The Ten Best KATE & ALLIE Episodes of Season Four

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.

Season Four elicits a variety of reactions among fans, and that’s because it’s got a variety of episodes — most of them continuing the show’s trend of increased humor at the expense of its previously strict notions of literal realism. As you know, I’m no fan of realism when it stands in the way of the genre’s comic objective, preferring an internally created sense of aesthetic truth, wherein a show must merely be consistent and logical based on its own standards and what it’s told us to expect. But the problem now with Kate & Allie is that sacrificing its intense believability — one of the things that made it special — is not only destroying literal realism, it’s also shifting the goal posts of the show’s personal aesthetic too, which means it’s shedding a vital part of its identity. What’s more, this shift is not attached to an improved use of character or premise within weekly story. On the contrary, Four continues to move away from the other elements that made the series special as well — the “modified wrinkle” in its otherwise traditional family setup, and the central relationship that had recently been asserted as equally important. Okay, to be fair, this isn’t entirely the year’s fault — Susan Saint James’ real-life pregnancy forced her qualified usage throughout Four’s first half, meaning less Kate. And with less Kate, that naturally means there’s both fewer stories that engage the premise of two divorcées blending their families, and fewer stories that emphasize the bond between the titular friends. Now, if there are family outings, they tend to be generic, more along the lines of typical domestic sitcoms — and all we can hope for is that they’re especially amusing and/or believable. Also, in place of the central relationship, there are a range of broader idea-led distractions that, at their best, elevate the laughs, but in being untethered to the series’ situation, almost always feel extraneous and unideal. In that category, I put the two entries with Andrea Martin as the manager of a public access TV station — she’s a funny lady (who’d get a brief spin-off), but this has nothing to do with Kate & Allie’s particulars. Indeed, by the end of the year, the show is trying to find ways to restore itself by recommitting to the core relationship as a focus, resorting to a slight retooling that, well, we’ll talk about below. In the meantime, here are my picks for the best from Four — the beginning of the end: a smorgasbord with, ultimately, less Kate & Allie. 

 

01) Episode 55: “General Hospital” (Aired: 10/13/86)

Allie checks into the hospital alongside Kate.

Written by Dana Persky & Lorrie Shapiro | Directed by Bill Persky

To cover for Susan Saint James’ pregnancy when she was available but showing, the series created an arc that allowed her to stay in a hospital bed. Of these hospital episodes, this is the most enjoyable because it not only gives us the most face time between the two leading ladies, thereby venerating their friendship and the series’ proxy-premise, but also because it pursues humor via character, as Allie’s neuroses at being in the hospital stem from her depiction, giving Jane Curtin some fun, motivated stuff to play. Now, there are a few gaudy narrative turns in the story later on, but such is Season Four — at least this is a decent show for Allie’s character and the series’ central relationship: a rarity this year. Also, William H. Macy appears.

02) Episode 58: “Jennie And Jason” (Aired: 11/03/86)

Jennie considers having sex with her boyfriend.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

Although this might be termed a typical ’80s family sitcom VSE story — the teenage girl considers having sex with her first steady boyfriend — and Kate & Allie doesn’t do much to enliven the idea using its premise’s own “wrinkle,” the script by producer Bob Randall is at least able to find laughs commensurate with this season’s baseline while also maintaining the show’s reputation for high emotional realism. That is, this is an incredibly believable iteration of the plot, both for the teens (this is Jennie’s first beau, played by Ricky Paull Goldin, introduced in the season premiere during an entry that pushes harder for yuks and doesn’t have a comparable command on truth), and for mother-and-daughter, as the relatable situation affords a great conversation between Allie and Jennie that reiterates the show’s sense of humanity without having to sacrifice the comedy, most of which comes from Jane Curtin, who is really picking up the slack in the wake of Susan Saint James’ minimal usage. A pleasant surprise.

03) Episode 59: “Bringing Up Charles” (Aired: 11/10/86)

Allie suspects that her ex-husband is cheating on his new wife.

Written by Jane Richmond | Directed by Bill Persky

Wendie Malick returns in this offering as Claire, Allie’s ex-husband Charles’ new wife, whom we formally met in last year’s “Thanksgiving” (my MVE). If you’ll recall, I appreciated the introduction of her character because this helped create a new on-screen relationship ripe with inherent conflict (and therefore comedy), and it’s tangentially related to the premise, as Allie’s divorce and the circumstances around it are vital to Kate & Allie’s specific situation. Also, if Susan Saint James is unable to be totally present, I’d much rather the show do stories with Charles and Claire (who, again, are affiliated with the series’ established identity) than, say, Andrea Martin and a random TV station. Paul Hecht also appears.

04) Episode 60: “Emma’s Coming Out Party” (Aired: 11/24/86)

Kate and Allie remember the day Emma was born.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Emma’s Coming Out Party” is able to work around its costar’s real-life pregnancy by showcasing a time when her character was pregnant, employing the gimmicky flashback device, à la Dick Van Dyke (on which producer and director Bill Persky had cut his teeth) to nevertheless further our understanding of these leads. As usual, this window into their past strengthens our understanding of their history, thereby solidifying their bond even more while reinforcing the centricity of their relationship and its viability as the nucleus of a show no longer writing to its actual premise. It also really delineates their two personas in a way that’s dependent on their juxtaposition and thus mines laughs from the characterizations (in this relational dynamic), without putting them in a conflict that threatens the show’s command on truth, because, in this case, it actually makes sense based on their pronounced differences. On the whole, yes, it’s still narratively bigger in spirit than the rest of this series’ finest installments, but that concern is largely allayed by how the script motivates its action through the central relationship and a specific, intentional depiction of the main characters within it, and it’s reflective of the state of the series’ storytelling in Season Four — a rare sweet spot: both an accurate sample of the year and a particularly favorable one. Also, it’s interesting to note that another low-concept sitcom with a female friendship at its core, Laverne & Shirley — which we just covered — produced a similar flashback show in its fourth season; I also selected it as my MVE for many of these same reasons. (Although, incidentally, between the two, I prefer Kate & Allie’s version — there are better characters here.)

05) Episode 63: “Dates Of Future Past” (Aired: 12/15/86)

Allie has a date with a football player who wants to take her away for the weekend.

Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Bill Persky

The last offering in Four with minimal Kate — credited to future Frasier scribes Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg (whose efforts are all over the place in terms of value — as should be expected as this series becomes, partly from their involvement, less attached to the premise and more episodically idea-driven) — this entry uses prior clips of Kate to maintain her prominence in Allie’s life, as the latter has her first date with Bob (Sam Freed), a former football player and her character’s future husband, a fact that will posit this as a surprisingly seminal half hour. Now, despite not being totally connected to the premise (it’s a typical sitcom idea for a single parent), this simple scenario does help keep the proceedings (unlike in many of these idea-led shows) from losing touch with the show’s necessary truth, grounding some of the script’s biggest laughs inside a relatable plot. Also, I should like to add that the kids are asked to supply a lot of the humor and they do a notably good job… even Chip! (David Moscow also appears.)

06) Episode 65: “Allie’s Graduation” (Aired: 01/26/87)

After Allie’s graduation from college, she struggles to find work.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

Kate & Allie was better at gently extending dramatic continuity in its earlier years, when it was more consciously committed to a sense of heightened literal realism (inevitably to the detriment of big laughs), and it’s been a while since the show has provided a story about Allie’s return to school — an important arc for her character in the second season, emblematic of her newfound independence and desire to pivot her life post-divorce. So, by having the character finally graduate, this excursion affiliates itself with that earlier thread, and an established aspect of her situation, giving more of a dramatic foundation to what is otherwise a familiar sitcom idea — the odd jobs routine. Oh, it is comedically conventional — like much of this year is shaping up to be — but at least Jane Curtin’s Allie is at the center and is able to shine, making this something of a display of character, supported, again, by her situation (and there’s a quiet Lear-ian social bent too). Michael Countryman guests in his recurring role as Louis.

07) Episode 66: “Upstairs, Downstairs” (Aired: 02/02/87)

A fight between Emma and Jennie spreads to their mothers as well.

Written by Howard Korder | Directed by Bill Persky

Like Barney MillerKate & Allie has tried to avoid putting its leads in narrative opposition, because doing so would force heightened characterizations and task them with motivating familiar sitcom beats that might bring quick, surface hahas, but are likely to jeopardize their total literal realism. However, as that realism is becoming less of a concern, this series is growing more willing to push Kate and Allie into direct conflict — like in my above selected MVE. Generally, I appreciate this, for, if motivated (and still tied to a basic level of emotional believability rooted in the constancy of character, as in my MVE), such straightforward drama both implies the primacy of their relationship to the series and elevates their individual personas because of the natural friction that comes from juxtaposition. That’s exactly what happens in this smart installment, which uses a fight between the two daughters (who do a fine job) to spark a believable and parallel fight between the moms — an idea that suggests the premise’s “modified wrinkle” of this being a blended family, while simultaneously prioritizing the central female friendship. And if it feels less totally honest by the show’s earlier standards, it’s still tops by this year’s. So, with laughs, enough truth, and various aspects of the series’ situation reinforced, this entry is one of Four’s best. (Michael Countryman guests again.)

08) Episode 70: “Reruns” (Aired: 03/02/87)

Allie’s dreams are inspired by classic TV sitcoms.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

With an ostentatious dream-like structure (a gimmick to which even Dick Van Dyke was not immune), this well-remembered outing is a prime example of how Season Four is resorting to more idea-led, situation-less notions to create weekly story, upping the humor but decreasing the truth. And yet, “Reruns” is unique in that it more than just validates this trend we’ve been observing within the series’ trajectory — it also validates its macro identity, providing takes on the “Allie gets a letter addressed to Charles” story as if Kate and Allie were both Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy (considered the genre’s first great feminine pair), and then Mary and Rhoda from Mary Tyler Moore. This is a sketch-like — heck, SNL-like — hook that nevertheless indicates the show’s dedication to its central friendship, affiliating them with iconic duos from the past. Also, the script is hoping to assert this series’ literal realism by emphasizing the different, more comparatively heightened styles of both earlier shows, and while that’s the kind of hindsight-based condescension I typically loathe, I’m less bothered here because this direct comparison is a double-edged sword that also reveals where this show falls short: its characters — Kate and Allie — are not nearly as boldly defined, adept at earning laughs, or capable of motivating story points, as those ladies from the aforementioned classics. This episode, then, actually offers a clear-eyed view of Kate & Allie as it sits in this genre — for better and worse.

09) Episode 71: “Send Me No Flowers” (Aired: 03/16/87)

The family members trade “bad day” stories.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

One of the show’s most popular half hours, this idea-led affair starts with a central question — who is the intended recipient of a flower delivery? — and then uses it as an excuse for a series of vignettes under the pretense of everyone having had “a bad day,” a vague notion that could apply to any sketch that seeks to be comedic, heightening or distorting (however slight) our collective impression of normalcy. In this regard, it’s like one of The Golden Girls’ “anthology shows,” only without as tight a unifying theme, or writing that’s as consistently funny, because, well, this series is just not as well-attached to its characters, who are intentionally less precise. That said, by the standards of Kate & Allie, it’s better than the norm, with several comical moments — my favorite is Kate at the bank with Peggy Pope. (Ricki Lake also appears.)

10) Episode 75: “Charles’ Dinner” (Aired: 05/11/87)

Kate and Allie agree to cater a dinner party at Allie’s ex’s house.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

Another popular installment, “Charles’ Dinner” does something I referenced above in my essay — it’s the start of an attempted reformatting — for after the previous entry contrived a labored scenario that got Kate to quit her job, this episode pivots her and Allie into a new career as caterers, with Allie (the domestic one) doing the cooking, and Kate (the business one) handling the logistics. It’s an intriguing idea that’s designed to not just supply new story at a time when the series is clearly struggling, but also to find an excuse to get the stars together more often — a necessity the show seems to know is paramount, now that it’s endured a season where that was often impossible, and is looking forward to a year where the ensemble might be in additional flux. However, as we’ll soon see, this catering angle merely accelerates the trends we’ve been tracking — it will invite more overt attempts at humor that sadly come at the expense of the series’ desired realism, and enable stories that further sever the show’s connection to its “modified family” premise. And while the intention may be to honor the key relationship, the idea-driven nature of these new scenarios comes to assume focus, undermining everything about the situation as it has heretofore existed…. I don’t want to get ahead of myself though. This story works because, although it’s a hacky and strained sitcom yarn, it deploys Charles and Claire, and thus benefits from the comedic and dramatic associations that travel with them and their relationship to Allie, whose personal situation is accordingly invoked as a base for the proceedings, making this more linked to her character than most of what’s ahead…

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Found Money,” an Allie-focused entry that separates her from Kate but for a story that displays some unique elements of her characterization well, “Rx For Love,” the last of the hospital shows — it isn’t as funny as the one highlighted above, but it finds some drama between Kate and Allie rooted in the latter’s past experience (being cheated on by Charles), “The Gift Of The Magi,” a well-liked offering that I can generously say intends to prize the ladies’ central relationship, even though it ends up more concerned with its unimaginative homage to an O. Henry story, and “Allie On Strike,” which plays with the idea of Kate and Allie serving the traditional roles of “dad” and “mom” in their blended family arrangement. Of lesser note but equal relevance are “The Bully,” which guest stars Rhoda’s David Groh as Allie’s new guy — the father of a girl who’s been bullying Chip, and “Allie’s Surprise Party,” a common sitcom idea that’s used to further cement the series’ new catering angle. Also, as touched upon above, I know some of you like them, but I can’t in good conscience recommend the two TV station segments with Andrea Martin as examples of Kate & Allie — it’s not ideal situation comedy if the situation is not utilized — and the same goes for both the overrated Halloween show, which resorts to some lame haunted house gimmicks in the absence of laughs and character, and the atypical singles’ bar outing, which delineates Kate and Allie, but unenjoyably lets guests drive the action.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Kate & Allie goes to…

“Emma’s Coming Out Party”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!

4 thoughts on “The Ten Best KATE & ALLIE Episodes of Season Four

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      While a new baby in the family would have likely helped sustain this series’ premise a bit longer, tweaking the leads’ situation enough to provide fresh story related to this new “wrinkle” in an already wrinkled domestic setup, I am anti-baby in the sitcom genre as a rule, for figures who can’t reveal decision-making capabilities are more of a plot device than a character, and their presence, in general, seems to give family shows an added excuse to rely more heavily on sentiment than humor. So, with KATE & ALLIE being what it is, I wouldn’t want anything to come along that would invite less character and/or less comedy — it can’t afford either!

  1. I have never seen this show but I like other 1980’s sitcoms like “the golden girls and “laverne and shirley” Do you think I will like this one?

    • Hi, Sabrina! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      KATE & ALLIE is not as interested in laugh-out-loud humor as those other two sitcoms you cited, but if you adjust your expectations — and revisit my opening essay on this series — I’m sure you could calibrate your figurative tastebuds to find plenty of enjoyment.

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