A couple of years ago, former NBC President of Entertainment Warren Littlefield released an oral history book covering his time at the Peacock network. Entitled Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, the book does just what it sounds like – tells us exactly what went on behind the scenes through the era of Cosby, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends and how it all fell apart. One of the consistent themes throughout the book is just how many actors describe themselves as starving and broke right before landing the sitcom that changed their life. Another consistent theme is, man, no one at NBC seemed to like Wings, and that includes the producers responsible for making the show.
But I really liked Wings.
Perhaps I’m overstating it. The network executives and producers didn’t necessarily dislike Wings; they just didn’t have any great love for it, viewing it for it what it was – an also-ran in the Cheers-Frasier universe (Cheers people regularly guest starred on Wings). It was the consummate definition of a timeslot hit, getting by in those early seasons because it came on after Cheers and enough people simply forgot to change the channel. It lived long enough to see a big syndication payday, re-run ad nauseum by the USA Network.
No one seemed to have much respect for it though, barely caring about the going-ons at a tiny little airport in Nantucket and the various love triangles brothers Joe and Brian ended up in. That Lowell was sure funny, though, and the actor – Thomas Haden Church – who played him the clear breakout talent. Then Tony Shaloub came along a little later, and people still know he who is. But, eh, it was what it was. No better than any other network factory sitcom of the era.
But doesn’t it deserve a little more respect than that? Or am I totally blinded by nostalgia here?
Enter Steven Weber, who will always be Brian Hackett to me, but is probably any number of people to others because, damn, that man never stops working. In a recent AVClub interview discussing his career, he addressed his current view of Wings:
I was a huge fan of network television growing up and Wings was of that world, the old powerful NBC comedy juggernaut that had Cheers and Taxi and Friends and Seinfeld. Wings was one of those shows that was popular because again, viewership was different than it is today. People still gathered in front of the TV, and it was that appointment viewing that was so important in the industry. So they put us on after Cheers, before another show, and they were able to get a pretty large audience. Bigger than some big hits today, which shows you just how viewership has changed.
Look, it was a far less observant show than either Cheers or Frasier. It didn’t necessarily take any risks with any current topics or sexuality. It was good, a fairly standard comedy but it was almost always well-written. After a couple seasons, we developed better chops than the beginning but we developed a style that is still very watchable. It’s not very dated. The only thing that’s dated is… clothes. The clothes I wore, high-waisted jeans and too-large shirts. But the dynamic between me and Tim [Daly] was a tried and true dynamic that still works today. Worked 50 years ago, will probably work 50 years from now. And it turned out to be a springboard for a lot of writers. It was a great time all around. Looking back now I realize it was at the tail-end of network drama experience. We all had great schedules, made good dough, had a lot of fun. And made a lot of good friendships.
There you go – Wings was an unambitious but otherwise solid product of its time, and everyone who worked on it made a lot of money.
Huh. That last part doesn’t seem quite as relevant, but getting on a longrunning sitcom used to be the gravy train toward being set for the rest of your life. We’ll remember the jokes, e.g., Lowell pledging to fight any man who disagrees with his assessment of Tom Petty’s physical beauty, Helen’s psychotic break upon seeing her house burned down and the delicate balance of making sure to not take air traffic controller’s Bob’s donut; they’ll remember the paychecks. I can work with that.