Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday… which I’m counting as a Sitcom Tuesday, for I’m sharing thoughts on a short-lived sitcom so good that its episodic samples deserve to stand alongside the shows we’ve formally covered here over the past year! It’s Best Of The West (1981-1982, ABC), a single-season comedy that I initially drafted as part of last week’s potpourri piece, before deciding it was strong enough to warrant its own entry. Now, I’m retaining the straightforward drive-by structure of my commentary as it would have appeared in last week’s post (because the brevity is clarifying), but make no mistake — this is one of those rare “diamonds in the rough” of which sitcom archeologists like myself wish there were more…
BEST OF THE WEST (September 1981 – June 1982, ABC)
Premise: A Civil War veteran moves west and becomes a small town marshal, despite having no experience.
Cast: Joel Higgins, Carlene Watkins, Meeno Peluce, Valri Bromfield, Tom Ewell, Leonard Frey, Tracey Walter, Macon McCalman, Patrick Cranshaw, Christopher Lloyd
Creator/Writers: Earl Pomerantz, Michael Leeson, Mitch Markowitz, Sam Simon, Sy Rosen, Chip Keyes & Doug Keyes, Dennis Klein, David Lloyd, Ed. Weinberger
Thoughts: This show is good enough to get its own post — its mere inclusion in the potpourri series doesn’t do it justice. But let me not get ahead of myself… First, the idea of reckoning with the western genre in a comedic, or even sitcom, form was not a new one. Heck, after the 1960s saw a sitcom trend of very specific satires — Get Smart, The Monkees, Batman, and, most pertinently, F Troop — there were a handful of western comedies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including MTM’s The Texas Wheelers (one of its first failures). But the difference between all those and Best Of The West is that the latter opts for the multi-camera format — a signal that it’s more sitcom than anything else. And that seems to be exactly what Best Of The West is aiming to say, for despite using a high-concept idea-driven premise that harkens back to the 1960s, the writing itself proves to be totally focused on character, more interested in building strong personalities — and exploring their humorous relationships within the premise-validating structure of the western — than in merely spoofing it, or deriving yuks from the self-conscious lampoon of external clichés (like those cited above do). Additionally, this makes it a perfect example of why I’m such a fan of the multi-cam setup for this genre in general, as it not only forces every script to consider the live audience it’s trying to make literally laugh out loud, but it also requires a storytelling that’s limited to a few key sets (so it can be shot like a play), which then has the effect of downplaying heavy plot-led centerpieces in favor of more simple ideas that prioritize character interactions, thereby making it more likely to have well-defined leads who can also push both laughs and story. Frankly, Best Of The West is exceptional in this regard, for it’s hard to boast its kind of excellent character work even without a gaudy Wild West crutch… But perhaps this should come as no surprise, since the series was created by Earl Pomerantz, an MTM vet who brings an inherent understanding of how to employ big characterizations that yield comic story while simultaneously remaining believably human. And with Taxi producers and other writers (like David Lloyd) who all understand this style too, this is textually very much like an MTM show, for even as the higher concept rightly asserts itself in story, said story is beautifully well-supported by these characters, structurally and individually.
What’s more, everyone here is great — Tom Ewell as the drunken town doc, Leonard Frey as the foppish bad guy, Tracey Walter as Frey’s imbecilic assistant, Valri Bromfield as the overzealous tomboy, and the recurring Christopher Lloyd (concurrently on Taxi) as the notorious Calico Kid, an aimless outlaw. The only real weak spot I see is the leading man’s wife, who is a little too much of a “straight man,” given that her husband also fulfills that role often in plot. But in defining her as a Southern Belle who’s a fish out of water for a different reason than her husband and step-son, there is potential for story and comedy that indicates a nevertheless very smart design. And to that point, this smart design and strong writing helps produce several classic episodes — both in the first 12 segments that were made in early 1981 (following the 1980 pilot) with the hopes of airing as a midseason replacement, and in the nine more that were ordered and shot many months later — and I would even go so far to say that, behind only Taxi, this is, pound for pound, the most rewarding sitcom collection from the otherwise disappointing 1981-’82 TV season. Would the series have tired out soon after? Maybe, but with rich characters and relationships, I think it would have had another year or two of life — like any sitcom that manages to find a sweet spot in its self-expression. I include it here to make a point about how shows that are even theoretically idea-driven also need helpful characters, and can indeed thrive when relying more on them. Also, it’s just further proof that the MTM brand, along with all its ancestors (like Taxi), are truly of an elevated stock.
Episode Count: 22 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 22.
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #1: “Pilot” (09/10/81)
Episode #3: “Mail Order Bride” (09/24/81)
Episode #5: “The Reunion” (10/08/81)
Episode #7: “They’re Hanging Parker Tillman (II)” (10/22/81)
Episode #11: “The Railroad” (11/19/81)
Episode #12: “The New Jail” (11/26/81)
Episode #14: “Frog’s First Gunfight” (01/07/82)
Episode #15: “The Calico Kid Goes To School” (01/14/82)
Episode #21: “Sam’s Life Is Threatened” (06/14/82)
Episode #22: “The Funeral” (06/21/82)
Why: I picked a full ten because this season is good enough to get a list on Sitcom Tuesdays. In fact, even though I’m not offering much episodic commentary here, you should consider many of these offerings to be of the same caliber as Sitcom Tuesday material. However, in-keeping with this post’s drive-by nature… I feature #1 because it’s an exceptionally strong and character-establishing pilot; #3 because it boasts a fun story for Ewell that also guest stars Betty White; #5 because it features Andy Griffith as the lead’s father-in-law, a memorable turn that also portends differences between the central couple; #7 because of the climax where Frey’s Parker Tillman is nearly hanged; #11 because it’s the series’ funniest, with a terrific centerpiece where Tillman pretends that his saloon is a church; #12 because it’s the best story about the leading man’s general ineptitude as a result of being out of his depth; #14 because it’s the best entry for the amusing Frog; #15 because it’s the best entry for the recurring Calico Kid (Lloyd); #21 because of the hilarious sequence where Tillman flirts with guest Joe Regalbuto, who’s in drag as a woman; and #22 because of the climactic and very funny “funeral” scene. Incidentally, I’d also make “Honorable Mentions” out of #2, #4, #6, #10, and #19 (with guest star Dixie Carter), for those who are looking at an episode guide and are curious completists.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Laverne & Shirley!