Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our look at the best of Wings (1990-1997, NBC), one of the Peacock Network’s long-running ’90s comedies and an early entry in Thursday’s official Must See TV line-up. The entire series is available on DVD.
Two brothers operate a small airline in Nantucket. Wings stars TIMOTHY DALY as Joe Hackett, STEVEN WEBER as Brian Hackett, CRYSTAL BERNARD as Helen Chapel, THOMAS HADEN CHURCH as Lowell Mather, DAVID SCHRAMM as Roy Biggins, REBECCA SCHULL as Fay Cochran, TONY SHALHOUB as Antonio Scarpacci, and AMY YASBECK as Casey Davenport.
I’ve mentioned Season Six at least twice before here – once when discussing how the year sat in between Wings’ middle era and its final era, and once when mentioning that there was one season following the back half of Three that could rival that period for being considered the series’ finest showing. In this week’s post, I want to explore both of these notions in greater depth. Just like Season Three, this year is firmly situated between two distinct moments in the show’s life: the middle era that absolutely consists of Seasons Four and Five, which contend with Alex and some clunky narrative-based relationship constructs, and the final era (Seasons Seven and Eight), in which Joe and Helen are married and Lowell has left the building… Now, when describing those two periods as such, you’ll note that Season Six is not like either; Alex is gone, the show is now laugh-focused, Joe and Helen aren’t yet wed, and Lowell’s still around. In this regard, Season Six is very liminal – but not in the same way we saw with Three, which moved away from its predecessor and became more like its successor over the course of the year… No, Season Six is constantly in the middle of Five and Seven, a position ensured by both its assembly of scribes and its unique ensemble construction. To the first point, Season Six’s crew looks a lot like Five’s on paper – no one from the prior year left, but there are a few new additions: the funny duo of Ellen Byron and Lissa Kapstrom (Flying Blind, Still Standing, Just Shoot Me!), along with Michael Sardo (Caroline In The City), all three of whom remain on board until the series finale. However, there’s a big change in control. Prior showrunner David Hackel dropped down to a Creative Consultant, offered no scripts, and handed over his responsibilities – not to a veteran like Steven Levitan, who would leave after this season (as did regular contributor David Lloyd) – but to Season Five’s two funniest additions, Mark Reisman and Howard Gewirtz, these final years’ showrunners (with upcoming help from Ian Gurvitz).
As mentioned above and before, the crew that emerges here, led by Reisman and Gewirtz, isn’t as sharp, focused, or strong for character development as the team that anchored Seasons Three and Four. Rather, their combined goals seem to be set on keeping and elevating the show’s humor – and indeed, one of the elements that marks these final years, making Six comparable to Seven, is the palpable boldness with which the show now crafts its comedy. It’s the classic case of greater risks equaling greater rewards — although not consistently. In fact, many fans actually separate Six from the two years following because the risks continue to increase, but without a similar rise in the yielded merits… Season Six’s rate of success, in contrast, is better (even though we’re not quite back in the Golden Age of late Season Three, where everything worked)… So, while staffers Lloyd and Levitan tie Six to Five, the new additions and the new showrunners connect Six to Seven, leaving this year in a transitional gray area. Meanwhile, Season Six’s cast is similarly in an era of transition. The year still has Haden Church’s Lowell and thus looks different from the upcoming two. But, again, there are also similarities. After Farrah Forke’s middling Alex was dropped, Wings decided that it still needed another strong supporting female, either as another love interest for Brian, or merely as comedic reinforcements for Helen (Crystal Bernard). Enter Helen’s sister, Casey (Amy Yasbeck), an entitled narcissist who moves back to Nantucket after her husband has stolen their money and abruptly vamoosed. Casey is well-defined from the jump – built with a clear persona, a source of comedy, and a natural integration into the ensemble. However, she tends to inspire mixed reactions in the fanbase, and I may actually surprise a few readers by noting that I think Casey/Yasbeck does grow to become a decent second banana, able to carry off some of the larger comedic centerpieces that Helen, while ensconced in a new narrative construct (matrimony), is less able to handle.
The key word is “grow,” for despite the initial sharp design of her character, Yasbeck takes at least a whole season to loosen up and become believable in a human and multi-dimensional way. In many of the episodes below, the actress tries too hard with thin, obvious material; it’s easy to dislike Casey because she represents larger issues we’ll have with the post-Hackel era. (More soon…) Fortunately, though, most of these scripts are funny enough to keep us laughing often. And if we’re kept laughing, we have less time to analyze and complain about either the relative greenness marring Casey’s portrayal or that the occasionally too-gaggy storytelling is more premise-dependent than character-driven. As always, the less character-motivated a story, the less likely we are to go along with its required leaps in logic… This leads us to the other main point that I’ve previously made – Season Six could be a candidate for the show’s finest. Okay, it’s not as consistent as the latter half of Three (there’s a dreadful two-parter in this year’s February sweeps), and it’s certainly not as character-wise (which is why that other brief period is still golden in my book). But this year’s liminality kind of gives audiences the best of both worlds. We have Reisman and Gewirtz… and Levitan and Lloyd. We have the always comedic Lowell… and the well-designed (albeit, development-needing) Casey…. Furthermore, Six gives the show a whole year of comedic superiority that isn’t bogged down by heavy narrative constructs… well, heavy narrative constructs that don’t work (like Alex and Davis). That is, there is a long-term narrative choice that makes Season Six unique: the reconciliation and engagement of Joe and Helen. But, Hallelujah, it clicks!… Now, you’ll remember that I cited the treatment of Joe/Helen as being one of the core handicaps that dogged those first few seasons. However, even though this year must begin by powering through the trite machinations that wrest Helen from Davis and then convince us that Joe and Helen have always loved each other, once we get there, this coupling actually seems logical and doesn’t negatively affect the year’s focus.
Thanks to the writers of Seasons Three and Four, who fleshed out all these characterizations (especially those on the ensemble’s upper-tier), we’re now able to connect with Helen and Joe’s individual humanity. This gives heightened credence to their history – both on the show and before it – and takes care of the motivation that their prior romance lacked. And by now, we’ve seen the two together and apart; we know them well enough to fill in the unseen gaps (what the series doesn’t show us) about why they behave the way they do. As a result, this pairing finally makes sense for the characters, the performers (both of whom have grown), and the show… Also, because Wings began with the objective of exploring this couple, Season Six is essentially atoning for past sins by finally setting things right — ‘cuz let’s face it: the pair’s Season Two relationship was a bust – and now it’s re-connecting with a part of the original thesis (and at a time of comedic elevation)… Additionally, their coupling works now because the year doesn’t merely depict the development with a myopic focus on the pair alone (as did Season Two); Season Six instead depicts their relationship within the context of the entire ensemble, giving opportunities for everyone to react and interact off this now more character-based story decision. In other words, the relationship is now serving the ensemble (and all its characters), instead of any pre-determined narrative concerns (the half-baked Cheers copycatting)… Sure, the impending wedding is a story hook that lasts the whole year and leads the duo into matrimony (my thoughts on which I’ll save for next time). But we go along with it now because the motivation is secured and the laughs, generally, make it worthwhile. Thus, Wings, now out of its Thursday slot and into NBC’s Tuesday line-up (with Frasier and The John Larroquette Show), has one of its best seasons yet. Will this maintain next year? No, but stay tuned, anyway… In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 100: “The Spark And How To Get It” (Aired: 10/11/94)
Brian and Antonio attempt to pick up dates at a bar.
Written by Howard Gewirtz | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
One of the year’s new EPs, Gewirtz, is credited with this, the series’ 100th episode, which concerns itself with exploring Brian, who’s single now for the first time since his pursuit of Alex in Season Four. Interestingly, although the prior two years were designed to develop his character (through the relationship arc) in particular, Brian’s liberation from the confines of a construct that didn’t completely work — due to some problems inherent to Alex (and Forke’s portrayal) — allows this to be one of the best episodes we’ve seen for him in a while… Adding to the comedy is Antonio, a player who’s always good for a few laughs, even if he’s getting less and less conducive to story-anchoring. And yes, the daydream is a gimmick, but the script’s humor sells it.
02) Episode 102: “Is That A Ten Foot Sandwich Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?” (Aired: 11/01/94)
Casey and Brian plan a surprise engagement party for Joe and Helen.
Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Jeff Melman
In my above seasonal commentary, I noted that one of the elements that helps guarantee the series’ successful utilization of the Helen/Joe relationship (really for the first time) is the way their coupling is allowed to affect and play inside the ensemble as a collective. I can think of no episode that illustrates this phenomenon better than this funny entry, the first one credited to the hilarious duo of Byron and Kapstrom (who’ve got all four of “their” scripts this year represented here in some way). The plot is hinged on the season’s engagement arc for its primary couple, but the installment’s comedy is based on the ensemble dynamics, particularly the emerging tension between Brian and Casey, which looks to perhaps eventually become sexual… Nevertheless, it’s the writing that makes the outing worthwhile, as wonderful beats, like the running “big sandwich” joke, conspire to turn the episode into a standout. Although a tough choice — “Nuptials Off” is strong competition — this is my pick for the year’s MVE.
03) Episode 104: “Miss Jenkins” (Aired: 11/15/94)
Brian has a relationship with his former teacher.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Further evidence of Brian now thriving as a more mature, evolved character (not to mention one that’s riper for comedy) when he’s free of the romantic shackles that the last two seasons imposed upon him, this installment that’s credited to funny new staffer Michael Sardo (who, incidentally, also has his name on the aforementioned MVE runner-up, featured below) is not only good for his character, but it also manages to work in the requisite number of laughs. The smart plot has Brian dating his former teacher (played by Peggy Lipton) — an easily comedic idea that makes good use of the history that all three members of the upper-tier ensemble, plus new regular Casey, share. Also, some viewers may be glad to see Soupy Sales make a cameo.
04) Episode 105: “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother” (Aired: 11/22/94)
Helen and Casey receive a visit from their mother.
Written by Joyce Gittlin and Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Jeff Melman
Debbie Reynolds, one of the show’s rare forays into stunt casting (which gives the gimmick a novelty-rooted pass), guest stars in this episode as Helen and Casey’s mother. There’s natural humor within Reynolds’ very presence, but to counteract the potentially overbearing self-awareness in accompaniment, the entry is also forced to pony up an enhanced emotional gravitas. The mother-daughter relationship, particularly for Helen, is a great way to give both players added depth and legitimize the whole entry. It’s actually commendable because of it. However, as a result, this isn’t the funniest episode of the year — even as the subplots, like Fay and Roy both professing their love for Barbra Streisand, attempt and mostly succeed at humor.
05) Episode 106: “The Wrong Stuff” (Aired: 11/29/94)
Sandpiper seeks a celebrity endorsement via an ex-astrounat.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
As usual, veteran and much beloved MTM legend David Lloyd (whose son Christopher wrote for Wings during its third and fourth seasons and was then, in ’94-’95, Frasier‘s Executive Producer) contributes two scripts for the year, constituting his final offerings for the series. I’m glad to be able to feature both here, including this one, which guest stars Robert Culp (TV lovers know him best from I Spy, while sitcom fanatics remember him on Everybody Loves Raymond) as an esteemed astronaut that the Hacketts seek out for an endorsement to boost their business. Unfortunately, they discover that his promotional capabilities are outweighed by his obnoxious personality — making for a solid episode with many fine moments and no missteps.
06) Episode 107: “Insanity Claus” (Aired: 12/13/94)
An air traffic controller holds the airport hostage.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Season Six’s contribution to Wings‘ roster of (mostly) classic Christmas offerings, this episode, featuring Dann Florek, is a well-liked gimmick-based entry with which I, admittedly, struggle. Fundamentally, I feel that the overused story beat of having sitcom regulars held up at gunpoint is a loud, and uncomedic, plot point that is rarely both believable and motivated by character. This script, credited to Gurvitz (who started in Season Four and would eventually join Reisman and Gewirtz as Executive Producers, even though he doesn’t have the same figurative batting average as those two), doesn’t allay my concerns. However, it does find laughs, while benefiting from the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. I like that it’s theatrical, tight.
07) Episode 111: “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” (Aired: 02/07/95)
Joe and Helen crash a wedding to research expenses.
Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Jeff Melman
Byron and Kapstrom’s second credited offering, this is one I seldom see listed by fans as being among their favorites. In accordance with this observation, I, too, wouldn’t cite it as being in the top half of this “ten best” list. And yet, these funny writers still manage to deliver the comedic goods — even in a perhaps goofy “wedding crashers” story, where the farce is half-realized (but nevertheless appreciated)… Furthermore, I think it’s another fine usage of this season’s main Joe/Helen arc; for despite what I wrote above about the series now being able to justify their pairing (and indeed benefiting from it), not all episodes centered around them (like Reisman’s two Helen/Joe entries) satisfy, as there’s a narrative tendency to push too hard.
08) Episode 118: “A House To Die For” (Aired: 05/02/95)
As Carlton Blanchard hovers close to death, Joe and Helen hope to buy his house.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Jeff Melman
Carlton Blanchard made his final appearance on the series in an entry highlighted as one of last year’s Honorable Mentions. But the character still hovers over this episode, as the obnoxious old man’s equally obnoxious nephew Lewis (played again by Gilbert Gottfried, whose character was introduced last season) reveals to the group that Carlton is close to death. Now Louis is looking to sell all of his soon-to-be-late uncle’s possessions — including the house itself, in which Joe and Helen, close to matrimony, are interested. As the last Wings script by David Lloyd, there’s a nice perverted darkness to the morbid premise of the regulars all eagerly awaiting Carlton’s demise, and with character-based laughs rooted in the series’ lore, it’s a classic. (Of course, fans of The Brady Bunch may like the episode for its kitschy parody of the popular series.)
09) Episode 119: “Nuptials Off” (Aired: 05/09/95)
Helen seeks to get a quick Mexican divorce from Antonio.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Jeff Melman
Farce becomes an added comedic tool in Wings‘ arsenal during its final few seasons. We’ll see more entries in this genre over the next two weeks, but Season Six makes its own unique contributions — like the aforementioned “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” the entry discussed below (“Here It Is: The Big Wedding”), and of course, this memorable outing. In what is very likely Season Six addition Michael Sardo’s funniest credited offering, the show digs deep within its own mythos — back into the Golden Age of Season Three — to create a story that stems from the hasty sham marriage between Helen and Antonio, which was done so the latter could get a green card. In this funny fast-paced installment, Helen tries to get down to Mexico for a quickie divorce without Joe knowing. As mentioned above, this was a top MVE contender.
10) Episode 122: “Here It Is: The Big Wedding” (Aired: 05/23/95)
Joe and Helen’s wedding day is beset with problems.
Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Jeff Melman
Ah, the knowingly big season finale to which the entire year has been building: the marriage of Wings‘ core couple, the finally motivated and well-drawn Helen and Joe. You may be surprised to see it here, for I tend to avoid such overblown narrative-driven outings (like last year’s finale and this year’s premiere) — especially when the network only magnifies its unnecessary bigness by pairing two episodes for air together in an hour-long block, of which this was the second half. But Byron and Kapstrom present another undeniably hilarious farce, in which everything that could go wrong does: Helen gets magic marker on her face, Brian loses the tuxedos, Joe gets his hand stuck down the toilet, and Casey and Brian secretly begin an affair. (It’s the kind of madcap lunacy that Frasier did all the time, and brilliantly; Wings does it well, but mostly because we’re just grateful for the bigger laughs.) Surprisingly fun for a big event.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Twisted Sister,” which introduces Casey and has a knowing teleplay that does a commendable job of establishing her character, but suffers from a few inartful story points and cringe-inducing comedic moments, “Fools Russian,” which is amusingly scripted, but is driven to distraction by its plot, and “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is the first half of the solid hour-long season finale, credited to Sardo and Landau. Also, Alex returns in “Ex, Lies, And Videotape,” giving closure to Brian and finally illustrating some of the growth her arc was always supposed to supply him.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Wings goes to…
“Is That A Ten Foot Sandwich
Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!