Some shows start off great but end up sticking around too long. Whether they jump the shark, or just otherwise overstay their welcome, this is the theme of 25YL’s Cancelled Too Late series. This week we look at Spin City, a show which ended on all the right notes when its leading man departed and then tried its best to carry on without him.
It was quite an emotional night when Michael J. Fox hung up his suit and tie one final time on network television. Audiences were charmed by the impish, rakish, quick-witted, intelligent actor for years and watching him run out on stage for his final curtain call was an emotional moment for cast, crew, and audiences everywhere.
That year was 1989, the year Family Ties ended its seven-year run on NBC.
Would audiences ever see Fox back on TV once again?
Yes. They would.
In 1996, Spin City starring Fox debuted on ABC to huge ratings while critics flipped for it. The show, the first TV series developed in association with ABC and newly formed DreamWorks studios, was praised out of the gate for its intelligent adult humor and adaptable cast. It offered ABC viewers something else besides a grunting husband who had a weirdly unhealthy fetish for power tools.
After two successful seasons, Fox announced in November 1998 that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease yet assured fans he would remain on the show until the time when he felt he could no longer keep up the grueling pace of creating 24 episodes every season. That time came in May of 2000. That month, 32.8 million viewers watched Fox say goodbye to TV audiences one more time.
ABC (along with creators and executive producer Fox) decided to keep the show going, which meant casting a new lead actor to take over the duties. After considering Matthew Broderick among others, Charlie Sheen was chosen to join the show.
But it would be a very different one.
Remaining on the series were Richard Kind as Paul, Michael Boatman as Carter, Alan Ruck as Stewart, and of course Barry Bostwick as Mayor Winston. Other cast members who left the same time as Fox did included Connie Britton, Victoria Dillard, and Alexander Chaplin. However, perhaps the most notable departure (aside from Fox’s) was co-creator Bill Lawrence, who left during this period as well. A year later, Lawrence debuted Scrubs for NBC.
Heather Locklear, who was brought in Season 4 to help Fox with some of the comedic lifting (which she did more than admirably) would also return to the new Sheen-ified Spin City. The two had co-starred in 1997’s Money Talks so there was bound to be some chemistry there.
As Season 5 begins, the City Hall crew is scrambling around wondering where the new deputy mayor is. Then we see him getting dressed after spending the morning in bed with a beautiful blonde stewardess (Kimberley Davies). This is our introduction to Charlie Crawford, New York City’s new deputy mayor: a reformed bad-boy Washington staffer who was run out of town for bad behavior.
This is also the first inclination that this is going to be a different show just in terms of energy. Fox’s Mike Flaherty was a character who never—no, couldn’t sit still for 10 seconds. Mike would jump on desks, hop in the air, flip over on a bed to get dressed, roller-blade through city hall (it was the ’90s), and nervously dance a jig when he met a woman he liked. It was that energy that came to represent the series over four years.
Spin City‘s very first episode in 1996 was directed by famed TV director Thomas Schlamme, director of Friends, ER, Sports Night and The West Wing—some very, very fast-paced, high-energy shows. Schlamme set Spin City’s pace right away and the show never wavered from that (except for Fox’s final emotional episodes).
However, the pace felt off with Sheen right from the start.
Naturally, any show would require some adjusting when the lead character departs. In the first few episodes of Season 5, Spin City felt like a different show. Perhaps this was also due to the fact that production moved from New York to Los Angeles during hiatus in the summer of 2000. Spin City was a series that utilized location filming perhaps more so than any other sitcom up to that time. Central Park, the Empire State Building, Times Square, and more were all used as location spots during the Fox years. New York was just as much a character in the show during its first four years as any of the human principles. With the move to California, that was the end of that. The show’s creative team substituted shots of the Big Apple for shots of models in lingerie (which Season 5 did not fail to showcase).
After the adjustment period, some things fell into place. Sheen and Locklear did develop a nice patter with each other and we can be glad that the writers decided these two worked best as foes and then friends instead of a couple. Locklear’s character, Caitlin, was still dating Mike early on but that ended before long. This is where the door for a Charlie/Caitlin romance would open but fortunately, Charlie falls for Jennifer (Denise Richards), a campaign staffer for a rival candidate competing against Winston for mayor.
Sheen does settle into his role as deputy mayor, no doubt about that, but that Fox energy is very much missed, as are Britton, Chaplin, and Dillard. In addition to Sheen, actress Lana Parrilla (Once Upon a Time) was added as his secretary, Angie, but her introduction is—wait, there wasn’t one. In episode two, she’s just all of a sudden there as if she’s always been there. It’s a pretty jarring intro especially recounting the major to-do it was when Paul had to hire a new secretary (ultimately played by Jennifer Esposito) for Mike back in Season 2. What’s worse is that Parrilla, a very gifted comedic actress, is given absolutely nothing to do in her role but sit at her desk. Really, this is all she does and it’s such a wasted opportunity.
So, while Sheen does build a nice (but low energy) chemistry with the cast (most notably with Locklear and Bostwick), one wonders what would have happened had producers chose someone different. In one memorable Season 5 episode, Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills, 90210 appears as a cocky, old friend of Charlie’s and Priestley brings an energy to this part that makes one wish he would have gotten the lead. His one episode was way too brief.
Or how about another direction? In Season 5, the team at City Hall brings in an image consultant to help boast Mayor Winston’s dropping poll numbers. This consultant, Julia, played by Joanna Going (Wyatt Earp, Nixon, House of Cards) is terrific as a foil for Charlie. At first, she rejects his crass come-ons, but ultimately she falls for and begins to date him. Going plays Julia as feisty, intelligent, and spunky and it’s a shame she only lasts three episodes. I wonder if anybody considered a female lead to fill in for Fox in 2000 because if they did, Going would have been a terrific choice.
So, as the ghost of Mike lingers over this new re-vamped Spin City throughout the entire fifth season, it made sense that we would see Mike again—which we do in the first episode of Season 6.
This is a very, very different Mike Flaherty. This Mike was shaggy-haired and wearing a tropical shirt, the very thing the old Mike would absolutely make fun of. Mike is not here to win back Caitlin’s affections, however. This Mike is about to get married to a woman named Alison who, it seems, he’s not even that crazy about. As soon as Mike is back inside NY City Hall, the dopey shirt is gone (thank goodness) and Mr. suit-and-tie Mike is back. In fact, Mike reclaims his old office and starts running things as if he’d never left. Charlie is having none of it though, and Mike is forced out, off to get married (inside City Hall) to the woman he just told the old gang, had just dumped him.
I didn’t like this Mike very much. One could see it as a betrayal to the character they loved for four years. Whether it was Ashley, Laurie, Nikki, or even Caitlin, Mike always wore his heart on his sleeve for the woman he cared about. This Mike was perfectly willing to pretend the woman he was with no longer existed, even it was just for an hour.
After Mike’s three-episode arc, the focus turns to Mayor Winston’s election (which he barely wins), a day after breaking up with his girlfriend, Claire (Farrah Fawcett). That gives us 10 more episodes to go in the series, which drags out the Charlie/Caitlin relationship pretty much to the very end. Oh, that thing I wrote earlier about these two staying friends—forget that. Just as in Season 4 when Mike and Caitlin get together, the final episode of Season 6 is one where Charlie and Caitlin get together.
And those 32.8 million viewers, who cried in 2000 when Caitlin told Mike to keep his alarm off the morning after he was run out of City Hall to protect the Mayor, were supposed to feel happy that in the end, she wound up with a guy who bedded half the women in New York? I had a hard time buying this story as well.
Season 5 of Spin City started out shaky but got better. Season 6, however, feels rather pointless. Shaggy-haired Mike was the obvious sign that the tone and spirit of the original run were long lost. And don’t even get me started on Stewart growing a heart and changing his horn-dog behavior when he meets and falls madly in love with Michelle (Lori Loughlin), whom Carter asks to carry his surrogate child (!).
ABC aired its final two episodes of the series on April 30, 2002. Despite a few very funny storylines from the original trio of Stewart, Carter, and Paul, many great comedic flourishes from Locklear (she really was exceptionally good during her three-year run on this show), and some great guest-star performances, the last two years of Spin City were highly unnecessary and it’s unforgivable what they did with Mike. Whether it was one year or two, much like Rags—Carter’s very, very old suicidal pet dog—Spin City went on longer than it should have.