcing some dancing on them that’s overly silly, but meets this show’s demanded physicality. And I don’t mean that to be a knock; after all, this is what the series does best and what we want when we watch. And, frankly, I’m just glad the stars are together! (Family members Tracy Reiner, Kathleen Marshall, Penny Lee Hallin, Judy Hallin, and Wendy S. Hallin appear.)
03) Episode 139: “The Defiant One” (Aired: 11/17/81)
Shirley is handcuffed to an escaped bank robber.
Written by Judy Pioli | Directed by Tom Trbovich
Penny Marshall barely appears in this offering, which is essentially a “Shirley show,” spotlighting Cindy Williams alone… well, with Richard Moll, playing a bank robber to whom she is inadvertently handcuffed during a failed holdup. One can imagine that this entry’s handcuffed routine — an old chestnut, unavoidable even by Lucy — could have been written with Laverne and Shirley in mind, but in this era of their separation, we’re forced to make do with only half. And she does a good job… Not as good a job as she would have done with her “partner in crime,” her premised companion, but, alas, this season’s list has to be filled out by a few unideal episodes — this is one of them: the best of the “Shirley shows.”
04) Episode 141: “Some Enchanted Earring” (Aired: 12/01/81)
Laverne loses an important family heirloom on a date.
Written by David Lerner & Bruce Ferber | Directed by Tom Trbovich
Another routine sitcom story is deployed in this outing — the lost object that must be retrieved (this time it’s an earring, a frequently misplaced item) — but while it may not be a winner in terms of narrative originality, it at least gives the leading ladies some time together, as the two go back to the lover’s lane where Laverne and her fella parked, allowing for a great bit of physical comedy in the car with the women and writer Harvey Miller as her sleazy date, whom Shirley is trying to distract as Laverne searches for the earring. That’s worth the figurative price of admission and the reason it’s highlighted. (I’m not too big on the forced sentiment between Laverne and her father, but hey, this is a Garry Marshall series, so I know what I’m getting.)
05) Episode 142: “Moving In” (Aired: 12/08/81)
Laverne moves in with her boyfriend.
Written by Terry Hart | Directed by Tom Trbovich
Truthfully, this installment not only doesn’t yield enough of the series’ specific brand of comedy to be called a worthwhile sample of Laverne & Shirley, it’s also not enjoyable enough to deserve a place on any of the lists I make for this blog. However, I include it here deliberately, as it’s the episode in Season Seven that most corroborates the year’s efforts to indicate growth for the women and confirm that their endgame — the thing that will end the series — is the successful romantic pairings of either Laverne and/or Shirley, who will then split. More than any other offering over the course of the run, this one — which sees Laverne move in with her beau (played by Paul Sand, her former costar in his flop MTM series, Friends And Lovers) — renders plain their intended trajectory, and while it’s not comedic and obviously isn’t going to last (it’s shmuck bait), it uses the central relationship as its emotional ballast. This is not totally effective from a wide-angle lens, but from this series’, and this season’s, it does what it’s supposed to do.
06) Episode 144: “I Do, I Don’t” (Aired: 01/05/82)
Shirley tries to force Carmine into marrying her.
Written by Cindy Begel & Lesa Kite | Directed by Tom Trbovich
Doubling down on the possibility of emotional growth and, specifically, the exit strategy for the series, this outing proposes more shmuck bait — the idea that maybe Shirley and Carmine will finally tie the knot — and while it’s another ham-fisted narrative notion that insults the viewers’ intelligence (and isn’t earned because the leads don’t have the humanity to fully support the plot), the audience’s history with the characters — simply by watching them on TV — gives a little more weight to the proceedings. And with an amusing centerpiece where the ensemble marches down the aisle together (including a brief gag about Laverne and Shirley marrying each other), there’s enough comedy here to make this entry’s existence on my list a no-brainer. Not a classic — heck, not even great — but good for Seven. (Also, Carole Cook appears!)
07) Episode 148: “Star Peepers” (Aired: 02/02/82)
Laverne and Shirley plan to get revenge on a rude singer.
Written by Larry Levinson & Barry O’Brien | Directed by Jack Winter
With Laverne and Shirley’s focused, shared objective driving all the action, this offering operates with a sense of momentum typically missing in this strange, disjointed season, and although theirs is an episodic concern that doesn’t really sit well within our understanding of the leads, and therefore doesn’t seem well-motivated by them, I can at least appreciate a logical cause-and-effect that’s established. And, again, I’m just glad that Laverne and Shirley are on the screen — together — in a story that allows them to be simultaneously funny in a few physical bits, for that’s an unfortunate rarity here in Seven and something that can’t be taken for granted, even on this list. Harry Shearer and Harry Dean Stanton guest.
08) Episode 149: “An Affair To Forget” (Aired: 02/09/82)
Laverne’s date tries to hide her from his wife.
Written by Steve Granat & Mel Sherer | Directed by Jack Winter
Above I highlighted my pick for the year’s best “Shirley show” — the excursion that best spotlighted Shirley independently of Laverne. Well, this is its counterpoint — my favorite of the year’s “Laverne shows,” largely because it’s the funniest, contriving a centerpiece where Laverne ends up in the fish tank at a seafood restaurant after her boyfriend (Larry Breeding — stay tuned) forces her to hide from someone whom he doesn’t want to see her… his wife (played by a young Anjelica Huston). It’s a tired story that nevertheless leans into the show’s maturation, with romantic endeavors becoming a clearer emphasis, and, yes, sans Shirley, it’s fundamentally limp and very obviously not an example of the series that I can sincerely recommend, but the bit is well-done, and unlike other “Laverne shows,” at least there are laughs. So, for the symmetry of pairing it with “The Defiant One,” I include it here. (Robert Walden also appears.)
09) Episode 150: “Whatever Happened To The Class Of ’56?” (Aired: 02/16/82)
Laverne and Shirley are celebrated at their high school reunion.
Written by Paula A. Roth | Directed by Phil Perez
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Whatever Happened To The Class Of ’56?” continues the idea first suggested in the year’s sophomore entry (and heretofore its best), “It Only Hurts When I Breathe,” as Laverne and Shirley head back to Milwaukee to attend their ten-year high school reunion. Now, the story itself — of the ladies putting on airs, not correcting the perception that they’re movie stars out in Hollywood — is actually a clichéd hurdle, straining logic because celebrity is a public phenomenon, hard to fake. However, I can forgive its porous literal realism because the script affords more shared screen time for the two stars, while also leaning into the seasonal theme of growing up, handled here in a way that acknowledges the series’ — and the central relationship’s — history, which provides a richer emotional foundation and gives more dramatic support to the plot, whose “reunion” framework is itself already so relatable as a milestone. Also, there’s some vital aesthetic realism added to the spotty story via the return of Rosie Greenbaum (Carole Ita White), whom we hadn’t seen since Season Three. The sheer continuity of her presence — aside from even the laughs she brings — is enough to lend the plot credibility, not to mention a sense of intentional, inner nostalgia that pairs well with the show’s premised, external nostalgia, creating one of the few series-validating segments of the season. And, although I know I’ve argued that the move to California is not at all a cause for the show’s decline, I have to admit, coming back to Milwaukee does inspire a comic lift, aided by this fittingly broad, old-fashioned plot. It feels like old times. (Lynne Marie Stewart, Paul Willson, and Judy Pioli also guest, the latter two bringing additional continuity.)
10) Episode 151: “Ski Show” (Aired: 02/23/82)
Laverne and Shirley hope to meet men on a ski weekend.
Written by Judy Pioli & Marc Sotkin | Directed by Tom Trbovich
If the above installment (my MVE) feels like old times largely because of its narratively purposeful nostalgia, then this outing feels like old times because of its tonally regressive nostalgia, with a sense of childlike fun that ignores the year’s attempted trend towards adulthood, as the leading ladies go on a ski trip — a location show (akin to Five’s efforts) that then delivers a lot of chances for guaranteed physical comedy, with the stars clowning around on skis. It’s not a perfect example of this season, but it’s a sure bet comedically, and, in fact, it’s really the last time Marshall and Williams will work together in a half hour that satisfies the series’ macro terms. And, no surprise, it’s written by two of the show’s winningest vets, Judy Pioli and Marc Sotkin. Another MVE contender. (Michael Spound appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Most Important Day Ever,” the season premiere that features both stars and puts them in a shared physical centerpiece, but one that isn’t very amusing, due to the fact that there’s absolutely no surprise, relying on the narrative contrivance of acrobats, who do the heavy-lifting (literally), “I Wonder What Became Of Sal?,” a Laverne show that enjoys some rare continuity back to a Season One entry, but suffers for not being nearly funny enough, “Night At The Awards,” one of the year’s better Lenny/Squiggy outings, “Lightning Man,” which I cite only for the physical comedy performed by Eddie Mekka and David Lander, “Crime Isn’t Pretty,” the strongest ensemble show to be light on both Laverne and Shirley, and “Perfidy In Blue,” a shamelessly gimmicky soap opera parody that includes the entire cast, but with strained laughs and a narrative that has nothing to do with the situation or its comedy. Now, I know you might have been expecting to see the big, heavy, dramatic episode where Squiggy reunites with his father, but there’s too little Laverne & Shirley, too little of the series’ comedy, and too little earned support from the characters to make it genuinely laudable. (And, no, I’m also not a fan of both the Charles Grodin offering, where a gimmicky guest drives the plot, sidelining the leads, and the furrier excursion, with its try-hard conflict that asks way too much of Shirley.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
“Whatever Happened To The Class Of ’56?”
Come back next week for Season Eight! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!