Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re continuing our 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. Given its lesser quality, I have decided to afford this show brief coverage — using our basic “Potpourri” template — so we’ll press forward now with Season Two, which aired concurrently with Empty Nest’s fifth year.
NURSES Season Two (1992-1993, NBC)
Premise: The nurses and staff of a Miami hospital — including an insider trader forced to do community service — work hard day in and day out.
Cast: Stephanie Hodge, Arnetia Walker, Mary Jo Keenen, Ada Maris, Kip Gilman, Carlos Lacamara, Markus Flanagan, David Rasche
Staff Writers: Tom Straw, Michael Kagan, Boyd Hale, Tom Reeder, Danny Smith, Susan Beavers, Mark Nutter, Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal, Steve Elkins
Thoughts: In its first annual retooling, Nurses drops two regulars from its freshman season — its funniest (Jeff Altman) and its most humanizing (Florence Stanley) — replacing them with another male orderly, who is even more secondary than Carlos Lacamara’s Paco, and a big comic force who significantly alters the course of the series, adding a higher-concept wrinkle to this low-concept design, thereby pivoting focus away from the nurses and what is suggested to be its intended premise. The latter is David Rasche’s Jack, a corrupt businessman who’s sentenced to community service at the hospital — a gaudy, hard-to-believe arrangement that requires some leaps in logic and also ushers in a comedically bolder, less literally realistic ethos, where slapstick is more common. This makes the show funnier, and in terms of comedy, Season Two is a significant improvement over its predecessor. But how the series is able to use its “situation” to get there remains troubling, for, if you’ll remember, I noted last week that, due to its inability to build rich relationships within the ensemble (which was supposed to be headed by Stephanie Hodge, who was apparently not up to the task), Nurses needed a strong lead to help unite its cast — and Jack is indeed a strong lead, who helps create more specific dynamics (for instance, his rivalry with Arnetia Walker’s Annie, and the comic partnership he develops with Paco). But I actually said this show needed a strong head nurse, and he’s not a nurse, so when his naturally big comic persona comes to dominate stories, it’s often doing so by pushing out both the nurses as individuals, and the idea of “the nurses” as a collective. In this regard, his very presence undermines what Nurses is proclaiming to be… and it’s trading that — its capacity to be a low-concept female-led ensemble workplace comedy — for a jokier sketch-like farce surrounding a goofier Robin Colcord-esque character who might bring easy yuks based on his broad characterization, but really lacks the nuance, believability, or affability to anchor this kind of semi-realistic sitcom as its star. It doesn’t work. Thus, even if you ignore the rejected premise and go with these silly leaps, it’s not as if this version of Nurses is worthwhile either. My treatment plan? Keep but downplay Jack by finding a strong new head nurse who, again, galvanizes that core cast into a nuclear ensemble, focusing stories in a premise-affirming, character-driven way.
#24: “In My New Country” (09/26/92) — relationships are built, Laverne guests
#26: “Bad Boy In The Plastic Bubble” (10/10/92) — broad, but fun climactic gag
#27: “Julie Gets Validated” (10/17/92) — funny idea, feels like a real ensemble
#31: “Illicit Transfers” (11/14/92) — great Jack vs. Annie, plus John Ratzenberger guests
#32: “Our Fred” (11/21/92) — Peter Scolari guests as Jack’s old pal
#33: “One Pequeno, Two Pequeno” (12/05/92) — Salma Hayek guests as Gina’s sis
#35: “Caught Short” (01/02/93) — another ensemble story, centered on Gina
#36: “If I Were A Rich Man” (01/09/93) — funny idea for the underused Luke
#44: “What Are Friends For?” (04/10/93) — slapstick Jack, plus Patrick Warburton guests
#45: “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room” (05/01/93) — Kathleen Freeman as a mean nun
#46: “Jumpin’ Jack’s Flash” (05/01/93) — gaudy story centered on Jack, has its moments
(Also, I’m not highlighting it, but Carol Weston & Dreyfuss appear in #29 as well)
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned for more Empty Nest!