Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday… which I’m counting as a Sitcom Tuesday, for I’m sharing thoughts on a short-lived series that, well, I wouldn’t say is on the level of most Sitcom Tuesday offerings — mainly because it didn’t run long enough — but it’s certainly among the best I’ve ever examined for inclusion in a Potpourri piece. And for that reason, I wanted to give it its own post… In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one, not knowing where to place it, but now, before we continue on any further (with The Nanny coverage beginning tomorrow), I’m pulling the figurative brakes so we can jump once more back into the 1980s — 1984, to be exact — for the very brief Shaping Up (1984, ABC). As you’ll note, I’m retaining the straightforward casual structure of my commentary as it would have appeared in a Potpourri entry (because the brevity is clarifying), but make no mistake — this is one of those rare “diamonds in the rough” of which sitcom archeologists like myself wish there were more…
SHAPING UP (March 1984 – April 1984, ABC)
Premise: A former TV jock owns a Santa Monica gym with an eclectic staff.
Cast: Leslie Nielsen, Michael Fontaine, Jennifer Tilly, Shawn Weatherly, Cathie Shirriff, Jake Steinfeld
Writing Staff: Ken Estin & Sam Simon, Merrill Markoe, David Lloyd, John Markus
Thoughts: An ensemble workplace multi-cam written by Taxi veterans who’d go on to produce Cheers — one of whom (Sam Simon) would also co-helm the iconic The Simpsons — Shaping Up has a great pedigree. And, happily, I can confirm that it is indeed a terrific effort by all those involved, offering the hilarious Leslie Nielsen in the Sam Malone-like role of an aging popular jock who’s now the managing boss of a boutique recreational/hangout spot — not a bar this time, but a gym. And instead of a romance informing the central relationship, this series’ emotional anchor is Nielsen’s, or “Buddy’s,” bond with a trainer, the son he never had — a sort of “straight man” who can talk plain to him while fighting to keep both Buddy and the business young. Its cast also includes three beautiful women employees — a Russian still acclimating to the ways of California, and the quintessential pair of opposites (who also become unlikely roommates): the perky, naïve Southerner (played by a former Miss Universe) who I think may have eventually become a love interest for Buddy’s surrogate son, and a worldly, sarcastic aspiring actress, portrayed by creator Sam Simon’s future wife, Jennifer Tilly — stealing every scene in which she appears. Also on hand for a few episodes is “Body By Jake”’s Jake Steinfeld as an air-headed bodybuilder, rounding out a strong cast of well-defined players, very much in the vein of the stellar workplace/hangout comedies with which its creators were associated. Sadly, only five episodes were produced, and with the sitcom genre in a drought (as a whole) during the 1983-‘84 season, ABC was not willing to give this series opportunity to grow. After four weeks of mediocre ratings, the fact that it cracked the week’s Top Five(!) for its fifth and final broadcast was irrelevant to the alphabet network, which cancelled Shaping Up before it had any chance to prove its legs. This was a shame — for this brief series boasts a solid cast (especially Nielsen and Tilly) in a classically designed sitcom construct where there are crystal clear comic characters just waiting to be explored in story. I would have loved to see more.
Episode Count: Five episodes were produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All five.
Key Episode: #2: “Ex Pede Herculem” (03/27/84)
Why: This was originally intended to be the series’ premiere (the show was ordered without a pilot), but the network swapped it for a later episode the brass deemed preferable — a more emotionally overwrought outing that highlighted Buddy’s craving for a family in a plot that (unlike the rest) takes him out of the gym for scenes with people other than the main cast. So, not only was that an inaccurate sample of the series, it was also not very funny, and early reviews — based on that showing — were appropriately negative. ABC should have stuck with this excursion, which establishes all the leads and their relationships inside of a breezily funny script that proves these writers are excellent at their craft, just as we’d expect. Maybe if this was the offering the press got to view ahead of the series’ debut, it would have had a greater chance of survival. From the quality evidenced here and in its other entries, Shaping Up deserved better.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned TOMORROW for The Nanny!