The often cancelled, usually revived Odd Couple ventures outside the apartment and outside its central relationship in the fifth and final season.
Weddings are death to sitcoms. Moonlighting lost its bite when the two warring principals hooked up. Cheers righted itself with difficulty, only by ditching the romance (and Shelley Long), and enmeshing Ted Danson in further romantic difficulty.
The final season of the Odd Couple contains not one, not two, but three attempted weddings. The first, really only an opening salvo, marries off the nasal Myrna Turner (Penny Marshall) to real-life husband Rob Reiner. The middle episode “Oscar in Love” tempts the slovenly Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) with the joys of a ready-made family – but he backs out at the last minute.
But it’s the final wedding that drives a stake through the show’s dramatic conceit. In this last-ever episode “Felix Remarries”, Unger ties the knot again with his ex-wife Gloria and leaves the apartment. It’s the end to mainstream television’s longest-running male/male domestic partnership, a bickering, fond, excruciating combination of failings that seemed more durable than most marriages.
What saves The Odd Couple from mawkish sentimentality, even in this alls-well-that-ends-well ending, is that the two actors never break character. In the final scene of the final episode, Unger (Tony Randall) takes his leave of Madison, reminding him that dinner is in the oven.
“Oscar, what can I say? Five years ago, you took me in, a broken man on the verge of mental collapse. I leave here a cured human being,” says Unger. “I salute you,” he adds, dumping a full wastebasket of trash onto the floor.
Madison responds, “Felix, you know how I’m going to salute you? I’m going to clean it up.”
But when Unger leaves, Madison throws up his hands and says, “I’m not going to clean that up.” And as he exits, Unger sneaks back in and tidies the mess. “I knew he wouldn’t clean it up,” he says, in the show’s final line.
This is quite possibly the scene that won Tony Randall an Emmy for the final season, a gentle coda to a long, exquisitely choreographed conflict. No one changed, no one learned, no one grew, and so the show retained a baseline, reassuring realism that grounded its most fantastic moments. If there’s a single reason why The Odd Couple never “rode the shark”, it’s because both of its main characters remained exactly who they were, no matter how many bold faced cameo stars came and went and no matter how bizarre the plotlines became.
And let’s face it, the final season showed all the creaks and lurches of a show on its last legs. The writers seemed to have gotten bored with the Park Avenue apartment, so the two principals took road trips to Hollywood, to upstate New York, to the race track. They tired of the endless sniping between Unger and Madison, so they brought in Howard Cosell, Paul Williams and Roy Clark to liven things up. There is even a time-travelling episode in which Randall and Klugman play their own fathers in speakeasy-era Chicago. Anything, anything, anything, the show seems to scream, but another scene with Madison spilling potato chips on the rug and Unger fussily sweeping them up.
Yet, this inherent friction was what made the show work. Drift too far away from the claustrophobic confines of the apartment, and Madison became just another likeable slob, Unger a neurotic neatnik with self-esteem issues. Only together, and alone without mediating crowds, did they bring out the extreme in each other. If Unger wasn’t driving Madison crazy and vice versa, there was no show. If the two of them didn’t somehow reach an understanding, based on kindness and familiarity and recognition of each other’s faults, there was no resonance to these antics-crazed episodes. It was the relationship between the two of them that made the show both funny and sad, ridiculous and occasionally profound.
As a result it is the more modestly scaled episodes that work the best, the ones in which Randall and Klugman play most directly off each other. “Two on the Aisle” begins as a classic reversal of roles. When Madison’s boss insists that he review a Broadway play, Madison hoodwinks Unger into going instead, then pumps him for enough information to write the show up. The review, unfortunately, is excellent, and Madison must continue the charade for another three weeks.
It’s all very entertaining until the writers “open up the box” and Madison is asked to sit in on a television theater discussion with John Simon and other then-famous critics. Of course, he has nothing to say in such a setting – Unger has been doing all the work. So Unger decides to pose as Madison’s dentist, telling the host that all of Madison’s teeth have been pulled – and only he can interpret what his patient has to say. Unger, of course, gets carried away on the show. No one believes that he is acting as a mouthpiece for the incapacitated Madison, and he insults all the other critics to the point that they walk off the stage. But the main point is that what began as a very clever farce and fish-out-water switch devolves into the silliest kind of slapstick. The outside world nearly always makes Madison look saner than he is, and Unger crazier.
Yet in the confines of that apartment, their frequent conflicts and uneasy alliances makes perfect sense. They are opposites, but they complement each other. You can’t imagine what will happen to Madison once Unger really and truly leaves. Buried in a tidal wave of filth? Poisoned by his own cooking? Remarried? Dead of loneliness? It all seems infinitely possible when Unger closes the door on him – and on one of the oddest and most enduring partnerships in television.
The show is great. The DVD set is less so. Long-time fans will notice a couple of glaring edits – in the final “Felix Gets Married” episode, Jack Klugman’s dancing rendition of “Singing in the Rain” has been cut, perhaps because of the cost of buying the rights to the song. The same thing happens in “Your Mother Wears Army Boots”. In the original guest star Martina Arroyo sings “For Once In Your Life” to a rapt Howard Cosell. In the DVD, the song has mysteriously disappeared. Cost-cutting seems to have precluded any kind of bonus material as well.
But even done on the cheap, even in its last gasp of a season, The Odd Couple remains entertaining. Unlike a lot of television shows, it stays good to the very end, weddings, guest stars and silliness notwithstanding.