Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have a chance to highlight in full — offering casual commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode that I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, I’m looking at five 1990s multi-cams with a connection to our latest Sitcom Tuesday offering: The Nanny!
MARRIED PEOPLE (Sept 1990 – Mar 1991, ABC)
Premise: Three different couples live in a New York City apartment building.
Cast: Jay Thomas, Bess Armstrong, Ray Aranha, Barbara Montgomery, Megan Gallivan, Chris Young
Writing Staff: Robert Sternin & Prudence Fraser, Gina Wendkos, Robert Rabinowitz, Daphne Pollon & David Castro, Debra Fasciano, Kermit Frazier, Jim Staahl & Jim Fisher, Eric Gilliland, Lynne Kadish & Barry Bleach, Craig Hoffman, Timothy Williams, Lissa Levin
Thoughts: This offering from two of the co-creators of The Nanny fails to indicate that popular series’ capacity for outrageously funny characters, as this typically structured ensemble comedy with three couples is awfully bland, with most of the pairings deriving definition solely from their age and/or race, with little distinction inside each pair as individuals. Oh, yes, star Thomas is the more laid-back creative type while his wife Armstrong is the strait-laced office worker — a theme sort of reversed with the younger couple — but stories rarely maximize that juxtaposition with comic proficiency, especially because these plots tend to be familiar and clichéd, with not a lot of unique material driven, or at least inspired, by the elements specific to this series. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s largely unmemorable — nothing stellar to celebrate.
Episode Count: 18 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: 12 – all but “First Impression,” “Partners,” “To Live and Drive in New York,” “Mommy and Me,” “Dance Ten, Friends Zero,” and “You Were Right and I Was…”
Key Episode (of Seen): #10: “The Baby Cometh” (11/14/90)
Why: The most memorable episode of the series has the central couple giving birth — a big event show that gathers the entire ensemble together (a rarity) and offers flashy moments.
PRINCESSES (Sept 1991 – Oct 1991, CBS)
Premise: Three women share a New York penthouse – a jilted ditz, a mouthy store clerk, and a spoiled Princess.
Cast: Julie Hagerty, Fran Drescher, Twiggy
Writing Staff: Barry Kemp, Mark Ganzel & Robin Schiff, John Bowman, Sally Lapiduss & Pamela Eells, Marion Grodin, Nell Scovell, Miriam Trogdon
Thoughts: Although all three of its leads are well-defined, this early example of a 1990s “Singles in the City” sitcom — where the domestic format has been overtaken by friends, whose romantic pursuits are the focus — is saddled at first with a contrived setup, and then forced to make do with a cast that, sadly, lacks chemistry… with each of the three women feeling like they’re existing in separate series. Meanwhile, the writing, from the Barry Kemp universe, is par for his course — occasionally amusing but not spectacular — and elevated only by Fran Drescher. She’s the series’ clear standout, bringing a likable, big energy to the material that lifts it off the ground, earning its only decent laughs. So, while the show never congeals into a healthy whole, it’s fun to see a pre-Nanny Drescher commanding the screen.
Episode Count: Eight episodes produced, five of which were broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All eight.
Key Episode: #4: “Someday My Prince Will Gum” (10/18/91)
Why: This Drescher-focused entry has the most laughs because it’s centered around the series’ most comedic lead, and though I’d normally take this space to highlight a segment more reflective of the premise, there’s no other outing that comes close to having as many hahas as this one, which also guests Leila Kenzie and Richard Kind (both of whom would go on to Mad About You) as the Drescher character’s sister and brother-in-law.
DADDY DEAREST (Sept 1993 – Dec 1993, FOX)
Premise: A divorced dad takes in his own abrasive father, who’s recently separated.
Cast: Richard Lewis, Don Rickles, Renée Taylor, Sydney Walsh, Alice Carter, Carey Eidel, Barney Martin, Jeff Bomberger
Writing Staff: Jane Milmore & Billy Van Zandt, Bob Underwood, Richard Vaczy & Tracy Gamble, Mike Barker & Matthew Weitzman, Howard Bendetson & Terrie Collins, Michael Curtis & Gregory S. Malins
Thoughts: Your enjoyment of this short-lived sitcom is entirely predicated on how much you appreciate the well-established comic persona of “Mr. Warmth,” Don Rickles, for whom this show is a vehicle. Yes, there’s something of a solid premise here — the abrasive dad, separated from his wife, now moving in with his own recently divorced single-parent son — but every character and relationship ends up feeling underbaked and irrelevant outside of Rickles’ brand of insult comedy. That’s no fault of the strong cast though, with Richard Lewis as the structural anchor and most important humanistic connection to Rickles, and Seinfeld’s Barney Martin and The Nanny’s Renée Taylor adding comic support from the sidelines. Also, scripts come from veteran scribes of classics like Newhart, Night Court, and The Golden Girls, and they’re chock full of yuks. What’s more, with a penchant for notable guest stars — including Rickles’ real-life pal Frank Sinatra — there’s plenty of episodic hooks to make entries memorable… However, that’s part of the problem, for most sitcoms of this era are riding on more than just one star’s pre-series persona and the kind of accompanying gimmicks his casting allows. So, although this is a unique sitcom from a lot of fine folks, with the potential for some genre-affirming returns based on its design and pedigree, it’s ultimately not a great situation comedy, as Rickles’ one overarching characterization singularly dominates — for better and for worse.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced, twelve of which were broadcast.
Episodes Seen: The first ten broadcast episodes.
Key Episodes (of Seen): #2: “Raging Bully” (09/12/93)
#3: “Private Lives” (09/19/93)
#4: “Al Vs. DMV” (09/26/93)
#10: “Thanks, But No Thanks” (12/05/93)
Why: In evidence of there being a workable premise, episode #2 explores how Richard Lewis’ character’s parenting is affected by having Don Rickles in the house, while #3 focuses specifically on the dynamic between this father and son, validating it as the series’ dramatic core. Of course, all that legitimate stuff is overshadowed by fun gimmicks, like in episode #4, where the Rickles persona is addled at the DMV (with guest Kaye Ballard as the menacing woman behind the counter), and #10 is an ensemble show with guests Lyle Waggoner and Alice Ghostley — it crams in a lot of jokes, but with solid support from the established characters.
TEMPORARILY YOURS (Mar 1997 – Apr 1997, CBS)
Premise: In order to get a great apartment, a New Yorker takes a job at a temp agency.
Cast: Debi Mazar, Nancy Cassaro, Saverio Guerra, Seth Green, Joanna Gleason
Writing Staff: Michael Patrick King, Vic Rauseo & Linda Morris, Wendy Goldman, Susan Beavers, Mark Solomon, Michael Feldman & Douglas Lieblein
Thoughts: This sitcom – which aired after The Nanny for a short stint in spring 1997 – boasts a terrific main cast, all of whom instill in their roles unique comic perspectives, while guaranteeing that every possible laugh on the page comes to life, and then some. The problem is the premise, which has its star take a spot at a temp agency, ostensibly because she’s prone to quitting and needs something that’s constantly stimulating and ever-changing. That means the storytelling becomes anthology-like, with the lead going from weekly job to weekly job, or a new “situation” every episode. But not only is the temp agency trapping unideal in terms of the genre, it’s also a shame for this particular series, which has such a great cast that we want to see them directly interact more in episodic story, emphasizing their hilarious personas. (Also, the few efforts here that break with the job-of-the-week format fail to satisfyingly put these leads in direct conflict based on who they are.) Accordingly, this is a sitcom that has all the raw materials it needs for success — even funny scribes — but it’s constrained by a concept that is just never going to make for excellent sitcommery, comparable to the best of this era.
Episode Count: Six episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All six.
Key Episode: #1: “Pilot” (03/05/97)
Why: The pilot is the funniest, with all the leading characters on great display — I’d love to single out someone, but truly, all five are sensational — and the primary centerpiece has Debi Mazar’s Deb serving as a cosmetologist at a morgue, where there’s some fun slapstick.
THE SIMPLE LIFE (June 1998 – July 1998, CBS)
Premise: The host of a popular homemaking show moves her production — and her life — to the country.
Cast: Judith Light, Brett Cullen, Florence Stanley, James Patrick Stuart, Ashlee Levitch, Ross Malinger, Eliza Dean, Sara Rue, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Vasili Bogazianos, Jim Cody Williams, Joey Dente
Writing Staff: Pamela Norris and Prudence Fraser & Robert Sternin, Wayne Lemon, Robbie Schwartz, Rick Shaw, Anne Lewis & Melanie Macfee
Thoughts: Co-created by Prudence Fraser and Robert Sternin of The Nanny, after which this series aired in the summer of 1998 (using in-character cameos from Fran, Val, and Sylvia), this vehicle for Judith Light combines several different sitcom tropes into one busy but boring package. The first is a parody of Martha Stewart, then at the height of her popularity and also spoofed on an earlier 1998 CBS sitcom called Style & Substance (we’ll cover it eventually). Take that framework for a leading lady and add in the ol’ fish-out-of-water “city folk go to the country” high-concept wrinkle, done best by Green Acres but certainly employed with regularity through the years. Then, because this is a series starring Judith Light and helmed by Fraser and Sternin, all alums of Who’s The Boss?, we of course get a lot of that mediocre sitcom’s familiar clichés too — hunky guy from a different world for whom the leading lady is fighting an attraction? Check. Unfiltered mother with an overactive sex drive? Check. A few kids around just for cuteness and decoration? Check. It’s all here, all routine sitcom elements cooked up in a cauldron that, again, has some fine cast members — including the reliable Florence Stanley and the young and promising Sara Rue — but ultimately fails to produce anything truly fresh or interesting. This is largely because the central characters — specifically Judith Light and her proposed love interest, played by Brett Cullen — are NOT well-defined, lacking comic traits that allow them to earn individual laughs and drive motivated story. They are merely there to uphold these overused notions, and because of their weaknesses, the whole thing feels especially false and unoriginal — like Who’s The Boss?, but busier, and even less sincere.
Episode Count: Seven episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All but “The Other Mother” (which boasts Renée Taylor as Sylvia Fine)
Key Episode (of Seen): #7: “The Luke And Sara Show” (07/08/98)
Why: Having not seen the entry with Renée Taylor (which I probably would highlight), I’m instead citing this entry, which is sadly indicative of the whole, as its plot features a centerpiece where the two leads who share an obvious-but-mutually-denied attraction get dirty while in the kitchen. It’s straight out of Who’s The Boss?, which was trying very hard to replicate Cheers. A copy of a copy of a copy — with not enough details to make it seem new. That’s what this show is — and that’s what this episode, more than anything else, effectively illustrates.
Ultimately… FORGET them all, but ENJOY what you can of TEMPORARILY YOURS and DADDY DEAREST.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!