Bumps and Jerks
Helen: “He’s your brother!”
Joe: “Am I gonna be punished for that my whole life?”
—“Love Means Never Having to Say Geronimo”
In the beginning, Wings was all about two brothers. Joe (Tim Daly) is straight-laced, while Brian (Steven Webber) is the larrikin. Where Joe amends schedules, over-tidies his office, and sorts out his life plan, Brian makes jokes, sits on counter tops, and checks out the hooters on passers-by. The brothers co-run Sandpiper Airlines, a daily charter service based in Nantucket, reuniting after six years and a note from their late father.
It’s a set-up made in sitcom heaven. And for the six-episode first season (now on DVD with Season Two), it delivers to expectations. Joe is repeatedly frustrated by Brian’s impulsiveness, while Brian does his best to loosen Joe’s stiff neck. They do this mostly in Sandpiper’s lobby, among waiting passengers and a gaggle of airline workers. It appears from these first episodes that the show’s purpose is defined: it’s The Odd Couple with planes.
The second season, however, takes an unusual turn. In what might be considered a radical decision for a sitcom, Wings couples two main characters almost immediately. While we are happy to do without the typical Moonlighting-esque romantic tension between characters destined to be together, we lose a little something at the same time: we lose Brian. This isn’t to say that cheeky Bri doesn’t receive his fair share of storylines as Joe develops a relationship with aspiring cellist and food counter operator Helen (Crystal Bernard). It’s just that the brothers’ bond was more interesting and less clichéd.
And the romance is stanchly clichéd. Joe and Helen make dates for the same night in different venues. Joe and Helen argue over where they will eventually live. Helen gets jealous when she finds Joe’s little black book. Joe gets jealous when he learns Helen’s touring orchestra will include other men. At the same time, they’re obviously made for each other. Both are charming and sweet, showing confidence, skills, and defined goals. They’re also fun to watch. He’s hilariously uptight, and she’s like the human equivalent of a county fair, spirited and rascally, with mounds of cotton candy hair. They’re inoffensive and innocent, so much so that allusions to their sex life made in the Season Two finale are unnerving.
Still, Season One doesn’t suggest this upcoming ideal match. Helen repeats too often during those early episodes that she “doesn’t date pilots,” as if to set up tension between herself and both brothers (at one point, they make boyish comment on her legs to one another). And it’s more than a little creepy that she starts as the object of Brian’s lustful eye, rather than Joe’s. In Season One’s closing episode, “All For One and Two For Helen”, Brian makes no bones about his desire for the pretty lady. He tells Joe, “When a man and woman are alone together, things can happen.” Joe is skeptical. “Well,” Brian says, “If opportunity does knock, I want to know how much to be wearing when I answer the door.” Helen, however, tells them both emphatically, that they’re just friends.
Still, by Season Two, they are a couple. When During a date (in “Love Means Never Having to Say Geronimo”), Helen explains to Joe that Brian can’t hang out with them so much anymore: “We’re a couple now,” she says, and that’s really all we have to go on, too. The world is so much simpler in sitcoms, eh?
That’s what this is, a neat example of the genre, with some flaws and many memorable moments. Season Two does its best to see that the audience forgets the earlier set-up. Brian doesn’t mind (or recognize) he’s the ousted musketeer. In “Mother Wore Stripes”, the boys reunite with their estranged mother Mae (Barbara Babcock). She’s pleasingly brash but not bossy, smart and sensitive. There’s very little Harriet Nelson about her, and even less Marie Barone; it turns out her previous absence is due to the fact that she’s been in prison. Her sudden reappearance makes Joe anxious, rejecting her efforts to step back into her sons’ lives.
Their confrontation is hugely affecting, including this bit of hurt and outrage from Joe:
Who do you think got your job when you left? You left me with a sink full of dirty dishes and two kids to take care of: Brian and Dad. I have taken crap my whole life for being too serious, for being a worrier. Why do you think that is? Why?
True, Wings doesn’t provide enough of these instances. Still, it remains earnest throughout its eight-year run. As they did with their other long-running TV hits, Cheers and Frasier, Wings creators Peter Casey, David Angell, and David Lee mix sharp observation with their comedy. Wings only gets better as they figure this out.