Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Kate & Allie (1984-1989, CBS), which is currently available on DVD.
Kate & Allie stars SUSAN SAINT JAMES as Kate and JANE CURTIN as Allie. With ARI MEYERS, FREDERICK KOEHLER, and ALLISON SMITH.
Season Three finds the novelty of the series’ “modified family” premise — the added “wrinkle” to a traditional domestic design — no longer able to provide as much satisfying story as it had in years past. Yes, it’s certainly more present than in any of the seasons ahead, and Three thus compares favorably to over half the run, but this inevitable trend is already too evident, and that’s to the series’ detriment, for remember, it’s also seemingly unwilling to consistently use its otherwise decently defined characters to help push story (as the necessary heightening from narrative clashes might make them less believable), and accordingly, the premise has been the only reliable part of the “situation” that could be counted upon to reflect the series’ identity in weekly plot. Oh, sure, there’s also the relationship between the two leads, which, as we saw last week, has sort of become a proxy-premise — a focus that the show is hoping can distract from its dwindling ability to write for the “modified family” concept — but, as always, without strong characterizations via juxtaposition, no relationship can itself be fruitful for episodic story. So, Three props up their bond but is still forced to engage ideas that have little to do with them, their relationship, or the premise, and, like traditional domestic plots that don’t acknowledge the unique “wrinkle,” such externally derived notions are seldom ideal, for they’re not predicated on anything specific to Kate & Allie. At best, they might reiterate the series’ sense of literal realism admirably and/or showcase the two stars, who are as great as ever, despite not getting material as humanity-affirming as before… Speaking of which, when Three is not booking shamelessly self-important VSEs (see: Jennie gets sexually harassed by her boss, Chip befriends a developmentally challenged man, etc.), it’s aggrandizing story in the other direction, employing broader, bolder comic ideas that allow for, overall, more laughs than we saw in Season Two. But this, of course, is a double-edged sword, for while we want this show to be funnier to fulfill the comic objective inherent to the genre, when the yuks largely come from ideas that aren’t explicitly linked to the situation, they feel insubstantial and extraneous.
What’s more, these kinds of outings, however amusing, move the show away from the precise literal realism that Two established as such an important trademark of Kate & Allie, and even though that unwavering threshold for total truth was prohibitive to the show’s comic competitiveness within the genre, these reduced standards can’t help but suggest that the series is shedding a vital part of itself (one of the things that made it special) at the same time that it’s also losing its premise in plot… all in exchange for material that, well, doesn’t always deserve it, for without really strong characters or a pronounced comic drive, it’s not as if Kate & Allie will ever be a paragon of great sitcommery. Also, in being less believable than Two but not as funny as those ahead (when this trend progresses), Season Three doesn’t do anything the best. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it is a solid year for Kate & Allie, and by coming right after the first full season of the series that makes the best use of its premise, Three is the show’s second-best complete collection, with a couple of outings that also represent the series’ finest, including an MVE, that, as with those prior, influenced my decision to cover this show in the first place. In fact, that excursion is penned by Anne Flett and Chuck Ranberg, the future Frasier scribes who replaced creator Sherry Coben (and Allan Leicht) on staff here in Three and unsurprisingly increase the laughs… but with little concern for the “modified” premise, thereby accelerating this shift away from the show’s initial shape and the most reliable part of its situation that could anchor story. Their work is hit-and-miss, therefore, because of this complicated, corresponding evolution, and although they’re great writers, and on Kate & Allie’s own terms, Three is laudable — for, tonally, it’s more balanced than Two, and this modulation of truth and humor actually should make it the most ideal — the series’ “situation” simply isn’t invoked enough in story for it to rate as excellent… Nevertheless, this is still a fun season, and I have made my selections for its best: the entries that most comedically offer some element of the series’ identity — the premise, the relationship, the characters — without sacrificing too much of its defining realism.
01) Episode 29: “The Reunion” (Aired: 09/30/85)
Kate and Allie attend their high school reunion.
Written by Trish Vrandenburg and Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky
Episodes that flesh out Kate and Allie’s shared history strengthen the series’ central relationship and aid the idea that it’s a viable proxy-premise, for although neither lead is as bold as the sitcom genre would prefer (for the benefit of both comedy and motivated story in reflection of the show’s identity), plots that contend with their bond are at least affiliated with the characters and more valuable than the random, externally generated alternatives. In other words, relationship fare is still partly linked to the “situation” and recommendable in comparison to stuff that isn’t. As for this entry, specifically, it leans into the general differences between the two: Kate gets a more introspective subplot, while Allie handles the neurotic comedy, in a story that guest stars Patricia Richardson as her former bully. It’s never hilarious, but it’s more laugh-seeking than the previous year’s baseline, and in suggesting a history, even though the titular twosome is largely separated, it solidifies their dynamic by giving them a mutual detail-oriented past.
02) Episode 30: “Make Mine Mink” (Aired: 10/07/85)
Kate dons a mink coat and pretends to be an executive.
Written by Karyl Geld Miller & Korby Siamis | Directed by Bill Persky
This is one of the offerings on this list with a grander comic idea that chafes against the exceedingly low-concept and realistic status quo established in the season prior. But because it’s centered around Kate, who is a naturally grounding presence, the proceedings never become too ridiculous or meaningfully jeopardize our understanding of the show and its strengths. This is also because it makes sense for her character — unlike Allie, the former doctor’s wife, wearing a mink coat implies a class to which Kate is less accustomed, and putting it on therefore lets her feel like a more commanding presence, one who could pretend to be an executive in a mild farce that vindicates the show’s feministic credentials while also allowing the often-sidelined-half of the central twosome to underplay this gaudier idea’s comedy. Ultimately, it works not only because Susan Saint James pulls it off, but also, again, we can ascribe some motivation to the action, and it thus seems, after the coincidental inciting incident, somewhat character-driven. (That said, I might question whether it’s buyable that Kate would even wear fur, but I digress…)
03) Episode 36: “Thanksgiving” (Aired: 11/25/85)
Allie prepares to cook a Thanksgiving meal for a group that includes her ex’s new wife.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Bill Persky
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Thanksgiving” is among the few outings that, as I’ve noted, made me eager to discuss this series here, for it’s a sample that reflects the show’s charms while also being capable of standing alongside its era’s best. It’s credited to Three’s new wonder duo — Anne Flett and Chuck Ranberg, future Frasier writers who enable a palpable uptick in this show’s sense of humor but reveal less of a concern than their predecessors for the “modified family” setup. Generally, they’re great scribes, and they make a smart decision in this installment, which acknowledges the premise — not with the family, and not even with the central relationship, but with the introduction of a personified reminder of the characters’ situation: Allie’s ex-husband Charles’ new wife, Claire, played by a young Wendie Malick. Introducing this character opens up increased conflict based on dynamics that stem, tangentially, from the premise, for Kate and Allie being two divorced mothers is an element of the situation, and while this half hour largely pushes out the kids and even Kate, it’s still acknowledging what makes the series unique. Also, it implies conflict from relationships, which, as with Kate and Allie’s bond, yields a slight affiliation to character-based storytelling — an intrinsically more ideal form of sitcommery — and in this case, because the relatable scenario is so contentious, it comes attached to both bigger comedy and drama too. Indeed, this is my pick for the season’s funniest (the Frankenstein bird is a fun sight gag indicative of this heightened comic energy), and if proponents of the show’s believability feel that the presence of the second Mrs. Lowell — who, incidentally, IMDb claims was supposed to debut in Season Two before her scenes were deleted (an unconfirmed piece of trivia) — innately embodies the kind of sitcom contrivance that mitigates the series’ realism, rest assured that Ranberg and Flett keep this script utterly within the realm of possibility, avoiding predictable clichés in favor of human dialogue. Accordingly, this is both a decent example of the series in this era — it’s still honest, but it’s growing funnier too — and a high-water mark that the show, which only enlists Claire three more times, seldom achieves. (Paul Hecht and James McDaniel also appear.)
04) Episode 38: “Kate’s Friend” (Aired: 12/16/85)
Allie is annoyed when Kate’s demanding friend comes to visit.
Teleplay by Mindy Glazer | Story by Sybil Adelman and Martin Sage | Directed by Bill Persky
With Kate and Allie’s friendship continuing to assume more of a focus in the weekly storytelling (in the absence of the “modified family” premise), we can start to see the show engage some of the predictable tropes of this type of sitcom — including the platonic triangle, where a third friend comes in and causes trouble for the main two. Only, she doesn’t really cause trouble, for in typical Kate & Allie form, the script is reluctant to put its leads in direct conflict because that would heighten their depictions and make them less naturalistic. Of course, this also renders them less capable of pushing story and earning big laughs elsewhere, but it at least temporarily satisfies the show’s tonal intentions. Frankly, we’ve come to expect this of the series, so it’s not a disappointment, and because this teleplay is willing to at least go comedically bold with Kate’s obnoxious friend (Kathryn Grody), there are funny moments. And, heck, the relationship is venerated, so this is a fine tribute to an emerging aspect of Kate & Allie’s situation.
05) Episode 39: “Dress To Kill” (Aired: 12/23/85)
Kate has trouble retrieving a dress that she intends to return.
Written by Steven Kunes | Directed by Bill Persky
There’s no way to get around it: this half hour has little (or nothing) to do with the premise, the characters, and the relationship, so it’s not the kind of show that’s unique to Kate & Allie and earned (let alone motivated) by its particulars. There are quite a few outings like this here in Three, but this is the only one I’m willing to highlight, mostly because it’s the funniest, and also because it’s an adult-focused offering that at least showcases the performers well, deploying both the “speaking at a stranger’s funeral” comic idea and the notion of having to retrieve something from a casket (perhaps best done by Maude). Now, I’d like to say this series freshens these gags by its expected downplaying of mania in favor of truth, but I can’t; they are the type of ostentatious ideas that aren’t ever realistic and actually yearn for a corresponding bigness. However, this script still provides more laughs than this year’s baseline, allowing me to point out Three’s growing interest in being more consistently and traditional funny, with support from a cast whose contributions prove vital. (Victor Raider-Wexler appears.)
06) Episode 43: “Too Late The Rebel” (Aired: 01/27/86)
Kate and Allie are arrested at a sit-in protest.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Bill Persky
Although sitcom episodes where the lead characters get temporarily arrested are something of an inherent gimmick, forsaking more literal realism than most series’ personal aesthetics can handle — and that is especially true for Kate & Allie, which demands a higher threshold of believability — this installment does a decent job of supporting its story with character, and specifically what we know about Kate, the former hippie whose social activism would lead her to take a stand and wind up in jail. What’s fun here is that Allie is NOT someone for whom this would be expected, and so this entry also gains points for making plain the delineation between their two characterizations and deriving comedy as a result. For that reason, this segment might evidence mitigated truth (even by this year’s standards) simply by nature of its gaudy narrative, but said narrative is at least hinged upon, and helps explore, character (along with the central relationship), positing this as one of the year’s most personalized. Ben Stiller guests.
07) Episode 45: “Privacy” (Aired: 02/10/86)
Kate’s desire for a little privacy has Allie fearing the worst.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Bill Persky
As we’ve discussed throughout this coverage, Kate & Allie tends to purposely spare its leads from direct conflict because it’s conscious about not heightening their personalities and losing the realism that would erode via contrived friction. So, it’s always interesting to see the series try to find some relationship-based drama for Kate and Allie that doesn’t require them to have a big Lucy/Ethel-esque blowout, and this excursion is perhaps the most notable in that category, employing a relatable idea — also supported, somewhat, by the “wrinkle” of the two blended families, and, specifically, Kate having taken in Allie and her brood — that suggests interpersonal tension without truly needing some gaudy (and emotionally false) fight. Now, I don’t think the misunderstanding is hilariously compensatory (nor is Kate’s climactic joke totally realistic), but it’s an affable display of how Kate & Allie is trying to honor its characters, premise, and core relationship while maintaining its tonal ethos. An underrated choice.
08) Episode 46: “High Anxiety” (Aired: 02/17/86)
Allie is nervous when she and Kate are asked to be interviewed on television.
Written by David Handler & Peter Gethers | Directed by Bill Persky
This popular outing manages to both engage the premise directly while also indicating the year’s elevated comic ideas, through a story that involves hypnosis and the unoriginal gag of having the induced chump cluck like a chicken when properly triggered (naturally, this is Allie, so Jane Curtin can offer some of the bigger comedy on which she thrives). That silliness sets up a centerpiece where Allie runs “a fowl” of Dick Cavett when he interviews them on TV about their modern family arrangement — a notion that acknowledges a unique aspect of Kate & Allie’s situation. As such, even though this is FAR from being the show’s most human or truthful half hour — sacrificing its command on literal realism for the large climax and the goofy ideas needed to get there — it involves the premise and spotlights one of the show’s two stars for big laughs. And Allie’s nerves about appearing on television are identifiable enough to make the proceedings feel slightly earned, even if they’re not backed up totally well by continuity (and the comedy is not always driven by her own choices). So, this is a microcosm of several Season Three trends: there’s a little premise and a little more comedy, but not as much truth and never as much character. Yet it’s still a seasonal highlight — among the few you’ll remember.
09) Episode 47: “Thank You, Shirley” (Aired: 02/24/86)
Kate and Allie are both interested in the same man.
Written by Jane Richmond | Directed by Bill Persky
Just like a handful of episodes highlighted above, this one centralizes the relationship between the two women and deploys a routine idea — another triangle, only this one is not platonic, but romantic, as both Kate and Allie find themselves attracted to the same guy. Typical sitcoms would emphasize this as an A-story conflict, with the two stars’ characterizations comedically juxtaposed against each other as they clash and make decisions to further their shared, competing objectives. That might be unoriginal and contrived, but it would guarantee comedy based on their different personas, and if the actions were well-motivated, the drama would be similarly earned. I both love and hate that Kate & Allie intentionally eschews that formula in favor of a more believable dynamic with two friends where they don’t fight over a guy; they just help force his choice. This avoids clichés and prioritizes a fresh mimesis of life, but it isn’t ever uproarious or capable of packing a dramatic wallop: premise-less Kate & Allie in a nutshell. However, I highlight it here both as an accurate example of the series’ storytelling, and because, in pushing the main relationship to the fore, it’s asserting their bond’s primacy, which is one of the engines of Season Three’s existence. (David Rasche and Mary Page Keller appear.)
10) Episode 48: “Ted’s Back” (Aired: 03/03/86)
Kate considers reconciling with her former plumber boyfriend.
Written by Bob Randall | Directed by Bill Persky
Kate’s plumber beau Ted (Gregory Salata) returns in this offering, which deftly illustrates the tonal changes that have occurred since last season, when they first dated. For while his past appearances claimed emotional realism and some unfunny-but-believable exchanges for two actors with decent chemistry, but whose characters nevertheless weren’t bold enough to spark big reactions, this installment insists on finding some humor. Oh, not from Kate and Ted’s romance — no, the script is sure to keep that separate and as muted as it was before, protecting them by deriving the yuks externally: from dream sequences — another common sitcom device (used by Carl Reiner and, by extension, Bill Persky, on The Dick Van Dyke Show) that can be sometimes motivated by character and/or revealing for them, but is typically just a gimmick to supply extra hahas. That’s exactly what it is here, but fortunately, Bob Randall links the gimmick, particularly the sequence where Kate and Allie are old women, to the leads’ ideas of their own future, and their central relationship, which is consequently validated as a result of the fantasy. This makes the entry worthwhile, marrying its shtick to a specific part of Kate & Allie — the core friendship, which isn’t totally character-rich, but is at least connected.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two freelance contributions that involve the premise but fail to offer as many laughs as this year’s best (or as much narrative novelty as seen in seasons prior), “Max’s New Girlfriend,” where Kate has to deal with her ex having a serious girlfriend and what that means for her dynamic with Emma, and “Chip’s Divorce,” which boasts a relatable divorce drama that craves more comedy (and less dependence on Chip, who is the weakest of the three kids); two scripts by Anne Flett and Chuck Ranberg that have heightened comic ideas not as well-attached to the show’s identity, “Whatever Happened To Romance?,” where the two girls answer a romantic personals ad (a typical sitcom idea, never hysterical or well-tied to the situation), and “The Maltese Chotchke,” a very popular homage to The Maltese Falcon with twists and turns but not enough hilarity for a story that has so little to do with the elements about which we’re primed to care; and two entries by Bob Randall that are sensitive but not as funny as the year’s baseline, namely “Allie’s Affair,” which is an affable human drama for Jane Curtin’s Allie but really thirsts for more humor, and “Dark Victory,” which tries too hard to mine a variety of emotions from an interracial dating storyline with which it’s not willing to be bold. And, lastly, I’ll cite “Grand Central Station,” a Randall script that explores one of the series’ common themes of idealism vs. practicality — a clash that opposes Kate and Allie, but only by using a bunch of one-off characters as the subjects (who simply aren’t capable of anchoring a story).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Kate & Allie goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!