My initial appreciation of Wings was borne out of the frequency with which its repeats aired on cable TV. Before the advent of DVD, the loosening of syndication rights and the ever expanding list of cable channels, it was very difficult to binge on a particular television show. The only way to do so required fastidious planning and a healthy supply of blank VHS tapes.
Nowadays, with little more than an antenna you can easily watch three episodes of Friends on any given day. And thanks to the proliferation of TV on DVD, you can watch an entire season of 24 in one sitting, provided you have the stamina. Let’s not forget the expanding list of shows becoming available for on-demand streaming through such Internet portals as Netflix, Hulu and AOL, either.
But it hasn’t always been this easy. There was a time in the not too distant past when the best you could hope for was a single repeat of Seinfeld around the 11 o’clock hour.
But even in that bygone era you could catch multiple episodes of Wings with relative ease. The USA network, in an aberrant move, used to schedule repeats of short-lived sitcoms around mid-day and label it as primetime in the daytime. The centerpiece of their weekday programming was an hour block of Wings.
This quickly became requisite viewing on sick days and summer vacations during my youth. I can’t find any evidence of it so perhaps I’ve invented it in my mind, but I even recall a golden period where you could see four episodes in a row. Given that my interest in the show is grounded largely in convenience and accessibility, it came as a very pleasant surprise to me that as I rewatched the show on DVD I still found myself laughing on a consistent basis. The show is dependable but not exceptional and with the right expectations, a certain amount of enjoyment can still be found.
Wings centers around a local airport on Nantucket Island where flyboy brothers Joe and Brian Hackett (Tim Daly, Steven Webber) run a small airline called Sandpiper Air. Also working at the airport is Helen (Crystal Bernard), who runs the lunch counter, and serves as Joe’s love interest, with the two eventually marrying at the end of the sixth season. The rest of the ensemble includes Sandpiper Air’s ticket agent Fay (Rebecca Schull), the rival airline’s CEO Roy (David Schramm), despondent cabbie Antonio (Tony Shalhoub) and Helen’s unemployed older sister Casey (Amy Yasbeck).
Highlights from the final season include Brian’s ill-fated attempt at opening a Martini bar, Roy dating an Oprah-like TV personality, the transportation of highly sensitive “life giving” medical supplies and a three-episode arc involving the sale of Sandpiper Air to a business tycoon.
The season also includes guest appearances from Chris Elliot, Jenny McCarthy and Brooke Adams (of Days of Heaven fame!). But really, any further discussion of the plot’s contents holds little value because there’s very limited crossover between episodes in terms of storyline or character consistency.
What startled me most about rewatching this season was how many episodes end without a semblance of narrative conclusion. The A-plot often gets a hurried wrap-up but more often than not the B-plot is left dangling mid-story, never to be mentioned again. Occasionally, plot strands would resurface several episodes down the line (e.g., Brian’s insurance settlement, Antonio’s girlfriend from the suicide hotline) but they would be reintroduced for the purpose of creating a new plot rather than through organic development. Of course, expecting a natural character or plot progression in a pre-millennial sitcom is a foolish enterprise, but the degree of ’ open-endedness feels rather lazy.
In short, episodes were often underwritten, plots were overly contrived and the performances frequently bordered on the shrill. And yet I feel oddly protective of Wings. Part of the appeal is the familiarity of the convention (you ask for a sitcom, you get one), but Wings also offers a few tweaks on the formula.
The setting is the standard workplace-cum-social gathering (the show comes from the creators of Cheers after all) but the airport locale and the small island setting lend just a hint of variation (in spite of their blatant artificiality). The social function of an airport intrinsically offers the prospect of adventure and the transitional shots of Nantucket exteriors lend the show a small-town sense of geniality. Further to that effect is the bouncy, Franz Shubert-inspired score by Bruce Miller that plays over the blissful closing credits that depict an airplane in flight against a majestic sunset.
There’s also the ensemble itself. While the performers are firmly entrenched in a familiar sitcom style of acting, there’s something uncanny about their performances. They’re often hokey and the deliveries are usually rather obvious (Weber’s standard approach to a punch line is to raise the level of his voice) but there’s something endearing about them that transcends the phoniness.
Perhaps it’s because most of the actors don’t have extensive backgrounds in sitcoms. Bernard is the only member to have had an extended sitcom run prior to Wings and Shalhoub is the only one who has found success since. That so few of the actors have found success in the same field might be due to level of talent or might be due to interest in other formats (Daly has become a staple of network dramas recently). Either way, it’s not surprising that there are no retrospective cast reminiscences on the DVD special features; or any special features at all for that matter.
The hour long series finale is indicative of how slapdash the show could be: it involves Helen auditioning to study the cello in Vienna while Brian and Joe go on a treasure hunt arranged by their deceased father (seriously). Wings ended a year before Seinfeld did. Both shows held Thursday night Must-See-TV slots at different points during their runs but the final episode of Wings drew barely a fraction of the interest that Seinfeld did.
While Seinfeld dared to alienate viewers by offering a prickly, spiteful conclusion, Wings offered sentimental wish-fulfillment. Neither finale is satisfying but the respective episodes illustrate the difference between one of television’s most inventive sitcoms and a merely functional sitcom.
It would be easy to say that by its eighth and final year, Wings was coasting on fumes but the fact of the matter is Wings never really soared that high to begin with. The pleasures on offer here are modest but dependable. The final season of Wings isn’t its best but it gets the job done.