Did You Know That Frasier Crane & Debra Barone Had A Secret Love Child?: A Look at BACK TO YOU

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week’s entry looks at the one-year-wonder Back To You, which aired for 14 episodes on FOX during the notoriously game-changing 2007-2008 television season. Starring Kelsey Grammer, in his first regular sitcom role since Frasier Crane took his final bow in 2004, and Patricia Heaton, in her first regular sitcom role since Debra Barone and her clan left the airwaves in 2005, Back To You cast these two Emmy-showered TV veterans as a pair of feuding newscasters with a secret: their ten-year-old love child.

For those who don’t remember this series — was it really only ten years ago? — Grammer was Chuck Darling, a news anchor forced to return to Philadelphia after a decade of failure in several bigger markets. In the series’ pilot, he reunites with former co-anchor Kelly Carr (Heaton, of course), who inadvertently allows him to piece together the clues that reveal the truth about her long-kept secret: Kelly’s ten-year-old daughter Gracie (Laura Marano) is the product of a one-night-stand that the two colleagues shared right before his departure. Others in the ensemble were Ayda Field as Montana Diaz Herrera, the station’s incompetent weatherwoman, Josh Gad as 26-and-a-half-year-old news director Ryan Church, Ty Burrell as awkward field reporter Gary Crezyzewski, and Heaton’s old Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Fred Willard as the company’s seasoned-but-flighty sports anchor March McGinley.

This cast alone gives the series enough cachet to be ideal for coverage on Wildcard Wednesdays (alongside either Frasier or Everybody Loves Raymond), but of equal import here is the team behind the show. If you’ll remember from last week’s post, we featured a single-season gem called Out Of Practice (2005-2006, CBS), a sitcom created by former Frasier MVPs Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan. Back To You was the next project for Lloyd (his prior credits also included The Golden Girls and Wings) — paired for the first time with former Frasier scribe Steven Levitan (also of Wings and the creator of Just Shoot Me!), who was then coming off the short-lived Pamela Anderson vehicle Stacked (2005-2006, FOX). You see, after CBS ran out of patience with Out Of Practice, Keenan jumped over with writer Bob Daily to Desperate Housewives (2004-2012, ABC), thus paving the way for Lloyd’s new partnership with Levitan — one that would become quite lucrative in 2009 with the ABC premiere of their Modern Family, which also stars Ty Burrell (seen last week on Out Of Practice, too) and features Fred Willard as Burrell’s character’s father… So, Back To You is the connective tissue for many different series — Frasier, Raymond, Out Of Practice, Stacked, etc. — all eventually leading to Modern Family. 

Meanwhile, other writers on Back To You included Dan O’Shannon (Newhart, Cheers, Frasier, Modern Family), Gail Lerner (Will & Grace, Worst Week, Happy Endings, Black-ish)Andy Gordon (Mad About You, Just Shoot Me!, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory), Jeffrey Richman (Wings, Frasier, Stacked, Modern Family), Abraham Higginbotham (Arrested Development, Will & Grace, Ugly Betty, Modern Family), Sally Bradford (Will & Grace, Gary Unmarried, Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23, The Grinder) and Chuck Tatham (Less Than Perfect, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family). The resident director — who helmed all 17 produced episodes — was the legendary James Burrows, of Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, and Will & Grace… So, there’s no doubt that the series was made by some terrific people, and I think that their combined efforts ensured a sitcom that, while neither stellar from the jump nor built for the same kind of excellence that regularly defined its two stars’ most recent big hits, nevertheless showed a lot of promise and stood, like Out Of Practice, as a favorable example of the multi-camera format in this liminal era, where single-camera comedies were rising in prominence.

In terms of episodic quality, the fact that I’m able to choose seven favorite episodes out of a mere 17 produced — only 14 of which ever got broadcast in the United States — is a sign of success. Were I to nitpick though, I’d say the series’ premise, which adds a high-concept former flame and secret child cherry to the top of what is otherwise a classically designed ensemble workplace sundae (see: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP In Cincinnati, NewsRadio, etc.), doesn’t emotionally grab me like it should, for it’s too easy here to get caught up in the narrative beats that emphasize the season’s preordained dramatic arc — often at the expense both the comedy and, more importantly, the individual characters. (Also, the premise of feuding, sexually attracted co-anchors isn’t fresh; see: Goodnight, Beantown and Good Sports). To wit, despite the high calibre work of the headlining couple — and, to those who decry the two performers for playing variations of their former roles, I’d argue that in television, every character must be an extension of who the actor is (otherwise, he/she couldn’t play the part week-to-week); it’s more incumbent on the writing to supply what’s fresh and unique — it’s really the ensemble stories and their laughs, from funny players like Gad, Burrell, and Willard (a terrific comedy trio if ever there was one), that give indication of a possible future for Back To You.

Left out of that ensemble trio, if you hadn’t noticed, is Field’s Montana, the character least conducive to great comedy. Fortunately, the series had the good sense to drop her following the Writers’ Strike, in a narrative sweep that coincided with the introduction of Suzy Nakamura as Ginger Ko, the new temperamental (and newly recurring) station manager. (Also, at this time, the role of Gracie was recast with Lily Jackson.) And while the show clearly improved after the Writers’ Strike, which lasted from November 2007 to February 2008, I think the disruption it provided to the company — and more specifically, the television audience — wasn’t necessarily positive. (Almost every series took a hit following the strike, and network television has, frankly, never fully recovered.) That is, Back To You was bound to improve even without a hiatus (that’s generally what happens over the course of a sitcom’s first season), so all that this gap actually did is upend continuity (and FOX, no surprise, opted to air episodes out-of-order, too), regress the emotional investment that the audience was supposed to be building with the characters, and force the scripts to speed up their story-driven intentions — which helped recapture momentum, but also came at the loss of necessary, breathable character moments.

So, while the show’s quality — again, not perfect, but good and improving — seems less culpable for Back To You‘s single-season status than the external particulars that plagued its specific, unique television season, many at the time also blamed the series’ cancellation on FOX, which was said to have a different brand than the “sophisticated, adult” fare seen in Back To You… Well, I wouldn’t label the series “sophisticated” or “adult,” but I definitely think politics at the network were, as always, a main determinant of its fate. We know it wasn’t purely a Nielsen decision — because the lower-rated ‘Til Death (with another Raymond alum, Brad Garrett) got a renewal — and so its termination was likely based, as others said at the time, on the bottom line. After all, with three big stars — that’s Grammer, Heaton, and Willard — and a top-notch team behind-the-scenes, Lloyd & Levitan’s first joint venture was simply too costly for a fourth-place-network comedy that wasn’t Nielsen gangbusters. Had the show been cheaper to produce, it would have gotten the second season that, based on the material it presented and the circumstances through which it had to work, it seemed to deserve… But then again, if that had happened, there might not have been a Modern Family (and The Middle would have looked very different), so perhaps Back To You was always best suited to be a brief gathering place for talented vets to mingle, get their bearings, and continue honing their craft…

Happily, as mentioned above, I’m able to choose a list of favorites for this series — and even more happily, I’m able to remind you that you can purchase the entire series on DVD. Thus, as usual, my selections are featured in AIRING ORDER. (James Burrows directed them all.)

 

01) Episode 2: “Fish Story” (Aired: 09/26/07)

Chuck tries to prove he’s responsible by caring for a fish.

Written by Dan O’Shannon

After an effective pilot that established the world and its players — but without any boffo laughs — Back To You‘s sophomore excursion is broader, and more humor-driven, as Chuck’s bad luck while trying to take care of a goldfish provides the cast license to engage in some fine slapstick. And while we’re still not emotionally invested in the main couple’s arc, this is a workplace entry where the ensemble shines.

02) Episode 4: “A Gentleman Always Leads” (Aired: 10/10/07)

Chuck and Kelly argue over who’ll get the evening’s lead story.

Written by Christopher Lloyd

If it wasn’t already clear earlier in this post, I’ll reiterate that the series works best when it focuses on its ensemble, which not only includes its powerful starry duo, but also the trio of talented guys. As a result, the best episodes of this short-lived comedy are the ones that take place primarily in the office, where like in any classic workplace comedy, the regulars can bounce off of each other with character-driven ease. This offering epitomizes this observation; it’s well-written, character-building, and fun.

03) Episode 6: “Gracie’s Bully” (Aired: 11/07/07)

Kelly intervenes when she sees Gracie being bullied on a class field trip.

Written by Jeffrey Richman

As with the above, this is another installment that succeeds because it’s set in the office, giving opportunity for every member of the ensemble — even the comparatively weaker Montana — to further develop their identities (and sources of comedy). Additionally, the premise finds a way to logically integrate Gracie into the proceedings in a way that provides more laughs (as opposed to angst) for Kelly and Chuck.

04) Episode 8: “Cradle To Grave” (Aired: 02/26/08)

Kelly and the crew attend a funeral while Chuck babysits Gracie.

Written by Abraham Higginbotham & Steven Levitan

Admittedly, I come away with mixed feelings about this episode, for I’m not crazy about its bifurcated design, which has Kelly and all the other regulars at a funeral for a closeted gay man who falsely bragged about a sexual relationship with her. It’s a little big and all over the place (even though regular readers know I love when the sitcom contends with mortality). Rather, I like this entry because of the scenes with Chuck and his daughter.

05) Episode 12: “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (II)” (Aired: 04/30/08)

Chuck and Kelly remember their night together after revealing the truth to Gracie.

Written by Christopher Lloyd & Dan O’Shannon

As the second-half of the somewhat rushed two-parter in which the secret parents reveal the truth to their daughter, this is a BIG development outing (also set in the home, not the office) that, theoretically, has the deck stacked against it. And indeed, the gimmicky flashback sequences don’t help. But, the actors are growing into their roles, and because this is fulfilling the series’ thesis, there’s a sense of purpose being met.

06) Episode 13: “The New Boss” (Aired: 05/07/08)

A new station manager makes changes — like firing Montana.

Written by Sally Bradford & Jeffrey Richman

Produced as the first installment following the Writers’ Strike — but held by FOX to follow the three episodes that build to the aforementioned big development in Episode 12 — this is the show that boldly rids itself of Montana. The scenes with Chuck, Kelly, and the new station manager (Nakamura) are loaded with laughs, obscuring (through comedy) the functionality of these story-driven intentions.

07) Episode 14: “Chuck And Kelly: Doin’ It Again” (Aired: 05/14/08)

Chuck and Kelly’s plan to go public with their news is halted by a new ad campaign.

Story by Chuck Tatham | Teleplay by Steven Levitan & Jeffrey Richman

Without a doubt, this is the funniest episode of the entire short-lived comedy, and sadly, it was the last one that FOX ever broadcast — the technical series finale. (The last three unbroadcast installments on the DVD — seen in syndication only — are, generally, weaker than what’s featured here.) It’s got a muted vibe to it, probably because while it does contend with the classic big reveal — everyone else learns the truth about Gracie’s paternity — it also comes after a rushed couple of offerings that stifled the narrative’s power… That’s not necessarily a complaint though; in fact, I think character takes a front seat here, as the humor emphasizes the particulars of the players and the setting in a way that finally turns Back To You into a gem.

 

Other notable excursions that merit mention here include: “Hug & Tell,” which features a funny subplot involving Gary and the security guard, and “Wall Of Fame,” which introduces the funny Stephanie Faracy as Marsh’s wife (and holds a special place in my heart because I attended the shoot — the first multi-cam I’d ever seen produced). Of more Honorable Mention quality are “A Night Of Possibilities,” valuable only for the scenes between Ty Burrell and Fred Willard, and “Something’s Up There,” a decent ensemble showcase downgraded only because of some strained comedy.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!

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