Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from Phyllis (1975-1977, CBS), the second spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS). Unfortunately, the series has yet to be released on DVD, but has enjoyed moderate success in syndication and will undoubtedly be released one day.
Widow Phyllis Lindstrom seeks a new beginning in San Francisco, where she moves in with her late husband’s parents and gets a job at a photography studio. Phyllis stars CLORIS LEACHMAN as Phyllis Lindstrom, HENRY JONES as Judge Jonathan Dexter, JANE ROSE as Audrey Dexter, LISA GERRITSEN as Bess Lindstrom, RICHARD SCHAAL as Leo Heatherton, LIZ TORRES as Julie Erskine (replacing BARBARA COLBY after three episodes), and JUDITH LOWRY as Mother Dexter.
With Rhoda‘s first season a bigger success than anyone could ever imagine, MTM decided to try their luck with Mary’s other gal pal, the shallow Phyllis Lindstrom, whose last three appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and guest shot in “Rhoda’s Wedding” were among the funniest offerings of the ’74-’75 season. The thinking: “the inimitable Cloris Leachman has always been a guaranteed laugh getter, and if we can surround her with a funny ensemble (Jones, Rose, Schaal, and Colby), we’ll strike gold.” Ordinarily, yes. But they overlooked one problem: Phyllis Lindstrom is not a character that can lead a 25-mintue show for 24 weeks. Leachman’s brilliant portrayal, coupled with that divine MTM character writing, paints Phyllis as severely flawed; she’s an easy figure to laugh at, but a difficult one to laugh with, and more importantly, too airy to be the series’ grounding presence. She works as one in an ensemble — NOT as the lead. So one has the sense, although the show initially seemed like a bonafide hit, that the series is fighting an uphill battle by the sheer force of its existence.
The initial setup, however, is smart and does show great promise. At home, Phyllis and Bess live with Lars’ mother, the daffily biting Jane Rose, and her incredibly dry new husband, played by Henry Jones. At work, Phyllis works with a Ted Baxter-like photographer played by Valerie Harper’s husband, Dick Schaal, and the sarcastically earthy Julie, played by Barbara Colby. Unfortunately, Colby, who had gained distinction the previous year on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was killed in a drive-by shooting after completing only three episodes. The part was recast with Liz Torres, whose performance style is much more traditional than the utterly unique Colby. Furthermore, the unshakable darkness of the real life tragedy mars the entire photography setup, and the show slowly phases out their contribution. Meanwhile, the scripts never make great use of Jones and Rose, instead opting to give material to the deliciously funny Judith Lowry, the sharped tongue octogenarian (with a Charles Bronson obsession) whose guest shot turns into a permanent presence by year’s end.
It’s surprising, really, that this first year is as good as it is. In fact, at times, it’s as funny as Rhoda’s first season. Yet, there are far more duds here than in the aforementioned show’s debut season. But still — despite the duds, the tragedy, and the simple fact that Phyllis should never have had her own show — this is a highly entertaining season of comedy. It is WELL deserving of being included here on Sitcom Tuesdays alongside The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Rhoda. So I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/08/75)
Phyllis and Bess move to San Francisco.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels | Directed by Jay Sandrich
These MTM writers knew how to lay out a premise and fill it with great characters. The supporting cast of Jones, Rose, Schaal and Colby each show unbelievable potential, and there are lots of laughs, particularly from Phyllis’ anticipated idiosyncrasies and Audrey’s zingers (delivered in that deliciously daffy faux-sweet manner). The funeral for Lars, as there is no way that he could ever be a presence on the series, is the comedic centerpiece of the installment, however the best scene occurs at the end between Leachman and Colby, who have a palpable rapport. Julie talks straight with Phyllis — cutting her down to size without being rude. As a pilot, it’s a strong showing and sets a precedent that will, unfortunately, scarcely be met.
02) Episode 2: “Bess, Is You A Woman Now?” (Aired: 09/15/75)
Phyllis fears that Bess has lost her virginity.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels | Directed by Jay Sandrich
The strength of this installment exists primarily in the story, which, as one might expect, works well for the sexually repressed Phyllis (who once made Mary Richards tell Bess about the birds and the bees). The funniest scene is the one where Bess comes home with her hunky new friend, devastating the seething Phyllis. Also of note: the energy in the office scenes with Leachman, Schaal, and Colby. It’s a setup that really looks like it’s starting to work. And for Gerritsen fans, there are some sweet moments between Bess and Phyllis as well. Incidentally, this script infuriated the censors (as the show was in the recently established “Family Viewing Hour”), forcing a rewrite that made it clear that Bess was still virginal.
03) Episode 4: “Leaving Home” (Aired: 09/29/75)
Phyllis moves out to make room for Mother Dexter.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by James Burrows
Mother Dexter makes her introduction here, but only as a plot device with an acid tongue — furthering the installment’s story, in which Phyllis and Bess decide to move out of the Dexter house and find a place of their own. But it’s not the premise that becomes the most memorable; it’s Lowry and her joke-a-minute character, who’ll soon become a regular before the year ends. Also, this is the first episode with Liz Torres as Julie, replacing the late Barbara Colby. She does a better job than you’d might expect; her deliveries are more pedestrian, but because the script was tailored for Colby, her character’s jokes are sharper than they’ll soon come to be. Good episode for comedy, as Mother Dexter is always a big laugh-getter.
04) Episode 6: “Phyllis Takes Piano Lessons” (Aired: 10/13/75)
Phyllis overcomes a childhood fear and takes piano lessons.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels | Directed by James Burrows
My personal enjoyment of this episode comes from the guest appearance by the sweet Ruth McDevitt, here playing a boozy piano teacher who gets to have a few big laughs when Phyllis decides to resume piano lessons (after a 35+ year hiatus). However, the episode works because it’s not only centered around Phyllis, but the story also fits into the persona established for the character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s satisfying to see the character conquering her fears, and Leachman does a marvelous job in the climactic recital scene, in which Phyllis sits amongst her peers: a dozen grade school kids. It’s also a sweet episode too, nevertheless managing great character-driven humor.
05) Episode 12: “So Lonely I Could Cry” (Aired: 11/24/75)
Phyllis tries to cope with being alone.
Written by Mary Kay Place & Valerie Curtin | Directed by Joan Darling
This episode has a lot going for it. Phyllis’ loneliness results in her joining a support group where she meets Charlotte Rae, who plays a character that always has to one-up everyone else. It’s hysterical, and Rae, coming off the spring’s failed Hot L Baltimore (1975, ABC), plays it to perfection. But then we have John Fiedler (Mr. Peterson from The Bob Newhart Show, among other things), who makes a great appearance in his own right as a man who misunderstands Phyllis’ intentions when she invites him to keep her company. But Leachman really is the installment’s MVP and her final scene alone by herself (when she dances to a Jimmy Durante song) is a tour de force for both the actress and character. A classic episode of Phyllis.
06) Episode 13: “Phyllis And The Little People” (Aired: 12/01/75)
Bess’ fiancé’s parents are midgets.
Written by Bob Ellison | Directed by James Burrows
This is undoubtedly the funniest episode of the entire series. While we’ve seen little people as a source for humor in other shows (notably, Seinfeld and The Golden Girls, and even the following season’s The Tony Randall Show), it’s seldom as funny as it is when filtered though Phyllis’ Lindstrom’s speechless reaction. Just the idea — Phyllis and little people — is a hysterical basis for a story. Fortunately, the script, by the funny Bob Ellison, delivers all the anticipated laughs. Interestingly, however, one of the funniest bits comes from Schaal’s character when Phyllis moans that Bess wants to marry a boy whose parents are midgets. His response: “Has she found one yet?” Great, great comedy. Some of MTM’s best. (Oh, and good news for the comedy: Mother Dexter’s back.)
07) Episode 14: “There’s No Business Like No Business” (Aired: 12/08/75)
The photography studio faces bankruptcy.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Here we have another episode, like too many in this series, in which the story itself is rather inconsequential and, frankly, unspectacular and forgettable. This show exists solely to allow Leachman, Schaal, and Torres a big, hilarious drunk scene. And that’s precisely why it makes this list, because their performances are undeniably funny, and they do share an easily appreciated chemistry. Thus, the actors are responsible for the episode’s comedic sensibilities, but specific mention must be made of Torres, who gets some fine laughs as she gets progressively more Puerrrrto Rrrican (shades of Teresa on All In The Family) when she drinks. Schaal and Torres won’t get many more chances for big comedy.
08) Episode 17: “Honor Thy Mother Dexter” (Aired: 01/12/76)
Phyllis tries to get Mother Dexter a job and a man.
Written by Michael Leeson | Directed by Stuart Margolin
Mother Dexter becomes the focus of this episode as Phyllis schemes ways to make her mother-in-law’s mother-in-law happier, and hopefully, less mean. First, she gets Mother Dexter a job at the studio, where much havoc (read: comedy) is created, and then she tries to fix her up with Burt Mustin (whom she eventually marries next season). Through it all, Lowry gets the best lines and steals the show. An old lady saying shocking things is kind of an easy way to get laughs, but it’s hard to fault when the broad’s as hilarious as the talented Lowry. While Mother Dexter’s constant reactions to the behavior of our flighty heroine yield consistent humor, the best scene in the installment occurs between Lowry and Mustin.
09) Episode 23: “Widows, Merry And Otherwise” (Aired: 02/23/76)
Phyllis is baffled by another widow’s lack of grief.
Written by Tony Webster | Directed by James Burrows
Linda Lavin, only a few months away from her role as Alice in Alice, turns in a marvelously truthful performance as Audrey’s niece, Margaret, a fellow widow, who aggravates Phyllis with her inability to wallow with Phyllis in grief. Naturally, Phyllis goes overboard and makes a fool of herself, only to be checked and scolded in an extremely aggressive way by Margaret. It’s shockingly satisfying to see Phyllis chastised, even though we sympathize with her in this story. So it’s incredibly rewarding when we have to wait until the final moments of the episode for Lavin’s character to let down her guard and cry with Phyllis. It’s a moment of great believability, and the script retains its sense of humor throughout. Well done.
10) Episode 24: “The Triangle” (Aired: 03/01/76)
Phyllis dates Bess’ ex-boyfriend.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by James Burrows
The episode isn’t particularly hysterical, but it works exceptionally well. This is because the premise is perfect for the Phyllis character, and once again, jives with what we first learned about her in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Phyllis is so narcissistic and lacking in self-awareness that, naturally, she would see little problem in going out with Bess’ ex-boyfriend, and of course she would refuse to believe that he had ulterior motives. Furthermore, the episode reinforces the idea of mother and daughter switching roles, which has always been a source for comedy in their relationship. It’s great writing because it fits Phyllis’ character — and that, as we shall see next season, is not always a given on this spin-off.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The First Day,” with guest Mary Tyler Moore, “The First Date,” in which Phyllis begins dating again (featuring guest stars Tim O’Connor, Daniel J. Travanti, and Loni Anderson), “All Together Now,” which has some laughs in the first act, but uses too much saccharine in the otherwise interesting second, “Audrey Leaves Jonathan,” an episode focusing on the show’s two best supporting players, but completely loses its comedy in the second act, “Paging Dr. Lindstrom,” in which Phyllis tries to contact Lars via a shady medium (big, broad comedy), “Crazy Mama,” which has some nice Bess/Phyllis moments (maybe the best stuff for them of the season), and “Leo’s Suicide,” in which Schaal’s request for meatier material warranted a heavy episode that only works when the characters (including guest Natalie Schafer!) indulge in flippant irreverence.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Phyllis goes to…..
“Phyllis And The Little People”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!