The Ten Best KATE & ALLIE Episodes of Season Five

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. With SAM FREED and GREGORY SALATA.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen Kate & Allie slowly become funnier, with jokier dialogue, more overtly comic stories, and slightly bigger characterizations. Here in Season Five, the show’s humor objective is finally on par with the genre’s baseline, as the series has shifted its own standards of realism (its aesthetic realism) to be less literally fixated and therefore more conducive to the sitcom’s typical aggrandizement. Unfortunately, though, that type of literal realism was one of the things making Kate & Allie special, and now that it’s gone, it’s a blow to the series’ projection of self. What’s more, the evaporation of this aspect of the show’s identity has coincided with the ongoing destruction of other big things that made Kate & Allie, well, Kate & Allie, including its premise — the domestic format’s “modified family” wrinkle, which scripts are no longer playing up in episodic plot. In fact, with Ari Meyers off to college and only in a fraction of this year’s installments, Five is barely able to pretend to be a traditional family sitcom anymore either… and while that’s been an ongoing trend, as the show chose to elevate the central friendship between Kate and Allie into something of a proxy-premise, story still craves that support. Meanwhile, speaking of that friendship, after a year where one half of this duo was unavailable (due to an off-screen pregnancy), Five consciously pairs them more frequently, and their new catering business — introduced at the end of Four — is purposely meant to both pivot the show away from its minimized family and to supply lots of direct interaction between the stars. For the most part, it succeeds on both fronts. However, these catering plots, though engaging a new part of the leads’ “situation,” are not a capable substitute for the series’ real premise, especially when this hook invites one-off story-led notions that can’t help but distract from the characters and, yes, their relationship, which gets collaterally undermined… That said, I do have some good news: the catering business is only a factor in about five of this year’s entries… for actually, Season Five is aware of these issues and is trying to end the premise (and proxy-premise) entirely, winding down the whole series by focusing on the leading ladies’ romantic pursuits — their endgame arcs — as each one is reunited with her best previously introduced beau: Allie’s ex-football player from last season, and Kate’s ever-present plumber.

Neither guy has much of a characterization, which means these episodes aren’t great examples of situation comedy, but it’s not as if Kate and Allie are well-utilized in story either, and this endgame crusade is welcome — with the premise hardly present, the end should be nigh — for despite scripts growing more tonally and narrative comedic, the leads still seldom drive the action, which is the ultimate reason Five is so disappointing: the show has become funnier, losing everything that made it unique in the process, but without ever sustaining this hard transition through the one thing that every comedy needs — active characters whose comic personas we should be exploring in story, the weekly practice of a series’ identity. Sadly, Kate and Allie have never regularly motivated episodic narratives — at best, scripts have used the “modified family” premise, the traditional domestic framework, or the relational trappings of the central friendship as a springboard for plot. At first, this was to protect their (and the show’s) realism — sparing them of comic contortions that would falsify them. But that’s not a concern anymore, and now that all of those other conceptual elements have been pushed aside too, it’s clearer than ever that Kate and Allie’s minimal involvement within the cultivation of Kate & Allie’s storytelling is a handicap that prevents greatness. And, with no more premise-related help, its status is dire. Oh, the performers try their best — Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James are as game as ever — but Kate & Allie is barely Kate & Allie now, and while many fans reserve that description for its final season, which physically upends the structure (amidst huge behind-the-scenes changes), this year effectively sees the series running on fumes to cross a finish line… If that sounds overdramatic, well, it probably is — there are some funny half hours here if you take them by themselves; they’re just not well-supported by the series’ situation, so this is not a worthwhile collection like we’d get from the best of 1987-’88, when similar domestic fare was starting to be mocked by shows like Alf, this series’ direct competition, which finally overtook it in the ratings — a sign that viewers were tiring of Kate & Allie, or whatever this season was claiming to be. Frankly, I’m also just trying to find Kate & Allie in this list myself — the samples that best employ aspects of the show’s “situation” for comedy.

 

01) Episode 78: “The Dilemma With Emma” (Aired: 09/21/87)

Kate can’t stand her daughter Emma’s obnoxious new boyfriend.

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

My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Trouble With Emma” is the most effective display on this list of the year’s heightened, more traditional understanding of the sitcom genre’s comic objective, while also being one of the few examples from Season Five that retains an affiliation with the show’s situation as previously established. Part of this is because, with Emma going off to college (as the actress, Ari Meyers, was doing the same), her presence would later be significantly reduced, making it more difficult to engage even the traditional family structure, let alone this series’ specific “modified wrinkle.” This installment only acknowledges the former, but in this era, that’s enough to give it a stronger and more situationally comic basis for its larger laughs, which come from the more aggressively bold characterization of Emma’s new boyfriend, a yuppie jerk who’s designed as a clear opposite to Kate (politically, temperamentally, etc.). Usually, such a strong caricature would feel out of place on this series, but it’s buyable within this year’s ethos, and because it’s reserved for a guest — not one of the leads — it isn’t an awful breach of the show’s evolved sense of realism. As a result, his character’s broadness gets to emphasize the other characterizations, namely Kate’s via contrast, without harming her (or the show’s) integrity. And, again, with the family format validated, it seems to honor what the audience should be able to expect from Kate & Allie.

02) Episode 80: “Mother’s Day” (Aired: 10/05/87)

Kate and Allie try to improve their relationships with their mothers.

Written by Nita Wilson-Klein & Marco Pennette | Directed by Bill Persky

Marian Seldes and Scotty Bloch guest star in this offering as Kate and Allie’s respective mothers (the latter replacing Rosemary Murphy, who played the role in Season One). Introducing us to such important figures in each of the two leads’ lives is inherently revealing and thus character-based (and, by extension, connected to the show’s “situation”), even though the script itself — by a pair of freelancers, including a young Marco Pennette — is neither among this season’s funniest, nor as dramatically rewarding as its log line would suggest. However, the performances are elevating, and with both thematic and narrative cohesion in a story that naturally favors both Kate and Allie, its placement here was guaranteed. It just has the right idea.

03) Episode 81: “Return Of Bob Barsky” (Aired: 10/12/87)

Allie reconnects with her former date, Bob, who’s also seeing someone else.

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

Bob (Sam Freed), the former ball player whom Allie dated in Season Four (when Susan Saint James was on maternity leave), is reintroduced in this entry, which has a clear purpose: making him Allie’s endgame love interest, the man she’ll be with at the end of the series — a point that everyone involved assumes is imminent. Indeed, there are a lot of these narratively focused outings here in Five — I call them “functional” because they have an obvious goal and exist only to achieve that goal — but this is one of the best, boasting the most personality Bob has all year, a fine situationally-relevant depiction of Allie (who doesn’t like being “the other woman” given her history), and a few memorable set pieces, like when Allie bothers Bob while he’s announcing a game and later when he confronts her while she’s in the shower. So, this is a funny and generally well-written example of the year’s “functional” lot. (Zach Grenier also appears.)

04) Episode 84: “Jennie’s New Deal” (Aired: 11/09/87)

Jennie longs for her own freedom after Emma moves into the dorm.

Written by Daryl Rowland | Directed by Bill Persky

Addressing new realties for the family now that Emma is living in a dorm but Jennie is staying back at home, this is one of the few installments in Season Five to acknowledge the recent changes in the show’s situation that it’s usually trying to avoid (when consequently downplaying the family life in goofy narratives far detached from the series’ established givens and our expectations of them). Also, in being a family show with some mild recognition of the “wrinkle,” this one is much more reminiscent of previous, better years of the series — when Kate & Allie was more in tune with itself. And while there aren’t as many big laughs here as there are in the others on this list, there are enough to justify its inclusion, especially in light of its strength at reinforcing key elements of the series’ identity. Dylan Walsh appears.

05) Episode 86: “The Marriage Counselor” (Aired: 11/23/87)

Kate and Allie see a marriage counselor after an increase in bickering.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

I have mixed feelings about this offering, for on one hand, it’s a devastating display of how the show’s efforts to become funnier have led to an erosion in its fierce adherence to a style that’s more literally realistic — one of its unique qualities. And although I have always wanted this series to reconcile its own aesthetic standards of truth away from such an intensely literal understanding, so that there could be more room for comedy, a lot of its identity has been predicated on this sensibility, and losing it totally comes with a significant loss of self, particularly when the characters remain unable to be supportive, and the show must then rely on gimmicky ideas like this — ye old “friends see a counselor” plot, which is not only contrived, but really glaring on Kate & Allie, a series that has heretofore shied away from putting its leads in heavy conflict, as this would force contortions in behavior that would heighten and falsify them. But that’s no longer a concern… and, in fact, going only by Season Five’s baseline, this episode is fairly funny and worthwhile, largely because it centralizes the core relationship (the series’ proxy-premise) in a way that most do not. And, ultimately, with a final denouement rooted in the changing “situation” as a result of Allie’s new romantic arc, there’s a legitimate justification to some of the broadness — ensuring that, okay, this is situation comedy.

06) Episode 87: “The Triangle Has Four Sides” (Aired: 12/07/87)

Kate tries to juggle dating two different men.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

After setting up two different love interests for Kate, this entry is her equivalent of Allie’s “Return Of Bob Barsky,” in that it’s a functional script designed to ready her for what could possibly be her endgame guy, Ted (Greg Salata), the plumber — the show’s fallback fella for her. Once more, I’ll reiterate that I don’t think Ted is ever well-defined — he’s got less personality than Bob, for at least Bob’s career provides more color than Ted’s does, especially because it’s never a point of conflict for Kate — but there’s no one else she’s dated with a dramatic continuity that similarly eclipses the narrative need for emotional exposition. And with the groundwork already laid in a prior offering, it makes sense that she would formally return to him in this affable half hour — where Susan Saint James, in particular, gets to be funny — as Kate juggles two other guys. Also, with some fun scenes between the two leading ladies here as well, this was an easy choice to be one of this year’s ambassadors. John Gabriel guests.

07) Episode 89: “A Catered Affair” (Aired: 01/04/88)

Kate and Allie get mixed up with a client who’s cheating on her husband.

Written by Dick Goldberg | Directed by Bill Persky

As discussed, my issue with the catering arc is that although it grants Kate and Allie more direct face time since they’re now in business together, it’s far away from the show’s family premise and doesn’t actually flatter the central relationship as it should, for the idea inevitably invites an anthology-like parade of clients who shift focus from the fixed elements of the series’ situation. And yet, I have to say… in this broadening era, these types of stories do move the onus off Kate and Allie, thereby saving them from some of the side effects of this heightening. Also, because the women have gone into catering, it’s now a part of their established situation — as far as this year is concerned — and it’s therefore better for it to inspire plot than anything more random (like the awful Very Special Episode about homelessness that you know darn well I am unable to highlight as good sitcommery). What’s more, a couple of these ideas are comedically compensatory — such as “A Catered Affair,” which is a rare example on this series of farce, when the duo gets embroiled in a scheme to help their wealthy client keep her husband from finding out she’s having an affair. So, while the exaggerated story is far removed from Kate & Allie’s initial premise — and the humor itself is gaudy — the main characters aren’t harmed, and the series is utilizing an aspect (however unideal) of its new situation for big laughs that are narratively connected. (Guests include Bernard Barrow and Patricia Elliott.)

08) Episode 91: “Almost Married” [a.k.a. “And Then There Were None”] (Aired: 01/18/88)

Kate, Allie, and their dates spend the weekend in a rustic cabin.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

This seemingly popular outing is a hodgepodge of assorted sitcom clichés, revealing the season’s heightened comic ethos but lack of genuine affiliation with its personified tangibles by way of story. That is, it’s a prime example of how these characters aren’t well-defined enough to inspire narrative, for in addition to a rather generic “double date to the old surprisingly-rustic cabin,” the script then throws in the hacky “there’s a convict on the loose” beat, ratcheting up their paranoia when the men go out and don’t come back. None of it has anything to do with the characters or the premise. However, it’s a chance for Jane Curtin, in particular, to play up her mania, and with plenty of one-on-one time for Kate and Allie, the teleplay is at least engaging the elements we care about most, if not embracing them through plot.

09) Episode 94: “The Mouse That Squeaked” (Aired: 02/08/88)

Kate and Allie try to catch a loose mouse.

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

Ari Meyers’ Emma makes her final appearance (outside of the season finale clip show) in this offering, and her mere inclusion speaks to the fact that this is the last half hour of the series to meaningfully embody its initially intended identity as a family sitcom (“modified wrinkle” or not). Structurally, it’s desirable, then, and although, true to this year’s form, it employs a low concept but clichéd “there’s a mouse on the loose” story, this script instills all the characters, primarily Kate and Allie, with a comedy that’s both reflective of the year but also has a sense of easy familiarity — believable, relatable, and reminiscent of the stronger entries from seasons past. Also, it might not be terribly original or imaginative, but Bob being just as scared of the mouse is an amusing choice that provides a bit of appreciated detail to his characterization, which is becoming more and more vague as he and Allie inch closer to marriage.

10) Episode 95: “Inside Park Avenue” (Aired: 02/15/88)

Kate and Allie cater an anniversary party with a lecherous husband.

Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky

The other catering episode that I’ve chosen to highlight, this one is not as comical as the aforementioned “A Catered Affair” farce, but it’s better written overall, utilizing the two characters more specifically in its plot by having them both react and push some of the developments — namely what happens when the husband for whom they’re working an anniversary party comes on to them both, but especially Kate. The corresponding interplay between the leads is strong and funny, and the other guests are written believably as well, allowing this to be a little more character-based and relationship-focused than the other catering segments, and generally less silly too. Oh, sure, it’s still far removed from the initial premise, but with the relationship suitably displayed via the duo’s elevated presence and interaction, it’s satisfactory. Guests include David Bailey and Kathleen Noone.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention consist of a few that are probably very memorable because of their ostentatious idea-driven conceptions: “My Day With Paul Newman,” which has Allie acting like Lucy Ricardo for a broadly comic, but less believable story about her trying to meet Paul Newman, who doesn’t even appear (it asks too much from a character who doesn’t have this in her continuity to support it — not situation-based), “The Namath Of The Game,” which boasts a ratings stunt appearance by Joe Namath in a story otherwise about Kate and Allie’s relationship (it actually does use the situation a bit, so it was the closest to the above list; it’s just not funny enough or motivated by character enough to overcome its basic gimmickry and compete with this year’s finest), “Working Women,” which is this season’s take on last year’s “Reruns” — another sketch-like comedy piece, this time putting the two leads in the roles of prior working women, but without the same laughs or affirmation of the series’ identity, and two of the three entries that lead up to Allie and Bob’s engagement (and the basic end of the series’ premise), “Bob Smells The Roses,” which is the funniest, and “Allie Makes Up Her Mind,” which doesn’t suitably earn its big development, but has a few good beats, particularly in the imaginative set piece where Kate and Allie both suggest what Allie’s married life will be like with Bob. Other less gaudy but equally citable excursions include “Ted’s Fix Up,” which lays the groundwork for Kate’s reunion with Ted in the more comedic outing previously cited, and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” a solid family Christmas show that’s not as amusing, as honest, or as unique as the other segments featured above.

 

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

“The Dilemma With Emma”

 

 

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

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