There have been many television “best of” lists over the past 25 years and many comedy television lists as well. If you’ve even read a few of these you’ll have noticed many of the same titles on each list. We all know these titles: Arrested Development, 30 Rock, NewsRadio, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office to list a small few. I’m not including Seinfeld or Friends as both of those began their runs outside of 25 years ago (Seinfeld began way back in 1989 and Friends in ’94).
For some reason however one of the ’90s must hilarious comedies, Spin City, hardly ever shows up on any of these “best of” lists. How can this show be so neglected? It was a relative hit when it premiered in September 1996 and critics generally liked it. It was another New York based sitcom featuring an ensemble of oddballs and we know those types of shows had no trouble finding audiences.
Spin City didn’t become a pop-culture phenomenal. It wasn’t even among its own network’s most popular sitcoms which at the time for ABC would have been Home Improvement and The Drew Carey Show. Spin City’s Tuesday night competition was Caroline In the City on NBC. By Season 2, Spin City was moved from Tuesdays to Wednesdays where it competed against The Nanny on CBS, Third Rock from the Sun on NBC and Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox. I’d kill for a Wednesday schedule like that these days. We truly had no idea back then how good we had it.
Spin City starred Michael J. Fox as New York city Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty and with him the series featured one of the ’90s best ensemble casts outside of Ally McBeal and the gang at NewsRadio. Remember when you actually looked forward each week to spending time with the amazing characters on TV? These shows were a TV lover’s dream and they were heaven to me. The time when you could plunk yourself in your chair and not move for four hours straight because there was something amazing on each weeknight. I don’t even watch network TV these days. I’m not sure when or where it all changed, but for the second part of the ’90s every new weeknight, network was king and it was my bliss.
And Spin City was for my money, maybe the best thing on.
Created in 1996 by Family Ties’ Gary David Goldberg and a young TV writer named Bill Lawrence, Spin City established itself as a very funny, sharp, fast-paced, energetic adult sitcom which felt like a ’90s Night Court. Here the creators swapped The Reagan era for The Bill Clinton one and wisely forget all about the first Bush one in between. Spin City was a breezier show than Night Court and obviously much more socially progressive. Fox’s Mike Flaherty is a former lawyer turned political aide who runs the great city of New York alongside Mayor Randall Winston (Barry Bostwick). Mayor Winston is well-meaning but is often a bit of a dolt. Mike manages to keep things hopping with the mayor’s staff at New York City Hall who often has to clean up the damage he often creates.
Spin City was established enough to attract some notable guest stars this season; Raquel Welch appears as Paul’s mom who Stewart, let’s just say, really takes a liking to. We see the mayor appear on an episode of Regis and Kathy Lee. Mos Def appears in one episode, and Meredith Baxter, Fox’s TV mom from Family Ties, appears as a love interest of The Mayor’s (the writers even have fun with this episode’s title which is of course, “A Family Affair”). Those looking to see the episodes where Fox’s Back To the Future co-star, Christopher Lloyd, and Heidi Klum appear will have to skip ahead to Season 3. Also, by now you might have noticed how the titles of each episode of Spin City is taken from a classic movie—something this show did a good 20 years before Riverdale took up the practice.
So what makes Season 2 such a standout season? Season 1 was near perfect as a comedy gets—and considering it was on during the same time as other irreverent comedies such as NewsRadio and Ned And Stacey that’s something something. The team of writers were all top-notch ranging from co-creator Bill Lawrence (who would go onto create Scrubs and Cougar Town), Jeff Lowell (Two and a Half Men), Stephen Godchaux (Dead Like Me), Michelle Nader (2 Broke Girls), Tim Hobert (Scrubs), Gayle Abrams (Gilmore Girls), Kirk J. Rudell (Will and Grace), and Brian Buckner (True Blood) among others including Laurie Parres whose name was given to the newly-introduced Paula Marshall character.
Remember that thing I said about great ensembles? Spin City has one of the best and many of the terrific performers you’ve seen in other things began on this show. Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story is Mike’s assistant Nikki Faber, and when Mike screws up, Nikki does her best to put out his mess and to also offer advice on Mike’s romantic life even though she has her own issues along those lines. Michael Boatman of The Good Wife plays Carter Heyward, director of minority affairs in the mayor’s administration and is a very proud black homosexual. Alan Ruck of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Stewart Bondeck and if Spin City has a Dan Fielding then Stewart is it: oversexed, obnoxious and the office prankster who especially loves giving Nikki, Carter, speech writer James (Alexander Chaplin), the mayor’s long-suffering assistant Janelle (Victoria Dillard) and of course, Press Secretary Paul Lassiter (Richard Kind) a hard time. For Season 2, the show’s writers brought in a new foil for Stewart in the form of Stacey Paterno (Jennifer Esposito), a take-no-bull Italian gal from the Bronx who knows how to bring Stewart to heel.
With the kinks worked out during the run of Spin City’s first year where writers determined what didn’t work (Mike’s perky annoying early assistant Karen played by Taylor Stanley for eight episodes) and what did (THAT CAST!), Season 2 hit the ground running as the team at city hall try to keep the city operating while Mayor Winston is going through a divorce with his wife Helen.
To trace back a second, just halfway through Season 1, a creative decision was made where Mike’s girlfriend Ashley (Carla Gugino) would leave the show. This was done in order for writers and cast to make Spin City more of a workplace comedy as a number of episodes up to that point focused on the Mike/Ashley relationship. While Mike was heartbroken over Ashley’s departure (and Gugino was missed, especially by this viewer) the show did create a new energy moving forward.
For Season 2 the decision was made to pair Mike up with another love interest right away in episode one (titled “Paul Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and this love interest could not have been more perfect. Enter Helen’s divorce attorney, Laurie Parres (Paula Marshall) a whip-smart, smooth-talking, brassy, spunky charmer who’s not looking for a commitment of any kind at all. In other words, she’s the female version of Mike. Naturally, he falls hard (and we mean hard) for her.
A word here on chemistry; I’ve watched a lot of TV in my life and I’ve seen a lot of actors paired with each other and you can tell they get along but sometimes, just sometimes you sense a level of chemistry that you can just feel between two performers that is unlike anything else. The chemistry between Fox and Marshall is that anything else. I actually felt the chemistry between these two very gifted actors in their scenes together and watching these two click, there was no denying how wonderful they played off one another it because it was there on camera.
Marshall’s arrival on Spin City coincided the exact same month that Calista Flockheart charmed America when we were introduced to her Ally McBeal. What a great time in television it was that both these incredible female characters (both lawyers too) graced TV screens at the same time. Maybe it is nothing more than coincidence but there’s no denying what was happening on network at the time, and while Ally McBeal went on to become the cultural darling, Marshall’s Laurie is not to be left out. Laurie was no less independent and intelligent and certain of what it is and what it isn’t she wants.
Spin City was a workplace comedy and the Mike/relationship story line would take a backseat to office shenanigans once more. After a brutally painful breakup (in the episode “The Goodbye Girl”) where they decide they just want different things (this time Mike gets dumped in person), Laurie leaves and Mike is single again. Hormones are still running wild within the mayor’s office as Nikki endures a stream of horrible dates (including one where she dates a ventriloquist who can’t speak unless he’s attached to his puppet), Stewart tries every ploy imaginable to get Stacey to date him (including posing as a friend of Skeet Ulrich’s to get her to attend a party) and even the Mayor has become interested in a younger woman (played by Marla Maples. Yes, the former real life wife of Donald Trump who incidentally, also shows up as himself here in a Season 2 episode—“The Paul Lassiter Story”—(and if you know anything about Trump, what he does here shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise).
The comedy throughout this season is as sharp as at was in Season 1 but a reason why this season shines is it incorporates real-life issues into story lines during a number of episodes. The most obvious example being the episode titled “In The Heat of the Day” which tackles race and police discrimination as Carter is targeted by an officer who draws his gun on the city hall staffer in open daylight. Carter is visibly shaken after his ordeal and later tells Mike in a moment of raw honesty that despite his accomplishments in life, some people will never, ever see a man like Carter outside of anything but his skin color. Carter even uses the N-word to Mike to drive him his point and it is certainly a very surprising powerful moment to observe in a wacky network sitcom. Especially in 1997. Credit to Boatman for displaying suppressed rage, disappointment brimming to just under his service. He’s absolutely great in this episode.
In the next episode “Radio Daze,”moral decency in society is explored as Mayor Winston embarks on a media tour to promote his autobiography, Winston on Winston, including a visit to appear on a Howard Stern-like radio shock program. One of the season’s biggest laughs comes when the host attempts to pry a little too much into the mayor’s sexual history. Winston’s razor-sharp comeback is one of those “I-can’t-beileve-he-just-said-that!” moments where we’re stunned by what we just heard but laughing along with the audacity of it. The Mayor may be a dolt at times but when somebody comes at him, he’ll make them wish they never tried.
It’s in these moments we see the staff as a unit. Mayor Winston may be a dolt but he’s their dolt and by extension New York’s dolt. The episode ends with Mike and the mayor jumping off the pier into the dingy Hudson River. We all now know Fox was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease during this period but he was 1000% game to do whatever stunt was needed to service the show. Outside the quartet of Seinfeld and the sextet of Friends it’s hard to remember a bunch of performers giving so much of themselves to their comedic material at the time.
Another episode, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” examines the issue of animal cruelty as the mayor’s daughter Meg (Alyssa Milano) takes up the cause during a visit. Meg does much more than speak out however. She rides a horse naked through Central Park to raise awareness — in the nude. We never saw that on Friends. Another hot topic issue explored this season? Sexism (“Gentleman’s Agreement”) in the form of Randall becoming a member of an exclusive club that has never allowed women to join. And another issue that’s explored throughout Spin City’s entire run is homosexual acceptance. Stewart may tease Carter about his sexuality but by the end of Season 2, the two are partnering up to open up a gay nightclub. To help with his share of the costs, Carter decides to advertise for a new roommate – one who isn’t Stewart. However, the person Carter chooses to move in (Amy Poehler in one of her earliest roles) steals everything Carter owns when he returns home that night. With little choice Carter accepts Stewart to move in and we see how these two adapt to living with each later in Season 3.
What about workplace safety? One memorable story line features an old security guard who unloads his pistol towards the ceiling where the stray bullet just happens to graze Paul along his head. Paul then attempts to sue the old man but turns out the old guy has hired Alan Dershowitz to represent him in court. Paul drags Stacey along to help his case but she’s more interested in trying to land a boyfriend by appearing on TV. It’s a very funny story that puts the amazing Richard Kind together with the new cast member, Esposito, and they work wonderfully together. One can almost imagine this story line appearing in an episode of The Office a decade later.
Taking another big big step is Paul and his girlfriend, Claudia (Faith Prince) who by the end of the season are getting married. This mirrors Mike’s relationship foibles this season. After many months apart, Laurie returns just in time to spend Valentine’s Day with Mike. This time Laurie is ready for a relationship but a mix-up involving Paul’s engagement once again ends that reunion. Mike’s dating life is then mined for laughs as he briefly involves himself with Lisa (Susan Floyd), a writer for All My Children who uses Mike as material for her show (“My Life Is a Soap Opera”), and another scenario has Mike dating Karri (Noelle Beck), a clingy magician who turns out to be obsessive over him (“The Lady or the Tiger”). It’s the type of situation you could imagine Chandler, Joey or even or Ross themselves in on that other New York show.
Oh, remember when I began this article ranting about Spin City hardly ever winding up on any of those “best-of” lists? One supreme episode of Season 2’s run did make its way to a number of “funniest episodes” lists; the gut-busting holiday episode titled “Miracle Near 34th Street” which involves a dead Santa, a grade school pyromaniac and a much desired chocolate Nativity scene among the office staff (oh, Paul also gets stuck in a chimney with nobody coming to help him). In 1999 this episode was ranked as one TV Guide’s “50 Funniest TV Moments of All Time.” It’s pretty outrageous stuff and was rightly recognized. Spin City also placed on the list of the best political shows of all time. It wasn’t #1 which of course went to Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing but that’s okay. The gang at Spin City knew they made a terrific season of TV when their May, 1998 season finale (“The Paul Bearer”) ended the year with the final line being, “Father Larry, I’m a homosexual!”
No season of The West Wing ever ended on that note, did they?