Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Evening Shade (1990-1994, CBS), which is currently available on DVD!
Evening Shade stars BURT REYNOLDS, MARILU HENNER, HAL HOLBROOK, ELIZABETH ASHLEY, MICHAEL JETER, CHARLES DURNING, ANN WEDGEWORTH, JAY R. FERGUSON, CANDACE HUTSON, JACOB PARKER, and OSSIE DAVIS. With CHARLIE DELL, ANN HEARN, and LINDA GEHRINGER.
Having already deemed Evening Shade‘s second season its peak — because that’s the year this otherwise idea-led series is at its best as a situation comedy, using its characters most often to inspire episodic stories in the pursuit of humor — you won’t be surprised to know that I consider Season Three a comedown in quality, as there are more entries here predicated either on gimmicks or ostentatious plots that aren’t driven by/revealing for the leads. Fundamentally, this makes for a less desirable collection, albeit one highly indicative of the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason ethos (even though her personal involvement actually reduced this year as she was spearheading a new series — Hearts Afire). However, if this season as a whole is weaker, there are a few dynamite entries by the standards of Evening Shade, particularly for the ensemble, as the wider “community” aspect of its premise has continued to grow in prominence, shrinking Burt Reynolds’ burden so that he’s better supported by his surrounding players, all of whom are terrific — especially Herman’s Michael Jeter (nominated again for an Emmy) and Freida’s Elizabeth Ashley, who find their characters moving in together for some of the year’s funniest outings. Also in rare form are Charles Durning and Ann Wedgeworth as Harlan and Merleen — they shot a pilot this season for an unsold spin-off that hoped to capitalize on their popularity. In the cast of this proposed series was a young Leah Remini, and following the network’s pass on Harlan & Merleen, she got the consolation prize of playing Taylor’s new girlfriend, enlivening the last few episodes of this season with her presence. So, in that regard, there are some notable outings and events in Three (I haven’t even mentioned Fontana’s pregnancy yet), and even with its increased reliance on outside factors beyond the “situation” — such as gimmicky guest appearances from folks like Reba, who’s just there to sing, and Ruby Dee, who’s just there to earn an Emmy nod in a dramatic two-parter that I want to like, even though it forsakes the genre’s comedic obligation — I’m still enjoying Evening Shade, primarily because of its cast. And for whatever my complaints, the show remains watchable… mostly in the samples cited below.
01) Episode 51: “First Heroes” (Aired: 09/21/92)
Taylor returns from a summer in Europe, while Wood’s father’s store is set for demolition.
Teleplay by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Story by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason & Burt Reynolds | Directed by Burt Reynolds
Season Three’s premiere is not as comedically potent as I’d prefer, veering inartfully between moments of cheap, easy laughs — based on the intrinsic amusement of seeing Charles Durning’s Harlan, and most especially, Michael Jeter’s Herman, “cut a rug” on the dance floor — and then the forced, overwrought sentiment related to Wood’s tenuously buyable choice to chain himself to his father’s soon-to-be-demolished store. However, I appreciate that this last notion is meant to expand our understanding of Wood, providing him additional depth, and with thematic cohesion coming from Wood’s relationship with his own son, Taylor, who is acting appropriately silly following a summer in Europe, I can at least credit this entry for being more character-concerned than many segments produced here in Three.
02) Episode 57: “Harlan Deals A Meal” (Aired: 11/09/92)
Harlan sends a picture of Herman to Richard Simmons, claiming to have lost weight.
Written by Don Rhymer | Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly
Richard Simmons guest stars in this incredibly gimmicky offering that reinforces just how idea-led the series always is, but particularly now in Season Three, which is less reliant on its leads than Two. And yet, like so many of my selections here, it’s too funny or favorably unforgettable to ignore — and, in this case, I actually do think it’s a decent character show for the reliable Charles Durning as Harlan, who sends a picture of Herman to Simmons while claiming it’s a testimonial as to his own weight loss. That’s a familiar sitcom idea — using a proxy because of one’s personal insecurities — but it makes some sense for his characterization, and there are a lot of laughs… not only in the A-story, but also in the subplot, with Herman accompanying Nub on his drive-in date. (For the record — as I know some of you are interested — this was one of the two samples for which Michael Jeter earned his Emmy nomination.)
03) Episode 59: “The NFL On CBS” (Aired: 11/23/92)
Wood leaves Ava alone on their anniversary to appear on a big-time network sports show.
Written by Victor Fresco | Directed by Burt Reynolds
One of the most memorable entries of the entire series, this installment really tasks Burt Reynolds with supplying some big, bold, physical comedy — the type of material that usually isn’t in his wheelhouse, forcing him to push out a performance that often feels somewhat false. In fact, I can’t say he’s perfect in this outing either (as he has to pretend that he’s high on pain pills)… but he’s agreeable and does an admirable job, earning his laughs in a story that works well for his character and thus is exceptional, essentially putting Wood in a conflict where he’s asked to choose between his personal and professional worlds (as so many MTM or MTM-adjacent work/home sitcoms were designed) — his wife’s feelings and a big career opportunity. In this regard, it’s not just a noble use of Wood, it’s also an affirmative display of the series’ original premise and its basic structure, which gets diluted in the latter half of the run, as the series skews more to its learned strengths: the communal ensemble surrounding Wood, not necessarily zeroed in on him at his home or at his work… That said, if this is an atypical showing for Season Three in subject and construction, it’s comedically as broad and gimmicky as the year’s baseline — with Terry Bradshaw and Greg Gumbel guesting as themselves — and I’m therefore comfortable selecting it to represent this list as my MVE (Most Valuable Episode).
04) Episode 60: “The Really Odd Couple” (Aired: 12/07/92)
Herman moves in with Freida, who proves to be an impossible roommate.
Written by David Nichols | Directed by James Hampton
If there’s any other outing on this list that could sincerely be competitive MVE fodder, it would be this fun excursion that pairs two of the ensemble’s funniest cast members together, strengthening a dynamic that will persist for the rest of the series (and indeed yield a few more excellent selections). For in introducing the idea that Freida and Herman — two very different people — will now be roommates, the possibilities for comic conflict seem endless, and this opening affair really indulges our expectations in all the best ways, courtesy of their brilliant performances (this was the other segment for which Michael Jeter earned his nomination), and a script that maximizes all the jokes it can, taking advantage of the fact that these are already rich characters who, when juxtaposed, get inherently emphasized. Now… given that this series is technically supposed to be centered around Wood, I wouldn’t want Evening Shade to overuse the Freida/Herman relationship, but honestly? I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it either, for this is situation comedy. And on a Linda Bloodworth-Thomason series, that can be a rarity.
05) Episode 62: “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (Aired: 12/21/92)
Wood and Herman suffer car trouble trying to get home on Christmas Eve.
Written by Thom Bray & Michael A. Ross | Directed by Burt Reynolds
There’s a bit of an emotionally overindulgent and predictably sentimental quality to this holiday episode — typical of sitcom-related Christmas stories, not to mention some of the regular stuff produced here in Season Three of Evening Shade, incidentally — but I’m able to bump it up from the Honorable Mentions because of its hysterically funny centerpiece where Merleen enacts her Brazilian Christmas play (“Beat My Ox”) for the shocked ensemble. It’s absolutely riotous — among the funniest scenes of the entire series — and showcases Ann Wedgeworth, one of this series’ top-drawer talents, divinely. (The Bob Newhart Show’s Jack Riley appears.)
06) Episode 63: “Freida And The Preacher” (Aired: 01/04/93)
Freida falls for a man who turns out to be a preacher.
Written by James Hampton | Directed by James Hampton
Elizabeth Ashley’s Freida is the focus of this offering, which also makes time for more of her growing dynamic with Herman, now that they’re roommates — the scene at their house is, unsurprisingly, the comedic highlight of the half hour — and, as with most Freida-heavy shows, her portrayer’s high energy and well-defined comic persona ensure that the requisite number of laughs are delivered… even as this outing is also concerned with granting her some more emotional depth as well. To wit, while it’s not totally driven by Freida’s own choices, I can appreciate its sensitivity, and again, I wouldn’t have minded this turning into an arc from which the series could have received more narrative mileage. (Robert Urich guests.)
07) Episode 65: “Ava Takes A Shower (I)” (Aired: 02/01/93)
Ava proves to be controlling when planning Fontana’s baby shower.
Written by Victor Fresco & Don Rhymer | Directed by Burt Reynolds
I’m of two minds about this two-parter, which seems designed to gaudily show off Reba McEntire, as Part II culminates, naturally, in a musical performance. Usually I love Reba, but I hate everything about her usage in this entry, because not only is it a stunt outside of the series’ usual “situation,” I also don’t believe her presence is well-motivated — specifically, I don’t believe that Ava would even try to book Reba for Fontana’s baby shower and then act so desperate in trying to persuade her. I just can’t take that leap. But, then again, I’m not sure I buy Ava being so aggressively controlling about this shower in the first place — not because it’s illogical, but because we haven’t really seen this side of her, and without continuity to support it, it’s hard to accept…. However, I also view this as the start of an attempt to make her character more comedically utilizable, finding qualities that can be exaggerated for laughs and conflict, and although it never fully works, I respect the goal and this effort… As for Part I, I’m mostly highlighting it for the opening scene with all the women at the hair salon, which hosts several great must-include moments — the reason I’m featuring it on this list.
08) Episode 69: “She What?!” (Aired: 03/01/93)
Taylor teams up with another jilted ex when his girlfriend elopes with somebody else.
Written by Thom Bray & Michael A. Ross | Directed by James Hampton
Leah Remini, who was cast in the unsold Harlan & Merleen pilot (in a different role), debuts here as Taylor’s new love interest, after both of their mates run off and elope (just as he had once done with Aimee back in Season Two). Remini is a huge burst of energy (as The King Of Queens proves), and though the plotting of this inevitable coupling is so predictable that it’s not funny, her performance and her chemistry with Jay R. Ferguson elevate this half hour and make it memorable against the rest of Three’s baseline. Sadly, her character, Daisy, only appears in three segments, but because she’s so different from everyone else in Evening Shade, she leaves an impression. (Fred Applegate, Ari Meyers, and Frank Bonner also guest.)
09) Episode 70: “Another Baby Show” (Aired: 03/15/93)
Friends and family gather as Fontana goes into labor.
Teleplay by Thom Bray & Michael A. Ross | Story by David Nichols | Directed by James Hampton
This is another traditional and fairly formulaic half hour, as Fontana goes into labor — climaxing an arc that had inspired a few stories here in Three — and while I don’t think it comes close to being an exceptional sample of Evening Shade as a situation comedy (because it’s an unoriginal idea-led story), it’s significantly more enjoyable than Ava’s birth show from Season One, for this script isn’t oversaturated with forced emotion, instead prioritizing laughs. That is largely because this offering makes great use of its comic ensemble, which has grown to become the most fruitful aspect of this series’ design. Also, Pat Carroll returns as the brusque nurse from last season — some welcome continuity that adds to this outing’s believability and charm.
10) Episode 72: “Mommy Goes AWOL” (Aired: 04/12/93)
Fontana struggles with both motherhood and finding a new career.
Written by Victor Fresco | Directed by James Hampton
A rare Fontana-focused episode that isn’t about her being a stripper, this installment explores her new situation now that she and Hal Holbrook’s Evan have a baby, as she adjusts to life as a mother and finds herself frustrated by the fact that her child seems more at ease with him than her. It’s a fairly banal idea, but a logical extension of her arc, and it’s paired with another of the season’s funniest scenes, as her attempt to start a new career includes her testing a hair product on mother Merleen, only for Merleen to have an incredibly loud and unpleasant reaction — another funny bit for Ann Wedgeworth, who, again, helps bump this entry up from the Honorable Mentions, adding value to a segment that is otherwise worthwhile only for the believable dimension afforded to the heretofore simplistic Fontana.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Father-Child Campout,” which has a contrived setup but a few fine beats once that’s established, “The Hole Story,” which claims a ridiculous but memorable idea where Nub thinks a hole in Evan’s wall looks like Abraham Lincoln, and “Teaching Is A Good Thing,” which mines yuks from placing Wood in a classroom with young kids but has a (rare) unfunny Herman subplot, along with two Reynolds-centric entries that flatter the series’ design, “The Resurrection Of Wood Newton,” which is not comedically competitive, and “Bring Me The Head Of Carl The Mule,” which is more comedically competitive, but with an unideal “schmuck bait” story. Also of note are two gaudy guest star outings — “Cousins Behind Bars,” an idea-led offering where Billy Bob Thornton returns and Wood winds up in jail (and court), and “Saint Bobby,” where Bobby Bowden appears as himself and distracts from the Wood/Taylor material that I wish took more focus. Oh, and I suppose I enjoy the climactic Harlan/Merleen gag at the end of “The Diary Of Molly Newton” too. (Lastly, I’m sorry — I can’t highlight either half of the series’ self-conscious tribute to the Civil Rights Movement. It grants some emotional history to Ossie Davis’ Ponder and boasts a guest turn by the Emmy-nominated Ruby Dee, but its script ignores both the genre’s humor requirement and our need for more specific situation-based support.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Evening Shade goes to…
“The NFL On CBS”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!