Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing coverage on the best of Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003, NBC), one of my favorite workplace comedies of the ’90s. I’m happy to report that the entire series is available on DVD.
Just Shoot Me! stars LAURA SAN GIACOMO as Maya Gallo, GEORGE SEGAL as Jack Gallo, WENDIE MALICK as Nina Van Horn, ENRICO COLANTONI as Elliott DiMauro, and DAVID SPADE as Dennis Finch.
Sometimes after a peak, the kind that Just Shoot Me! had with Season Three, the next year is a big disappointment — either because the peak was so high that a crash is inevitable or merely because, adjacent to the series’ best, anything forced to follow naturally seems weaker. However, Just Shoot Me!’s fourth year — the first following its acknowledged apex of comedic creativity — isn’t terrible and may actually be the second most enjoyable. It has less of the father/daughter substance that made the first two seasons emotionally richer, but it comes the closest to matching the pronounced sense of humor that helped Three be so episodically rewarding. It’s also less bothered by the remaining years’ nagging concerns, specifically that the characters haven’t grown enough to continue motivating/anchoring worthwhile stories. Yes, it’s already clear in Four that the regulars need to evolve, but it almost looks as if they really are changing as a result of established narrative developments now being explored… Yet, before we discuss the two main sources of interest — Finch and Maya/Elliott — I also want to point out that this is the first year without creator Steven Levitan running the writers’ room. He’s credited with the story for one early episode, but actually spent much of 1999-2000 otherwise preoccupied with the single-season wonder Stark Raving Mad (discussed here), and wasn’t around as much. Now, one might look for differences between this year and the preceding and try to attribute them to Levitan’s reduced involvement. For instance, Four is less charactery and grounded than the first three. But, generally, every year has been moving in this direction — with or without Levitan — and Five will continue this trend more aggressively. And because Four, which moved to the 8:00 anchor spot on Tuesdays and didn’t do as well as it had at 9:00 (or 9:30, where it was slotted in spring 2000 — we’ll talk much more about scheduling next week), isn’t that much weaker than Three, I’m not comfortable linking his departure TO the ongoing decline.
That’s not to say his leave didn’t make a difference though — not the least of which concerned cast and crew morale; Levitan has since said that he regrets leaving the show so early because the others felt abandoned. That’s understandable: losing the singular guiding force would invite insecurity, and by that token, Four probably isn’t as confident as Three. Creatively, Levitan also expressed some regret at decisions that were made — or things that were done — after he handed over the reins. Fans’ natural assumption is that he’s talking about the eventual coupling of Maya and Elliott, as that’s one of the only big developments that occurs during this season. And it’s an understandable guess — the first Sweeps period without Levitan is when the pair first has sex… But, remember, not only was Maya/Elliott a teased inevitability throughout the first three years, but also, Levitan — before he left — publicly acknowledged that the show planned to do more with the pair in Four. So, while it does seem like there were competing thoughts on their dynamic within the writers’ room (an inference I make based on the DVD commentaries), he, at the very least, had laid the groundwork for what happens here and knew what was coming… I think, though, that the desire to attribute the Maya/Elliott pairing to a creative entity other than Levitan — that is, not the guy at the helm in the show’s best years — speaks to something disappointing within their dynamic, or at least with the plotting and presentation of it. Personally, I don’t think they’ve ever been as hot or rootable a couple as the MSTV titans, like Ross/Rachel, or even Niles/Daphne, and I’ve already stated that I believe Maya/Elliott’s most exciting moment has already passed — during Season Three’s “Toy Story,” in which it became clear they both wanted to be together, giving them actual goals for which we could root. Okay, so why does Season Four fail to live up to this initial excitement?
Well, the simple answer is that they’re never written as well as Ross/Rachel or Niles/Daphne. (But that’s kind of a given…) Actually, I think there are two big issues — and we’ve seen them both before. For starters, the show drags out their dynamic by plotting it only for Sweeps. Their goofy cliffhanger marriage in Three looked like it could be the narrative vessel to bring them together, but it’s quickly resolved in Four’s premiere. Then, when they have sex for the first time — in November Sweeps — the show contrives a reason to keep them apart (see: Ross, Rachel, and “the list”). It’s not until February that they couple, and although delayed gratification is vital in the will-they-won’t-they dynamic, such prolonging tactics are a blow to believability, and without writing of the caliber of Friends or Frasier, their chemistry isn’t as well-sustained against these artificially induced plot concerns. Thus, by the time they do get together, our interest in them has waned. That’s not to say, however, that we don’t care at all; we do, because their coupling is a MAJOR change in the ensemble dynamic — the first one, honestly — and we’ve been waiting a long time for something to come along and signal an evolution in the show and its structure… Unfortunately, and this will definitely be a problem in Five, the show doesn’t like writing for Maya/Elliott as a couple (again, shades of Ross/Rachel), and with every story between the two feeling labored, there’s not a lot that can be done to evolve them believably and to our satisfaction. This lack of believability is epitomized by their unmotivated break-up next season, and that will cast a pall over their entire relationship, ultimately creating the onus that makes us want to spare Levitan of its blame (even though he was certainly there and aware of the beginning of it, if not the end). Yet the problems that explode next year start to manifest here, for the scripts already fail to show how the two change by being together. In other words, the show grows — at least, in narrative appearance — but the characters don’t.
We also see this with Finch, whose marriage to Adrienne (Rebecca Romijn) is, as expected, wrapped up by November. This story, signaling the increased use of David Spade, whose presence on the show expanded in Three and will continue to grow in the years ahead, was something we always knew would be short-lived, simply by design. But it looked like it could also grow the Finch character. And, to the year’s credit, there’s actually a commendable emotional follow-through after his marriage falls apart, with several episodes tracking where Finch is, how he feels, and how he’s changed from this ordeal. This is character-driven writing… By the end of the year, though, having serviced the storyline and its aftermath, the show settles into a depiction of Finch that’ll prove growth-resistant; always akin to a horny frat boy, the character becomes so consumed by the desire for sex that he loses dimension, just when we’re looking for evolution that, initially offered, is then rescinded and never again supplied. And as the show’s loudest comedic force who now gets to set the whole show’s comedic identity, the problems with Finch are really problems with all the characters: nobody evolves as a result of story, which makes it harder for them to continue motivating it. So, the show then turns more and more to idea-based gimmicks, like casting stunts (this year has cameos from Harry Shearer, Elliott Gould, and Robert Conrad), and then fails to deliver regularly on the character propositions that its initial premise seemed able to deliver… By the end of this year, Just Shoot Me! is NOT doing right by its regulars, and while NewsRadio and The Drew Carey Show both had their own problems there, never was something so well-built so poorly used. I guess that’s why this show, which has obviously peaked, isn’t considered as smart as the former or as creative as the latter… But, I digress. Like I said, Season Four is the series’ second funniest showing, and I enjoy it. I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.
Notable writers this year include: Marsh McCall (The Naked Truth, Last Man Standing, Fuller House), Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard (Flying Blind, Dream On), Howard Gewirtz (Taxi, Wings, Oliver Beane), Jeff Lowell (The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, Two And A Half Men, The Ranch), Tom Saunders (The John Larroquette Show, The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, Arrested Development) & Kell Cahoon (The John Larroquette Show, The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, Psych), Pam Brady (The John Larroquette Show, South Park, Lady Dynamite), Moses Port (Mad About You, Happy Family, Aliens In America) & David Guarascio (Mad About You, Happy Family, The Goldbergs), Susan Dickes (The Drew Carey Show, Mad About You, Boston Legal), Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin (King Of The Hill, Out Of Practice, Maron), Brian Reich (Late Night With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Jack Burditt (Mad About You, Frasier, 30 Rock, Modern Family).
01) Episode 63: “An Axe To Grind” (Aired: 11/23/99)
Maya dates Elliott’s friend and Finch deals with his marriage’s break-up.
Written by Brian Reich | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Kevin Sorbo, better known ’round these parts as Hercules, guest stars in this outing as the catalyst that looks to bring Maya and Elliott together — think Sam Malone’s brother on Cheers. Playing an old friend of Elliott’s who the latter believes is only dating Maya because he’s interested in everyone that Elliott seems to like — something later proven when he goes after an annoying co-worker (Laurie Taylor-Williams), in a hilarious moment — Sorbo’s character ends up NOT playing such a pivotal role, for the next entry will dash the anticipated outcome, much to the detriment of our emotional investment; that is, the longer they string this not-so-original coupling along, the thinner our interest in them becomes… However, although the Maya/Elliott stuff is narratively notable, I also have to mention the subplot, which utilizes some wonderful emotional continuity regarding Finch and the recent break-up of his marriage to Adrienne. With this follow-through, Finch feels like a real person — and that’s a rarity.
02) Episode 64: “First Date” (Aired: 11/25/99)
Maya’s obnoxious ex-assistant spoils Maya and Elliott’s plans for a first date.
Written by Susan Dickes | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Cheri Oteri, the Saturday Night Live veteran who played Maya’s annoying assistant (Cindy) in a memorable second season offering, returns here for an Emmy-nominated turn where her job, essentially, is to keep Maya and Elliott from actually becoming romantically involved. In other words, she’s the tactic the year uses to prolong them until the next Sweeps period (again, think: Ross’ list of pros and cons about Rachel), and while Oteri remains as funny a performer as ever, her characterization is more outrageous this time around — perhaps it’s an attempt to couch her narrative functionality in big, distractible laughs. I think the episode ultimately succeeds, because it is funny, and the comedy doesn’t end up counteracting the sincere character material that has to be played dramatically… but I simply have to point out that none of this is handled as deftly as it could or should be, and the eventual effect is, I reiterate, a weakening of our interest in Maya/Elliott. Note: this was broadcast on Thanksgiving Thursday!
03) Episode 65: “Love Is In The Air” (Aired: 11/30/99)
Jack and Maya run into one of his ex-wives on a flight to Paris.
Written by Kell Cahoon & Tom Saunders | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Just Shoot Me!‘s contribution to November Sweeps 1999 concludes with an atypical entry that sequesters father/daughter — still ostensibly the series’ emotional core if only by muscle memory (instead of actual narrative exercise) — in a plane for a not-fully-realized (but-still-enjoyable) installment where they run into one of his ex-wives, played by Dallas‘ Victoria Principal. The story is about Jack trying to convince her to marry her gigolo beau, who also seems to have a problem with monogamy, so that he can stop paying alimony. It’s worthwhile simply because it’s a change of pace in this season where, sans any growth, the signs of a rut are just now appearing. Meanwhile, there’s an amusing subplot back in the office, as Elliott and Finch enjoy one of their favorite hobbies, pranking Nina, and she gets them back by conspiring with new recurring funnyman Kevin (Brian Posehn), in only his second appearance. (He’ll grow to become a fine comedic asset; nothing more, nothing less.) Both stories are memorable.
04) Episode 68: “When Nina Met Elliott’s Mother” (Aired: 01/25/00)
After an afternoon with Nina, Elliott’s mom decides to leave his father.
Written by Moses Port & David Guarascio | Directed by Jean Sagal
Rhoda Gemignani, whom we first met in last season’s classic “Slow Donnie,” returns in this installment as Elliott’s mother. The story, which capitalizes on the heightened comedic opportunities suggested by the larger-than-life Nina (one of the series’ most reliable laugh-getters), has the former model inspiring Elliott’s mother to revolt from a life that she’s come to find mundane. There’s some interesting cultural ideas expressed regarding the roles of women and Rhoda’s generation, but the value of the outing is more surface: the comedy that comes from Nina, first being an anti role model to a group of young girls, and then turning Elliott’s Italian mother into something of a party girl… Additionally, there’s a laugh-heavy subplot where Maya and Jack are racked with guilt after they accidentally kill Finch’s cat, whom he later has stuffed, which compounds their guilt… especially when it catches on fire in a hilarious sight gag that clinches the episode as a winner. An overlooked, but hilarious, offering.
05) Episode 69: “Dial ‘N’ For Murder” (Aired: 02/08/00)
Nina’s old agent wants to be euthanized… until she meets Finch.
Written by Sivert Glarum & Michael Jamin | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Nina Foch is the guest star du jour for this Sweeps excursion that’s centered around her and the regular cast’s two funniest players, Nina and Finch. It’s a version of a storyline that we’ve seen before — usually it’s done syrupy, like on The Golden Girls, but occasionally it’s done broadly and for laughs, like on the short-lived The Powers That Be — in which an elderly woman asks for help in ending her life. Just Shoot Me!, true to form — and thank goodness — goes for those broad laughs, as the anticipated plot twist, in which the lady loves life again when she meets and develops a friendship with Finch, is comedically subverted when we realize her goal persists and she’s only courting Finch so that he’ll have sex with her and she can go out on a figurative high note. The funniest moment comes when Finch, after learning that she’s making the moves on him, looks like he’s about to leave, but instead pumps his breath spray. It’s another unexpected beat, and it’s delightful. Also, there’s a memorable subplot in which Maya dates a guy who’s trying to fatten her up because he likes chubby women; it’s Seinfeld-ian.
06) Episode 70: “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” (Aired: 02/15/00)
Nina and Jack try to interview a date for Maya, who ends up having sex with Elliott.
Written by Susan Dickes | Directed by Pamela Fryman
After several seasons of a slow burn and this year of Sweeps-motivated stops and starts, the show is finally pressing forward with its central coupling — sparked by another triangle, this time with Elliott’s seemingly perfect girlfriend, Kaylene (Cassidy Rae), previously introduced in an earlier offering. Now, no matter how relatively weak the Maya/Elliott chemistry may be in relation to the era’s other primary MSTV couples — stemming, like we said above, from the disparity in the quality of writing — and despite the efforts made this year to drag out the inevitable and make us less interested when the show finally decides to stop fighting the obvious, it’s still exciting and something of a relief when the pair is first intimate and there’s narrative movement on a show where movement, or growth, of any kind, is novel. Meanwhile, there’s once again a fun subplot that helps the script’s haha quotient, as Jack and Nina conspire to find Maya a mate, using a rigorous interview process that yields no luck.
07) Episode 71: “Tea And Secrecy” (Aired: 02/15/00)
Maya and Elliott try to keep their new relationship a secret from the rest of the office.
Written by Brian Reich | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Picking up the morning after the above, this installment was broadcast second in an hour-long block, essentially existing as the latter half of the story. It’s not nearly as funny as its predecessor, but I think it holds more value within the larger context of the show, for it deals with workplace ensemble dynamics as everyone discovers that Maya and Elliott are now romantically paired. In the era of Friends, which spent half a season with two characters hiding a relationship from the rest of the group, it’s a welcome surprise that this show doesn’t extend the secret for longer than an act, and I think the unexpected decision speaks to both Just Shoot Me!‘s desire to flout convention (in its own slightly conventional way) and perhaps to some self-awareness regarding the fact that their pairing has already been prolonged enough. There are some choice moments here, and it’s smart that the idea pivots into a Maya/Jack story before the end. If it were funnier and better written, it could have been my MVE.
08) Episode 72: “The Pirate Of Love” (Aired: 02/22/00)
Finch thinks Adrienne wants him back and Elliott’s caught between Maya and Jack.
Written by David Nichols | Directed by Pamela Fryman
There are two worthwhile parts to this offering, credited to a freelancer, that add up to a fully satisfying, if never fully complementary, excursion. The first is the most memorable: the A-story in which Finch, after going to pick up chicks at the Sex Addicts group led by Nina’s new guy, sees Adrienne confess to fantasizing about her ex-husband. As usual, he does the sitcom thing: he sneaks into her bedroom, dressed as a pirate (per her fantasy), and winds up hiding when she brings home a date and they begin to fool around. The slapstick comedy cements my enjoyment, but again, I like that there’s some emotional continuity for Finch, following this big development. (Though I wish more was done to progress him…) At the same time, I also like the B-story, in which Maya and her father have an argument over the tactics he uses to coerce his employees into buying Girl Scout (or Girl Scout equivalent) cookies, putting Elliott in the middle, as Maya wants him on her side but he loves the cookies. It’s an amusing conflict for the show to explore while grappling with a new office dynamic as a result of the coupling.
09) Episode 77: “When Nina Met Her Parents” (Aired: 04/27/00)
A couple claims to be Nina’s birth parents and the guys see Finch nude.
Written by Howard Gewirtz | Directed by Pamela Fryman
One of two scripts this year credited to Taxi and Wings alum Howard Gewirtz, this episode is yet another bifurcated affair with two separately enjoyable, but undoubtedly separate, stories that both hold some merit. This time the A-story suggests a little bit of depth for Nina, who meets a couple claiming to be her biological parents (Lois Smith and Dakin Matthews), and when she takes a DNA test that proves otherwise, she decides to pretend that they really are her folks, just because she so desperately wants to have them. Naturally, for the cynical Just Shoot Me!, the pair has a secret of their own: they’re not her parents, they’re scam artists looking to make a buck. It’s not an A+ A-story, but it has its moments… Actually, I think this one is more well-liked for the subplot in which Elliott and Jack see Finch nude in the sauna and realize that he’s, ahem, well-endowed, which is a thematically appropriate storyline for this sex-obsessed show set in a world where image and physical attributes are prized. Aired on a Thursday.
10) Episode 79: “A&E Biography: Nina Van Horn” (Aired: 05/02/00)
The life and times of Nina Van Horn, as recounted in an A&E Biography.
Written by Pam Brady | Directed by Pamela Fryman
My pick for the best episode of the season, this installment is a Sweeps gimmick through-and-through, and there are so many reasons why I shouldn’t select it as the most favorable representation of the year, for it doesn’t at all resemble what I look for from Just Shoot Me! (or heck, from any sitcom). It’s a single-camera, audience-less stunt that doesn’t reflect what the show offered this year, it’s based around a single, somewhat dimensionless, laugh-getter without much material for the regular ensemble (or the core relationships that can actually provide some depth to the proceedings), and it’s loaded with gaudy guest star cameos, like Bernie Casey, Robert Evans, Jamie Farr, Buddy Hackett, Jerry Hall, Don Henley, George Plimpton, Sydney Pollack, Pat Sajak, Harry Smith, Cheryl Tiegs, and Vanna White… And yet, it’s the most creative show of the season, and just as we saw last week, the best offerings of this familiar series tend to be those that think outside the box, and indeed, such creativity is rewarded by an elevation in humor, especially when it’s predicated on a character that often fulfills a comedically elevating function herself. In fact — and this is why I’m ultimately comfortable with making it my MVE — it’s not only built around a funny character, it also attempts to explain her back story, which means that we’re learning more about who this person is, adding together a lot of previously referenced tidbits. It’s genius, and one comes away knowing Nina a whole lot better, which, when all is said and done, makes it more of a character piece than it seems.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: three entries close to the above list — and I mean it; evidence for the season’s relative high quality compared to other years, despite my criticisms, stems from the fact that I could have highlighted 13 — “With Thee I Swing,” which uses the sitcomy premise of one couple getting mistakenly involved with a pair of wife-swappers, but also boasts a decent Jack/Finch story involving the former’s rivalry with Donald Trump, “Hot Nights In Paris,” which gives us a few nice Jack/Nina moments, an Elliott Gould cameo, and a very funny song that Maya performs (see the title), and “Finch Gets Dick,” in which NewsRadio‘s Andy Dick guest stars as Adrienne’s friend, who’s come to steal her away from Finch. All three are solid and worthwhile. Of more Honorable Mention quality are the stunty and premise-driven season finale, “Fast Times At Finchmont High,” along with “Prescription For Love,” which has an amusing subplot for Finch and Nina.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Just Shoot Me! goes to…
“A&E Biography: Nina Van Horn”
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!