If you want a poster child for why reality shows replaced traditional sitcoms at the turn of this century, look no further than Spin City. It was a show fueled by predictable jokes preceded by predictable set-ups, complex problems that can always be solved within 20-minutes without fail, story arcs that never last longer than two episodes, and conversations that could never be described as “authentic”. It’s no wonder that it got replaced by shows that where people eat bugs for money.
Thanks to a lengthy run in syndication, and star Michael J. Fox’s well-known, tireless fight for stem cell research, Spin City has ascended in popularity and ubiquity beyond many comparable sitcoms during the era, including some that beat it at its own game (like NewsRadio and Sports Night). That fact has led to the show being picked for DVD distribution by Shout! Factory, which is now releasing the show’s second frame as a four-disc DVD set with virtually none of the extras that typically mark TV releases.
Spin City, at least for its first four seasons or so, was Michael J. Fox’s vehicle. It was his return to TV (following Family Ties) after a moderately successful run in movies like the Back to the Future trilogy, Teen Wolf, and Casualties of War. Fox stars as deputy mayor Mike Flaherty, an obsessive compulsive, self-absorbed narcissist who sees his role in New York government as that of the decision-maker.
Mike owes his power to the bumbling mayor, Randall Winston, played by Barry Bostwick, who is essentially a living version of one of the Three Stooges. Winston is a stuffed shirt who never reads his speeches before he goes out in front of the press corps, which often leads to notecard mistakes, among many other blunders that are too numerous to list. That anyone of such marginal intelligence could get elected would be unbelievable if it weren’t a real and sad fact of life.
The rest of the staff is rounded out by a barrel of ‘90s sitcom clichés. There’s the gay man (Carter, played by Michael Boatman) who is the voice of minorities on the staff; the creep who tries desperately to get laid by any woman anywhere (Stuart, played by the scene-stealing Alan Ruck); and the lonely single woman who is afraid of commitment (Nikki, played by Connie Britton). There’s also the rube from Wisconsin who is shocked that New York has crime (James, played by Alexander Chaplin); the loud, atonal, and horribly cheap press secretary (Paul, played by Richard Kind, who essentially is the same person in everything he’s in); and the tough girl from Brooklyn who apparently only knows about the mob and Catholicism (Stacey, played by Jennifer Esposito).
Every episode the staff must confront a new problem facing New York (rats, Native American relations, sex shops, male-only clubs, strikes, and um, Paul’s impending marriage) and set out to resolve it. Where other shows about the inner workings of government (like, say The West Wing) actually showed the amount of compromise that it takes to govern efficiently, Spin City coasts by on solving all the problems of the city in a slapstick manner in resolutions that wrap up incongruously and without proper explanation.
The supposedly monumental labor negotiations with striking city workers happens mostly off screen. A tenuous relationship with a group of Native Americans is resolved when both sides inexplicably decide the reason they can’t agree on land deals is that they’re all being too politically correct, which somehow leads to a resolution on both sides. Paul gets married. The male-only clubs are encouraged to integrate. Spin City never caught a governance problem that couldn’t be solved by a gay joke, a confrontation with two staff members, and a 30 second wrap-up.
Sure, it’s probably unfair to compare a breezy sitcom like Spin City to a show like West Wing, but the government angle is supposed to distinguish it from other workplace sitcoms of the time. In the end, it plays just like a simple work sitcom that happens to be in a mayor’s office. You could change the locale to a dentist’s office, a hairstylist’s, or a tax adjuster’s, and the show would be virtually unchanged.
But the more glaring problem is that Spin City’s jokes are rote—Stuart does a variation of the “That’s what she said”, Carter says something identifiably ‘gay-like’, Nikki says something about how she’s lonely, and Mike says something about how great he is. None of the exchanges even feel real, in any sense of the word, because everyone is essentially saying their established clichés with winking “Ain’t I a stinker” smiles one after another.
It even got to the point, as I neared the end of the second season’s 24 episodes, that I could yell out the jokes before the actors did, which is never a good thing. Besides from the easy ability for the show to be set up as a drinking game (a shot every time James says something about Wisconsin, or something similar) that will get you more than sufficiently sloppy, there’s not a whole lot comedic about Spin City.
If anything, Spin City was a rough dry run for co-creator Bill Lawrence, who would create a more lasting, less predictable, funnier, and all around better unconventional workplace drama with Scrubs after he left Spin City. Spin City would get a lot worse than its second season—it was after all, responsible for giving Charlie Sheen a career again—but that’s not such a difficult task.