The Ten Best JUST SHOOT ME! Episodes of Season Seven

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our 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. RENA SOFER appears in 14 episodes as Vicki Costa.

The final season of Just Shoot Me! isn’t able to either reverse or halt the ongoing descent in quality that we’ve been tracking over the last few weeks. The show’s long-ago mitigation of its original father/daughter dramatic core in favor of more palpably comedic focuses — like David Spade’s Finch and Wendie Malick’s Nina — and the accompanying lack of emotional growth for the regulars (even with the occasional narrative arc), has led to stagnation. Without any genuine movement for the characters, there are no new stories being generated — especially with the premise becoming less and less narratively useful with each passing season. Thus, it’s no surprise that NBC would have demanded some kind of structural change from the series — like new showrunners… and a new character. In this case, the new showrunners were Jon Pollack, Judd Pillot, and John Peaslee, and the new character wound up being Vicki (Rena Sofer), a hairdresser whom Jack meets on the street and hires to come make Blush more relevant to the average working woman. As with most late-in-life additions, however, neither the audience nor the company celebrated the change foisted upon the show by the network. And indeed, when we said that we were looking for change, we meant with the characters that we already have; adding a new one while keeping everyone else the same may get a few stories for a couple of weeks, but it’s not going to fix the overarching problems. It’s for this reason that I sympathize with the Vicki-haters, for I resent her inclusion on the show — it’s an attempted “easy way out” of a conundrum with no easy outs. So, even though I like that her character is well-defined — despite Sofer not being a great comedic actress and not being able to pull off just how unique Vicki is in relation to the others — I’m glad that she only appears here in 14 of the year’s 24 produced outings. And, hey, only 12 of those 14 made it to broadcast on NBC due to the network’s shuffling… Yes, this was a year where NBC’s lack of confidence in Just Shoot Me! was clear, and the show’s cancellation, while not inevitable, was, by the end, also not a shock.

After two years on MSTV Thursdays, where it was the only comedy not to grow/maintain its numbers during the 2001-’02 season, the series was moved back to Tuesdays. There it was once again allowed to anchor at 8:00 — which, if you’re keeping track, had been a terrible slot for Just Shoot Me! back in the fall of 1999. Not surprisingly, the numbers weren’t good this time either, and only nine episodes were broadcast before the series was pulled in mid-January. Sofer was dropped and the show pressed forward fulfilling its order… knowing now that the writing was on the wall. Cancellation became official after two episodes were broadcast back-to-back in late April, again at 8:00 on Tuesdays, now against the titanic American Idol. With 13 installments still unseen, NBC burned off ten over the summer, airing them back-to-back for five weeks in July and August, ending with an entry obviously concocted as a viable finale and written by creator Steven Levitan, who was publicly peeved about NBC’s treatment of his series. (Three episodes went unbroadcast and didn’t premiere until they were first seen in syndication.) Now, let’s ask: did the growing awareness of the forthcoming axe make for better shows at year’s end? Actually, there are more hits here in Seven than there were in Six… but that’s not saying much. I mean, there’s some interesting material for Maya/Elliott, as the show teases a reconciliation and then purposely denies it, and I like that the year truly does try to develop one of its characters — Nina — by giving her a season-long romance (ending in marriage) with Simon, a rocker played by Simon Templeman. But the same problems persist. At the point where we’re supposed to admire how much everyone has evolved over the course of seven seasons, the series has little to show for them… and so when the finale goes uncharacteristically sentimental while trying to resurrect its Maya/Jack nucleus, we’re not fooled; this hasn’t been earned. And I’m afraid Just Shoot Me! therefore ends not with a bang — nothing exciting here — but a whimper: a show with so much character potential, and not enough character rewards. Still, I’m glad we explored it, and I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.

Notable writers this year include: Jon Pollack (Home Improvement, Spin City, Joey, 30 Rock, Modern Family), John Peaslee (Coach, Something So Right, According To Jim, Liv & Maddie), Judd Pillot (Coach, According To Jim), David Hemingson (Jesse, How I Met Your Mother, Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23), David Walpert (Ellen, Sports Night, New Girl, House Of Lies), Paul A. Kaplan & Mark Torgove (Spin City, George Lopez, Raising Hope), Brett Baer & David Finkel (Norm, Joey, 30 Rock, United States Of Tara, New Girl)Nate Reger & Mike Lisbe ($#*! My Dad Says, 2 Broke Girls, The Cool Kids), Stephen Lloyd (Stacked, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family), Aaron Korsh (Everybody Loves Raymond, Suits), Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom (Flying Blind, Wings, Jenny, Still Standing), and Steven Levitan (Wings, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Modern Family).

 

01) Episode 128: “Halloween? Halloween!” (Aired: 10/29/02)

A lesbian thinks Finch is a woman and Elliott tries to keep Vicki from going home with a guy.

Written by David Finkel & Brett Baer | Directed by Pamela Fryman

After two episodes built to establish the new character, Vicki, and another that introduces Nina’s final love interest, Simon the rockstar, this is the first outing that doesn’t have anything major that it needs to accomplish. Instead, it merely reinforces these developments, by not only including Simon (Nina’s first serious beau as far as the series is concerned), but also by continuing the established runner that Elliott is romantically interested in Vicki. However, the hahas mostly exist in the A-story, in which a lesbian mistakes Dennis for another woman… a charade he hopes to keep up until he beds her. It’s a salacious premise but it gets its laughs, and while the show is pretty much one gimmicky costume party, Season Seven has few better.

02) Episode 129: “Da Sister Who Loved DiMauro” (Aired: 11/12/02)

Vicki’s obnoxious sister falls for Elliott while he’s still pursuing Vicki.

Written by Mike Lisbe & Nate Reger | Directed by Pamela Fryman

Gina Gershon makes her first of two appearances as Vicki’s terribly obnoxious sister. (Her second appearance comes after Vicki has already left the series.) I’m actually not a big fan of her two offerings, and that’s primarily because of her characterization, which I find to be outrageously broad and emotionally alienating. Thus, while this script concocts a perfectly okay premise with Elliott, Vicki, and the sister… Gershon’s performance, tantamount to really stinky cheese that doesn’t have the flavor to justify its stench, threatens to drag it all down. Ultimately, though, it’s here because the teleplay is able to find moments to enjoy, like in the subplot with Jack that is very reminiscent of a classic NewsRadio (which, nevertheless, did it smarter).

03) Episode 130: “That Burning Passion” (Aired: 11/19/02)

Maya sleeps with Vicki’s estranged husband.

Written by Stephen Lloyd | Directed by Pamela Fryman

As the year still tries to figure out how to best use Vicki, this installment finds a true blue tactic: make the story about Maya. If you’ve been following our coverage, you know I have an affinity for narratives that engage with the series’ intended emotional anchor, who’s been unseated by the show’s pronounced comedic drive, represented by Finch and Nina. Whenever an entry can restore for her a sense of prominence, there’s a foundational solidity in accompaniment. That’s especially true in this outing — credited to David Lloyd’s son, Stephen — with its excellent premise in which Maya sleeps with Vicki’s estranged husband. The scene where she learns he’s still in love with his wife is hilarious, and the emotional roundedness, predicated on character and rare for Season Seven, makes this seem like a masterpiece. MVE contender.

04) Episode 131: “The Write Stuff” (Aired: 12/03/02)

Maya writes a poem for Finch and is mad when he gets all the credit.

Written by Paul A. Kaplan & Mark Torgove | Directed by Pamela Fryman

This is a premise we’ve seen before; it’s the “buyer’s remorse after agreeing to be a ghost writer” yarn. It’s not exceptional, it’s not original, and in any other season, it likely wouldn’t graduate beyond the Honorable Mentions. However, this year necessitates a lower standard, and because the story naturally hinges around relationships — in this case, Maya and Finch — I actually credit it for being slightly more character-geared than most of the plottier, or more gimmicky, shows produced this season. In addition to wiring the story so that it addresses Finch’s college arc (which isn’t used as much here as it was last year), it also pushes Maya to the fore and gives her the comedic centerpiece. Meanwhile, the Nina subplot is solid. Cheryl Tiegs guests.

05) Episode 137: “There’s Something About Allison” (Aired: 07/12/03)

Finch and his friend Brandi compete for the same woman, while Elliott and Maya hook up.

Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Pamela Fryman

Jenny McCarthy returns as Finch’s friend Brandi, the woman formerly known as Burt. She first appeared in a well-liked fifth season entry, but surprisingly, I actually prefer this sequel, because it’s funnier, and instead of treating the trans character as a gimmick, it uses her as part of a comedic storyline. However, I blanch at the broadness of the climax — McCarthy dressing as a man — for that seems like the 1960’s sitcom solution, and if it wasn’t there, this would probably be an MVE contender, as the subplot, which teases a reconciliation between Maya and Elliott when the two begin hooking up casually, draws upon some emotional continuity that this series would have been wise to employ more often. So, with a fine teleplay — Byron and Kapstrom are great additions to this year’s staff — this is one of the season’s best. Incidentally, it was shown second in the first of the series’ back-to-back hour-long Saturday burn-offs.

06) Episode 140: “Donnie Redeemed” (Aired: 08/02/03)

Elliott doesn’t trust Donnie, who returns with a rich fiancée.

Written by David Hemingson | Directed by Pamela Fryman

David Cross makes his third and final appearance as Donnie — introduced way back in the classic and Emmy-nominated third season excursion where Maya learns that Elliott’s brother is faking a mental disability. He returned in Season Five in a show that similarly worked because it pushed Maya into lunacy as she tried to prove her hunch that he was still a lying grifter. It wasn’t as good as his debut turn, but it hit a lot of the same notes and managed to also be funny. Well… the potency of Donnie has continued to weaken, and this offering is the least enjoyable of this de facto trilogy. It’s not just that the initial comedic idea is overplayed, it’s also that the story puts more of its chips on Elliott, which makes it inherently less dynamic.

07) Episode 142: “Son Of A Preacher Man” (Aired: 08/09/03)

Nina meets Simon’s conservative parents, who have secrets of their own.

Written by Paul A. Kaplan & Mark Torgove | Directed by Pamela Fryman

Gearing up for Nina’s wedding, this installment boasts a natural storyline: meeting the in-laws. Rosalind Ayres and Roy Dotrice play Simon’s buttoned-up parents, who both turn out to be a little grimier than their initial impressions suggested. There’s a party scene as the entry’s climax that hits all the right marks — a rarity in this era of the show’s life, quite frankly — and with a decently amusing script, this is a great example of how a show can maximize a seasonal arc, like Nina’s relationship with Simon, with a memorable story that can be positioned comedically and include nice character beats… Now, the subplots aren’t as amiable as the A-story this time around, but they’re inoffensive and actually have their moments, as well.

08) Episode 144: “For The Last Time, I Do” (Aired: 08/16/03)

Nina prepares to walk down the aisle and wed Simon.

Written by Jon Pollack & Judd Pillot & John Peaslee | Directed by Pamela Fryman

Broadcast in the first half of the series’ hour-long last original showing on NBC, which wrapped with the episode produced as the finale, this is an event towards which the season has been building: Nina’s wedding. And all the bells and whistles are in play — the script is credited to the year’s showrunners, there are guest appearances from Amy Yasbeck and Corbin Bernsen (the latter playing himself), and the structure can’t help but indulge some of the grandness that, I think, often mars BIG EVENTS on the sitcom. However, there are some shockingly strong character moments here — for everyone really, even Elliott, and I think this is a more enjoyable segment than the actual finale, which is far simpler in contrast and returns the show to its more relatable father/daughter core, but is anachronistically sentimental and self-indulgent, and not nearly as funny as the show was striving to be in this era. Accordingly, while this wouldn’t be an ideal swan song, it’s a better representation of the series at large.

09) Episode 146: “Evaluate This!” (Aired: SYNDICATION ONLY)

Jack presses Finch for honesty and regrets it, while Maya has fun living Nina’s life.

Written by Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom | Directed by Pamela Fryman

One of NBC’s three unbroadcast episodes that later debuted in syndication (in November 2003), this offering is another sneakily character-based show. It’s also another script credited to Byron and Kapstrom, strong writers whose efforts exhibit a sharp understanding of the series and its characters. Both stories work here — the A-story looks to be an office dynamic show sparked by Vicki, but it really turns out to be one of the better Jack/Finch ideas from the latter half of the run, while the B-story is a wonderful subplot with Nina and Maya, two opposites who always contrast favorably when paired… even as their emotional bond grows deeper. Honestly, I wish there were more entries like this in Season Seven; there’s no growth, but the presumption of the end is fueling an introspection that makes the characters feel more well-rounded. And, unlike most, this one actually capitalizes upon that fact.

10) Episode 148: “Strange Bedfellows” (Aired: SYNDICATION ONLY)

Nina is visited by the ghost of Binnie, while Maya has regrets about working at Blush.

Written by Stephen Lloyd | Directed by Pamela Fryman

Technically the last episode of the series, because it was the last to ever be seen — once again, in syndication — this is an installment that, aside from being well-written (it’s credited to the other stellar addition to the year’s staff, Stephen Lloyd), is exactly like the above: it enjoys great character moments that stem from a mounting awareness of the series’ conclusion. Here, that yields two very memorable stories. One pushes forward a seasonal arc — Nina’s relationship with Simon — by bringing back her past, in the form of Binnie’s ghost, and addressing Nina’s own logical fears about whether or not she’ll be able to settle down. Then there’s an excellent Maya/Jack story where he begins sleeping with a feminist (Nora Dunn) who wants to boycott Blush, making Maya examine some of the themes initially at the core of the series — like the notion that she sold out by working in an industry that perhaps isn’t as pro-woman as it claims. Also, there’s an amusing bromance subplot with Finch and Elliot that acquits both nicely. From top to bottom, everyone is well-used and the script is funny; that’s why it’s my MVE.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “My Fair Finchy,” which teases Maya/Elliott again, “The Last Temptation Of Elliot,” which is broad and crass but not unfunny, “The Goodbye Girl,” an unbroadcast outing that says goodbye to Vicki, and “Future Issues,” the broadcast and intended finale, which was written by Steven Levitan and is appealingly simple — it’s basically just the five regulars telling each other how they feel about one another — but it’s overly sentimental, which Just Shoot Me! has NEVER been, and it’s not as funny as even this mediocre season’s elevated comedic baseline.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Just Shoot Me! goes to…

“Strange Bedfellows”

 

 

Come back next week for a new Sitcom Tuesday! Stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!

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