“Only the good die young” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Jason looks back at show that might very well, have been ahead of its time: Ned And Stacey.
1995 was a remarkable year for television comedy. The two highest-rated comedy shows in TV history, Seinfeld and Friends were soaring high—earning as many as 25 million viewers per episode. In March of that year, NBC debuted Newsradio, a critically-lauded series because of its sharp writing and cast of extremely talented performers.
In September, a number of new comedies premiered. Some were hits (The Drew Carey Show), some became cult favorites (Mr. Show with Bob and David, MAD TV), and some disappeared without anyone even caring at all (The Single Guy, Brotherly Love).
However, there was one show that was as brilliant as Newsradio, but critics and audiences didn’t quite know how to respond to it. That show was FOX’s Ned And Stacey.
Created by Michael J. Weithorn (who had written previously for Family Ties and Cheers), Ned And Stacey starred Thomas Haden Church as Ned Dorsey, a single New York ad executive with no life outside of work. One night, while meeting his friend Eric “Rico” Moyer (Greg Germann) and his wife Amanda (Nadia Dajani) for drinks, Amanda’s sister Stacey Colbert (Debra Messing) joins them. Stacey, a fiery, moralistic New York journalist, immediately takes an instant strong disliking to Ned, who she considers a shallow, rude, condescending jerk. Except he’s a shallow, rude, condescending jerk who has a spare bedroom in his incredible New York apartment, while Stacey lives with her parents, who give her the third degree every night as to why can’t she find a husband and why her journalism career isn’t taking off.
After a second meeting, where Stacey confronts him for stealing her own words for a commercial, they strike a deal—she can take the extra bedroom and move in to the amazing apartment away from her nagging parents if she agrees to be his wife. Wait! His wife? Yep. His wife. NED’S wife! Ned is up for a big promotion at work and feels he’d have the best shot at getting it if he could show his boss he’s a family man. Once married, Stacey gets the apartment of her dreams and Ned gets the promotion. The only hitch? These two people don’t really know each other—at all.
Ned And Stacey was a show where audiences were required to have watched the first episode to understand what was happening. After seven or so episodes, FOX felt viewers who were tuning in late had no idea why these two characters who hated each other were married, so they made producers add an explanation into the show’s credits. It didn’t really help and ratings never took off. One has to wonder why a show such as Seinfeld, which featured selfish characters as its main leads captured the country’s affection, while Ned And Stacey didn’t. Maybe it was because some viewed the show as an attack on the institution of traditional marriage and demanded FOX cancel it.
The FOX Network, however, was used to such criticisms and outcries from the more puritan TV watchers in the country, as they had faced similar attacks (and cancellation demands) in previous years over shows such as Married, With Children and The Simpsons. It’s hard to imagine today, but before the rise of premium network outlets such as HBO and Showtime, FOX was where many writers went when they wanted to partner with a network that was interested in broadcasting a series that was unorthodox, edgy and biting (before American Idol came along in 2002 and all that changed).
Ned And Stacey did have it’s champions, though. Newsday called it “a brilliantly written and played comedy with sharp repartee and genuine laughs,” and Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly wrote: “It’s really difficult to turn a smarmy guy into a likable protagonist, but Church pulls it off here; you root for Ned because, in addition to getting all the good punchlines, he’s easily the most intelligent, energetic person on screen.”
Messing, in her first TV series, with her red hair, wide-eyes, and expert comic-timing is reminiscent of the classic Italian actresses of the ’50s and ’60s not just in appearance, but in spirit. There isn’t a single line of dialogue she doesn’t convincingly sell 100 percent; whether it’s conveying desperation to get away from her parents, her impulsive decision to marry Ned, or the impending panic she feels on her “wedding” night.
Over time, the two develop an odd respect for each other. They learn to adjust to the crazy situation they agreed to, and a number of episodes during the first half of season one follow story lines that you’d see on any show with an actual married couple: Ned and Stacey go bed-shopping; Ned and Stacey drive to the country for Thanksgiving; Ned and Stacey throw a New Year’s Eve party that gets shot to hell. Any one of these plot lines could very well happen an a show such as, for example, NBC’s Mad About You. There’s a perverse joy in watching two people who recently met do these things. Watching Ned And Stacey is like watching two people who just met get stuck on a really long bad date; one where they would rather be on a date with anybody else, but nobody else is crazy enough to spend that amount of time with them.
One of the first season’s best episodes is “Halloween Story.” Ned and Stacey (along with Eric and Amanda) are invited to a Halloween party, but Stacey, feeling dejected after another article she wrote was turned down, just wants to spend the night at home in sweats eating a pile of junk food (“You’re going as Roseanne?” Amanda remarks at Stacey’s appearance). At the party, Ned meets a very attractive redhead in a bee costume and they agree to meet somewhere private to make out. When Stacey learns an old flame is at the party she then decides to go dressed as a bee—and you know where this is going: Ned accidentally kisses Stacey, and though they enjoy it in the moment, later they both recoil. This is the first episode where it is suggested the two might actually be developing feelings for each other, though it is a long time before either will admit it.
When Ned And Stacey premiered in the fall of 1995, the country was holding its collective breath over what lay ahead for Ross and Rachel on Friends. This series did not catch on with the viewing public in quite the same way. It was a very adult-themed show, which originally aired during early prime-time hour (not that this time slot hurt Friends any). There weren’t any ‘will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together?’ drawn-out story lines to explore, because these two already got together 15 minutes into the first episode.
One of the first season’s stand-out episodes is “It Happened One Night,” which is the series “flashback” episode. After a fight with Amanda, Stacey returns home to contemplate her situation. When she runs into an old flame who went nowhere in life, Stacey ultimately realizes her life with Ned isn’t that bad. 80s-themed flashback episodes are always a blast and this is one of the best I’ve seen. Stacey dons her best Flashdance ensemble, Amanda channels Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club character perfectly, and Ned shows up as a hair-metal burnout.
While “married,” Stacey does date other men and one man becomes very important to her—Jack. This makes Ned very jealous, as by now he’s very much developed genuine feelings for Stacey. After a major blowout, Ned decides to throw Stacey out of the apartment and this is where season one ends.
For this season (which was moved to Sunday nights, right before The X-Files, which was a time slot I’m pretty certain Ned himself would have loved and appreciated), a more subversive approach was taken with the show. A new writer named Charlie Kaufman was brought in and, of course, Kaufman would later be known to moviegoers as the brilliant Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Being John Malkovich. Bringing him into a show which was corrosive enough was a guaranteed recipe for a new level of outrageous story lines. From the very first episode of Season 2—where an animated blue bird flies on screen as a companion for Ned to converse with now that he’s rid of Stacey—it was clear that however strange audiences felt Ned And Stacey’s first season was, the series was about to get stranger.
With Stacey gone, Ned’s work begins to suffer (in a spectacularly funny way). Eric tries to get Ned to go tell her how he really feels, but in typical fashion, even this turns into a nightmare scenario—instead of telling her, Ned freezes up and admits instead that he likes Pie.
In the next episode, with Stacey moving back into Ned’s place due to a legal technicality, Ned figures he has to focus his rage on something else before he winds up killing her. So naturally he becomes business partners with Amanda as they open up a muffin shop together. Wait! A muffin shop? Yep. A muffin shop. The muffin store becomes a prominent story line in season two and it also gives the AMAZING Dajani some great material in which she absolutely slays.
Season two brought us what is considered by many to be the best episode in the entire run—one which has become a fan favorite. Episode 8, titled “Fifteen-A-Minutes,” takes the outrageous to another level and could very well be, ultimately, one of the weirdest episodes in TV sitcom history. If Fellini had been around in early 97, he would have loved this episode.
With Ned and Stacey divorcing, Ned dives into a wild relationship with Diana Huntley (played by a pre-Desperate Housewives Marcia Cross, who is absolutely terrific), who is essentially a female version of Ned—a fabulous dresser, a ruthless ad executive, intelligent, and often living in her own little world. Sparks fly between these two—until even she can see that Ned actually carries feelings for Stacey, which, although true, it angers him to admit.
The final episode, titled “Best of Luck on Future Projects,” is one that still elicits tears, as Ned finally admits to Stacey that he loves her. It is perhaps the most tender and honest moment between these characters in two years and it shows Ned at his most sincere and Stacey at her most touched. The heartbreaking fact here is that Ned is on his way out of town for good. Ned and Stacey’s two year marriage contract is up. Because Ned is leaving for Texas, the chances of there ever being a real relationship between them has now become impossible. With a “best of luck on future projects,” Ned walks out of Stacey’s life. Audiences never got to find out if Ned ever returned to her because after this episode, the series was cancelled.
Over the past 21 years, Ned And Stacey has become one of those ‘wow, this was really good; why did they cancel it?’ shows that people talk about, except that for 20 years, there was no way to watch the entire series. Thankfully, it was released in a complete series DVD set just last year so there’s now no reason not to discover (or re-discover it).
Had there been a season three, there would have been new angles to explore. Would Amanda have been more accepting of Ned if he married Stacey out of love and not to get a work promotion? Would Stacey legit marry Ned after two years of fighting? And the biggest question of all: if Ned was headed to Texas, why didn’t she just move back in the apartment she married Ned for in the first place?
Hey, maybe she did.
That Stacey was no fool.