Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004, ABC). Unfortunately, only the first season has been released on DVD. But as of this publication, you can find reruns on Laff!
The Drew Carey Show stars DREW CAREY as Drew Carey, DIEDRICH BADER as Oswald Harvey, RYAN STILES as Lewis Kiniski, KATHY KINNEY as Mimi Bobeck, and CYNTHIA WATROS as Kellie Newmark. Recurring guests this season include: CRAIG FERGUSON, JOHN CARROLL LYNCH, JONATHAN MANGUM, KYLE HOWARD, KAITLIN OLSON, BILL COBBS, and IAN GOMEZ.
Most fans draw a line in the figurative sand between Seasons Seven and Eight of The Drew Carey Show, and it’s easy to see why — the heavy re-developing of both Drew’s personal and professional lives makes for a natural delineation between the last two years and all those that came before. However, aside from the structural commonalities that have Eight and Nine seeming like a pair, this formal study has impressed upon me a greater degree of complexity with regard to this season. For starters, you’ll notice that I squeaked out a list of ten favorites; I will not be able to do the same next week for Season Nine. That is, while I think it’s nevertheless true that every year past Drew Carey’s Golden Age represents a certain decline — naturally, the further we move away from the series’ most perfect era, the less great it is — the disparity between Eight and Nine may perhaps be the largest of the entire series, thus making the inclination to pair the two years together, as equals, particularly unfair to Eight. Additionally, and I hope this has become clear in our coverage, the show has already reached a point of no return in both the home and at work — the two spheres that once were balanced so well. At the office, the show spent the previous two years (at least) unsure of what to do, while on the home front, the core four friend group couldn’t survive the romance, break-up, marriage, and annulment of Drew/Kate, meaning that for all intents and purposes, their cohesive emotional centricity effectively ceased to exist when they could no longer display it in story. This happened in Season Seven, mind you — well before Christa Miller would take her leave here in Eight. Accordingly, although I find Eight far better than Nine, I also have to say that Seven isn’t much better than Eight, so if there is any figurative line to be drawn between the two, it’s a faint one.
Also, I think this study has revealed for just how long Drew Carey was needing a revamp, both in the personal and professional spaces. Heck, as we saw last season, Carey and his crew had already given a dry-run for Eight’s moves — at least as far as the PR machine was concerned. Obviously, these efforts weren’t enough, so Eight needed to go bolder; the only way Drew Carey could return to form was if major changes were made… Now, some of these may not have been optional (like Kate’s departure — more below), but they indicate a healthy self-awareness regarding the show’s problems. For example, after Season Seven divided its time between character-hindering stunts and more earnest “sitcom” stories, Eight decides to focus on the latter, and drop the gimmicks all together. As a result, the casting stunts and episodic hooks disappear (except for one cameo by the Goo Goo Dolls) in favor of new recurring players, shifting ensemble dynamics, and actual character arcs… In the workplace, the show jettisons Milan and Lord Mercer and does what probably should have happened years ago: it transfers Drew and Mimi to an entirely different office. Now they work for an internet start-up company (The Neverending Store) under two twenty-something bosses, Scott (Jonathan Mangum) and Evan (Kyle Howard), and alongside office diva Traylor (Kaitlin Olson), who clashes with Mimi and provides for some of the series’ trademark antagonism, which is otherwise muted between Drew and Mimi… In general, Mimi becomes less of a caricature this season, and while we saw episodic evidence of her relationship with Drew becoming more nuanced in the past — after Gus was born — there’s noticeable evolution here, especially when the office-embracing show no longer needs Steve on a weekly basis and has his character separate from Mimi and bump down to recurring, along with Mr. Wick, who curiously appears in a handful of episodes early in the year (as a janitor) before disappearing entirely until the season’s grand finale.
Reducing the use of the broad Wick and the lifeless Steve is relatively inconsequential, and though I do miss more of the combat between Drew/Mimi (because the show has accustomed us to a certain outrageous humor that we miss when absent), the definitions afforded to the three new recurring characters at The Neverending Store are commendable — each have individual attitudes that call for specific comedy. It’s textbook sitcom writing. The problem is, as we saw last week with the much more temporary Milan, it’s impossible to care about these newbies to the same degree that we care about our seasoned veterans, and though it may be unfair, the juxtaposition between the two camps only highlights the difference in their lifespans. Had this development happened years earlier — let’s say around Seasons Four or Five, when the show was already itching to shake up the Winfred-Louder scenario — it might have been successful. But now, it’s “too little, too late,” and just as Eight is less enjoyable than Seven simply because it’s more removed from the Golden Age, this major structural shift isn’t something that can be celebrated… even though it’s handled surprisingly well… I’d also like to note that the pivot towards a more textual, realistic version of the series, which indeed mitigates the “anything can happen” aura that existed over the show during its best episodes, doesn’t entirely rob the season of its creativity. Oh, sure, we miss the wildness — but the show finds other ways to think outside the box, like with the incorporation of another recurring character, Tony the bus driver (Bill Cobbs), who becomes an amusing confidant for Drew. He makes his debut right after the departure of Kate… which brings us to what’s best remembered about this season: the loss of Kate and the introduction of her official replacement, Kellie (Cynthia Watros).
Now, I’ve never been able to get the full scoop about Christa Miller’s exit, yet my understanding is that she was signed until the end of the eighth season but didn’t want to stay for the contractually obligated ninth. And when the actress became pregnant with her second child, the show decided not to give her a maternity leave and then bring her back just for another departure, and instead to say goodbye right away — hence her hasty exit two episodes into the year… Naturally, her farewell is rushed and illogical, but, like we’ve noted, the foursome became irrelevant when the show couldn’t emotionally pretend they could still hang out together and anchor comedic stories… Thus, when she’s replaced with Kellie, the show finally RESTORES for itself a core four friend group… one that it hasn’t had, I would argue, since Season Five. So, on paper, the home front — just like the office — is much healthier than it’s been in a while. And to her credit — that she seldom gets — Watros actually has commensurate chemistry with the three guys… equal to Miller’s. Her character, however, is a different story. Kellie’s characterization — which I’d argue is, frankly, more rigid than Kate’s — sometimes doesn’t jibe with the actress and what she brings. In other words, while Watros can tap into the cast’s energy, she isn’t always buyable in her role as defined, particularly in the beginning, where she’s introduced as a stripper coming off a bad divorce who needs a place to stay and a new job (which she gets, as a waitress at the Warsaw — convenient and, again, on paper, smart). You see, this definitive backstory — which the show posits as a “trashy” upbringing — is much more specific than the nebulously crafted Kate’s. And again, theoretically, the series does everything right in introducing her: we know exactly who Kellie is and she’s efficiently injected into the weekly proceedings. But, still, it’s simply too late to care about her like we care about Drew. She’ll never be anything more than an accessory: his love interest.
To that point, one of the reasons we don’t completely invest in Kellie is that her purpose is clear from the start — she’s not only going to replace Kate in the group, she’s also going to replace Kate in Drew’s heart. And despite the “clever” reverse — she has a crush on Drew — the audience knows the year will somehow end on Drew/Kellie, killing all suspense. That’s also partly why Eight’s big character arc of Drew setting a date to get married, no matter what — a sincere year-long engine — can’t truly satisfy: we know it’s merely a time-filling story-generator until Drew and Kellie are paired. Additionally, while this arc is a buyable emotional response to Kate’s hasty marriage — and we get it, because Drew has always loved her — it’s still not a logical objective. That is, wanting to marry, regardless of the partner, isn’t something we can actively root for, especially now that the show is trying to be more realistic and relatable, because we don’t want Drew to make a bad decision… nor one we don’t believe he’d make. To wit, the mini-arcs afforded to Lori Loughlin (who’s set up with Drew by the returning Larry), A.J. Langer, and finally Tammy Lauren (playing a southern belle with all the subtlety of a Scarlett O’Hara reject), may satisfy technically for those who appreciate the year’s game efforts at classic sitcom storytelling… but because the overarching idea is inherently contrived, it isn’t as good for character as it wants to be… Yet ABC didn’t care. By this time, the network was done with the series, but for the fact that it had to legally bankroll a full ninth season. So, after moving the show out of its Wednesday slot to Monday, and then to Friday, ABC put the show on hiatus in January and burned episodes off back-to-back in the summer. The same thing would be done for Season Nine… I get it though; sadly, no matter how smart and noble these re-development efforts were, Drew Carey had outlasted its audience’s good will, and the network had no reason to make it easy for the show to reclaim it. I can’t say that I blame ABC, because even though this year is better built than many, we’re honestly just waiting for the end… Nevertheless, I was able — shockingly — to pick ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.
This year’s writers include: Clay Graham (Benson, Who’s The Boss?, Anger Management), Bruce Rasmussen (Wings, Roseanne, The Middle), Les Firestein (In Living Color, Nikki, Wanda At Large), Linda Teverbaugh & Mike Teverbaugh (Who’s The Boss?, Roc, Last Man Standing), Dan O’Keefe (Seinfeld, The League, Silicon Valley), David A. Caplan (Dinosaurs, Norm, George Lopez, Roseanne), Mitch Hunter & Jana Hunter (According To Jim, The Middle), and Julie Ann Larson (Dharma & Greg, Last Man Standing).
01) Episode 184: “Eyes Wide Open” (Aired: 09/23/02)
Drew has nightmares about Kate.
Written by Bruce Rasmussen | Directed by Bob Koherr
After two weeks of re-developmental heavy-lifting — making the Kate/Kellie swap and setting up the new workplace — this is the first that feels like a normal example of Season Eight, although it’s very much caught between the old and the new. In the old column are Wick (who appears here as a janitor hoping to scheme his way back into business… a thread that’s dropped when he disappears weeks later) and Nicki, who finds her final and unnecessary arc concluded in an otherwise amusing episodic subplot where she dates Lewis. In the new column are the introductions of Traylor, the office prima donna, and Tony, the bus driver, along with Drew’s marriage plan, which he announces at the end of an emotionally connectable A-story where he has nightmares about Kate and finds strange solace by shooting guns with Mimi — which gives evidence to the evolved, more human, less combative relationship the two now share.
02) Episode 186: “Hickory Dickory… Double Date” (Aired: 10/07/02)
Drew and Kellie decide to double date.
Written by Les Firestein | Directed by Sam Simon
Eight doesn’t have enough strength to make a list of ten uniformly excellent showings; the best I can do is muster about five/six near-classics and several other memorable ones that represent the year enjoyably… Naturally, this installment falls in the latter category, for with its obvious narrative intentions — introducing the fact that Kellie had/has a crush on Drew (something that only cements our earlier suspicion that she is Drew’s new love interest) — this isn’t designed as an outstanding comedic showcase (though the Oswald subplot is pretty funny). However, Firestein’s teleplay is concept-elevating, and the unique friendship introduced between Mimi and Kellie is but one example of smart character writing that also services story.
03) Episode 187: “Mama Told Me I Should Come” (Aired: 10/21/02)
Drew’s mom sets him up with a woman who has a peculiar fetish.
Written by Jana Hunter & Mitch Hunter | Directed by Bob Koherr
In contrast to the above, which doesn’t have a brilliant comedic centerpiece but is notable for the character work, this entry is all about the heightened hahas that stem from its comedic idea — its Victory In Premise. In fact, if there’s anything approaching a gimmick show this year, it would be this offering, built on the notion that Drew is set up on a date by his mom (played by Marion Ross, who’s slowly ingratiated herself as one of the funniest recurring players in the series’ arsenal) with a woman who has a peculiar fetish: she prefers to make love while dressed like a squirrel. It’s over-the-top and not entirely believable, but it’s also unique and unforgettable, and in this year where superb shows are lacking, it’s, frankly, a hard one to exclude here.
04) Episode 188: “Family Affair” (Aired: 11/08/02)
Drew is roped into covering for Steve when the latter steps out on Mimi.
Written by Julie Ann Larson | Directed by Sam Simon
My choice for the best of the year, this one-of-a-kind episode capably blends Drew’s season-long personal arc with the character opportunities offered by the new workplace, all the while continuing the structural re-development that both highlights the growing humanity afforded to regulars like Mimi and Drew and presents legitimate character changes in which we have a vested emotional stake. After setting up an office party where Drew, in a nod to his overarching objective, is set to arrive with a cute co-worker (Suzanne Cryer), the premise turns on its head when Drew is forced to cover for his cheating brother by pretending that Steve’s chosen affair, Gloria, portrayed hilariously by the rode-hard-and-put-away-wet Jeannetta Arnette, is his new girlfriend. Obviously, this doesn’t end well for Drew when women collide and the charade begets a series of slaps before the truth is revealed, Mimi leaves Steve, and Gloria goes back to her own husband. This type of comedic farce feels more like Frasier than Carey, but the series pulls it off well, with big laughs and earned drama born from our faith in character.
05) Episode 192: “Drew Tries Hot Salsa” (Aired: 12/06/02)
Drew takes salsa lessons and develops feelings for Kellie.
Written by Dave Caplan | Directed by Gerry Cohen
As with the above installment designed to formally introduce the idea that Kellie has harbored (and is still harboring) a crush on Drew, this outing intends to be the first major pivot in their dynamic, as now Drew realizes that he has some feelings for Kellie… feelings that he plans to act on until a temporary roadblock shows up at the end of the second act via her ex-husband (played by James Denton). Now, this one doesn’t quite have the laughs that help elevate other more functional narrative entries, but there are a handful of redeeming moments, like in the easy, breezy subplot where Mimi tries to investigate an office mole, and during the salsa class with guest Roselyn Sanchez as the teacher. Also, Drew and Kellie, and their portrayers, actually exhibit some decent chemistry during their dance, for whatever that’s worth…
06) Episode 195: “Blecch Sunday” (Aired: 01/24/03)
Drew has to overcome his nerves when he’s picked to do a live Super Bowl commercial.
Written by Ed Lee | Directed by Shelley Jensen
The last episode broadcast during the 2002-’03 season before ABC shelved the series and brought it back in the summer (where the remaining shows were burned off two-at-a-time), this entry is like “Mama Told Me I Should Come” in that it’s fixated around a comedic idea — or rather, a comedic image: Drew throwing up on live television. That amusing Victory In Premise is why this offering is memorable and why I’ve bumped it up to this list. However, there’s some actual meat to these proceedings, courtesy of Larry (whose recurring return began in November Sweeps when he became a matchmaker whose services Drew sought), and yet, for a season that, again, is desperate for greatness, that one indelible centerpiece is enough.
07) Episode 196: “Turkeyspotting” (Aired: 06/25/03)
Drew goes on a diet before attending a singles mixer.
Written by Adam Faberman | Directed by Bob Koherr
A lesser contender for the year’s MVE, this smart show furthers Drew’s seasonal arc — which is nearly a necessity in making for a great example of Season Eight and its unique charms — while also tapping into deeper character concerns that we’ve known about since, well, since almost the beginning. I’m writing now of Drew’s body image issues and the drama that he’s endured as a result of his heftier size. (The apex of this, of course, was the first Nicki arc, way back in Season Three). And so, an outing that presents this natural character-rooted conflict as an obstacle for Drew getting what he wants — a wife before that fateful day in May (remember, this was set up before ABC put the show on hiatus) — is an ideal blending of character and story. And that delicious climax where Drew fantasizes over a dancing roasted turkey is just gravy.
08) Episode 198: “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (Aired: 07/02/03)
Drew and Kellie compete against each other in karaoke.
Written by Jana Hunter & Mitch Hunter | Directed by Sam Simon
Like several of the outings featured above, this episode is chosen because it builds to a singular comedic centerpiece — one not altogether unfamiliar in the sitcom (I think some of you may remember the gag better from a second season offering of Arrested Development) — in which Drew ends up singing karaoke with a teen on a song that, because of their age differences, is highly inappropriate. Here, it’s “Do That To Me One More Time” and it gets all the laughs you’d expect. Otherwise, this is an adequate entry, attempting to further Drew and Kellie’s secret feelings for one another while couching them in broad comedy, delivered mostly by Oswald and Lewis. For Season Eight, this is an installment that’s unspectacular, but inoffensive.
09) Episode 203: “A Means To An End” (Aired: 07/16/03)
An elaborate prank war ends in Drew getting a colonoscopy.
Written by John N. Huss | Directed by Shelley Jensen
There’s a vintage Drew Carey charm surrounding this entry and it stems from the practical joke war premise, which has been fodder for several earlier classics (MVEs and near-MVEs). Unsurprisingly, this offering can’t claim to be quite so triumphant — it literally concludes with Drew getting a colonoscopy from a veterinarian because it otherwise has nowhere else to go — but the camaraderie/rivalry between the friends, along with that delectable “anything can happen” sensibility that has been absent from the series during much of Season Eight, is great. Accordingly, although this isn’t close to being the cream of the crop, it stands out among this year’s crowd and more-than-deserves being highlighted as a funnier, favorable sample.
10) Episode 205: “What Screams May Come” (Aired: 07/23/03)
Drew becomes a victim of Lily’s night terrors.
Written by Julie Ann Larson and Terry Mulroy | Directed by Gerry Cohen
I opined briefly above about Tammy Lauren’s arc as Lily, the southern belle who appears in the last four shows of the season and is the woman who technically fulfills Drew’s goal of getting married before running out on him right afterwards (and setting the stage for the requisite Drew/Kellie moment). But to elaborate, I think she fits in with this season’s tradition of actually defining its new characters, and that’s a nice change of pace from some of the earlier years, which kept love interests’ personas fuzzy. However, the performer lays on her shtick a bit thick, and because we know the Drew/Kellie beat has to be reconciled, our emotional investment is naturally qualified. As a result, this episode — built around a comedic episodic premise, as opposed to long-range arc concerns — is the only of the Lily entries to make this list.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Lewis, You Can Drive My Car,” an adequate Lewis-focused entry in which he changes personalities when Drew gives him a new Rolls-Royce, “Love Is In The Air,” which has two funny ideas (both the Drew/Lily A-story and the Mimi/Kellie subplot) but neither includes the great comedic moment or terrific character beats that earn outings above their place on the list, and “Bataan Wedding March,” the very memorable season finale where Marion Ross attempts to orchestrate a bait-and-switch between Lily and Kellie, leading to a funny chapel scene, done in only by story concerns and the aforementioned lack of suspense within the arc. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Drew And The Life-Size Jim Thome Cut-Out,” which tries to initiate Kellie into the core four but is really only good for a final sight gag, and “Two Girls For Every Boy” in which Drew and lesbian Amy Pietz are both interested in bisexual Melanie Paxson.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of The Drew Carey Show goes to…
Come back next week for Season Nine! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!