Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Becker (1998-2004, CBS), which has been released on DVD.
Becker stars TED DANSON, HATTIE WINSTON, SHAWNEE SMITH, ALEX DÉSERT, and TERRY FARRELL. With SAVERIO GUERRA as Bob.
With a beloved star in Cheers alum Ted Danson, a staff of writers boasting a strong pedigree (coming from shows like Wings, Cheers, and Frasier), and a premised design that looks like it was made for textbook sitcommery, Becker is the kind of show that should be great. And indeed, its fans often regard it as something of an underrated or neglected gem, never getting its due relative to other sitcoms from the same era. I went into this coverage hoping to corroborate this point-of-view. After all, I enjoy Ted Danson and appreciate a lot of these scribes; I know exactly of what they’re all capable and respect so much of their past efforts. And now that I’ve watched the entire run — front to back — I can say that I mostly agree. I mean, I do think Becker is underrated and deserves more credit, but I also think it’s still one of the many ‘90s/early ’00s sitcoms that simply reside in the figurative middle of the pack, with enough charms to remain affable but a handful of key hinderances that prevent it from getting close to all-timer status, especially in comparison to true classics. To wit, its affiliation with shows like Cheers and Frasier and even Wings actually sets it up, I think, to be less impressive. In the same way that I was super critical of Wings because its ensemble workplace structure wasn’t as well-designed as Cheers (the show its creators just left) and didn’t have the great character work of Frasier (the show its creators would helm right after), I’m disappointed that Ted Danson is not given on Becker an ensemble as uniformly utilizable as the one he had on Cheers and that this show doesn’t as successfully emphasize his comedically centralized characterization in story as well as Frasier does with its eponymous lead. And it makes me feel like I might have been too harsh on Wings, for Becker, created by Wings’ Dave Hackel and shaped significantly by Wings’ Ian Gurvitz, isn’t even as gem-laden… Now, I hate to be so “down” on a series that folks reading this presumably love, so I want to reiterate that I enjoy it also and intend to celebrate it here. But I can’t pretend I’m not shocked that its overall baseline of quality isn’t higher and that it never ameliorates its core problem. What’s its core problem? Well, it’s the same one that persuaded me against covering the series back in our first sweep through the 1990s: its weak ensemble.
In particular, no one around Becker is as well-designed as the title character, and this lack of support really limits the show’s comedic and narrative prospects. While Linda is a comic nuisance whose kooky randomness can always goose a scene with laughs, there’s a constant vagueness about her — along with the similarly strange Bob (who recurs in the first two years, before being bumped up in Three) — that precludes dimension and makes story less precise. It’s like they’re catch-alls for goofiness. So, their ability to suggest definition for/in story — the very thing that sustains a low-concept show (where the exploration of its leads is the way an identity is reinforced) — is not terrific. Then there are folks like Margaret and Jake, two less ridiculous figures who are both criminally underbaked, so much so that humor and story possibilities are constrained. Okay, to be fair, I think Margaret eventually does get more comedic flavor via a welcome narrowing in on her persona (around late Season Two) that bumps her up to one of the ensemble’s strongest members — and though she still doesn’t shape story well herself, her relationships in the office with Becker and the funny Linda come to provide a foundation for episodic plot, while she has a basic personality to guide hahas. It takes time to develop — and it’s never on par with the kind of character work other ensemble shows like these offer, but it’s better than, say, the stuff at the diner with Jake, who is constantly defined by the simple fact that he’s blind: a notion that makes for specific story ideas, but ones that aren’t necessarily amusing or connected to an actual personality trait. Perhaps the best that can be said is the novelty of having a blind regular contributes to the show’s desired sense of grit — with a streetwise “life is tough” mentality reflected in Becker himself — and that Jake’s presence fits this desired tone, despite not being as conducive to these scripts’ comedic or narrative demands. However, Jake lives mostly at the diner — Becker’s “hangout” spot, which constitutes the “personal” half of this otherwise traditional personal/professional setup — and he isn’t even the weakest link there (nor is Bob). That would be Reggie, who’s clearly positioned in the pilot as Becker’s potential love interest — a relationship that the series deliberately slow-walks until a crescendo in late Season Four before her exit from the cast. (We’ll talk a lot more about that later.)
Reggie is, without a doubt, the worst display of character on this series — she not only lacks a way to be consistently, pinpointably comedic, she also lacks narrative opportunity as a result of her slight definition and her pigeonholed role of being a romantic partner for someone whom the show will not let have a serious romantic partner for a while. So, what can Becker do with her in the meantime? Not much. And with the rest of the ensemble being similarly unhelpful — especially at the unhelpful diner — she really stands out as the ambassador for Becker’s major shortcomings… which are truly surprising on a show with proven writers who’ve worked with funny, well-defined leads elsewhere. The problem is simply that if Becker doesn’t have well-defined leads, then they can’t be written for and the “funny” can’t be well-attached to them. Also, speaking of funny — and character, actually — I think Becker intentionally mutes itself in a desire to both avoid genre-based cliché, and to suggest the intended bleakness of the central characterization and his world. That is, just as Frasier’s farcical, sherry-drenched repartee created a highfalutin aesthetic that symbolized its main character, Becker reinforces its own lead by giving us something of a caustic, drab, cynical ethos, where laughs and story (and other regulars) are not as bright and boisterous, but deliberately grayed and dampened — in accordance with Becker himself. This is not nearly as entertaining, but I appreciate it, for I see it as an attempt — like on Frasier — to specifically honor its star persona. And for that reason, I think ideas that best reflect his sensibility do — in the absence of an explicitly well-maintained link between story and character (beyond Becker) — imply a very nuanced understanding of “character” as a value. In other words, it’s almost as if Becker is written by geniuses who know what to do to get a sitcom from an “A-” to an “A+,” but in this case, they’ve missed some of the steps that get sitcoms from a “C” to a “B.” Or, to put it another way, there’s a high level of character gloss on top of a product that’s lacking some of the basics inside. But I’ll still take it — stories that embody the tonal identity emanating from Becker will be prioritized on these lists over those that don’t, for they are indeed engaging with a character-based aspect of the series’ “situation.”
Of course, stories still have to be funny (this is a sitcom), and, naturally, I’d prefer that the show’s one well-defined character be the active cause of Becker’s identity getting displayed — I want him to guide plots and face direct consequences that further emphasize his persona, often with a caustic eruption. Fortunately, the series gets better about finding ideas that put Becker in character-revealing scenarios (as opposed to mere patient-of-the-week fare), just as it grows more amenable to big comedy. In fact, the two candidates for the series’ best season (Two and Three) represent two differing examples of a potentially ideal balance in reflecting the show’s darker milieu but with stories that are willing to be more comedically bold, especially as far as Becker’s own usage is concerned. Obviously, his usage is vital, for the central hook of the series is having a crotchety protagonist — it’s the most seminal part of the “situation,” so it needs to be exhibited every week. And, frankly, even here I think the show pulls punches — Danson is inherently likable and scripts go overboard insisting Becker has a heart (with his patients). It’s a far cry from Dabney Coleman’s Buffalo Bill, who has no redeeming qualities and is more than just cranky: he’s an awful person. Becker doesn’t want to be as outrageous, with its comedy, its stories, or its characters, and ultimately, it reaps many benefits (such as some very sincere, human moments with a three-dimensional lead), but it also pays the price, with weaker/milder characterizations, smaller hahas, and not as many classic episodes — just like many middling multi-cams from an era that would see bolder single-cams start to eclipse them in comic value… And yet, despite my criticisms measuring Becker alongside the genre’s best, a focused study like this allows me to find ways to maximize my enjoyment, to appreciate the series for its strengths: its material-elevating star, his unique and commendable characterization, and the solid laughs that are offered weekly by these clearly clever scribes… As for Season One, Becker’s ensemble is at its least defined and the show is still figuring out how to best use its lead, trafficking in too many forgettable patient-related plots. So, this is a generally mediocre season of a series that is always closer to mediocre than it should be, even with some truly significant charms…
01) Episode 6: “Man Plans, God Laughs” (Aired: 12/14/98)
Linda is forced to manage the office when Margaret is out sick.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Exploring the interoffice dynamics in this early installment helps to emphasize Linda’s kooky persona and capacity for guaranteed laughs when she and Becker are forced to run the practice without Margaret (who’s temporarily out sick) — it’s a straightforward way to communicate relationships and the structural roles that both women play in the workplace. Speaking of relationships, the recurring Bob also debuts as a comic nuisance to Reggie (for whom he’s hot), and Becker is saddened to learn of the passing of his friend — a sensitive capper to the episode that reiterates Becker’s darker, grittier interests and the character traits within its lead that permit them. (Of note: John Slattery and Marvin Kaplan both appear.)
02) Episode 8: “Physician, Heal Thyself” (Aired: 01/11/99)
Becker must rely on Reggie when his back goes out.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Lee Shallat Chemel
Ted Danson shows his remarkable dexterity for elevating comic material when he gets to play the physicality of a bad back — a problem that actually will pop up again frequently on the series, particularly in a memorable outing from the third season. Here, however, it’s a chance for the show to hint at its obvious intentions regarding Becker and Reggie (despite the latter’s nebulous depiction) and to have fun accelerating Becker’s crankiness with a physical ailment where he’s also forced to rely on someone else. In this regard, it’s an ideal kind of story for a character like Becker, made even better thanks to a performer like Danson.
03) Episode 10: “P.C. World” (Aired: 01/25/99)
A reporter calls Becker racist after witnessing one of his tirades.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Jeff Melman
Becker’s caustic and casual meanness yields consequences that nevertheless allow him to remain sympathetic, in this interesting and character-revealing offering that mines drama from the accusation that Becker’s anger is specifically directed at protected classes. But as we know — and get smartly confirmed with this story — Becker is the “equal opportunity offender,” for his ire is indiscriminate and non-prejudiced. In other words, Becker is cranky and harsh with everyone because that’s the way he sees the world — an affirmation of his characterization that reinforces Becker’s identity and is thus ideal as a source of episodic conflict. (Robert Joy guests.)
04) Episode 12: “Love! Lies! Bleeding!” (Aired: 02/08/99)
Becker deals with an optimistic world on Valentine’s Day.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Holidays and special occasions — especially something emotionally tinged like Valentine’s Day — will often provide prime launching pads for story on Becker because optimism and forced niceness naturally chafe against the lead’s outlook, and the life he’s deliberately crafted for himself, where he doesn’t have to empathize with others in a personal capacity (only through his job as a doctor), because he denies himself relationships that would push him into feeling feelings. So, challenging Becker with social conventions that push him out of his comfort zone is always a recipe for comedy — another way to spotlight his character. (Josh Blake appears.)
05) Episode 13: “Becker The Elder” (Aired: 02/15/99)
Becker is visited by his charming but estranged father.
Written by Dave Hackel | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Dick Van Dyke, no stranger to playing a doctor, guest stars in this offering as Becker’s estranged father, with whom he obviously has a lot of issues that nevertheless aren’t apparent to others, as they simply find the elder Becker charming. It’s a good bit of casting — Van Dyke is known for putting on a “happy face”: the exact antithesis of the Becker character. It probably isn’t maximized comedically like it should be (or probably would have been later), but it’s a strong relationship that seeks to develop and provide intel into Becker’s central characterization, and with a tone reflective of Season One. (Jim Rash and Lombardo Boyar also appear.)
06) Episode 14: “Larry Spoke” (Aired: 02/22/99)
Becker has a patient who believes he can speak directly to God.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Stand-up comic Steven Wright turns in a memorable performance in this outing that’s otherwise serious outside of the exorbitant comedy he brings as a quintessentially odd person. And this proves necessary, for the script needs this tonal balance, as it wrestles with a narrative about faith in God and Becker’s lack thereof — a running theme in the series and an important part of his characterization that not only allows for scenarios where he’s challenged, but also stories that feel in accord with the show’s overall tone and the perspective it takes about Becker. In this regard, a segment like this is very much an example of Becker, and by proxy, Becker.
07) Episode 17: “Partial Law” (Aired: 04/05/99)
Becker regrets purchasing a computer through Bob.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Ken Levine
This is one of the funniest entries on this list, thanks to a jokey script that boasts a terrific scene with Becker and a deliciously insensitive insurance agent (Ashley Gardner — in a great performance), and a story that takes this year’s best advantage of the recurring Bob, a largely one-dimensional nuisance who’s usually stuck at the diner and isn’t able to contribute more than incidental laughs. Here, he’s utilized in a narrative that accentuates his basic obnoxiousness — the calling card of his characterization — but for the purpose of mostly exploring Becker’s reluctance to forming close bonds, particularly under the societal pretense of obligation. So, two birds are claimed with one proverbial stone: Becker is examined, Bob is expanded.
08) Episode 20: “Drive, They Said” (Aired: 05/03/99)
Becker gets into a car accident while giving his friends a ride.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Andy Ackerman
The entire regular ensemble is congregated for perhaps the first extended time in this offering, which predicates its story on having Becker play reluctant chauffeur to Margaret, Linda, Reggie, and Jake — a setup that, on better shows, would emphasize the strong characterizations existing within the cast, but here, can only really serve as a narrative convenience to help explore the well-defined title character, whose road rage leads to an accident and then a medical emergency that takes the group to the hospital — where Becker’s characterization breeds thematically appropriate consequences. (Scott Thompson Baker guests, and interestingly, the original broadcast featured cameos from the stars of Cosby, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The King Of Queens. If you have this footage, deleted from syndication/DVD, please let me know!)
09) Episode 21: “Lucky Day” (Aired: 05/10/99)
Becker is skeptical of a day where things seem to be going well.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Lucky Day” consciously spotlights its central persona and therefore the core aspect of this series’ “situation” by juxtaposing his outlook against a string of events that are admittedly and intentionally the opposite. That is, the teleplay — by MTM veteran Earl Pomerantz — gives a pessimist, whose own pessimism typically yields more reasons to be pessimistic, a day where everything seems to be great, and in fact, lucky for him. So, what happens when this pessimist has nothing concrete to justify his attitude? Will he become an optimist? No, of course not, he’ll create excuses to stay skeptical of the luck and wait for the other figurative shoe to drop — as it naturally does, but only after an entire day where Becker is challenged in a comedic narrative that highlights his series-defining characterization better than any other entry here in Season One. (T.J. Thyne appears.)
10) Episode 22: “Regarding Reggie” (Aired: 05/17/99)
Becker is afraid of Reggie’s response if he asks her to join him at an event.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Becker dives into its oft-implied romantic intentions regarding Becker and Reggie — whom the show clearly considers “meant to be,” even though it doesn’t want to actually pair them — in its first finale, where expectations are built about a possible first date. However, this smart series knows better than to indulge such clichés outright (especially with a character as bland as Reggie) and instead makes the idea all about Becker himself and his own insecurities with romance and simple human interactions — the fear of rejection and the fear of being too embraced. As such, it’s a great character showcase for Becker — the only person who, at this juncture, is really capable of getting showcased in any satisfying manner.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “City Lights,” where Becker fights his environment, and “Scriptus Interruptus,” a fairly routine “Becker is constantly annoyed” show (which is therefore solid), along with the “Pilot,” which is all about introducing us to Becker’s basic persona, “My Dinner With Becker,” which is too obvious about its intentions for Reggie and Becker, “Limits And Boundaries,” where Becker is saddled with two kids to babysit, and “Saving Harvey Cohen,” where Becker is forced to care for a cat. I’ll also take this space to cite the well-liked “Choose Me,” which only works because of its comic ending.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Becker goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!