The Ten Best EMPTY NEST Episodes of Season Six

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, PARK OVERALL as Laverne, DAVID LEISURE as Charley, MARSHA WARFIELD as Maxine, and ESTELLE GETTY as Sophia Petrillo.

Following the creative failure of Empty Nest’s fifth season, Six decides to completely reset the table, dropping its two recent regulars (Emily and Patrick) and adding more likable replacements — Night Court alum Marsha Warfield as Maxine, the head doctor of a struggling inner-city clinic to which Harry moves in the year’s premiere (along with Laverne, who was expected to leave midseason for a spin-off that never materialized), and one of the original Golden Girls, now freed from The Golden Palace: Estelle Getty in her classic role as Sophia Petrillo. These changes are truly felt. For one, permanently losing another sister reduces the Weston family’s emotional weight in story, and this naturally de-emphasizes Harry’s home life, which is otherwise consumed by a pregnancy arc for Carol that is, well, a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s an opportunity for Carol to evolve, and to display her rich persona in new kinds of story, but on the other, the whole setup (which coincides with Patrick’s departure) feels forced, and her super-quick pregnancy is not congruent with the show’s realistic foundation. What’s more, babies on the sitcom are nothing but a narrative device — the show is not gaining a new character — so a lot of these stories end up being both clichéd, and not beneficial for Carol, as she doesn’t really have anyone off of whom she can showcase her characterization (which, incidentally, hardly evolves). Oh, okay, there’s Sophia, who, in an unbuyable move, has willingly gone back to Shady Pines on a less restrictive basis — i.e., she can visit the Westons whenever. But Sophia’s mostly on hand to provide a few easy jokes at the end of scenes — she’s barely a presence in story, so in essence, her entire inclusion is an extended gimmick. Meanwhile, with Harry’s professional world gaining another regular in Maxine — who’s never as well-defined as Laverne, but enough of an inherent contrast from the others that it’s not totally dire — there’s more “workplace” fare than ever before. This also tends to be uninspired because there’s still not great support from character. So, even though these new leads do change the show, the ensemble’s collective capacity to inspire plot hasn’t. In fact, it continues to decline, as memories of the premise and its strong core relationships grow dimmer. Accordingly, this is a very idea-led, guest star-heavy (Loni Anderson from Nurses recurs), and subpar yeareven by Empty Nest’s standards.


01) Episode 124: “Mama Todd, The Sequel” (Aired: 10/16/93)

Laverne has to break the news to Nick’s mother that they are divorced.

Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Ann Morgan Guilbert, who helped enliven an otherwise unideal episode from Season Four, is back in her role as Laverne’s mother-in-law, not realizing that the couple has split. But what initially looks to be a hacky sitcom story — about pretending that a dead marriage is still alive — turns into something more human, as Laverne’s former nemesis-turned-friend tries to spoil her current dating life in the hopes of a reconciliation with Nick. This is a notion that’s rooted in our knowledge of Laverne’s “situation,” leading to a sweet, but mostly believable moment between the two, and with Guilbert in rare form, the comedy flows consistently as well. Meanwhile, Loni Anderson makes a crossover as her new character from Nurses. 

02) Episode 127: “Mother Dearest” (Aired: 11/06/93)

Maxine is visited by her contrarian mother.

Written by Paul B. Price | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

You’ll notice that most of the entries I’m highlighting on this list have special guest stars — this is because the show is not offering great situation comedy this year, with stories well-motivated by its leads, for instead it’s turning to gimmicks, like stunt casting, to provide value and help create memorable outings. However, even though this singular appearance by sitcom legend Marla Gibbs is the driving source of its charm, I’ve chosen to spotlight this half hour, for I do think her inclusion is meant to — and succeeds in — helping flesh out the audience’s understanding of Maxine, who typically doesn’t get a lot of smart exploration via story. So, in being a good Maxine show, this installment is worth featuring. (Also, Loni Anderson pops over one more time in her Nurses role, and Annie Corley plays Carol’s one-off friend Anita — a clear attempt to fill the void left in the absence of a second Weston sister. Why didn’t she recur?)

03) Episode 128: “No Volunteers, Please” (Aired: 11/13/93)

A new volunteer at the clinic is obsessed with Laverne.

Written by Rick Newberger | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Actress and writer Kari Lizer — who would go on to work on many series, including The New Adventures Of Old Christine, which she created — guest stars in this episode as a woman who volunteers at the clinic and quickly reveals a bizarre obsession with Laverne. This is a bold comic idea that, yes, feels beyond the series’ tonal scope… but Lizer pulls it off so well that it’s truly hilarious, and hard to flatly reject. Additionally, I’m also pleased with the subplot, where hoity toity Carol puts on airs in the hopes of getting her soon-to-be-born baby in the city’s most elite pre-school. That’s an objective that not only acknowledges her arc this year, but more importantly, makes sense for her character. Thus, if the A-story is just ridiculous fun, then the B-story is able to stand on more of that supportive situation-based foundation.

04) Episode 130: “The Girl Who Cried Baby” (Aired: 11/27/93)

Carol has a series of false alarms as she awaits the birth of her baby.

Written by Susan Beavers | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Truthfully, I hate the predictable climax of this installment (which, by the way, is credited to former staffer Susan Beavers, who contributed only this one script to Season Six), where Carol gives birth while all the leads are at the opera, because it’s exactly the type of BIG EVENT foolishness that stands in stark opposition to Empty Nest’s initially intended brand of low-concept literal realism. And even though that aesthetic has certainly been strained over time (like in this arc — where Carol goes from finding out she’s pregnant to having the baby in a Lucy-esque two months), this gimmicky set piece is still too much… However, I love the first half of this outing, which includes Carol undergoing a series of false labors — supporting our understanding of her neurotic, hypersensitive character — and a hysterical Lamaze class scene, where Charley hits on another pregnant woman whom he once dated. It’s very funny and helps make this memorable showing more enjoyable than lamentable. (Jane Lynch also appears.)

05) Episode 131: “Superbaby” (Aired: 12/11/93)

The Westons are shocked when Carol’s baby shows signs of being a genius.

Written by Peter Gallay | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

This idea-driven entry nevertheless stands as the year’s best baby offering, thanks to a memorable plot that is intrinsically amusing and blessed by an even funnier teleplay. While I admit that I’m not crazy about the fact that this feels intentionally derivative of a much more famous Dick Van Dyke segment — not to mention, a lesser known but solid Golden Girls (which actually gets referenced, adding some surprisingly welcome continuity) — I think Carol’s neurotic nature justifies the proceedings, and with both a first half that is more about the family’s shock and delight at the tot’s unique abilities, and a surprise ending that subverts our Dick Van Dyke (and Golden Girls) expectations, it’s more comedically laudable than it should be. So, despite boasting a gaudy and unoriginal narrative that continues to undermine the show’s initial realism, this is a highlight by the standards of Six. (Guests include Mark L. Taylor.)

06) Episode 133: “Love A La Mode” (Aired: 01/08/94)

Charley’s divorced parents come into town when he plans to get married.

Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Although I must admit that I’m not a fan of this “schmuck bait” story, in which we’re supposed to believe that Charley is going to marry a waitress — played by Seinfeld‘s Heidi Swedberg — whom we’ve never met before this half hour, I appreciate that this notion is destroyed by the midpoint, and the rest of the episode really takes advantage of its guest appearances from Charley’s now-recurring parents, played hilariously by Marian Mercer and Richard Stahl. They’re not regulars, so they don’t have the same depth as the leads, but because we’ve seen them before and know who they are, I can credit their presence as being in validation of elements that Empty Nest has already established, and it’s therefore a genuine form of situation comedy.

07) Episode 137: “Brotherly Shove” (Aired: 02/05/94)

Charley gets a job with his slimy car salesman brother.

Written by Drake Sather | Directed by Dinah Manoff

Newhart’s Peter Scolari is the notable guest star this week, clocking in as Charley’s obnoxious brother Dieter, a car salesman who gets Charley a job and proves to be a competitive jerk. On principle, I still resent having to select entries that are built around gimmicky one-off characters with some form of stunt casting — as this is not an ideal example of sitcommery, where the regular aspects of a series (its leads) should be inspiring the plots — but I appreciate that, as with Maxine’s mother, our introduction to Dieter grants us more insight into Charley, and this continues to help dimensionalize his characterization, making him more than just a reliable laugh-getter. So, there’s value here for a lead, and that’s why I can highlight this memorable, but unideal, excursion. (Note: the late Philip Baker Hall also appears.)

08) Episode 138: “The Ballad Of Shady Pines” (Aired: 02/12/94)

Sophia finds her boyfriend at Shady Pines in a compromising position with Laverne.

Written by Rick Newberger | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Lovers of The Golden Girls should take particular delight in this installment, as it’s one of only two Empty Nest A-stories that directly require Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo, for while she participates in a few subplots during both Seasons Six and Seven, this walking embodiment of that sitcom classic is mostly used here as an easy purveyor of laughs, courtesy of an innately likable character with whom the audience already has a deep, sincere emotional investment. Thus, by giving Sophia plenty to do — and predicating its story on her — this rare half hour is guaranteed to be appealing. And with additional appearances by other recognizable character actors, like Phil Leeds, Sid Melton, Bill Dana, and Elmarie Wendel (the first three of whom were all on The Golden Girls, but in different roles), “The Ballad Of Shady Pines” seems to be a valentine to Sophia, and her fans. Also, the teleplay is fairly funny — it affords some nice moments to Park Overall’s Laverne as well, rendering this an above-average sample.

09) Episode 145: “Absence Makes The Nurse Grow Weirder” (Aired: 05/21/94)

Laverne is jealous when Harry starts dating a younger nurse.

Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman

Some online guides cite this as the season’s finale — and, in terms of quality, it would offer a more striking punctuation to the year — but technically that’s not the case; this outing actually aired in the series’ usual 9:00 slot, right before the entry below. It features Wendie Malick (then of Dream On) as a young nurse whom Harry being dating when he temporarily fills in at his old pediatric practice. This stirs up a bit of jealousy in Laverne, who has a dream about Harry and questions whether or not she has romantic feelings for him — a fun idea that makes sense for two people with such a close bond — and fortunately, we’re not asked to totally buy that it’s true, for we’re so aware of their dynamic that we’re comfortable in both the status quo’s maintenance and this brief tension, which is buyable and yields a rich final scene between the two. Also, as I said above, this season creates more of a genuine “workplace” for Harry, now that there’s a whole other regular (Maxine) around for story, and this segment is satisfyingly indicative of that accompanying shift — although it instead focuses on the element within this environment that is the sturdiest: the relationship between Harry and Laverne, whose history is reiterated by the return to their old locale, and whose rapport is second only to Harry and Carol’s as the series’ strongest emotional core. (Oh, and Cheers’ Paul Willson guests as Laverne’s counselor.) Because of its unqualified success — based on a strong, well-established relationship — “Absence Makes The Nurse Grow Weirder” is the kind of sitcommery I wish Empty Nest had more of in Season Six, so I’m selecting it as this week’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE).

10) Episode 146: “Best Friends” (Aired: 05/21/94)

Carol has trouble with Harry dating one of her old friends.

Written by Paul B. Price & Bob Tischler | Directed by Doug Smart

Airing right after the previous, in a special 9:30 slot, this installment guest stars Morgan Fairchild as Carol’s childhood friend, who comes back to town and begins dating Harry, much to her old pal’s chagrin. Now, I think we have to make an inherent leap buying that Fairchild and Dinah Manoff are something akin to peers and contemporaries, but I’m willing to do so because this story is very reminiscent of Empty Nest’s early days, when Harry’s daughters (especially Carol) were overprotective about their widower father’s love life. And there are some warm, palpably human moments here that are evocative of the series’ original ethos. Meanwhile, the silly subplot where Laverne meets a guy whose family has been in a long-time blood feud with hers is a fun reminder of her character’s quirks, and it works. (Tracey Walter also appears.)


Other notable episodes that merit mention include: both halves of “Bye-Bye-Baby… Hello,” where I enjoy Laverne’s subplot in Part I and Carol’s hilarious nightmare in Part II, “Mom’s The Word,” which helps build the Laverne/Maxine dynamic and has a solid Carol A-story, “What’s A Mother To Do,” which is fueled by Carol’s mommy neuroses, and “The Devil And Dr. Weston,” which memorably boasts Audrey Meadows and the return of Kari Lizer as her scary character from above. Meanwhile, I’ll also single out “Gesundheit,” which has some “schmuck bait” that reaffirms Harry’s love for Dreyfuss but with not enough laughs, “Half That Jazz,” an overrated outing with Steve Lawrence that I just can’t pretend offers very much Empty Nest-specific situation comedy, and the well-tailored Charley/Dreyfuss subplot in “Read All About It.” Lastly, there are two ostentatious entries with which I struggle, but I want to single them out anyway — “Diary Of A Mad Housewife,” which features Fred Stoller and a mime, and “Charley’s Millions,” where Charley wins a bunch of money and Don Adams makes a shamelessly gimmicky and unnecessary cameo.


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

“Absence Makes The Nurse Grow Weirder”



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

14 thoughts on “The Ten Best EMPTY NEST Episodes of Season Six

  1. I wish Sophia was around more often in these final years but I think Estelle Getty was already suffering by dimentia by that point. I read that she even had trouble memorizing lines in the later years of The Golden Girls.

    I love Charley’s parents by the way. Happy to see their episodes get featured here every week.

    • Hi, MDay991! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I am not sure about Getty’s personal health, but it seems as if she’s occasionally reading cue cards during her stint on EMPTY NEST.

      (And I share your enthusiasm for Charley’s folks!)

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, the show wasn’t interested in using (or able to use) her as a regular inspirer of story!

  2. I thought Marsha Warfield had good chemistry with Richard Mulligan and Park Overall and Estelle Getty is always a hoot. Obviously neither was a real replacement for Kristy McNichol but both of those funny ladies keep these final seasons from being completely miserable. Thanks for your look at this series.

    • Hi, Ian! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree — both of this year’s additions were agreeable material-elevators: naturally amusing performers whom we just like to see!

  3. I was shocked to see uncle Angelo and sal in the shady pines episode. It was like an altrnate universe . Btw that’s my favorite because I love Sophia and she’s barely on this show which is strange but I enjoy it anyway. Thank you.

    • Hi, Sabrina! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, there was no thought to how the casting in “The Ballad Of Shady Pines” would reflect on the continuity of THE GOLDEN GIRLS! (But I can’t say I would have expected much better — THE GOLDEN GIRLS itself is often chided for its inconsistent continuity.)

    • Hi, JJ789! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yep, for two seasons following the cancellation of THE GOLDEN PALACE. That means, Estelle Getty played this role for ten years straight — 1985 to 1995!

  4. An interesting season…I honestly like Marsha Winfield in this role. It added a lot of dynamic to the medical stories. I also liked her chemistry with Mulligan.

    Estelle Getty returning was at first a mixed bag but rewatchung these shows made me appreciate her time here…if the story is right.

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I share your enthusiasm for Warfield’s chemistry with Mulligan, although I wish Maxine (and Sophia) were better utilized more directly in story. Of course, that’s not a critique exclusive to those two — it’s been a running issue for most regulars here on EMPTY NEST.

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