An MSTV Crossover: Phoebe Meets HOPE & GLORIA

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing a forgotten Friends crossover from the MSTV flop Hope & Gloria, which ran for a first season of 13 episodes in the Thursday at 8:30 slot Friends vacated once it moved behind Seinfeld, and then another 22-episode second season — initially behind its former lead-in, Mad About You, on Sunday nights, and later in a sleepy Saturday berth. The series was created by former Cheers showrunners Bill & Cheri Steinkellner and served as a vehicle for Cynthia Stevenson, who’d played Norm’s secretary on Cheers and for whom the husband-and-wife duo had written on Bob Newhart’s Bob (1992-1993, CBS). Stevenson played the eponymous Hope alongside Jessica Lundy (Northern Exposure, Baby Talk, The Second Half) as Gloria. The pair were a quintessentially odd couple of friends — á la Laverne & Shirley — who lived across the hall from each other in Pittsburgh.

Hope was a happy-go-lucky goody two-shoes who produced a local TV talk show starring the vain Ted-Baxter-inspired Dennis Dupree (Alan Thicke, of Growing Pains), and Gloria was a cynical wisecracking beautician who lived with a young son (Robert Garrova) that she co-parented with his father Louis (Enrico Colantoni, of Just Shoot Me!), her two-time ex-husband. In the pilot, Hope meets Gloria in the laundry room, gets her a job working on the TV show, and learns that her own husband (Larry Poindexter, recurring) has left her. The mismatched duo became best friends, and that’s the premise of the series. Little changed throughout the 35-episode run, but Taylor Negron joined the main cast as Hope’s boss, while Steve Nevil recurred as her co-worker. Besides the Steinkellners, other writers included Janis Hirsch (Murphy Brown, Frasier, My Wife And Kids, ‘Til Death), J.J. Paulsen (In Living Color, Cosby), Mimi Friedman & Jeanette Collins (In Living Color, A Different World, Suddenly Susan), Jerry Perzigian (The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls, Bob, Malcolm & Eddie), Rob DesHostel and Dean Batali (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, That ‘70s Show; DesHostel only: Mike & Molly, Man With A Plan), and George McGrath (Pee-wee’s Playhouse, On Television, Tracey Takes On…).

The series did decently while sandwiched between Mad About You and Seinfeld for the two months (March to May 1995) that it benefited from the real estate, and while the show didn’t get many high marks for originality — comparisons were made to the aforementioned Laverne & Shirley, Mary Tyler Moore, etc. — both of the leading ladies were well-received and the network, coming off Madman Of The People, were glad to give it a second season to prove itself. But, true to Warren Littlefield’s mission to expand the Must See TV brand, Hope & Gloria was moved, alongside its lead-in, to Sunday nights, where the drop-off from Mad About You became a little too great. To make room for 3rdRock From The Sun, Hope & Gloria gave its spot to NewsRadio in 1996 and went over to Saturday, which had been cleared since The John Larroquette Show came back to Tuesdays following the quick termination of The Pursuit Of Happiness. By this time, Hope & Gloria’s fate was clear… At 35 episodes, this series fared better than many of the one-year-wonders that never made it out of Thursday alive, like Madman (discussed here last month), and it is less flawed than many of the MSTV flops. But having watched 34 of the 35 episodes, I can say it’s even less distinguished than a failure: it’s forgettable. Lundy and Stevenson are worthy of investment — one wishes them greater success. But the men are one-note, and the scripts, while occasionally punchy, don’t get to play with a lot of great stories because the premise is too familiar. The across-the-hall odd couple stuff is low-concept and dependent on nuance, and the TV show angle has been done to death— no matter the take.

With a design like this, character is key. And these characters are likable and well-defined… but they’re not interesting enough to make an effort to visit with them inconveniently, like on a Saturday (or even Sunday night)…. Nevertheless, I was interested in covering the show, because as with Madman Of The People, Hope & Gloria was in development during the time when NBC knew what the purpose of MSTV Thursdays were — to cultivate anchors for other nights — but before it decided (for better or worse) that hooking the same audience as the major hits, Friends (which was just then soaring) and Seinfeld, was the way to go about doing this. As a result, Hope & Gloria isn’t exactly “Singles In The City” fare; oh, yes, the relationships among young adults living in a city do take narrative prominence — especially in the second season — but the presence of a kid, and another half-home/half-workplace concept, reveal the aesthetic discrepancies. Instead, the network relied on gimmicks to try and grab the audience — guest appearances from people like Adam West (who Hope thinks is her biological father, after a shocking reveal from her mother, played by Mama’s Family’s Dorothy Lyman), Burt Reynolds, Cindy Williams, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Swoosie Kurtz, Jeff Conaway, the cast of Growing Pains, and, of course, Lisa Kudrow… Yes, during the second season of Friends, Lisa Kudrow appeared as Phoebe Buffay in a scene set in Central Perk. The episode is called “A New York Story,” and it was broadcast in the 9:00 Saturday night slot on February 03, 1996. (Sweeps — naturally!)

Written by George McGrath and directed by Alan Rafkin, this is not an example of Hope & Gloria at its finest. (Incidentally, the two best episodes of the series, in my opinion, are the first season’s “Love With An Improper Stranger,” when Hope thinks she just had a one-night-stand with a man who could be her real biological brother, and Season Two’s “The Dupree Family Christmas,” in which Gloria reunites with her father — played by Alex Rocco — and the TV show hosts a Christmas special with all of Dennis Dupree’s family, including his two ex-wives, played by Shirley Prestia and Jean Kasem.) At any rate, I know this is a curio — so from the zenith of Must See TV, and at the height of Friends’ Nielsen popularity (but when a “backlash” against the show was just forming), here’s Lisa Kudrow lending some help to an MSTV flop…



Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Friends!