Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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, ALICE GHOSTLEY, and LINDA GEHRINGER.
Evening Shade’s fourth and final season starts out strong, with several memorably comic entries that make solid use of the characters. However, that initial success quickly fades, as the series’ idea-led nature takes over and indulges more gimmicks and ostentatious narratives, with less support than ever from the leads. We’re talking shameless guest stints, random set pieces built on unoriginal sight gags, and familiar stories that have absolutely nothing to do with these regulars. It’s tacky fare that reveals the style typically inherent to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason sitcoms at their most unideal, and even though she herself is less involved now, her emissaries have successfully replicated that ethos… with this series’ MTM-ordained, character-prioritizing structure unable to temper their impulses, especially as the season limps to its end. As such, this is the weakest year, despite having a handful of fine episodes and some positive developments — for instance, Taylor goes to college and scripts that highlight his relationship with Wood (in particular) are basically character-rooted, while there’s more of Charlie Dell’s Nub and Alice Ghostley’s Irna, both of whom are delightful recurring presences that serve to remind us just how much this series’ “community” ensemble is its primary asset. Also, a mid-season attempt to tweak the lead’s situation and invite new, fresh stories finds Wood being elected Evening Shade’s mayor. It doesn’t actually yield the desired results, but it’s a smart idea, for it opens the figurative door to more community showcases while keeping its star centralized. In fact, if the back half of Four wasn’t so uninspired and gimmick-heavy, I think this pivot could have rejuvenated the series going into another year. So, this season’s failure to seize upon its own opportunity is disheartening, for although Evening Shade has never been a great sitcom, it’s always been easy to watch, and heck, this list is no worse than the previous. But the excluded efforts just get so unimpressive — so disconnected from these leads, who should be inspiring everything — that its quiet demise (cancelled unceremoniously alongside a variety of half-hearted explanations) feels merciful. The series simply didn’t, or couldn’t, trust its characters enough.
01) Episode 76: “Four Naked Women” (Aired: 09/20/93)
After the women play a prank on the men, the men respond in kind.
Written by Victor Fresco | Directed by Harry Thomason
Calling back to the second season premiere where the women left the men stranded naked in the woods, Four opens on another prank war that begins innocently with face paint but culminates in the men locking out the women while they’re wearing Fontana’s old embarrassing stripper costumes. Once again, this is a fundamentally idea-led, gimmicky notion, but I actually think this script is better supported — than its second season predecessor — by the series’ established elements. That is, not only are the motivating exchanges between these leads richer now, but also, the whole incorporation of costumes from Fontana’s past means this plot is using a known aspect of her character to inspire its comic hook, therefore making its conception more unique to Evening Shade. In fact, although “Three Naked Men” may be more important to the series’ legacy, “Four Naked Women” is the finer example of sitcommery. (Incidentally, Alice Ghostley’s Irna appears, and of note, Herman spends the half hour with black paint on his face — it’s literally-but-not-figuratively blackface, which is why it’s uncomfortably funny.)
02) Episode 77: “One Down, Three To Go” (Aired: 09/27/93)
The Newtons adjust to Taylor having moved out.
Written by James Hampton | Directed by Burt Reynolds
As noted above, Taylor has moved out and gone to college, and there are several entries here that benefit from the genuine exploration of this development — the successful ones directly involving his relationship with Wood, as these are two characters who were distinctly designed for opposition, thereby emphasizing their personas. Now, I can’t claim this is a great script — the Wood/Ava fight is forced (as is a lot of Ava’s stuff this year, which tries to make her more utilizable by depicting her as broader, more reactive) — but I appreciate the A-story, and there’s fun in the Harlan/Merleen subplot too, when Carol Burnett has a cameo as herself. Yes, it’s a stunt, but her phone call with Harlan is hilarious and the setup, via Merleen, helps earn it.
03) Episode 78: “One Hot Game” (Aired: 10/04/93)
Wood is locked in a sauna with Freida while his football team has a good game.
Written by Victor Fresco | Directed by Burt Reynolds
A common sitcom trope is deployed in this installment as Wood and Freida find themselves trapped in the sauna together. But we forgive this lack of originality because the lead is paired with one of this ensemble’s funniest players — someone with whom he has a unique relationship — and the story, of Wood missing the game where his team is actually going to win, is a lot of fun, given the continuity that’s been established regarding their terrible track record. Also, it’s an innately comic idea, especially when Herman is forced to step up to the figurative plate. So, there’s a lot of good character and situation-based value in this one-of-a-kind offering. (And I didn’t even mention the enjoyment of Merleen announcing the game!)
04) Episode 80: “Kiss Of The Ice Cream Woman” (Aired: 10/18/93)
Both Herman and his girlfriend Margaret reveal that they’ve been unfaithful.
Written by Craig Hoffman | Directed by Burt Reynolds
This outing separates Herman from his regular girlfriend Margaret (Ann Hearn, in her farewell appearance), as both have been unfaithful to each other — but it’s got a fun plotting where Herman prepares to confess his infidelity, only for Margaret to beat him to the punch by confessing hers, leaving Wood to later reveal Herman’s betrayal unintentionally. Then, as with many samples this season, the script splits the men and women into two groups and gets a lot of mileage from their bouncing off each other within their respective dynamics, where the strongest characterizations shine. But, ultimately, this one’s a winner because it’s centered on the naturally funny and well-defined Herman, whose relationship with Margaret has been winning fodder in several prior episodes — a genuine use of “situation” for story, rendered comedically.
05) Episode 83: “Wood And Evan’s Excellent Adventure” (Aired: 11/08/93)
When Nub is out sick, other members of the community must take over his many daily chores.
Written by Kim Friese | Directed by Robby Benson
Season Four boasts a lot more direct use of the peripheral Nub (Charlie Dell), who’s been around since the series’ premiere but actually gets to participate more often in story this year (including in a few later entries where he seems to be filling in for a minimized Herman), and this half hour is one of his best, as Nub falls ill and the rest of the town learns just how essential he is to Evening Shade’s daily operations — when they must take on his many chores. This is a great, simple setup for a solid ensemble-led “community” show, but the highlight has Wood and Evan finishing Nub’s paper route, giving Burt Reynolds and Hal Holbrook some fine, believable, and gently comic scenes that play on their characters’ established relationship.
06) Episode 85: “Where There’s Smoke” (Aired: 11/22/93)
Herman and Freida share an unexpected kiss as he tries to help her quit smoking.
Written by Craig Hoffman | Directed by Robby Benson
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Where There’s Smoke” is a companion to the previous year’s “The Really Odd Couple,” in which two of the best-defined members of the ensemble — Herman and Freida — became roommates. That was one of Season Three’s funniest offerings, and this excursion, also focused on them, is even better, marrying Herman’s new single status, based on his current “situation,” to Freida’s manic withdrawals as she tries to quit smoking — one of the most visible running gags for her character. The fun starts when Merleen attempts to pair Herman up with a friend, only for the woman to turn out to be a lesbian who thinks she’s there to meet Ava. It works not because of the comic idea itself, but because it’s a reinforcement of Merleen’s lack of social awareness, which is rooted in her character and makes the whole set piece worthwhile. Then there’s the big Herman/Freida scene where he tries to wrestle a cigarette away from her and they kiss — a rare bit of physical comedy for Evening Shade that both actors do well because they’re so committed to their high energy characterizations. And then there’s an appropriate final act, which also includes Alice Ghostley as Irna Wallingford — one of the peripheral members of the town who appears more this year, in evidence of just how helpful the community of Evening Shade can be to the cultivation, or even enrichment, of story. So, by spotlighting two of the show’s most dynamic leads, with many hilarious character moments that flatter the show and its existence as a situation comedy, this one is tops, and certainly above the Season Four baseline.
07) Episode 86: “Chain Of Fools” (Aired: 11/29/93)
The group helps Ponder shoot a commercial to advertise against a new rival restaurant.
Written by Victor Fresco | Directed by Robby Benson
In addition to the naturally amusing subplot of little Herman dating a much taller woman, this installment employs another familiar sitcom idea — the home movie/commercial — as the core cast gets together to help Ponder produce a video advertisement for his restaurant, which now has some major competition. It’s not a great narrative foundation, frankly, and I think the climax — the produced commercial — is largely a collection of gags, rather than a tribute to the characters and how they interact. But this entry does use the ensemble as a collective well, and because the commercial is Taylor’s brainchild, I appreciate the centerpiece as a reflection of his known persona. In that regard, I consider this as something of a showcase for his characterization, and that’s how I’m able to enjoy this otherwise middling effort.
08) Episode 89: “The People’s Choice” (Aired: 01/03/94)
Harlan competes against Irna for mayor of Evening Shade.
Written by Thom Bray & Michael A. Ross | Directed by Robby Benson
As discussed, this is the point in the season where Evening Shade decides to add another wrinkle to the series’ situation by electing Wood mayor of the town — an interesting development that should encourage more plots about the community at large, where the ensemble and all its peripheral players could theoretically shine. And since the ensemble is this show’s most important and results-yielding feature, any move that brings it more naturally to the attention of its weekly stories — and in a framework that still keeps the intended star centralized — is a smart decision that should be praised. Unfortunately, the series never really takes advantage of the opportunities this move offers, opting instead for too many episodic gimmicks in the last half of the year, as the storytelling runs out of steam. As for this segment, the mechanics of getting Wood the mayorship are a bit contrived, but the fun of Charles Durning’s Harlan going up against Alice Ghostley’s Irna is incredibly potent, for they are two reliably funny citizens of Evening Shade who honor our understanding of the cast as a singularly excellent entity.
09) Episode 91: “Paint The Town Nude” (Aired: 01/17/94)
Merleen takes up painting — and her chosen subject is nude renditions of the townspeople.
Written by Danny Zuker | Directed by Charles Frank
I’ve always considered Ann Wedgeworth to be one of the unsung heroes of this cast, for while obvious talents like Michael Jeter, Elizabeth Ashley, and Charles Durning are often singled out by fans (perhaps because they had Emmy nominations to their names as well), Wedgeworth proves herself to be just as reliable at procuring laughs, courtesy of a dizzy persona that is unlike anyone else’s here — and so capable of both evoking guffaws and conflict. This is one of the few installments expressly tailored for Merleen, and it’s a winner because of her strong supporting characterization, as she takes up painting, with her favorite subject being human nudes… of all her friends in the town. Okay, it’s another silly, idea-led basis for a story, but it makes sense for Merleen, and all the reactions to her work by the townsfolk affirm the richness of the ensemble, individually and collectively. Funny! (Troy Evans appears.)
10) Episode 100: “The Odder Couple” (Aired: 05/16/94)
Wood temporarily moves in with Taylor to avoid a chicken pox outbreak.
Written by Leslie Rieder | Directed by Sheldon Epps
In the series’ penultimate episode — the last one produced — Taylor’s bond with his parents is again addressed when Wood temporarily moves in with his collegiate son to avoid catching the chicken pox back at home. This grants the series another chance to explore one of its main lead’s most interesting relationships, and while I don’t think this script fully maximizes that opportunity, their smart dynamic is evident here as a grounding foundation for its core focus: the inevitable climax of Taylor walking in on his parents having sex in his dorm. It’s trite but memorably funny, and it’s at least dealing with interactions between regulars — unlike so many of the final scripts produced in Four that are more busy with ostentatious, idea-led gimmickry.
Another notable episode that merits mention is “Mr. Newton Goes To Hot Springs,” which has one memorable centerpiece where Wood and Herman are in a mud bath, but it’s mostly worth citing because it’s one of the few where Wood’s recent election as mayor is relevant to the action. That’s the installment closest to the above list. Additionally, there are a lot of bold outings that I’ll reference, even though I don’t think they’re great — “Witness For The Prosecution,” which has a contrived court scene but nevertheless tries to create conflict between two leads (Harlan and Ava), “Small Town Girl,” which guest stars Raquel Welch (a stunt!), “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Wood,” which guest stars Leslie Nielsen in a shamelessly dumb story that’s merely an excuse to make the men do ridiculous things, divorced of their own characterizations, “Wood Climbs To New Heights,” where Wood and Nub get to perform some physical comedy (an instance of Nub taking on a Herman-like role), “The Proof Is In The Pudding,” which is essentially just a string of gimmicky gags and story-driven set pieces, and “The Fabulous Frazier Girls,” which is a gaudy show built for guests K.T. Oslin and Tammy Wynette, but also includes the delicious comic notion (introduced back in Season One) of Merleen’s terrible singing. (Also, no, I’m not highlighting the entry where Ponder dates a transwoman played by Diahann Carroll. It’s not funny, original, or motivated by the leads.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Evening Shade goes to…
“Where There’s Smoke”
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!