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 Four continues last year’s trend towards broader comic ideas, but now the balance has shifted so far off that it’s no longer maintaining the darker, cranky, cynical attitude that the show established as a reflection of its one well-defined lead — the eponymous Becker. This increase in laughs may make Four more palatable to a wider audience, but that early tone was a demonstration of its understanding of Becker’s character, who himself is no longer as well-featured in story, both because of this lighter ethos and the simple fact that he’s become less caustic and curmudgeonly. You might be tempted to call this evolution — the show’s identity is shifting with the character’s — but these changes aren’t earned by Becker’s actions or experiences. And what’s more, it’s just not ideal, for, again, Becker and everything his crusty characterization implies is really all this series has to its credit. After all, the ensemble remains weak. Oh, yes, now that Margaret boasts a basic persona, she pairs well with the conceptually thin but reliably jokey Linda so that office scenes are elevated by their rapport. But motivated story from them is still rare, and as this year indulges sillier idea-led fare that engages less of Becker and more of the supporting players, the disconnect between character and plot that emphasizes their scant definitions (especially the trio at the diner) is never clearer. So, while the inclusion of naturally funny notions may make more episodes stand out, it’s less impressive. Apparently, the network was also unenthused, seeking to “inject new life” into the series (never mind that it was at the peak of its popularity), so the end of Four introduces Nancy Travis as Becker’s new love interest, his optimistic neighbor Chris — wrapping the season on a triangle cliffhanger with Reggie. Now, most Becker fans cite the swapping of Reggie with Chris as the reason for its decline, but as you know, I’ve never thought Reggie had an actual characterization or was helpful for story. And, honestly, I think the final episodes of Four do a fine job of making Chris a viable partner for Becker, largely because her “glass half-full” personality clashes against his in a way that then accentuates his series-defining pessimism. Unfortunately, Season Five will fail to develop her character and instead write her just as blandly as Reggie. But that’s a problem for next week. Here, it’s still interesting, and Four is better than anything ahead…
01) Episode 71: “Psycho Therapy” (Aired: 10/01/01)
Becker corrupts his court-ordered therapist.
Written by Matthew Weiner | Directed by Andy Ackerman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Psycho Therapy” is the gimmicky season premiere that employs stunt casting in the form of Ted Danson’s former Cheers cohort Rhea Perlman and a bold story that, continuing from the gaudy cliffhanger of Becker winning his trial but being thrown in jail, also reveals the series’ growing capacity for outsized comic notions. In this case, Becker is assigned a court-ordered therapist to help him deal with his anger, only for him to corrupt his initially cheery doc so much that she comes to adopt his outlook and has her life quickly ruined. It’s a BIG idea — and it’s filled with big laughs on overdrive due to the wink of Perlman’s casting. However, while that’s enough to make it memorable, the real reason I can celebrate it here is because it centralizes a cranky, nasty depiction of Becker in accordance with his well-established definition — the show’s greatest asset and something that’s not as well-featured in most of Four. Thus, this is among the best “character shows” of the season, despite all its pomp and circumstance, and as both a tribute to Becker and one of the handful of segments I’ll remember after this coverage, it had to be MVE.
02) Episode 72: “Breakfast Of Chumpions” (Aired: 10/08/01)
Becker wins a kids bike at a school pancake breakfast.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Becker’s ignorance of social mores feels a little too exaggerated in this offering, which forces the misanthropic doctor to project a strained sense of realism that wouldn’t have worked in earlier seasons but is indicative now of how more heightened comic notions are indeed changing the show’s ethos, and his character’s depiction. That said, it’s not so ridiculous that I can’t feature it, for Becker’s behavior is rooted in a selfish crankiness that has continuity, and therefore makes it possible to highlight — and in terms of memorability, this installment, with its flashy climax, stands out as one of Four’s funniest. (Guests include Colin Ferguson and Lauri Hendler.)
03) Episode 80: “The Ghost Of Christmas Presents” (Aired: 12/10/01)
Becker’s bad day validates his negative feelings about Christmas.
Written by Matthew Weiner | Directed by Ken Levine
As usual, Becker triumphs with a Christmas-themed excursion, using the natural good cheer of the holiday, exhibited by most of the world, to contrast against the title character, who is especially grumpy as a result of all this surrounding merriment. The entry itself is not as comedically exciting as the prior two segments in this X-mas subcategory, but it’s got a terrific culmination, where Becker’s outlook seems like it’s been changed after experiencing a potential miracle that he can’t explain… only for the show, in alignment with the tone we expect it to have, to then burst his newfound optimism with cold, hard, logic. Also, Brenda Vaccaro guests in the subplot as Bob’s mother — an inspired bit of casting. (She should have been used more.)
04) Episode 83: “Barter Sauce” (Aired: 01/28/02)
Becker creates a bartering system with Reggie, Bob, and Jake.
Written by Michael Markowitz | Directed by Wil Shriner
So many of the best episodes of Becker are only about driving its leading man to agitation, deriving big laughs from the rising tension. This installment doesn’t quite go so far as the finest examples in this narrative template, yet it’s an affable outing that also utilizes the members of the ensemble — and not in a way that’s overly reliant on their (weak) individual definitions, but merely as established forces who can annoy Becker, as his initial agreement of exchanging his services with Reggie, Bob, and Jake in a form of “bartering” obviously proves unsustainable. It’s a Victory in Premise — an idea that allows for Becker’s character to be well-displayed.
05) Episode 85: “It Had To Be Ew” (Aired: 02/25/02)
Becker is upset when the idea of a woman being attracted to him makes her say “ew.”
Teleplay by Liz Astrof | Story by Ritch Shydner | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Among the year’s most memorable, this popular entry pesters Becker — not to the point of anger, but concern, emphasizing his general misanthropy and the difficulty he has with personal relationships, especially with women, for after being persuaded by Bob (whom we know is an unreliable source) that Jake’s new wife (Lindsay Price) is attracted to him, he confronts her in an awkward scene where her response to the suggestion is “ew.” That’s a comic idea that deflates his ego and works well for the characterization. However, bigger laughs come in the subplot, where Linda fears she’s getting replaced by a temp (Amy Farrington) and thus crafts a series of lies about Margaret and Becker to make the office seem unpleasant. It’s farcical, but fun.
06) Episode 86: “Let’s Talk About Sex” (Aired: 03/04/02)
Becker’s talk to school kids about nutrition veers into awkward territory.
Written by Marsha Myers | Directed by Darryl Bates
Another common narrative template for Becker is putting its lead in uncomfortable scenarios, for that’s adjacent to aggravating scenarios and similarly lets the nicotine-lovin’ doc with a harsh bedside manner reveal the temperamental quirks that render him crusty, but ultimately funny. No, there won’t be any points for originality awarded to this idea, which involves ye olde “kids ask questions about sex” routine — but it at least makes some sense given Becker’s profession, and it allows his personality to rear its head in several scenes that therefore excuse the otherwise lame setup and familiar trappings, justifying the easy laughs. Too memorable to ignore.
07) Episode 87: “Picture Imperfect” (Aired: 03/11/02)
Becker’s published article is run alongside a picture of somebody else.
Written by Liz Astrof | Directed by Gail Mancuso
If there was any possible rival for my chosen MVE, it would be “Picture Imperfect,” for it’s another one of the few entries that I’ll truly remember after these lists are complete and in this blog’s rear-view mirror — thanks to its amusing logline of Becker being annoyed when an article he gets published is saddled with somebody else’s picture… a man who is apparently quite ugly. That’s a fresh, unique idea for driving him to pure agitation. And there’s a terrific climactic centerpiece with Seinfeld and 3rd Rock’s Wayne Knight as a vengeful old classmate who purposely intended to embarrass Becker — a notion that points directly to the lead’s difficulty in getting along with people, thereby centralizing his characterization in a fairly original plot. A favorite. (Danny Woodburn, another Seinfeld alum, also guests.)
08) Episode 91: “Parannoyed” (Aired: 04/29/02)
Becker believes someone in his building is out to get him.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Nancy Travis (Ted Danson’s Three Men And A Baby costar) is introduced as Chris in this installment — a new neighbor who challenges Becker’s pessimism with grounded optimism, suggesting a characterization that can then accentuate his by contrast. That’s not fully on display yet though — the reveal of her being his neighbor comes at the end of an already great offering where Becker is convinced that the people in his building are out to get him: a logical case of paranoia as a result of his character-rooted unfriendliness. Also, there’s an especially funny patient-of-the-week subplot with Linda and Margaret that utilizes their personalities well.
09) Episode 92: “MisSteaks” (Aired: 05/06/02)
When Becker receives some steaks on accident, Chris convinces him to throw a party.
Written by Anne Flett-Giordano & Chuck Ranberg | Directed by Andy Ackerman
This contribution serves to bring Becker and Chris closer together in a somewhat contrived plot where Becker throws a party at his house — largely an opportunity for her personality to be contrasted not only against his, but also the rest of the ensemble, which is collectively colored as corroborating the show’s generally cynical tone (however diluted it’s become relative to the first two years). Once again, I appreciate this because it means Becker’s disposition gets emphasized as a tool for juxtaposition, and since his character is the one thing I want reiterated every week in story (for comedy), this satisfies those basic requirements. Underrated.
10) Episode 94: “Everybody Loves Becker” (Aired: 05/20/02)
Reggie is unnerved to see Becker grow closer to Chris.
Written by Kate Angelo | Directed by Andy Ackerman
Season Four culminates in a love triangle cliffhanger that, to most fans, represents a major step in the wrong direction for the series, as it’s the last time we’ll see Reggie, who’s literally replaced (in every way) by Chris. We’ll talk more next week about the effects of all this, but here I’ll note that the labored maneuverings to set up this triangle are nevertheless made enjoyable due to the implied contrast between Chris and Becker, which again highlights Becker’s depiction, particularly in a beautifully written scene featuring the two that I wish was more convincingly remembered in Season Five, when all the narrative potential suggested by Chris essentially evaporates overnight along with her characterization; stay tuned…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Get Me Out Of Here,” which was closest to the list because of a great performance by Ted Danson, whose Becker is scared of an MRI machine and then gets high on valium. I’ll also take this space to cite “Really Good Advice,” where Becker consciously aims to be more sensitive to women, “Another Tricky Day,” which is mostly driven by its amusing patient story, and “The Ex-Files,” which has some stellar office scenes and fun guest work by Barbara Sharma. Lastly, I must acknowledge three average but memorable guest star outings: “Hanging With Jake,” with Dave Foley, “V-Day,” with Cheers’ George Wendt, and “Talking Points,” with Tom Poston.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Becker goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!