Two Sitcom Stars in Search of a Third Hit: A Look at GEORGE & LEO

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! To complement our coverage on the best of Newhart (1982-1990, CBS), this entry examines Bob Newhart’s fourth situation comedy, George & Leo, which ran for 22 episodes during the 1997-1998 season on CBS. (Remember, we already covered his third sitcom, 1992’s Bob, back in 2015. It was Newhart’s first failure in the genre — not even Betty White, plopped in from the axed The Golden Palace, highlighted here in 2016, could save it.) Created by Cheers scribes Dan Staley and Rob Long, George & Leo paired the aforementioned comedian, courted back to series television by Les Moonves himself, with consummate actor Judd Hirsch, whose work we celebrated during 2015’s coverage of Taxi (1978-1982, ABC; 1982-1983, NBC) and who had also enjoyed a four-year stint on Dear John (1988-1992, NBC). This duo, each with two sitcom hits behind them, would now play oppositional in-laws to their two wedded, expectant children. Newhart was George Stoody, a buttoned-up bookstore owner and widower on Martha’s Vineyard. Judd Hirsch was Leo Wagonman, a wild mafia man and absentee father who re-enters his daughter’s life and moves into the upstairs room of George’s bookstore. Cue The Odd Couple theme music.

Okay. The concept was familiar: parallels with The Odd Couple (1970-1975, ABC), itself a riff on the basic clash of opposites, were obvious, while the premise invoked memories of The In-Laws, or for TV viewers, The Mothers-In-Law (1967-1969, NBC), which we covered here back in 2014 (along with The Odd Couple). Only this time, the men were the stars and there were no wives. So, as in most series, George & Leo‘s originality would have to come solely from its characters — particularly George and Leo, played by two talented, well-liked stars. Thus, ever since the series’ cancellation, it’s been common to blame the chemistry between George and Leo, or more accurately, Newhart and Hirsch, for the show’s single-season status. Two big stars with different rhythms — lots of ego, energy, and tension, right? Well, not really. I mean, yes, despite both actors possessing a mutual humanity inspired from work in the MTM machine (or on MTM descendants), they are very different. But even if they operate at different speeds — Hirsch and his world moves faster than Newhart’s — they’re both solid reactors who anchored loony ensembles. In this show, however, Hirsch is forced to tap into his higher octane energy and be more active than his reactive co-star, as Hirsch, for the first time in his sitcom career, is playing the nuisance. (In fact, when Newhart first read the script, he remembers thinking Leo was the better part. Yet, this is as much a fallacy as the “no chemistry” complaint, for the show very clearly structures Newhart’s George as its center, and leans upon his persona for most of the relatability, which would be harder to motivate through the more caricatured depiction of Leo. Hirsch therefore had the more difficult job because he had to create a likable, believable characterization out of a rather archetypal irritant. George is human; Leo had to become one.)

However, I find that their chemistry is not the problem — if they don’t gel as an Abbott and Costello (or even a Klugman and Randall), the premise justifies the awkward mismatch. Also, their respective talent compensates for individual characterization shortcomings and ensures that their scenes, at least, play well. The most obvious issue, just as we saw with The Mothers-In-Law (and in another “clash of cultures” family show, Bridget Loves Bernie), is the narrative contrivance that links the pair together: the kids. Now, to George & Leo‘s credit (and let’s also give Staley and Long, two fine writers, their due), the show did manage to cultivate George’s son, Ted, into a viable, comedic character. The first positive move the series made was casting Jason Bateman, who stepped into the role after the pilot had already been shot with a different actor. Bateman is able to take a thin, story-driven characterization on the page and turn it into a goofy try-hard foil for Newhart and a fine purveyor of laughs in his own right. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife Casey, Leo’s daughter, is a different story. Played for the first seven episodes by Bess Meyer, and then replaced for the last 14 by Robyn Lively, this character has no character. The initial tension she shares with her returning father is never capitalized upon for worthwhile comedy (or drama) and the premise-ordained pregnancy doesn’t give us insight into her character. (In fact, it’s a distraction, for in this otherwise realistic show, Casey spends the first 18 episodes looking like she’s in her third trimester.) She’s never well-defined, and this hinders the series, for Newhart and Hirsch both need more off of which to play.

But there’s a larger problem here, because while Casey fails to serve George and Leo, in whom the show has told us to put our faith, there’s very little else on which these scripts can count. While Bateman’s Ted is usually sequestered off in stories with the wife, the only other regular is George’s employee at the store, Ambrose (Darryl Theirse), whose blackness forms about 98% of his characterization — no depth, no story, few laughs. (For the last four episodes, the show even adds SNL’s Julia Sweeney as a regular — the kids’ new nanny — but she’s the equivalent of Bob‘s Betty White, and doesn’t do anything but emphasize how desperate the series is for a lift.) Meanwhile, the show does an adequate job of supplying peripheral recurring presences — Paul Willson as an inept cop, Dave Coulier as a new-age clergyman, Alexandra Lee as a perky housekeeper — yet they’re never around long enough to elevate the stories or their tellings. As a result, their appeal is episodically constructed, and the show itself remains wanting for a dynamic ensemble to serve its two leads — you know, the kind they each had in both of their prior hits. Instead, the scripts are forced to rely on gimmicks, like flashy stories or promotable guest stars. These 22 episodes alone see appearances from Angie Dickinson, Dinah Manoff, Joanna Gleason, and Robert Goulet, while there’s one entire installment built around the shameless wink-laden incorporation of nearly 20 special guest stars from both Newhart’s and Hirsch’s past two shows (for Sweeps, of course.) I could write paragraphs on how awful this episode is and why it’s counterintuitive to success, but it should go without saying.

Now, in spite of George & Leo‘s continued utilization of stories and hooks that are not motivated or terribly concerned with character (all of which is the result of a poorly conceived ensemble dynamic), the scripts themselves are ably written, with regular comedic opportunities for the two stars — particularly Newhart, who gives, I think, some of the best work we’ve seen from him since the Wyman/Mirkin peak-comedy days of Newhart. Also, as I’ll reiterate, there really is no issue with the interplay between Newhart and Hirsch or the material afforded to them specifically. The problem is what surrounds them and how they’re not benefited by the series’ construction… And yet, because the stars are in fine form and the scripts show promise, George & Leo remains a watchable and intermittently enjoyable show. In fact, critics were fairly consistent in their praise for its smarts, predicting that, as part of CBS’ Monday line-up (which initially included Cosby, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Cybill), George & Leo would be one of the new season’s best. It’s easy to see why; unlike most of the highly touted comedies of the mid-’90s, this wasn’t a variation on the “singles in the city” theme. It was similarly low-concept, but didn’t fit the trend, which even by ’97, made it refreshing. The problem, as always, was viewership — not totals, but demographics. Its poor key demo performance, plus the weekly expense of having two big names, ensured that while a full season was doable, a second wasn’t. And by the end of the year, all the promise that existed initially with the stars and the scripts had evaporated — George & Leo never got better, just more frenzied.

However, if you love the stars, you can find a way to enjoy the show. Having seen all 22 episodes, I’m able to share a list of favorites — seven. As usual, they are in airing order.

 

01) Episode 2: “The Wedding” (Aired: 09/22/97)

George panics when Casey calls off the wedding.

Written by Bob Sand | Directed by Pamela Fryman

The sophomore entry picks up exactly where the first finished and almost seems like the intended second-half of the pilot. While most critics found the premiere among the series’ best, I think this follow-up is funnier and has more room for character — less bound by exposition.

02) Episode 3: “The Bribe” (Aired: 09/29/97)

George follows Leo’s advice and gets arrested.

Written by Betsy Borns | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie

Although I think sitcom regulars landing in jail is a bit of a storytelling gimmick that’s overused and not necessarily character-related, I find this installment to be a comedic improvement over the prior two outings and a better showcase for the dynamic between Hirsch and Newhart.

03) Episode 5: “The Job” (Aired: 10/13/97)

Leo gets a job in order to make a trust fund for the baby.

Written by Drew Vaupen & Phil Baker | Directed by Pamela Fryman

This part of the series’ run is the time in which it shows the most promise — we’ve moved beyond the pilot and are starting to explore the relationships, particularly between the two leads. Laughs are increasing and we’re not yet subject to the many gimmicks seen later.

04) Episode 12: “The Smokers” (Aired: 12/08/97)

George and Leo try to quit smoking.

Written by Reid Harrison | Directed by Michael Lessac

A testament to the fine work of the performers, particularly Newhart, I consider this offering’s inclusion on this list to be more a result of the performances than anything within the text, which establishes this episode as basically a Victory in Premise. But, hey, there are laughs.

05) Episode 13: “The Eggnog” (Aired: 12/15/97)

George’s eggnog gets spiked during his historical homes tour.

Written by Aaron Shure | Directed by James Burrows

Without a doubt, this is the funniest episode of the entire season. Now, of course, it’s also a lazy “get Bob Newhart to act drunk” premise, the kind we saw utilized much better in a classic and more original episode of his ’70s series (and then again on Newhart in its third season). But the laughs are big and the script makes good use of its ensemble of peripheral characters.

06) Episode 15: “The Nine Wives Of Leo Wagonman” (Aired: 01/12/98)

Leo summons all nine of his ex-wives after a health scare.

Written by Bob Sand | Directed by Michael Lessac

A good entry for Hirsch, this outing can be regarded as another Victory in Premise, for the idea of gathering together all of Leo’s legendary ex-wives (a running joke that seems extreme and consequently makes us doubt his truth) is amusing. Even better? He gets needed depth.

07) Episode 16: “The Teacher” (Aired: 01/19/98)

Leo goes back to school and George romances the teacher.

Written by Aaron Shure | Directed by Peter Baldwin

Narratively, this is my favorite of the entire run, for the entry unites the character-motivated story of Leo going back to school with George’s crush on Leo’s teacher, played by the always present Joanna Gleason. The plot integrates these threads and the teleplay makes them funnier.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Baby-Care Class,” which has a contrived premise but some memorable laughs, “The Housekeeper,” in which the show tries a Three’s Company inspired misunderstanding, “The Thanksgiving Show,” an adequate ensemble entry (that tries focus on Ted), and “The Other Bookstore,” with Dinah Manoff.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for the start of Wings!

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