Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! To complement coverage of Murphy Brown (1988-1998, CBS) running concurrently on Sitcom Tuesdays, today’s entry concludes our sojourn into the best moments from the series for which creator Diane English left the aforementioned, Love & War (1992-1995, CBS), a flawed rom-com that’s never been released on DVD, but can be purchased via YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and Google.
A New York newspaper columnist falls for the new chef of a local bar. Love & War stars JAY THOMAS as Jack Stein, ANNIE POTTS as Dana Palladino, JOANNA GLEASON as Nadine Berkus, JOEL MURRAY as Ray Litvak, SUZIE PLAKSON as Meg Tynan, MICHAEL NOURI as Kip Zakaris, and CHARLES ROBINSON as Abe Johnson.
Season Three of Love & War proves the show peaked in its second season, for this year marks a noticeable downturn in quality — not as flawed as the material highlighted in Season One, but still worthy of more critical derision than its otherwise affable predecessor. The primary issue, as it almost always manages to be, is the show’s use of its characters — all of them, with the main couple at the trouble’s forefront. For while the series predictably built towards a Jack and Dana relationship at the end of the prior season, this year doesn’t explore the relationship in a way that capitalizes upon the promise their chemistry initially showed. After a few episodes of the pair becoming sexually compatible, the show very quickly turns them into a predictable couple that could appear on any series and with any set of malleable characterizations. Throughout the course of the year, they’re treated to all the requisite developments of TV coupledom — moving in together, job loss, proposal, cheating, fake pregnancy, and marriage (the last few coming at the end of the season, when it was almost assured the show wouldn’t be returning). In Season Two, their dynamic tension, which was evidently better than the first couple’s, could excuse some of the trite storytelling failings; here in Season Three, the scripts are not good enough to make pardon a possibility, as the characters become linked with these ostentatious storytelling maneuverings — specifically Dana, who changes her personality based on the demands of the weekly narrative. The result? We lose our belief in their truth and divest emotionally. This is the series’ death knell, for in the absence of English’s overbearing stylistic objective, the series has defined itself by the primary couple.
But these issues of prizing story over character are widespread and move through the whole cast, as the focus on Jack and Dana is shrunken (because, let’s face it, they’re becoming boring) and the show deludes itself into thinking it’s doing better for the ensemble simply by engaging the others more. The truth, however, is that this season boasts more narrative-driven ideas than ever — instead of those driven by the characters, who were each developing last season. In addition to a gimmicky anthology two-parter (reminiscent of Taxi) and a socially conscious installment about mammograms, so many of the stories here are focused on the ensemble dynamics within the cast. Now, this should be interesting, as the interactions among the regular characters should be the main source of comedy, but with each player being subordinate to narrative, the results are unrewarding — and further force comparisons to the superior Cheers (1982-1993, NBC), the specter of which the show has never been able to shake. While characters like Abe and Kip remain unusable for story, Nadine, who was broad in Season One and then found a sustainable and comedic persona in Season Two, is diluted entirely, such that she has very little character left. The only two who are used somewhat adequately are Ray and Meg, who prove themselves good for both laughs and plot. Also, the show even involves this pair in a sexual tryst during the season premiere — seemingly as part of a bait-and-switch that’s really clever and seems to point towards Love & War expanding its horizons to two couples. But in another case of the series missing opportunities, the exploration of this development is refused, and with the exception of one other encounter (in an episode that went unaired on CBS), it proves worthless. These missed opportunities = more mediocrity.
It must have been clear the end was nigh when the series was moved in January of ’95 from its Monday slot behind Murphy Brown into a losing Wednesday line-up (next to English’s new Double Rush). Attempts to make the series seem more relevant came around this time as well; the show changed its romantically styled font and updated its musical score to something less lush and more urbane, as the series visually tried connecting to the “singles in the city” mid-’90s zeitgeist that was happening on shows like Seinfeld (1989-1998, NBC) and Friends (1994-2004, NBC), in which the projection of “reality” was particularly valued. I personally don’t mind this evolution for Love & War, because once the series dropped the aesthetic notions to which it never fully committed during the first season, it really should have made more sweeping alterations in the other direction. But, because the quality, which itself was never great, fell under the weight of mediocre and improperly used characters, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the show deserved to end… However, as a series with a three-year run, it didn’t deserve to die like it did when CBS put the series on an indefinite hiatus in February with six episodes left to air, only to resurrect it in August for — depending on the affiliate — one, two, or three (maybe even four) weeks, leaving anywhere between five and two episodes — in which BIG story things were happening (proposal, wedding, etc.) — unseen in most markets. I note this specifically because my research has indicated that the order you will find the episodes on the streaming services is not necessarily how they aired. Yet, because this order is how they’ll be screened now (and because some affiliates were left to their own devices, complicating matters), I am choosing to go by the streaming order… So, with all that established, let’s conclude our three-week sojourn into mediocrity. I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there may be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 20 of the 22 produced episodes are directed by Robert Berlinger; any that are highlighted and aren’t directed by him will be noted below. Air dates marked with an (*) mean that the offering wasn’t broadcast in most markets.
01) Episode 47: “The Morning After The Night Before” (Aired: 09/19/94)
Two couples at the Blue Shamrock were busy the night before.
Written by Diane English
The third season looks to chart the traditional course of what happens after a show’s leading couple has fallen into bed with one another following a long period of emotional foreplay, only for it to be less than desired; we’ve seen it before. But this installment actually surprises by doing an aforementioned bait-and-switch in revealing that Meg slept with Ray, her best friend and formerly a virgin. It’s a comedic development, it’s buyable, and it actually looks like maybe the season will be exploring two contentious relationships. (If only that was the case!)
02) Episode 49: “The Squeaky Wheel” (Aired: 10/03/94)
Jack gets in trouble for using a handicap bathroom stall.
Written by Rob Greenberg
This episode is included on today’s list because I think it represents the series trying to adopt some of the sensibilities of the hit sitcoms of the mid-’90s — specifically Seinfeld, which did an episode a year-and-a-half before about the gang parking in a handicap spot. In this offering, Jack uses a handicap stall and arouses the ire of a militant wheelchair-bound crank, who puts Jack through his paces. It’s a different type of story and humor than this show usually employs, but it’s enjoyable and represents the series’ (correct) impulse to try new things.
03) Episode 52: “Ten Cents A Dance” (Aired: 10/24/94)
Dana sees an ex at a dance marathon.
Written by Janet Leahy
A sweet episode that tries to infuse the show with some of the fantastical romance that had been lost after the turbulent first season, the bulk of this offering is set at a retro dance marathon in which the story has Dana spotting an old flame. The comedy comes from the “telephone game” gag that’s played on the floor as the information gets all the way back to Jack. Like most of Leahy’s episodes (the Cosby Show alum replaced Elaine Pope), this entry isn’t especially hilarious or original, but it’s cute and feels appropriate for the series and this era.
04) Episode 54: “Moving In” (Aired: 11/14/94)
Jack and Dana regret moving in together.
Written by Shannon Gaughan
As the first of the “big developments” that this season explores with regard to Jack and Dana, this installment is addled by the bizarreness of having them move in together so quickly. (It took a year for them to even be physically intimate — is it believable they’d rush now?) The whole thing feels very formulaic and inorganic, but the episode itself is entertaining and provides plenty of comedic moments that suit the characters within the confines of the premise. And because the ensemble has weakened, we appreciate any solid Jack/Dana outing.
05) Episode 55: “The Luck Of The Irish” (Aired: 11/28/94)
Meg’s basketball beau only performs well after they’ve been intimate.
Written by Matt Goldman
Were I to pick the best episode of this series that’s not centered on the primary couple, it would probably be this amusing outing, which despite a premise that’s not terrifically creative or original, is still fresh enough not to be considered routine or redundant. The premise has Meg dating a Knicks player who only does well on the court if they’ve had sex right before (a reverse LeBec); she’s his good luck charm. It’s easily a comedic premise and it’s a joy to watch — particularly for sports fans who’ll delight in seeing Marv Albert making a cameo as himself.
06) Episode 59: “At The Pantheon (II)” (Aired: 01/11/95)
The group reminisces about an old movie theatre.
Written by Ian Praiser
Mentioned above in the seasonal commentary, this is the second half of a gimmicky two-parter comprised of a bunch of individual character vignettes, centered around a common theme: an old movie house. (It’s stylistically like what Taxi, for which new staffer Praiser — replacing Marc Flanagan — once wrote, would do at the end of its seasons.) While Part I gains mention for a comedic sequence involving Joanna Gleason’s Nadine and some marijuana, this outing features the Emmy-nominated appearance of Sid Caesar as Jack’s father, and in spite of not having as many laughs as its predecessor, Part II does a much better job regarding character.
07) Episode 63: “One Strike, You’re Out” (Aired: 08/18/95)
Jack and Meg are out of a job when the paper goes on strike.
Written by Shannon Gaughan
When the series was announced as returning in late August ’95, this installment kicked off the final stretch of episodes and was the only one that seemed to be broadcast in a significant number of markets. The premise has the newspaper going on strike, forcing Meg to work at the bar, while Jack attempts to drum up ideas by picking fights with the customers. It’s got a few laughs, but the episode is actually notable for changing the course of the series, as Jack loses his job once the strike ends, opening up fodder for new story (that doesn’t fully come).
08) Episode 64: “Atlantic City” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Jack and the group go to Atlantic City for his birthday.
Written by Matt Goldman
From any place you download the series today, this installment will follow the one highlighted directly above, although it was produced before its predecessor and I’ve found no evidence that it ever actually was broadcast by CBS. It’s one of the year’s most memorable, however, as the action is set in Atlantic City, allowing for plenty of situational humor in which the cast members all go to a casino. Also, it’s the only episode that utilizes the promising Ray/Meg development from the season premiere as the two fall back in bed together while on the trip.
09) Episode 65: “The Proposal” (Aired: 08/25/95*)
Dana thinks Jack’s going to propose; he prepares to dump her.
Story by Ian Praiser | Teleplay by Wil Calhoun | Directed by Joanna Gleason
The second of the final few episodes to air, this entry was not carried by a majority of the affiliates, so its original broadcast date is only relevant to certain areas. It’s another important outing, as the series, sensing its imminent demise, pushes the characters together in a hasty engagement that doesn’t make any sense at all; the episode seems to know this, for the story has Dana anticipating a proposal, while Jack (now unemployed) plans a break-up. Each character’s point-of-view yields some laughs, in spite of the contrived unmotivated climax.
10) Episode 66: “Shrunken Heads” (Aired: 09/01/95*)
Jack and Dana each go to a therapist who encourages them to be more honest.
Written by Stephen Nathan
Again, this episode was carried by few affiliates (fewer than the one above), but the engagement arc is continued, as both Jack and Dana see a therapist before walking down the aisle. They each reveal secrets: he cheated on her and her uncle was a Nazi. The former is quite uncomedic, but allows for more narrative substance than we’ve seen all season, while her revelation is humorous and is used to carry the episode’s comedy quotient. (And Potts performs well, despite the characterization problem.) A solid theatrical entry from this blah period.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Jack’s Breast,” a socially conscious outing memorable only for the guest appearance by the always delightful Beverly Archer, “At The Pantheon (I)” the laugh-solid first half of the entry discussed above, in which Nadine gets stoned (the closest to the above list), and “Tradition,” the penultimate installment in which both Jack and Dana have their bachelor/bachelorette parties.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for more Murphy Brown!