Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! If you’ve been following our Sitcom Tuesday coverage of Frasier, you know that next week we’ll be discussing the final season, which saw the return of former showrunner Christopher Lloyd and talented farceur Joe Keenan, both of whom initially left the series after its seventh year. (Last month, a whole Wildcard post was dedicated to the first effort these two, then partnered, got on the air: CBS’ short-lived Bram & Alice, from 2002.) In advance of their second coming on Tuesday — and because next Wednesday’s post, I’ll spoil it now, is going to be on Lloyd’s & Steven Levitan’s Back To You — this week’s entry looks at the former duo’s first post–Frasier series, the surprisingly enjoyable Out Of Practice, which produced 22 episodes during the 2005-2006 season — only 14 of which were broadcast by CBS, leaving the others to debut in syndication and, now, on both digital/disc. That’s right, you can buy the entire series on DVD (or stream it on Amazon), and because it’s of a quality that I can genuinely recommend, I’m here to do now what I do best — share a list of favorite episodes.
Created by those aforementioned Frasier vets, Out Of Practice is about a dysfunctional family of doctors, centered around youngest son Ben Barnes (Christopher Gorham), a marriage counselor (and the only one technically not a doctor) whose wife leaves him in the pilot. Ben, the most “normal” of the bunch, is contrasted against his two siblings — self-centered plastic surgeon Oliver (Ty Burrell), who moves in with Ben about a month into the run, and sardonic E.R. doc Regina (Paula Marshall), who shares, with Oliver, a love for the ladies. Complicating the trio’s lives are their divorced parents, Stewart (Henry Winkler), a bumbling gastroenterologist who lives in Ben’s building, and Lydia (Stockard Channing), an uptight cardiologist still harboring resentment against her ex, who’s now in a relationship with his much younger receptionist Crystal (Jennifer Tilly, in a recurring role). Following Two And A Half Men on CBS’ Monday line-up — and up against ABC’s Monday Night Football — the much-championed series lost a significant portion of its lead-in audience and was put on hiatus in early January after 12 episodes were broadcast. It was temporarily replaced by the Jenna Elfman vehicle Courting Alex (2006, CBS), until Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ The New Adventures Of Old Christine (2006-2010, CBS) took over in mid-March and ended up pulling better numbers. The network promised to run Out Of Practice‘s remaining episodes, but after two more were shown in a Wednesday slot during late March, the series was indefinitely shelved and cancelled that May… before Channing was nominated for an Emmy (only to lose to Louis-Dreyfus).
Out Of Practice is fascinating not just because of its ensemble — although they do bear mentioning: Henry Winkler, of Happy Days and Arrested Development, is one of the medium’s most well-known faces, so he’s inherently a “get.” And Stockard Channing hadn’t headlined a sitcom since her own in 1980, so seeing her again in this realm — and on a show with better writing — is a thrill. Plus, of course, the series is an interesting footnote for Ty Burrell, who would land roles in both of Christopher Lloyd’s next two efforts, Back To You, and the show that would make Burrell a star, Modern Family. Meanwhile, funny performers like Paula Marshall (who nevertheless had a string of short-lived entries behind her) and the vocally unique Jennifer Tilly (very nearly Frasier’s recurring love interest on Cheers) are a delight. But the real reason I had to discuss the show here is that talented duo, Lloyd & Keenan — together involved in about 90% of Frasier‘s finest episodes; any show to which they’re attached has me interested! Meanwhile, other staffers included Frasier‘s Bob Daily (Desperate Housewives, The Odd Couple, Superior Donuts), The Goldbergs‘ Alex Barnow & Marc Firek (‘Til Death, Rules Of Engagement, Mr. Sunshine), King Of The Hill‘s Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin (Just Shoot Me!, Glenn Martin DDS, Maron), Up All Night‘s DJ Nash (‘Til Death, Growing Up Fisher, Truth Be Told), and The King Of Queens‘ David Litt (Ned & Stacey, Listen Up, The Big Bang Theory). And as a bonus consultant credited with one terrific script? Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Tucker Cawley (Hank, Up All Night, The Odd Couple).
This is a notable bunch whose collective pedigree suggests a show deserving of attention. And indeed, Out Of Practice is consistently above average, with even a few moments of greatness sprinkled throughout the season (and highlighted below). As to why it wasn’t as successful as CBS needed it to be, I think we can look to the premise — and specifically the witty, literate, and potentially alienating “high-brow” aesthetic (as perceived by many who enjoyed Frasier and cited its respective intelligence as a reason) that seemingly came from Lloyd and Keenan, and which they reflected within this new show’s premise. Although no comedy need condescend to its audience — and Frasier proved that its too-smart-for-the-room characters were not resistant to audience investment — a series about a family of doctors is inherently of an upper brow, especially when compared to the appreciated “low-brow” (and low-concept) hijinks of Two And A Half Men, whose viewers this series needed to retain. So, the concern here is not that Out Of Practice had intelligent writers known for perceived “high-brow” stuff like Frasier; the rub comes from, I think, how this air of superiority manifested itself in the characters. You see, Out Of Practice essentially boasted a room full of Frasiers — (almost) every player a well-read, pompous, egoist with lots of money. And unlike Frasier, who had nine previous years of love from his time on Cheers, Out Of Practice‘s family of docs hadn’t yet earned a bank of support to encourage continued emotional investment. Getting to know these people — or more aptly, wanting to get to know these people — would take longer than 13 weeks, especially when this attachment was expected from the same audience of a show that didn’t ask for as much from them.
Of course, more than a passing look at this series would reveal that it isn’t entirely “high-brow” (if we’re using Frasier as the reference point), for while these characters are indeed smart, a portion of the show’s employed humor — let’s say 25% of it, and I’m being generous — is, well, not. (That’s always been the inherent gamble of a multi-cam; when you seek laugh-out-loud comedy, you have more chances for failure. It’s harder to win. That’s why I love it.) Generally, these moments of obvious, hacky, or not well-motivated humor fall flat — and they do so, I think, because they’re not well-correlated to the players… For, if you remember back during the start of our Frasier coverage, one of the reasons I said that show was so comedically successful was because it was figuratively drenched in the voice of its protagonist. Frasier Crane guided the stories, the laughs, and the very tenor that defined the writing week-in-and-week-out. For Out Of Practice, its characters aren’t as much allowed to be so show-defining, for the scripts are less discerning in the places (and the means by which) they secure their comedy. (Perhaps being inclusive was a commercial strategy to appeal to CBS and Half Men‘s audience.) I think this is also partly because not all characters are created equal. That is, some characters are funnier (with a defined perspective that promotes humor) and more dimensional (nuanced enough to inspire emotional attachment) than others. The only ones checking both boxes are Burrell’s Oliver, who gets a lot of those cringe-inducing jokes, but is well-rounded and humorously poised enough to motivate story and remain amiable, and Channing’s Lydia, who, quite frankly, is a powerhouse — funny, believable, and often, the shining star.
Those who are funny, but lacking in depth would be Marshall’s Regina, who has a unique POV, but is narratively defined too often by her sexual orientation (and isn’t given the same emotional weight as her brothers), and Tilly’s Crystal, who is a premise-based complication (despite being naturally hilarious — and this is more a credit to the actress than her part). As a whole though, we like both of them and can see positive signs in their growth and cultivation, which (as is always going to be the case) takes longer for some than others. More troublesome throughout the show, however, is its chosen protagonist… You see, the pilot establishes Gorham’s Ben as its anchor… and then makes him the least interesting member of the ensemble. So, he’s the “logical, smart one” in the classic MTM vein, right? Wrong. This only works when the “logical, smart one” has a point-of-view, and is defined by more than just circumstance. It takes this series a few weeks to give him a comedic hook to hang his figurative hat on — he’s a nerd (in comparison to his siblings). Once this is established, it’s easier for the show to give Ben laughs and for the audience to invest. Nonetheless, this doesn’t ever translate into great story, and Out Of Practice never fully knows how to make use of Ben, even with the added definition… Meanwhile, the character who remains perennially undefined, I think, is Winkler’s Stewart, who plays a vital role in the clichéd “divorced parents” premise and finds most of his laughs derived either from the situation or the fact that, hey, this is a good joke that the likable Winkler can deliver. His star wattage is blinding, and these smart writers give him good lines… but I think a closer look reveals a lack of both dimension and a (non-story-sparked) personality.
Ultimately, though, a lot of this stuff is nitpicky, for when a scene or an episode makes us laugh, it fulfills its obligation to us, and furthermore, one feels that these character concerns all will be solved in due time. After all, as with every worthwhile sitcom, Out Of Practice improves over the course of the year. (It’s hard to tell by the official order though — CBS held a few early offerings and never ran them, while the DVD/streaming releases and syndication packages don’t even place the unbroadcast entries in production order.) Halfway into the full, final 22-episode order, the show is much more enjoyable than not, turning out several memorable entries… including a few farces, a genre of comedy in which the creators are well-versed. (These farcical installments, typically, work well because they can be naturally funny without having to rely upon character-driven comedy; the trick, though, is keeping the action somehow motivated.) And, having seen the entire series, I come away thinking it’s on the great end of the single-season spectrum, worthy of your time — especially if you like these stars or these scribes. Let me reiterate: Out Of Practice is a sitcom that’s better than its one-and-done status. It’s filled with laughs, has (for the most part) interesting characters played by notable stars, and it comes from some of the era’s funniest sitcom architects. I recommend it. So, as usual on this blog, I’m here to direct you to the most worthwhile efforts. They are listed below in the DVD order.
01) Episode 3: “And I’ll Cry If I Want To” (Aired: 10/03/05)
Oliver’s tasked with setting his mom up with a date for her party.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Sheldon Epps | Prod No. 05
In the only script credited to Raymond‘s Tucker Cawley, the series engages with its first farcical premise, as Lydia, to impress a gossipy colleague played by Valerie Mahaffey, throws a party and invites a man to come as her date. When he can’t make it, Oliver is forced to find a replacement — although, since it’s last minute, all he can secure is a paid escort. The laughs are quick — this may be the show’s funniest entry — and it’s definitely the strongest from the first few months. (This is also the installment for which Channing got an Emmy nod.)
02) Episode 4: “The Truth About Nerds And Dogs” (Aired: 10/10/05)
Lydia is jealous that the family dog likes Stewart better.
Written by Bob Daily | Directed by Sheldon Epps | Prod No. 04
This early excursion indicates a growing understanding of what’s narratively necessary, as the show’s two brightest stars (Winkler and Channing) are paired off in a familiar, but comedic story in which their dog swallows a cell phone, giving their relationship a chance to cool (which is vital for the show going forward). Meanwhile, Oliver and Regina try to push Ben back into dating, as the story establishes his nerd-hood: the first indication of a comedic perspective.
03) Episode 11: “New Year’s Eve” (Aired: 12/19/05)
Lydia unknowingly invites Crystal’s father to a New Year’s party.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Phillip Charles Mackenzie | Prod No. 11
At yet another party (there’s a trend of the best stuff occurring in this series when everyone’s together in a classic drawing-room comedy scenario), Lydia shows up with a man (Barry Bostwick), who turns out to be Crystal’s father and is unaware of the relationship his little girl is having with her boss. Meanwhile, Ben and Oliver compete over the same woman. (Because all three siblings love gorgeous ladies, Out Of Practice has its fair share of one-episode blondes.)
04) Episode 12: “Yours, Mine, Or His?” (Aired: 01/09/06)
A pregnancy test causes drama when the family’s stuck in a cabin.
Written by Alex Barnow & Marc Firek | Directed by Gail Mancuso | Prod No. 15
The last offering broadcast by CBS in the series’ original Monday time slot, this is (obviously) one of the series’ strongest efforts, as once again, the premise contrives a way to get all the regulars together — this time, at a snowy cabin (see the shades of Frasier?) and with a conflict: a pregnancy test that the two brothers assume belongs to Oliver’s girlfriend, with whom Ben secretly, and surprisingly, shared a night. Yes, there’s more character here than suggested.
05) Episode 14: “Hot Water” (Aired: 03/29/06)
Valentine’s Day brings different things for each of the three siblings.
Written by Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin | Directed by Joe Regalbuto | Prod No. 16
Unlike the above, this episode (the last broadcast) never gets all of the regulars together in the same place. However, its multiple narratives are joined under a thematic umbrella: Valentine’s Day. The weakest story has Regina tending to Stewart in the E.R, while another is a Victorious Premise in which Ben gets locked in the bathroom as Crystal bathes. The best story, though, is a misunderstanding between Lydia and Oliver, when she thinks he’s taking her out.
06) Episode 15: “You Win Some, You Use Some” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Oliver, Regina, and Lydia each manipulate one another for individual gain.
Written by Alex Barnow & Marc Firek | Directed by Mark Cendrowski | Prod No. 22
Produced last, the DVD includes this as the first of the eight syndication-only excursions. Again, the ensemble is divided; the weaker story features Ben and Stewart, but, in this case, their relationship is used comedically. The better plot boasts thematic cohesion, as Oliver uses his relationship with Lydia to impress a woman, Lydia uses Regina’s sexual orientation to curry favor with a colleague, and Regina uses Oliver’s competitiveness to gain access to his club.
07) Episode 17: “Restaurant Row” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Oliver and Ben both think the same woman has asked them on a date.
Written by Bob Daily | Directed by Bob Koherr | Prod No. 14
Another of the never-broadcast installments, this entry plays up the rivalry angle between the two brothers (which has been common fodder for story, and one of the primary ways that the series has therefore chosen to define the otherwise bland Ben) and it works because the script’s narrative is tight, bright, and hits all its marks just right. Credited to a former Frasier alum, I think this is a premise that most feels like it could have happened between Niles and Frasier.
08) Episode 18: “Losing Patients” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Ben and Oliver lose patients to each other, while Stewart and Lydia are audited.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Kelsey Grammer | Prod No. 19
Although we know that every episode is room-written, many of the scripts credited to the highly regarded Joe Keenan (on all his series we look at here) are comedic winners, and this installment is no exception. The narratives play to some of the series’ established strengths: the competitive angle between Ben and Oliver (which has some big laughs) and the intoxicating blend of double-dosed star power when Winkler and Channing share the screen.
09) Episode 19: “Doctors Without Bidders” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Lydia is arranging a bachelor auction from which Ben feels excluded.
Written by Alex Barnow & Mark Firek | Directed by Joe Regalbuto | Prod No. 18
This memorable show stands out in my head because of its terrifically funny comedic climax, in which Oliver, having self-botoxed himself in advance of the bachelor auction, unintentionally mimics the deaf bachelor who just preceded him. It’s brilliant, unexpected, and an in-character capper to what had already been an amusing episode with character moments for all, even in the light subplot for Crystal and Stewart (in which he has to evaluate her work).
10) Episode 20: “If These Floors Could Talk” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Lydia and Crystal bond, while Ben and Oliver must retrieve a hidden snow globe.
Written by Alex Barnow & Mark Firek | Directed by Sheldon Epps | Prod No. 13
Admittedly, I’m a big fan of Jennifer Tilly and I think she’s effortlessly funny (even if the show fails to make her character nuanced or use her most effectively). So I think any installment that’s able to concoct a legitimate reason to use her — as this one does — has a figurative “leg up” on the competition. Crystal’s story with Lydia and Stewart is why this entry is here, for the siblings’ subplot — though conducive to some choice physical comedy — is more contrived.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the second installment, Keenan’s “We Wanna Hold Your Hand,” which is an early showcase for the ensemble; “Thanks,” a gimmicky flashback show that comes too early in the series’ run to pack the necessary punch; “Guilt Trip,” which gets the family all together; “The Lady Doth Protest Too Much,” in which Ben’s ex-wife shockingly returns; and the intended finale, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. And Do. And..,” which is an appropriate encapsulation of the show.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Frasier!