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 early ’90s multi-cams, all of which, it turns out, have some kind of Golden Girls connection…
DOWN HOME (Apr 1990 – May 1991, NBC)
Premise: A New York executive returns to her Gulf Coast hometown to help her father keep his restaurant from the clutches of a greedy real estate developer, her ex-boyfriend.
Cast: Judith Ivey, Ray Baker, Eric Allan Kramer, Dakin Matthews, Timothy Scott, Gedde Watanabe
Writers: Barton Dean, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Day, Bruce Helford, Laurie Newbound, Bill Braunstein & Sydney Blake, Ken Kuta, Jace Richdale, Arleen Sorkin & Beth Milstein, Douglas Wyman
Thoughts: Barton Dean, a former Taxi and Newhart alum, with help from a few great scribes (including Christopher Lloyd, in between The Golden Girls and Frasier), crafted this textbook sitcom filled with a lot of clichéd but reliable devices. Big city woman returns to her hometown. Check. Reunites with several members of her family. Check. Has to help them save the family business. Check. Has an old flame. Check. Local eccentrics fill out the cast. Check. Unfortunately, there’s nothing really new beyond these constructs, for while both the character work and the storytelling are far from the typical flop level, there’s nothing that really stands out here either. No terrifically bold comic characterizations. No exceptionally interesting relationships. No well-conceived idea for a specific episode. Accordingly, it ends up being forgettable — a by-the-numbers sitcom without much imagination, and none of the magic needed to lift off a series, especially via its characters, who instead feel standardized.
Episode Count: 19 episodes produced and broadcast over two seasons.
Episodes Seen: 17 — all but “Don’t Rock The Boat” and “Dream Boat” from Season Two
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pier Pressure” (04/12/90)
Why: The pilot displays the series’ textbook structure, with adequate setup and storytelling… but a sense of formula and un-imagination that consequently renders the whole thing limp.
BABES (Sept 1990 – May 1991, FOX)
Premise: Three plus-size sisters share an apartment and life’s daily struggles.
Cast: Wendie Jo Sperber, Lesley Boone, Susan Peretz, Rick Overton, Nedra Volz
Writers: Tracey Jackson & Gail Parent, Cindy Begel & Lesa Kite, Jordan Moffet, David Silverman & Stephen Sustarsic, Dava Savel, Rick Copp & David A. Goodman, Dennis Snee, Jeff Stein, Chuck Upton, Chuck Distler, Suzanne Kay, Robert DeLaurentis, Eric Cohen, Stephen Neigher
Thoughts: Co-created by a Golden Girls scribe, this jokey series about three plus-size sisters exists as a very early entry in the ‘90s’ “friends/hangout” subgenre of domestic sitcom, with an emphasis on their romantic fortunes, as all are single (after Sperber’s beau Rick Overton departs mid-run). The comedic bent of Babes’ scripts skews broader though, with physical humor and snappy one-liners — plus an initial overabundance of “fat jokes,” which burn off over time but always remain a foundational part of the series’ situation, for these women’s looks, and the way they feel about themselves, inform so much of their emotional depth, not to mention their comic identities. However, the results are surprisingly affable — thanks largely to the three stars, who provide an elemental humanity that counters some of the bombast in the writing, and any offense we might take with how their weight is used for hahas is partially allayed by noticing how it’s also used to give them an interior life, making them sympathetic and dramatically evolvable. As for their depictions… although the dynamic of the older sister’s bitter, hardened pessimism contrasting against the younger sister’s naïve, sensitive optimism, with the middle sister caught somewhere in the middle, feels mostly believable and provides some basic distinction, the women’s similarities seem far more pronounced than their differences — likely because of their shared appearance and the premise’s initial fixation on it. And this means stories tend not to be as personalized or character-based as they should be, for so many of them could apply to any of these three leads… if not any sitcom character on any show. Ultimately, then, while the series’ comedic style — and penchant for premise-affirming “fat jokes” — seems to be the element that would make Babes off-putting, it’s really the storytelling that does it. This is a shame because the three stars are strong and have good chemistry, and their scripts are filled with laugh lines. I think if this premise wasn’t so concerned with the fact that these women are plus-size, more time would have been spent creating unique ways for them to exist in story, which would have made this a better example of a situation comedy.
Episode Count: 22 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: Only 11 — the first five aired, along with #10, and then #12-#16
Key Episode (of Seen): #2: “Bend Me, Shape Me” (09/20/90)
Why: Coming early in the run, when stories are most focused on the leads’ weight, this entry places star Charlene (Sperber) at the center of some fat shaming in the gym, exploring her insecurities and how they contrast against her sisters’. Also, there’s some fun physical comedy — Charlene on the treadmill — that evidences the show’s desired comic ethos and how it plays into Babes’ use of its premise (and perhaps against its character work).
PACIFIC STATION (Sept 1991 – July 1992, NBC)
Premise: An overworked detective in Venice, California gets a touchy-feely new partner and a new incompetent boss.
Cast: Robert Guillaume, Richard Libertini, Megan Gallagher, Ron Leibman, Joel Murray, John Hancock
Writers: Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan & Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman, Martin Weiss & Robert Bruce, Michael Davidoff & Bill Rosenthal, Tom Maxwell & Don Woodard, Stephen A. Miller, Teresa O’Neill, Richard Day
Thoughts: Four of the best writers from the earliest (and strongest) seasons of The Golden Girls created this reliable ensemble workplace comedy set in a police station with an “odd couple” partnership and an incompetent boss. If this design feels trope-laden, well, it is… but it’s at least conducive to rich characterizations too, as everyone here has clear, definable traits that act as effective sources of comedy, with easy-to-understand relationships that can also make the generation of story simple. To that point, early episodes that build a dynamic between the central duo are best, for later plots quickly get caught up in the idea-led mechanics of the procedural “case/crook/crime” of the week, just as we saw on Barney Miller, the foremost cop comedy up to this point, inspiring a wave of ‘80s sitcoms about the police — of which this is but another (delayed) variation…. Fortunately, however, with great characters and joke writing of The Golden Girls’ caliber, these less-than-ideal stories (which we want to be more specific and relationship-based, to take advantage of those well-built leads) don’t come across as badly as they would on a lot of other short-lived offerings, particularly those that are similarly procedural as a result of a selected setting, so, Pacific Station washes out to be slightly above average — a good example of how strong regulars and big laughs can partially mitigate narrative weaknesses.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced, 11 of which were broadcast.
Episodes Seen: Ten — all aired episodes except “Operation!” (my copy is incomplete)
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (09/15/91)
Why: The tight and funny pilot is relationship-focused and succeeds because it’s got its characters and their dynamics already down pat.
Ultimately… FORGET DOWN HOME. STUDY BABES. ENJOY PACIFIC STATION.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Evening Shade!