Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (I now have a stockpile!)
MDay991 writes in with… Excluding first seasons where shows may still be finding itself, do you think any sitcom has ever had its best season (or peak) AFTER its worst season? (Not necessarily right after, ANY time after). I noticed most of the time they seem to disappoint more after a peak. And again don’t count shows where the first season was the worst, only shows that had their worst after a first season and THEN had their best.
Excluding sitcoms for which I’d consider their first season the weakest, I can think of only two covered here so far that I might argue as having their best sometime after their worst. One is Here’s Lucy, which was never great but got a bit less stupid and more emotionally sincere in its final two seasons (Five and Six), thanks to the return of I Love Lucy vets Madelyn Davis & Bob Carroll Jr., who wrote about a third of the last three years. Oh, sure, their scripts were just as tired and clichéd by this point as they would later be on Alice, but the duo was able to provide more consistency with the characters and slightly more logic in the storytelling than anyone else penning Here’s Lucy, especially during Seasons Two and Three, which I’d say is the lowest of Ball’s pre-Life With Lucy TV career. Now, I’m a little more amenable to the show’s first year — Ball’s best work on this specific series resides almost exclusively in the 1968-’69 collection — but I’m with the consensus in finding the last two seasons less erratic and, for the most part, more laudable for character… The second sitcom that comes to mind is The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show. And I should qualify this by saying that I’m not counting the first two live seasons in this response because they’re not all extant and/or available to see. However, of the six filmed years, I can understand someone wanting to cite the last season as the strongest, due to its inclusion of several of the run’s finest episodes (like “Gracie Is Brilliant”), along with its use of the so-called “magic TV,” which has become an important element of the show’s mythos. Personally, though, while I really enjoy Season Eight, I think the fourth year (second of those filmed) is the apex of classic era Burns And Allen, most indicative of what the series is like throughout the majority of its life, with the definitive versions of many seminal stories that were repeated over time. So, I’m not sure I’d call the final season a peak, although it too is a very strong year, and it follows two candidates for the show’s weakest, the unimaginative fifth (which was growing creatively stale) and the meandering seventh (which was doing too much with Ronnie and other guests), making it a possible answer to your question… But those are the only two that I think maybe produce their best year after having had a non-freshman worst.
TAMMIE FLOWERS wants me to elaborate on my disfavor for Alice, asking… Is it the writing or the acting you dislike the most?
Briefly, both, but I think the performances are a reflection of the show’s identity, revealed through its writing. That is, Alice is a low-concept ensemble workplace sitcom in the MTM mold that nevertheless chooses to eschew that brand’s — and (relatively speaking) the 1970s’ — increased emotional realism for a regressively caricatured silliness that feels out-of-place and thus makes investment difficult, particularly because it also invites an abundance of idea-driven clichés into the storytelling, further weakening the series’ capabilities with both character and motivated comedy. Naturally, I count this show as a perfect example of how audiences in the late ‘70s were moving away from the seriousness of Lear’s, and even MTM’s, efforts… but unlike the best sitcoms of this new era, Alice is a step away from — instead of a reconciliation towards — the ideals of these recent groundbreaking hits (even during its flirtation with dramatic earnestness in its first two years, prior to the arrival of Lucy’s old scribes), for it instead opts to harken back to notions that were fresher and better executed in earlier decades and with richer characters. This leaves the series uncompetitive with its contemporaries and the classics… Incidentally, Laverne & Shirley could be open to a similar critique, but by existing within an entire wave of programming (from Garry Marshall) that defines another trend in the genre — and even deploys premised nostalgia as a textual justification for its overly simplistic and familiar inanity — that show manages our expectations better and doesn’t feel as hackneyed as Alice, which lacks a good reason not to be smarter or more character-based.
Kevin is a fan of Soap and wants to know… I have always heard that creator Susan Harris had a “five-year Bible” for the storylines and characters. Have you ever heard what would’ve been planned for the fifth season?
According to A.S. Berman, who wrote a great book on Soap that I highly recommend, Susan Harris’ “bible” gives no indication as to what would have happened in a theoretical fifth season.
Mark Kirby submitted something about yesterday’s post that I’ve hastily decided to bump to the top of my “answer” pile… I just re-read all of the MAMA’S FAMILY posts after today’s rerun. I loved the sketches on the Burnett show but I just couldn’t get through the sitcom. The voice Lawrence used as Mama, all high-pitched and whiny, was unbearable. You allude to the voice change once but sort of blow it off. Did this new voice not bother you?
As discussed throughout Mama’s Family coverage, Mama’s character evolved in tandem with the show’s identity and I consider her new voice merely a symbol of this progression, which was likely necessary given the goals of this series and its need for a more emotionally accessible lead. So, yes, it alone does not bother me (it’s more cartoonish than I’d like, but, frankly, it’s not like she ever wasn’t), and, for the record, here’s my referenced quote, “By Season Four, Lawrence’s Mama is splitting her time between the character’s iconic unpleasantness and the sarcastic-but-lovable persona (with the higher, more grandma-y voice) that will soon come to dominate her portrayal. It’s actually about a 50-50 divide here, and while I generally prefer the former depiction, there are episodes that work best employing the latter, and as the remaining seasons find Mama losing almost the entirety of her original persona in favor of the one Lawrence has crafted (cunningly) to fit better in the series, Season Four is the last where an obvious and regular connection can be made between where Thelma Harper begins and where she ends.”
Ian V. says… I really appreciate the way you break down sitcoms being idea driven versus character driven. I love Seinfeld but more for its stories than its characters. Seinfeld is idea driven, right?
Yes. Seinfeld is fundamentally idea-driven because its premise isn’t about nothing, but rather about how a comedian gets his material, and since Jerry Seinfeld gets his material via relatable observation of the outside world, relatable observation of the outside world — and specifically its minutiae — becomes his series’ focus, not the comedian or his friends. As expected, this focus on minutiae is reiterated in the storytelling, which initially intends to strip the sitcom of its artifice by being rebelliously low-concept with plot (see: “The Chinese Restaurant”), but quickly expands into a form of hyperreality that’s even more contrived, as a handful of amusing ideas are manipulated to collide in some elevated climax that indicates cleverness, yet supplants simplicity and truth as the show’s trademark raison d’être. Accordingly, we can see that Seinfeld is driven by funny ideas and fixated on arranging them in a way that maximizes their humor, for they are the priority, while the characters are only a means to this end. And the fact that the four leads eventually wind up with the same figurative “voice” — misanthropic, sustaining one sole comic perspective — only cements that the series’ character work defers to comedic story. You can contrast this with a Friends or a Frasier, which both have their own lofty narrative structures (i.e., Frasier often turns to farce, and Friends also does the A-B-C bit, albeit without dovetailing), and yet claim more relationship-led objectives that demand time for the interior exploration of their regulars, who must be juxtaposed in conflict and therefore require more distinct, clash-able personalities. They are then able to spark most of the laughs, taking the spotlight away from individual episodic ideas and flashy structural hooks, so that the element giving us the most enjoyment and propelling the bulk of each series’ value is the characters, not the ideas.
Have a question for me? Submit it at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link.
Come back next week for more sitcom fun and another new Wildcard Wednesday!