Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Becker (1998-2004, CBS), which has been released on DVD.
Becker stars TED DANSON, HATTIE WINSTON, SHAWNEE SMITH, ALEX DÉSERT, and TERRY FARRELL. With SAVERIO GUERRA as Bob.
The thing about Becker is that it’s fairly consistent — all six seasons enjoy the same strengths and weaknesses, with not a ton of variation. That is, the show is always blessed with having a strong lead whose very depiction (typically) influences the tonal quality of the writing, which is (typically) intelligent, in accordance with the track record of its many smart scribes. At the same time, the show always has a weak ensemble — with some regulars better than others for laughs, but none well-defined enough to carry story or exist as multi-dimensionally as Becker himself. This will be true every single year. However, some seasons are more adept at crafting stories that showcase the leading man’s comedically worthwhile and well-nuanced characterization, and some seasons are more adept at making the problems with the ensemble seem slightly less troubling. In the case of the latter, that occurs when Margaret starts to gain more of a comedic characterization and can stand next to Linda as a more reliable supporting player in the office; the end of Season Two starts to see the refinement of her personality, which then continues into Three. Similarly, Two also finds the show continuing to accelerate its willingness to engage bolder, funnier ideas, which increase the hahas and help the relatively muted Becker become more satisfying with the genre’s inherent comedic requirement. This is welcome, especially when scripts are still able to balance these hahas in plots that reiterate the title character’s series-defining cynicism. Accordingly, I call Two a candidate for the series’ best — rivaled only by Three, which continues to up the show’s comedic ante but with less of the grit emanating from the abrasiveness of Becker’s characterization. In this regard, I would say Two is the best for the core “situation,” the Becker character — with stories that spotlight his rich persona and these scribes’ deftness at projecting it (like in an arc where Becker gets a recurring love interest — well, it starts strong anyway). Oh, yes, the big issues always remain — the folks at the diner, like Reggie, are terribly unhelpful (not even an arc about her going back to school and dating a younger man gives her a personality) — but in terms of emphasizing strengths, Becker’s second season centralizes its greatest asset. Three will be funnier, but this is Becker at its most Becker.
01) Episode 23: “Point Of Contact” (Aired: 09/20/99)
Becker thinks he’s being stalked by a woman whose life he saved.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Season Two immediately reveals the series’ growing proclivity for more comedically larger ideas, as its premiere finds Becker regretting that he saved the life of an elderly woman, for in her efforts to display her gratitude, she keeps pestering him — so much so that the cranky, paranoid doc comes to believe that she’s actually stalking him. This leads to a memorable character-corroborating climax where he screams at her in a restaurant, right before learning that she’s a nun who, obviously, was not stalking him at all, just trying to show him some kindness. It’s very funny and centralizes Becker’s unique characterization — a fine start to the season and evidence of how the show is improving its utilization of him, the core part of its “situation.”
02) Episode 30: “Stumble In The Bronx” (Aired: 11/08/99)
Becker has surgery after being shot in the shoulder.
Written by Matthew Weiner | Directed by Andy Ackerman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Stumble In The Bronx” reinforces the relative bleakness of Becker’s world in comparison to most sitcoms (especially network multi-cams), for this entry finds the leading man getting shot on the street. It’s the kind of “harsh reality of this awful life” that is so much a part of the series’ identity, for it’s a manifestation of its own leading man’s outlook and the reasons for his cynicism. However, more than just being a reflection of the show’s identity, this script is hilarious, with great moments not only for Becker, but also for several guest characters, including Troy Evans as a goofy cop (who’ll recur) and Frances Fisher as Elizabeth — a strong-willed surgeon who clashes with Becker and soon begins a recurring stint as his girlfriend, the first major love interest he’s ever had on the show. She’s never more comedically interesting — going toe to toe with Becker — than in her debut, but her presence alone brings out the most potent qualities of the central character, again making this a terrific showcase for Becker’s strengths, both by way of its lead, and its intelligent comic writing. A series highlight — easily one of the best this sitcom has to offer. (Note: this is the first script credited to Matt Weiner, who wrote on The Sopranos and then created Mad Men.)
03) Episode 31: “Hate Thy Neighbor” (Aired: 11/15/99)
Becker recovers at home and is annoyed by his neighbors.
Written by Anne Flett-Giordano & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Andy Ackerman
The story above continues in this installment, as Becker is sent home to recover following his surgery, allowing for many instances of him getting annoyed by his surroundings. It’s a great setup for the vituperative Becker to unleash, leading, of course, to an expected climax. Also, he begins dating Elizabeth here — a notion that works initially because of the novelty of Becker uncomfortably grappling with human intimacy. Although Elizabeth quickly loses her feisty persona and therefore all of her comedic definition after this outing, I still consider the arc a success — and a preview of Season Six, when the show finally pairs Becker with a serious paramour (something I believe it should have done sooner, as it helps evolve the Becker character). Other guests include James Greene and Mitzi McCall.
04) Episode 34: “Santa On Ice” (Aired: 12/13/99)
A costumed Santa dies in Becker’s waiting room.
Written by Marsha Myers | Directed by Andy Ackerman
As discussed, holidays tend to provide a rich foundation for comedic story on Becker because the show can emphasize its character-rooted cynicism by juxtaposing him against the inherent optimism associated with celebratory days, especially something like Christmas. There’ll be a much more memorable and comedically bold reflection of Becker and Becker’s identity in next year’s Christmas excursion, but this one is also a winner, particularly for Season Two, where the series is starting to engage more often with big comic ideas like Santa Claus dying in Becker’s waiting room. It’s nothing we haven’t seen, but it’s always a funny prospect, and it plays well as an example of the show’s narrative projection of self. (Travis Flory appears.)
05) Episode 35: “The Hypocritic Oath” (Aired: 01/10/00)
Problems arise at the office on a day where Margaret is away.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
A great way to examine the changes between Becker’s first and second seasons is to study this entry alongside last year’s “Man Plans, God Laughs,” which notably offered a similar narrative setup — chaos as Margaret is temporarily away and Linda is forced to run the office. In the context of Season One, that was an important show to narratively reveal the ensemble dynamics — and that’s basically all it had to do. But here in Two, the comic ideas are bolder, with inflated mania and a framework that accentuates laughs via a very Seinfeld-ian “rats in a maze” analogy, reiterating the smarts of these fine writers. It’s a solid showcase for what Becker is doing well and how it’s changed in its sophomore collection. (Kathleen Freeman and Sean Marquette guest.)
06) Episode 37: “All The Rage” (Aired: 02/07/00)
Becker is forced to go to anger management; Bob moves in with Linda.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Lee Shallat Chemel
John Astin guests as Becker’s anger management teacher in this episode that works because it presents a natural story made to emphasize the leading characterization — and it only exists, in the first place, as a believable consequence of his own actions. It’s thus a “Victory In Premise” — it’s one of those stories that is intrinsically ideal because it flatters a show’s premise, which in this low-concept series, essentially means just exploring the title character and his guiding ethos. So, it’s an obvious gem. But there’s also fun in the subplot, as the show’s two goofiest regulars are paired together for a mini-arc where Bob moves in with the overly generous Linda. Both of their basic personalities are on display, and that’s a rarity to be celebrated.
07) Episode 38: “Old Yeller” (Aired: 02/14/00)
Becker gets a motorcycle to help him feel young.
Written by Mark Egan | Directed by Darryl Bates
Ted Danson appears to be having a lot of fun in this popular entry that doesn’t really tread any new ground as far as comedy or this character is concerned (Becker at the DMV is a fairly easy idea to pull yuks from, for instance), but it makes sense for Becker and explores some of his insecurities in a way that helps maintain our perception of his multi-dimensionality… Truthfully, though, I mostly like this one for its climax, where Becker injures himself simply by sitting on his new motorcycle while it’s in his apartment — something that naturally embarrasses him and speaks to the larger idea of Becker going through a mid-life crisis. Ultimately, then, this is a segment anchored by the star and elevated by his performance — a sample indeed reflective of Becker’s primary strengths. (Guests include Elya Baskin and Miriam Shor.)
08) Episode 40: “For Whom The Toll Calls” (Aired: 02/28/00)
Becker fights a fraudulent phone charge.
Written by Matthew Weiner | Directed by Andy Ackerman
This tribute to the central characterization gives Becker a relatable place to direct his ire — the phone company, which has charged him an extra eleven dollars for a call he insists he didn’t make. The triviality of this offense is funny when juxtaposed against Becker’s dogged and self-righteous pursuit of vindication, but more basically, the idea also serves as an easy excuse to display the core element of the series’ “situation” by frustrating him to the point of eruption, just as when he’s forced into anger management, or goes to the DMV, or is called to do jury duty. And yet, what really gives this installment some extra spark is the interwoven recollection of Becker’s previous altercation with a man in a wheelchair — who turns up to torment Becker at the phone company for an unsurprising but hilariously satisfying climax.
09) Episode 42: “One Angry Man” (Aired: 04/10/00)
Becker endures the jury selection process.
Written by Dan Wilcox | Directed by Andy Ackerman
So much of Becker’s success is merely about finding new ways that the curmudgeonly title character can become agitated and have some kind of comedic climactic release. Jury duty — or rather, the awful process of being selected for jury duty — provides ideal fodder for this series given its guiding personality, and what I like best about this entry, more than just how it deliberately emphasizes his winning comic persona, is that it breaks with expectations. That is, it’s not a story about Becker actually getting on a jury and being annoyed — it’s a story about him not getting on a jury and being annoyed that he had to endure the entire stupid process. It’s a unique setup to find laughs that emanate from his depiction, with anger again directed towards obnoxious bureaucratic systems. (Dayton Callie and Esther Scott guest.)
10) Episode 44: “Crosstalk” (Aired: 05/08/00)
Becker clashes with a patient’s priest.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Frasier’s John Mahoney guest stars as a priest in this installment that’s probably the least comedic half hour on this week’s list. Yet it’s one of the most memorable, not only because of Mahoney’s casting (reinforcing the spiritual connection between Frasier and Becker, as these two shows share writers and have leads whose personalities dictate their very tones), but also because it engages Becker’s views on God and religion, which are an interesting and important part of his depiction. Also, I appreciate that we’re starting to see Margaret’s religious side come out more often — one of the emergent signs in late Season Two that suggests her slow evolution into a more viable character (at least, relatively), as we’ll notice more next week…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Shovel Off To Buffalo,” which traps Becker on a plane (with Reggie) in a scenario that allows for him to be irritated, “Pain In The Aspirin,” where Becker struggles in his new relationship with Elizabeth as a result of his mistrust and general misanthropy regarding other people, and “Imm-Oral Fixations,” which deploys the always successful idea of Becker trying to quit smoking — one of the trademarks of his character and a symbol of the series’ corresponding identity. I like all three of those — they’re better than a lot of what’s produced outside of Two. I’ll also take this space to cite “Linda Quits,” where we learn more about Linda by going to her home, “The Rumor,” which merely offers a routine misunderstanding, and “The Bearer Of Bad Tidings,” where Linda and her friend amusingly annoy Becker.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Becker goes to…
“Stumble In The Bronx”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!