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 (or episodes) that I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, I’m looking at five mid-’90s multi-cams that, like Cybill, starred and were led by strong women…
THE 5 MRS. BUCHANANS (Sept 1994 – March 1995, CBS)
Premise: Four sisters-in-law bond over their rocky dynamic with their husbands’ tough mother.
Cast: Judith Ivey, Beth Broderick, Harriet Sansom Harris, Charlotte Ross, Eileen Heckart
Writers: Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten, Tracy Gamble & Richard Vaczy, Nancylee Myatt, John Pardee & Joey Murphy, David Flebotte, Jenny Bicks, Lyn Greene & Richard Levine, Michael Patrick King
Thoughts: Former Golden Girls scribes Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten crafted another strong ensemble comedy with four humorously defined ladies — this time brought together not as friends and roommates under a “hangout” premise, but as family: sisters-in-law united by their mutual disdain for their husbands’ difficult mother. Naturally, with relatable familial bonds upholding the “situation,” and precise comedy afforded to all the leads, this is a well-designed sitcom — enlivened by a terrific cast. Judith Ivey, typically not great in this format, nevertheless does some of her best work as the sarcastic anchor, while the eccentric Harriet Sansom Harris (Frasier), the sultry Beth Broderick (Sabrina The Teenage Witch), and the iconically embittered Eileen Heckart are particular standouts — with newbie Charlotte Ross providing the audience’s access point in the pilot. They get funny scripts and early stories do a decent job of fleshing out the regulars and their histories. However, things start to change midway through the run, as efforts to inject the series with more “heart” lead to a softening of the dynamic with the ladies and Heckart — it’s not necessarily a bad thing; the show needs to make the “status quo” believable. But this doesn’t pair well with a rise in idea-driven plots where “issues” and deliberate moments of drama are also meant to provide balance to big comedy. Instead, such artificially induced heaviness rightfully feels unearned, emphasizing character limitations and making the entire show seem strained. It’s like late era Golden Girls… but without the benefit of those first few (and better) seasons, for its leads are also comedically precise, but not emotionally nuanced yet (that foundation hasn’t been built), and thus issue-based moments of forced drama don’t quite ring true… I think ultimately the show could have ironed itself out, with more natural development of the already well-crafted regulars, but in only 17 episodes, there’s tension that the series was still working through regarding its tonal and narrative identity. As a short-lived sitcom, though, it shows lots of promise; it’s easily one of the most enjoyable entries here.
Episode Count: 17 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 17.
Key Episodes: #1: “Pilot” (09/24/94)
#2: “The Other Woman” (10/01/94)
#3: “Clyde And Vivian And Ed And Malice” (10/08/94)
#6: “The Mothers-In-Law” (10/29/94)
#8: “Spare The Rod, Spoil The Buchanan” (11/16/94)
#15: “Becoming A Buchanan” (01/21/95)
#16: “Never On The Road Again” (03/11/95)
Why: #1 boasts a funny teleplay that sets up these characters and this premise well; #2 reiterates the pilot’s setup with another strong script; #3 and #8 are both great showcases for Harriet Sansom Harris — the first more sincere, the second more comedic; #6 notably guests Cheers’ Jean Kasem as a rival mother-in-law who battles with Eileen Heckart; #15 offers Golden Girls-esque flashbacks that create richer histories for the ladies with their husbands’ mom; and #16 puts the women together for a memorable idea-led story that seeks a “Chuckles Bites The Dust” catharsis via funeral laughter (over the size of the deceased’s casket).
HIGH SOCIETY (Oct 1995 – Feb 1996, CBS)
Premise: Two hard-partying wealthy career women take in their old friend — a pregnant dud.
Cast: Jean Smart, Mary McDonnell, Dan O’Donahue, David Rasche, Faith Prince, Luigi Amodeo, Jayne Meadows
Writers: Robert Horn & Daniel Margosis, Lisa Albert, Marc Flanagan, Pat Dougherty, Gary Dontzig & Steven Peterman
Thoughts: Inspired by Absolutely Fabulous, this American version sets up a scenario in its pilot where two hard-partying, rich middle-aged career women — a publisher and an author — take in their old college friend, a pregnant small-town lady whose lifestyle is the exact opposite. The “situation” then looks to be about the complications added to their decadent existence as a result of this new burden. However, the inciting incident — this pregnant pal — disappears without a trace after week six, leaving the show to become (more like its British predecessor) solely about the exploits of these two partiers, played with verve by Mary McDonnell and Jean Smart, the latter of whom is the wilder of the pair, as the former gradually evolves more and more into a “straight man” as the run progresses. That initial premise gave episodic story more of a concrete direction, but the shrillness of the idea — and the prospect of a forthcoming baby — is contrived and unexciting, so the simplification back to the two women is preferred. However, the show then struggles narratively — never settling on what kind of regular conflicts will exist. What’s more, the dilution of the McDonell character weakens the comedy, and while perhaps structurally necessary, this change is tonally incongruous inside these broader, jokey scripts. So, in essence, High Society just couldn’t figure itself out in only 13 weeks, and despite the great work of both Jean Smart and the recurring Jayne Meadows (who was Emmy nominated) as McDonell’s mom, I can’t say this is a lost gem. It’s got some good ingredients, but no recipe.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 13.
Key Episode: #9: “Nip And Tuck” (01/13/96)
Why: The funniest episode after the removal of that initial premised wrinkle of the pregnant friend, this outing — where the ladies consider plastic surgery — most feels like what the show would have reliably offered had it matured: the comic adventures of two ridiculous women.
ALRIGHT ALREADY (Sept 1997 – May 1998, The WB)
Premise: An awkward single woman in Miami struggles with family and dating while running an optometrist shop with her best friend.
Cast: Carol Leifer, Amy Yasbeck, Stacy Galina, Mitzi McCall, Maury Sterling, Jerry Adler
Writers: Carol Leifer, Stephen Engel, Bill Kunstler, Michael Rowe, Dawn DeKeyser, Judy Toll & Susan Sherman, Leslie Caveny, Chris Henchy & Chuck Martin, George McGrath, Jim Wise, Tom Saunders & Kell Cahoon
Thoughts: This vehicle created by and starring standup comic and former Seinfeld scribe Carol Leifer (the inspiration for the Elaine Benes character), Alright Already is written very much in the vein of that ‘90s classic, with an emphasis on funny ideas anchored by awkward, misanthropic leads. However, unlike Seinfeld, this show lacks the initial low-concept realism that made that series comedically rebellious. What’s more, it’s even less specific with its regulars, all of whom are incredibly generic — hooks on which to hang these amusing ideas (which would be amusing on any series). Leifer is likable, and Amy Yasbeck (fresh off Wings) is always an asset — as are Mitzi McCall and Jerry Adler as Leifer’s parents — but with scripts not giving them much by way of character, and stories not exploring who they are and how they relate, this is simply subpar situation comedy. It might as well be a recurring sketch. The epitome of mediocrity.
Episode Count: 21 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 21.
Key Episode: #4: “Again With The Pilot” (09/28/97)
Why: Produced as the pilot, this episode — airing as the fourth — establishes the general humor and storytelling of the series, which never improves or worsens.
STYLE & SUBSTANCE (Jan 1998 – Sept 1998, CBS)
Premise: A Midwesterner is transferred to New York to manage a magazine and TV empire headed by a Martha Stewart-like homemaker.
Cast: Jean Smart, Nancy McKeon, Joseph Maher, Linda Kash, Heath Hyche, Alan Autry, Vyto Ruginis
Writers: Peter Tolan, Russ Woody, Ian Praiser, Daphne Pollon, Gary Janetti, Donald Beck, Mike Chessler & Chris Alberghini, Susan Beavers, Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline
Thoughts: Jean Smart took another crack at the sitcom genre with this ensemble workplace comedy led by a Martha Stewart-like boss and her new manager, the responsible but naïve daughter she never had (Nancy McKeon) — a sort of Mary Tyler Moore Show for the ‘90s, and the first of two 1998 CBS sitcoms to spoof the famous homemaker. This is much superior to the other one — The Simple Life, with Judith Light — because of its focus on a more interesting central relationship, and its better-defined cast of players, all of whom have easily observed personalities that exist well within this more simply designed format. In terms of tone, there’s a frequent self-restraint to the proceedings that, on one hand, seems to emanate from Smart herself, as she instills in her role a sense of deliberately contained mania. But as for laughs, the show is at its best when its utilizing bolder comic ideas — specifically with Smart, whose clear link to Martha Stewart allegedly rankled the real lady and (according to some) contributed to the series’ quick demise. Whether that’s true or not, there does seem to be a gingerness about how extreme to be with her anchoring characterization, and I think a little more courage on that front would have made for funnier, more memorable episodes… That said, despite a somewhat clichéd pilot, most of the series is solid, with several notable entries that feature fun guests, a good sense of relationship and character-building within the storytelling, and media spoofs that feel earned by the “situation.” Incidentally, MTM’s Jay Sandrich was the resident director, and creator Peter Tolan (of The Larry Sanders Show) brought back Smart’s character for the 2019 reboot of Mad About You, on which she guested — in homage to this short-lived series.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced; 12 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 13.
Key Episodes: #2: “A Trip To Chelseatown” (01/12/98)
#4: “A Recipe For Disaster” (01/26/98)
#5: “Chelsea Gets An Option” (02/02/98)
#7: “Office Management For Beginners” (07/22/98)
#12: “I Went To A Garden Party” (09/12/98)
Why: #2 is the best episode for the central relationship between Smart and McKeon; #4 notably guest stars Jean Stapleton in a comedic role; #5 is a fine lampoon of media that plays with bigger comedy for Smart’s character; #7 is the best ensemble workplace segment; and #12 utilizes the boldest comic idea — a charity garden party against drug abuse where Smart accidentally serves mushrooms… magic mushrooms. They’re all solid.
MAGGIE WINTERS (Sept 1998 – Feb 1999, CBS)
Premise: A woman leaves her husband and starts her life over again — where she grew up.
Cast: Faith Ford, Shirley Knight, Jenny Robertson, Alex Kapp Horner, Brian Haley, Clea Lewis
Writers: Kari Lizer, Jeannette Collins & Mimi Friedman, Leslie Caveny, Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake, Bill Canterbury, Lawrence Broch, Susannah Hardaway, Mark Amato, Stephen Nathan, Dan Cohen & F.J. Pratt
Thoughts: This predictably benign vehicle for Murphy Brown’s Faith Ford traffics in one of the worst sitcom tropes — the “hometown” premise, where a character who left her old stomping grounds returns, rekindling with estranged family, friends, and often former flames. Maggie Winters checks all of those pablum-filled boxes, and despite a decent cast — particularly enlivened by Ellen’s Clea Lewis and Oscar-nominated actress Shirley Knight — there’s really nothing fresh or new here, as convention and affable mediocrity crushes original comic ideas for character, leaving the exploration of this overly familiar premise to feel especially uninspired.
Episode Count: 18 episodes produced; 16 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 16 broadcast episodes.
Key Episodes (of Seen): #6: “Singles Night” (11/04/98)
#9: “Angstgiving Day” (11/25/98)
Why: #6 is one of three episodes with Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton as a potential love interest for the title character — their date scene is typical of the rom-com humor Maggie Winters regularly offers — while #9 notably features Mary Tyler Moore’s Ed Asner as Maggie’s father (but it doesn’t deploy him for the kind of bold comedy his inclusion expects).
Ultimately, I say… FORGET High Society, Alright Already, and Maggie Winters, but ENJOY (what you can of) both The 5 Mrs. Buchanans and Style & Substance.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard Wednesday and more sitcom fun!