The Ten Best EVENING SHADE Episodes of Season Two

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Evening Shade (1990-1994, CBS), which is currently available on DVD!

Evening Shade stars BURT REYNOLDS, MARILU HENNER, HAL HOLBROOK, ELIZABETH ASHLEY, MICHAEL JETER, CHARLES DURNING, ANN WEDGEWORTH, JAY R. FERGUSON, CANDACE HUTSON, JACOB PARKER, and OSSIE DAVIS. With CHARLIE DELL, ANN HEARN, and LINDA GEHRINGER.

Although every single year of Evening Shade is more idea-led than the best sitcoms — which are better at using the established elements of their situation (namely their characters) to inspire both their comedy and their episodic stories — Two is far and away this series’ best, boasting more than ten recommendable episodes. These episodes utilize Evening Shade’s rich cast of ensemble players in ways that are both fresh and funny — for if the leads don’t directly inspire the plots, then they at least influence their details, rendering the storytelling more specifically tailored to this show and its unique fixtures. Accordingly, this is the least gimmicky year of the entire run, with the fewest stunts and cameos, for it’s the one most committed to using what the series already has at its disposal — its regulars. And this not only means that Evening Shade’s second season contains the most frequent and reliable form of genre-validating sitcommery, it also has the highest number of funniest and most rewarding individual half hours, where wonderful material-elevators like Elizabeth Ashley and the Emmy-winning Michael Jeter shine. To that point, Two is also a good year for Charles Durning and Ann Wedgeworth as Harlan and Merleen, who both get more to do inside story, joining Freida and Herman as the show’s most hilarious townsfolk. Entries built around any one of these four tend to stand out, as their great performances help accentuate strong characterizations that yield big laughs and make for an easy link between their personas and plot. This cast remains superb overall though, and as the series continues to expand beyond its premised design of focusing on Wood and either his work life as a football coach or his home life with Ava and the kids — which usually would be something I’d want stories to reflect, because a premise is a promise to the audience, and an indication of dramatic purpose… only here, there’s more exciting opportunities to be found outside of this framework, which otherwise plays best when it’s only gently present — the “community” of Evening Shade becomes the series’ main attraction. And this fine collection of episodes is their best showcase, making this the best season, or “peak era,” of Evening Shade — not perfect, nor free from its creator’s typical idea-driven decorations, but better than any alternative.

 

01) Episode 26: “Three Naked Men (I)” (Aired: 09/16/91)

The women play a prank on the men when they tag along on a camping trip.

Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Burt Reynolds

Season Two’s opening two-parter is a textbook display of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s ethos, as she presents a terribly idea-driven plot predicted almost entirely on the single joke of the men (in this case, Burt Reynolds’ Wood, Michael Jeter’s Herman, and Charles Durning’s Harlan) being trapped in the woods naked. It’s a naturally funny gag that requires little support from character — not great sitcommery — but has since helped make this one of the series’ best remembered showings. That’s apropos, for it is an ambassador for what this series is like compared to the rest of its genre. Additionally, while Part II offers little more than laughs situated on this gimmicky, limited logline, Part I tries to find some character and relationship-based motivation in its setup. It’s still not great sitcommery, but it’s comical enough to feature here, and because it’s so indicative of what Evening Shade really is, even at its peak, it’s a fine pick. (Of trivial interest — Charles Durning was Emmy-nominated for his work in this two-parter.)

02) Episode 29: “Tying The Knot” (Aired: 10/07/91)

Ava insists that Wood have another vasectomy.

Written by Don Rhymer | Directed by Burt Reynolds

Calling back to the series’ premiere, this installment’s story finds Wood agreeing to undergo a second vasectomy after Ava has another pregnancy scare… Okay, this is an idea-led notion that’s typical of the series, but it’s rooted in the pre-established situation of the characters, which means it has some kind of legitimate support. What’s more, the script is quite funny, with plenty of time for ensemble players like Harlan and Freida to take the spotlight, along with guest star Pat Carroll (who recently passed away — rest in peace) as Wood’s no-nonsense nurse — giving a standout performance. So, with some nice comic moments and a narrative derived from the show’s unique DNA, this one’s inclusion on my list was a no-brainer.

03) Episode 31: “The Road Trip” (Aired: 10/21/91)

Wood and Ava take their family and friends on a road trip.

Written by Don Rhymer | Directed by Burt Reynolds

This entry doesn’t even bother to toil over its strained setup — moving after a mere few minutes to the meat of its story, as Wood and Ava (despite all logic) decide to take the ensemble on a road trip. It’s an ostentatious idea that isn’t well-motivated, but because it inherently traps cast members together for long periods of time, it’s easily a winner, counting upon their interactions to help carry the comedy — alongside some slapstick, like when Herman catches the trailer’s kitchen on fire (and then the whole RV eventually blows up) — for there’s a lot of fun when the group (including Taylor’s girlfriend Aimee, played this season by Hilary Swank) is forced to share a small motel room, where Freida and Merleen almost get into a physical fight, and then later, Herman tries to avoid the advances of a sleeping Freida. It’s all quite funny, and reflective of the character beats helping to make this outing, and season, worthwhile.

04) Episode 33: “Where’s My Watch?” (Aired: 11/11/91)

Harlan and Merleen have a fight after he retires.

Written by Don Rhymer | Directed by Harry Thomason

Among the peak era’s best segments for Charles Durning and Ann Wedgeworth, two of the ensemble’s funniest and most laugh-providing players, this installment claims one of the few stories from the entire four-year run that actually centralizes them, as Harlan retires and ends up having a spat with Merleen, in an amusing centerpiece where Wood and Ava are over at their house. Yes, it leads to an expected and clichéd sitcom notion — the married friend who temporarily moves in after a lovers’ quarrel — with a touch of forced sentiment at the end too, but these performers are material-elevators of the first order, and their comic personas do a lot of the heavy-lifting. So, this excursion is a testament to how those two provide situation comedy simply by being unique, utilizable characters — as they freshen up a hacky, formulaic narrative.

05) Episode 35: “The Thanksgiving Show” (Aired: 11/25/91)

The family is visited on Thanksgiving by Wood’s ex-convict cousin.

Written by David Nichols | Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly

Among the year’s more popular outings, this somewhat gimmicky Thanksgiving offering guest stars Billy Bob Thornton as Wood’s ex-con cousin (with the very funny Mindy Sterling by his side), who imposes upon the family during their holiday dinner and puts everyone on edge. Now, I’m not crazy about the fact that so much of this entry’s appeal is hinged on a day-player, whose gaudy appearance seems to inspire a lot of this script’s comic conception of itself. But its story puts most of the regulars together in the same room at the same time, and it’s naturally victorious because that plays into Evening Shade’s obvious strengths, for its large ensemble is the primary draw and we want this great cast on display — no matter the motivating excuse (like a narrative built around an outrageous side character whose casting is a stunt).

06) Episode 41: “Goin’ To The Chapel (I)” (Aired: 02/03/92)

The family learns of Evan’s plan to marry Fontana, while Merleen reveals a secret.

Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Harry Thomason

This ambitious three-parter has several story ideas that it’s pushing, the least of which is its introduction of Thor (Pepper Sweeney) as Freida’s live-in foreign exchange student and protégé. Rather, this three-parter is most concerned with building towards Evan and Fontana’s wedding, which goes through the usual angst given that Ava and her family are less-than-thrilled about the pairing. It’s most distracted, however, by a surprising reveal that pays off in Part III, featured directly below, and for which Part I is thus setup… But it’s still very funny, as creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s script focuses on the leads, granting a lot of material, in particular, to the captivating Ann Wedgeworth, whose Merleen divulges a big secret: she gave up a child for adoption when she was just a teen, and now that child is coming to meet her…

07) Episode 43: “Goin’ To The Chapel (III)” (Aired: 03/02/92)

Merleen meets her daughter, while Evan and Fontana get married.

Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Harry Thomason

After a solid Part II that continues all of Part I’s narrative threads — and introduces Alice Ghostley as Irna, Evan’s jealous former girlfriend — Part III culminates in the inevitable wedding, which has some laughs, but is largely anti-climactic and played sincerely… Fortunately, Part III is also blessed with the most memorable scene of this entire trilogy, as Merleen finally meets her biological daughter, who is revealed to be… Fontana! It’s an outrageous, larger-than-life twist, but there’s a sense of Southern Gothic melodrama, and “everyone’s a cousin in the south” silliness that makes it buyable within the world of Evening Shade. Plus, it also adds dimension to all the ensemble relationships, especially for Merleen and Fontana, who notably bonded back in the first season. Also, I just have to mention one of the funniest moments of the year, when Merleen briefly believes that her lost baby might actually be Nub (Charlie Dell).

08) Episode 44: “Play Herman For Me” (Aired: 03/09/92)

Herman tries to find out who’s been writing him erotic letters.

Written by Brian Bird & John Wierick | Directed by Charles Frank

There are a handful of great Herman shows here in Evening Shade’s sophomore season, which does a good job of spotlighting the series’ excellent ensemble and therefore offering a lot of its shiniest gem — Michael Jeter. This installment starts with an intrinsically amusing narrative hook, as Herman has been on the receiving end of a series of erotic letters, and after falsely assuming they’re from his regular girlfriend Margaret (Ann Hearn), he hopes to find the culprit — leading to a very fun exchange, in particular, with Elizabeth Ashley’s Freida, with whom he shares a distinctly comic dynamic (that will be expanded upon in the seasons ahead). Of course, the main centerpiece has guest Quinn Cummings pursuing Herman as his aggressive paramour, but through it all, Jeter’s comic stylings and the humanity he instills in his well-defined character are on full display — making Evening Shade more viable as a situation comedy.

09) Episode 45: “Callous Hearts Of Rage” (Aired: 03/23/92)

Taylor writes a play inspired by the people of Evening Shade.

Written by Don Rhymer | Directed by Burt Reynolds

My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Callous Hearts Of Rage” indulges an idea-driven and trope-laden sitcom plot that’s a perfect encapsulation of Evening Shade‘s typical narrative style, even here in its most character-supported year, for the story and most of its comedy is derived from self-parody, when Taylor writes a play that affords the show a chance to literally spoof itself and all the members of its great ensemble. This yields easy idea-led laughs — a burlesque where characterizations are knowingly exaggerated, flattering the audience’s awareness of an association — and it’s a tacky form of situation comedy, mining humor from character, but in an especially heightened and overly contextualized manner that breaks the usual bounds of logic and sincerity. And yet, these yuks are big and successful, for they are based on the established “situation” — which, again, is good for a Bloodworth-Thomason show — and this very idea spotlights the leads, who are Evening Shade’s most important attribute. What’s more, the story itself — of Taylor writing a play — actually has a situationally specific, character-rooted foundation, emphasizing the differences between Wood and his son, and in a plot that bridges both the lead’s personal and professional worlds (at home and school). So, it invokes the strong MTM design, is predicated on a key central relationship, and then secures big hahas by showcasing the regulars, whose exacerbated traits do stem from their definitions. This is maybe the best that Evening Shade ever has to offer. (Lisa Rieffel plays the theatrical version of Freida, and because I know some of you are interested, note that Burt Reynolds was Emmy-nominated for his work in this esteemed outing.)

10) Episode 47: “Hasta La Vista” [a.k.a. “Hasta La Vista, Baby”] (Aired: 05/04/92) 

Herman is fired from the high school and takes a job at an ice cream parlor.

Teleplay by Michael A. Ross & Thom Bray | Story by James Hampton | Directed by James Hampton

Although I think “Play Herman For Me” is probably the funniest of Season Two’s showcases for Michael Jeter’s Herman, this popular excursion is one of the two this year (along with the below “Herman In Charge”) that helped him earn an Emmy — Evening Shade’s only win — and it’s a lot of fun too, for it combines humor and heart deftly by evolving a lead’s “situation,” as Herman is fired from the high school where he teaches and forced to take another job… winding up at an ice cream parlor, where he makes a literal mess of things in a physical climax that not only brings laughs, but feels earned by his characterization too. Also, look out for Seth Green and Green Acres’ Alvy Moore, both of whom guest in this half hour.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the aforementioned “Herman In Charge,” which is another good segment for Jeter, along with “Rear Window,” which claims a gimmicky premise not driven by character but nevertheless has some amusing moments centered around Reynolds’ Wood, “The Getaway,” which attempts to focus on the dynamic between Wood and Ava but gets too distracted by outside idea-led concerns, and “Cousin Readith,” which is only memorable for a comic centerpiece where the ensemble goes to spread a man’s ashes. Of lesser quality but equal note are “Busted,” which ties its narrative to the innate job-related conflict between Ava and Fontana, No Pain, No Gain,” which guest stars Don Meredith and tasks Reynolds with supplying a little physical comedy, and “The Perfect Birthday Party, Sort Of,” which I only cite here for the slapstick climax with Evan and Fontana in the children’s ball pit. Also, both Three Naked Men (II)” and “Goin’ To The Chapel (II)” are worth noticing as well.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Evening Shade goes to…

“Callous Hearts Of Rage”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!

10 thoughts on “The Ten Best EVENING SHADE Episodes of Season Two

  1. That three-parter is such a tribute to this show’s great cast. So many great moments and many with Ann Wedgerworth whom I love.

    Elizabeth Ashley is also great too. She’s so funny in “The Road Trip.” But my favorite episode with her is next week! I’m pretty sure you’ll feature it…

  2. So happy to know this is your favorite season as its mine too. Michael Jeter was amazing as always. RIP he died too young.

    The Merlene and Fontana discovery was hilarious btw. One of my favorites. I wish there was even more of them together in later years.

    Can’t wait for Season 3!

    • Hi, JJ789! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I share your enthusiasm for the late, great Michael Jeter.

      Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on Season Three!

  3. This was a really good season. Glad to see Ann Wedgeworth featured a lot during this year. Evening Shade does not get the praise it deserved. I am happy to see you covering it. Thanks.

  4. Wow. I had no idea. Until last week, I had always thought this show was another brick in CBS’s wall of sitcom mediocrities from that period. Are you next going to tell us how ‘Major Dad’ wasn’t bad either ?

    Seriously, even though there was no individual season two DVD, I am interested in getting the complete series.

    • Hi, Paul! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Most sitcoms are mediocre because, by definition, greatness (and its polar inverse) must be relatively rare to retain any meaning. As I hope I’ve made clear, I don’t consider EVENING SHADE a great sitcom. But it’s a sitcom in which there’s plenty to enjoy, and in the pursuit of looking for a Linda Bloodworth-Thomason series that I could actually cover and praise on this blog, I found it to be worthy of discussion.

      To that point, I don’t consider EVENING SHADE analogous to MAJOR DAD — my thoughts on which I could expand upon in a future post. If interested, remind me here: https://jacksonupperco.com/ask-jackson/

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