After breaking down MADAM SECRETARY, I found myself going down an early 90’s sitcom path and wound up craving one of my favorite sitcoms from growing up: WINGS. Yes, I could have gone with THE NAKED TRUTH starring Tea Leoni, but I couldn’t find it easily. Also, prior to FRIENDS, WINGS (starring Tim Daly) felt like one of my family’s go-to shows. So let’s break it down for this week’s TBT.
WINGS is set in a small, made-up airport in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The show starred Tim Daly and Steven Webber as brothers Joe and Brian Hackett. Joe is the micromanaging owner of Sandpiper Air, and Brian is his very intelligent and womanizing pilot. Also in the airport is Helen, a childhood friend of the Hackett boys as well as the diner owner and aspiring cellist. The rest of the cast was filled out with the various airline employees and expanded somewhat over the years.
The series ran on NBC from 1990-1997, and was created by David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee, and produced by CBS Distribution, Grub Street, and Paramount. These three men also created FRASIER, and writing team Casey and Lee wrote and produced CHEERS.
Lowell, eccentric handyman/mechanic
Fay, ticket counter/check in
Roy, owner of the only other airline at this location, Aeromass
Antonio Scarpacci, a taxi driver during the third season but at this point in the show he is a waiter
We will be looking at Season Two, Episode 17: “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” This was the first appearance by Tony Shalhoub in the series, but here he plays a waiter. He would return in the third season to play a regular role as a taxi driver. At this point in the series, longtime friends Joe and Helen have started dating and are celebrating their first Valentine’s Day together.
The show often changed between 1, 2, and 3 storylines. This episode had two main stories as well as a couple quicker beats for minor characters that acted as running jokes and a way to keep all the characters active. Another interesting thing with this series is that as far as I can tell in re-watching, there was only one main commercial break. This is a huge reason why I often think of half hours as two acts, even if current half hours have more commercial breaks in current shows.
A few years after this series premiered, NBC got a massive hit with the juggernaut FRIENDS. The 90’s had a massive trend of series about young adults who created a family among their friends and this series definitely fit that mold. There area many similarities between the two shows. Both characters have neurotically neat characters (Joe and Monica), a character who lost a lot of weight recently (Helen and Monica), a kind, dimwitted, and handsome male (Lowell and Joey), crushes that have existed since childhood (Helen towards Joe, Ross/Monica towards Rachel/Chandler)… even when Helen’s sister, Casey, joined the series she was very similar to the character of Rachel Greene. These are archetypes that can even be seen when you look back to the creators’ previous series, CHEERS, so it is not surprising. That is except for Helen and Monica, both females who have lost a lot of weight and relish their new bodies and are chefs. Body dysmorphia as a joke is still a bit of a common trope in sitcoms (think of Schmidt on NEW GIRL) that doesn’t seem to be going away. This is simply an observation to consider as you write your own series. Are you relying on the tropes? How are you twisting them into something fresh? Challenge yourself to reinvent these nostalgic series. If everything repeats twenty years as they say, it’s only a matter of time until someone figures out the formula to the next FRIENDS or WINGS.
The Break Down
B: Roy asks Fay’s advice on a date location. She gives a suggestion but he basically blows it off.
B: Fay asks about the woman Roy is taking out. Roy becomes insecure, even more so when he realizes it’s Valentine’s Day.
A: Joe gives Helen a giant, heart-shaped box of chocolates. She becomes irate and snaps at him.
A: Fay confronts Helen about her reaction towards Joe. Helen says she believes Joe has a plan to make her regain the weight.
A: Fay tells Helen to back off, that Joe does not have a diabolical plan he was just being nice. Helen is remorseful.
A: Brian points out Joe’s error, that Helen has body weight issues and she took the gift personally. Joe realizes he messed up and goes in search of Helen.
B: Roy sees his date. She’s gorgeous. He panics, completely insecure.
B: His date compliments Roy and he relaxes, only to reveal he has lied about the way he looks (this is a blind date) and his financial success.
A: Helen sends Joe a note to meet her at their “special place.” Joe quickly heads to the park where they had their first kiss, while Helen waits at the restaurant where they had their first date.
A: Waiter Antonio asks Helen if she would like to continue waiting. He feels bad she dines alone. Helen stays, saying her boyfriend is on his way.
B: Roy and his date arrive at the same restaurant for their Valentine’s dinner. He spots Helen and immediately launches into all his nervousness about the situation.
A: Antonio bring Helen bread to console her. She cracks and eats. A: Brian gets a call from Helen wanting to know where Joe is. Brian realizes Joe is in the wrong place and quickly stalls before heading after Joe.
A: Brian rides a bike to Joe and tells Joe about the mix up. Joe panics that he has made things even worse.
A: Joe starts the car and it breaks down. He is forced to ride on the bicycle with Brian to get to Helen at the restaurant.
B: Roy continues to be a terrible date. His date becomes fed up. She rants that she did genuinely like him but his insecurities killed it, and she storms out.
A: Helen sits with Roy. She realizes that Joe is at the park and takes off.
A: Joe arrives at the restaurant. Antonio is irate that Joe would be cruel to Helen and scolds him.
A: Joe explains the conundrum and Antonio relents. He pours wine to console Joe and the wait staff begin drinking with Joe.
A: The waitstaff and Joe get drunk. They lament about women.
A: Helen returns and admits to Joe that she has never had a good Valentine’s day and has put a lot of pressure on this one. The two make up and kiss.
I love this show. Tony Shalhoub is so amazing. All my favorite episodes tend to be in the later seasons when he has joined the cast, and particularly when Casey joined the ensemble (this may be my age adding nostalgic to episodes I remember more easily). Can you imagine if he had joined a season earlier, all the stories that they could have created for him? On top of that you have the amazingly sweet chemistry between Tim Daly and Crystal Bernard (as Helen). In the early episodes it was hinted at but it was not leaned on the same way other series set up a “focused” couple though it was clearly going to happen and did fairly quickly. It always felt very natural and never forced, something a lot of failed sitcoms could have definitely learned from.
As you can see from the Act Breaks, the first half is all set up and the second half is all payoffs and punchlines. There are enough characters dispersed in different locations that scenes are brief and feel as though they are moving so even with limited sets you are never stagnated. Quick, simple, classic, and it works incredibly well.
Hope you enjoyed this break down! Do you have any 90’s sitcoms that fell into the “friends hanging out” trend? Let me know in the comments below!