Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Becker (1998-2004, CBS), which has been released on DVD.
Becker stars TED DANSON as Becker, with HATTIE WINSTON, SHAWNEE SMITH, ALEX DÉSERT, SAVERIO GUERRA, and NANCY TRAVIS.
Season Five is when fans tend to see a jumped shark in the rear-view, as Chris replaces Reggie. I get it — the show has exchanged someone with whom both Becker and the audience had a sense of history for a veritable blank canvas, and since Reggie represented the status quo, an argument could be made that she’s inherently more compatible with Becker (and the series’ tone) than a lady whom we’re initially supposed to believe is his opposite. But the truth is…. Reggie never really had a characterization (even the contrast suggested by Chris is a stretch), and she was thus never good for laughs, story, or the accentuation of Becker’s own persona, so her loss doesn’t actually remove from the series something valuable. The problem now is… what she’s replaced with isn’t better. And this is a big disappointment because at the end of Four, Chris was introduced with a kind of grounding optimism that juxtaposed well against Becker’s cynicism, making his comedically cranky, series-validating personality pop. Sadly, her original depiction is nowhere to be found in Five — it evaporates amidst the many narrative contrivances that effectively render her a de facto Reggie, literally taking over as Becker’s diner-running intended love interest. That’s right, intended, for the year also decides to delay their pairing. Now, I understand why the show would want to tease their romance: to make us root for them, á la Sam/Diane. But the maneuvers Five enacts to keep them apart, just like the maneuvers to get Reggie out and have Chris take over the diner, feel false, predictable, and clichéd. And it’s the opposite of what’s smart for the characters. That is, putting Becker in a serious relationship would create interpersonal conflicts that highlight his characterization and maybe help him evolve. We got a taste of that in Season Two with Elizabeth, and Six will indeed prove (again) the advantages of such an arc. So, Five can’t avoid looking like a waste of time — as we wait for this inevitable development, and its better usage of Becker’s character. Speaking of which, Becker is not as well-applied here; he’s less curmudgeonly, and the show no longer matches his misanthropic ethos in its tone or storytelling. In this regard, the show’s identity seems less engaged (perhaps changes in the writers’ room also account for some of this), and with an ensemble that’s just as unhelpful as ever, Five is Becker at its, well, weakest. This list was tough.
01) Episode 97: “L.A. Woman” (Aired: 10/20/02)
Linda tells a guy she’s seeing that she lives in Los Angeles; Becker and Chris feud.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Darryl Bates
After several manipulative episodes that establish a new status quo, with Reggie out and Becker/Chris not dating (despite their obvious feelings), this installment offers a typical narrative usage of them in early Five, with both trying to annoy each other, just like you-know-who — Sam and Diane. It doesn’t work nearly as well, mostly because Chris isn’t well-defined, and now that her basic persona of contrasting optimism has been co-opted by this antagonistic dynamic, she has no pinpointable traits. But it’s reflective of the season while also allowing Becker to be a crank (which is important!), and this half hour also contains the start of an arc where Linda dates a man (Shawn Christian) to whom she lies about living in L.A. — a charade that she then must maintain. That’s a unique and comedic idea, making sense for her nonsensical character.
02) Episode 102: “Atlas Shirked” (Aired: 12/01/02)
Despite Becker’s advice, Chris endeavors to be of assistance to her friends and neighbors.
Written by Liz Astrof | Directed by Darryl Bates
This underrated, albeit not exceptional, excursion probably won’t be anybody’s candidate for a top-tier example of Becker, even in the “Chris era.” Yet I was determined to highlight it — not only because I had the room, but also because I consider it the lone attempt in Season Five to continue the notion that Chris is a do-gooding optimist who therefore possesses a characterization that can be applied in story and as a comedic contrast to Becker. Unfortunately, the climax — where she learns she’s gone to a lot of effort to plan a funeral for what ends up being a cat — does reset her back into bland negativity, and she never again shows flashes of a concrete persona. (Heck, she might as well be Reggie!) But there’s the makings of a character here, in continuity with her introduction, and that’s worth noting…
03) Episode 105: “Once Upon A Time” (Aired: 01/05/03)
Margaret remembers how she first came to work for Becker.
Written by Jayme Petrille | Directed by Gail Mancuso
One of the year’s most popular outings, “Once Upon A Time” indulges a flashback — a common sitcom trope that’s often gimmicky, especially when it’s not a routinized part of a show’s identity (like it was on Dick Van Dyke). And truthfully, I’m afraid I can’t shake the thought that this does feel like typical, middle-of-the-road sitcommery, particularly for a series such as Becker, which originally had higher standards about its avoidance of hacky genre tropes — and also doesn’t quite have the character work to pull this off. (Margaret is better defined than most, but she’s still vaguer than we’d like.) However, I always appreciate a story that seeks to examine the history of a regular relationship — in this case, the bond between Becker and Margaret — for a seminal aspect of the “situation” is getting explored.
04) Episode 107: “I’ve Got Friends I Haven’t Used Yet” (Aired: 02/09/03)
Becker is visited by his old college roommate, who is making amends.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “I’ve Got Friends I Haven’t Used Yet” traffics in another example of stunt casting with one of Ted Danson’s former Cheers cohorts, just like the MVE I chose for Season Four. And yet, while I hate to be picking such gaudy Sweeps fare with winking comic irony that supersedes any true character stakes in the text, I have to be honest and say that a comedically memorable half hour of Becker is itself something to celebrate, especially if it does a good job of utilizing its lead’s central and series-defining characterization. Here, when Kelsey Grammer (then still starring on Frasier) guests as an old college chum of Becker’s who’s now in AA and has come to make amends, or confess all his transgressions, the comedic and dramatic focus seems like it will be on him. But it’s not — it’s on Becker, who is first annoyed at this guy and then paranoid when he suspects him of stealing his prescription pad: a terrific display of his cynical distrust of other humans. Thus, much like last year’s “Psycho Therapy,” which saw Rhea Perlman as a shrink who adopted Becker’s outlook, this is a tribute to his persona, with the gimmicky casting only a cherry on top, helping it be even more unforgettable. It’s easily this year’s best. (James Pickens Jr. also appears.)
05) Episode 108: “The Pain In The Neck” (Aired: 02/16/03)
Becker is frustrated with a patient who believes in Christian Science.
Written by Perry Rein & Gigi McCreery | Directed by Randy Carter
There are a couple of outings here in Season Five that remind us of Becker’s lack of faith — one notable entry guest stars Hal Holbrook and is featured as an Honorable Mention. That only got bumped down because I think this segment covers a similar subject, but with even more laughs and a few more active opportunities for Becker to reveal his characterization. In Five, any engagement with Becker’s established depiction is welcome and conducive to being highlighted, and for the record, this is a seasonal highlight, for I’ll also note that the subplots here add peripheral yuks that acquit Becker more comedically than its baseline. (Daniel Roebuck guests.)
06) Episode 109: “Nightmare On Becker Street” (Aired: 03/02/03)
Becker is stalked by an elderly neighbor; Linda’s L.A. ruse is spoiled.
Written by Michael Rowe | Directed by Gail Mancuso
For those who keep track, guest star Betty Garrett (of All In The Family and Laverne & Shirley) earned Becker its one and only Emmy nod for her work in this installment, where she plays an elderly woman who seems to be stalking Becker. Now, we saw a very similar logline employed in Season Two, but the twist there was that Becker was paranoid and it was merely a nun showing her gratitude. Here, the woman is a bona fide nuisance — a comic idea that takes the emphasis away from Becker in a way that symbolizes this season’s weaker usage of him. If not for her fine performance — and the B-story, which caps the character-corroborating “Linda in L.A.” arc with the reveal that her boyfriend knew all along — this would be an Honorable Mention.
07) Episode 111: “Thank You For Not Smoking” (Aired: 03/16/03)
Becker is prohibited from smoking at the diner or in the office.
Written by Liz Astrof | Directed by Mike Uppendahl
As we’ve discussed in past weeks, stories about Becker’s efforts to stop smoking tend to make for great half hours, for this is a nasty habit that’s well-associated with his character and therefore evokes the series’ identity. Also, attempts to quit naturally frustrate him to the point of agitation, thereby spotlighting his centralized characterization. This outing, in which he is no longer able to smoke at the office or in the diner, is a terrific showcase for Becker, with an excellent set piece where he loses a cigarette on his fire escape. Additionally, I appreciate the subplot where Linda convinces Becker to examine her friend’s dog — it’s an amusing way to slightly irk him and use her own personality for support. (Lindsay Price appears.)
08) Episode 112: “Amanda Moves Out” (Aired: 03/30/03)
Becker is in withdrawal from smoking and everyone else has an equally bad day.
Written by Perry Rein & Gigi McCreery | Directed by Mike Uppendahl
Following the previous excursion that set up Becker’s latest attempt to give up smoking, this is another guaranteed winner in the context of Season Five, based not only on this prominent trait associated with the title character, but also on a story template that lives only to show us a moody, cranky Becker. What’s great about this particular go-’round, however, is that Becker’s not the only one driven to mania, as everyone around him is also having a terrible day, and this utilization of the ensemble, more as a collective than as individuals (since, as always, they don’t have enough on their own to spark plot), is laudable, as it’s relatively unusual for Becker.
09) Episode 113: “Ms. Fortune” (Aired: 04/06/03)
Becker is skeptical about palm readers, psychics, and fortune cookies.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Chris Brougham
Even though I’m not crazy about sitcom outings that use psychics or formal predictions as a framework for story — because I think it often robs the regulars of personality-revealing agency in favor of preordained plot developments — I do enjoy this offering, for it calls attention to Becker’s natural skepticism of everything that could potentially give him comfort, like religion, or in this case, superstition. Accordingly, it showcases his character well, in spite of the narrative gaudiness and its otherwise focus-pulling guest appearances by two affably funny sitcom ladies — Yeardley Smith and Conchata Ferrell. It’s not a favorite, but it’s solid by Five’s standards.
10) Episode 114: “Mr. And Mrs. Conception” (Aired: 04/13/03)
Becker is frustrated by patients who keep misinterpreting his advice.
Written by Michael Rowe | Directed by Darryl Bates
This was a tough season from which to pick favorites, for there aren’t many this year that capably explore or even engage the core element of the series’ “situation” — and the thing it used to feature best of all: Becker’s characterization. I’m selecting this installment because, although it’s mostly dominated by funny patient-of-the-week fare that therefore feels episodic and idea-driven, it’s plotted only to pester the title character, who gets increasingly annoyed that his advice for a married pair hoping to conceive keeps getting misinterpreted, leading of course, to a blow-up. (Guests include Jason Kravits, Heidi Swedberg, Leon Russom, and Joe Nieves.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “And The Heartbeat Goes On,” which features Hal Holbrook and acknowledges religion, “Papa Does Preach,” which memorably guest stars French Stewart as a patient with multiple personalities — a heightened comic idea that I wish better displayed Becker himself, and “Chris’ Ex,” which boasts Jon Cryer as Chris’ ex-husband, but still doesn’t reveal enough about her characterization. I’ll also take this space to cite “Blind Injustice,” which, in a rarity for Becker, uses Jake’s blindness for an actually comedic story, “Chris-Mess,” the series’ last Christmas entry — it’s weaker than its predecessors, but it has an amusing Linda/Margaret subplot, “Bad To The Bone,” a jokey misunderstanding show about sex and the Becker/Chris dynamic, and “The Job,” which is another less well-drawn (it’s schmuck bait-predicated) misunderstanding show. I wish each one was stronger.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Becker goes to…
“I’ve Got Friends I Haven’t Used Yet”
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!