The Ten Best EMPTY NEST Episodes of Season Three

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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.

Season Three is much funnier than its predecessors. The staff is basically the same — Gary Jacobs is still head scribe — but there’s more boldness now with episodic ideas. That is, loud comedic stories that might have been deemed too silly for the series in One and Two get employed with more abandon, and as a result, the entire show steps into an aesthetic where laughs are allowed to be bigger and more frequent. This is good and bad. I’ve always wanted the series to become more comedic, so it could be competitive with the best of its era, and although it’s still middle-of-the-pack compared to all our featured Sitcom Tuesday offerings, it’s now much more fun, with increased hahas accentuating enjoyment. And, happily, this shift does not come yet at the expense of the series’ trademark emotional realism — the palpable humanity that remains a foundation for all these characters… On the other hand, the reason I can credit this year for not harming these characters is that its funnier ideas are stemming even less from their specific personas (not to mention the show’s premised constructs — i.e., the widower setup, the sisters’ rivalry) — which means, while the elevated “knowingness” of their definitions within this more comedically charged ethos ensures they become funnier too, the cultivation of story is divorcing even more from the “situation.” In other words, inherently comedic plots — some familiar and clichéd — are being utilized, but with even less individualized, one-of-a-kind inspiration from these otherwise amusing and well-defined characters. In that regard, Three is more affable because it’s more comedic, but I can’t say it’s a more ideal form of sitcommery, for this situation’s established elements are less relevant than before in weekly narrative (the practice of identity). Accordingly, this is the year where I start to hope the leads will evolve or become attached to new recurring players, so there could be more trappings unique to Empty Nest to spark plot, making this a more perfect situation comedy… That said, this is still Empty Nest in rare form; if Two is the best example of the show as a sitcom, then Three, where both Carol and Charley particularly shine, is more comedically favorable — the bolder half of this two-year peak era — boasting highs not as pronounced as its competition (like The Golden Girls, which Empty Nest started regularly beating in the Nielsens), but with an enviable consistency.


01) Episode 48: “Harry’s Excellent Adventure” (Aired: 09/29/90)

Harry’s globetrotting friend makes him reevaluate his life.

Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Season Three’s sophomore outing — following an enjoyable premiere Honorably Mentioned below — is an ultimately favorable encapsulation of the series’ storytelling this year, with bigger ideas, like the climax of Harry running with the bulls in Spain, and bigger laughs, as in the scene with Charley’s quirky date. In fact, the trajectory of Harry’s primary narrative — extending this half hour’s scope well beyond what is expected from a typical Empty Nest — would normally give me pause, but it’s not disqualifying, for the plot is driven by Harry’s introspection, as he ponders the best way he should be living his life. This is a notion that speaks right to the series’ premise, about a widower adjusting to his new reality following his wife’s passing, and it allows the show to reinforce its palpable humanity, even amidst this newfound bigness. What’s more, the jokier nature of the teleplay — with a story that centralizes its true lead — also makes him funnier too, indicating another beneficial side effect of Three, and, actually, one of the year’s mini trends, as there are several shows here that try to both increase the humor while keeping Harry, usually the straight man, well-involved. (Earl Holliman and Earl Boen appear.)

02) Episode 49: “There’s No Accounting” (Aired: 10/06/90)

Carol is drawn to Barbara’s boyfriend, while Harry doesn’t feel a spark with his new date.

Written by Gary Jacobs | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Any story that highlights the differences between Carol and Barbara is a gem because it’s intrinsically predicated not only on their characterizations, but also on the premise’s very implication of how difficult their differences make the family’s peaceful coexistence. That is, there’s always conflict. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that this offering, with its A-story where Barbara is dating a man whose tastes are more highfalutin than hers and therefore quite obviously more suited to Carol, is an easy success, emphasizing the two women’s personas (particularly Carol’s), and with a little bit of the competitive edge that comedically colors their relationship. Okay, the subplot with Harry and his girlfriend (Janet Carroll) is less innately top-drawer, but there are some funny scenes for both Harry and Laverne — their relationship continues to get a lot of solid play this year as well. (Also, of note: Allison Mack appears.)

03) Episode 51: “The Tortoise & The Harry” (Aired: 10/20/90)

Carol convinces Barbara to join her in art class, while Harry helps a kid deal with grief.

Written by Roger Garrett | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

In one of the episodes featured on last week’s list, Carol spent the day trying to live like Barbara. Well, this installment is something of the reverse, for Carol encourages Barbara to come play on her turf — as the pragmatic cop joins the artsy librarian in a painting class that, again, naturally highlights the differences in their characterizations, with the expected turnaround (Barbara’s surprise success over Carol) providing enjoyable fodder. And, oh sure, the final gag with Charley as the nude model is amusing as well… Meanwhile, Harry gets a far more sensitive subplot as he helps one of his patients mourn the loss of a pet turtle — an idea that allows the show to call upon its widower premise, which is less frequently addressed here in Season Three, for some extra (and earned) dramatic support. (Debra Mooney plays the art teacher.)

04) Episode 52: “Mad About The Boy” (Aired: 10/27/90)

Carol is desperate for romance and starts up a relationship with a mall cheese host.

Written by Pat Dougherty | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Michael McKean makes a very funny guest appearance in this Carol-heavy outing where the desperate redhead is so determined to enter a relationship that she giddily embarks on a romance with a clear loser — a guy who works as a cheese server at the mall. (Yes, that’s the McKean role.) That, in itself, is a comic idea indicative of the kind of risks Three is more willing to take with its stories, compared to the years prior. However, the plot is not just risky, it’s justified as an extension of Carol’s persona, which is centralized here to the series’ benefit, as she remains the show’s boldest (and yet most dimensional) leading player — the strongest force of the Weston clan. Thus, more than the mere gimmick of McKean’s inclusion, this entry is a winner because of how situated it is around the winning Carol characterization.

05) Episode 54: “The Boy Next Door” (Aired: 11/10/90)

Carol considers a relationship with Charley after the two sleep together.

Written by Rob LaZebnik | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Probably one of the most memorable half hours of the entire series, “The Boy Next Door” engages an ostentatious but not unbelievable story centered around two reliably comic members of the ensemble, allowing its funny idea to be directly attached to them and their relationship. In this case, I’m referring to Carol and Charley, whose mutual snark gives way to a sexual combustion — latent tensions that finally erupt between this pair of seeming opposites: a smarmy lothario and a neurotic fussbudget — two figures who, again, are always good for laughs, but are also capable of some palpable humanity. (Charley is the recipient of increased depth in Three — if last year helped flesh out Laverne, this is the year where Charley gains a similar amount of emotional weight.) That said, what I like best about this excursion is that the shock of their tryst does NOT carry all the value, as the duo attempts to date, pivoting the proceedings into a genuinely character and relationship-led place, and while the two never officially become involved hereafter, and I can’t say that I’d advocate for their regular pairing, the notion of a potential change in their dynamic (which never comes) is especially exciting — for this is a season where, as noted, I’m starting to get antsy about the stagnant nature of the characters, and looking for ways that plots can get back to being more unique to them. So, just for its strong A-story, this is a standout. (Evening Shade’s Candace Hutson appears.)

06) Episode 59: “A Shot In The Dark” (Aired: 01/05/91)

Carol dates a depressed ex-clown, whom Barbara accidentally shoots.

Written by Roger Garrett | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Paul Sand, who guest starred in a tonally anachronistic first season outing as a depressed clown whose medical history Carol inadvertently outed on TV, returns here even more down and out, as his character is now in a relationship with his former foe. That bit of continuity — which Empty Nest is pretty good about maintaining — adds to the show’s literal realism, and it’s helpful, because this is another fairly broad affair, as Barbara accidentally shoots the ex-clown, who continues to get injured the longer he stays at the Weston residence while Carol avoids dumping him. Truthfully, I don’t consider this in the top half of this week’s list — I think it’s another example of a gaudier comic idea that predicates more value outside of its leads than it should — but the fact that the story is hinged around someone we’ve met before makes the whole thing sturdier, and I can credit it as a funny, if silly, sample of Empty Nest. 

07) Episode 62: “The Mentor” (Aired: 02/02/91)

Harry must come to terms with his mentor’s decline, while the girls take piano lessons.

Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Mentor” is easily on the short list of this series’ most unforgettable half hours, for it boasts a guest appearance by producer Tony Thomas’ father, the great Danny Thomas, who actually passed away (in real life) a few days after this installment made it to air, rendering it the last sitcom gig for this titan in the genre. Now, regular readers of this blog know that the mere inclusion of a legend is not enough for me to single out a segment as MVE — by itself, his would be a form of stunt casting that has nothing to do with the particular elements of this series, its “situation.” But, fortunately, the A-story, in which Thomas plays Harry’s mentor, whose old age has started to affect his work and thus forces our lead to grapple with the decline of someone important to him, is a stellar showcase for Empty Nest’s palpable humanity, which is willing to engage in sentiment and drama because it has enough sincerity to do so, courtesy of both the writing, where the premise is subliminally invoked via the notion of aging and death, and the strong performances (Mulligan is especially beautiful here — both he and Thomas were nominated for Emmys based on their work). So, it affirms a key part of Empty Nest’s identity, and while it’s not as amusing as the rest of this season’s best, I can happily report that the subplot provides some bigger yuks, with a “can’t miss” story where Barbara and Carol agree to recreate a piano recital that never happened as kids because they got into a brawl. Of course, given their dynamic, they can’t avoid the same thing happening again — a broad gag, but one rooted in their established relationship, which fuels everything, like the underrated bathroom scene in Act One. And with this portion of the entry providing the laughs, “The Mentor” becomes a well-rounded excursion, with lots of what makes Empty Nest special — and an extra dash of memorability too. I wouldn’t call this the most honest ambassador for Season Three and its strengths, but there’s simply no other option that will remain as positively present in my post-study memory of this series.

08) Episode 63: “The Dog Who Knew Too Much” (Aired: 02/09/91)

Carol and Barbara consider moving out after two years of living with their father.

Written by Gary Jacobs | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Although I’m typically not a fan of sitcom plots with so-called “schmuck bait” — that is, a story that asks viewers to believe in something that we KNOW is not going to happen, because it would pose too big a threat to the situation’s necessary status quo — I’m making an exception for this offering, which theoretically spends its last half trying to convince us that Barbara and Carol are moving out (even though we’re pretty sure they aren’t) but is ultimately saved by so much valuable exploratory support from the premise, the characters, and the relationships. You see, with the script sparking its plot by having the leads realize they’ve been living together for two years, the text not only addresses the first season retooling, but it also forces them to confront the circumstances that made them want to cohabitate in the first place — the main one being their grief over Libby’s death. And with the trio sharing their thoughts to Dreyfuss, we get a wonderful window into all three of these central characterizations — even Barbara, whose talk is surprisingly self-aware and revealing — which I guess shouldn’t be a surprise, given that this script is credited to Gary Jacobs, who really knows these characters and this show.

09) Episode 64: “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” (Aired: 02/16/91)

Harry dates a younger woman while Laverne trains a new nurse.

Written by Rob LaZebnik | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Here’s an example of a routine sitcom story that has very little to do with the particulars of Empty Nest specifically, for how many times have we seen a series produce an episode where a lead either dates someone deemed too young or too old for them? (It’s easy because there’s natural conflict, rooted in both societal expectations and the differences suggested by generational gaps.) Frankly, this take on the idea isn’t one of its exceptional iterations — the dynamic between Harry and his juvenile paramour isn’t especially funny — and the seeming centerpiece where both families come together shows a lot of promise, but never really rises to a climax… However, there’s something to be said for Harry’s dating life in story, for it’s connected to the widower premise (even if the details are not driven by Harry himself), and with a memorably comedic subplot where Laverne acts as a drill sergeant training a new nurse — played by the material-elevating Phil Hartman (whose presence drives up this entry’s “q-score”) —  I am able to feature this popular outing, thanks to just enough “situation” and plenty of “comedy.” (Other guests include Tracy Kolis, Kenneth Kimmins, and Valorie Armstrong.)

10) Episode 66: “Drive, He Said” (Aired: 03/16/91)

Harry tries to get Charley back to the house where a surprise birthday party is waiting.

Written by David Sacks | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Probably the best Charley offering from this season, which, as noted above, throws him several stories that help supply more emotional depth to his characterization — a laugh-providing peripheral player who’s heretofore been the least “palpably human” of all the regular members in the ensemble — this installment grants him a lot of one-on-one time with Richard Mulligan’s Harry, and their interactions in Three really expand their bond, giving it more weight, in the same way that last year built out Harry’s friendship with Laverne. Also, there’s great material in the subplot for the reliable Carol, as she attempts to keep guests occupied at a miserable party where the heightened traits that make her benignly incongruous (i.e., funny) are on full display. So, this is another good character showcase for Season Three — adding nuance to Charley and benefiting from hahas directly inspired by Carol. (Eric Allan Kramer appears.)


Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the closest to the above list, “All About Harry,” which matches a fun subplot where Charley loses his sex drive with a memorable A-story guest starring Christine Ebersole as a woman who writes about her romance with Harry in the paper — an amusing idea that gives Mulligan stuff to play, but isn’t truly motivated by or revealing for the Harry character, along with “Someone To Watch Over Me,” which is the year’s second best Charley show, making him more vulnerable inside of a broader narrative (where he hires actors to play his folks), and the aforementioned season premiere, “A Flaw Is Born,” which tries to mine humor and conflict from the notion that Harry is imperfect, but struggles with it because it’s not supported by any forward or backward continuity. Meanwhile, of lesser quality but equal note are: “Harry Knows Best,” where Mayim Bialik returns and Charley shines in the periphery, “What’s Eating You,” which boasts a low-concept A-story for the central trio that taps into their dynamic, but feels a bit by-the-numbers compared to other, funnier outings, “Barbara The Mom,” which offers a collection of funny ideas that have nothing to do with character (and one Barbara plot that looks to suggest growth, but never bears figurative fruit), “Whenever I Feel Afraid,” whose main joke is hinged around a surprise — the guy that the sisters are competing over is just bizarre — and “Sucking Up Is Hard To Do,” which has another merely jokey script, with the comic idea of a zealous child evangelist.


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

“The Mentor”



Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!

8 thoughts on “The Ten Best EMPTY NEST Episodes of Season Three

  1. This is another great season but your list really proves it. Scanning over pictures I see several of my favorites. I would have loved to see Charley and Carol date a little bit. It would have been funny!

    • Hi, MDay991! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      And a new relationship between two regulars would have provided more character-related fodder for story — something EMPTY NEST desperately needed!

  2. Charlie is my favorite character so I like that this season has more of him. I will watch those episodes on Youtube tonight. Thank you.

  3. This may be my favorite season. So many good episodes especially the Danny Thomas one! Looking forward to the rest of these articles. I love Sophia and wish she was more prominent.

    • Hi, Nick@Night! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Stay tuned for more Sophia — not a lot of her, but it’s always good to see her, right?

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Glad you enjoyed — stay tuned soon for my thoughts on Season Four!

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