Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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, JORGE GARCIA, and NANCY TRAVIS.
The 13-episode final season of Becker finally puts its title character in a romantic relationship with his chosen love interest, and this development naturally encourages more scenarios where the misanthropic doctor is forced to be more personally vulnerable — thereby calling attention to the ways in which this is uncomfortable and unusual for him. Now, unfortunately, he’s not nearly as caustic or cranky as he was in the Golden Age, and the show’s tone (upheld here by mostly newer scribes) no longer reinforces his characterization as elementally, so this arc is not as effective as it could be. Sure, putting him in a relationship that can yield stories where conflicts arise based on his persona does create opportunities for earned growth, and indeed, the finale culminates in a well-written and sweet scene where Becker admits to being happy for the first time, now less concerned with the everyday annoyances of life — a fitting end for his character. But the build-up isn’t as well-thought out… As for the rest of this season, stories outside the relationship — which, for the record, are nevertheless fairly predictable too, because Becker is already diluted and Chris hasn’t had a personality since she replaced Reggie — also scrape the bottom of the figurative barrel for funny, original ideas. There’s some help from the introduction of Hector, who replaces Bob as Jake’s pal and a frequent patron of the diner. Oh, he lacks dimension, but he has a specific relational dynamic with Jake as a “bad influence” that gives story a direction. Also, there’s an arc where Jake inherits money from his deceased grandmother that provides a decent hook for episodic subplots. So, Becker is still trying… However, with a diminishing capacity to explore and reflect Becker’s characterization via the show’s own tonal projection of its identity (even with aid from a romantic construct), Six is not a clear improvement over Five. In fact, this is a very vanilla version of Becker, corroborating its reputation for mediocrity, both in the genre en masse, and in comparison to its peak years (Two and Three), where its leading man was better displayed. Accordingly, the show probably ended prematurely in terms of its ratings (CBS was always too dismissive), but creatively, I can’t say I wish there was more Becker that I had to sit through; I’m tired of accepting “average.”
01) Episode 121: “Afterglow” (Aired: 11/12/03)
Becker and Chris adjust to being in a relationship.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Chris Brougham
After four episodes that deliberately slow-walked Becker and Chris’ first date and then first sexual encounter, Season Six finally settles into its new status quo with them as a couple in a committed relationship here in “Afterglow,” which deals directly with Becker’s basic inexperience — he’s uncomfortable with such intimacy and the communication required. It’s not itself a hilarious idea — for, again, this is a neutered Becker and a perennially vague Chris — but it’s necessary for the character and indeed points to the implied characterization that makes this romantic arc a potential vessel for his growth. Meanwhile, there are laughs in the subplots for the other members of the ensemble as well. (Kimmy Robertson guests.)
02) Episode 123: “Sister Spoils The Turkey” (Aired: 11/26/03)
Becker and Chris host a Thanksgiving for their friends and Chris’ visiting sister.
Written by Joyce Gittlin | Directed by Darryl Bates
Jaime Pressly (of My Name Is Earl and Mom) guest stars in this memorable outing as Chris’ sister, who pays a visit after being released from jail for attempted murder. It’s a naturally comic notion with which this script has fun, as the rest of the cast gets nervous when she begins to date Jake. Personally, I wish the Becker character was a little more individually involved with this story and its plot points, but I appreciate that it is an earnest attempt to provide more of a backstory to the still-undefined Chris, and her anger and paranoia, though not directed at Becker and his emanating anger and paranoia, at least feels in the spirit of his and this show’s usual ethos.
03) Episode 126: “Margaret Sings The Blues” (Aired: 01/07/04)
Margaret is depressed to learn that her old friend has become a huge success.
Written by Maisha Closson | Directed by Chris Brougham
Truthfully, I find this installment to be little more than an excuse for Hattie Winston, in the final few minutes, to showcase her vocal chops — heretofore not displayed on the series — and so I think it’s a bit gimmicky and easy-to-like without doing much by way of genuine sitcommery. However, I also think there is some filling in of Margaret’s backstory, in a manner that’s clearly meant to pay tribute to her as “closure” ahead of the finale. Frankly, it’s the kind of stuff that might have been beneficial to know in, say, Season Two, when any details that could be reiterated with continuity might help build a story-providing character. Better late than never? On this list.
04) Episode 128: “Subway Story” (Aired: 01/21/04)
Becker helps an elderly woman navigate the subway.
Written by Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman | Directed by Ian Gurvitz
Probably the most popular entry on this brief list, “Subway Story” separates Becker from the rest of the ensemble for an A-story set in the subway, as he helps an elderly woman (played by Cheers’ Frances Sternhagen) navigate her way downtown. I enjoy this because it reminds me of the “streetwise” grit of the show’s early era and enables the return of Becker’s trademark crankiness, as the subway and its many inconveniences allow him to display flashes of his old characterization. Most people enjoy it though, I believe, for the sensitivity in the climax, when we learn that this woman lost her son in the 9/11 attacks. This series has had its fair share of dramatic moments, but most — like this one — don’t feel forced, even when they’re not directly related to character. That is, this would be my MVE… if the 9/11 plot point was more personally connected to Becker himself. (Molly Cheek and John Rubinstein also appear.)
05) Episode 129: “D.N.R.” (Aired: 01/28/04)
Chris is afraid that Becker intends to dump her.
Written by Ian Gurvitz & Dave Hackel | Directed by Chris Brougham
Becker’s series finale is my choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE) because it’s simply the best for the title character — the show’s number one asset, even here in Season Six, where he is otherwise not being written at his peak capacity. Of course, the demand for some closure also adds a sense of increased value for everyone — Linda gets a new love interest, Jake decides to move, Hector takes over the newsstand, and Chris, after initially fearing that Becker was going to dump her, is pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s quite the opposite… he’s finally realized he’s happy. Yes, Becker has come to a realization: the little things that used to bother him no longer do as much, and that’s because he’s settled into a feeling of contentment. It’s a wonderful arc for him — he’s not radically changed (as the final joke proves), but he’s evolved as a result of his relationships, and that’s a nice place to leave him and this show, which counted him as its guiding raison d’être, with his usage always determining what made a good sample. (Antonio Sabato Jr. guests, while Mary Steenburgen has a cameo.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Spontaneous Combustion,” where Becker is cranky and Linda has a fun subplot, “The Unbelievable Wrongness Of Talking,” which essentially reiterates the dramatic themes of “Afterglow” regarding Becker’s poor communication, and “Chock Full O’ Nuts,” a job-based outing where Becker is driven to annoyance when he deals with an influx of homeless people following a change in local policy. I’ll also take this space to cite “A Little Ho-Mance,” which launches the arc about Jake’s grandma with an amusing (if familiar) idea, and “A First Class Flight,” which memorably guests the vampy Nicollette Sheridan and the hilarious Gilbert Gottfried.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Becker goes to…
“D. N. R.”
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!