The Ten Best EMPTY NEST Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Empty Nest (1988-1995, NBC), which is frequently findable on YouTube and cable.

Empty Nest stars RICHARD MULLIGAN as Harry, DINAH MANOFF as Carol, KRISTY McNICHOL as Barbara, PARK OVERALL as Laverne, and DAVID LEISURE as Charley.

Empty Nest is one of the most average properties we’ve ever given space to on Sitcom Tuesdays, falling right in the middle of our highlighted efforts. It’s seldom outstanding, it’s seldom terrible, and while such muted highs and lows typically mean it’s a show that’s not conducive to coverage here, it’s been one of the most requested efforts by readers since I first discussed The Golden Girls back in 2016. And, indeed, Empty Nest’s affiliation with The Golden Girls — one of the best sitcoms of the 1980s, and an all-time classic — seems to be the guiding source of its interest now, both for viewers and for, frankly, my intentions on this blog. That is, in making the decision to feature Empty Nest, I’m not just fulfilling those many requests, I’m also allowing myself the chance to say more about a series that I both respect and enjoy — the show off from which Empty Nest spun, another sitcom created by Susan Harris and produced by Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas. But that’s not going to be my focus; no, I only want to use The Golden Girls as a specific point of contrast in our examination of Empty Nest — which I also like (only far less). For although the two casts crossed over periodically — especially early on to help establish this new series, and then in 1991-’92, when Witt-Thomas-Harris’ Nurses was added to the lineup — and they all exist within the same basic Miami-set universe, the shows are markedly different, particularly in terms of episodic results. This is largely because there’s a major structural distinction between The Golden Girls and Empty Nest — though, interestingly, that isn’t present in the initial 1987 backdoor pilot, “Empty Nests,” which aired at the tail end of The Golden Girls’ second season, with Paul Dooley and Rita Moreno as the ladies’ neighbors, a couple whose nest is figuratively empty now that their kids are all gone. Many Golden Girls fans have come to regard this installment as that series’ worst half hour (for the core four are sidelined), but the network wasn’t enthused either, significantly retooling the idea before picking it up for the fall of 1988 — and with only one carryover from the intended cast: David Leisure as their obnoxious neighbor (initially called “Oliver”). For the official series, titled Empty Nest, the premise was tweaked and now centered around Harry Weston, a recent widower and pediatrician, played by one of Susan Harris’ old Soap pals, Richard Mulligan.

Harry is now adjusting to living alone, without his wife, and minus his three daughters, two of whom are still in town — the neurotic Carol (Dinah Manoff, another Soap vet) and Barbara, the easygoing cop (Kristy McNichol). Rounding out the cast would be Park Overall as Laverne, Harry’s sharp-tongued, Southern nurse, and holdover David Leisure as Charley, the smarmy horndog and cruise ship purser who lives next door. (Oh, and Bear the dog as Dreyfuss — but I won’t be counting him as a character hereafter because, as we’ve noted with babes and animals, unless we’re privy to an active decision-making process, they’re not actually capable of driving story — they’re just narrative devices to which others respond.) With this new fivesome, Witt-Thomas-Harris had created a sitcom with a classic MTM structure — part domestic and part workplace, as Harry goes back and forth between his personal life of family and neighbors, and his professional life of colleagues and patients. This MTM comparison is notable because, as we’ve also discussed, Susan Harris and the Witt-Thomas machine is much more affiliated with the rival Norman Lear idea-led school of ’70s sitcommery — Harris had written for All In The Family and Maude (including the famous abortion two-parter), and then the trio went on to helm Soap, which was a lampoon of daytime serials, propelled by outrageous and topical storylines. Then, as expected, when we examined The Golden Girls, we found a similar Lear-ian ethos — as its premise about four senior citizens also invited corresponding sociopolitical stories on issues their demographic was facing, yielding big, boundary-pushing laughs of the Soap variety. Of course, what ended up being so delectable about The Golden Girls — aside from its brilliant cast — was that those characters quickly became so well-defined that they, for the most part, were able to motivate, or at least inspire, ALL of the stories, not to mention their comedy. Accordingly, the show came to be exceptionally character-driven, and reminiscent of an MTM series, thus creating a balance of the two rival aesthetics — one more foundational in its DNA, the other borne out by a sublime link between comic characters and story.

In fact, the appealing duality of the MTM/Lear styles — the boldest embodiments of this more foundational character-driven vs. idea-driven divide — is what, I argued, helped make that show so strong, boasting big, courageous stories, and equally big, well-delineated characterizations (who informed the ideas in the storytelling). And yet, if The Golden Girls had some pronounced MTM-like qualities in practice, its structure as a domestic sitcom with a very non-traditional family was less adherent to the most common MTM style, with an aforementioned work/home split. As such, Empty Nest actually claims a design that’s even more like an MTM hit than The Golden Girls, opening up the possibility for character work that also matches that brand’s finest, and either equals or bests its older sibling’s — while also maintaining a rich connection to those Lear-ian roots too, both through Susan Harris and first season executive producer Rod Parker, whose past credits included All In The Family, Maude, and All’s Fair (among others). To wit, Empty Nest suggests an even more genuine liminality, with true balance, for though Rod Parker was one of the main aesthetic influencers of the first season, the other executive producer (and the man who’d guide the series solo for the second and third years, following Parker’s leave with Lear-ian director Hal Cooper, and creator Harris’ own reduced involvement) is Gary Jacobs, who came from MTM, working on its leading lady’s variety series, and several seasons of Bob Newhart’s ’80s sitcom. Now, this isn’t primo MTM experience — his biggest prior sitcom credit was Newhart, which is far more idea-driven and less true-to-life than its star’s previous vehicle from the same company — but it’s still a genuine affiliation, buttressed by other scribes on staff who had also written for that same show (namely Arnie Kogen and David Tyron King). So, all this is to say that, even more than The Golden Girls, Empty Nest looks to be an equally enjoyable blend of qualities associated with both the character-driven MTM ethos and the idea-driven Norman Lear alternative. And again, it also exists in the same world as the marvelous The Golden Girls, with recurring reminders of their proximity.

As such, I found a few ways to be genuinely excited about covering this series — even if my peripheral awareness told me it was perennially mediocre. And although my peripheral awareness would mostly prove accurate after this formal study, Empty Nest does possess a smart design and many positive qualities that help it, in some respects, truly embody a satisfying, genre-validating character-led MTM series. For starters, Empty Nest — like the best of MTM — tends to be, early on, a “palpably human” sitcom, with a more literal brand of aesthetic realism, most concerned with believable characterizations rather than easy jokes, seldom sacrificing their established truths for uninspired laughs. (More Bob Newhart than Newhart!) This palpable humanity is also reinforced by the relatable, bittersweet “empty nest” premise, built on equal parts loss and freedom, and characterized by the strong relationships between its leads, particularly the family members, and most especially, the two sisters. What’s more, there are some terrific characters — Overall’s Laverne and Leisure’s Charley are incredibly specific and therefore uber-reliable in procuring laughs, with dialogue and stories that only make sense for them individually. The same goes for Manoff’s Carol, the neurotic divorcée who’s always competing with her more relaxed sister for their father’s affections. Carol is the comedically boldest figure, but she also happens to remain believably human — a guaranteed purveyor of yuks with unusual depth, revealed in her complicated but relatable relationships within the core family dynamic. More than anyone else, she feels the most like a complete, well-rounded sitcom character — someone who can handle humor and heart in a way that reminds of MTM’s greatest. A huge part of her characterization, meanwhile, is how she’s contrasted against McNichol’s Barbara — a perky cop who’s less uptight, more practical, and generally more self-assured. The differences between the two are clear… but scripts really only emphasize Carol’s comic outrageousness, with Barbara often playing more of the neutral canvas against which her sister pops. In other words, so much of Barbara’s definition revolves around Carol’s usage, and Barbara’s comparative inability to inspire story based on her own persona indicates a weakness.

This Barbara issue speaks to a larger problem with characters motiving story, for while a lot of ideas are sparked from their jobs — doctor, cop, purser, etc. — their individual characterizations (flaws, objectives, perspectives — sources of comedy) don’t provide for as many narrative ideas as, say, the characters on The Golden Girls do. Yes, Laverne and Charley are moderately adept at subplots and the kind of flimsier narratives that their slightly broader personas allow, and Carol’s outsized exaggerations do a fine job of influencing her utilization (especially in the first half of the run, before Barbara’s surprise departure). But it’s never, collectively, on par with those MTM sitcoms (or The Golden Girls) that count great character work on a more reliable, all-encompassing basis. And this will always be a source of concern… One cause of which, I think, is the intentional minimization of Richard Mulligan, whose Harry is essentially a straight man to the bigger personalities around him, indeed supplying a lot of the show’s appealing warmth and human charm in the process… but without himself a funny perspective (like Bob Newhart’s) and few opportunities to really be hilarious — like Soap showed us he could be. Sure, his believable, charming performance reiterates the desired tone, but with our knowledge of his past work, I think it’s impossible not to wish that he was able to be responsible for more of the laughs, and for more of the stories as well, given that he’s the star — the ensemble’s nucleus. To that point, because he’s a relatively muted presence, he doesn’t have the traits that encourage unique narrative ideas — a lot of them stem either from his profession or from his premised status as a widower, with few arising from personal qualities exclusive to the character’s personality. This speaks, again, to the show’s relative weakness in using its leads to inform the storytelling. Obviously, it gets real tough once the novelty of the premise runs out, but we’ll see this even during the early years, which theoretically are the series’ peak… specifically Two and Three, after an important decision at the midpoint of One, where the sisters move back in with Harry, rendering the “Empty Nest” title ironic but consequently making it easier for the central relationships to flourish, as their comedic and dramatic opportunities expand.

I’m tempted to say that Empty Nest’s elevated humanity tamps down, as a whole, on the leads’ personas, and that it’s also responsible for the show’s lack of direct narrative specificity with character, but we’ve seen some other very human shows (like Bob Newhart’s) do a better job of being more individualized and cleverer in the cultivation of their plots — meaning, less reliant on familiar ideas that could be applicable to so many different sitcom archetypes. So, I don’t think it’s fair to totally blame that aesthetic choice for these story shortcomings. Rather, I think the show is merely not creative enough to sustain this tamped down ethos. On the other hand, I think it is fair to say that the show is not as funny as other sitcoms — including The Golden Girlsbecause of this more literally realistic directive, for it’s not willing to exaggerate certain aspects of its leads for the risk-taking pursuit of bigger laughs, like The Golden Girls does, benefiting from a Lear-ian boldness with humor, in addition to its strong (and for the most part) decently human characterizations… That said, one of the things that The Golden Girls eventually struggled with was the over-broadening of its leads in the latter half of its run — in the absence of motivated MTM-like character growth, which would have kept the storytelling fresher and less in need of some artificial heightening. Empty Nest similarly struggles to grow its leads — and I’d argue that it’s actually more of a weakness here, for this show prides itself on being more realistic and human, which means a more nuanced exploration of character is required. And unfortunately, it takes a while for any of these leads to receive any kind of forward movement — changes in careers, in romance, in circumstances — and so they all feel stagnant, as story slowly becomes more and more generic, naturally disconnected from them. Also, I think a huge missed opportunity arises because the ensemble remains locked for the first four seasons — oh, Laverne’s husband pops in for rare appearances, but there are otherwise no serious love interests, no recurring colleagues or family members — so there’s never any reinforcements, no added flavors beyond the core ensemble, which is incredibly rigid and perhaps well-established, but almost so tight that the “status quo maintenance” feels false.

In this regard, Empty Nest not only needs change to help with story — both in its ensemble, and the “situation” of its characters — but it also needs it to help validate the show’s desired realism. Not until Season Four are there even signs of movement — Carol starts a new career, Laverne’s marriage ends — and as such, the period where the show is most prone to be a humanity-filled MTM-like sitcom (the Barbara era — with believable leads who have strong relationships inside a gentle work/home structure that can still engage the widower premise) feels never fully realized either. (And heck, if the show is going to be so unchanging, then I’d rather it be funnier — bolder, with big laughs more directly attached, like The Golden Girls, to its characters!) Now, this may seem like a harsh critique, for many shows go on a while without changing, but again, Empty Nest is telling us that a sizable degree of realism is key to its identity, implying that it’s purposely avoiding bigness so that its characters remain fairly close to real life. Therefore, it’s fair to examine how a visibly false lack of change is harmful to this goal. (Look at the original MTM sitcoms in contrast — by Season Three, both Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart were evolving their leads, expanding their ensembles.) Sadly, by the time there is some genuine change — in Five, when Carol gets Paul Provenza’s Patrick as a possibly permanent love interest — Kristy McNichol leaves abruptly, taking away the series’ strongest relationship, and replacing Barbara with a proxy: the other sister, Emily, who actually has potential, that, like Patrick… ends up getting squandered. But we’ll talk more about that later. We’ll also talk more about the final seasons, which attempt to provide some growth to Carol by throwing her a baby, while also granting a tweak to Harry’s work environment by changing locales, and genuinely adding to the ensemble by giving Harry another colleague (Marsha Warfield), along with a reliable laugh-getter in Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo, joining the main cast in a very supporting capacity following the cancellation of The Golden Palace. This is a jokier time for the series, while the premise is basically non-existent, the palpable humanity has burned off, and of course, the show remains weak about having its characters inform the stories. A situation with scant “sit.”

This, I’ll reiterate, is why I think Empty Nest is ultimately mediocre. For though it exists within the world of The Golden Girls and has an even more MTM-ordained character-emphasizing design, which in turn is corroborated by a palpably human tone that seeks to confirm character usage as paramount, some of its leads are not allowed to be very funny, and all of them are significantly less involved in the cultivation of weekly story, which instead is familiar, uninspired, and largely forgettable. (The Golden Girls, despite Empty Nest’s more faithful framework, is much richer by way of its leads — and by way of the genre, for character is always the preeminent element of a “situation” that should be propelling weekly comedy in episodic plot.) What does all this mean to us? Well, a sitcom can structurally set itself up for success, and possess noble character-forward attributes, but unless it’s actively willing to let its leads not just push big laughs, but also have traits that enable them to be directly, courageously linked to the foundation from which story springs — truly attaching “situation” to the projection of identity — it’s never going to be fully satisfying. It’s going to be solid, or average, like Empty Nest — with a smart construction, some well-sketched characterizations, and an admirable command on literal realism (for a while), but few memorable and one-of-a-kind stories, and not many yuks that transcend the series to be competitive with the best of its era — most especially, its neighbor, The Golden Girls. We’ll track Empty Nest’s quality in the weeks ahead, but as for Season One, the show is calibrating how broad it wants to be, and takes until its midpoint to put the daughters under one roof, where their bond can really bloom and become more comedically utilizable. But they’re already pretty well-set, for we can see who’s bringing it (Carol), who has potential (Laverne and Charley), and who’s just passively premise-affirming (Barbara and Harry). That said, there’s an appreciated sensitivity surrounding Harry’s status as a widower — which fades over time — and this fairly low-concept setup is never more present, doing much of the heavy-lifting for his existence within story. This renders Season One an atypical showing for Empty Nest, but the year that best evidences its premised roots.


01) Episode 2: “The Check Isn’t In The Mail” (Aired: 10/22/88)

Carol prepares for a date with her ex-husband.

Written by Gary Jacobs | Directed by Hal Cooper

Although Susan Harris’ pilot script does a straightforward job of establishing the premise and all its main characters — with a respectable amount of precision that merits acknowledgment — the series’ sophomore outing digs deeper into these central relationships, and in particular, the show’s primary comic characterization (Dinah Manoff’s Carol), for a more ultimately rewarding understanding of what Empty Nest intends to be, and where its strengths lie. In other words, this is an episode that still operates within the early days of concept-reiteration, but with more fleshing out of the characters, so that the returns are richer. Now, Carol’s ex-husband (Adrian Zmed), unlike Dorothy’s ex on The Golden Girls (who also debuted in that series’ second entry), will not prove to be a recurring cast member, but his presence gives us more knowledge about Carol’s past, so we can chart her evolution (or lack thereof) as the show progresses…

02) Episode 10: “Libby’s Gift” (Aired: 12/17/88)

Harry receives an organ that Libby bought before she died.

Written by David Sacks & Rob LaZebnik | Directed by Hal Cooper

As discussed above, one of Empty Nest’s core attributes is its palpable humanity — a sensitivity to realistic human emotions and a sentimentality that, for the most part, feels earned because these characters remain believable. This installment is a great example of that quality, and within a story that really affirms the premise of Harry being a widower, thereby centralizing him and his truthful charm. It’s also a bit more specific than Empty Nest’s baseline, with a tangible object (that also gives some insight into the late Libby) and a way for Harry to actively work through his grief (instead of just ruminating on it whenever convenient) — by playing the organ she ordered before she passed away. So, this is one of the better premise-rooted shows, both for Harry and for the storytelling. (Lee Wilkof appears, and Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls makes a cameo — years before she’ll join the regular cast!)

03) Episode 11: “The First Time… Again” (Aired: 01/07/89)

Harry prepares for his first weekend alone with another woman.

Written by Gary Jacobs | Directed by Hal Cooper

I’m highlighting this excursion for similar reasons as the above — it’s a premise-affirming show that has a lot of human sincerity and thus gains points for validating an important part of Empty Nest’s conception of itself. And it’s also funnier than most of the entries in this subcategory, largely thanks to a fairly routine but nevertheless necessary story idea, about Harry anticipating his first sexual tryst with another woman following his wife’s passing, which both makes sense for this show’s design and also affords Richard Mulligan the chance to operate with some nervous comic tension — a nice change of pace for him, on this series that too often has him reacting instead of acting. Barbara Babcock guests, and Edan Gross is the recurring Jeffrey.

04) Episode 12: “Full Nest” (Aired: 01/14/89)

Barbara moves back in with Harry.

Written by Susan Beavers | Directed by Hal Cooper

This is the aforementioned midpoint of Season One, where the show enacts a slight retooling, opting to put Barbara and Carol both under Harry’s roof — so that the Empty Nest title is rendered ironic, since the nest is now full again (or almost full), but it’s now easier for these main characters, and their seminal relationships, to be more often involved in comic conflict, as there’s more opportunities for them to interact inside this modified domestic format that’s simplifying their dynamic. I count this move as vital for the series — and an indication that it’s hoping to prioritize the characters and relationships that should be prioritized for choice sitcommery. And if Empty Nest is going to have something of a Golden Age, this is the move that signals it’s in the offing, making character-based plots more likely. Brad Hall guests.

05) Episode 15: “Tears Of A Clown” (Aired: 02/06/89)

Carol gets a job at the hospital and then causes a major lawsuit.

Written by Marie Therese Squerciatti | Directed by Hal Cooper

Okay, despite the structural move of reuniting the daughters under Harry’s roof and how that truly amplifies (in theory) their characterizations for utilization within story, Season One still has a few growing pains it’s working through — specifically, as discussed in my essay, there are a few ideas that test the limit of the show’s comic broadness, or, in other words, explore just how silly and less realistic this otherwise very realistic series is willing to be in exchange for laughs. Now, that’s not to say there’s anything truly ridiculous — but the whole inclusion of a clown, as played by Paul Sand, who’s been treated for depression and finds himself publicly outed by Carol — is an ostentatious narrative notion that’s far removed from the low-concept widower premise and those central relationships with their everyday concerns. For that reason, this feels like an out-of-place half hour… However, I like that Carol is actively the conflict-maker, and in a story that merges Harry’s personal and professional worlds (classic MTM). And, frankly, I like that the narrative itself is memorable, for there are probably only a few Empty Nests that will stay with me after this coverage. Plus, trust me — if the characters were harmed by this gaudy story, I’d bump it; they aren’t. (Also, other guests include Ian Abercrombie and Nancy Cartwright.)

06) Episode 17: “Dumped” (Aired: 02/18/89)

Dorothy Zbornak’s nephew dates and dumps Barbara.

Written by Susan Beavers | Directed by Hal Cooper

Bea Arthur guest stars as The Golden Girls’ Dorothy Zbornak in this popular outing that’s well-liked (and relatively well-seen compared to others) in large part because of her appearance, which manages to successfully corroborate Dorothy’s known persona. This, mind you, is quite the opposite of the treatment afforded Rue McClanahan’s Blanche Devereaux, who is made to drive an earlier entry that doesn’t flatter her, as she aggressively pursues Harry, propelled by a gross and burlesqued perception of her character that only serves to remind us that Empty Nest is both a muted series in terms of how it depicts its own leads, and one that simply doesn’t know how to handle such audacious comic energy, primarily in weekly story, which must instinctively make her an antagonist — something it’s decidedly contrasting itself against. That’s not only unfair to Blanche, but indicative of this show’s personal values at best, weaknesses at worst. However, I digress… for Dorothy’s depiction is much more congruous with how she usually is on her series, and this is even with the script putting her in opposition to Harry via a fairly routine “proxy fight,” for both Arthur and the text (by Susan Beavers — who actually did pen one early Golden Girls) are able to remain quippy, in keeping with the rhythms of The Golden Girls, but with just as much humanity as Empty Nest requires — the kind not granted to Blanche — so that the two shows’ different aesthetics are reconciled in a way that lets both ambassadors look good… Additionally, there’s some really fine material for the two sisters too — some of their best stuff of the entire run, leaning into their contrast — and because this important part of the series’ identity is invoked, I am comfortable selecting “Dumped” as my Most Valuable Episode (MVE), for although I would ordinarily not want to single out the “Dorothy crossover” — it’s a gimmick, with too much value stemming from something outside Empty Nest — this teleplay is strong on everything the show needs, thereby allowing us to celebrate the connection between these two series, while also highlighting what makes Empty Nest special as well.

07) Episode 19: “Man Of The Year” (Aired: 03/04/89)

Harry receives an award and is visited by his estranged father, another doctor.

Written by Mady Julian | Directed by Hal Cooper

A few months before he would be added to the recurring cast of The Golden Girls as Rose’s boyfriend Miles, Harold Gould dons old age makeup and plays Harry Weston’s father for this memorable half hour that succeeds by virtue of standing out and being bold. That is, it swings between pronounced comedy and overbearing sentiment more often than this gentler series’ baseline is used to accommodating, which, again, makes it feel a bit misplaced. And yet, because the show’s elemental humanity is already well in place, this script is able to handle the elevated tension, especially when it’s offering a story that’s revealing for the central character — granting us more insight into Harry’s history — and it’s naturally unique, for never again will we be treated to an appearance from Harry’s dad. (Peter Hobbs and Marla Adams also appear.)

08) Episode 20: “Cyrano De Weston” (Aired: 03/18/89)

Harry unknowingly helps Charley steal his girlfriend.

Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Hal Cooper

This solid outing seems to have a following among the few (but vocal) Empty Nest fans I’ve met, and I think it’s largely because there are two comedic stories predicated on reveals — one that’s a surprise to the audience, as Carol awaits an inheritance that proves to be not at all what she expected, and one where the audience is ahead of the characters, as Harry plays “Cyrano De Bergerac,” writing love letters for Charley to give to his girlfriend… with neither of them knowing, as we do, that the woman in question is currently seeing Harry as well. Most of the laughs and suspense are coming from this easy narrative design, rather than the characters, but I appreciate this one for giving more air to the dynamic between Harry and Charley, the latter of whom is good for hahas but heretofore in need of additional depth. So, in being a stepping stone for his character — and in a basically comic teleplay — I feature this entry here.

09) Episode 21: “My Sister, My Friend” (Aired: 03/25/89)

Harry promises to take the girls to Paris if they can stop fighting.

Written by Harold Kimmel | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

With a story that’s precisely hinged on the inherent conflict between the two sisters, based on their different personality traits (and mutual competition for their father’s affection — relatable to all siblings), this installment is a great showcase for the series’ most emotionally strong and comedically fruitful relationship, and its position here was therefore a “must-include” guarantee — indicative of just how smart Empty Nest has come to be about itself and what it should be, at least, in terms of focus. Additionally, while the subplot with Charley and the greyhound seems mostly like an excuse to get to that final gag with Dreyfuss, it’s funny and memorable, so that’s enough justification for me. A favorite, given the premise and this year’s standards.

10) Episode 22: “A Life In The Day” (Aired: 04/01/89)

Harry sees a series of patients… well, kinda.

Written by David Tyron King and Rob LaZebnik & David Sacks | Directed by Hal Cooper

If you are one of the more dedicated fans of Empty Nest, you probably expected to see this offering selected as my Most Valuable Episode (MVE), for it’s maybe the most memorable half hour of the entire series, and as you know, I consider memorability a virtue in the case of this sitcom, which too often isn’t. However, “A Life In The Day” is memorable because of its ostentatious, gimmicky, atypical structure — and for the slow reveal that gives more emotional weight to the proceedings (spoiler alert: that all the patients Harry is seeing are the same kid, as he grows up), not to mention the guest appearance by a young Matthew Perry — rather than anything that actually happens by way of comedy, or character. In fact, while I’m happy to see the star of this show take the spotlight, Barbara, Carol, and Charley don’t appear at all, meaning not only is this not a great sample of Empty Nest’s MTM work/home design, it’s also without the central relationships — and strongest comic character, Carol — that make the series fun. As such, it doesn’t feel like a great example of the show (or the situation comedy genre: using its characters for comedy), and I couldn’t celebrate it as this season’s best… That said, it’s a fine display of Empty Nest’s trademark humanity, and again, with Mulligan’s Harry centralized, in an unforgettable narrative package, it’s a segment I can certainly appreciate and recommend. (Beyond Perry, other guests include Richard Kind, Debra Engle, and Stephen Dorff.)


Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “What’s A Father To Do?,” which is the first entry to really figure out how to manifest the conflict-suggesting relationship of Harry caught between his two daughters in story, and the previously referenced “Pilot” by Susan Harris — the outing submitted on Richard Mulligan’s behalf to the Television Academy, winning him the series’ only Emmy — along with “Barbara Gets Shot,” which seeks to establish the dynamic between Harry and Barbara (who lacks definition compared to Carol, and therefore doesn’t have an equally durable bond with her father), “Harry’s Vacation,” which gingerly attempts to create a comic crescendo, “Strange Bedfellows,” which has some fine moments (and a Betty White as Rose Nylund cameo) despite a gaudy “schmuck bait” A-story, and “Blame It On The Moon,” a well-liked segment that separates the three main characters for small stories all united under the same theme, but with a relative shortage of laughs.


*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Empty Nest goes to…




Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!

16 thoughts on “The Ten Best EMPTY NEST Episodes of Season One

  1. I never watched this show until I started seeing it on Laff a few years ago. These early seasons with Christy McNichol are charming. It’s no Golden Girls but I like the whole cast and it’s always fun when there’s a crossover. Thank you for writing about it here.

  2. I love “The Golden Girls”– it’s like a warm hug from a friend. “Empty Nest” is often to me like a warm hug from your friend’s sibling. There’s a family resemblance but it’s not totally the same, or as good frankly.

    I also agree with you about Richard Mulligan. He was soooo funny on “Soap” but never gets that opportunity here. Most of that obligation falls on Dinah Manoff, who really carries the show IMO. I am looking forward to the rest of your coverage because I haven’t seen all of this series but want to see more, especially of Carol.

    • Hi, Ian! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I like that comparison between THE GOLDEN GIRLS and EMPTY NEST! Stay tuned for more Carol…

  3. Hi there. Even though “The Golden Girls” is the better show overall, do you think there’s a season where you prefer or think “Empty Nest” is in better shape?

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m afraid not. Even with my noted criticism of THE GOLDEN GIRLS in its later seasons, I simply think the highs of that series always outshine the more consistent but never-as-outstanding returns of EMPTY NEST, and those highs are enough to keep it more enjoyable.

  4. This obviously can’t hold a candle to THE GOLDEN GIRLS but I just loved that season where you could watch both shows and NURSES on the same night. Will you be discussing NURSES at all? I think there were a few crossovers with it too,

  5. I am a huge golden girls fan and it was so disgusted with the way they wrote Blanche on this series. Thank you for articulating why it was so awful. and not as good as the Dorothy episode. Thank you.

  6. Good review…I started rediscovering this show and can’t argue about what you have to say.

    I’m more of a season 3 to 5 guy when it comes to this show

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m afraid I don’t share your enthusiasm for that particular grouping of seasons as a collective. Stay tuned for more…

  7. Thanks for the coverage although you Im not a fan compared to Golden Girla. Youknow I can’t help but talk about the Golden Girls. Blanche’s appearance was definitely out of character at this time and probably more logical if it had occurred later on during the 1991-1992 season.

    It’s interesting about two shows crossovers. Far back when Green Acres spun off from Petticoat Junction during the 1965-1966 season there was quite the utilization of characters crossing over from one to the other. And it worked well. Now back here with Nest/Girls during the 1988-1989 season there was hardly any crossovers and stayed hat course afterwards. This was the case with PJ/GA crossovers after that initial season.

    I can’t help but refer back to Golden Girls and I’ve missed the opportunity to comment more on your past posts about the show. But I am definitely a fan of Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan. Both tremendous actors who deserved to be nominated as much as Betty and Estelle were. But I also am wondering if Betty and Estelle were too easily singled out at the expense of Bea and Rue. It’s just that I think that by the end of Girls 7 season that Rose and Sophia had become one note with the latter almost a gimmick to the point she appeared just to give out an easy joke and then exit which is the case here on Nest this season (that episode where Harry and Carol are playing the organ and Sophia drops by). Seems maybe that is the case with the last two seasons as well. I’m very curious to read your thoughts on the last seasons of Nest so until then maybe. Sorry for the ramble. Thanks.

    • Hi, Matt! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I actually think THE GOLDEN GIRLS and EMPTY NEST (not to mention NURSES) crossed over fairly frequently, and usually to decent, or agreeable, effect. Be sure to check out last month’s GOLDEN GIRLS “Rerun” post for a list of all the times that emissaries of EMPTY NEST appeared on that series. It’s likely more than you expect. (And stay tuned for several more GOLDEN GIRLS appearances on EMPTY NEST, in Season Four…)

      As for THE GOLDEN GIRLS specifically, I don’t think the overarching broadening in the last years of that series flattered any of its leads’ depictions, with the exception of Blanche, whose increasingly exaggerated persona was at least balanced by an elevated emotional depth (meaning, I don’t think her EMPTY NEST episode from 1988 would have worked in 1991-’92 either). I especially don’t think the later seasons knew what to do with Dorothy, and Sophia obviously suffered by proxy – evidenced, most notably, by her utilization on THE GOLDEN PALACE (in Dorothy’s absence).

      With regard to Emmys, I personally don’t consider awards a barometer of quality, so I don’t put much stock in them. To quote myself, “It’s just a group of industry insiders choosing whom they want to honor from a given selection. I think tracking the awards is notable mostly as a matter of historical record — and because they *can* indirectly influence our search for quality (if wins result in changes to the show: character prominence/usage, timeslot swaps, increased budgets, public perception, etc.)… But I don’t believe they’re determinant of what’s good; we have to decide that for ourselves.” And, frankly, regardless of the TV Academy, I don’t think Arthur or McClanahan have been denied their due by fans in the court of public opinion. In fact, I think Blanche Devereaux, in particular, has become an even more popular character in the decades since the series originally aired!

      Stay tuned for my thoughts on the final seasons of EMPTY NEST, including the incorporation of Estelle Getty’s Sophia…

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