When Two Good Characters (And Leah Remini) Meet A Bad Premise

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m featuring the first half of a two-part pilot for an unsold Evening Shade spin-off starring Charles Durning’s Harlan and Ann Wedgeworth’s Merleen — two of that ensemble’s funniest players. Created by Burt Reynolds and writer James Hampton, this proposed series was to follow the hilarious twosome as they opened their home to three single expectant mothers, played by Maria Canals, Kristin Rose, and Leah Remini — the latter in a different role than her recurring character on Evening Shade. This was all arranged by the harebrained Merleen, who, as we know from her own history, had given up a child (Fontana) as a pregnant teen. Also in the cast, meanwhile, were Ja’net Dubois as Harlan’s colleague Maxine, Anita Gregory as Merleen’s housekeeper, and had the series been picked up, Ossie Davis’ Ponder Blue was allegedly set to routinely crossover.

But the series wasn’t picked up — thank goodness, both for Evening Shade, and also for the genre, because no matter how amusing Durning, Wedgeworth, and even the young Remini are, the whole concept of a house for wayward pregnant girls invites the use and incorporation of babies and kids (like Janna Michaels), who, as regular readers know, are seldom actual characters, but rather, gimmicky devices to which actual characters react. And with these premised distractions, a show likely would have not spent enough time building out its leads (beyond the known titular pair) and developing the relationships needed to maintain this “modified family” design. Thus, Harlan & Merleen sets itself up to offer poor sitcommery, and I have no faith that a series in the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason camp, even with the reliable Harlan and Merleen leading the way, could have navigated these inherent hurdles. Stylistically, it’s unlikely — hers are shows that require a good configuration in order to be decent (see: Evening Shade). Case in point: this pilot’s script — or the first half, anyway (it was split into two for broadcast on both July 12 and July 19, 1993; I have Part I) — is neither comedically excellent, nor so brilliantly written via character that, in spite of its plot, greatness is implied. No, there’s just the funny Harlan, the goofy Merleen, the feisty Leah Remini… and a terribly unideal, constraining premise.

But see for yourself, because here it is — for the first time since 1993, here’s the first half of the Harlan & Merleen pilot, presented in evidence of my above commentary.



Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Evening Shade!