Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our coverage on the best of Kate & Allie (1984-1989, CBS), which is currently available on DVD.
Kate & Allie stars SUSAN SAINT JAMES as Kate and JANE CURTIN as ALLIE. With SAM FREED, FREDERICK KOEHLER, ALLISON SMITH, and PETER ONORATI.
Although the fifth season of Kate & Allie found the aging sitcom shedding all the unique facets associated with its identity, this misbegotten sixth (and final) year makes the series’ ongoing loss of self irrevocably lethal, totally destroying the initial structure of the premise so that it’s now virtually impossible for the show to be what it was — not only does Emma disappear entirely while Jennie moves out (and appears far less), thereby disrupting both the family premise and its “modified wrinkle,” Allie takes a husband, moves in to a high-rise apartment, and drags along Kate as a boarder, essentially making the latter a third wheel in her new marriage. Or rather, the husband, Bob (who doesn’t have much personality), is the third wheel in what’s supposed to be the series’ central friendship, for despite crafting for him an out-of-town job (this is similar to what would have happened in the final season of Laverne & Shirley if Cindy Williams had stuck around and the show had visualized a hubby for Shirley), scripts actually keep him a moderately active presence, meaning Allie’s focus gets split between two relationships, and this inevitably dilutes the importance of the titular bond that had heretofore served as the series’ proxy-premise. Accordingly, both the family and core relationship are intentionally undermined if not destroyed in Six, and since these characters have never had their definitions maximized within a storytelling apparatus that has allowed them to push plot in this low-concept world, what’s left is very bad situation comedy, with weekly narratives popping up randomly, and little support from the previously vital elements of the series’ design. Oh, there are some funny ideas, but this new dynamic, where Allie is in a happy place and Kate is left adrift, doesn’t play to the actresses’ strengths, for though the development is sensical — Kate has always been a free spirit and Allie has always been more domestic — the marriage makes it so Jane Curtin plays more settled and grounded, while Susan Saint James is tasked with the bigger, bolder comedy. This might be fascinating, if the series was aware of the reversal and was using it to indicate growth, but it’s not, so this feels like an unplanned change that isn’t aligned with the two stars.
Given all of these criticisms — particularly the unpardonable offense of mitigating both the premise and core relationship — I can understand why this year is written about derisively as a postscript to the rest of the series. This isn’t what we signed up for… and, indeed, beyond the conceptual changes onscreen, there were major changes behind the scenes that get felt too, for Six also bid farewell to its two dominant creative forces: producer and director Bill Persky and his righthand man, Bob Randall. Both had shaped Kate & Allie from the start, and then left after Five, believing (rightly) that they had given the series a natural end. When the show got a surprise renewal, they were replaced by a duo who, coincidentally, had also stepped in during the later years of Persky’s That Girl: Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein, funny scribes who are less concerned with realism and more focused on amusing stories that meet the genre’s basic requirement. And yet, to their credit, while this show is obviously doomed, their sense of humor and general narrative ethos is not really a threat to Kate & Allie. Part of this is because Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg (who’d been on staff since Season Three) are still around to grant some stylistic continuity, but also, most importantly, the situation has changed so much that it’s no longer possible to hold this season’s efforts to the baseline standards established earlier. That is, it’s not as directly comparable, which means, whenever this year is more conventional, clichéd, and false, the results aren’t as jarring as they were in, say, Four and Five. This speaks to the larger issue above: in terms of design, Six is almost a different show entirely — not the one we were promised. And without the regulars ever stepping up to the plate and justifying this transition in motivated comic story, it’s, more to the point, bad situation comedy, finally lacking the two elements that made this series interesting to me in the first place: its “modified” family premise and its Dick Van Dyke-like character work, discarded by this year’s developments and the departure of Persky. So, that’s an insurmountable problem for Six, and as I start to say “Kate & Allie is ending with a whimper, not a bang,” I remember that this series’ gradual rejection of its initial shape has informed its whole trajectory. Why mourn now?
01) Episode 103: “Allie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (Aired: 12/19/88)
Kate finds a new roommate to replace Allie.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Linda Day
The first four episodes of Six, all of which aired at the end of 1988 (as this TV season was delayed by the long writer’s strike), are credited to veteran staffers Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg, who must deal with the year’s efforts to establish a new format. The first two entries see Allie and Bob officially married (thus ending the original premise) and Kate getting dumped by her boyfriend from last year, Ted. The next two contrive a way to pair Kate and Allie back under the same roof (so the proxy-premise can still be acknowledged). There’s a lot of exposition and narrative maneuvering in all of these basically functional offerings, but this one is concerned with the central relationship (unlike most segments here this year), and with some big laughs coming from the outrageous character whom Kate tries out as a new roommate (Maddie Corman), I can single it out in the context of this list and its own (lower) standards.
02) Episode 104: “The Odd Couples” (Aired: 12/26/88)
Allie invites Kate to move into her new apartment.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Linda Day
Continuing the thought started above, this installment has Kate subleasing her apartment to that annoying roommate and her best friend (Christa Miller — Susan Saint James’ real-life niece, who also appeared with Maddie Corman at the end of the previous show), before she moves in with Allie at the newlyweds’ new high-rise apartment. This story is even more relationship-focused than the previous, as it really tries to address the characters’ evolved situation as a result of Kate now being a guest in Allie’s married home (for even though Bob is away a lot, he’s around a lot too). The drama, then, while led by the functional necessity of developing this new development-sparked circumstance, has relevance for the Kate and Allie friendship, which is depicted as the series’ seminal interest — again, a relative rarity in this season.
03) Episode 108: “A Tree Grows On West 56th Street” (Aired: 01/30/89)
Kate organizes a protest group that selects Allie as its president.
Written by Jim Geoghan | Directed by Linda Day
Kate’s activism has been established in several prior episodes, so her desire to organize and help save a local park feels like it’s rooted in a known aspect of her characterization. Beyond that central idea, there’s not a lot of great material in the text of this script itself, but an interesting relational dynamic does come into play when Allie is chosen as the president of the group instead of Kate — a notion that, true to this series’ habit, doesn’t necessarily breed direct conflict between the two, but is used to delineate their personas: something that is always helpful in a situation comedy, as both laughs and story are dependent on its regulars having precise depictions. Guests include James Downey, Geoff Pierson, Eleanor Phelps, and Tony Todd.
04) Episode 110: “Wanted: One Husband” (Aired: 02/13/89)
Allie dreams what it would be like if she gave Bob to a wealthy woman in exchange for money.
Written by Jim Wells | Directed by Linda Day
One of the best remembered offerings from the final season, this is one of two major dream sequence shows in Six — a gimmicky device that the series has often utilized to ramp up its comedy. (And, incidentally, we traced this back to Bill Persky’s work on The Dick Van Dyke Show.) “Wanted: One Husband” is more narratively ostentatious and less character-focused than the dream entry below, as it finds humor in the mounting absurdity of a scenario where Allie has agreed to divorce Bob and give him to a wealthy neighbor (Cynthia Harris) in exchange for money, only for the two to start an affair behind his new wife’s back, leading to a murder plot and, well, you get the gist — a lot of idea-led laughs mined from the ridiculousness. Naturally, it’s not well-entrenched in the series’ situation, for the comedy isn’t really coming from the leads in conflict or the evolved relational dynamics from the year’s new circumstances, but it’s so comedically bold — and successful at getting its yuks — that in a season so largely forgettable, it stands out as an especially funny, memorable half hour. Not a favorite, but I get the appeal.
05) Episode 112: “I’ve Got A Secret” (Aired: 02/27/89)
Kate spills a secret about Allie having once dated Bob’s obnoxious boss.
Written by Dana Persky | Directed by Linda Day
Although trafficking in a funny setup related to Allie’s paranoia when she, at a party, learns that Bob’s obnoxious boss is a man she used to date — a fact that she doesn’t want anyone to know — this otherwise idea-led outing’s plot is fleshed out with some relationship beats, mainly because it’s really about Kate not being able to keep a secret, telling the truth to Bob, and later to Allie’s kids. In some ways, this is an example of the year shifting its comedic burden onto Kate — now that she’s the less settled one — but Jane Curtin gets enough fun stuff to play too, and in predicating both comedy and drama on the year’s central relationships (Kate and Allie’s, in particular), this was a clear must-include from Six. Skip Hinnant appears.
06) Episode 115: “Trojan War” (Aired: 03/20/89)
Allie finds a condom in Chip’s pocket.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Linda Day
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Trojan War” offers Season Six’s best parenting story, making it the best play towards a vital part of the series’ initial identity as a family sitcom. It’s also the year’s funniest, with one of the most laugh-filled scripts of the entire run — credited to Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg — affording several cast members some of their best material ever. It all starts, as with most things here in Six, from having the right idea — Allie finding a condom in Chip’s pocket while he’s away. As expected, this sends her into a tailspin as she waits for him to return, leading to an amusing centerpiece where Jane Curtin gets to clown (in one of her only opportunities this season), when Allie gets drunk while catering a dinner party for a bunch of psychologists (with Kate, who provides capable support that displays their dynamic well, just like in the good old days). This takes advantage of Curtin’s strengths, while also previewing where Flett and Ranberg would end up in their own careers (for instance, note the “Freudian vs. Jungian” joke that the pair reused on Frasier). Then, there’s the climax, where Frederick Koehler gets to be both believable and funny — unusual for him, especially in this era. Accordingly, this is my pick for Six’s finest — it’s got the most hahas, and in a script where the leads are maneuvered exceptionally for a story that engages an aspect of the series’ original premise. (Guests include Dylan Walsh, Steven Gilborn, and Nada Rowand.)
07) Episode 116: “Loan-some Bob” (Aired: 03/27/89)
Bob loans money to Kate and Allie’s business.
Written by John Albert | Directed by Linda Day
With a story that’s literally about Bob intruding on Kate and Allie’s status quo, this installment is an apt metaphor for the season as a whole, indulging a plot that finds conflict by reconciling the characters’ new situation — that Allie is now married — to a previously established component, specifically their business as caterers. Okay, it’s a bit of a clichéd notion, and the final scene involves a scheme set up by Kate and Allie that suggests a more familiar and conventional sitcom plotting than this series used to employ in its glory days, but the humor doesn’t come at the expense of the show’s basic sense of realism, which is aided by this low-concept, relatable story. And aside from this being a smaller and more relationship-led idea than Six’s norm, its sensibility and conflict represent the year accurately. Jude Ciccolella appears.
08) Episode 118: “The Wedding” (Aired: 04/24/89)
Kate accompanies building superintendent Lou to a wedding.
Written by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein | Directed by Linda Day
Peter Onorati was added to the regular cast in this final season as the building’s superintendent and a possible love interest for Kate, as he has an obvious crush on her that’s reiterated periodically throughout the year but only used explicitly for story here. Now, he’s not a great character because he’s defined broadly and doesn’t get much exploration within plots that could dimensionalize him — and, coming so late in the run, in a role of a working subordinate, there’s a lack of emotional connection between him and the pre-established leads. However, I highlight this offering because it does the most this year to correct all of the above, crafting for him — in story — a specific dynamic with Kate that’s amusing (the final scene between the two works well; Linda Day, who directed this season, deserves a lot of credit), but also represents an attempt to create relationships among ensemble members who could sustain additional narratives. Although, again, Kate & Allie was doomed this season no matter what, more genuine creation like this might have helped deliver fare that could actually be called situation comedy. (And, no, I’m not even going to mention the gallingly un-comedic VSE about illiteracy!)
09) Episode 121: “My Boyfriend’s Back” (Aired: 05/15/89)
Kate dates one of Allie’s exes, who’s since written a play about her.
Written by Cynthia Heimel | Directed by Linda Day
There are two familiar sitcom story ideas deployed in this freelance outing from feminist author Cynthia Heimel, who plays right into the year’s reliance on convention in the absence of unique support from character and premise. And yet, it’s tonally more reminiscent of classic Kate & Allie, as these external ideas eschew big laughs in favor of a sincerity that suggests more literal realism — reinforced in the continuity that naturally arises from bringing back an old boyfriend of Allie’s from a mediocre (unfunny) excursion in Season Three (“Allie’s Affair”). Merely by his inclusion as a blast from the past, this show is telegraphing an awareness that flatters both our and its intelligence. From there, we get two predictable notions — the friend dating the ex (Franc Luz), and the ex writing a play based on their romance. Neither is hilarious, but it reflects the series’ old sensibility, and in a story that recognizes the centricity of the Kate/Allie bond.
10) Episode 122: “What A Wonderful Episode” [a.k.a. “It’s A Wonderful Episode” a.k.a. “Kate And Allie Go To Hell”] (Aired: 05/22/89)
Kate and Allie both have dreams where they get their wishes — disastrously.
Written by Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Linda Day
Kate & Allie‘s series finale might be a normal episode but for the intentional narrative aggrandizement that comes from using the dream sequence device again, when the ladies are both visited by Christopher Murney as a devil (instead of an angel) who shows them what their lives would be like if they got their wishes: Kate is a humanitarian who has Emma back (it’s not Ari Meyers — the show uses the pretenses of the dream to recast the role) and a beautiful engagement ring… given to her by her new husband, Lou (the superintendent whose feelings she doesn’t reciprocate), while Allie has Bob now working in the city, and the joy of Claire (Wendie Malick) cheating on Charles (Paul Hecht)… only to learn that the man Claire’s cheating with is Bob. It’s silliness — as absurd as the above dream sequence, but more rooted in the leads’ situation and what they think they want, which makes this a slightly more character-revealing offering than most of the series’ dream sequences. Of course, that still doesn’t render the gimmick itself any better motivated by the leads or tonally in-keeping with the show’s overall baseline, and it doesn’t really do anything terrific for these characters in whom we have six seasons worth of emotional investment, but as a half-hour sample from this unfortunate final season, it’s one of this list’s best situationally specific big-yuk endeavors.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Nearlyweds,” one of this season’s few shows about parenting that’s not hysterical but employs the typical sitcom plot of Kate and Allie scheming (there’s an I Love Lucy reference meant to justify it), “The Review,” which separates Kate and Allie for an amusing but hacky and unmotivated story where Kate thinks she’s poisoned a food critic (another clichéd sitcom narrative by Turteltaub and Orenstein), and “Wedding Belle Blues,” the season premiere where Allie and Bob get married — it’s a big event show that isn’t hilarious nor properly centered on the Kate/Allie relationship. I’ll also use this space to cite “Anchor Away,” an anticipated entry where Allie is worried about Bob and a flirtatious co-anchor (it’s predicated on her history with Charles, which is the only reason it’s slightly worthwhile for character), and “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” a comedically muted outing where Susan Saint James nevertheless gives a fine performance and her chemistry with Jane Curtin’s Allie is tops, conjuring up memories of (better) seasons past.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Kate & Allie goes to…
Come back next week for a new Sitcom Tuesday! And stay tuned for another Wildcard!