Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on the best of Evening Shade (1990-1994, CBS), which is currently available on DVD!
Evening Shade stars BURT REYNOLDS, MARILU HENNER, HAL HOLBROOK, ELIZABETH ASHLEY, MICHAEL JETER, CHARLES DURNING, ANN WEDGEWORTH, JAY R. FERGUSON, MELISSA RENEE MARTIN, JACOB PARKER, and OSSIE DAVIS. With CHARLIE DELL, ANN HEARN, and LINDA GEHRINGER.
As faithful readers of this blog know, I’ve struggled with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her mini-dynasty of sitcoms. I have tried repeatedly to muster up an appreciation for Designing Women, her biggest hit and the best embodiment of her individual ethos, in the hopes of featuring it here. But every time I’ve investigated the series, I’m reminded of why I find it, and its creator’s style, so off-putting: her lack of commendable character work, with minimal regard for the tools essential to every situation comedy. For starters, every lead on that show has the same “voice” — that is, their dialogue is too often interchangeable, for their comedic attributes blur as a result of the fact that their experiences and perspectives are so similar (as if they’re all coming from one person — heck, they are). This lack of distinction in character not only creates a sameness within the humor, but it also makes it difficult to cultivate unique story — conflict — based on any of their depictions. Story, then, seldom is about them, and Designing Women, obviously, is incredibly idea-driven — and not just in the sense that Bloodworth-Thomason has a penchant for Norman Lear-ian sociopolitical didacticism, allowing it to influence the generation of plot, but also because episodes that are purely interested in hahas similarly seem positioned solely on the strength of their loglines, not how they’re motivated by, or can help explore, the leads. Accordingly, I find it impossible to praise the show as a good example of a sitcom, for story is too often divorced from the “situation” (its leads), and the comedy itself — the way its regulars exist and interact, in pursuit of laughs — indicates a macro shortcoming with “designing characters.” Now, it pains me to have to render that verdict, for I’m so fond of the cast… I just have never found an angle for legitimately covering the show as a worthwhile or instructive situation comedy. (Especially when so many of you compare it to The Golden Girls, whose characters are exceptional — relatively and separately!) Yet, because of Bloodworth-Thomason’s presence within the genre — and my sincere desire to connect with her work — I still wanted to look at one of her hit shows. So, if I couldn’t do Designing Women, and I had the same basic criticisms of Hearts Afire, then there was but one option for me…
Evening Shade. It’s the only Bloodworth-Thomas series co-produced by MTM, a company known for its character-rich sitcoms — and a symbol of counterbalancing qualities that this creator’s efforts desperately need. After years in development, the show ended up as a vehicle for movie star Burt Reynolds, casting him as a former Steelers quarterback who’s now a high school football coach for a terrible team in the small town of Evening Shade, Arkansas, a community of southern eccentrics where he lives with his wife — a bigwig prosecuting attorney — and their three (soon four) kids. Just from this setup, you can see some of that aesthetic liminality that we recently discussed in reference to Empty Nest, for Evening Shade comes with its creator’s own thematic sensibilities, but in a package that looks more like an MTM classic, with a work/home structure where character is pushed to the fore. And indeed, beyond the work and the home, Evening Shade boasts a hangout, or, “community” aspect to its premise as well, with a Mayberry-esque capacity for hilarious and wonderfully drawn recurring and peripheral players. In fact, if Empty Nest felt limited because it had such a small ensemble and seldom evolved them, Evening Shade ensures that there are plenty of narrative opportunities with its leads, for there simply are so many leads, and Bloodworth-Thomason, with her idea-first instincts, also puts them in arcs and plots that enable gradual changes to their “situation” (like new jobs, babies, relationships). So, there’s always a chance to explore characters in story somewhere around Reynolds’ Wood Newton — at home, at work, or in this lovable, one-of-a-kind town. As such, this design pushes this Bloodworth-Thomason show to be better with its characters — its sitcommery. Oh, yes, the storytelling is never as focused on its leads as I’d like — no matter the season, and even at its peak when “novelty meets knowingness,” gimmicks and hacky, familiar notions guide plots. But, as opposed to Designing Women, these hacky, familiar notions feel, for the most part, more enriched by the specifics of these regulars, who are more specific themselves. I think a lot of this has to do, again, with the MTM design, for unlike Designing Women, which basically contains a bunch of southern ladies of a similar age and point-of-view, the ensemble for Evening Shade positionally includes variety — in age, in attitude, in relationships.
Plus, it’s also got another outstanding cast, for while Reynolds is far from the best actor — certainly in this genre — he’s a likable, charismatic presence (he won an Emmy for this season) surrounded by top-drawer talents that elevate him, including Taxi’s Marilu Henner as his wife, Ava, a character who mostly has to play the voice-of-reason (until she broadens in later years) and helps keep his performance grounded. That said, with her “straight man” persona, she’s not the greatest provider of story — it’s either driven by her career, or the mechanics of some family-based morality tale, which tend to be among the series’ least enjoyable showings because the kids are not as sharp. Well, that excludes the pair’s oldest son, Taylor (Jay R. Ferguson), who makes for some of the most character-led “home” stories because he’s deliberately defined to find conflict with his father, and because of his age, he’s able to mingle more with the other members of the cast — like the hysterical Michael Jeter as Herman, Wood’s unlikely assistant coach. Jeter is a standout — one of the show’s most reliable laugh-getters, and stories focused around him, motivated by his unique, dimensional characterization, are often the series’ best… Speaking of the best, Wood’s larger community of family and friends is stellar, with Hal Holbrook lending gravitas to his role as Ava’s father, who takes up with a younger woman — and stripper (Linda Gehringer) — creating a relationship that naturally yields conflict and comedy… and then there’s his sister, Frieda, played with chain-smoking relish by Elizabeth Ashley, a dynamo who raises the energy of this occasionally quiet comedy. She’s another standout… as is the town doctor, Harlan, and his daffy wife Merleen, brought to life by the very funny Charles Durning and the underrated Ann Wedgeworth, whose difficult role on Three’s Company failed to properly display her. And, last but not least is Ossie Davis as Ponder, who owns the crew’s local hangout and narrates every episode, providing a thoughtful, wistful quality that accentuates the series’ southern charm, rounding out a regular cast that also has space for memorable, recurring pop-ins from folks like Charlie Dell, Ann Hearn, and Alice Ghostley.
Collectively, this wider community surrounding Wood is brilliant, with their individual characterizations providing much fodder for character-driven returns. Oh, of course, by nature of this show’s structure, entries that use a lot of its lead, Wood, feel more premise-related and design-affirming, so they’re more situationally satisfying. But in terms of laughs, and the way that characters can be milked to inspire episodic story in pursuit of comedy (i.e., how Evening Shade can be the best sitcom it can be), these wider ensemble shows, or plots heavy on chosen members of this company, often make for the strongest, and most enjoyable, half hours. To that point, I must remind that this is still a Linda Bloodworth-Thomason series, and despite all this richness in its cast and the smartness of its MTM setup, which encourages her to deploy her leads more intelligently, there’s never a season that isn’t mostly idea-led in its storytelling, with a hit-and-miss sensibility as a result of how these characters are actually featured. Accordingly, I can’t say Evening Shade is great. However, I can say that it is the best sitcom by Bloodworth-Thomason, and perhaps because my expectations are lower, this is a show I’ve ended up liking far more than anticipated, for Evening Shade is easy to watch, with a palpable humanity that’s special — more romantic, and tonally poetic than the simple naturalistic-for-a-sitcom bent of an MTM comedy, or the probing, high-pitched emotionality of Lear’s efforts (and their relatives). And though it occasionally veers dramatic, ignoring this genre’s comic requirement, it’s usually a light-hearted, sweet affair… Now, with regard to Season One, specifically, there’s both solid relationship-building outings and awful, gimmicky tripe — plus a baby arc that’s funnier in theory than execution — and while this series’ character work will improve in the years ahead, as Evening Shade’s wider community assumes more prominence and less of the narrative burden is placed directly on Wood (whose centricity is premised but, as noted above, not as conducive to greatness), the show’s sturdy MTM-like foundation is already on fine display — you can see why I find it to be Bloodworth-Thomason’s most ideal sitcom. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best examples of situation comedy from Season One of Evening Shade…
01) Episode 1: “A Day In The Life Of Wood Newton (I)” (Aired: 09/21/90)
Wood is photographed with a stripper on the same day Ava learns she’s pregnant again.
Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Harry Thomason
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s pilot is actually double-sized, airing originally in an hour-long block. It’s often cited as one single entry today, but as usual on this blog, I think it’s only fair to measure half-hour episodes against other half hours. Therefore, I am separating them, and letting the count for the rest of this run reflect that fact (so 101 total options, not 100). Also, I am deliberately excluding Part II, which forsakes its laughs for some self-indulgent drama that is fairly typical of the series (especially this year) and doesn’t flatter the genre’s humor requirement compared to Part I, which is more enjoyable, as the script sets up a notable day in Wood’s life — when his wife learns she’s pregnant (despite his having had a vasectomy), he’s photographed with the town stripper, and then he discovers that his new assistant coach is the comically ill-suited Herman. (Burt Reynolds won an Emmy for his performance in the premiere.)
02) Episode 3: “There Once Was A Boy Named Wood” (Aired: 09/28/90)
Aunt Frieda babysits and then fills in for Evan at Wood’s poker night.
Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Harry Thomason
The year’s second broadcast, third half hour, continues the pregnancy storyline but really fleshes out Wood’s relationship with Ava’s Aunt Frieda, played with comic verve by the combustible Elizabeth Ashley, who is a force of nature — sometimes pushing perhaps too hard, but in a series that’s otherwise a little slower (and occasionally sleepy), it stands out as a distinction-making character choice. And she’s always good for laughs, as proven here, when she pesters Wood, both domestically and while he’s hanging out with his pals. So, this is the first great Frieda show — Ashley got an Emmy nod for it — and it’s crucial in establishing her as a force multiplier. (Future recurring player Billy Bob Thornton has a small role.)
03) Episode 6: “Fast Women” (Aired: 10/29/90)
Taylor is dating an experienced older woman while Evan begins seeing Fontana, the stripper.
Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Frank Bonner
What I appreciate most about this installment is its thematic cohesion, as Wood is asked (by Ava) to deal with romantic dilemmas on either side of him — with his father-in-law and son, both of whom have taken up with women who are deemed “fast.” In the case of Hal Holbrook’s Evan, the family has discovered his romance with town stripper Fontana — whom he’ll marry and procreate with in later years — while Taylor, the Newton child most conducive to story given the way he’s defined in contrast to his father, is dating a promiscuous senior, allowing for a fun scene where he asks his pop and grandpop about how they lost their virginity (a flashy topic that is always revealing for character). Thus, even though there’s no perfect choice for MVE (Most Valuable Episode) this season — because nothing sticks out as an exceptional ambassador — this funnier-than-baseline excursion is my pick, for it explores several characters within the strong ensemble but keeps Wood at its center, thereby evidencing the classic MTM design that’s helping to elevate Bloodworth-Thomason’s style here on Evening Shade.
04) Episode 7: “The Mustache Show” (Aired: 11/02/90)
Wood’s son shaves off half his mustache just before an old flame comes to visit Ava.
Written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason | Directed by Burt Reynolds
Probably one of the more memorable offerings of the season — largely due to the image of Burt Reynolds, often known for his trademark mustache, walking around with part of it shaved off — this half hour has some fun moments beyond just that sight gag, as Wood and Frieda get drunk, affording Reynolds and Ashley the chance to play some broader, bolder comedy. And while the main story, with a pre-Married…With Children Ted McGinley as Ava’s old flame, is typical fodder for a sitcom couple and isn’t really laudable, this narrative lets the show reinforce the pair’s emotional bond and creates some added comic tension for the scene where Wood has been shaved but hasn’t yet realized it. So, I can justify its inclusion here.
05) Episode 8: “All For Charity” (Aired: 11/09/90)
Herman wins a weekend at home with Wood and his family.
Written by David Nichols | Directed by Richard Kline
Earlier we highlighted the year’s first showcase for the reliable Elizabeth Ashley, fleshing out Frieda’s relationship with Wood; well, this outing essentially does the same for Michael Jeter’s Herman — another one of the ensemble’s funniest players and someone who, even on this list, will come to find a lot of his A-stories singled out among the series’ best, simply because of his strong characterization, aided by a superbly hysterical — and pathos-filled — performance, which bolsters ideas that capitalize directly on his persona… you know, like ideal sitcommery. That means, Herman is among the show’s best characters, and as such, his showings tend to be some of the best examples for our study. This entry — the first dedicated to exploring his friendship with Wood — is a good start, laying the foundation for better stuff ahead.
06) Episode 10: “Mr. Mom” (Aired: 11/26/90)
Ava’s busy schedule forces Wood to do more of the household chores.
Written by Sean Clark & David Nichols | Directed by David Steinberg
Although I’m not crazy about the idea of a fight between Wood and Ava that temporarily separates them — it’s forced and dramatically conventional — I think this story itself, of Wood having to take on more of the domestic responsibilities as Ava ascends in her career, is a strong sample of a premised construct being reinforced in weekly story, for this is exactly the kind of fare promised by the Ava character, and her relationship to Wood, who is something of a macho, football-playing he-man — a guy both physically and temperamentally out-of-place when tending to “the home,” enduring the anticipated reversal of gendered expectations. It’s clichéd — even by the standards of 1990 — but it’s a fulfillment of this aspect of the show’s identity, based on character dynamics, and Wood’s definition. Meanwhile, Fontana and Merleen meet for the first time — they’re a duo who’ll soon make for one of the series’ best moments…
07) Episode 16: “Chip Off The Old Brick” (Aired: 02/04/91)
Herman’s overbearing father comes to town.
Teleplay by Sean Clark & David Nichols | Story by Burt Reynolds | Directed by Burt Reynolds
Brian Keith plays Herman’s father in this episode that isn’t as funny as some of Michael Jeter’s other showcases this season, and, okay, relies too much on its guest to spark the narrative, but is nevertheless notable for supplying a deeper side to the heretofore solely goofy Herman, revealing more about him personally and rendering its story both additive to his forthcoming usage and thus valuable to our study. I also appreciate the way this script incorporates both Wood and Frieda into the narrative as well, emphasizing the strength of this ensemble as one of the series’ most valuable tools — in particular, I love the Herman/Frieda bond, which will later be responsible for a handful of Evening Shade’s funniest half hours. (And, incidentally, both performers submitted and earned Emmy noms, in part, for their work here.) So, while this isn’t one of my favorites, it is deserving of some attention. (Henry Gibson also guests.)
08) Episode 20: “Gambler Anonymous” (Aired: 03/04/91)
Wood’s efforts to keep Kenny Rogers’ visit to Evening Shade a secret are unsuccessful.
Written by Stephen A. Miller | Directed by David Steinberg
This installment is built to showcase a gimmicky guest appearance by Kenny Rogers, who naturally forces a musical climax, and while it’s therefore an accurate indication of just how idea-led Evening Shade always remains, it’s a segment I’d likely exclude, for it’s not a great sample of situation comedy. However, unlike some of the other guest star shows in later years, this offering really feels like a tribute to the ensemble, as the whole town seemingly descends on the Newton home once word of Rogers’ presence leaks, and so the emphasis is largely taken off him and placed onto the regulars from whom the show should be deriving its laughs — especially Ann Wedgeworth’s Merleen, whose lousy singing is a riot, and worth the price of admission.
09) Episode 21: “Sex Education” (Aired: 03/24/91)
Wood joins Herman when he’s tasked with teaching sex education.
Written by Don Rhymer | Directed by Harry Thomason
Unsurprisingly, a funny idea is at the heart of this outing’s appeal, as its story contrives a way to have Wood and Herman teaching a bunch of teenagers about sex — a subject that allows for uncomfortable laughs, putting characters in awkward exchanges where we enjoy watching them squirm. More than that though, this is an opportunity to witness the rapport between Reynolds and Jeter, who are wonderful together, and although they’re seldom venerated as a comic duo, they always work well when paired, as Jeter makes all of his scene partners better, particularly Reynolds. In this episode, that betterment also extends to the fussy recurring school principal, Margaret, portrayed by Ann Hearn — Herman’s primary love interest. Their relationship begins in earnest here, during a well-played centerpiece where both shine. (Of note, this was the other episode that earned Jeter an Emmy nomination following the season.)
10) Episode 23: “Herman And Margaret Sitting In A Tree” (Aired: 04/08/91)
Margaret is reluctant to start formally dating Herman.
Written by Sean Clark, Stephen A. Miller, David Nichols, & Don Rhymer | Directed by Harry Thomason
Yet another entry fixed around Herman, this excursion continues from the above, furthering his burgeoning romance with Margaret, and while it’s a bit uneven — the first half is much stronger than the second — the whole thing is collectively vital to this list, as Ann Hearn gives her funniest performance of the entire series when Margaret gets drunk on a couples date with both Wood and Ava, and Harlan and Merleen — the latter of whom are especially funny here. It’s definitely Margaret’s show, but the doc and his wife are two more ensemble members who elevate their proceedings via engaging characterizations, creating some genuinely laudable sitcom moments that I can celebrate as a testament to how Evening Shade’s design makes it the best of Bloodworth-Thomason’s output. (For the record, Charles Durning was also Emmy-nominated following his contributions this season — neither submitted segment is cited in this post.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Trials Of Wood Newton,” which is totally plot-driven but contains a rare moment of insight regarding Wood, “Into The Woods,” which looks like it’ll be a decent show for Wood/Taylor and the men, but gets distracted by its idea-led notions, and “Nothing To Fear But Harvey Lujack,” which boasts a dreadfully unfunny story but some hilarious ensemble moments, along with three gaudy outings that are memorable, but terrible examples of situation comedy, “Hooray For Wood,” which guests Charles Nelson Reilly and Sally Kellerman when a Civil War movie comes to shoot in town, “Wood And Ava And Gil And Madeline,” which uses a gimmicky “swingers” plot that feels like it belongs in the 1970s (but has some good laughs for Harlan and Merleen), and “Far From The Madden Crowd,” which builds to the overwrought birth finale and features a guest appearance by Terry Bradshaw as himself. And, lastly, I just have to cite “Something To Hold On To,” which claims a mediocre narrative but nevertheless offers one of the funniest scenes of the year, as both Herman and Frieda try to tutor the football team in algebra.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Evening Shade goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned Monday for a musical theatre rarity!