Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Living Single (1993-1998, FOX), which is currently available on DVD and HBO Max.
Starring QUEEN LATIFAH as Khadijah, KIM FIELDS as Regine, KIM COLES as Synclaire, ERIKA ALEXANDER as Max, JOHN HENTON as Overton, and T.C. CARSON as Kyle.
Although every year after the promising first has theoretically declined as it’s sunk in more and more how much Living Single’s well-defined leads aren’t being well-used within the series’ weekly stories, I must admit that I think Season Four is still solid, and at least as enjoyable as its direct predecessor, courtesy of a reduction in episodic gimmicks and a higher number of standout character installments, especially in its latter half, as the show gears up for a likely conclusion. With the dramatic engine of Synclaire and Overton’s pending nuptials granting Four a narrative shape — allowing for plots that help propel that trackable, and, in this case, premise-validating arc (it’s relationship-led and therefore perfect for a “Singles in the City” rom-com) — the last portion of this year is not only focused, it also deliberately commits to more stories that directly flatter the series’ identity, either by acknowledging the “hangout” ensemble (with the four women and their friendship getting a restored prominence), or by the resumption of the sexual bond between Max and Kyle, a rich dynamic that the show has never fully maximized but is preparing for another crescendo. The result of those changes, due to fear of cancellation, is that more outings feel like they represent the promise of Living Single — both by way of its subgenre, and by way of the leads’ narrative treatment. Of course, my macro concerns do remain — they’re not driving plot as much as I’d like, and emotional “growth” gets more talked about than exhibited — but it’s still agreeable overall, and again, with fewer gimmicks (like the casting stunts we saw in Season Three and even Two), I come away from Four more impressed than I have been in a while… not necessarily because it’s a better year, but because the looming possibility of a series finale forces a more intentional application of these characters — and this premise — within story. Indeed, there are more classics here than last week — and a lot of great ideas for Regine, in particular — and while the first half is generally weaker than what follows, this is, collectively, another decent season for Living Single. Unfortunately, this wasn’t its last… it went on, offering big changes that, as we’ll see, will sadly disrupt this relative consistency…
01) Episode 84: “Not Quite Mr. Right” (Aired: 09/05/96)
Russell helps Regine get over a breakup, while Max and Kyle fight over a parking spot.
Written by Jacque Edmonds | Directed by Rae Kraus
The first of several episodes this year that capably explore and seek to dimensionalize the reliably laugh-yielding Regine, this entry is a transition from Season Three to Four, as she ends things with her previous beau, Keith the artist (Khalil Kain), and has a possible attraction teased with Russell (Shaun Baker), whose recurring profile will increase in the series’ abbreviated final season. Although the potential for a Regine and Russell romance — which looks like it could provide believable growth for her character (as suggested by the fun scene where she visits his very Jamaican family) — never seems to materialize, this is the start of a focus on how her depiction can be deepened within story. In fact, that’s the most favorable trend here in the first part of Four, which is otherwise subpar… Meanwhile, the Max/Kyle subplot plays up their competitive rivalry — it’s a smart narrative use of their premised dynamic and is perhaps foreshadowing for their relationship’s resurrection later on in the year. So, this is a strong character showing all around. (Wayne Wilderson and Armelia McQueen also appear.)
02) Episode 86: “Moi The Jury” (Aired: 09/19/96)
Regine is the lone holdout on a high-profile jury trial.
Written by Kriss Turner | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Despite opening with a routine takeoff of 12 Angry Men — a sitcom cliché that displays Living Single’s lack of originality regarding story — with Regine, obviously, in the role of the lone holdout, this ends up being a fun, revealing installment for her character, largely thanks to a pivot in the plot that has her blabbing to her friends and getting dismissed from the case. Forcing her to confront her own penchant for gossiping, the script then takes a more uniquely character-rooted turn, just in time for the expected twist that proves Regine was right all along, allowing for the maintenance of her personality’s general “status quo.” Nevertheless, her character feels well-explored throughout the process of this narrative, and though not a classic half hour, it’s worthwhile for Regine, and funny as well. (Guests include Victor Raider-Wexler.)
03) Episode 87: “Multiple Choice” (Aired: 09/26/96)
Synclaire and Overton take a compatibility test; Max pursues a waiter.
Written by Chris Sheridan | Directed by Rae Kraus
Dorien Wilson, first seen last season, recurs this year as the pastor who is set to marry Overton and Synclaire, and he helps enliven this A-story in which the usually unshakable duo is rendered “incompatible,” when a lovers’ quarrel before taking a formal test influences their answers. That is a comedic way to create some conflict between a pair who is otherwise incredibly compatible, and this teleplay keeps the laughs flowing. Meanwhile, there’s fun in the subplot as the typically overconfident Max is desperate to get romantic attention from a waiter, simply as a matter of pride. From the weaker first half of the season, this stands out as an extra solid showing, with above-baseline yuks and stories about relationships/dating that speak ideally to the series’ premised identity. (Arnetia Walker also appears as the reverend’s wife.)
04) Episode 90: “Do You Take This Man’s Wallet?” (Aired: 11/14/96)
Regine is hired to coordinate an ex’s wedding, but she thinks his bride-to-be is a gold-digger.
Written by Chuck Tatham | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Regine’s ex-boyfriend Darryl (Heavy D) returns in this installment, now a millionaire and engaged to a beautiful woman played by the strong Vivica A. Fox, whom Regine quickly learns is a duplicitous gold-digger. Eventually, this leads to a popular centerpiece where the two women almost get into a brawl during the wedding, but more importantly, this is another good Regine show because it’s based on some valuable continuity that flatters the audience’s memory and then depicts her as a character who cares about other people (as opposed to herself), making her more dimensional than she can sometimes seem. Accordingly, this is yet another example of Regine being notably well-utilized in Season Four’s individual weekly narratives. (Also, Jack Carter is back for an okay subplot with the guys — Kyle and Overton.)
05) Episode 91: “Virgin Territory” (Aired: 11/21/96)
Max is startled when her boyfriend reveals he’s a virgin.
Written by Jacque Edmonds | Directed by Rae Kraus
The highlight of this excursion, easily, is the scene where the four women share stories about how they each lost their virginity — it’s reminiscent of a classic Golden Girls kitchen table talk, which, at this juncture, is a compliment, because the more this show can remind itself of what it’s premised to be (or be like), the better. As for its story, Max dating a virgin who wants her to be his “first” is sort of a single-joke notion that nevertheless gives one of the series’ funniest players, Erika Alexander, chances to react comedically, so this is one of her best shows of the season (prior to Max’s reunion with Kyle). Meanwhile, this entry also guest stars Isaiah Washington as Charles, who recurred this year for a small arc as Khadijah’s latest love interest — his character isn’t a standout, but it’s good to see romantic pursuits still existing as an important part of this series’ DNA. (Patrick J. Dancy and Jeff Blake appear.)
06) Episode 96: “Back In The Day” (Aired: 01/30/97)
The group remembers the early days of their friendships.
Teleplay by Jacque Edmonds | Story by Yvette Lee Bowser | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
Without a doubt, this is the best segment on the list aside from my chosen MVE, for it represents so much of what I talked about in my above commentary, as Living Single, facing a possible cancellation and therefore a series finale, starts to ensure that its thematic intentions are better addressed in story again. That means, for this outing, the show returns its focus to the “hangout” ensemble, and specifically, the four lady pals at its center — with all of their relationships, including those with the guys, getting a lot of extra fleshing out via a “flashback” structure: a gimmick that is quite common on these “Singles in the City” shows but actually rare on Living Single and thus even more valuable. Indeed, going back and understanding more of these characters’ histories both honors their premised bonds and strengthens their individual characterizations by making them feel more nuanced, and while a lot of humor here is derived from the “hindsight” of knowing what’ll happen in the years that follow, it’s still predicated on the leads and their relationships. Plus, with a callback to the pilot’s classic “dance” scene, this is a valentine to Living Single and what it was supposed to be. Incidentally, I think this was produced as the series’ 100th episode, but it got bumped up, so it doesn’t officially get to hold that title. (Estelle Harris guests; both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Evander Holyfield make cameos.)
07) Episode 97: “Oh, Solo Mio” (Aired: 02/20/97)
Kyle promises Regine a solo in his new church choir, but she is a terrible singer.
Written by Clayvon C. Harris | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn
One of the funniest and most popular offerings from the entire series, this half hour takes Living Single to church… literally… for a memorably comic idea in which Kyle, who is the new choir director, promises Regine a solo, only to learn that she’s tone deaf and particularly awful. The rest of this story is basically built around that singular comic notion, which is durable — and allows Kim Fields to have even more fun — and though it’s not honestly original (and lacks a truly boffo climax), it’s at least putting characters in conflict based on their personal traits. What’s more, it’s a very funny script — as evidenced in the subplot, of Khadijah reconnecting with her religious roots after being away from church for a while. There’s lots of big laughs there. (Dorien Wilson guests again, as does Arnetia Walker.)
08) Episode 98: “Playing House” (Aired: 03/06/97)
Overton and Synclaire test cohabitation, while Max and Kyle sneak away for a rendezvous.
Written by Jim Pond & Bill Fuller | Directed by Rae Kraus
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Playing House” is the year’s best showcase for Living Single’s identity, and like the aforementioned “Back In The Day,” which uses a flashback structure to explore these characters and their relationships, thereby validating the series’ existence as a “Singles in the City” rom-com with a “hangout” ensemble, this one is also superior because of how it deploys its leads within a premise-appropriate narrative. And in this case, it does so more naturally, without having to turn to an atypical gimmick. The A-story that earns this entry its title finds Synclaire and Overton trial cohabiting ahead of their upcoming wedding — an idea that not only plays into their broader arc, but also genuinely seeks to examine how their dynamic might change as a result of this pending development. Since their characterizations are already so well-defined, this is the kind of plot I wish Living Single utilized more often with them, mining conflict from their relationship and how it’s evolving. Meanwhile, even more delectable is the subplot, in which we learn that Kyle and Max have snuck off for a steamy rendezvous, renewing their sexual relationship but without any pretenses of romance or monogamy. Now, as noted above, these two were made for each other — and for corresponding clashes, especially — so it’s always electric when they’re together… regardless of the fact that this series has heretofore never really been able to develop them in story that’s commensurate with the rich opportunity suggested by their pairing. Sure, seeing them reunited in some form maybe isn’t quite as exciting as it once was, but because they were built to be together, and this show is hinged on its regulars’ romantic pursuits, their quasi-reunion does seem premise-affirming, and exactly the type of material Living Single should be providing as it approaches its believed endgame… Oh, and Regine trying to piece together the clues while Khadijah guesses right away is a lot of fun — a nice mini-arc for the end of this year, which picks up steam from here, with a forthcoming wedding and a semi-secret half-coupling inspiring plots that honor the series’ premised ethos and reflect the manner in which these leads should be featured.
09) Episode 99: “Swing Out Sisters” (Aired: 03/20/97)
The ladies go out together like in the old days, while Overton and Kyle both have friends over.
Written by Chuck Tatham | Directed by Chuck Vinson
As with the last few, this installment deliberately seeks to recalibrate itself around the “hangout” ensemble, with the four women deciding to go out again together — just as they did back in Season One — and although it’s not as memorable or funny or clever as some of those earlier outings (I’m thinking specifically here of the club-set “Great Expectations”), it’s at least putting the leads in the same space so they can bounce off each other, and in a low-concept narrative construct that typifies the subgenre also helping to define this series and its storytelling. Additionally, its subplot, which evidences the contrast between Kyle and Overton, is a fine sample of conflict that’s created from two regulars’ well-conceived differences. (Sherri Shepherd guests as the standup comic who gets heckled by Maxine, Shaun Baker is back as the recurring Russell, and both Steven Gilborn and Christopher B. Duncan also appear.)
10) Episode 102: “One Degree Of Separation” (Aired: 04/17/97)
Synclaire learns her parents are separated; Kyle and Max pretend to date other people.
Written by Kriss Turner | Directed by Gil Junger
Like many offerings with family members, this one is inherently noteworthy because we get to meet both Synclaire’s and Overton’s folks — played by Ron O’Neal and Denise Nicholas, and Antonio Fargas and Gladys Knight, respectively — and, as usual, they simply help humanize their attached regulars, adding dimension to how we view them. Yes, the “separated parents” reveal is trite — common for this type of sitcom — but Synclaire is well-featured, and again, the script is comedically strong. That’s especially apparent in the subplot as well, where both Max and Kyle bring dates to the engagement party, mainly to throw Regine off the scent of their semi-secret arrangement. Naturally, in the process, they realize they care more about each other than they’ve yet admitted. So, that’s a great relationship-forward idea for these two characters too, perhaps even evolving them genuinely. Kevin Richardson and Kenya Moore also guest.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Never Can Say Goodbye,” the season finale (almost series finale) that boasts Synclaire and Overton’s wedding — it’s not funny, but it suggests possible growth for Max/Kyle and feels like the culmination of so much of this series’ storytelling, “The Clown That Roared,” which employs a fairly standard Rashomon framework for a subplot fight between Khadijah and Regine, “Too Good To Screw,” which has a revealing guest appearance by Kyle’s brother and a comedic A-story where Regine is jealous of Synclaire’s party planner, and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” where we meet Khadijah’s father. (I just wish it was a little funnier.) Lastly, I’ll also cite “Riot On The Set,” which isn’t a great offering, but provides Kim Coles a fun scene where Synclaire turns a pensive tragic play into a comedy, and “Mother Inferior,” which guests the always dependable Chip Fields as Regine’s mother.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Living Single goes to…
Stay tuned tomorrow for my thoughts on the best from Season Five!