Just The Vitals: Brief Thoughts on NURSES (Season One)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week launches a trilogy of posts on the Witt-Thomas-Harris sitcom Nurses (1991-1994, NBC), which was also created by Susan Harris and existed in the same universe as both The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC) and Empty Nest (1988-1995, NBC), with which it frequently enjoyed crossovers. Now, not since Diane English’s Love & War have I dedicated multiple Wildcard posts to a sitcom so essentially mediocre. But the erratic trajectory of Nurses, like Love & War, is fascinating to me, and given that I know there’s interest in this series because of its connections to those two better Miami-set offerings, I have decided to afford this show brief coverage — using our basic “Potpourri” template. We begin now with Season One, which aired concurrently with Empty Nest’s fourth year.


NURSES Season One (1991-1992, NBC)

Premise: The nurses and staff of a Miami hospital work hard day in and day out.

Cast: Stephanie Hodge, Arnetia Walker, Mary Jo Keenen, Ada Maris, Kip Gilman, Carlos Lacamara, Jeff Altman, Florence Stanley

Staff Writers: Susan Harris, Susan Beavers, Tom Straw, Bob Underwood, Bruce Ferber, Mitchell Hurwitz, Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore, Danny Smith

ThoughtsHospital sitcoms can be tough, not only because of the elevated need for tonal balance, but also because the format of weekly patients and cases can distract from the core elements of the situation that should be inspiring laughs and stories: the leads. Nurses also brings an extra burden onto itself by being almost exclusively set in the workplace — à la Cheers, as opposed to, say, Taxi — which demands that relationships between the regulars be rich enough to yield plots that reveal their characterizations, in the absence of more personal home-life scenes. As another series created and then essentially abandoned by Susan Harris (like The Golden Girls and Empty Nest), Nurses has the necessary basics for success — the four women nurses are distinctly defined, and the guy nurse, the orderly, and the doctor have elemental personas that could be a springboard for more. However, the series lacks those strong relationships needed to help centralize them in story — for starters, there are very few of the quintessential Susan Harris “kitchen table” talks, popularized on The Golden Girls but evident even in other shows like Soap and Empty Nest. That is, the nurse ensemble is seldom together simply sharing about their own lives, for they’re too busy being pulled apart for one of any given episode’s multitude of medical subplots. This fails to create any cohesive bonds between the main members of the ensemble and undermines what seems to be the series’ intended structure — with Stephanie Hodge as the anchor, Arnetia Walker as her best friend, Mary Jo Keenen as the newbie, Ada Maris as the “Diane” to Kip Gilman’s “Sam,” and Jeff Altman as the funnyman. Accordingly, the entire cast is weakened by this failure to jell, while the storytelling misses a solid character-based focus, creating a circular loop of mediocrity where no one shines. The great Florence Stanley is added at the season’s midpoint after a guest stint in an early entry, and her sense of gravitas lends the program some grounding realism, balancing out a story-making apparatus that is growing increasingly silly without directly character-led plots. But it’s not enough. So, if I was setting a treatment plan for the show based on this one season, I would say it needs a strong head nurse who can anchor that core four (or five), creating clear, individualized dynamics that can then flesh them out and render stories more specific to character.

    Key Episodes:  

#2: “A Lesson In Life” (09/21/91) — Flo Stanley debuts, Laverne from Empty Nest guests

#7: “Dead Nurse” (10/26/91) — funny idea (used on Golden Girls); always works

#9: “Begone With The Wind” (11/09/91) — “Hurricane Saturday” with Rose & Laverne

#11: “Seize The Date” (11/23/91) — using Hank’s brother to bring Hank/Gina closer

#12: “Friends And Lovers” (12/07/91) — Fred Willard as a psych patient playing doctor

#15: “Sphere Today, Gone Tomorrow” (01/11/92) — amusing premise for Hank/Gina

#16: “The Truth Shall Screw You Up” (02/01/92) — the girls feel like a group here

#18: “Eat Something” (02/15/92) — best episode: funny A-story balanced by sincere subplot

#20: “Moon Over Miami” (02/29/92) — “Full Moon Over Miami” with Blanche & Charley

#21: “Rude Awakenings” (04/25/92) — Flo Stanley’s best showing

#22: “The Ex-Factor” (05/02/92) — ridiculous cannibal story, but Hank/Gina climax

(Also, I’m not highlighting it, but Harry Weston appears in #6 as well)



Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned for a new Musical Theatre Monday!