Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Empty Nest (1988-1995, NBC), which is frequently findable on YouTube and cable.
Empty Nest stars RICHARD MULLIGAN as Harry, DINAH MANOFF as Carol, KRISTY McNICHOL as Barbara, PARK OVERALL as Laverne, and DAVID LEISURE as Charley.
As we’ve discussed a lot on this blog, most sitcoms are at their best when novelty meets knowingness — that is, when the premise is still fresh enough to be regularly invoked in weekly story, but the leads have all had ample development, so they’re settled into the definitions that can best produce both laughs and conflict. That overlap typically occurs somewhere around Seasons Two or Three — maybe earlier, if the premise is especially important, or later, if there are some extra kinks to work through in the cast. Empty Nest is textbook in this regard, for after Season One smartly knew to move the sisters back in with their father, the central characters and their strong, premise-affirming relationships gained even more prominence, making it easier to cultivate thesis-based story going into Two. Of course, as we know, Empty Nest never takes as much advantage of their individual characterizations in plot as, say, The Golden Girls, but there are some ripe personas here — particularly Carol’s — and the elevated “understanding” of them, plus the opportunities for story encouraged by that aforementioned Season One midpoint retooling, helps ensure that the entire cast is now more capable than ever of episodically satisfying the premise of widower Harry and his two girls adjusting to their new reality. Thus, with character and premise in better form than ever before, Empty Nest’s sophomore year is an obvious improvement, and, as usual, when these leads’ narrative stock improves, so do their comedic capacities, rendering this a funnier collection as well. Meanwhile, the peripheral members of the ensemble — Laverne and Charley — also get better material, moving from sidelined laugh-providers to reliable subplot anchors, with gradually increasing depth. In fact, this is a really seminal year for Laverne, as we meet her baseball player husband Nick, learn about their relationship, and get to see more of the dynamic between her and Harry. This makes for some of the most memorable episodes — sometimes rivaling the more classic entries that centralize the sisterly tension at home, boasting the premise as support. So, while the macro concerns about Empty Nest’s relative mediocrity in relation to other sitcoms remain, by the unique standards of this show, Two is our peak example of the series as a situation comedy — its best season at using the elements of this “situation” in story for comedy.
01) Episode 25: “On The Interpretation Of Dreams” (Aired: 10/21/89)
Harry is up all night trying to interpret a recurring dream.
Written by Gary Jacobs | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
This half hour, credited to executive producer and head writer Gary Jacobs — taking the reins solo now, following the departure of Rod Parker — is a simple affair with a low-concept relatable plot that merely provides for plenty of character interaction and opportunities for the leads to showcase their personas via the well-established relationships they share. Naturally, the crux of the dream that Harry’s trying to interpret ties back to his late wife, which is proof that the year is still consciously interested in — and capable of — addressing the series’ initial premise, about a widower adjusting to life without her. So, it’s a sensitive offering that flatters the show’s palpable humanity but gives us plenty of character and premise too — a nice ambassador for Two, and proof of why it should be considered the series’ peak as a sitcom.
02) Episode 28: “Rambo Of Neiman Marcus” (Aired: 11/11/89)
Barbara’s ego is bruised when Carol nabs a crook; Rose Nylund hits Harry’s car.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Betty White had a small cameo as The Golden Girls’ Rose Nylund in a first season entry, but only Bea Arthur’s Dorothy and Rue McClanahan’s Blanche got stories crafted for them. Well, in this year’s only crossover on Empty Nest, White lends increased participation to a script that does a fine job of showcasing Rose’s heightened characterization — in a story where her relative extremeness is commented upon for both comedic effect and as a contrast against Empty Nest’s quieter leads, but without contorting her or making her feel truly out-of-place (as Blanche was). As such, it’s just a treat to see her, and because a large part of this series’ appeal is its Golden Girls connection, this is obviously one that I can easily recommend… That said, Rose isn’t the only reason to appreciate this outing — rather, there’s a clever story for the two sisters that plays against expectations in an effort to give more meat to Barbara (who has several A-stories this season, but most of them merely tap into her profession, for there’s not much personality outside of how she can be juxtaposed against Carol). Their scenes help make this episode, like last year’s “Dumped,” a fully satisfying sample of the series. (Luis Avalos also appears.)
03) Episode 29: “You Are 16 Going On 17 And I’m Not” (Aired: 11/18/89)
Carol is attracted to a boy she’s tutoring, while Laverne misses a friend’s birthday.
Written by Susan Beavers | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Considered to be one of the year’s funniest, this installment, I must admit, is not one I could call a favorite, for the A-story, in which Carol finds herself attracted to, and seduced by, the hunky younger guy she’s tutoring, is a bit formulaic and clichéd, especially because it seems to wallow more in their age difference gimmickry than in the fact that such a relationship is unusual for someone like Carol. However, it’s still an idea that provides the show’s strongest comic character with a lot to act and react against, so it succeeds on that front. Also, I’m wild about the subplot, which culminates in the hysterical interaction between Laverne and her friend from home, Lurlene (Jana Arnold) — it’s worth the figurative price of admission.
04) Episode 20: “The R.N. Who Came To Dinner” (Aired: 11/25/89)
Harry agrees to take a patient to her school dance, while Laverne moves in with the Westons.
Written by David Tyron King | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
A pre-Blossom Mayim Bialik makes her first of two Empty Nest guest appearances in this outing, playing a patient who asks Harry to accompany her to a school dance. It’s one of those cutesy kiddie stories on paper, but this talented young performer elevates it with her unique stage presence. And yet, while that’s what most viewers are going to take away from this half hour, the real reason I feature it here is the important A-story, which reveals a lot about Laverne — the character who gets the most development in Season Two, specifically — as a fight with her husband ends up with her staying over at the Westons’ house. It’s a common sitcom idea — no points for originality (as usual) — but it bridges Harry’s personal and professional worlds, which is typically the goal in most MTM-like series, so it’s a structural success, in addition to the aforementioned strides it takes with her character. (Chris Demetral also guests.)
05) Episode 31: “Green Eggs And Harry” (Aired: 12/02/89)
Harry and Carol plan to write a children’s book… but he finds it’s easier to work with Barbara.
Written by Rob LaZebnik & David Sacks | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
The rivalry between the two sisters — with Harry caught in the middle — is the richest relationship in all of Empty Nest (making Kristy McNichol’s departure a major loss, despite Barbara’s lack of color compared to Carol), and the most satisfying stories throughout the run tend to be propelled by their character-encouraging and structurally premised dynamic. (It’s the funnier and more character-forward aspect of this series’ initial concept, for the widower engine is, well, not exactly a laugh riot — and often something of an external source of conflict, as the memory of Libby is an intangible element, and not a force that can itself drive story like two characters in a relationship…) This offering is a gem because it’s got one of the best utilizations of this arrangement in narrative, emphasizing their personas (especially Carol’s), and the well-established tensions they share. A must-include. (Robert Trebor appears.)
06) Episode 34: “Change Of Heart” (Aired: 01/06/90)
Harry’s health scare makes the family think.
Written by Susan Beavers | Directed by Andy Cadiff
Although I’m typically not a fan of forced jeopardy related to an event that we know is unlikely — I call it “schmuck bait” — and a health scare usually falls into that category, I think this script does a decent job of not making Harry’s fate a legitimate concern, really using it as just a springboard for a peak-era plot that reinforces Empty Nest’s palpable humanity (and occasional sentimentality), with support from both the widower premise, and the strong relationships in the Weston family, which justify the proceedings and give the whole idea a character-based value. Also, even with some of these expectedly serious moments, Susan Beavers’ script retains its sense of humor, with space for nuanced performances. So, this is a successful example of what this series seems to want to be. (Guests include Ray Abruzzo and William Cort.)
07) Episode 36: “Complainin’ In The Rain” (Aired: 01/27/90)
Harry and Laverne remember her hiring differently, while Carol and Barbara have car trouble.
Written by Harold Kimmel | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
This offering is probably best remembered for the Harry/Laverne story, which uses the clichéd Rashomon device when the two have different recollections of how he first hired her. Now, despite the lack of originality in this narrative gimmick — something so many sitcoms employ — it’s generally a good setup to showcase character, and in this case, it does provide history to their relationship that grants both it and Laverne increased depth. However, what I really love here is the A-story with the sisters, as Carol goes out with Barbara in an effort to experience a rainy day like she would — in other words, it’s an experiment for Carol to be more like Barbara — a relationship-based narrative notion that naturally emphasizes their differences and thus is entirely predicated on their characterizations. That is real situation comedy — using a series’ established elements to inspire narrative beats for a comedically rendered episodic story. Accordingly, this was a must-include — more proof of how comparatively adept Season Two is at using its leads in plot. (Christopher Rich, Jack Blessing, and William Phipps appear.)
08) Episode 38: “Everything But Love” (Aired: 02/10/90)
Charley goes out with Harry’s niece, while Laverne’s friend accuses her of being “citified.”
Written by Pat Dougherty | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Cynthia Stevenson — a funny actress who was a regular on ’90s sitcoms like Bob, Hope & Gloria, and Oh Baby, but never quite snagged the role that would lead to the sitcom success she deserved — guest stars here as Harry’s visiting and seemingly shy niece, fresh off a breakup. The story unfolds as one would expect in this genre, as she ends up dating the series’ token horndog, Charley, who is likely to hurt her, based on how he usually treats women and views relationships. But this script smartly takes the opportunity to subvert our expectations, as it’s Charley who falls for this atypical paramour, granting him a smidgen of emotional complexity — which he desperately needs, as his absent dimension is glaring within this particular ensemble and the series’ specific aesthetic. So, this is a great showing for Charley — his best this year. Meanwhile, I also love the subplot, where Lurlene (Jana Arnold) is back, accusing Laverne of being “citified” — a comic concept that responds directly to the very qualities that define Laverne and make her a rich, laugh-providing regular. (Adam Wylie also appears.)
09) Episode 40: “It Happened Two Nights, Four Costume Changes” (Aired: 02/17/90)
Laverne entangles Harry in her marital drama after she’s told an incorrect rumor.
Written by David Tyron King | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “It Happened Two Nights, Four Costume Changes” is not a great sample of what Empty Nest was premised to be. That is, it’s not about Harry’s status as a widower, and it actually doesn’t situate its comedy or drama on his centralized relationship with his daughters, whose contentious dynamic, as I’ve said, typically makes for this series’ strongest, proving why Season Two is Empty Nest’s peak. No, this entry is about Laverne — Harry’s colleague, and the character who’s always good for a few yuks but also finds herself becoming well-rounded and capable of existing within A-stories here in Two, where this installment is her best, as it formally introduces us to her baseball-playing husband Nick (Christopher McDonald), with whom it’s been hinted that she has a fraught marriage. By personifying him, and predicating an entire story on their relationship, Laverne is afforded so much more dimension that she had previously lacked, and this improves her capacity to not only inspire plot, but also to boost offerings where Harry is paired with her (as opposed to his daughters), now that their own bond is strengthened. However, for as much as this is a serious, dramatic boon to Laverne as a character, representing one of the unique developments of this season, it’s really the humor that earns this segment my favor, for its boldly comic idea yields one of the series’ more memorable half hours, and with McDonald’s Nick — who’s quite amusing himself — on hand, the results are especially funny, filled with terrific bits (like the “Password” game) that elevate it far above the rest. If I’m only going to remember one from Empty Nest’s second season, it’s going to be this outing — and rest assured, a silly subplot for the sisters is also added to keep us engaged with another strong relationship, further reminding of Season Two’s consistent, overarching success with character.
10) Episode 41: “Love Is Blind” (Aired: 02/24/90)
Carol is determined to date a blind man who originally preferred Barbara.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Another must-include and one of this series’ best utilizations of the Carol/Barbara rivalry that, as usual, accentuates the wonderfully comic persona afforded to Dinah Manoff’s Carol, this excursion might seem familiar to fans of The Golden Girls, which also had a story about a lead dating a blind man. Yet while that take on the story sought some earnest introspection for Blanche, this one enjoys a more solely comedic approach, tracking the course — less common then, but more common now — where humor is mined from mocking the overboard and incredibly self-conscious sensitivity expressed to someone deemed vulnerable, particularly when said individual is actually a jerk deserving of reproach. This “jerk” is a perfect foil for the neurotic Carol, who thinks she’s quite enlightened, so although the story farms formulaic terrain, it’s a great vehicle for her along the way, especially when the script also folds in her natural competitiveness with Barbara, rendering this another smart character and relationship show, with bigger laughs than the series’ baseline. (Michael Sabatino and Edan Gross appear.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Overdue For A Job,” which pushes a little hard and feels false in its A-story with Carol at the library, but nevertheless is memorable, with some funny and revealing character moments, along with “A Christmas Story,” which calls upon the widower premise in a holiday outing with some conveniently forced jeopardy situated around Dreyfuss, and “M.D., P.O.V.,” which isn’t tonally ideal, but claims a one-off structural gimmick that makes it stand out. Meanwhile, I’ll also take this opportunity to cite “Settling,” the season premiere with a mediocre A-story but a significantly funnier-than-the-norm teleplay (and a hint of the marital strife between Laverne and Nick that will be slowly explored over the course of these next few years), “Harry Snubs Laverne,” which smartly expands upon ensemble relationships, “Did You Ever See A Dream Dying?,” which includes Nick (less successfully than before — because it’s more about him and less about Laverne) and has an affable subplot about Dreyfuss, and “Still Growing After All These Years,” which boasts some premise-related humanity and a funny little yarn for Charley with a great climax.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Empty Nest goes to…
“It Happened Two Nights, Four Costume Changes”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!