Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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. With DAVID L. LANDER, EDDIE MEKKA, LESLIE EASTERBROOK, MICHAEL McKEAN, and PHIL FOSTER. And two appearances by CINDY WILLIAMS as Shirley.
This final season of Laverne & Shirley is notorious, as one half of the series’ titular duo departed after just two episodes, leaving the rest of the year an automatic failure on behalf of the show’s proclaimed premise as a buddy comedy. I don’t have to tell you why all of the entries without Laverne and Shirley together are unideal based on the series’ terms, especially because we’ve already covered that ground last week, when it started to become rare to find the two leading ladies sharing story, if appearing at all. In fact, if there’s one good thing about this season — and I say this facetiously, for there’s nothing good about this season — it’s that fans of Penny Marshall can celebrate her having more to do here than in the year prior, as she has to anchor about three quarters of the episodic output, sometimes with a blatant Shirley stand-in (like Vicki Lawrence or Carrie Fisher) but usually with a random guest-of-the-week, as Eight naturally has to pull out all the gimmicky stops (some absolutely ridiculous!) in order to sustain enjoyment as a situation comedy that’s essentially lost its situation. Yet all of this is even more troubling now as there’s less peripheral support; Michael McKean — who appeared, with David Lander, in only half of Seven — now has his count down to just four appearances, necessitating a vague standby in the form of Chuck (Charles Fleischer), Laverne’s new colleague (at an unbelievable space company), whom the show is plugging into the Lenny spot, just as it’s cycling in people to replace Shirley. Meanwhile, plans to give Laverne a new love interest were dropped when the chosen actor, Larry Breeding, died after only shooting two episodes — another stroke of bad luck that seemed to further condemn the show. That said, no matter if his character, or even a maternal Shirley, had made it to the finish line, if this collection was unable to regularly offer star-focused slapstick for the central twosome, it would have always been a dud. The fact that Shirley exits early is merely a “checkmate” — as now there’s no way the series can fulfill its objectives, short of a whole new roommate and title. (And for such an aging show… why bother?) For that reason, I think you’ll agree I’m being generous in even picking six episodes to highlight. By definition, there could be no more than two. But I’ve really stretched myself to accommodate this series and meet it where it’s at (as best I could), and that continues…
01) Episode 157: “The Mummy’s Bride” (Aired: 09/28/82)
Shirley announces that she’s getting married.
Written by Roger Garrett | Directed by Tom Trbovich
The season premiere grants Shirley a happy ending as she finally gets married — the romantic endgame that this series had only episodically suggested in early years before zeroing in on it in Seven. This was done hastily to accommodate Cindy Williams’ real-life pregnancy, which producers also intended to write into the series. Sadly, though, with the whole relationship occurring off-screen — who is this guy, and how can we invest in their pairing if we’ve never seen them together? — the development is unsatisfying, and in terms of comedy, even with a so-so “mummy” wedding routine, this installment is well below the series’ baseline. But since it’s the only entry that has real relevance for the situation — about Laverne and Shirley, two single best friends in search of their happy endings — I had no choice but to select it as this valueless season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), for, frankly, this is the narrative fulfillment of the series’ low-concept premise, its rightful conclusion. Richard Stahl appears.
02) Episode 158: “Window On Main Street” (Aired: 10/12/82)
Laverne and Shirley make fools of themselves in a window display.
Written by Al Aidekman | Directed by Tom Trbovich
Despite the developments of the season premiere that might suggest an end for Cindy Williams on the series, she actually shot one additional segment — this disappointing outing, which starts with a fun idea where the ladies’ department store boss (Norman Bartold, in his last appearance, as Laverne will soon move to the goofy space company) puts them in a window display. But then things take an overly illogical turn when the two get hypnotized into believing they’re chickens — a routine that’s broad and not totally believable, too much for the stars to elevate. However, I have to feature this here because, again, it’s one of only two offerings in Eight where the leading ladies share the screen and the show is even capable of fulfilling its thesis. Larry Breeding guests (more on him below), and Shirley’s pregnancy is introduced.
03) Episode 159: “The Note” (Aired: 10/19/82)
Laverne is shocked when Shirley disappears, leaving behind only a brief note.
Written by Judy Pioli | Directed by Gabrielle Alice James
This is the sullen, sad show that handles Shirley’s departure. It’s not enjoyable and I can’t concoct any halfhearted excuses as to why it’s strong in a critical study of the series, outside of it being one of the run’s most memorable, serving the important but unenviable goal of moving Laverne & Shirley into its Laverne
& Shirley era. Now, you might try to generously credit Penny Marshall for her dramatic chops, and the script for doing its best to mine the unfortunate scenario for any humanity, but, as always, none of this is the series’ strong suit. Again, I’m only citing this episode because it’s narratively seminal (and an iconic moment of TV history in its own right): the one where Shirley disappears. Julie Brown guests.
04) Episode 161: “The Playboy Show” (Aired: 11/09/82)
Laverne gets a job as a Playboy bunny.
Teleplay by Ed Solomon | Story by Ed Solomon & Joan Marks | Directed by Michael McKean
Carrie Fisher is the proxy Shirley in this somewhat era-based entry that finds Laverne getting a job as a Playboy bunny — a cultural icon that makes a nod to the series’ ’60 setting, but mostly gets to enjoy the gimmicky titillation of this narrative implication, and the big guest stars who’ve been called in as support (and, yes, Hugh Hefner also appears as himself). However, I don’t mean to undersell the script — it’s easily one of the year’s funniest, with several bits for both Laverne and Squiggy that play incredibly well. Indeed, purely on the merits, this might be the year’s most affable, undesirable only for the regrettably significant fact that it’s simply not Laverne & Shirley if Laverne is totally without Shirley. Marcia Rodd also guests.
05) Episode 169: “The Baby Show” (Aired: 01/18/83)
Laverne helps a pregnant Sgt. Plout win a contest for expectant mothers.
Written by Judy Pioli | Directed by Phil Perez
Vicki Lawrence steps in to play the Shirley role in this laugh-seeking installment — the first show produced without Cindy Williams. Clearly designed to cater to the actress’ real-life pregnancy, this rewrite toils to sub Alvinia Plout into Shirley’s position, for although, like Plout’s last appearance, there’s comedy in the turnaround of expectations — we don’t expect this tough drill sergeant to be literally maternal — the circumstances are more forced, and Lawrence’s performance, in this case, feels less like Sgt. Plout than Thelma Harper (who was debuting her own sitcom the same week this excursion aired)… Nevertheless, Lawrence lights up the screen and has chemistry with Marshall, and the script is happily concerned with offering comedic centerpieces where the two can shine. With Williams, I can imagine this being one of the best episodes of Laverne & Shirley’s eighth season. Lynne Marie Stewart appears.
06) Episode 171: “The Fashion Show” (Aired: 02/01/83)
Laverne is jealous of her photographer boyfriend’s model friends.
Written by Roger Garrett & Al Aidekman & Marc Sotkin | Directed by Tom Trbovich
The second and final show with the late Larry Breeding as Laverne’s new fella, this narrative evokes shades of Lucy, as Laverne is jealously motivated to sneak into her man’s show — well, a fashion show, where her photographer beau is taking pictures. This idea allows for a physical centerpiece where Laverne runs amok on the runway, giving Penny Marshall something comedically decent to play and mildly satisfying our expectations of the series’ humor. However, I also wanted to highlight this outing — which also guests Joanna Kerns and Anjelica Huston — for its balance of laughs with humanity, both coming in part because Laverne has a love interest presumably intended to be her final partner. Sure, he could have used more definition, but hey, that applies to everyone on this series, and it’s a shame his time here was brief.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Jinxed,” which guest stars Carol Kane as a psychic, “Of Mice And Men,” which guest stars Jim Belushi as Laverne’s man du jour, and “The Gymnast Show,” which guest stars Adam West as another of Laverne’s men do jour. I’ll also cite “Lost In Spacesuits,” where Laverne tests space equipment, “Defective Ballet,” for its physical ballet centerpiece with Laverne and Squiggy, “Please Don’t Feed The Buzzards,” which seems to be popular with fans of Lenny & Squiggy (the lack of Laverne is fundamentally disqualifying — and the unmotivated, sketch-like story is clearly not my preference), and “How’s Your Sister,” which amusingly puts David Lander in drag.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
“The Mummy’s Bride”
Come back next week for the start of Family Ties! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!