Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Kate & Allie (1984-1989, CBS), which is currently available on DVD.
Kate & Allie stars SUSAN SAINT JAMES as Kate and JANE CURTIN as Allie. With ARI MEYERS, FREDERICK KOEHLER, and ALLISON SMITH.
Kate & Allie’s sophomore year is not as proportionally adept as its brief six-episode predecessor at invoking the show’s “modified family” premise in weekly plot — the idea that these are two divorced moms raising their kids together — but it’s better at doing so than any collection hereafter, and considering that it’s the first full season of the series, it’s a fairer point of comparison. On these terms, it rates as the best, for as we discussed last week, it’s vital for the premise to be utilized within story because, although this is otherwise a low-concept family sitcom with a mere high-concept “wrinkle,” the leads are not defined, à la MTM’s, with the kind of strong objectives, traits, and flaws that can help propel comic plot, and while they do have shape and are actually quite believable and consistent, à la the leads on Dick Van Dyke (for which Bill Persky had previously written), Kate & Allie avoids the big comic centerpieces that created a link between the regulars and story, giving them something to motivate. Accordingly, the only thing this series has as part of its established “situation” that can be explored for guaranteed success is the notion of the “modified family” and its surrounding circumstances. So, we want it addressed, and that’s what Season Two provides at its best — and why it rates the best. Additionally, Two is also the best with regard to the series’ brand of authenticity, which prides itself on having more relatable stories and realistic characters than most sitcoms from this era. This year is especially good at reinforcing the series’ literal realism via the subtle evolution of its leads, putting them in gently serialized arcs that make sense based on what’s been established. Well, at least for Allie, who goes back to college — a narrative that explores the idea that this former Connecticut housewife is now having to change her life following a divorce. It’s less true with Kate, whose romance with Ted (Gregory Salata), a plumber, provides a recurring continuity that benefits the series and allows Susan Saint James to showcase her humanity, but ends up being more indicative of the show’s lack of comic conflict than anything, for the Kate character isn’t ever written to have a persona that could be juxtaposed against Ted’s for big laughs or story. That is, she doesn’t have many traits that can be reliably (and comedically) opposed.
Ted’s debut initially suggests a class difference, but it’s not as rich as it’d be with Allie, whose persona more easily asserts a social hierarchy, which in turn would yield more comedy and conflict. Sure, Kate is more buyable with him, but that speaks to my larger point: this literal understanding of realism is unideal when it hinders the genre’s comic objective, for, as we saw on Barney Miller, with quiet characters and few centerpieces, a commitment to total truth (as opposed to a compromising aesthetic truth) limits laughs. As such, if this is the most believable full-season of Kate & Allie, it’s also the least comedic, as future years will heighten the tone and employ flashier stories. This will be a Catch-22, for although we need yuks, Two’s standard of believability will be destroyed, and the loss of this unique quality will feel self-defeating. What’s more, plots are already struggling to attach to the series’ particulars, for even in a season more capable of engaging with the novel “wrinkle,” there are plenty of stories that have little to do with the premise or the leads… Now, to be fair, the show does seem aware of this, for Two also decides that the most important facet of its identity isn’t its premise — it’s the titular friendship, a bond that supplies emotional weight and provides some color, but like on Laverne & Shirley, is never enough to drive fresh, well-motivated story, mostly because their characterizations are seldom well-emphasized. Of course, Kate and Allie are better defined than Laverne and Shirley — thanks to Persky’s Dick Van Dyke pedigree, and their sincere performances (Jane Curtin won her second Emmy for this season) — so plots about them are more character-based and thus situation-rooted than the alternative, including the generic family yarns that filter in when the show is no longer able to address its “modified wrinkle.” Indeed, as the “wrinkle” fades, Kate & Allie will end up splitting its time as a family show with traditional stories, and a gentle buddy comedy about two single ladies, whose relationship comes to form a low-concept quasi-premise. Neither makes for great situation comedy without strong characters evidenced in plot, but there are more laughs ahead, and at least, the performances are always elevating… As for Two, its top segments reiterate the premise and/or the relationship with humor in support. It’s the best year at doing this reliably, rendering it (despite all criticisms) my pick for the series’ finest.
01) Episode 8: “Landlady” (Aired: 10/15/84)
Kate and Allie pretend to be a lesbian couple to avoid a rent increase.
Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Landlady” is one of a few outings that influenced my decision to add this series to the blog’s rolodex, for beyond just the ways in which Kate & Allie reflects a “modified” version of the family format and how it suggests a pre-MTM understanding of character more akin to The Dick Van Dyke Show (but minus the slapstick), having tangible samples worth highlighting was essential… Truthfully, there aren’t many of these persuasive segments, and they’re mostly related to the central premise, in which two divorced women are living together and raising their kids as if they’re one blended nuclear family, but they’re each great. While last year’s “The Very Loud Family” emphasized the negative effects of divorce on children and was more sociopolitically in-step with the concept, this installment is more focused on the core relationship, which as discussed above, develops during Two to sort of become the element that Kate & Allie is positing as its actual raison d’être. (If the characterizations were stronger and more capably applied within story, this would be the case; since they’re not, it’s no more satisfying as a hook than the premise itself.) Yet the idea here is still connected to their unique living arrangement, with an equally post-Lear-ian plot that may be a little less linked to the premise as far as the family is concerned, but is just as socially didactic, and more importantly, just as justified by the series’ situation. In fact, having the stars pretend to be lesbians consequently insists that they aren’t — addressing one of the network’s initial fears about having two single moms cohabitating. And, to wit, part of this series’ reputation involves the idea of Kate and Allie existing as proxy traditional parents — Kate the breadwinning “father,” and Allie the homemaking “mother.” By engaging this within plot, “Landlady” is attaching itself directly to the show’s construction, and for expressly comedic purposes. That is, aside from being connected to the show’s premise, it’s also a classically funny sitcom idea — with a bit of farce — which helps to ensure that this is also one of the series’ most amusing showings, if not its funniest. So, this is an easy pick for MVE — there’s no funnier entry that uses the specific elements of the show’s identity in pursuit of comedy. (Gary Beach guests.)
02) Episode 9: “Diner” (Aired: 10/22/84)
Allie has second thoughts when her ex wants to sell their house.
Written by Stu Hample | Directed by Bill Persky
As the central relationship begins to assume more of the series’ focus, this season is aided by offerings that build out Kate and Allie’s history, thereby strengthening their bond, supplying them added definition (especially in contrast to one another) from continuity-suggesting details, and advocating for why we should consider them more important than the fruitful “wrinkle” inside the family premise. This one boasts a flashback — a device with which Persky had become well-acquainted on The Dick Van Dyke Show, where Carl Reiner was a master at using this narrative gimmick to do all the above, fleshing out better defined and more emotionally realistic leads. Naturally, this show does not reap as many of the rewards, for it seldom applies its character work to story because it’s not often moving to any kind of majorly comedic centerpiece (and it’s not even willing to exclusively heighten their personas in the MTM manner for comparable comedy), but it helps further the show’s own goals toward literal realism and in a more relationship-first design. And with the flashback as something of a set piece itself, this is funnier and more satisfying than most. (The great Holland Taylor appears.)
03) Episode 14: “Pirates” (Aired: 11/26/84)
Emma and Jennie compete for roles in the school musical.
Written by Sherry Coben | Directed by Bill Persky
With the two girls, Emma and Jennie, competing against each other for roles in the school musical (The Pirates of Penzance), this entry is very much in the typical, traditional family sitcom mold. (And, as is usually the case with a cast member who can sing, it’s certainly built with the knowledge that it can showcase former Annie star Allison Smith’s vocal chops.) But it’s also a particularly amusing outing — by this year’s standards — and smartly knows to play with the premise’s “modified wrinkle,” as the drama between the girls is used to help expose a real issue: their lives have changed as result of this non-traditional arrangement, as Emma has had to make room both in her house and at her school for Jennie. This hits at deeper truths about life for divorced children, acknowledging both the family subgenre and the slightly higher concept hook that makes this series different. A perfect display of Kate & Allie’s second season abilities.
04) Episode 15: “Country Dog” (Aired: 12/03/84)
Allie buys Chip a dog, but then comes to regret it.
Written by Allan Leicht | Directed by Bill Persky
Regular readers of this blog know that I generally find animals (and kids, for that matter) to be a gimmick on the sitcom, for they’re typically story devices incapable of illustrating decision-making capacities that would allow them to actually motivate plot. But I grant an exception to this offering (and with these kids, who are played more believably than most) because, again, there are some laughs in the teleplay (Kate’s song to Allie comes to mind), and the story is a fairly traditional domestic sitcom idea enlivened by the “modified family” wrinkle, as Allie’s impetus for getting her son a dog is to compete with her gift-giving ex-husband — a reality that only exists because she’s a divorced woman, now living in a different situation. So, because this take on the story acknowledges the premised realities unique to Kate & Allie, it is laudable.
05) Episode 16: “Piano Lesson” (Aired: 12/10/84)
Emma is jealous when Kate flirts with her cute piano teacher.
Written by Allan Leicht | Directed by Bill Persky
As with several of the above, this installment takes a routine family story — where one kid has a crush on an older figure, who is more interested in someone his/her own age, making said kid jealous — and plays it down with the year’s trademark command on literal realism, which prizes a heightened degree of emotional truth and relatable smallness, before adding enough of a twist from the premise’s “modified” wrinkle. Here, the wrinkle comes out in the end, when, as we’ve seen before, Emma’s problem with her mom and the cute piano teacher really stems from her lingering resentment about the divorce. This idea is starting to become a little formulaic, but it is what enables this show to be unique, outside of its characters, and since we can’t expect said characters to be spectacularly displayed through story, this is the best we can hope to get.
06) Episode 17: “New Year’s Eve” (Aired: 12/31/84)
Kate and Allie spend New Year’s together in the basement.
Written by Jane Richmond | Directed by Bill Persky
This small, low-stakes New Year’s episode runs through the hacky “everybody pick a resolution” cliché without really maximizing any of the ideas for comedy. (I’m willing to let the discovery that Kate has a smoking problem be a window into her character, but this is a rare example of the show not supporting an idea through smart continuity.) Fortunately, the second act centerpiece — quiet as it is — puts the two leading women together in the basement for a decent exchange that both displays their excellent chemistry through believable, gently comic dialogue and helps push their relationship further into the series’ center — an ongoing trend that we’ve been tracking here in Season Two. (It’s also a prelude to the year’s finale…)
07) Episode 19: “Charles Marries Claire” (Aired: 01/14/85)
Allie believes that she and Charles might get back together.
Written by Sherry Coben | Directed by Bill Persky
There’s a certain functionality to this entry, as its job is to introduce the idea that Charles (Paul Hecht) is getting engaged and officially moving on from Allie, and in this regard, it’s the sort of story that we expect and need the year to offer — meaning, it’s an essential stop on her character’s arc, and, because it’s related to her situation as a divorced mother, there’s a tangential affiliation to the show’s premise that connects it to the series’ particulars and renders it the kind of segment that only Kate & Allie could do. However, I also like the depiction of Kate and Allie’s friendship in this script (by creator Sherry Coben, whose departure after this season will move the show away from its literal realism and loosen its grip on the premise), as their dynamic is becoming both more seminal and more believable. Additionally, fleshing out the relationship between Allie and Charles — again, a thesis-adjacent concern — is a step towards something that Three will smartly continue, when it formally lets us meet another conflict-making, premise-related device: the eponymous Claire, a personification of Allie’s situation…
08) Episode 20: “If She Goes, I Go” (Aired: 02/04/85)
Allie comes to work at Kate’s office.
Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky
With two different ideas that harken back to great female-led sitcoms of the past, this is a good episodic indication of Kate & Allie’s regressive stylistic sensibilities (especially because its post-Lear premise is barely a factor in the story — at least, not until the end). For while the basic notion of Allie taking a job at Kate’s office reminds of several plots used on Mary Tyler Moore, the script pivots when Kate gloats about having stood up for Allie — a turn reminiscent of a fight once had by Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy. This works, then, not merely for centralizing the relationship, but also because it puts its leads in conflict — forcing a clash, that yes, removes the outing from the year’s tight hold on literal realism (that’s what happens when they’re directly opposed in a familiar story), but ultimately remains more beneficial than harmful, for it helps further establish the characterizations in relation to each other, making this one of the most enjoyable, revealing exhibitions of Kate and Allie, individually and collectively.
09) Episode 25: “Dead Cat” (Aired: 03/11/85)
Allie buys Chip a kitten that suddenly dies.
Written by Bob Randall & Sherry Coben | Directed by Bill Persky
Sort of a companion piece to “Country Dog,” in which Allie buys Chip a dog to compete with her ex-husband’s generosity, this installment is not as funny, for it’s got a darker, more serious plot: the old dead pet routine. Typically, this wouldn’t be an entry that I’d highlight, for it doesn’t meet the basic comedic requirements at this list’s baseline, but it’s worthwhile for two reasons. The first is that it’s perhaps the best display this whole season of the show’s major interest in realism, with a sincere ethos that asserts Kate & Allie’s grasp on literal truth, allowing this to be one of the best samples from the entire series of that initially special sensibility. The second is that it’s a wonderful point of comparison to The Cosby Show, which, earlier in the 1984-’85 season, employed a similar story for one of its all-time classics, “Goodbye Mr. Fish.” By contrasting the two here, we get a precise look at what genuinely makes Kate & Allie, well, Kate & Allie, and how, inevitably, it’s not a top-tier sitcom when viewed next to this era’s actual finest.
10) Episode 28: “My Dinner With Kate And Allie” (Aired: 05/06/85)
Kate and Allie cook dinner together and discuss their lives.
Written by Allan Leicht & Sherry Coben | Directed by Bill Persky
The only other outing here in Season Two that, along with my MVE, made me decide to cover the series, most of this half hour is a two-hander — a one-on-one scene between Kate and Allie where the two ostensibly prepare dinner but end up talking about themselves and where they are in their lives, ultimately reaching the realization that they both need to let go of the past and embrace the future. It’s a terrific showcase not only for the women’s material-elevating portrayals, but also for the show’s command on believability in this era — hinged on its careful projection of humanity, based on so many of the little things we’ve learned about them through the season and in their respective arcs (Allie going back to school and gaining more independence; Kate starting and ending a semi-serious relationship). The brilliant script finds its laughs from the capable performances of the women, and the rapport that Persky and his company have helped build via his high threshold for emotional realism and the continuity of small details — all of which is in reflection of Persky’s Dick Van Dyke-like understanding of character. In fact, I would posit that, because this series has issues connecting its leads to story (since, like Barney Miller, it doesn’t want to heighten them or link them to big centerpieces), when it strips away all narrative pretenses and goes so low-concept (as in this near real-time production), we’re able to appreciate the character work even more, for we learn about them through dialogue with each other, and don’t have to worry about their capabilities in propelling story or reinforcing the premise through plot. (Of course, by dealing with the characters’ situation so directly, the premise is also addressed.) If not for the amount of hahas in the equally identity-affirming “Landlady,” this would be my MVE, for outside of that segment, there is no other Kate & Allie episode, nor any future MVE, that’s a better example of the situation comedy form — using the fixed elements of the situation (Kate and Allie) for comedy — in a story that validates our perception of the series and its commendable strengths.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include three segments that are more comedically inclined than this year’s baseline and therefore seem like entries that I would feature, even though they’re not as connected to the premise (or even the central relationship) as the stronger outings highlighted above: “Lottsa Luck,” which at best suggests a delineation between Kate and Allie but at worst is a gimmicky sitcom idea that destroys the show’s believability and has little connection to the series’ particulars, “Rear Window,” which has some laughs (and is one of Chip’s best showings) but is entirely predicated on a parody of an outside work that has nothing to do with Kate & Allie, and “Author, Author,” which perhaps develops some more history for Kate and Allie… but engages a familiar sitcom plot (with a gimmicky fantasy bit) that doesn’t involve the premise or take advantage of the series’ genuine ethos. Meanwhile, other offerings worth citing here are two related to Allie’s return to school — the jokier “Back To School” and the introspective “Sons And Lovers” — and two focused on Kate’s palpable humanity — the revealing but unfunny “Lovely Rita” and the big breakup show, “Goodbye, Plumber” (which is funnier than the earlier excursion that introduced this romance).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Kate & Allie goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!