Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best of Dream On (1990-1996, HBO), one of the premium cable network’s earliest and most fondly remembered comedies. As of this publication, only the first two years have been released.
A divorced editor at a small Manhattan-based publishing house has a unique perspective on life, love, and parenting. Dream On stars BRIAN BENBEN as Martin Tupper, WENDIE MALICK as Judith Tupper Stone, CHRIS DEMETRAL as Jeremy Tupper, DORIEN WILSON as Eddie Charles, and DENNY DILLON as Toby Pedalbee. MICHAEL McKEAN recurs as Gibby.
Last week, we discussed how Dream On‘s third season was able to navigate macro-level identity-threatening issues by being well-constructed and satisfying on the micro-level – within the year’s individual excursions. There, character-based rewards, despite concerns over tonal ill-modulation, were able to sufficiently foster premise-cohesive enjoyment. In Season Four, the critically successful and soon-to-be-syndicated comedy that helped elevate HBO’s stock (serving as a nice companion to the darling The Larry Sanders Show) says goodbye to its near-perfect episodic average, when the tension between its romance and realism is disrupted. Is this due to the minimized hand of Kauffman and Crane, who stepped down to Creative Consultants, contributed two final scripts for the series, and left their day-to-day activities to Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss? Impossible to say, but I think the answer is “not directly.” In fact, the latter two are funny writers who’d been around since Season One — the most logical choices to assume creative control. But it’s nevertheless true: there is a palpable shift in perspective, stemming from the disruption of that oft-discussed balance (clues for which we could see even under the creators’ guidance). Yet, before we discuss some of these creative evolutions, a broad statement on the show’s quality – from this point forward, Dream On becomes a series that, like we saw with Murphy Brown, often predicates its episodic quality on the comedic strength of the weekly premise. In other words, though Kauffman, Crane, and their successors treat character as king, Dream On is now even more idea-reliant. The writing still prizes character over plot, but the dissolution of a well-rooted identity means that story ends up mattering more in how we, the audience, determine worth. To put it simply: from now on, if the premise is good, the episode usually is, too. If the premise isn’t, the episode isn’t. Merit for character follows suit.
However, keep in mind the point made above – the writing still values its characters above all else, and this intended compliment also addresses one of the aforementioned evolutions (a good one): all drama, from henceforth, can only be justified when it’s important to one of these players. You see, despite the critical success enjoyed last year with the issue-based “For Peter’s Sake” (among others), the series’ reaffirmed, sustained, and enhanced commitment to character means that installments of “Peter’s” ilk don’t really have a place. This is a positive development, for Dream On has always prided itself on the strong definition afforded to its players and the evident desire to explore them through story. There’s no room for messages that supersede character – that was a Season Three aberration. But as always, character drama must also be earned and motivated through character. So, the season wisely and quickly jettisons some of the serialized developments from late last season – Martin’s serious relationship and Eddie’s marriage (but not Judith’s goal-suiting pregnancy) — in order to build more meaningful arcs. For while those hasty ideas aimed for growth, they felt narratively imposed. The objective now is organic arcing. To this point, there’s an explicit directive in Season Four to expand all the regulars – not simply for the sake of story, as is usually the case in series television, but rather — to ensure they’re not becoming stagnant, as that would imply a failing on this (optimistically speaking) character-centric show’s behalf. As a result, this year makes maturation a primary mission (Jeremy loses his virginity, Judith has a new baby, Toby falls in love, Martin’s relationships become more complicated with both parents, Eddie gets a new job and learns he has a daughter, etc.) – and succeeds sporadically, when an idea both makes sense for its agent and finds time for big laughs. Thus, while enjoyment here is based on the success of a story, most stories (the good ones, anyway) are well connected to their characters. If there’s any problem, it’s that this new arrangement allows for more character-rooted misses.
But let’s get back to our bigger concern – the identity damage that occurs as a result of the disrupted essential balance. As with story, this is about character. Climaxing the aforementioned commitment to character-based growth is the big development that occurs in the year’s finale: Richard Stone dies, changing the whole series’ course. And, because we know what’s to come later, we can also define this beat as the first major step in Martin and Judith’s reconciliation, which is the most obvious signal that Dream On is choosing to emphasize its romance over its realism. This formally differentiates the series from both HBO and its now bigger comedic hit, The Larry Sanders Show, while also signifying a rejection of an important part of this show’s identity: the hard truths needed to balance the sometimes yucky sentiment. As I’ve indicated from the beginning, an imbalance – in either direction – is not ideal. However, the decision to trek this rom-com course is made clear throughout the season (before the finale) – specifically in the year’s focus on Martin’s lingering feelings for Judith, which we’ve always known to be present, but heretofore seemed more like emotional baggage than pursuable narrative trappings. (Interestingly, while I have charged the series’ emotional depth and focus on feelings as a function of Kauffman and Crane’s personal aesthetic, it’s really only after they leave that Dream On embraces these choices wholeheartedly – without the needed, moderated restraint.) Now, I’m not against using their relationship as a recurring source of story, because I don’t think it’s unmotivated. (These figurative seeds were planted in Season One.) But I am against the tonal shifts that accompany these narrative machinations, as truth too often gives way to cliché and convenience, corrupting the foundation that first made Dream On a uniquely comedic property – fantasy (romantic clips) contrasting fact (harsh reality). We’ll have two more seasons to kvetch about this direction, but Season Four makes its intentions clear, and already takes a hit.
It’s because of this expanding tonal inequity, which affects the series’ established identity, that the year’s otherwise noble focus on character doesn’t become a necessarily noble pursuit, for what’s being done to these players – the semi-serialized “growth” – isn’t often to the show’s benefit. Yes, such growth will always provide more story, but not all story is suited for Dream On, whose gimmicky but generally well-used “thought bubble” premise necessitates the interplay between specific genres and sensibilities that have to be allowed by a narrative. In this case, it isn’t enough to have a character-appropriate story – Dream On needs show-appropriate stories. And that’s why the “Victory in Premise” concept becomes notably applicable here in Season Four, where a certain amount of character supremacy must be balanced alongside 1) a generous helping of laughs, 2) a bit of earned sweetness, and 3) a nice hard dose of counterbalancing truth. It’s a delicate confection, and if a story – by its logline alone – can suggest such opportunities, an episode is likely to deliver. As for Greenstein and Strauss, I intimated above that the season still asserts big laughs as a priority – these are funny guys – and while not all ideas (and not all intentions for story) deliver the same amount of “big laughs,” the pair’s style certainly hastens the move toward more extreme, broad, and farcical forms of humor – which are, again, more romantically stylized and less logical/realistic/believable-sans-leap than what we’ve seen in years past. Additionally, under the umbrella of character-centric romance comes all kinds of comedically calibrated episodes – some with few laughs, some with dozens – and this schizophrenia is something that bothers this year more than its neighbors. Ultimately, all of the above leads back to the lack of individualized, well-modulated episodic quality that we saw in Seasons Two and Three. It’s why Season Four is a noted descent… But, despite the reduced consistency, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember, installments originally aired in hour-long blocks are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 56: “Oral Sex, Lies, And Videotape (I)” (Aired: 06/02/93)
Martin videtapes a beloved clown in a public sex act.
Written by Jeff Greenstein & Jeff Strauss | Directed by John Landis
In spite of a generally character-concerned directive for the fourth season, the year opens, like its two predecessors, with an overblown hourlong installment that allows the mechanics of story — and the wattage of the many gimmickly, but not unenjoyably, cast guest stars (James Woods, Jason Alexander, Tom Poston, Elisabeth Shue, Jack Carter, Phyllis Diller, Iman, Isabel Sanford, Tommy Smothers, Alan M. Dershowitz and Maury Povich) — to overshadow and outshine all comedy stemming from character. But as with the last two year’s premieres, the strength of the laughs that are delivered, mostly because this is an oft-mentioned Victory In Premise, make this one worth highlighting. However, note that the first part, which concerns itself with Martin accidentally taping beloved children’s clown Uncle Bouncy (Poston, whose casting is the crux of the joke) receiving oral sex on a street corner, is stronger than the narratively-cluttered and comedically hyperbolic second half, in which Martin is tried for Bouncy’s death. It hits its comedic mark, but stands poorly against the prior two debuts, indicating trouble.
02) Episode 60: “Pop Secret” (Aired: 06/23/93)
Martin is suspicious when his father moves in with a man.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Betty Thomas
Last season struck both comedic and dramatic pay dirt with the introduction of Martin’s parents, played by Renee Taylor and Paul Dooley, so the fourth year wisely continues to play with these known assets, as this episode features the return of Dooley. Coming close to crafting this year’s version of another issue-based show, this outing deals with Martin’s discovery of his now-divorced father’s decision to live — romantically — with another man, a story arc that will persist throughout these remaining years and actually does marvelous things for the characters, Martin especially. Also, this installment gains distinction for introducing us to Toby’s mother, played by the late Doris Roberts, a terrific actress whom we’ll see again on this blog when we cover Everybody Loves Raymond. She’ll brighten several episodes from now until the series’ end.
03) Episode 61: “Reach Out And Touch Yourself” (Aired: 06/30/93)
Martin invests in Toby’s stock advice hotline, which turns into a phone sex line.
Written by Stephen Engel | Directed by Nick Marck
There’s no point in mincing words; unlike last year, there are really only three-ish entries from Season Four that truly deserve to be called classics — this is one of them, and the two directly surrounding (above and below) are the others. Of those three, this is the offering that I enjoy the best, for not only is it the most comedic (centering its story around Toby, who’s always been one of Dream On‘s most humorously ripe presences), but it also feels the most like a “Golden Era” episode of the series (a.k.a. Season Two). The premise, which features appearances by Toby’s sister (Valerie Landsburg, whom we met last season) and mother (Roberts, introduced above), is also one of the year’s most risqué, as Toby ends up operating a phone sex line. Yes, it’s a purveyor of easy laughs — another Victory in Premise — and isn’t as character-faithful as most here aim, but there’s no other outing now that entertains as much while asking for so little. That is, what logistical hurdles this episode asks us to leap in terms of both story and character are negligible (in comparison to, say, the season premiere) — while delivering, especially in the climactic scene, some terrific laughs. Easily my favorite of the excursions fit to highlight here.
04) Episode 62: “Home Sweet Homeboy” (Aired: 07/07/93)
One of Martin’s clients accuses Eddie of not being black enough.
Written by Jeff Greenstein & Jeff Strauss | Directed by Debra Hill
Utilizing a premise that we’ve seen on shows like Sanford And Son and The Jeffersons, this episode is about Eddie trying to act “black” after he’s chastised live on air by a young African American author with whom Martin is working. It’s an inherently funny idea that also is fundamentally introspective, dealing with issues of skin color and identity that exist for every human being — regardless of race or creed. Although the trajectory of the narrative is a touch predictable, and nothing quite matches the initial Victory in Premise high of Eddie being called out on his show, the episode has something it wants to explore about this funny character — something to which everyone can relate. So it ends up being a more truthful installment — with enough laughs in support. Among the cream of this year’s (relatively thin) figurative crop. A hit.
05) Episode 63: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream On” (Aired: 07/14/93)
Martin, Judith, and Eddie join old college friends for a weekend reunion.
Written by Leslie Caveny | Directed by Betty Thomas
This is another guest star-heavy show — boasting roles for Chelsea Field, Kari Lizer (creator of The New Adventures Of Old Christine), Don McManus, Christopher Rich (just seen on Murphy Brown), and Berlinda Tolbert (The Jeffersons). But it actually intends to be character-revealing, mining story from the rich histories shared by Martin, Judith, and Eddie, all old friends from college (a fact that becomes more important as the show prepares for its central couple’s reconciliation). Here we have an atypical entry for the series, particularly because of the foreign setting. But at this point in the run, in which the show is frustrated by its characters’ levels of emotional growth, the novelty is rejuvenating, even in a script by a freelancer. It’s not necessarily stellar, but it’s memorable, well-intentioned, and has substance to show for it. Solid.
06) Episode 66: “One Ball, Two Strikes” (Aired: 08/04/93)
Martin has an affair with Gibby’s girlfriend.
Written by Jeff Greenstein & Jeff Strauss | Directed by Michael Engler
If there’s any entry here that best represents the conundrum of how a season can be overly reliant on Victorious Premises, but still be otherwise focused on how it utilizes and evolves the characters, it’s this episode, which makes use of a naturally comedic story focused on the relationship between Martin and his bizarre boss Gibby, played with reliable vigor by Michael McKean. However, nearly all of this episode’s comedic meat is fixated on a single comedic notion — the fact that Gibby is worried about his sexual prowess because he only has one testicle (a joke that’s reinforced both by the title and the admittedly laugh-out-loud use of the classic waltz “After The Ball”). Once again: this episode isn’t stellar, and despite it meaning to be based in character, it actually finds its success on a single idea. Season Four in a nutshell.
07) Episode 71: “Brother Of The Bride” (Aired: 01/19/94)
Martin goes against his sister’s wishes and tells the family about her upcoming wedding.
Written by Jeffrey Klarik | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Unlike Season Three, Dream On‘s first full length collection of episodes (26), this year was broken into two halfs, premiering in June ’93 and taking a hiatus in August that was briefly interrupted in December (for a holiday themed two-parter mentioned below), but otherwise lasted until January ’94, when the show returned and resumed its run. This is the first entry on today’s list from the series’ second half, which is generally more mediocre and less comedically memorable than its predecessor. (There’s a lot of story-heavy episodes in the year’s back half, despite, once again, the respectably mantained character intentions). The strength of this entry, and why it stands out, is the use of Taylor, Dooley, and Cliff Norton (Taylor’s beau), when Martin’s mom learns of her ex-husband’s new romance as the family gathers for a wedding.
08) Episode 72: “Blinded By The Cheese” (Aired: 01/26/94)
While temporarily blinded, Martin falls in love with his nurse.
Written by Stephen Engel | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
The second episode on today’s list written by Stephen Engel, who’ll assume the role of head writer for the show’s final seasons (his other episode highlighted here is my MVE), this entry warrants attention for its effective use of the series’ “thought bubble” identity as part of its episodic narrative, explained through Martin’s love and cinematic regard for the television he watched as a child. Sally Kellerman guest stars in this outing as a nurse with whom Martin, while in the hospital and temporarily blinded (in a cartoonish sequence involving a fondue pot), bonds over their mutual love of Hollywood classics. The comedy comes once Martin regains his sight and learns that the recent love of his life is not at all what he anticipated (read: she’s much older). It’s human, has laughs, and is rooted in both the series’ premise and Martin’s character.
09) Episode 75: “Martin Tupper In ‘Magnum Farce'” (Aired: 02/16/94)
A pair of romantically involved authors drag Martin into their problems.
Written by Eileen Conn & Andrew Gordon | Directed by John Landis
Truthfully, I had no problem picking nine episodes for today’s list, but it was a challenge to select the tenth. This was the installment I decided to boost up from the Honorable Mentions, not because this entry offers anything better than the others, but because I have fewer reasons for excluding it. Donna Mills and Jake Steinfeld guest star as a romantic couple-turned writing duo who can’t finish their book because of relationship troubles stemming from his affair. Judith counsels them (a clever way to get her in on the action), before the episode attempts to turn itself into a sex farce in which Mills sleeps with Martin, and to get even, Steinfeld sleeps with Martin’s girlfriend, played by Playmate Heidi Sorenson. Landis’ direction helps to boost the teleplay’s mediocre quality, and because the performances do their part, it’s worth watching.
10) Episode 80: “Felines… Nothing More Than Felines” (Aired: 03/23/94)
Martin ends up with a new feline friend after Toby’s cat dies.
Written by Jeffrey Klarik | Directed by Michael McKean
Even though I already noted that there are probably only three classics on today’s list, were I to choose another excursion as being in this esteemed category, it would be this diamond-in-the-rough entry, which starts with a premise about Toby having to deal with the death of her cat (a dark set-up ideal for an HBO sitcom that wants to engage in sentiment, but not in a cutesy or overtly warm manner), and then turns into a relatably human story about Martin connecting with a feline friend… until he and his girlfriend accidentally kill it (smothering it while making love). It’s one of the darkest and most subversively anti-network ideas that this series ever offers, and while it feels slightly odd, the novelty once again proves memorable. Also, there are some great laughs — like in the scene where Martin goes to adopt a kitty. (Additionally, this episode aired on the exact day I was born, but that’s irrelevant — I would have excluded it if need be.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Depth Be Not Proud,” a functional entry that gets Eddie out of a marriage and into a new job (Roddy McDowell guests), “Silent Night, Holy Cow (II),” the second half of a two-parter — the last scripts for this series written by Kauffman and Crane — and despite the too-easy use of Christmas symbolism and big-event narrative progression, holds importance, “The Second Coming,” which is reminiscent of a storyline on Soap, but never actually rises to the comedic occasion, and “A Face Worse Than Death,” which squeezes in a few laughs (and another appearance by Renee Taylor) alongside a story that’s not just dark, but generally grating and unpleasant.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Dream On goes to…
“Reach Out And Touch Yourself”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!