Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Upon Further Review, Spin City "Season One" Is Far More Average Than Extraordinary.

The Good: Moments of humor, Interesting characters, Decent acting
The Bad: Quickly sacrifices concept for familiar, Several gags that hold up poorly over rewatching.
The Basics: All twenty-four episodes on two discs from the first season of Spin City remind viewers how the show started high and quickly became something familiar.

For celebrities who peak young, there is often a lag between the project that makes them a household name and the one that illustrates that that initial success was not a fluke. There are few actors who create iconic characters who are later able to come back and form equally iconic roles afterward. Take, for example, Ted Danson. Danson's role on Cheers was his defining role and while he had Becker afterward, it was never as popular as Cheers and he is likely never to be identified more as Dr. Becker than Sam Malone. See? Even though it has been over a decade since I last saw an episode of Cheers, I could recall the character's name.

One of the other 80s actors that comes easily to mind as one who has created a seminal role for himself is Michael J. Fox. Fox arguably peaked early with his role of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. Still, as Fox searched for roles after that comedy, it seemed like more often than not, his projects were referred to as "vehicles." The most successful Michael J. Fox vehicle to date - and possibly the final chance Fox might have to make a recognizable character for his resume - was Spin City. After years stuck on DVD with mediocre "best of" collections, Spin City has been released as complete season DVDs. The thing is, upon rewatching Spin City "Season One" the show seems suddenly less audacious than it did when it originally aired and my excitement over it diminished when watching the set twice.

Mike Flaherty is the deputy mayor of New York City under Mayor Randall M. Winston, Jr., a wealthy ridiculous mayor whose marriage is on the rocks. But Mayor Winston's idiocy aside, Mike's job is made a hundred times more difficult by the fact that he is dating a prominent reporter, Ashley. Having moved in with Ashley, Mike works to keep his home life and work life separate, though he often finds himself working with his problematically witless staff to keep Ashley from breaking stories that Mike is not yet ready to become news.

As part of his daily job, Mike finds himself voted Sexiest Man in New York City, negotiating a strike with the sanitation workers, haggling with a real estate developer who is a personal friend, keeping a Mayor For A Day contest winner from undoing Mayor Winston's agenda, dealing with a snowstorm, appeasing the deaf community, and ultimately, dealing with a missing mayor. Mike's team keeps him on his toes as he takes onto the staff a militant gay rights activist, an egoist, and more idiots than most people should ever have to deal with!

I remember loving Spin City. In fact, I recall loving it so much that when my Creative Writing professor in college noted that Carla Gugino's Ashley was being booted from the series, I was as outraged as one could be. Actually, I remember raising my voice and scoffing about how stupid a move it was and that Ashley leaving - which she does after about eleven episodes - gutted the concept of Spin City. And it is true. The show begins as a clever play wherein Mike Flaherty must juggle his home life and his work and for the first dozen episodes, the show is original, funny and has almost limitless potential. The latter dozen episodes in this boxed set feature Mike Flaherty simply going through the motions of dating.

This is not to say there are no funny moments in the second half of the season; "Deaf Becomes Her" and "Hot In The City" have some hilarious lines. In fact, "Hot In The City," wherein an ex-girlfriend of Mike's seeks to have his baby by capturing some of his sperm, is enduringly funny. But episodes like "Kiss Me, Stupid" and "Bone Free" could belong to virtually any sitcom in the past fifty years. That unfortunate level of interchangability in the characters and situations - and even the writing with the gags that the show is supposed to hinge on - is not present in the first few episodes and the show suffers some as a result.

Fans of Spin City who were attentive to the show will be glad to know that the DVD boxed set of Season One contains the original episodes as they aired. For those who watched the show, there was a disturbing trend; several episodes (like "The High And The Mighty") appeared on television in two ways. There was the original aired version - with Ashley present and in a supporting role - and a rerun version following Gugino's departure from the series where Ashley was removed from the episode and the scenes with her were reshot with other reporters asking questions of Mike or Paul.

Still, at its best, Spin City works because it is a character-driven sitcom. In the first season, the primary characters include:

Mike Flaherty - Deputy Mayor. He is constantly putting out brush fires around city hall. He goes head to head with his girlfriend, Ashley, about what the public has a right to know and what is a work in progress. He loves Ashley and when she leaves, he is heartbroken . . . for a time. Sexy and fun, Mike delegates responsibilities and largely attempts to keep City Hall functioning by keeping the Mayor out of the loop whenever possible,

Mayor Randall M. Winston Jr. - The Mayor of New York City. He is addle brained and trusts Mike implicitly. He and his wife are on the rocks and as he turns 50, he discovers Mike might be his best friend as well as subordinate,

Paul Lassiter - Press Secretary. More or less an idiot, Paul is constantly stymied by the press and Ashley walks all over him. He is mugged and lives in fear for a time, but finds a strange companion in . . . the Mayor,

Carter Heywood - A vocal activist in the gay community and the most prominent black member of the staff. Brought on by Mike to solve a p.r. problem with the gay community, he is energetic, eager to initiate change and finds himself torn when a past love surfaces to reclaim him. He and Stuart clash frequently,

Stuart Bondek - Deputy deputy mayor. Stuart is acerbic, offensive and prejudiced. He and Carter clash frequently and he basically sits around making sarcastic and sexist remarks for comic relief and to torment Paul, Nikki and James,

Nikki Faber - Mike's secretary. Constantly falling for the wrong guys, she works to support Mike when Ashley leaves,

James Hobert - Speech writer. James comes from Wisconsin and is green. He is picked on for his naivete,

Janelle - The Mayor's assistant. She serves largely in a supporting role this season,

and Ashley - Mike's girlfriend and a leading member of the New York City press. She ruthlessly asks the questions that no other reporter will, constantly putting Paul on the spot and leaving him sweating. She is offered a better job, which she takes, leaving Mike behind to advance her career.

Spin City has a pretty amazing cast, which includes Richard Kind (Paul), Michael Boatman (Carter), Barry Bostwick (Winston), Alan Ruck (Stuart - he was perfectly cast. Having met him in person, he is utterly hilarious and Ruck's personal sense of humor was a great fit for the Stuart character), and Connie Britton (Nikki). The show rounded the cast out wonderfully at the beginning with Carla Gugino who is now finding some success as Sally Jupiter in Watchmen (reviewed here!). Far more than just a pretty face, Gugino is plausible with the depth and tenacity of a reporter in the first season of Spin City and it is unfortunate to see her cast aside as she was.

But much of the show hinges on Michael J. Fox and he is memorable as Mike Flaherty . . . until the show alters its concept. After the initial episodes, Fox's performances seem more like a twist on the Alex P. Keaton overachiever than the juggling deputy mayor. In other words, Fox is used in more of a familiar than groundbreaking fashion. Still, he has an excellent sense of comic timing and the show works.

On DVD, Spin City "Season One" comes with minimal DVD extras, which include a featurette on the first season with interviews from all of the main cast (notably lacking Gugino) and the show's creators. There are also a couple of commentary tracks which are decent, but not earth shattering.

Ultimately, the first season of Spin City serves to remind viewers of the benefit of syndication; when a show works and is truly audacious and interesting, sometimes it is changed and the best episodes might be available without purchasing the entire boxed DVD set. Still, there is just enough with this DVD set to recommend it. The show was at its best right out of the gate and this boxed set has most of the best episodes the series produced. It is just unfortunate that so many of the best ideas for the show were mortgaged so quickly.

For other works featuring Carla Gugino, please check out my reviews of:
Sucker Punch
Night At The Museum
Snake Eyes


For other television program reviews, please visit my Television Show Review Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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