Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing coverage on the best of Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003, NBC), one of my favorite workplace comedies of the ’90s. I’m happy to report that the entire series is available on DVD.
Just Shoot Me! stars LAURA SAN GIACOMO as Maya Gallo, GEORGE SEGAL as Jack Gallo, WENDIE MALICK as Nina Van Horn, ENRICO COLANTONI as Elliott DiMauro, and DAVID SPADE as Dennis Finch.
Finally a regular staple of Must See TV Thursdays, Just Shoot Me!‘s fifth season was the show’s most consistently high-rated — in other words, its most collectively popular. The irony, though, is that, in terms of quality, the series was already on the descent when NBC decided to make this move. As we saw, the show was initially denied a Thursday slot for ’98-’99 — following a fruitless test launch behind Friends earlier that spring — because NBC’s dealings with bigger fish kept the show on Tuesday, where the network’s perennial shortage of anchors forced Just Shoot Me! into sustaining a night that, without Frasier, was falling fast. After hitting its creative peak and anchoring at both 9:00 and 8:00, the show proved that it made a better hammock when its numbers increased with a shift in early ‘00 to 9:30 behind Will & Grace. Thus, when the brass was finally able to take Frasier back to its Tuesday home and wasn’t obligated for any more WB hammocks on Thursday, NBC decided to move its third and fourth-tier sitcoms over to MSTV-A, keeping Will & Grace at 9:00 and Just Shoot Me! at 9:30… As always, it’s foolish to overstate the link between quality and scheduling and/or ratings, but I think it’s important to note that NBC didn’t, as one would presume, spread its four most popular comedies out as its four big anchors. No, Just Shoot Me! was no longer anchor fodder, and yes, we can find valid reasons why: A) NBC kept three vetted comedies on Thursday as a strategy to battle the increased competition from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, B) the upcoming The Michael Richards Show seemed like a safer bet than any other possible Tuesday anchor given the Seinfeld connection, and C) Will & Grace was newer and definitely more of a critical darling than Just Shoot Me!, making it the smarter tentpole (and a show Just Shoot Me! allegedly begged to follow — it wanted the help). Those may all be true, but the basic fact remains: five seasons in, Just Shoot Me! was not considered strong enough to lead. So, while the move to Thursday might look like a promotion and a vote of confidence, its positioning there and the surrounding landscape tells the truer story — things weren’t as good as they should have been… at NBC or Blush.
I mention all this to contextualize why Five is far beneath the quality of the peak third year, even though it looks and acts more like a Must See TV hit than any other season and therefore wants to implicitly argue the contrary: that it’s funnier and more entertaining than ever before. Of course, on this blog, where character-driven comedy is heralded as key to sustaining quality, that lie is familiar; the bells and whistles typically associated with an MSTV titan during this era — the Sweeps stunts and casting gimmicks — aren’t synonymous with enjoyment. In fact, often the opposite is true, especially in this case, when a show uses such ratings-driven tricks in place of the character-based material we’re, by this time, starting to realize may not be in plentiful supply. Each season it’s become clearer that the characters aren’t growing or changing like they should in order to continue propelling story — and few distractions can disguise this mounting concern; heck, they only bring it more attention. Accordingly, it’s maybe no surprise that a season of Just Shoot Me! on NBC’s most prestigious night of comedy would actually suffer as a result of this pomp and circumstance, and in this regard, it’s almost as if the show’s aforementioned “promotion” to Thursday, with all its increased visibility, is partly culpable for the year’s declining qualitative returns. That is, one of the reasons Season Five is worse than Four is because it’s now on Thursday, where the stakes are higher and the network wants its shows to DO MORE to keep eyeballs glued. This is why the year is littered with even more shameless guest appearances — from, among others, Andy Richter, Jenny McCarthy, David Carradine, Martin Mull, Penn Jillette, Lucy Lawless, Pamela Anderson, Ashton Kutcher, Brooke Shields, Kathie Lee Gifford, Dean Cain, and the band 98 Degrees — and includes big events timed for Sweeps, like the return of David Cross’ “Donnie” (from an earlier entry already hailed as a series classic), and huge narrative developments, such as the break-up of Maya/Elliott and the surprise appearance of the oft-mentioned but never seen Allie (Kristin Bauer).
The choice to reveal Allie is a bold one that sets the bar high, and unfortunately, she underwhelms. Also, while her inclusion caps a year that begins with Jack splitting from his wife, there’s no reason to see her, for Five never uses the separation advantageously. It’s one of those big developments that hints at character growth, for if properly explored, Jack may evolve. But this growth is contingent on the general treatment of character — and that isn’t great this season (which relies more on its comedic interests, particularly David Spade’s Finch, who dominates the year in an overbearing way). Furthermore, even though this storyline isn’t expressly character-driven and instead seems like it only exists for story, the show doesn’t actually mine it for lots of plot. So, it’s a bust for both character and story… As for Maya/Elliott, it’s hard to tell if the show wants them together, for as we’ve seen, Four strung along their inevitable pairing until our interest was diminished. Now that they’re together, Five also struggles to use them in story and instead of locking into a POV — either that they’re good together or they aren’t — ignores them until a February Sweeps double stunt in which the show first tries to convince us they belong together and should be married, and then tries to convince us of the exact opposite — that they don’t belong together at all. In both halves, the characters fail to motivate their choices, and with the break-up being even more unrealistic than their prolonged coupling, the Maya/Elliott experiment ends leaving a bitter aftertaste — it’s not that we still want them together; it’s that we don’t understand why — why they coupled, dated mostly off-camera, and then split so bizarrely. What was the purpose? Additionally, there are no storytelling gains; the show apparently felt it couldn’t use them well together, but I’m afraid, it doesn’t use them well apart either… This, no doubt, speaks to the larger problem of the regulars not growing. Narrative alone can’t provide growth if the characters don’t make their own moves. And gimmicks certainly don’t help… Yet why expect the show to change its ways now? It’s on Thursdays; that’s where all the hits are, right?… At any rate, the season has many flashy entries, but I have picked ten that I think exemplify the year’s best.
Notable writers this year include: Marsh McCall (The Naked Truth, Last Man Standing, Fuller House), Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard (Flying Blind, Dream On), Moses Port (Mad About You, Happy Family, Aliens In America) & David Guarascio (Mad About You, Happy Family, The Goldbergs), Gabe Sachs & Jeff Judah (Late Night With David Letterman, Freaks And Geeks, 90210, The Night Shift), Susan Dickes (The Drew Carey Show, Mad About You, Boston Legal), David Hemingson (Jesse, How I Met Your Mother, Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23), Brian Reich (Late Night With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Ross McCall & Aaron Peters (The Andy Dick Show, The Simple Life, Modern Men), Maria A. Brown (Step By Step, Cybill, Mad About You, The Exes, Fuller House), and Howard Gewirtz (Taxi, Wings, Oliver Beane).
01) Episode 81: “Hit The Road, Jack” (Aired: 10/12/00)
Finch spurns Nina’s advances and Jack has problems with Allie.
Written by Brian Reich | Directed by Pamela Fryman
The fifth season premiere isn’t stellar, but I decided to highlight it for two reasons. One, beggars can no longer be choosers — the two years with at least ten relatively great episodes have passed (Three and Four, of course). And two, this is actually an honest, revealing indication of the season itself, for it features a so-so helping of Maya/Elliott, alongside a gaudy laugh-driven story for the series’ two clowns, Finch and Nina, who deal with the aftermath of their near hook-up in Four’s forced cliffhanger. Although the teleplay uses comedy to smooth over some of the rough edges, the fact that their story, which probably shouldn’t exist in the first place, ends so abruptly, makes it all seem even more futile — for, once again and as usual, neither character grows as a result of this moment. That’s exactly what we can expect from the rest of Season Five, like in the arc where Jack is dumped by Allie, introduced here: no growth…
02) Episode 84: “Donnie Returns” (Aired: 11/02/00)
Maya is skeptical when Elliott’s brother, Donnie, returns.
Written by Marsh McCall and Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard | Directed by Pamela Fryman
As mentioned above, this installment sees the return of David Cross as Donnie, who first appeared in a memorable third season classic that many believe is the series’ best. For its sheer audacity and boldness with regard to laughs, it was nominated for an Emmy (for writing)… Obviously, the hope with this offering is that magic can be recaptured, but I’m sorry to confirm… it can’t. (And it won’t be recaptured when he returns once more in Season Seven, either.) Yet even if this one fails to live up to the heights of its predecessor, it’s actually still a pretty great showing based on Five’s standards. In fact, I think it’s among the year’s better outings, and one of the reasons I like it is that it contends with some worthy conflict between Maya and Elliott, who are together but are often starved of good material, for it puts her in control of the action. While Donnie’s first appearance was exciting because of Donnie himself, this one works because of Maya’s paranoia, which gets her in trouble, and like many classic segments of this series, boffo hahas come when the straight woman steps out of line.
03) Episode 86: “Brandi, You’re A Fine Girl” (Aired: 11/16/00)
Finch falls for an old friend who’s transitioned into a woman.
Teleplay by Susan Dickes and David Hemingson | Story by Brian Reich and Maria A. Brown | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Jenny McCarthy guest stars in this highly rated and seemingly popular Sweeps entry where she plays an old friend of Finch’s, named Burt, who’s fully transitioned into a woman and now goes by the name of Brandi. The stunty story has Finch having to accept his friend’s choice, only to then find himself falling for her. It’s handled with all the subtlety and nuance you’d expect from Just Shoot Me! — a.k.a. none at all — and there’s something crass about the narrative’s non-character-based gimmickry. I truly didn’t want to include it here, but again, beggars can’t be choosers, and because I think it’s reflective of the Finch-heavy nature of the season, and the type of increased pomp and circumstance the show embraces in its MSTV Thursdays era, it’s another honest reflection of the year. Also, Marissa Jaret Winokur guests in the decent subplot, and David Carradine makes a cameo in the A-story. It’s all too ostentatious to ignore.
04) Episode 87: “The First Thanksgiving” (Aired: 11/23/00)
Maya’s attempt to host Thanksgiving is ruined by a liaison between Jack and Elliott’s mom.
Written by Howard Gewirtz | Directed by Pamela Fryman
There really aren’t any episodes that I love this season and think could stand alongside past MVEs as being seminal representations of not just this series, but of the sitcom during this era. However, this offering comes the closest, and true to the pattern we’ve developed, I’ve selected an MVE that’s a bit atypical, representing a break from Just Shoot Me!‘s usual two-story rut (with Finch and his broad comedy on one end and a more charactery workplace subplot on the other), for in thinking slightly outside the box, the series is able to reach more comedic heights. Indeed, there’s a farcical Frasier-esque quality to this teleplay, credited to an alum of Taxi and Wings, and while it’s certainly never as good as that classic MSTV show’s forays into the genre (nor as strong as Season Three’s similarly built “Hostess To Murder”), it’s a respectable and enjoyable effort. The setting is Jack’s country home, where his affair with Elliott’s mother, the perfect Rhoda Gemignani, begets a misunderstanding where Finch thinks Jack slept with his date instead. Meanwhile, Eddie McClintock guest stars in a compatible Nina subplot. It may not be brilliant, but it’s fresh — for Just Shoot Me! — and benefits from both its comparable uniqueness and the single-setting farcical structure that keeps character present, even when story beats are the guiding force. Fun and funny — the year’s best.
05) Episode 88: “Slamming Jack” (Aired: 12/07/00)
Jack punishes Finch by sending him down to the lifeless downtown office.
Written by Susan Dickes | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Martin Mull guest stars in this outing, which boasts an original A-story where Jack demotes Finch and sends him down to a drab, miserable off-site office where all his former assistants are banished. Mull, of course, is Finch’s predecessor, and in addition to the mere inclusion of this funnyman and his material-elevating presence, the story’s reckoning with some of these characters’ history — or, rather, the history of their workplace — makes for a satisfying tactic to incorporate new info. That is, in the absence of growth or forward progression, being able to reveal things about these folks’ pasts is a way to generate new fodder that sates our need for something other than the same-old, same-old. For that reason, this one is a winner, even with a labored and eye-roll-worthy subplot for Maya/Elliott and a lecherous gynecologist.
06) Episode 94: “The Auction” (Aired: 02/08/01)
Nina hires a prostitute to escort Elliott to an upscale event.
Written by Rose McCall & Aaron Peters | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Fans of our old Xena Thursdays will delight in knowing that this offering guest stars the Warrior Princess herself, Lucy Lawless. She plays a hooker masquerading as a doctor, hired by Nina to escort Elliott to an auction. It’s a broadly comic role — written for big farcical laughs — and Lawless, although a bit at sea with the rhythms of the American multi-cam, brings a unique energy that, at the very least, makes her inclusion notable… However, trust me when I say, Xenite though I am, what I like best about this episode — which, admittedly, doesn’t get ALL its laughs (particularly in the Jack/Finch subplot, which pushes too hard) — is that it’s built on some emotional continuity for the recently split Maya/Elliott, as they’re each trying to make the other jealous. If this kind of semi-serialized character-based honesty was reflected more often in story, then they might have actually grown as characters and their coupling wouldn’t have been for naught. As it stands, this is really the only entry here to utilize them genuinely.
07) Episode 95: “Mayas And Tigers And Dean, Oh My” (Aired: 02/15/01)
Maya makes life difficult for a new assistant while Elliott thinks Nina’s new beau is gay.
Teleplay by Maria A. Brown and Gabs Sachs & Jeff Judah | Story by Rose McCall & Aaron Peters | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this one, which employs several shameless casting gimmicks and stories that don’t necessarily ring true or claim good use of the characters. It only barely makes this list because of a teleplay that’s not stingy with the humor and because, once again, in this era of declining quality, my standards have lowered; of the possible contenders for this slot, this is simply one of the more memorable (like “Brandi, You’re A Fine Girl”). But I can’t mince words: I don’t like the A-story in which Nina dates a magician (Steve Valentine) who Elliott believes to be gay. It’s not a great showcase for Elliott and feels like another crassly sex-driven story. And, on principle, I don’t like the corresponding cameo from Pamela Anderson, even though I have to admit she’s a game performer and her scene may be the outing’s funniest… In similar gimmickry, Ashton Kutcher plays an assistant whom Maya treats with hostility… for reasons that don’t feel believably motivated either, but hey… Season Five.
08) Episode 97: “Where’s Poppa?” (Aired: 03/15/01)
Jack worries that Maya may be interested in her half-brother.
Written by Susan Dickes and David Hemingson | Directed by Pamela Fryman
This excursion’s appeal is probably derived from its premise — or premises, as there are two, both of which are fairly enjoyable, if unspectacular beyond the confines of Season Five. The B-story involves Elliott and Finch living together after the latter is kicked out of Maya’s apartment (following her split from Elliott). It’s a decent opportunity to use the show’s continuity to pair two leads who generally work well together, and it’s benefited by a brief scene with the funny Bill Erwin. Meanwhile, the A-story is rooted in the series’ father/daughter core when Jack fears that Maya is pursuing a relationship with a man who may be her half-brother from an affair Jack had years ago. The plot puts Nina in charge of keeping Maya away from the guy while Jack seeks answers — it’s a bit thin and premise-based (and we’ve seen it before — remember, Hope & Gloria?), but it’s well-written and has a solid foundation. Respectable, re-watchable.
09) Episode 100: “Sugar Mama” (Aired: 04/26/01)
Finch dates an older woman while Nina embarrasses herself on television.
Written by Moses Port & David Guarascio | Directed by Richard Boden
Kathie Lee Gifford is the first star of the season’s final Sweeps, and she turns in a fine performance as Finch’s new rich older girlfriend, his “sugar mama,” if you will. What makes the story work is the series’ typical boldness — after setting up a somewhat routine sitcom narrative of Finch worrying about being a kept man who’s having sex for money, the script denies a gentle and faux-nuanced denouement in favor of a brash climax in which Gifford tries to pass him off to her friend and there’s no doubt about what Finch has become. And, in a repeat of his moment with Nina Foch last season, the “twist” is that he still agrees to it… It’s getting more predictable now, but it remains funny. Also, this one’s blessed with an A+ subplot where Nina insults a beloved handicapped actor while red carpet hosting with Melissa Rivers.
10) Episode 101: “Maya Stops Thinking” (Aired: 05/03/01)
Maya has a one-night-stand with a man who turns out to be a new co-worker.
Written by Susan Dickes and Moses Port & David Guarascio | Directed by Gerren Keith
The year’s penultimate outing is a Maya-centric affair, which is inherently exciting because her character was the series’ initial focus, and whenever episodes in later seasons restore for her the prominence that she once enjoyed in those expertly well-crafted early stories, it feels like there’s also been a return to the dramatic foundation and a character-based substance that, as this list surely indicates, has been more rapidly rescinding as Just Shoot Me!‘s run has progressed. In this regard, this is an easy offering to like, for the story of Maya stepping out of character and having a rare one-night stand with a guy (Dean Cain) whom she learns the next morning is not only married, but also a new employee at the magazine, is on-paper a great conflict for the typically staid Maya. It isn’t conducive to the big haha hijinks to which the show has become accustomed in this era of heavy-Finch and plentiful Nina, but the terrific subplot for Finch and Elliott fills that quota and helps this become a more well-rounded showing for Season Five.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Choosing To Be Super,” which guest stars Andy Richter and falls off the wagon midway through, “The Proposal (I),” which is the first half of the Sweeps two-parter that ends in the series’ central couple’s split — after, here, trying to posit them as being ready to get married (it doesn’t work, but Part I’s teleplay is less rough than II’s), and the closest to the above list, “Erlene And Boo,” which guest stars Brooke Shields as Nina’s sister — a great idea that never lives up to its potential, comedically or even narratively. Of more Honorable Mention quality are the subplots of “Finch And The Fighter,” which pits Maya against Nina, Elliott, and Jack, “The Gift Piggy,” which showcases Nina and Maya’s fun chemistry, and “Fanny Finch,” which aside from featuring Joyce Bulifant in the A-story, has some even better work from Kenneth Mars in the B.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Just Shoot Me! goes to…
“The First Thanksgiving”
Come back next week for Season Six! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!