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. With PAUL PROVENZA as Patrick and LISA RIEFFEL as Emily.
After hoping that Empty Nest would shake itself up by evolving its leads or adding new cast members who could assist in generating fresh story associated with the “situation,” Season Five both intentionally and reluctantly offers BIG change. And in both cases, the results fall short of expectations. Of course, the headline is that Kristy McNichol left after the year’s first five episodes to focus on her mental health. By the season’s midpoint, Barbara was officially replaced with the long-referred to other sister, Emily, who’s actually always existed — like a spare tire waiting to be used. But, unfortunately, after a debut that implies opportunities for this new character, especially in contrast to Carol, Emily ends up without much of a personality, shoehorned into scripts clearly intended for Barbara, or placed in subplots away from the two leads with whom we most want to see her — Harry and Carol. To that point, the strong and premised familial bond between the Weston trio is never sufficiently recreated, rendering Barbara’s departure the end of what this series was originally built to be, as its richest relationship (Carol/Barbara) vanishes overnight, leaving Empty Nest with even less situational support in narrative. However, there’s some good news… at least at first, for Five also decides to finally grant Carol a regular love interest — someone who can inspire story and will hopefully help her evolve because of their pairing. Indeed, Patrick seems helpful, as he’s a sprinkler repairman and struggling artist — an unlikely paramour for the uptight redhead. Yet, just as with Emily, Patrick ends up never developing much of a perspective capable of inspiring plot, because he’s too often merely a device for Carol in templated narratives that fail to make him uniquely active. So, both of these new characters have potential that never materializes, as this show continues to struggle drawing a consistent, direct line between its leads and episodic story. In fact, it’s becoming worse, as the tone has evolved away from palpable humanity and towards a jokier, more sarcastic ethos that forsakes one of the series’ trademark qualities: its honesty. With that gone, and some really dire plots featuring an unideal ensemble, Season Five takes Empty Nest to new lows. Accordingly, Six will seek to redefine itself more formally — Five is a year the show would rather us forget — and I can’t say either of these new regulars will be missed…
01) Episode 95: “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” (Aired: 09/19/92)
Charley falls for Barbara, while Harry’s patient wants to keep Dreyfuss.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Dinah Manoff
Season Five opens with one of the last entries where Barbara is an essential figure, making this one of the last entries that feels like what we most want Empty Nest to be. Although the story of Charley potentially falling for one of the Weston girls has been done before — and more comedically — with the funnier sister back in Season Three (see: “The Boy Next Door”), this idea is again centered around relationships within the ensemble (which is more than we can say for so many others this year), and in particular, it utilizes what’s been established about his character. Meanwhile, the subplot involves Harry’s practice and a kid who wants to take Dreyfuss — a middling concept that nevertheless uses the series’ primary icon (the family dog) to reiterate that this show still has some connection to its roots… for now. (Rider Strong guests.)
02) Episode 96: “Take My Garage, Please” (Aired: 09/26/92)
Carol begins dating an artist who then moves into the family’s garage.
Written by Fred Freeman & Lawrence J. Cohen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Paul Provenza’s Patrick makes his debut in this offering (credited to the year’s head writers) as a sprinkler repairman and struggling artist who begins seeing Carol and moves into the family’s garage. The maneuvers creating this new development are a little forced, but the excitement of Carol entering a relationship that not only looks like it’ll yield story, but also might have some permanency and therefore relevance for her character (the capacity to evolve her, and therefore emphasize the show’s palpable humanity), is uplifting. Sadly, though, as discussed above, those promises do not get fulfilled — Patrick is never utilized well within story because he’s never developed to thrive outside of Carol, and when he’s separated from her, he’s not in plots that grant him the type of persona that can be an engine for narrative. So, he ends up a dud — but you wouldn’t know that yet, as he enjoys his first appearance in this MVE contender.
03) Episode 97: “R.N. On The Rebound” (Aired: 10/03/92)
Carol doesn’t like Patrick spending time with Charley, while Barbara sets up Laverne.
Written by Pat Dougherty | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
When Carol fumes as Patrick begins spending time with Charley, there’s a hint that maybe some interesting ensemble dynamics might emerge tangentially as a result of her new relationship, and since we’re still at the point in the season where there’s room to remain optimistic about what this recent development suggests, the whole idea works. Meanwhile, this installment’s subplot has Barbara fixing Laverne up on a date — a narrative that takes advantage of the notion that Laverne is now single, following one of Four’s only big developments. That means that this story is inherently progressing a character and exploring her established “situation.” I wish there was more of that in Five, especially with Laverne (who was then being eyed for a spin-off).
04) Episode 101: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (Aired: 10/31/92)
Carol makes Patrick participate with her in a Halloween costume contest.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by James Widdoes
Although this Halloween entry operates with the same basic gimmickry that colors most of the sitcom genre’s episodic tributes to this holiday, with much value predicated on the sheer novelty of seeing well-known characters dress up in wild costumes, I can at least appreciate when the chosen outfits are an extension of the leads’ personalities, thereby creating some sort of association between these thematic decorations and a series’ actual particulars. In this case, I admit that I love the whole concept of Carol making Patrick dress up as radium for a partner costume where she is Madame Curie. And I think the exchanges given to Harry and Laverne, when he comes over to help her pass out candy, favor both of their characterizations, rendering this an offering from which I can genuinely claim to derive character-based enjoyment.
05) Episode 104: “Thanksgiving At The Westons” (Aired: 11/21/92)
Family and friends have different recollections of how the previous Thanksgiving was ruined.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Among the season’s most affable half hours, this Thanksgiving excursion works well simply because it congregates the remaining ensemble members together for a relatable story that encourages their characterizations and relationships to shine. For that basic reason, and because it’s a fairly funny script from one of the series’ veteran scribes — with some of the most memorable Dreyfuss moments of the entire series — I highlight it here… despite my misgivings about the fact that it employs the clichéd Rashomon device without being the best example of it in the sitcom genre, and that Laverne’s role looks very much like it’s supposed to be Barbara’s, meaning some of her material feels off or strained… For, ultimately, the good outweighs the bad, especially by the standards of Season Five, where this has become well-liked.
06) Episode 107: “Emily” (Aired: 01/02/93)
Emily, the other Weston sister, comes back home.
Written by Rob LaZebnik | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Emily” is the installment that introduces us to the oft-referenced other sister, who’s apparently been away for a long time but mentioned occasionally, particularly in the earlier years. As noted, it’s almost like Empty Nest was always intending to bring her in at some point, so after several months of keeping the door open for Kristy McNichol’s return, the series finally decided to officially replace Barbara with this situation-approved “spare tire.” Now, like Patrick, I think Emily initially shows promise. Oh, yes, we know it’ll take the actress and her character some time to build the same level of rapport with Harry and Carol that Barbara enjoyed, but she’s also smartly designed in juxtaposition to Carol — only, more smartly, not in the way Barbara was. For while Barbara was the pragmatic counter to Carol’s mania, Emily represents the kind of free-spirited youthfulness that Carol wishes defined her. This creates a similarly oppositional dynamic, but with a tweak — one where Carol acts as something of a “protector” to Emily (while with Barbara, it was the reverse). This all seems to imply a potential for new stories, with fresh laughs and conflict… However, like we discussed above, it quickly becomes clear that Emily was added less to become her own character and more to keep the show on track, allowing it to slot in a proxy-Barbara for stories that were already plotted. This is devastating, for it keeps Emily from being able to exhibit her own persona and therefore inspire story herself. What’s more, she doesn’t get to interact as often with Carol and Harry in plot as we’d like, which means, not only is their bond never built up, but the possibilities in her sisterly chemistry with Carol never get fully realized either. So, like Patrick, Emily will wind up a “failure” on behalf of Empty Nest, even though her debut is full of (bittersweet) excitement and is the most striking ambassador for this game-changing, but largely disappointing, fifth season. (Also, Andrew Hill Newman guests.)
07) Episode 109: “The Fracas In Vegas” (Aired: 01/23/93)
Harry has a terrible time in Vegas with Charley, while Emily throws a party for her friends.
Written by David Richardson | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Pairing Harry with Charley always gives the latter some needed humanity, while granting the former a chance to play against comedically heightened — but character-based and relationship-furthering — behavior, so the A-story of the duo’s terrible trip to Vegas (especially for Harry) flatters both of their utilizations. Meanwhile, the subplot of Carol acting like an overprotective mother when Emily throws a party for her friends is one of the few ideas here that builds on what that new character’s premiere said about their unique sisterly relationship, and accordingly, it seems to have some sincere insight into Carol, as she’s freshly explored herself by interacting with the youthful Emily. (Guests include Frances Bay and Richard Stahl.)
08) Episode 111: “Dog Day Afternoon” (Aired: 02/06/93)
Carol visits an animal psychologist after Dreyfuss rebuffs her.
Written by Roger Garrett | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
As noted in my opening Empty Nest essay, I don’t consider Dreyfuss a character because, like most animals and babies on the sitcom, he’s never able to communicate a decision-making process that suggests a personality from which he can truly motivate story. Rather, he’s a symbol of the series’ premise — Harry’s need for companionship as a widower — and he’s a reliable device in the “situation” to which the leads can react. That’s what Carol does here, in this memorable outing where she visits an animal shrink (Debra Jo Rupp) when Dreyfuss seems to give her the “cold shoulder” after she yells at him. It’s perfectly believable that Carol, a devotee of analysis, would seek out this kind of expert to help with Dreyfuss, and so it works because it’s really a testament to her. Additionally, the subplots are also fun — as Charley takes up reading, and Harry gives Laverne a small share in a local galleria. (Sid Melton also appears.)
09) Episode 116: “Two For The Road” (Aired: 04/10/93)
Carol becomes paranoid when Patrick and Emily are alone together on a long drive.
Written by David Richardson | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
This entry gambles on putting its two new — and least defined — regulars together for long extended scenes, as Patrick and Emily get stuck on the road late at night and are pulled over (twice) by the police. Without well-known personalities, these scenes are forced to rely on the script’s overly jokey tone, and their interactions with the cops, culminating in the final gag where an officer hits on Patrick. Frankly, I couldn’t highlight this show if that’s all there was to it, but since the other half finds paranoid Carol stewing at home and fearing the worst, it’s an accurate — if unflattering — display of her character, revealing the natural, believable, human flaws that a relationship with someone like Patrick (and, also, her sister Emily) would bring to the surface. So, on the grounds that this is a solid character-based showing for Carol — with fine scenes between her and Harry — I include it here. (Casey Sander and Vincent Ventresca guest.)
10) Episode 118: “My Mother, My Self” (Aired: 05/08/93)
Charley’s mother makes a play for Harry, while Carol prepares to meet Patrick’s mom.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Marian Mercer returns as Charley’s mother in this outing, as she announces her divorce and makes a play for Harry. It’s always fun to watch our lead squirm, as Richard Mulligan does well with nervous comic energy (see: Soap), and he rarely gets to exhibit his brilliant sense of humor so kinetically on this series. Thus, while I think too much of this script puts its stock in the recurring but peripheral Ursula Dietz (as opposed to Harry and Charley), I appreciate what it does have on behalf of this show’s particulars. I also appreciate the thematic cohesion in the subplot, where Carol goes to meet Patrick’s mom, although I’m of two minds about it occurring off-screen — by now, we don’t care enough about Patrick to make seeing his mom worthwhile, and yet, of course, there are lost opportunities by not showing Carol in an uncomfortable scenario. (Heck, “lost opportunities” — that’s the theme of Season Five, right?)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Dirty Harry,” a shamelessly ostentatious (but laugh-filled) entry built around the guest appearance of Geraldo Rivera as himself, in a story that forces contortions of character that are not only hard to buy, but are also too much of an affront to the series’ brand of realism to be excused, “The Boomerang Affair,” where comedy and drama is sparked by Harry’s mismatched woman of the week, and “Timing Is Everything,” which has a physically comic subplot and a sincerer, human A-story that I would have highlighted above if either halves were a little more exceptional, along with “Cruel And Unusual Punishment,” which claims an amusing subplot for the seldom paired Charley and Laverne, and “The Sting,” which also boasts an enjoyable pairing of Charley and Laverne. Meanwhile, I’ll also single out “Charley To The Rescue,” for its one great scene with Barbara Mandrell as the woman Laverne has matched for Harry, and “Love And Marriage,” which I cite specifically because it features a crossover with Nurses, as David Rasche’s Jack appears.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Empty Nest goes to…
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!