Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week we’re resurrecting the potpourri series, where I (briefly) discuss several of the short-lived sitcoms I never had the chance to highlight, in full Wildcard treatment, elsewhere during our look at the best of the ’90s/turn-of-the-century. These are shows that lasted under two full seasons — less than 40 episodes — and my drive-by commentary (again, it’s brief) is based only on what I’ve seen, culminating in the selection of an episode or two that I think best represents the series at large. For this entry, all of the mentioned shows premiered during, or were developed in, the 2000-2001 TV season.
THE TROUBLE WITH NORMAL (Oct-Nov 2000, ABC)
Premise: Four paranoid nerds overcome their fears with the help of their friendly psychiatrist.
Cast: David Krumholtz, Brad Raider, Jon Cryer, Larry Joe Campbell, Paget Brewster
Creator/Writers: Victor Fresco, Steve Faber, Bob Fisher, Michael A. Ross, David Walpert, Jennifer Celotta Jim Bernstein, Michael Shipley, and Gail Lerner
Thoughts: The four nerds and a babe premise is an obvious forebear to The Big Bang Theory, but while that long-running series went the more amenable low-concept “hangout” route (see: Friends), The Trouble With Normal uses the idea of a therapy group as its structural device, with the “babe” being their psychiatrist, who reluctantly becomes involved in their personal lives (and vice versa). This is higher concept; they’re not just quirky pals, they’re so paranoid and socially awkward — beyond normal — they need help for it. And while that’s nothing to sneer at, it makes emotional investment more difficult, for in making a judgment about the characters’ need for professional help, the show tells us that they’re farther from sane than the usual kooks we see on TV. In other words, there is such a thing as too extreme — we connect with quirky, not insane, and while therapy obviously doesn’t suggest the latter, the broad depictions necessary to motivate the characters’ into agreeing to therapy are troublesome… To my surprise, however, Normal is more than just an over-the-top collection of imbalanced caricatures — it’s full of heart, courtesy of well-defined personalities (they’re of the same stripe, but different) who are shockingly nimble when it comes to the motivation of story and comedy. And while the lead nerd (Krumholtz) and the shrink (Brewster) are obviously crusading for a union — the final produced entry hits this directly — we’re definitely rooting for it. So, this is a show that, while it’s easy to see why it wasn’t successful, is better written than its premise would suggest.
Episode Count: 13 produced, five broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 13.
Key Episode: #2: “Not The Pilot” (Aired: 10/13/00)
Why: Its smart premise has the four guys and the shrink going out to a bar where she is going to supervise as they try mingling with the opposite sex. Each one’s varying luck helps define their characters — proving that they’re each different — while also allowing the show to tease, very early on, what it intends to do with Krumholtz and Brewster. Also, it’s a funny teleplay from creator Fresco that not only deserves credit for its storytelling, but for the way it injects heart into a premise that otherwise seems built only for laughs.
BETTE (Oct 2000 – Mar 2001, CBS)
Premise: Bette Midler tries to balance having a career and a family in Hollywood, California.
Cast: Bette Midler, Kevin Dunn, Marina Malota, James Dreyfus, Joanna Gleason
Creator/Writers: Jeffrey Lane, Janis Hirsch, Gary Janetti, Robert Cohen, Meg DeLoatch, David Feeney, Boyd Hale, Josh Bycel, Jonathan Fener
Thoughts: Shades of Cybill – a throwback to an earlier time in sitcommery where a star plays a version of herself with support from a bevy of Hollywood guests, weekly musical numbers, and a sense of humor that isn’t afraid to indulge physical comedy. Unfortunately, as with Cybill, sitcoms of the post-’70s require slightly more logic in their weekly stories, and in general, more emphasis on the sustaining regular characters than the guests and gimmicks. And true to the title, nobody but Bette is allowed to do anything funny. In fact, Dunn (playing her husband) quit after episode 11 because he was dissatisfied with his use, replaced for the last two produced episodes (one of which aired) by Robert Hays. (Note: Lindsay Lohan played Midler’s daughter in the pilot, but was dropped when the series moved from NYC to L.A.)
Episode Count: 18 produced; 16 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 18.
Key Episode: #2: “And The Winner Is…” (Aired: 10/18/00)
Why: The funniest show, perhaps next to the pilot (which is jokey, but a little try-hard and desperate for laughs in some spots), “And The Winner Is…” has several guest star cameos, including George Segal and Louis C.K. (the latter not as himself), but it isn’t one of the series’ “guest star episodes.” No, it’s just an amusing Hollywood entry built around the idea of Bette jonesing for an award and arranging to be honored by the AFI… not knowing this AFI group is honoring her for providing In-Flight Entertainment. It’s a one-joke notion, but the script gets all its laughs, including some great spoofs of both JAG and the Emmys, and most importantly, it’s one of the few early stories grounded by the husband-wife relationship. (Incidentally, “Silent But Deadly” would be my runner-up key episode.)
WELCOME TO NEW YORK (Oct 2000-Jan 2001, CBS)
Premise: A folksy weatherman from Indiana moves to Manhattan to be the chief meteorologist of a local morning show, which is produced by a very tightly wound New Yorker.
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Christine Baranski, Anthony DeSando, Mary Birdsong, Sara Gilbert, Rocky Carroll
Creator/Writers: Barbara Wallace & Thomas R. Wolfe, Liz Astrof, Leslie Snyder, Eric Gilliland, Rich Kaplan, Justin Adler, Gigi McCreery, Perry M. Rein
Thoughts: This one’s a mixed bag — it’s got a strong cast trapped by a familiar fish-out-of-water premise that looks to be jokey, but is supported by surprising humanity. And yet, said humanity is an excuse for the show to shy away from boldness, which means there’s a reticence to go for big laughs… especially evident in the series’ storytelling. While it’s clear the bond between Gaffigan and the material-elevating Baranski is the series’ heart and soul, this seeming workplace comedy rejects typical “behind the scenes of a TV show” gags and instead devotes most time to personal stories about what it’s like to live in New York. Yet with Gaffigan not Midwestern enough and Baranski not as New York enough (even though it was shot and produced there), the show shortchanges the characters by way of conflict and, again, laughs.
Episode Count: 16 produced; 13 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 16.
Key Episodes: #6: “The Crier” (Aired: 11/15/00)
#7: “Dr. Bob” (Aired: 11/22/00)
Why: I’m picking two — one that is the best version of the series as it exists, and one that is much more atypical. The first is “The Crier,” which guest stars Eric Bogosian, and is the best example of an ensemble workplace story that not only keeps the central relationship at the fore, but also uses an original story in which Baranski is able to provide some of the strongest laughs of the run. The second is “Dr. Bob,” which guest stars Judd Hirsch as a doctor who’s nice to everyone but Jim. Forcing the two to debate regularly on TV makes for a gimmicky story, but it’s memorable — and bold for a show that isn’t.
NORMAL, OHIO (Nov-Dec 2000, FOX)
Premise: After living for years as an out gay man in Santa Monica, Butch returns to Ohio and the family he left behind.
Cast: John Goodman, Joely Fisher, Anita Gillette, Orson Bean, Mo Gaffney, Charles Rocket, Greg Pitts, Julia McIlvaine, Cody Kasch
Creator/Writers: Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner, Bob Kushell,John Schwab, Brad Walsh & Paul Corrigan, Miriam Trogdon, Lynnie Greene, Richard Levine, Bob Nickman, Gregg Mettler, Jimmy Aleck, Jim Keily
Thoughts: With a great cast headlined by Roseanne’s John Goodman and a classic fish-out-of-water premise, Normal, Ohio is a unique flop. The idea of a classic sitcom dad coming out of the closet and moving to Santa Monica, only to come back and have to make amends with the family he left behind, is both stereotype-flouncing and ripe with opportunity. Sadly, after a terrific pilot, no other episode manages to play towards the premise in a character-driven way. The lead’s sexuality becomes an afterthought, and while it’s good that this character — like those in Will & Grace — isn’t solely defined that way (and it isn’t used for cheap jokes), by mitigating this fundamental part of his identity — and the series’ thesis — the show loses its conflict, its reason for being, and becomes a traditional domestic Midwestern comedy, with a better cast than stories or scripts. A major disappointment.
Episode Count: 12 produced; only seven broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 12.
Key Episode: #1 “Pilot” (Aired: 11/02/00)
Why: The show’s first aired episode (following an earlier unaired pilot with a different premise) is the only entry that isn’t afraid to hit its conflict directly. And, as usual, no other script comes close to matching it comedically.
SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS (Feb-Apr 2001, CBS)
Premise: Macho aspiring actor moves in with a Greenwich Village writer… who’s gay.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Danny Nucci, Alec Mapa, Michael DeLuise, Jessica Lundy, Joe Grifasi, Camille Saviola
Creator/Writers: Marc Cherry & Tony Vitale, John Peaslee & Judd Pilot, Joey Murphy & John Pardee
Thoughts: Based on Vitale’s Kiss Me, Guido, this wannabe Odd Couple with men of different sexual orientations was derisively called Will & Guido by the press… and it does beg comparisons (particularly Alec Mapa’s Vern, who’s a lot like Sean Hayes’ Jack). But this isn’t good; Best Friends doesn’t have a comparable dramatic thesis to support its comedy or guide its stories, and as for the characterizations, everyone’s a surface stereotype except Bateman, who’s treated with kid gloves. Ultimately: Some Of My Best Friends seems to think sexual orientation is enough to create a whole character; Will & Grace knows it isn’t.
Episode Count: Seven produced; five broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All seven.
Key Episode: #2: “Fight Night” (Aired: 03/07/01)
Why: With a premise about the gay character pretending to be straight, the series’ seminal issue of “orientation as identity” is at the fore. Also, the strategic use of Mapa’s character highlights the show’s similarities with the aforementioned Will & Grace.
KRISTIN (Jun-July 2001, NBC)
Premise: A devout aspiring singer from Oklahoma takes a job in Manhattan working for an unscrupulous big city businessman known for bedding his secretaries.
Cast: Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Tenney, Larry Romano, Ana Ortiz, Dale Godboldo, Christopher Durang
Creator/Writers: John Markus, Earl Pomerantz, Dan Cohen & F.J. Pratt, Alicia Sky Varinaitis, Bill Wrubel
Thoughts: Vehicle for Broadway diva Kristin Chenoweth tries to use her persona to its advantage, casting her as a showbiz wannabe who hopes for a big break but in the meantime takes a job working for a snakey lothario with the hots for her. The fish-out-of-water premise is tried and true (MTM-ish), and it’s wise to let Chenoweth’s talents be acknowledged… But there’s a problem; while sitcom leads of this era are mostly Christian, they’re seldom defined as such, for in making Kristin’s commitment to her faith a HUGE aspect of her character, it inadvertently comes across as extreme — in the same way that shows would exaggerate a trait for comic possibility. What’s more, Kristin’s faith is rightly regarded as a virtue, and even when her stringent moral code can be seen as an obstacle to her success, it’s nevertheless not considered a flaw, meaning there’s no way her character can evolve away from this and have it be positive. Instead, the “arc” responsibility is placed on the bad guy: the wolf pursuing her, Tenney. And the show’s simplistic style of writing, a black-and-white view of the world (only Romano seems to exist in a shade of gray — but he’s dramatically peripheral), doesn’t make that prospect appealing. In short, Kristin embraces Chenoweth, but loves her too much.
Episode Count: 13 produced; six broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 13.
Key Episode: #7: “The Gift” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Why: The first episode produced after the pilot is dramatically the most precise summation of what the series is — the good Kristin vs. the wolf who’s bad but will eventually become good. Even though other scripts do their darndest trying to make Kristin situationally err, which is vital to the show’s continued functioning, no installment is really successful: Kristin is what it is and the unbroadcast “The Gift” is the most effective example of it.
Ultimately, I don’t feel a serious study of this era in sitcoms needs to make significant time for ANY of these series, sadly, although the use of gay regulars following the success of Will & Grace is notable, and I think of this entire assortment, The Trouble With Normal is the most surprising — it actively fights against a difficult premise.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Will & Grace!