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, TERRY FARRELL, and SAVERIO GUERRA.
Season Three continues to see Becker amp up its willingness to indulge bolder comic ideas and more forcefully court big hahas, often while maintaining a rich affiliation to its lead and the surly tone his very persona encourages. Accordingly, Three is a candidate for the show’s best, as it offers bigger comedy that yields more memorable episodes, allowing certain segments to stand out in a way that the oft-ignored Becker doesn’t usually enjoy. That is, there are flashier installments in Three that are more likely to be remembered, and they acquit the show as funnier than expected. What’s more, although the ensemble surrounding Becker is always weaker than it should be, this year boasts a better application of Margaret, who started to get refined at the end of Two when her devoutness got emphasized. She becomes even more developed in Three, as we begin to learn more about her marriage. Truthfully, she’s still not really tasked with inspiring story, but the more interesting she is, the more interesting the office scenes can be. As such, the ensemble (which now also includes Bob as full-time) is slightly less helpless than it was before, and in the sense that Becker is finally attempting to mitigate some of its major weaknesses, both with its cast, and its comedic reputation, Three makes a strong case as the show’s finest… That said, this funnier status comes attached to a generally brighter sensibility — one that might indeed be more broadly affable but is less firmly entrenched in the personality of its one well-defined regular: Becker, whose cynical outlook created a unique ethos that the show could project in implicit support and reflection of his depiction. In other words, Becker’s tone is less directly motivated by Becker in Three than it was in Two, which also claimed more stories that obviously accentuated his caustic grumpiness in brilliant character showcases. Oh, yes, Three still has its fair share of Becker-focused delights… but not as frequently, and in scripts that aren’t as completely in sync with his essence. Thus, I call Two the show’s best season for (Becker’s one shining) character, its greatest asset, while Three is the best for comedy, with the minimization of some core shortcomings. They’re complementary — two versions of a decent balance between increased laughs and the reliable narrative display of Becker’s “situation.”
01) Episode 47: “The Film Critic” (Aired: 10/09/00)
Becker finds it impossible to enjoy a new movie in the theatre.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
In a season where the show is generally brighter and Becker does not appear to be quite as curmudgeonly as he was before (especially not in story), it’s merely a Victory in Premise for an episode to concoct opportunities for him to be repeatedly annoyed and spotlight his seminal crankiness. Season Three’s premiere — credited to Ian Gurvitz, who seems to understand the purpose of the Becker character and how he should narratively function — is featured on this list solely for how it emphasizes the series’ central characterization by finding ways for him to be revealed in action, thereby satisfying this basic aspect of Becker’s “situation” through story. (Guests include Marquita Terry, John DiMaggio, and Hugh Dane.)
02) Episode 48: “SuperBob” (Aired: 10/16/00)
Bob replaces the deceased superintendent in Becker’s building.
Written by Dana Borkow | Directed by Ken Levine
Comic nuisance Bob infiltrates the regular cast in this outing, where he moves into Becker’s building as the new superintendent — a way to elevate his prominence and explain his increased usage (even though his capacity to push story stays low due to his lack of dimension). However, this entry is not really a winner because of Bob, but rather because of Becker (as usual), who comes into conflict with all of his neighbors when they blame him for not helping the former superintendent when he was dying and apparently trying to get Becker’s attention. It’s a comic idea, especially since the good doctor was screaming at him about noise at the fateful time — a wonderful display of Becker’s grumpiness and the amusing darkness that makes this show’s ethos special. (Also, Carol Mansell and Jeanette Miller appear.)
03) Episode 49: “One Wong Move” (Aired: 10/23/00)
Becker regrets taking and giving the advice of “try something new.”
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andy Ackerman
There’s a mounting chaos in this installment that evidences the year’s enhanced desire to deliver bigger comedic moments, but I most appreciate that it remains centralized on the well-drawn Becker character, who goes out and does something new for the first time — he tries a new Chinese restaurant — and then is inconvenienced because of it, confirming his cynical outlook by emphasizing his characterization… while also exploring the possibility of him slowly evolving it as well. Meanwhile, of note, the shamelessly cross-promoting CBS used this episode to plug its recent hit, Survivor, via a cameo by its first winner, Richard Hatch, who guests alongside both Todd Robert Anderson and Octavia Spencer (who’s great in the subplot).
04) Episode 54: “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” (Aired: 11/27/00)
Becker tries to go a whole day without smoking.
Written by Kate Angelo | Directed by Andy Ackerman
As noted last week, offerings that deal with Becker’s attempts to quit smoking are typically strong, for not only is his bad habit a trademark of the character that symbolizes the kind of streetwise pessimism defining the show, it’s also a scenario that allows for the lead to be believably stressed and of course agitated — a sublime setup for comic explosions that showcase his caustic personality and therefore honor his rich characterization. This is probably tops of all the entries in this subcategory, thanks to a really funny script that exemplifies this season’s elevated courage to go out on figurative limbs for big laughs, with louder, bigger jokes and more manic set pieces. One of the best of the entire series — funny and Becker-filled: a definite MVE contender. (Guests include Barbara Sharma and Kathryn Joosten.)
05) Episode 55: “Dr. Angry Head” (Aired: 12/11/00)
Becker throws his back out while trespassing at a department store Christmas display.
Written by Marsha Myers | Directed by Andy Ackerman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Dr. Angry Head” is simply the most memorable excursion from the entire series. That is, when I think of Becker and try to recall individual half hours that represent the series in a favorable manner — with worthwhile comedy and a commendable, identity-affirming utilization of the leading character — this is the first that comes to mind, largely because of its very funny centerpiece that is physical and thus more visual, tying Becker and his misery to a precise image. In this case, he injures himself (the recurring back problem — a nice bit of continuity) while trespassing on a department store Christmas display, falling in a terrible location — right on the tracks of a model train that will run into his head unless he lifts it up every single time it goes around. It’s a clever scenario to irk the lead, especially in performance, where there’s some inanely cheerful Christmas music playing throughout — an annoyingly optimistic juxtaposition against Becker’s fundamental rage, and yet another example of how holiday trappings work so narratively well on Becker, enabling the rougher (and comic) parts of his characterization to shine. Also, I have to say I appreciate the subplot with Reggie and her rival (Molly Hagan) — this type of nastiness is not featured enough to suggest a real personality for her, but on the rare occasions it does appear, it gives Reggie a specific angle to exist comedically, and it goes a long way in implying her compatibility with Becker… Speaking of which, this is a hilarious exhibit of Becker’s storytelling that centralizes Ted Danson and his Becker character while revealing the show’s strengths and downplaying (even improving upon — temporarily) its weaknesses. It’s the best of this series — rivaled only by last week’s “Stumble In The Bronx,” which was the ideal tonal reflection of Becker.
06) Episode 56: “Margaret’s Dream” (Aired: 12/18/00)
Margaret has an erotic dream about Becker.
Written by Mark Egan | Directed by Gregg Heschong
With a story predicated on a misunderstanding and the familiar idea of an “erotic dream,” this installment isn’t as narratively original or character-specific as Becker’s best. However, it’s a funny showing that I eagerly include here as a sample of how Margaret has become more utilizable as a supporting player in Season Three, as she shares a heightened comedic rapport with both Becker and Linda that has accelerated due to her accentuated comic details, like her commitment to her faith, and her ongoing struggles with her off-camera husband. So, in evidence of her improvement, and the show’s increased laughs (most of which come from the office trio), I feature this entry — it’s not a favorite, but it’s got value, especially in a study of Season Three.
07) Episode 59: “The Princess Cruise” (Aired: 02/05/01)
Linda accidentally books Becker on a gay cruise.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Ken Levine
One of the series’ most popular episodes, “The Princess Cruise” uses Linda’s inherent daffiness to justify an otherwise unmotivated comic idea: Becker accidentally getting booked on a gay cruise after all his friends insist that he take a vacation. But the mix-up itself is only mildly amusing — it really works based on what we expect about the character, specifically that being trapped on such a ship for so long would likely annoy Becker and highlight the very traits that define this series and make it comedically interesting. Ultimately, it’s a notion that is good for Becker because it’s good for Becker (Linda annoying him is ideal fodder), and, again, though not a favorite, I appreciate its comedy and readily see why it’s broadly popular.
08) Episode 62: “Elder Hostile” (Aired: 02/26/01)
Becker clashes with Jake’s grandmother, who visits him as a patient.
Written by Dana Borkow | Directed by Andy Ackerman
This underrated outing has a terrific A-story that’s all about getting Becker agitated when a patient vehemently disagrees with his diagnosis. That’s already a great setup for a combustion, given his characterization — both his personality and his job — but it becomes more personalized to the show when said patient is Jake’s grandma, thereby raising the emotional stakes, for although Jake remains a mostly unhelpful regular, he is a regular, and engaging tension between Becker and Jake’s grandma actually engages tension between Becker and Jake — two elements of the “situation,” now in conflict… Meanwhile, I’m not crazy about either of the two subplots, but I do think the show is trying to lean into the idea of Reggie being a Rebecca Howe-like failure… it doesn’t give her a precise way to be funny every week, and it’s very generic (everyone at that diner is a loser), but it’s a not a one-off theme and, generously, I’d like to say it’s a deliberate attempt to provide her something to play. It’s a shame it never truly penetrates.
09) Episode 66: “Nocturnal Omissions” (Aired: 04/16/01)
Becker has trouble falling asleep.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Wil Shriner
Like the season premiere, also credited to Ian Gurvitz, this installment simply knows to employ a scenario where Becker can be annoyed and therefore his natural grumpiness can be on full display, showcasing his character and validating what we have come to expect from this show. In the same way that we know Becker’s inability to enjoy a movie would irritate him, a bout with sleeplessness and a bad TV would similarly put him over the edge, and although I don’t think this half hour is as hilarious as its logline maybe suggests, I do think it’s exactly the kind of idea that reflects Becker‘s sensibilities (tailored exactly for Becker himself) and the reasons I can agree with those who say it should be more respected. (Barbara Sharma and Jim Ward appear.)
10) Episode 70: “Trials And Defibrillations” (Aired: 05/14/01)
The lawsuit against Becker goes to trial.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Season Three ends on a three-parter that is consumed by bulky narrative plot points to an extent that’s actually unusual for this series, which is otherwise smaller and more typically character-centric (meaning, Becker-centric). But while the first two parts of this trilogy have a lot of story setup, the finale — even with its big courtroom centerpiece that’s gaudy and gimmicky for Becker — recalibrates itself into a tribute to his characterization, as his personality (or bedside manner) is conflated with his capabilities as a doctor and then “tried”: a conflict that this show loves, for right from the start, it has always made sure to distinguish Becker’s rotten personal habits from his effectiveness as a medical professional. So, even though I cringe at the bigness because it usually makes for bad sitcommery, this ends up being an ideal celebration of the show’s core asset and reflects how Three has certainly gotten bigger — for better and for worse. (Mariel Hemingway, Kenneth Mars, and Marvin Kaplan guest.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “What Indifference A Day Makes,” where Becker’s persona is well-applied when he’s shadowed by a teen, “The Wrong Man,” which has a memorable centerpiece where Becker considers having an affair, “The Trouble With Harry,” which boasts a could-be-comic logline involving a patient’s ashes, “The Ugly Truth,” where Becker helps Jake fight bureaucracy, and “The Usual Suspects,” which brings back the funny detective from last year’s MVE, but with a fairly thin story. Lastly, I appreciate the Becker explosion at the end of “2001 1/2: A Graduation Odyssey,” and think there are some fun moments in “Small Wonder (I),” the first part of the finale trilogy.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Becker goes to…
“Dr. Angry Head”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!