Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday, on a Tuesday! I’m pushing back Kate & Allie one more week to extend our tribute to the late Betty White. Tomorrow’s entry, as promised, will include my episodic picks for her finest sitcom work. But first — a pop-out Potpourri piece from one of the forgotten shows on which she was a regular, Ladies Man (1999-2001, CBS), a middling multi-cam that ran one-and-a-half seasons and generally underused White but still found time to reunite her with Golden Girls pals Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty (see below). It’s not a classic sitcom by any stretch, but it makes solid Wildcard fodder, and I’ve got some thoughts, episode selections, and videos for you, in honor of this funny lady. (Also, as of this writing, 15 episodes from the first season are available to stream on Crackle.)
LADIES MAN (September 1999 – June 2001, CBS)
Premise: A beleaguered dad is outnumbered in a family full of women, minus his newborn son.
Cast: Alfred Molina, Sharon Lawrence, Betty White, Stephen Root, Alexa Vega, Shawna Waldron, Kaley Cuoco, Dixie Carter, and Park Overall
Creator/Writers: Chris Thompson, Peter Noah, Jim Vallely, Ira Ungerleider, Suzanne Myers & Cody Farley, Janis Hirsch, David Raether, Teresa O’Neill / Victor Levin, Richard Day
Thoughts: One of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s domestic comedies built around a bumbling husband, this vehicle for actor Alfred Molina puts a slightly high-concept wrinkle into its low-concept premise by reaching for a commonly used sitcom trope — going all the way back to The Tom Ewell Show in 1960: he’s the one man in a house and family full of women. This is a mildly comic (and perhaps relatable) idea that nevertheless doesn’t provide much story after a few weeks, desperately needing strong characterizations in strong relationships to further sustain its otherwise low-concept structure. Sadly, as with almost every sitcom eluding greatness, Ladies Man is never able to craft well-defined leads (especially in comparison to those on other shows in this subcategory, like Everybody Loves Raymond and The King Of Queens), and it’s thus never able to reliably connect its ideas to the fixed elements of the series’ situation, primarily its characters. Meanwhile, these performers do their best to infuse the material — from a first season staff that includes Chris Thompson (Larry Sanders), Ira Ungerleider (Friends), and Jim Vallely (Arrested Development), funny scribes who occasionally break through this clichéd construct with imaginative comic notions — with added color, and Stephen Root, in particular, is a highlight. But they’re not able to do much — Betty White is painfully underused (she’s really only relevant in maybe five episodes of the entire 30), and both Dixie Carter and Park Overall merely recur in the first half of the first year, absent totally from the brief second season that aired (in part) the following summer, by which time the eldest daughter had been replaced by a young Kaley Cuoco. Ultimately, then, this is a familiarly designed sitcom with a strong cast and great writers that unfortunately has a limp high-concept wrinkle that can’t deliver much story, particularly without rich, well-made characters who could motivate and enliven the weekly antics.
Episode Count: 30 episodes produced over two seasons, 27 of which aired.
Episodes Seen: All 30.
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #5: “Jimmy’s Song” (10/18/99)
Episode #9: “Park Rage” (11/15/99)
Episode #10: “Thanks For Nothing” (11/22/99)
Episode #13: “Gene’s Date” (01/10/00)
Episode #14: “Twelve Angry Kids” (01/17/00)
Episode #17: “Travels With My Aunt” (02/14/00)
Episode #20: “Aren’t We Nice?” (05/01/00)
Episode #21: “Bad Muthas” (05/08/00)
Episode #23: “Upright And Breathing” (06/06/01)
Why: “Jimmy’s Song” enjoys a fun comedic idea where Molina’s character uses his own tears to manipulate the women in his life — it feels very much like a Ray Barone or Doug Heffernan scheme; “Park Rage” boasts another plot in the Raymond and Queens vein when Molina’s character is forced to step in after his wife picks a fight with her daughter’s bully and the bully’s aggressive mother (Mo Gaffney) — with the great Fred Willard as the latter’s whipped husband in a memorable set piece at the park; “Thanks For Nothing” benefits from the funniest use of the recurring Dixie Carter (whose rivalry with White as competing mothers-in-law yields some of the show’s only real relationship-based comedy); “Gene’s Date” grants us a good amount of the wonderful Stephen Root (and tries to find comedy from a developing character for Lawrence as Molina’s wife); “Twelve Angry Kids” claims a gimmicky but novel premise where the family is tried in a court of students at school, after charges are brought by the difficult parents (Gaffney and Willard) previously introduced; “Aren’t We Nice?” goes back to the Raymond and Queens well to depict Lawrence’s character as flawed and thus potentially funny like Debra or Carrie; “Bad Muthas” puts Lawrence’s character in direct conflict with White’s Mitzi over a genuine clash of personalities — something I wish this series did more often; and “Upright And Breathing” stands out as the real-time second season premiere (from a Mad About You alum), which takes place entirely in the bedroom — a stunt that forces character interaction and suggests a recommitment to focusing on them that, well, never has a chance to take hold.
Lastly, I make special mention of Episode #17: “Travels With My Aunt” (one of three scripts credited to The Golden Girls’ own Jim Vallely — the others are “Jimmy’s Song” and “Park Rage”), which guest stars White’s former costar Rue McClanahan as Mitzi’s comparatively wild and uninhibited sister. It’s more a character showcase for McClanahan than White, but White’s Mitzi gets some definition via contrast that’s helpful, and she is offered a rare chance to do physical comedy in a beanbag chair, along with an amusing, unforgettable centerpiece where she finds herself stuck at a transgender support group. It’s easily got the most laughs of any outing, and although that’s mostly for these set pieces and the winking gimmick of casting another Golden Girl (similar to what White’s previous show, Maybe This Time, did when it booked Mary Tyler Moore’s Cloris Leachman for a guest stint in “Beasy Body”), it really does end up with the series’ best display of White — so, it’s therefore inherently supreme, as she’s a supreme comic force whom Ladies Man should have deployed more often. Directed by Mark Cendrowski, “Travels With My Aunt” is currently available on Crackle. Here’s a highlight reel.
Incidentally, McClanahan went over so well that she was brought back for the season finale, “Romance” (05/15/00), where Estelle Getty came in for a brief cameo. It’s not a great entry, so I didn’t mention it above, but for posterity, here’s the clip. (This episode is also on Crackle.)
This past weekend also saw the unfortunate passings of two other sitcom icons, Dwayne Hickman (of The Bob Cummings Show and Dobie Gillis) and Bob Saget (of Full House and How I Met Your Mother). In celebration of them, here is a link to two currently unreleased episodes from their careers — a funny 1956 Bob Cummings entry called “Double Date,” and Saget’s 2005 guest appearance on the short-lived Jason Alexander sitcom Listen Up!, “Couch Potato.” Below is the latter. The former is here, at this link; the password is the email address from which I send other requested items. Rest in Peace to both of these talented men!
Come back next week for the start of Kate & Allie (for real this time — I promise!), and stay tuned tomorrow for another tribute to the late, great Betty White!