Ken Levine

Frasier (1993) s02e09 – Adventures in Paradise (2)

I wonder how this episode would play in one sitting. Even just marathoning it (as opposed to cutting out the recap at the beginning of this second part, which Kelsey Grammer performs quite well). Because writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs still have an odd structure. They had an odd structure last episode, as they built to the reveal of Bebe Neuwirth also on vacation in Bora Bora to interrupt Grammer’s romantic getaway with new girlfriend JoBeth Williams.

The cliffhanger resolve introduces Neuwirth and Williams then Grammer and Neuwirth’s fellow, James Morrison. They make dinner plans to resolve some of the oddness of them being next door neighbors on their respective sex vacations.

We don’t get to see the dinner, just to see how Grammer’s going to obsess about it and make some really poor decisions. Those poor decisions start to ruin the trip and end with Williams not talking to Grammer. Can he fix the new relationship or is Neuwirth’s proximity going to screw things up?

Meanwhile, David Hyde Pierce has gotten Jane Leeves and John Mahoney to attend the ballet with him, where ever unseen wife Maris has a role.

There’s good quick material for Hyde Pierce, Leeves, and Mahoney, including some great punchlines, and Levine and Isaacs give Peri Gilpin a great bit, but it’s all about Neuwirth, Grammer, and Williams.

The episode gives Grammer some very broad physical comedy to do and he’s fantastic, it gives Neuwirth this detached dramatic and she’s fantastic. Williams is fine, but never gets anywhere near the material she’d need to make as much of an impression as Neuwirth or Grammer.

Just the expressions Neuwirth makes while listening to Grammer blather on, you wish director James Burrows had just focused on her instead of cutting to Grammer, no matter how funny he got.

Celebrity voice guest star this episode is Kevin Bacon, who doesn’t get a lot but does get to play into Gilpin’s very funny bit.

And the ending is perfect too. It’s a big swing episode and it’s a hit.

Frasier (1993) s02e08 – Adventures in Paradise (1)

Remember when we didn’t see TV show episodes all the time? What were they called—electronic programming guides (thanks, Google). So watching Adventures in Paradise: Part 1 in fall 1994, you weren’t wondering why it was called part one. The episode’s got a somewhat strange pacing as writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs have to introduce guest star JoBeth Williams in a significant supporting part in just one episode.

So none of the regular supporting cast gets a lot to do. David Hyde Pierce and John Mahoney bond over cigar smoking in a very small subplot. Peri Gilpin is entirely there for supporting Kelsey Grammer’s arc, which has him starting to date Williams after seeing her in a magazine feature on Seattle’s best and brightest.

Grammer and Hyde Pierce’s low-key coveting of the associated prestige provides a handful of really good jokes. The episode’s full of them. Even without a lot to do, the entire cast (save maybe Gilpin) gets some really funny jokes. Jane Leeves has an amazing few minutes and Hyde Pierce goes on a particularly good Maris rant this episode.

Even stranger, the first big set piece doesn’t involve any of the regulars or even Williams. She and Grammer are out on their date and there’s a blowup between the restaurant owner (Pierre Epstein) and his daughter (Jessica Pennington). It’s absolutely hilarious, but it’s got nothing to do with the story. Except giving Grammer a great opportunity to “I’m Listening” in public.

Then the episode skips ahead a couple weeks and Williams and Grammer make an impromptu decision to run off together for a week and take things to the next stage. There’s some “Frasier fretting,” which also allows for some more on the cigar bonding subplot, but then it’s off to Bora Bora and the surprise cliffhanger.

Everyone’s really good, even when they barely get anything to do, and Williams is a nice match for Grammer. And the cliffhanger is rather hilarious.

It’s a really good episode, especially considering it’s just a setup for the next one.

Frasier (1993) s01e16 – The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

Bebe Neuwirth’s visit to the new show, coming in the back nine of the first season, is everything it could and should be. Writers Ken Levine and Davis Isaacs craft this perfect plot, which showcases Neuwirth and gives her a relationship—active or not—with all the regulars, then still manages to keep it an episode for Kelsey Grammer, but one where the narrative distance is so focused there’s extra room for Neuwirth.

Even when Neuwirth’s not onscreen, once she arrives, she’s very present. She calls into Grammer’s radio show in the opening (Merry Prankster Timothy Leary is the guest caller, which seems random) and cuts him down to size on air as far as his professional diagnoses, giving Peri Gilpin as many laughs as it gives the viewer. Gilpin’s reaction to finally hearing Lilith—though, Grammer assures Neuwirth, his listeners have heard all about her—has a great punchline too, foreshadowing how well Levine and Isaacs are going to do getting them in after the main action.

Because even though no one’s ever seen Lilith interact with Frasier’s family, she’s obviously got history with both Martin (John Mahoney) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce). Mahoney’s pretty funny—especially when Neuwirth’s grilling him over repressed sexual urges when he was beating people with his nightstick—but Hyde Pierce is the cake. He’s still mad about Lilith mocking Maris’s wedding vows—great line about Lilith being weird versus Maris being a little strange (Levine and Isaacs’s barbs are particularly sharp, as the show immediately establishes Neuwirth can take them and doesn’t care if anyone else can).

Meanwhile, Jane Leeves has sensed a disturbance in the Force and has a constant headache… until she actually shakes Neuwirth’s hand, at which time she loses all sensation in the arm.

The family scene isn’t the point of the episode, however; there’s some unfinished business for Neuwirth and Grammer, which catches Grammer off guard. The rest of the episode is pretty damn good for a nineties sitcom episode dealing with recent divorcees. The balance of laughs and drama work out and it gives Grammer a nice range. Neuwirth doesn’t get a huge range because she’s Lilith, but still… very nice guest appearance.

I’m sure James Burrows directing didn’t hurt either.

Frasier (1993) s01e14 – Can’t Buy Me Love

It’s a packed, but never frantic episode–Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano are the “Frasier” all-star writers right now and they’ve got a lot of inventive work here, both the plotting and character arcs. Every development is combination delight and surprise.

The episode starts with Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Roz (Peri Gilpin) dreading having to return to the studio because Bulldog (Dan Butler) has already started his show and makes whoever’s in the room get on the air with him… so Butler can humiliate them. It’s all setup for the next scene, when Grammer’s dad, John Mahoney, asks him to arrange for Butler to volunteer at a charity bachelor auction.

In the great family scene—Hyde Pierce is there with champagne, celebrating Maris going out of town—Mahoney has to backpedal a bit and also invite Grammer to participate in the auction. So, great setup.

Only the bachelor auction is offscreen, we’re just in the green room, towards the end of the night, as Grammer and the other bachelors (including football player Brett Miller) listen in terror to the screaming female bidders in the auditorium. Butler’s not worried, of course, because he’s sure he’s going to be a prize item.

The auction doesn’t go as expected—pleasantly for some, not pleasantly for others—and then it’s time to skip ahead to the actual date nights. We don’t get to see Miller’s, unfortunately, but it also wouldn’t be appropriate for television….

Grammer’s date goes wrong, leaving him babysitting petulant teen Ashley Bank, while Butler’s sports and limo-centric date goes all wrong, even though his date is getting super drunk. She’s even able to make him sympathetic, she cuts so deep with her barbs. Great writing on that scene in particular. It seems like it’s going to be a one-off but turns out to be a nice little recurring subplot for the rest of the episode.

The standout performance this episode is Jane Leeves, who finally gets to show-off her comic skills. Grammer does well with Banks, which gives him a look into his future as a parent—and provides Mahoney some great material when talking about Grammer’s own childhood development.

And the end credits scene is a hoot.

No celebrity caller this episode but consulting producer and former “Cheers” writer and producer Ken Levine is the off-screen M.C. of the charity auction, albeit uncredited.

Becker (1998) s01e20 – Drive, They Said

There’s a disconnect during the opening titles; it says, “Written by David Isaacs and Ken Levine” (or however they do it), but it’s not a particularly good scene. Jonathan Nichols is a patient who stiffs Becker (Ted Danson) on his bills so Danson is mean to him. Beating up on the patient… kind of weird.

Also… Nichols is not so good.

Once that scene’s over, however, it’s the best episode of “Becker” ever. Because it’s Isaacs, Levine, and Andy Ackerman (directing). It’s a sitcom dream team and the episode does not disappoint.

Nichols is a ticket scalper and ends up paying Danson in Mets tickets. Danson’s thrilled and so’s the entire supporting cast because they all have somewhere to go and it’d be easier for Danson to drive them there.

Hattie Winston has to get home to her husband’s surprise party and doesn’t want to take the cake on the train. Shawnee Smith doesn’t want to have to take the train to Queens to meet some guy she maybe once saw on the subway. Alex Désert is visiting his grandmother. And Terry Farrell agrees to go to the game with Danson.

So they all pile into the car—and show why the show’s at its best when the supporting cast all comes together and isn’t segregated between location and when it makes ruthless fun of Danson. There’s some phenomenal one liners this episode, especially the ones at Danson’s expense.

And getting to spend some of the episode in his beyond ramshackle death mobile of car is another delight. Finally someone’s got an idea for an episode outside the two and a half regular locations.

The setup alone ought to be enough for the episode, but then they all end up in the emergency room together and it just keeps getting funnier. Great acting from the cast. I’d forgotten what it was like for Farrell to get material; Shawnee Smith gets some great stuff too. It’s so well-written, so well-executed.

I just hope it’s a sign of what’s to come. I’d given up hope for the show getting as good as this episode.

Becker (1998) s01e17 – Partial Law

Even though I know I don’t remember this episode—the first in the series directed by Ken Levine, whose blog convinced me to give “Becker” another shot back in the day and was seemingly correct since I watched the whole show even though it’s a slog to get to through the opening fumbles—it feels like I remember this episode.

Not the specifics, which have Ted Danson getting burgled and needing to replace his home computer only his insurance company shortchanges him. The scene with the insurance agent, played by Ashley Gardner, is great.

So Danson ends up going to Bob (Saverio Guerra) who knows a guy who should be able to find Danson a new computer for cheap. It’s the “fell of the truck” episode of “Becker,” which seems like a New York City-set sitcom standard, when the White protagonist buys a hot item and learns their lesson at some point.

What lesson does Danson learn? He’s invited Guerra into his life and Guerra’s not leaving.

The episode’s memorable moment comes at the end, when Guerra opens up about his sadness to Danson. I swear I remember that scene. Not much leading up to it, but definitely that scene.

There’s some good direction from Levine—even though no one except Danson and Guerra have anything to do in the episode as far as the script goes, Levine keeps people busy in the background so you don’t forget Alex Désert and Terry Farrell exist—and Michael Markowitz’s script lacks some his previous meanness.

While Désert still gets to be the butt of blind jokes, they’re from Guerra instead of pal Danson. So there’s progress. Of some kind.

The strangest part of the episode is when Guerra shows up at Danson’s with the computer in two giant boxes and says it’ll take a couple hours to set up. Computers really did take time to set up in the eighties and nineties and not because you were restoring a backup….

It’s a pretty good episode. It’s not great, but it does utilize Guerra well. It understands why the show needs him; being a show about a jackass is fine but Danson can’t be the only (or biggest) one.

Mannequin: On the Move (1991, Stewart Raffill)

If the best part of your movie is a Starship song recycled from the nearly unrelated previous entry in the franchise… you’re in trouble.

It’s not hard to identify the biggest problem with Mannequin: On the Move, but it feels somewhat bad to single out Kristy Swanson when there’s so much other terrible stuff going on in the picture.

And it’s not even entirely Swanson’s fault. Towards the end of the movie, she’s actually quite appealing. But for the first two-thirds, as a tenth century girl awakened in the twentieth century, she’s an unappealing moron. Every scene bombs.

Once she’s acclimated, however, Swanson’s not bad at all.

Unfortunately, the terrible plotting also affects leading man William Ragsdale. Ragsdale has no time to make an impression before he’s acting like a doofus around a mannequin. The screenwriters don’t even bother making him sympathetic, only later giving him a tragic backstory.

On to the other big problem (besides the writing in general)–Terry Kiser is atrocious. Playing a Bavarian royal, Kiser does a combination of a Mae West impression and evil forties Japanese villain.

As for the supporting cast, Meshach Taylor is okay (the script fails him often) and Stuart Pankin is mostly bad (though sometimes good). In tiny roles, both Andrew Hill Newman and Julie Foreman are great.

Raffill’s not a good director, but Larry Pizer’s photography is excellent, as is most of William J. Creber’s production design.

On the Move‘s a stinker and, oddly, shouldn’t have been one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stewart Raffill; screenplay by Edward Rugoff, Michael Gottlieb, David Isaacs, Ken Levine and Betty Israel, based on a story by Rugoff and Gottlieb; director of photography, Larry Pizer; edited by Joan E. Chapman and John Rosenberg; music by David McHugh; production designer, William J. Creber; produced by Bruce McNall and Rugoff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Kristy Swanson (Jessie), William Ragsdale (Jason Williamson), Meshach Taylor (Hollywood Montrose), Terry Kiser (Count Spretzle), Stuart Pankin (Mr. James), Cynthia Harris (Jason’s Mom), Julie Foreman (Gail), John Edmondson (Rolf), Phil Latella (Egon), Mark Gray (Arnold) and Andrew Hill Newman (Andy Ackerman).


Volunteers (1985, Nicholas Meyer)

The oddest part of Volunteers is the opening credits. I queued it because I’ve been reading Ken Levine’s blog (he’s one of the screenwriters) and he did a whole write-up on it a while ago. I suppose I knew, but had forgotten, Nicholas Meyer directed the film. Volunteers is his follow-up to Star Trek II, which would have been considered a success for him. He even brought James Horner along from Star Trek to score Volunteers. James Horner should not score comedies (though he does use some of his other material, I think from Star Trek and Aliens, in the film).

Since Meyer brings nothing to the film, all the responsibility falls on Tom Hanks, who does the whole film with an exaggerated New England accent. He manages to keep the accent for the whole film too. The film takes place in 1962, just after Kennedy started the Peace Corps–I missed that detail somehow, I just thought they were showing the old film clips over the titles to be historical–and I’m wondering if my misunderstanding affected the first twenty minutes. The first twenty minutes are mildly amusing. Tom Hanks is acting like a prick, which he’s very good at doing, but nothing really made me laugh. Then, once he gets to Thailand–maybe just on the Peace Corps plane–Volunteers starts getting funny. It might have more to do with John Candy. Candy is good in Volunteers, better than anything else I’ve ever seen him in. Still, he’s not the best supporting cast member–Gedde Watanabe is great.

Since I saw the film for Levine, I suppose I do have to say something about the writing. It’s good and funny. There are quite a few laugh out-loud moments in Volunteers–most of Watanabe’s lines for a forty minute period are real funny–and the film’s never predictable in the story progressions, with the regular exception of the romance between Hanks and Rita Wilson. The film’s become a footnote in Hanks’ biography for that reason. She’s not good, but it hardly matters, the film isn’t interested in her character. The funny stuff is going on elsewhere.

Even with the traditional romance story-arc, Volunteers ends on an unexpected note, managing to stay truer to itself than expected. The film’s humor isn’t irreverent–Levine and co-writer David Isaacs are sitcom writers who write for good shows–but it is a referential humor. One would need to know, for example, about the CIA’s activities in East Asia, which might not have been too much to ask in 1985, but certainly is too much today. Hanks’ performance is also so unlike his regular performances (he only had a few years before he found his shtik) doesn’t help its accessibility either. Still, there’s no excuse for its bad reputation. It actually needed to be longer–Levine and Isaacs set up a few jokes they never finished and could have….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Meyer; screenplay by Ken Levine and David Isaacs, from a story by Keith Critchlow; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Ronald Roose and Steven Polivka; produced by Richard Shepherd and Walter F. Parkes; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Lawrence Whatley Bourne III), John Candy (Tom Tuttle), Rita Wilson (Beth Wexler), Tim Thomerson (John Reynolds), Gedde Watanabe (At Toon), George Plimpton (Lawrence Bourne Jr.), Ernest Harada (Chung Mee), Allan Arbus (Albert Bardenaro) and Xander Berkeley (Kent Sutcliffe).


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