Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have a chance to highlight in full — offering casual commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode that I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, I’m looking at three late-’90s multi-cams that, like Becker, feature workplace settings as a major part of their premise. One employs the familiar hotel locale, another is set in the oft-used TV newsroom, while another deliberately crafts a generic office to spoof the culture en masse. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy any of them like I had hoped…
OVER THE TOP (Oct 1997 – Nov 1997, ABC)
Premise: An ex-soap star moves into a hotel run by his former wife.
Cast: Tim Curry, Annie Potts, Steve Carell, Luke Tarsitano, Maria Sokoloff, Liz Torres, John O’Hurley
Writers: Nat Bernstein & Mitchel Katlin, Tom J. Astle, David Litt, Amy Sherman-Palladino, David Brownfield, Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa, Lee Aronsohn, Alex Reid, Mike Gandolfi
Thoughts: Tim Curry is a hilarious, magnetic performer and Over The Top surrounds him with a great cast that includes the likable Annie Potts, the reliable Liz Torres, the up-and-coming Steve Carell (who clearly has “it”), and even the recurring material elevator John O’Hurley. But this is not good situation comedy — starting with a banal hotel setting and a clichéd divorced couple as the central relationship, neither of which is applied well in episodic story. Also, none of the hotel ideas are new or themselves comic enough to reach the brilliant standards of, say, Fawlty Towers, and the dynamic between Curry and Potts is neither believable nor comedically well-defined. That last part is crucially disappointing, for all that’s left for this show to do is create scenarios where Curry can clown (and Carell can clown in a subplot) — and while that should be enough, it isn’t. Especially with scripts that let down the characters and premise this much — claiming a theatrical sensibility that never rises to the comic occasion. I’m afraid it’s bad.
Episode Count: 11 episodes produced; four broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 11.
Key Episode: #7: “The Review” (Unbroadcast)
Why: This episode comes the closest to invoking a Fawlty Towers lunacy, courtesy of a fun story that guest stars Martin Mull as a hotel critic who has a great stay, then hits his head and forgets the last 24 hours — forcing the staff to recreate his experience with little notice. (Oh, and incidentally, John Ritter guest stars as a rival actor in the third aired episode — there’s really nothing to do with the premise in that entry, but it’s pleasant and worth noting.)
WORKING (Oct 1997 – Jan 1999, NBC)
Premise: A recent college graduate hopes to work his way up a major multinational organization.
Cast: Fred Savage, Maurice Godin, Yvette Freeman, Arden Myrin, Steve Hytner, Sarah Knowlton, Dana Gould, Kate Hodge, Rebecca McFarland, Debi Mazar
Writers: Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal, Sy Rosen, Will Gluck, Ben Wexler, Mike Langworthy, Steve Tompkins, Vicki S. Horwitz, Rob Cornick & Cory Jachnuk, Marsha Myers, Matt Goldman, Noah Taft, Mark Wilding, David Fury, Steve Baldikoski & Bryan Behar, Beth Fieger Falkenstein, Martin Weiss, David Rosenberg
Thoughts: Traditional office culture is spoofed in this idea-driven vehicle that stars The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage and actually boasts a strong ensemble of regulars with clear personalities. In fact, it looks as if it could be — like the similarly set up NewsRadio (where the job was largely irrelevant to the interoffice happenings) — a ‘90s multi-cam precursor to The Office, another low-concept examination of kooky people bound together by the familiar workplace framework. Of course, Working lacks the unique mockumentary formatting of The Office and doesn’t quite have characters as comedically rich — and it’s also without the genius material-elevating performers of NewsRadio — so while it’s a likable show in this vein, I can’t say it’s the best or comparably transcendent. Heck, I think it’s a cut below; the biggest weakness is a lack of connection between its ideas and its regulars, with relationships that don’t get fleshed out enough in story to uphold the show’s comedic spoof of these familiar bureaucratic structures and therefore meaningfully support the premise. Also, as a low-concept series that decides to be idea-driven, most of its ideas are, well, forgettable — trapped in the routinized nature of the office setting it’s parodying. In this regard, while I think it’s a capably designed sitcom with all the tools for success in its characters, it just never links them to story in a way that makes it stand out above its locale. And a few tweaks to the cast for a shortened second season (which takes the action outside the office more often) doesn’t really solve the problem either. It ultimately can’t escape the mechanical, formulaic tenor of its very premise — and its flashes of creativity aren’t connected enough to elements of its “situation” to provide anything specifically laudable.
Episode Count: 39 episodes produced over two seasons (22 + 17), 35 of which aired.
Episodes Seen: All 39.
Key Episode: #1: “Pilot” (10/08/97)
Why: Despite some cast changes between the pilot and the first season (mostly for the better), no sample of Working stands out more than the premiere, which showcases its strong design of surprisingly well-crafted characters with a comedically quirky tone that thus suggests promise… promise, sadly, that isn’t fulfilled. To wit, there’s just no other installment that’s memorable (beyond the gimmicky entries that guest star Danica McKellar).
THE BRIAN BENBEN SHOW (Sept 1998 – Oct 1998, CBS)
Premise: A fired Los Angeles news anchor takes a lesser job as a human-interest reporter.
Cast: Brian Benben, Susan Blommaert, Wendell Pierce, Lisa Thornhill, Charles Esten, Luis Antonio Ramos, Lisa Vidal
Writers: Robert Borden, John Frink & Don Payne, Alex Reid, Betsy Borns, Jace Richdale, Gail Lerner, Bobby Bowman, Maggie Bandur & Pang-Ni Landrum
Thoughts: Set in the oft-deployed TV newsroom, this low-concept workplace sitcom has a fairly typical wrinkle, with its star essentially getting demoted in the plot and forever after feuding with his replacement. The relationships between the characters — this rivalry being most central — are clear and straightforward, and the tone is especially jokey, seeking centerpieces where the lead can be put in humiliating scenarios (justified by his “human interest” job). It’s sort of textbook. But the writing overall feels very surface and single-dimensional, with not a lot of depth to the characters or room within the premise for stories that really examine them. The “demoted” wrinkle and all trappings related to the job itself dominate… and with nothing truly fresh to justify such idea-based gimmickry on a regular basis. Only four episodes were broadcast, but I see no sign of likely improvements coming. (Interestingly, this was the show that Becker officially replaced on the CBS schedule.)
Episode Count: Nine episodes produced; four broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All four broadcast episodes.
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (09/21/98)
Why: The pilot sets up this show and reveals all its strengths and weaknesses without being as disappointing as future installments, where these weaknesses are never ameliorated.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Becker!