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 Four is the year where this series’ lack of motivated character growth finally becomes a problem — not only because its premise is no longer regularly invoked via narrative, which means the storytelling needs all the help it can get to remain connected to the “situation,” but also because there’s a lot of teased and denied change for leads who should be more honestly explored in plot. That is, in the first half of Four, specifically, we’re asked to spend one-off episodes believing unlikely suggestions such as, for instance, Barbara will have a baby, Harry will get engaged, and that the family will move. This is insulting. Why? Well, we know episodic TV requires maintaining the status quo — the basic “situation” must persist week-to-week — but because this season is going out of its way to propose major tweaks that are unlikely to occur and indeed don’t (a.k.a. “schmuck bait”), it’s patterning a terribly insincere use of character. Heck, all that actually does happen is Carol gets a new career as a caterer (which, like Barbara’s job as an undercover cop, is a pursuit that invites higher-concept, non-character notions) and Laverne divorces — a development that occurs so late in the year that it’s really fodder for Five. Otherwise, nothing moves, and given that the show has a reputation for its MTM-like palpable humanity, the chafing of this genre’s “status quo maintenance” against promised and rejected change also exacerbates a growing sense of formula and artificiality within story. To that point, the series is continuing to grow broader and less truthful — perhaps in large part due to new headwriters, Fred Freeman & Lawrence J. Cohen, whose heyday was the ’60s and whose sensibilities seem stuck there — and while that means they bring funnier ideas, there are also increased narrative gimmicks too (like crossovers with The Golden Girls and the new Nurses), with more clichéd plots, and again, less support than ever from the premise — not to mention the regulars. That’s why this issue of denied growth feels especially cruel: we want better for these leads. Of course, with bigger ideas, Four is often funnier, and thus, it has its fans — no, it’s NOT a better situation comedy than Two or Three, but it has several memorable episodes that viewers enjoy, especially in light of the fact that next season will finally see big changes… only, not the kind we want. In that regard, alas — the already declining Four is also the end of an era.
01) Episode 71: “50 Million Men And A Baby” (Aired: 09/21/91)
Barbara considers artificial insemination after babysitting for Laverne’s cousin.
Written by Peter Gallay | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Season Four opens with a perfect encapsulation of the year, for the reason that I highlight it here — aside from its capacity to reflect my above commentary — is that this teleplay is much funnier than the show’s previous baseline, revealing an elevation in humor to be one of Four’s few strengths. And yet, its humor largely comes at the expense of the series’ storytelling, as ideas are becoming more clichéd — like this one, which seems to merge two story threads previously done better on The Golden Girls: the group babysitting session, and the “sperm bank” visit. Now, regular readers of this blog know that I tend to run from babies — they’re narrative devices, not characters — but I appreciate how this outing really wants to justify Barbara’s choice to conceive, even implying that there are motivating traits within her characterization (her so-called “impulsiveness”). Okay, Barbara isn’t ever well-defined beyond Carol, so a lot of this rings hollow, but the effort is noble, especially when it’s used to encourage possible growth… which, of course, doesn’t come, because, remember, Four is also the season of “schmuck bait,” where major character evolution, via significant developments, is teased and then denied, emphasizing the stagnant nature of these leads, and how little they’re actually being explored in story (compared to years prior). So, everything wrong with Four is already evident in this premiere, and yet its script also raises the bar comedically so enjoyment can be derived: just like the season itself. (Of note — Ami Foster and Derek McGrath appear.)
02) Episode 78: “Windy” (Aired: 11/09/91)
The Westons prepare to move just as a hurricane is coming through Miami.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
During the 1991-1992 season, there were three Witt-Thomas-Harris sitcoms on NBC’s Saturday lineup (thanks to the new Nurses), and Empty Nest, in the 9:00 anchor spot, was the highest rated. To take advantage of this synergy, NBC encouraged more crossovers, building stunts like “Hurricane Saturday,” where the three shows could all employ the same theme, and include coordinated guest stints. Here, future Empty Nest star Estelle Getty pops in for a scene as Sophia Petrillo, while on the same night, Carol debuted on The Golden Girls. All of this is one big gimmick — something I ordinarily wouldn’t like — but, again, it’s part and parcel of this season’s growing aesthetic, courtesy of its new headwriters and the mitigating support from premise/character within narrative, so it’s representative of my commentary. Also representative is the “schmuck bait” notion of this family moving — which, that’s right, doesn’t happen. However, I’m highlighting this entry anyway, for it’s easily the most memorable from the fall of 1991, not just because of the amiable Golden Girls affiliation, but actually, and mostly, for the guest appearance by Ann Morgan Guilbert as Laverne’s mother-in-law. The writing for her is predictable and trite, but she’s so funny, and her very inclusion aids our understanding of Laverne. Thus, I can find legitimate reasons to get excited over this ostentatious excursion.
03) Episode 82: “My Nurse Is Back And There’s Gonna Be Trouble…” (Aired: 12/14/91)
Laverne faces off with Harry’s former nurse, while Carol faces her fear of flying.
Written by Harold Kimmel | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Barbara Billingsley — best known to sitcom fans as June Cleaver — guest stars in this funny half hour as Harry’s old nurse, who temporarily fills in for Laverne until Laverne realizes… she better watch her back, because the old lady is trying to steal her job. This is a naturally comedic idea that’s benefited by its smart stunt casting, and because it’s a good showcase for the ever-reliable Park Overall as Laverne. Meanwhile, of lesser note, the subplot — where the sisters are flying on a plane, and Carol makes a fool of herself because she’s afraid — forces Carol to behave in broad, extreme strokes that would have previously been unappealing (and seem to break continuity)… But here in Four, because it’s all rooted in her character’s well-established neuroses, it still satisfies our primary criteria: it actually feels motivated, or at least justified, by one of the leading characterizations. So, this was a must-include.
04) Episode 84: “Ex-Appeal” (Aired: 01/11/92)
Carol and Barbara both have feelings for Barbara’s ex, who’s now dating Carol.
Written by Sandy Krinski & Ed Scharlach | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
With a narrative built around a love triangle that features the two sisters, this entry benefits from the idea’s inherent incorporation of their rivalrous sisterly dynamic — one of the core bonds that’s baked into the premise and therefore durable support for any Empty Nest. And while I don’t think this script offers an exceptional telling of this type of story — we’ve seen better before — it’s a relative rarity here in Season Four, where it’s accordingly more valuable. Also, there’s the amusing “Sisters” feather fight centerpiece that’s a physical embodiment of their relationship, and worth the price of admission… Oh, and there are some really funny moments with Harry and Laverne in their simple relationship-based subplot as well — helping cement this installment’s appeal and proving that it’s deserving of our attention.
05) Episode 85: “The Great Escape” (Aired: 01/18/92)
Carol and Barbara are held hostage, while Harry and Laverne share a motel room out of town.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
One of the few that I often see cited when fans casually recall their favorite episodes, “The Great Escape” is another segment that has plenty to enjoy, and yet also exemplifies the negative qualities that not only keep the series from being top-drawer en masse, but are also a concern for Season Four specifically. I’m primarily referring to the A-story, where Barbara and Carol are held hostage by a crook played by Richard Libertini. Their scenes are very funny — both the performances and the scripting, by veteran staffer Arnie Kogen, do a great job of elevating this unideal idea… which is both clichéd (something we could find on ANY sitcom), and barely motivated by the particulars of these characters. From this example, you can see how this season’s aesthetic is notably more comedic, even as its storytelling continues to become less exemplary, especially in the context of the sitcom genre and its needs. Fortunately, there’s some balance supplied by the low-concept relationship-heavy subplot, where Harry and Laverne share a motel room on a trip — a story propelled only by conversation between two characters. This adds gravitas to an outing that otherwise would have just been silly. (Jeff Doucette also appears.)
06) Episode 87: “The Return Of Aunt Susan” (Aired: 02/08/92)
Aunt Susan visits for the first time since her sister Libby’s passing.
Teleplay by David Richardson | Story by Dinah Manoff & David Richardson | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Lee Grant — who, in real life, is Dinah Manoff’s mother — guest stars in this installment as the eponymous Aunt Susan, Libby’s activist sister, who has been avoiding the family deliberately since Libby’s passing. The mere exploration of this exposition — why Susan hasn’t been back, and who she is in relation to the Weston clan — allows the script to reconnect to the series’ initial premise, which gives it a sturdy dramatic foundation for the rest of its narrative aims, like Carol’s adoration of her aunt and some temporary “schmuck bait” where we’re supposed to think Carol is going to go off with Susan, until they have an emotional Libby-related climax that’s predictable, but earned. Now, this isn’t one of the show’s funnier offerings, and the stunt casting of Grant never totally rises to its winking grandness, but it gives her a character fundamentally rooted in Empty Nest’s lore, rendering this a half hour unique to the series.
07) Episode 88: “The Unimportance Of Being Charley” (Aired: 02/15/92)
Charley pretends to be a captain when his parents come to town.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
After hiring a pair of actors to portray his parents last season, Charley is finally visited by his real folks — played by the funny Richard Stahl and former It’s A Living (another Witt-Thomas series) alum Marian Mercer — in this wholly enjoyable and moment-filled entry that claims an otherwise routine A-story, where one regular forces the rest of the ensemble to corroborate an extended ruse when some visitors arrive from out of town. It’s a common sitcom template that can be motivated by a lot of different characterizations — and therefore works well — but will never actually gain any points for its originality. That said, this is the kind of conventional story that’s par for the course in Season Four, and because we buy Charley’s reason for pretending to be somebody he’s not — in this case, he’s hoping to pass himself off as the captain of a ship, not just a purser — it does feel like a more character-led show than most. Plus, again, there are a lot of amusing moments as a result — like when Charley pretends to be a stripper when he’s caught by the real captain at the wheel. Meanwhile, the subplot for Harry and his daughters cuts to the heart of their dynamic — as the two basically feud over which one is their father’s favorite. That’s the subtext of their entire relationship; here it’s the explicit narrative, and though easy, it’s character-based and premise-connected — something I can naturally celebrate. And, frankly, since there’s really no other good option on this list, I have decided to select “The Unimportance Of Being Charley” as the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE) — it’s a fairly accurate sample of Four, but all of it acquits Empty Nest favorably.
08) Episode 90: “Dr. Weston And Mr. Hyde” (Aired: 02/29/92)
The full moon begets changes in Harry’s behavior and suspicions about Dreyfuss.
Written by Peter Gallay | Directed by Doug Smart
As you can tell from the air date, this installment was part of the other big crossover stunt — “Full Moon Over Miami” — where the leads on Empty Nest, The Golden Girls, and Nurses all dealt with a Leap Night. While Carol, Barbara, and Dreyfuss appeared on an hour-long broadcast of The Golden Girls, Betty White popped in for a cameo as Rose, in this incredibly broad and leap-requiring (no pun intended) outing that I probably wouldn’t feature if not for the two-pronged benefit of (A) its aforementioned affiliation with the other Witt-Thomas-Harris Saturday series, and (B) the fact that its A-story, of Harry being high on pills for his back, affords Richard Mulligan a chance to clown and act uproariously in a way that he seldom gets to do on this show (but was common for him on Soap). Even though I think this exceeds the bounds of Empty Nest’s brand of literal realism — as does the story where we’re asked to believe that Barbara thinks Dreyfuss may be turning into human form (which then leads to a gimmicky cameo from Mulligan’s former Soap costars Chuck and Bob) — it’s fun to see Harry driving so much of the comedy. And all things considered, it’s too memorable to ignore; since I enjoy it more than I don’t, I spotlight it here. (Tom La Grua guests, as does Jay Johnson.)
09) Episode 91: “Charley For President” (Aired: 03/14/92)
Carol tries to get Charley elected president of the Homeowners’ Association.
Written by Pat Dougherty | Directed by Doug Smart
There are two disconnected but very funny stories in this half hour, and though both of them, again, are incredibly broad and strain Empty Nest’s more emotionally sincere aesthetic, this quality is indeed indicative of the year’s shortcomings, and in highlighting an episode like such here, I am able to reinforce my broader commentary about the show’s decline while also celebrating this one as comedically successful and quite memorable (within a series that typically isn’t). For starters, the subplot of Barbara going undercover at the hospital in a series of disguises is little more than a string of sight gags, but it provides a merging of Harry’s personal and professional worlds, and probably showcases Kristy McNichol at her funniest. Additionally, the A-story where Carol attempts to instill Charley as her shadow puppet president of the HOA is a riot, for these are two amusing characters, and the scenes where Charley charms all the old ladies are truly some of the most rollicking of the entire series. So, this is an offering whose worth really resides in the fact that it’s too hilarious to overlook — a rarity. (Guests include Lane Davies, Amzie Strickland, Frances Bay, Pat Crawford Brown, and Elmarie Wendel.)
10) Episode 93: “Final Analysis” (Aired: 04/25/92)
Carol’s therapist dies during their session, while Harry’s patient talks like a comic.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
This entry also boasts two funny ideas. First up is a subplot where Harry deals with a kid who talks like a veteran stand-up comic, with the jokes and cadence of an old-timer. The juxtaposition of this very specific, generational style of humor coming from a younger mouth is naturally hysterical, even though it’s gimmicky — a quality affirmed when Jack Carter appears, playing the kid’s grandfather. I typically wouldn’t favor a story like this, but, truthfully, I’d rather a funny kid than a sappy, sentimental kid, and because the former is rarer than it should be on Empty Nest, this story stands out as favorable. Meanwhile, there’s another intrinsically amusing Carol idea forming the A-story, as her therapist dies in the middle of a session, right before he was to say something perhaps important. She’s determined to find out what it was — a wonderful objective for this neurotic character whose time in analysis is a well-established runner. And although it’s also an ostentatious idea-led notion, there are some appealing character touches that make it, ultimately, recommendable. (Also, Christopher Castile appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Dreyfuss Affair,” which calls upon guest Jeffrey Tambor to liven up some “schmuck bait” where Dreyfuss’ fate is supposed to yield jeopardy, “Lonely Are The Brave,” which has a worthwhile idea for the sisters but packs less of a comedic punch than its competition, and “Good Neighbor Harry,” which puts too much stock in guest Louise Lasser, who is memorable yet dominating, but also boasts a Seinfeld-ian idea-led subplot that nevertheless makes sense for Carol (the closest to the above list). Meanwhile, I’ll also single out “Almost Like Being In Love,” which guest stars Angie Dickinson and has a terrific first half but subpar second, “Her Cheatin’ Heart,” which claims an appropriate sisterly subplot, “Harry’s Got A Gun,” where a predictably plotted sitcom story is enriched by a funnier-than-baseline teleplay, and “The Mismatchmaker,” which guests Jerry Orbach and Renee Taylor, both of whom are affable, and also has another decent sisterly subplot. Incidentally, and for the record, I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend the gimmicky excursion with Garth Brooks as a good example of sitcommery — just as I can’t praise the year’s finale, which lets Mulligan clown but removes the series entirely from its situation.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Empty Nest goes to…
“The Unimportance Of Being Charley”
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!