Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our coverage on the best of Empty Nest (1988-1995, NBC), which is frequently findable on YouTube and cable.
Empty Nest stars RICHARD MULLIGAN as Harry, DINAH MANOFF as Carol, PARK OVERALL as Laverne, DAVID LEISURE as Charley, MARSHA WARFIELD as Maxine, and ESTELLE GETTY as Sophia Petrillo. With TODD SUSMAN and D. DAVID MORIN.
Although Empty Nest has never been the best at using its characters to inspire episodic stories, we’ve seen its capabilities erode significantly as the widower premise gradually became less novel and it unfortunately was forced to shed — with Barbara’s departure — the central (and strongest) relationships giving the show its emotional binding. Without this support, the series was left with only its leads — and their established dynamics — as the foundation for weekly narratives, and sadly, despite both Empty Nest’s MTM-esque work/home design, and regulars capable of providing value based, in large part, on their solid definitions, this tenuous marriage between character and story has proved too weak to bear it. That weakness, if you’ll recall, was my core concern about the series in my opening essay, and while it’s always been an issue, it’s most glaring here in Season Seven, as the show seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel in trying to dredge up new, funny plots as it limps to the finish line — many at the expense of the palpable humanity that once made this show unique. In this regard, Empty Nest has essentially become an idea-led show, with success predicated on how amusingly memorable its episodic notions are, with extra points merely going to whether or not there is some form of earned link to the “situation,” or at least, no harm to it. And this type of unideal, unreliable, and subpar sitcommery is confounding, for these characters remain heavily utilizable; Charley, Laverne, and Carol (who gets a new boss/career this year that is fresh and comical) are well-defined, comedic figures who, by now, have also received emotional dimension, while Harry is forever a reminder of the premise and its aforementioned palpable humanity, and recent additions Sophia and Maxine bring their own charm — the former as a simple laugh-getter with a wealth of history, and the latter as an affable presence with much (untapped) potential. And yet, Empty Nest is seldom hilarious — it’s never quite bold enough, or smart enough, or special enough to maximize what it has at its disposal. Even as it offers a decent, happy ending that works for the show — and has been somewhat built towards — its mediocrity is hard to shake. Yes, I’ve enjoyed covering this easy-to-watch series. But as for greatness… well, by definition, it’s rare, and we’ve seldom seen it on Empty Nest: a B-level sitcom that’s pleasant, albeit unexceptional.
01) Episode 147: “Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About” (Aired: 09/24/94)
Carol gets a new job at a newspaper, while Charley and Laverne grow closer.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Season Seven’s premiere establishes Carol’s new job at a small newspaper, where she works for Ben, played by Todd Susman, a funny actor whom you probably know best from Newhart. His inclusion is one of the bright spots of this year, as he provides Carol with new stories and a strong scene partner. The opener’s A-story, meanwhile, involves the teased suggestion of romance between Laverne and Charley — the third time this series has dangled the possibility that he might couple with another lead (Carol in Season Three, Barbara in Season Five), and this unoriginality does make the prospect less enjoyable, especially because, as always, Empty Nest isn’t courageous enough to ever genuinely shake itself up and progress beyond “schmuck bait” into something sincere… However, it’s still a plot that centralizes well-known comic characters, and focuses on their relationship — a lot more than can be said for many entries here in Seven.
02) Episode 150: “A Chip Off The Old Charley” (Aired: 10/08/94)
Charley meets his teenage son while Maxine tries to quit smoking.
Written by Vince Cheung & Ben Montanio | Directed by Doug Smart
Although I must admit to being disappointed with the lack of continuity supporting both the main story and its subplot, each at least jibes with its respective character, making sense based on what’s been established. For instance, it’s buyable that Charley would have a teenage son — a notion that implies both potential evolution for him and future story for the series. Unfortunately, though not the fault of what’s presented here, that potential never materializes, and this essentially becomes a one-off gimmick. Similarly, the reveal that Maxine is a long-time smoker now trying to quit is congruent with her hardened persona, so despite the fact that (I don’t believe) we ever see her smoke again (which therefore reduces the installment’s credibility), it’s a comic trait that helps flesh out our understanding of her character. And pairing her with Carol is a great way to guarantee some big laughs via contrast. So, this outing has the right ideas, even if the rest of the series lets them down. (Sid Melton and Christopher Daniel Barnes guest.)
03) Episode 151: “The Woman Who Came To Dither” (Aired: 10/15/94)
Sophia moves in with the Westons, while kooky Doris fills in for Laverne.
Written by Dennis Snee | Directed by Doug Smart
Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo functions on Empty Nest as just an extra source of easy, guaranteed laughs, participating meaningfully in only a handful of subplots over the course of her two-year stint, and anchoring only one real A-story per season. Six’s was “The Ballad Of Shady Pines,” and Seven’s is this, “The Woman Who Came To Dither,” as Sophia not only moves in with the Westons, but brings all her friends from the nursing home with her in protest (including Ellen Albertini Dow and Bibi Osterwald). It’s a silly, yet amusing idea that utilizes a character for whom we have an outsized affection, ensuring that we’re prone to enjoy this whole excursion. Also, there’s some situational support in the other story, courtesy of a final return appearance by Kari Lizer as the kooky Doris, who fills in temporarily for Laverne.
04) Episode 154: “Carol Gets A Raise” (Aired: 10/22/94)
Carol sleeps with her boss, while Maxine becomes an unexpected hit with kids.
Written by Andy Guerdat | Directed by Doug Smart
Carol and Ben, portrayed by the effortlessly funny Todd Susman, are a classic mismatch, so their tryst in this entry plays into the humorous idea of their unlikely pairing, which in turn emphasizes her laudably distinct comic persona. Meanwhile, the subplot provides Marsha Warfield’s Maxine with some of her funniest material on Empty Nest, as she fills in for Harry at a school speaking engagement, and comes back with a legion of young fans, thanks to her excellent performance with sock puppets. The juxtaposition of her no-nonsense, reserved characterization and the goofiness of her interaction with kids (Harry’s established wheelhouse) makes for comedy, and helps to reiterate the qualities that depict Maxine as a character who could be further deployed comedically within story that’s unique from everyone else’s.
05) Episode 155: “Would You Believe…” (Aired: 12/17/94)
Charley falls for a minister to whom Harry also finds himself attracted.
Written by Paul B. Price & Dennis Snee | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
“Charley falls for a woman who happens to be a minister” is a naturally amusing narrative setup, based on our understanding of his sleazy, indelicate, imbecilic personality. So, in a season that’s more idea-driven than ever, we’ve already got a winner — especially because there are indeed character concerns adding to the comedy. However, this script also gets to sneak in some surprising moments of palpable humanity as well, due to Harry’s feelings for said minister (Maureen Mueller), creating a formulaic triangle that nevertheless begets a foolish but appreciated comic centerpiece when the two guys manage to disrupt a wedding service. It’s all a trifle forced, but the weight of character renders it sturdier than it would otherwise be, and here in Season Seven, it easily stands out as one of this year’s most humorously bold.
06) Episode 158: “Dear Aunt Martha” (Aired: 01/14/95)
Carol believes she’s counseling her own boyfriend in the paper’s advice column.
Written by Vince Cheung & Ben Montanio | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Carol sneakily meets her endgame love interest, Kevin (D. David Morin), in this installment, which also boasts a fine episodic idea, hinged around her career at the small newspaper, where she is helping to answer the advice column — “Dear Aunt Martha” — and using it, she believes, to correspond with her latest fella. This funny story then gets to have fun utilizing her character’s foibles in a believably bold and thus satisfying way. Yes, Kevin, Carol’s final match, is denied a lot of comic color, but this disappointing character work is par for the course in mediocre sitcoms that intend to end on hasty weddings (with partners not introduced until the clock is winding down), so my disappointment here is tempered by already adjusted expectations. Plus, fortunately, the subplot has Harry reuniting with an old competitive friend (Pat Harrington Jr.) — and any time this show taps into its lead’s past or features people from it, there’s a good chance for some needed humanity. (Sid Melton appears again.)
07) Episode 163: “And Kevin Makes Three” (Aired: 03/04/95)
Carol is jealous of her new boyfriend’s bond with her son.
Written by Andy Guerdat | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
By now, Empty Nest seems sure that it’s working up to Carol’s permanent coupling with Kevin, for this outing deepens their relationship in one of the best Carol stories of the entire series, as her self-loathing paranoia finds her pushing Kevin away when she’s jealous over how quickly he is boding with her family, and especially her baby son. It’s wonderfully neurotic — a woman envious that her boyfriend gets along with her son so well?! — but perfect for her character, and one of the few stories this season that really feels like something unique to Empty Nest and a regular like Carol Weston. Meanwhile, the subplot is an appealingly small runner where Laverne tries to learn Spanish — an idea that allows Park Overall to shine, as the natural comedy of a “Hickory accent” attempting Español yields big laughs. Also, I appreciate that it makes sense — now that they’re working in an inner-city Miami clinic, it’s completely logical that Laverne would need to be bilingual (like Harry and Maxine). So, with both ideas offering humor that’s enriched by, if not situated entirely on, two of the series’ best characters, I have selected this underrated entry, “And Kevin Makes Three,” as my choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE). (Note: ex-Nurses star Carlos Lacamara appears — in a different role.)
08) Episode 164: “Harry Weston: Man’s Best Friend” (Aired: 03/18/95)
Charley becomes jealous when Carol makes Harry hang out with her boss.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
We’ve seen stories before where Charley is jealous over Harry’s friendship with somebody else, but with a script credited to two of the finest scribes in the latter half of the show’s run (yet they’re not the Executive Producers this season; that honor goes to Bob Tischler and Regina Stewart Larsen), this installment adds a dynamite wrinkle in the form of Todd Susman’s Ben, with whom Carol is forcing her father to spend time, even though Harry finds the man, expectedly, odd. This comical narrative engine enables both Ben and Charley to flex their comic muscles, with the series’ anchor firmly in the middle. In fact, I like this A-story enough to overlook its terrible subplot, where Laverne is picked to do a voice over as a cartoon owl. Oy. (Incidentally, Brian Posehn and voice actors Jess Harnell and Pat Musick appear.)
09) Episode 166: “Stand By Your Man” (Aired: 03/25/95)
Laverne grows frustrated with her relationship, while Harry considers breeding Dreyfuss.
Written by Ron Bloomberg | Directed by Dinah Manoff
Despite this entry’s functional goal of motivating Laverne’s engagement and upcoming departure with her new beau, Matt (Stephen Nichols) — which still seems a bit unearned, because although they have history, we don’t really see their bond reiterated much in story — there are plenty of likable moments here, particularly in the memorable subplot, which guest stars Edie McClurg as the owner of a lady dog with whom Harry wants to breed Dreyfuss. Now, I do think this idea sort of arises out of nowhere — I’m not sure how much I buy the notion of Harry walking up to a strange woman and asking to breed their pets — but it involves Dreyfuss, one of the show’s most prominent premise-suggesting symbols, and it affords us time with the delightful McClurg, who steals the show and turns in an enjoyable performance that, frankly, I would miss if it wasn’t on this list. (Sid Melton has another small role.)
10) Episode 168: “Life Goes On (II)” (Aired: 04/29/95)
After a double wedding in Hickory, Barbara returns to Miami to help the family pack.
Written by Ursula Ziegler & Steve Sullivan & Dennis Snee & Paul B. Price | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
As noted, Empty Nest‘s (intended) series finale is fine — it pairs off both Carol and Laverne in happy endgame romances, takes us to Hickory to meet Laverne’s parents (who are hilarious, and the reason Part I is worthwhile, specifically Grace Zabriskie as Laverne’s mama — she’s the same actress who played Harry’s date in the series’ premiere), surprises us with the long-awaited return of Barbara (Kristy McNichol) for some nostalgia that reinforces just how much the series lost when it had to make do without its richest relationships, and then, allows us to finally see — in ghost form — Libby (Judith Marie-Bergan), who visits Harry in a vision and resurrects the premise so he can move on. It’s BIG and terribly sentimental, but it provides the audience with what we need in order to gain closure on behalf of these characters. So, even though both Barbara and Libby — the spiritual personification of Empty Nest’s raison d’être — are revived after years away and it’s jarring (more fitting to Season Four than Seven), especially following a broad “double Hickory wedding,” I don’t think there’s anything better this series could have offered in this hour-long block to bring Empty Nest to its premised, merciful rest.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Goodbye Charley,” which is plagued by a hacky sitcom story about a funeral for the very-much-alive Charley but weaves in some moderately appealing character concerns (for both Charley and Carol) that I could praise in the context of this otherwise weaker season, along with “Life Goes On (I),” the first half of the series finale mentioned above, which suffers from a forced Carol/Kevin fight but boasts the most enjoyable usage of Laverne’s folks. I also thought about featuring “The Courtship Of Carol’s Father,” which guest stars Carol Kane but fails to find a funny way to use her, in a plot that seeks more palpable humanity than it offers, and “The Tinker Grant,” which claims a solid workplace A-story and a promising subplot that is totally deflated by a cop-out comic centerpiece (that should have involved Sophia). Lastly, I don’t really like them, but I’ll note “Just For Laughs,” which guest stars Yeardley Smith and has Charley doing standup (easy yuks), and “Single White Male,” which is too socially didactic to be good for character.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Empty Nest goes to…
“And Kevin Makes Three”
Come back next week for Evening Shade! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!