Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Martin (1992-1997, FOX), which is currently available on DVD and HBO Max.
Martin stars MARTIN LAWRENCE, TISHA CAMPBELL, CARL ANTHONY PAYNE II, THOMAS MIKAL FORD and TICHINA ARNOLD.
Season Four is when Martin officially loses the rebellious, sketch-like, star-showcasing humor that had proven to be instrumental in defining the series’ unique comic sensibilities in its earlier years, making it worthwhile to watch in spite of its subpar work regarding character and story. Sadly, Four has fewer of the wild, spontaneous, and unpredictable centerpieces that its predecessors enjoyed, and its loss of identity is best illustrated by noting how the show has phased out Martin Lawrence’s goofy peripheral caricatures, including Mama Payne and Jerome, who make their last appearances at the top of Four, leaving only a few others, notably Sheneneh, as a rare reminder of the all-encompassing romp Martin used to be. In place of them, and the raucous comedic energy they represented, is more of a commitment in episodic story to “traditional” situation comedy, and I say “traditional,” because there are too many unoriginal ideas that come across as clichéd (many of them stuck in the ’70s), for they ultimately aren’t as directly tailored to, or at least enlivened by, these specific leads as they should be. What’s more, these specific leads have lost their narrative focus too, for following the marriage of the centralized couple, scripts don’t seem to know what to do with them in plot — let alone the secondary pair, Pam/Tommy, who split early in the season. This means Four not only downplays its emotional core (Martin/Gina), further unmooring the weekly storytelling from an anchoring tenet of the series’ “situation,” it also undermines both the rom-com elements and “Singles in the City” framework that gave this “hangout” ensemble some supportive weight. As such, when the show starts to strip away these premised guardrails — and dilutes the wacky ethos that could once override any shortcomings via objective-affirming guffaws — we’re left with characterizations that have always been thin and sketch-like, needing narrative arcs or outrageous gimmicks to help disguise their elemental mediocrity. Indeed, this is Martin at its most mediocre (it’s going to get worse than mediocre next year), and there’s no longer enough humor for me to overlook these inherent shortcomings… And yet, I’ve done my best to find the fun, and in fact, there are flashes of greatness — at least two episodes here are worth the entire season’s “price of admission”; I’m eager to feature them below.
01) Episode 87: “He Say, She Say” (Aired: 10/14/95)
Martin recognizes Cole’s new girlfriend from America’s Most Wanted.
Written by Michael Carrington | Directed by Gerren Keith
After a solid but unspectacular entry where Pam and Tommy (and Cole and Big Shirley) split — or de-escalated so significantly that it felt like a split — it’s nice to see this follow-up segment engage with the continuity. That is, it’s good for Martin and its claims as a situation comedy to illustrate such dramatic constancy, given how it otherwise concluded this relationship arc in the prior outing, where the Pam/Tommy scale back was incredibly lame due to their lack of definition. So, with a recent update to the “situation” going into this half hour that’s then acknowledged, this script is more supported by Martin’s created world, and we grant it more leeway to just have fun with its funny episodic idea — that Cole’s new girlfriend might actually be dangerous because she appeared on America’s Most Wanted. Cue some series-validating hijinks.
02) Episode 91: “Housekeeper From Hell” (Aired: 11/26/95)
Martin and Gina hire a strict but inept housekeeper.
Written by Darice Rollins | Directed by Gerren Keith
Marla Gibbs, best known for her work on both The Jeffersons and 227, guests in this installment as the Paynes’ housekeeper — the same job she had when playing Florence in the aforementioned 1970s hit. I include this excursion as evidence of my above commentary — it’s an unoriginal sitcom idea (the incompetent housekeeper), and in this case, especially reminiscent of the 1970s, because the very casting of Gibbs is a metatheatrical wink to her earlier classic. It’s a gimmick of the “traditional” sitcom order, but I think it’s highly indicative of Martin in this era, and there’s something to be said for how this series honors the legacy of “Black sitcoms” (like it did last year when a bunch of former ’70s stars guested) as a small, but important, part of its own identity. That’s what’s reflected here. (Tommy Lister Jr. also appears.)
03) Episode 93: “Headin’ For Trouble” [a.k.a. “Heading For Trouble”] (Aired: 12/10/95)
Gina gets her head stuck in their new brass headboard.
Written by Michael Carrington | Directed by Gerren Keith
One of the two episodes that I said above made this whole mediocre season worthwhile, “Headin’ For Trouble” also exists in the grand tradition of sitcoms past — you know, in the footsteps of Lucy Ricardo getting a “loving cup” stuck on her head, or Laura Petrie getting her toe caught in the bathtub faucet, as here, Gina, known for her “big head,” accidentally gets it trapped inside the couple’s new headboard… while they’re having sex. That’s a titillating and very ’90s wrinkle added to an overly familiar sitcom notion, and what I like best of all is that it’s tailored specifically to the character of Gina, as a running gag about her outsized cranium finally pays off in story. It’s particularly audacious — the sight of the headboard — allowing for even bigger, broader physical comedy than other variations, but rest assured: Tisha Campbell handles it deliciously well, offering a comic climax that, beyond just the funny idea, earns this outing a spot among the entire 1995-’96 TV season’s funniest half hours. An MVE contender.
04) Episode 95: “The Bodyguard” (Aired: 01/07/96)
Otis guards Gina and Pam after they witness a robbery.
Written by Jacque Edmonds | Directed by Gerren Keith
Even though this installment operates with a narrative setup that I would typically deplore — two leads having to endure temporary protection after they witness a crime — because it’s a conflict not motivated by them and is thus entirely circumstantial, I must admit that this is a hilarious segment, thanks in large part to Martin Lawrence’s clowning around as Ol’ Otis, one of his recurring caricatures: an outrageous presence who earns big laughs in accordance with the series’ Golden Age wildness, and in this case, he delivers a physical centerpiece that’s not to be missed. Also, I think it’s to this series’ credit that it’s able to handle plots where the stakes seem to be “life and death,” because its tone ensures us that we have no reason to worry — that is, Martin is so silly that we’re not afraid. That’s not necessarily ideal for emotional investment, but it’s fine if comedy is the only goal — as it is here, in this successful sample.
05) Episode 97: “You’re All I Need” (Aired: 02/04/96)
Gina feels insecure after Martin flirts with a producer’s wife.
Written by Kenny Buford | Directed by Marian Deaton
One of this list’s comparatively quieter half hours, this outing is worth noting because it’s among the year’s few Martin/Gina-focused plots that both respects them as the series’ dramatic core and doesn’t have to forsake laughs in the process. As usual, the idea isn’t original — Martin flirts with a producer’s wife because it’ll help him with his career, and this in turn makes Gina jealous — but it affords a welcome crescendo for the pair, as Gina dresses up like the flirtatious wife in question, managing to remain both comedic enough and believable enough to allow this entry to stand as probably the best story for the couple here in Four, which, as you can see, doesn’t give them much that’s narratively commendable. (Kenya Moore and Phil Morris guest.)
06) Episode 98: “Kicked To The Curb” (Aired: 02/08/96)
Martin and Gina try to get back their apartment after they sublet it to a new couple.
Written by Samm-Art Williams | Directed by Gerren Keith
Suggesting a change in “status quo” that falls through before the midpoint, this script — credited to executive producer Samm-Art Williams — gets to kick its figurative feet up with the comic idea of Martin, Gina, and Pam and Tommy (with support from amiable folks like Jeris Poindexter and Ellia English) trying to scare a new couple out of the Paynes’ old apartment. It’s a farcical setup with people pretending to be ridiculous and donning personalities contrary to what’s been established for them in the series’ “situation,” and that’s a lot of fun because it plays against the audience’s prior knowledge. Interestingly, I don’t think this is a great showcase for Martin Lawrence, but with so much of the rest of the cast in on the action and having fun, the series’ comic spirit feels well-invoked. (Kristoff St. John also guests.)
07) Episode 100: “The Love Jones Connection” (Aired: 02/18/96)
Sheneneh appears on The Love Connection.
Written by Bentley Kyle Evans | Directed by Gerren Keith
The funniest and most durable of Martin’s Lawrence’s peripheral caricatures is the finger-waving Sheneneh, who is amusing no matter the episodic narrative. Of course, my preference is to see her directly interacting with members of the main ensemble, with whom she sort of has specific relational dynamics, but in a season where we just want to watch the cast have fun in evidence of the series’ once-guaranteed comic identity, an installment like this — which puts her in a known game show construct for easy laughs — is sufficient. If I’m underselling it, remember that Sheneneh is always a winner, and here she’s supported by a young Chris Rock, who portrays her date. It’s flimsy by way of narrative, but memorable. (Donnie Simpson also appears.)
08) Episode 104: “The Tooth Will Set You Free” (Aired: 03/28/96)
Pam gets hypnotized into acting like Martin when she hears a clap.
Written by Darcel Blagmon | Directed by Gerren Keith
This is a wild and uproarious half hour that feels a lot like the series’ Golden Age, for although it profits from another overused sitcom idea — the hypnotic suggestion that changes a lead’s behavior when audibly triggered — the comedy is bold, physical, and unapologetic in a way that sounds rebellious, especially for this time in the show’s run. What’s more, the plot itself is really funny, for it’s anchored by Tichina Arnold’s Pam — a high-energy figure whose antagonistic banter with Martin often provides many reliable laughs. To that point, this story takes advantage of their dynamic, for our knowledge of their usual rapport makes it particularly comedic when she’s made to “act” like Martin, her nemesis. In this regard, “The Tooth Will Set You Free” is both a showcase for the incredibly game Tichina Arnold and the central Martin characterization! So, this is probably the third funniest entry on this list, behind my two favorites.
09) Episode 106: “D.M.V. Blues” (Aired: 04/25/96)
Martin has a terrible day trying to renew his license at the D.M.V.
Written by Charles Proctor | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode, “D.M.V. Blues” is the year’s best showcase for Martin Lawrence and the kind of comedy with which we associate his series. On other shows, I might not like that so much of this story involves the star and guests, instead of the regulars (only Tommy is with Martin), but here, it’s almost better, for it doesn’t force us to acknowledge the series’ subpar character work. Now, without having to worry about its main issues, we can just appreciate the comedy being offered, especially in such a simple but relatable scenario — Martin heading down to the D.M.V. to renew his license. It’s a Jack Benny-like notion, as we know our lead will be bothered by a variety of different aggravators, particularly the man behind the counter, played by The Jeffersons’ (and Amen’s) Sherman Hemsley, another reminder, like Marla Gibbs, of the classic sitcoms that Martin seems to fundamentally respect and want to honor in its DNA. Hemsley is screamingly funny in his exchanges with Martin, but it’s really the sense of unpredictable mania that makes this sample so indicative of the series’ unique comedic spirit — its identity — like when Martin is menaced by an old lady (Jeri Gray), and later, when he leads the crowd in a performance of Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” Also, with little help from the regular aspects of Martin‘s “situation,” this outing would appear almost sketch-like in its existence… but that’s exactly what this series needs in this era: loose comedy that showcases our star and is unattached to trappings that don’t work as well as they should. To wit, in being so free, and yet not so ridiculous that it feels try-hard, this is one of the best segments of the series, close to my MVEs from Seasons Two and Three. I’m thrilled to feature it.
10) Episode 108: “Why Can’t We Be Friends? (II)” (Aired: 05/02/96)
The gang fears the worst after learning Tommy has been in an accident.
Written by Michael Carrington & Teri Schaffer | Directed by Gerren Keith
Season Four finishes with a two-part finale that originally aired in a single hour-long block. Its story concerns a fight between Martin and Tommy that doesn’t quite land because it’s trivial and not well-rooted in their characterizations (probably since it can’t be). Part II is a lot more fun. It’s set mostly in a hospital, where the group believes Tommy has been in a serious accident, but fortunately, we know he’s perfectly fine — so we don’t have to be worried; we can just enjoy the leads’ camaraderie as they agonize about their friend. This is a valuable entry because of how this year has minimized the couplings and therefore the group at large — meaning, the ensemble as a collective hasn’t been as prominent in Four’s cultivation of story as it should be. A plot like this, which affirms their bonds as seminal to the series, goes a long way in restoring some kind of grounding focus. And, as always, there are enough laughs here to make it recommendable. (Jossie Thacker, Adele Givens, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar guest.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Cabin Show,” which was the closest to the actual list because it pairs rivals Martin and Pam together for an extended sequence, along with “Martin In The Corner Pocket,” a decent entry for Martin Lawrence that I wish was better entrenched in the series’ “situation,” “Love T.K.O.,” the middling installment where Pam/Tommy essentially split, and “Uptown Friday Night,” which boasts the last appearance by the iconic Jerome. I’ll also take this space to cite “Kill Him With Kindness,” which isn’t funny enough to justify its character-harming story (it’s also the last we see of Mama Payne), “Old School Loving,” a so-so Martin/Gina show that at least prioritizes them, “Homeo & Juliet,” which puts a gimmicky Martin twist on Romeo & Juliet, and “Blow, Baby, Blow,” a popular but stunt-based excursion featuring Biggie Smalls that neither showcases Lawrence nor the series’ “situation” well and thus can’t be highlighted.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Martin goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!