Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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 Hackett, DAVID SCHRAMM as Roy Biggins, REBECCA SCHULL as Fay Cochran, TONY SHALHOUB as Antonio Scarpacci, and AMY YASBECK as Casey Davenport.
When discussing Wings, it’s common to lump its final two seasons together into one single narrative unit. That’s understandable; they’re united under the same ensembles (no Lowell; plenty of Casey), the same structural imposition (Joe and Helen now in wedded “bliss”), and the same writing style and staff (there are no changes between this year and the last, except that Ian Gurvitz, who was promoted mid-Seven to Executive Producer alongside Howard Gewirtz and Mark Reisman, now seems to have an elevated responsibility – penning both the premiere and the finale). Yet, there’s also a tendency to pair the two years’ quality – even I’ve been unable to avoid doing so — although this may misrepresent both seasons, for just as Six is better than Seven, Seven is better than Eight. To wit: last week I made it a point to note how relatively easy it was to make a full list of ten outings in a post covering that year’s best, for Seven’s episodic success rate was comparable to the solid middle seasons’. This did require a reduction in our standards of excellence – tied to the shifting objectives heralded by the current writing regime (i.e. laugh-seeking, broader stories that can subordinate character) – but the season was still able to produce satisfying excursions that played well on the year’s new terms, seldom asking episodically for more than the audience should have been braced to accept generally within this new era. In other words, the episodes reinforced that year’s overall weaker quality (yielding a bit too much mediocrity for my tough tastes, while also dismantling the fine construction of the singular ensemble), but did so while simultaneously reflecting what was good about these different aesthetics – the laughs, the bolstered usage of Casey, the thesis-inspired evolution of the Helen/Joe dynamic – and seldom dropping below what the year considered its average.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to be as complimentary about Season Eight… Oh, sure, all of the above similarities between Seven and Eight are true – the ensemble looks the same, the narrative particulars persist (although Brian and Casey finally get their own place in the year’s final third), and the same writers imbue their scripts with the same alternatively commendable and condemnable carriage. But while Seven regularly found excellence on its own terms, Eight has a much harder time – demanding routine rejections of logic and common sense, dismissals of the show’s long-built understanding of its characters, and constant excusals from our inherent resolve to refuse poorly motivated gimmicks. As is often the case with comedies that get so narratively and humorously big that they, essentially, push away their audience, Wings’ eighth season asks for more without delivering more. That is, we don’t leap as often now because the other side is no longer worth the jump. We’ve become less tolerant of the relative failures because Wings fails more often; there’s still a lot of mediocrity, but too many bombs and an even fewer number of classics. Sadly, not since the troubled days of Season Two, when the show was monopolized by an unmotivated relationship between two (defined, but unpracticed and nary comedic) characters, has a year been so disappointing… and interestingly, I think some of Eight’s biggest issues serve as callbacks, if you will, to the problems of the early years. Yes, I’m thinking of the so-called “top tier” ensemble, and the structure that divides the cast in two – with characters like Fay, Roy, and Antonio on the bottom, while the top’s main couples, the obligatorily romantic Joe/Helen and the wisely platonic Brian/Casey, earn most of the focus.
We discussed this re-emerging structure last week, but I was very deliberate in noting a couple of things. First, I made it clear, in my seasonal commentary, that Casey was an honest embodiment of these writers’ intended strengths, as I believe that once the show modified her characterization in tandem with Yasbeck’s growing skills, she left the seventh season as one of the staff’s success stories – a great player for handling these new heightened, and sometimes tenuously motivated, comedic obligations. (I also posited that sometimes a dislike for Casey is really a dislike for the later seasons themselves.) I still believe all this to be true in Season Eight, for Casey provides some of the year’s boldest laughs – as much, if not more, than her fictional sibling – and her relationship with Brian is a terrific, untraditional partnering. Also, now that Seven has put forth so much effort in making her viable, Season Eight is able to relax on this front, and once again do more on behalf of its “bottom tier” characters, who don’t feel quite so separated from the upper four, even though the delineation still seems more pronounced than it did in, say, the Golden Age of late Season Three. However, because Eight sees an elevation in the text’s repeated foolishness (in which the push for big laughs ends up denying them), Casey isn’t always able to be victorious; there’s only so much she can do with this material, even as she represents it. So, once again, the upper tier seems to signal the core problem… Meanwhile, the second point I intentionally made last week – during individual coverage of my MVE, “The Lyin’ King” – involved Joe’s characterization, for I found that marriage, in Season Seven, didn’t inorganically stifle or alter his depiction, as is often charged. (And, remember, I also think the Helen/Joe marriage is like Casey in that it’s disliked mostly because it symbolizes the final years in total.) Season Eight, on the other hand, can’t claim the same consistency for Joe…
In fact, the gravest indicator of textual damage starting to wear on the characters can be found in the protagonist, who more than anyone else, sees his persona adjusting to the demands of the weekly story – he’s either the logical smart one (the closest to his original design, often used in relation to Brian), the befuddled screw-up (a new characterization used in marriage-based beats with Helen, most of which drag because both she and her portrayer also aren’t great in these kinds of stories), or the excitable goofball (the one that works the least, for it’s driven by the year’s comedic and narrative goals, not by Joe and what works for him). Now, no character on a supposedly character-driven comedy should remain stagnant, so Joe needs to grow and change… but this must be believable and trackable. Season Eight isn’t capable of providing it this way… So, with the characters beginning to suffer, Wings (now bumped from Tuesday’s B-comedy block to Wednesday’s C-comedy block) seems past its prime. And as I sit here writing this final commentary, I’m searching for ways to be optimistic about what’s presented below. I guess I could tell you that the finale, though too concerned with big developments to be enjoyed alongside a “normal” episode of Wings (and not as funny as we now anticipate), is nevertheless surprisingly sincere, treating its characters with some long-forsaken dignity and respect… Otherwise, the only real way to be positive here is to note that, while the year is far below our typical standards (and the ones to which the show has previously asked to be held), the ten entries I’ve highlighted do indeed – as always – represent what I perceive to be its best, so if you’re a fan of the series, like I am, you can still find parts to enjoy within the whole, if you try. It’s a smaller comfort than we’ve had in the prior five seasons, but it’s something. And though Wings won’t ever be a Cheers or a Frasier, it’s still Wings. And that’s reason enough to be grateful… Thus, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 149: “Porno For Pyros” (Aired: 09/18/96)
An insurance investigator doesn’t believe the story of the fire.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Jeff Melman
After a gaudy cliffhanger-driven finale that nevertheless provided amiable thematic cohesion, Wings‘ final year opens with some appreciated self-awareness regarding the illogical broadness that exists within the very idea of each couple accidentally burning down the other couple’s home (while being preoccupied, both times, in a sexual encounter). Setting the tone for the comedically less connectable season, in which some characterizations (like Joe’s) seem more off than on, Gurvitz’s script nevertheless wrings enough laughs from the scenario to make it worthwhile. We’re definitely in silly territory, but this is an entry in which we can make the necessary leaps — mostly because the biggest leap has already occurred. Roma Maffia guests.
02) Episode 154: “The Gift Of Life” (Aired: 10/30/96)
The group tries to reunite an important cooler with a medical courier.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
In the series’ first, last, and only Halloween episode, a singular objective unites all characters in the ensemble under one specific story. The excursion benefits greatly from this tightness, not only with regard to its storytelling, but also for the utilization of its ensemble as a collective entity (an element of the middle years that’s much missed in this final era). Additionally, the installment gains points for featuring a plot that’s specific to the particulars of the show’s premise and setting — involving a medical courier who abandons an important delivery in the airport. Also, the added holiday theme gives the idea some bolstering flavor, thereby alleviating the characters from that otherwise required broadness. And, happily, the laughs prove rewarding.
03) Episode 159: “All About Christmas Eve” (Aired: 12/18/96)
Antonio helps a nun, the women are trapped in a store, and Brian and Joe reunite two brothers.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Joyce Gittlin
Another script credited to Michael Sardo, whose name is on many of the year’s best (even more than the funny Jeffrey Richman’s), because “his” outings tend to avoid the season’s habit for story gimmicks, I’d nevertheless claim this as the least distinguished of “his” output. First, the multi-narrative structure that separates the ensemble renders this a weaker entry in the show’s otherwise strong Christmas catalogue, for the script inherently sets the episode up to be uneven (which it is). Also, there’s a bit of a gimmick in the return appearance of the wonderful Phil Leeds (from last year’s MVE), who’s back with his brother, played by Abe Vigoda… Yet laughs are laughs and the leaps are relatively few, so this one can be easily appreciated.
04) Episode 163: “Fay There, Georgy Girl” (Aired: 02/12/97)
Fay is haunted by the ghosts of her three dead husbands.
Written by Ken Keeler | Directed by Jeff Melman
The only teleplay this year credited to a freelancer (note: there’s another story idea that comes from a pair of freelancers, but that script is credited to a staff member), I consider this to be a companion piece to last year’s “Bye, George,” a fairly sweet and funny Fay excursion that made the Honorable Mentions. Like that installment, this outing fleshes out what we know of Fay’s past, particularly her relationships with her three dead husbands (all named George — a funny gag). True to Season Eight’s “broad is good” form, the story has her haunted by their ghosts. It’s silly and unrealistic, but the pursuit of some character examination grounds this ostentatious premise, and Fay deserves more coverage that’s similarly intentioned (albeit, ideally better).
05) Episode 164: “Escape From New York” (Aired: 02/19/97)
Helen enters a drag contest and Antonio bothers Joe.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Jeff Melman
As mentioned above, Jeffrey Richman (who joined the staff in Season Four and contributed his first script in Season Five), is the only other writer, besides Sardo, who can claim a credit on several of this list’s best teleplays. But while Sardo is here often because “his” entries tend to prioritize character over narrative gimmicks, Richman’s contributions gain distinction simply for being funny — silly sometimes, not 100% character-wise sometimes, but funny. This offering is in-keeping with that modus operandi, for the A-plot, of Brian and Helen (an underused character combination) being stranded penniless in New York before they opt to enter her into a drag queen contest, is ridiculous — and unbelievable — but boy, is it hilarious. And the B-plot, of Antonio annoying a sick Joe, isn’t great for either, but it balances the foolishness.
06) Episode 165: “House Of Blues” (Aired: 03/05/97)
Brian and Casey buy their own house with Antonio’s help.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Jeff Melman
When discussing the re-emergence of the two-tiered ensemble structure in last week’s post on Season Seven, we also noted that Antonio, of all the members of the subjugated players, got the most exposure and the most opportunities to mingle with those characters on the top shelf. An episode like this one, another truly funny contribution from Richman, proves this point, for the story has Brian and Casey convincing Antonio to go in equal with them on a house, for they think that he’ll continue to spend most of his time at his girlfriend’s. Naturally, Antonio splits with his lady love and crowds the already crowded house, which means we get laughs from the well-used Casey, her relationship with Brian, and the always comedically inclined Antonio.
07) Episode 167: “Dreamgirl” [a.k.a. “Dream Girl”] (Aired: 04/02/97)
Joe worries about Fay’s attractive temporary replacement.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Reminiscent of a Sardo offering from Season Seven, “The Big Sleep,” this entry also uses the characters’ dreams as a storytelling device. But while the entire narrative of the prior excursion was based around a foreboding premonition, this script uses the dream more as a subconscious exploration of the characters’ — in this case, again, Joe’s and Helen’s — desires and fears. As a result, I consider this among the more character-rooted outings on this list, for although the premise is the guiding force of the action, it’s built towards examining the players and their inner workings. Also, the script gets laughs without resorting to insanity, so an episode like this one, even with its trite subplot, indicates the strength and viability of character.
08) Episode 168: “Heartache Tonight” (Aired: 04/16/97)
Roy enlists Helen to play his girlfriend when his mother visits.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Just because I’ve chosen this installment as the year’s MVE doesn’t mean that it’s of the calibre of all the past MVEs — in fact, while this one may have more laughs that anything produced within the show’s brief first season, I’m not so sure that this isn’t the weakest entry from this otherwise esteemed group. Rather, I’ve chosen it simply for the obvious reason: it’s the best of Season Eight’s lot. Now, I could have picked an offering that was either funnier (like “House Of Blues”) or more character-concerned (like “Dreamgirl”), but, frankly, this excursion, aside from still being enjoyable, most accurately represents the season. First, there’s a gimmicky guest appearance by the nevertheless hilarious Rose Marie, who plays Roy’s mother. Then there’s an illogical and poorly motivated “typical sitcom” story in which Roy needs Helen to masquerade as his girlfriend. (Both are very in-keeping with Eight’s timbre.) Third, the subplot features the comedic growth of Yasbeck and the show’s smart pairing of Brian and Casey. So, it reinforces much of what Eight offers at large, and does so while getting big laughs. That’s why it’s MVE.
09) Episode 169: “Oedipus Wrecks” (Aired: 05/07/97)
Casey dates Brian’s girlfriend’s son.
Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Darryl Bates
You’ll notice that this is the only final season installment on this list credited to Byron and Kapstrom, a pair who joined in Season Six (one of Wings‘ best showings) and contributed some of its funniest classics. “Their” episodic success rate hasn’t been as high since then — most of their work now is in that “good… but why did they have to do that?” category that makes a lot of Honorable Mentions — and this is another uneven entry in their evolved mode. While the subplot with Joe, Roy, and the circus is too gaudy and broad to be lauded, the A-story, which guest stars Sharon Stone (more stunt casting) and capitalizes upon the odd, but comedic, dynamic between Casey and Brian, is a delight — filled with laughs and genuine character beats.
10) Episode 171: “Final Approach (I)” (Aired: 05/21/97)
Helen returns to the cello as the group searches for a hidden treasure.
Written by Michael Sardo | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
Broadcast as the first half of Wings‘ two-part series finale, which was originally screened on NBC in an hour-long block (even though, unlike most double-length show-closers, the two halves boast separate writers and directors), this episode can’t claim to be among the final year’s absolute funniest. Nor can I claim that both parts, collectively, represent my ideal version of a sitcom series finale — for there are too many big developments all at once (making this neither a normal or particularly character-driven showcase for the series). But Part I is less maudlin and narratively stifled than the show’s final half-hour, and with a return to several of the series’ original themes — Helen’s dreams, the brothers’ relationship with their father — Wings reveals a welcome integrity that these final two seasons often obscured.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which has an ostentatious story that takes a while to get to its comedic meat, and a few more of Honorable Mention quality — “Just Call Me Angel” and “Raging Bull*&@!,” which both contend with the Hackett brothers’ relationship (even as one or two of the guys aren’t written superbly in character), along with the well-premised but too-broadly-penned “Single And Hating It,” and the narratively contrived but comedically big “Olive Or Twist.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Wings goes to…
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Frasier! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!