Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week we’ve got another in the potpourri series, where I (briefly) discuss several of the short-lived sitcoms I never had the chance to highlight, in full Wildcard treatment, elsewhere during our look at the best of the ’90s/turn-of-the-century. These are shows that lasted under two full seasons — less than 40 episodes — and my drive-by commentary (again, it’s brief) is based only on what I’ve seen, culminating in the selection of an episode or two that I think best represents the series at large. For this entry, all of the mentioned shows premiered during the last half of Will & Grace‘s run.
GOOD MORNING, MIAMI (Sept 2002-Dec 2003, NBC)
Premise: The professional and personal happenings of a new executive producer and his crew on a local morning TV show.
Cast: Mark Feuerstein, Ashley Williams, Matt Letscher, Constance Zimmer, Jere Burns, Suzanne Pleshette (S1), Tessie Santiago (S1), Brooke Dillman (S1), Tiffani Thiessen (S2), Jillian Barberie (S2)
Creator/Writers: David Kohan & Max Mutchnick, Bill Prady, Richard Day, Tad Quill, Kirk J. Rudell, Jonathan Goldstein
Thoughts: Here’s a secret — all sitcom writers fantasize about doing a new Mary Tyler Moore Show with a Sam/Diane couple. So this “behind the scenes of a TV show with soapy rom-com maneuverings” is about as contrived and predictable as they come. Great characters is the only thing that can make it worthwhile (as usual), but sadly, I’m afraid this show doesn’t have them. It’s utterly mediocre — the characters, the stories, the setting, the writing, the revamps. I totally wasted my time. And for a year, Suzanne Pleshette wasted hers. Coming from Will & Grace writers and given an MSTV slot, this one should be better…
Episode Count: 40 produced over two seasons; ten were left unbroadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 40.
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/26/02)
Why: You can tell from the first episode that the show is bad — it’s paint-by-numbers with predictable beats, and characters that are either broad or undefined — but at least the pilot script has better jokes than all those that follow. So, if you’re going to subject yourself to anything from this unfortunate series, spare yourself and don’t go beyond the debut.
HAPPY FAMILY (Sept 2003-Apr 2004, NBC)
Premise: An upper middle class couple looks forward to finally having an empty nest… but it soon becomes clear that their three loser children are still in need of more parenting.
Cast: John Larroquette, Christine Baranski, Jeff Bryan Davis, Melanie Paxson, Tyler Francavilla, Susan Gibney, and Jamie Pressly
Creator/Writers: David Guarascio & Moses Port, Lester Lewis, David Walpert, Brett Baer & Dave Finkel, Jennifer Celotta, Joe Port & Joe Wiseman
Thoughts: Low-concept family comedy sandwiched on NBC’s schedule between Whoopi and Frasier has a few great leads — Larroquette, Baranski, and Paxson, especially — who are always watchable. But this premise also requires character-driven comedy to sustain investment, and after a pilot that defines most of the leads situationally, the rest of the run fails to ever make anyone unique or memorable enough to motivate comedic stories. It’s, I’m afraid, blah.
Episode Count: 22 produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 22.
Key Episode (of Seen): #2: “Over And Out” (Aired: 09/16/03)
Why: The second episode, also credited to the creators, reaffirms the series’ premise and has the same basic conflicts as the premiere. But it doesn’t have to deal with as much story set-up, and can instead enjoy more of the pay-offs. And believe it or not, for once, the pilot is no funnier or more polished than this, the sophomore entry.
I’M WITH HER (Sept 2003-Apr 2004, ABC)
Premise: A humble school teacher begins dating a world famous movie star.
Cast: Teri Polo, David Sutcliffe, Danny Comden, Rhea Seehorn
Creator/Writers: Chris Henchy, Marco Pennette, Jack Burditt, Bryan Behar & Steve Baldikoski, Nancy Steen, Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh, Carol Leifer
Thoughts: Inspired by Henchy’s relationship with actress Brooke Shields, I’m With Her is a low-concept love story between opposites that’s made a little more premisey by its Hollywood setting, which invites guest star stints by everyone from Betty White and Joan Rivers to Brooke Shields and Cybill Shepherd (some playing themselves, some not). The writing is predictably sweet, but the series’ storytelling does a surprisingly solid job of using the contrasting characterizations, and their worlds, to create conflict. Although the Hollywood shows feel more gimmicky and familiar (we’ve seen dozens of these spoofs before), the series balances his/her dramas pretty well. The problem? Despite likable characters in okay stories, no episode is ever hilarious or stands out as memorable. That “special sauce” is missing.
Episode Count: 22 episodes produced and broadcast
Episodes Seen: All 22.
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/23/03)
Why: I could have picked a show with a guest star, but I much prefer the ones more weighted to his world, for that’s the lower-concept area, where there’s more room for character conflict (as opposed to premise-y conflict) — especially with the leading lady, who’s otherwise perfect except when she’s a fish out of water… Now, that’s not the focus of the premiere, though; the leading man is the one who’s out of his element, but with his world and her world so obviously juxtaposed — and within a teleplay that’s more comedic than the rest of the run’s scripts — I can think of no better sample of I’m With Her’s possibilities.
IT’S ALL RELATIVE (Oct 2003-Apr 2004, ABC)
Premise: A conservative Irish Catholic bartender is engaged to marry the adopted daughter of a well-to-do gay couple… and neither family is thrilled about it.
Cast: Lenny Clarke, Harriet Sansom Harris, Reid Scott, Maggie Lawson, Christopher Sieber, John Benjamin Hickey, and Paige Moss
Creator/Writers: Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano, Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom, Michael Markowitz, Barton Dean, Ken Levine & David Isaacs, Josh Bycel & Jonathan Fener
Thoughts: In-law shows all tend to suffer from the same problem — really extreme families, really boring lovers at the center of the action. It’s All Relative is no different, but it’s not as bad here as elsewhere (Bridget Loves Bernie, The Mothers-In-Law, etc.). As for the families, the gay couple got more scrutiny at the time — charges of stereotyping persisted, even though I’d argue the opposite: the show goes out of its way to create nuanced, believable gay characters, while the Irish Catholic pair feels more lamely familiar and contrived… Interestingly, the series poises itself at the top for lots of juicy familial conflict but moves away from it — becoming less acrimonious, more sweet — as the year progresses. This is a mistake, for the wedding doesn’t have the narrative momentum necessary to exist on its own as a comedic-propelling dramatic idea; we NEED the warring families… Nevertheless, even though the series actively becomes more bland over its run, it’s this post’s best effort by way of character-driven comedy.
Episode Count: 22 produced; 20 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 22.
Key Episodes (of Seen): #3: “Hell’s Kitchen” (Aired: 10/15/03)
#5: “The Doctor Is Out” (Aired: 10/29/03)
#9: “Thanks, But No Thanks” (Aired: 11/26/03)
Why: The third episode has one of the best character-driven conflicts of the entire series, bringing in all the family members to cover for a mistake that the Irish Catholic son makes in his gay in-laws’ kitchen, while the ninth episode is a near-farce in the good old Frasier tradition. Meanwhile, the fifth entry boasts a fun teleplay that gets the ensemble together for a party (which, incidentally has a Cole Porter theme — something about which, I admit, I’m biased).
STACKED (Apr 2005-Jan 2006, FOX)
Premise: A party girl with bad taste in men begins working in a small bookstore for a divorced wannabe novelist and his immature brother.
Cast: Pamela Anderson, Elon Gold, Brian Scolaro, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Christopher Lloyd
Creator/Writers: Steven Levitan, Jeffrey Richman, Stephen Lloyd, Heide Perlman, Brad Walsh & Paul Corrigan, Dan Signer, Judah Miller & Murray Miller, Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil
Thoughts: This vehicle for Pam Anderson from an esteemed workplace comedy pedigree looks great on paper, often pitched as the reverse of Cheers: instead of a smart person joining a dumb place, a dumb person is joining a smart place. But the fine premise, structure, and setting doesn’t have astute enough scripting to overcome predictable storytelling and shallow characterizations, made worse by an uneven ensemble. While Anderson is surprisingly decent — she’s no Shelley Long, but she has more range than expected — when the second season inevitably has to pivot away from traditional fish out of water stories to rely more on the plot-providing possibilities of others, help only comes from the affable Winokur and the legendary Lloyd. Gold and Scolaro as the brothers leave a lot to be desired; they share no chemistry, and as the series continually undermines Scolaro to position romantic lead Gold as more central to the action — even more of an anchor than Anderson — the “straight man” role he’s supposed to play only reveals his bland depiction and resistance to comedic story. Thus, Stacked fails to live up to its great pitch.
Episode Count: 19 produced; 14 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 19. They’re all on DVD.
Key Episode (of Seen): #6 “Nobody Says I Love You” (Aired: 11/16/05)
Why: Broadcast as the second season premiere, this installment is the perfect reintroduction to the show after a hiatus, once again ruminating on the premise-built possibilities of having Anderson as the figurative fish out of water in the bookstore. Also, given that this was the tenth produced script overall, there’s more character confidence than you’ll find in similarly predicated first season shows (including the exposition-heavy pilot). And with a slightly more original idea that manages to better explore relationship dynamics within the bookstore ensemble, this one comes the closest to recognizing the series’ potential. (It’s not free of the second season’s penchant for gimmicky guest stars though — Kid Rock makes a brief cameo.)
Ultimately, I don’t feel a serious study of this era in sitcoms needs to make significant time for ANY of these series, sadly, although It’s All Relative is the closest to being a short-lived wonder.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Will & Grace!