Speaking of DVD releases, season 3 of The Nanny came out recently, and while I didn’t buy it, I’m glad it’s not completely dead. I’ve always thought that show was underrated — but then it would have to be considering how widely hated it appears to be within the TV business. (Veteran director Alan Rafkin chose it as the worst show he ever directed on; Ken Levine made a joke about “the horror of being forced to watch the Nanny retrospective.”) And of course anyone who actually had to work with Fran Drescher gets my deepest sympathies. But the show was one of the few ’90s sitcoms in the old broad comedy tradition, with Borscht-belt jokes and stereotypes of both Jews and WASPs, and it was kind of refreshing in an era when comedy was already showing a disturbing tendency toward blandness. I think it holds up better than Friends and several other shows of the era.
But, and this is why this is not really a post about The Nanny (for which you can be thankful), it was pretty much indisputable, whether you liked or hated the show, that Fran Drescher was not the best part of her own star vehicle. She thought she was, and reportedly was so jealous of other performers that she had their jokes transferred to her, but everybody knew that the real stars of the show were Daniel Davis and Lauren Lane as the Nanny’s bickering co-employees, Niles and C.C. Their relationship was way above anything else on that show, the kind of comic-gold sitcom relationship that can get laughs before anybody says anything, just from the audience’s anticipation of the coming comeback. (This is one of the best things that can happen on a multi-camera live audience sitcom, when you get a laugh first from the anticipation and then from the line itself.) I don’t know if CBS ever considered a spinoff with these characters, and if they had, Fran Drescher would undoubtedly have found some way to nip that idea in the bud, but that’s an example of two characters who are better than the show overall.
Sometimes a good show can have a weakish lead character, but I don’t think it often happens that a show will come up with a team of characters who operate on a different, better level than the show as a whole. Another example I always bring up is Greg’s parents (played by Susan Sullivan and Mitch Ryan) on Dharma & Greg. That was a split-down-the-middle show. Dharma was, like all “lovable free spirit” characters on TV, a horrible self-absorbed twit, and her hippie parents were even more unlikable. Greg was… just there. But his parents were terrific characters who made every episode better; more than that, they always gave me the feeling that I’d rather be watching their show rather than Dharma’s. They had better chemistry with each other than anybody on the show had with anybody else, and because good TV, especially in comedy, is all about character relationships, I wanted them to have a spinoff. They never did, though.
I know some Family Guy fans feel that Stewie and Brian are better than the rest of the show, and the show itself seems to acknowledge this as a possibility, doing several stories a year where they operate as a comedy team separately from the rest of the characters. (I’ll give you Brian, but not Stewie.) And during the days of Will & Grace (another show that is not as good as The Nanny), it was often observed that it might be better if it were called “Jack & Karen,” and there were rumours last year that NBC might actually have been thinking of doing this, though I don’t think anything has actually happened. Again, I can’t agree; I thought Will and Grace, for all their annoyingness, were better characters than Jack and Karen, who were just unbearable.
But who are some other teams of two or more characters who, you feel, are in a different, better show from everyone else? Or, to put it another way, what are some shows that you’d like better if it were about [supporting characters] rather than [lead]?