4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
So when Alex Keaton of "Family Ties" grew up, he changed his name to Michael Flaherty and became the Deputy Mayor of New York City.
The first season of Michael J. Fox's second hit sitcom, "Spin City" has been released on DVD by Universal Music and Video Distribution. The satire of a deputy mayor and his staff trying to halt strikes, keep the lid on scandals, sandbag the press and balance their love lives proves fictional politics can be just as funny as real life headlines.
"Spin City" follows the daily routine of Deputy Mayor Michael Flaherty (supercharged Michael J. Fox). Flaherty briefs his staff, guides Mayor Randall Winston (hysterically oblivious Barry Bostwick) through the latest crisis, and removes the Mayor's foot from his mouth whenever Winston's honesty is less than politically correct. The Mayor may be the big cheese in the Big Apple, but Flaherty is the one in charge. Flaherty's staff includes hedonistic Chief of Staff Stuart Bondek (sarcastic Alan Ruck), who feels Flaherty got the job because he has better hair; Carter Heywood (comic thesaurus Michael Boatman), the staff's conscience, a gay black man in charge of Minority Affairs; relationship challenged financial administrator Nikki Faber (quick witted yenta Connie Britton); bumbling, neurotic Press Secretary Paul Lassiter (rubber-faced Richard Kind) and naive staff writer James Hobert (whose comic timing improves as his character matures). Flaherty also tries to balance his love life with Ashley Schaeffer (a game but superfluous Carla Gugino), a savvy newspaper reporter.
You won't be disappointed by any of the two dozen episodes on the 2 DVD set. "Spin City" takes a forearm shiver when Gugino unexpectedly departs after a dozen episodes (as if the writers were caught off guard -- and they probably were), but recovers after a short stagnancy.
Woody Harrelson is the people's choice in the episode "Meet Tommy Dugan," playing a janitor who wins an essay contest for kids and becomes a member of the staff for the day. His honesty charms the press, who've tired of Flaherty and Lassiter's double-speak. Naturally, his talent for telling the truth frustrates Flaherty.
As a favor to Carter, Flaherty pretends to be his lover and kisses a sure thing goodbye in "Kiss Me Stupid," and the guys try to prove to Nikki they can handle father hood by babysitting napkins in "The Competition," the result being a comic wipe out.
My favorite episode was "Dog Day Afternoon." In an effort to make peace between The Mayor and the Police Commissioner, Flaherty stages an elaborate funeral for Bingo, a heroic German Shepherd. When Paul and Carter loose the dog's body, Flaherty's back up plan shepherd's in the belly laughs.
The show, which ran from 1996-2002, works because of the jousting between characters. Each character has his/her own comic foil (or two). For Flaherty, it's virtually all the staff members, but his main targets are the Mayor and Lassiter. Carter and Stuart fight like a married couple -- an ironic pairing between an advocate for gay rights and a slobbering heterosexual. Writer James has a crush on Nikki who uses him as a sounding board for her haphazard love life, while the socially and publicly challenged Lassiter finds his match in Claudia (a cloying, annoying Faith Prince), the president of his one-woman fan club.
The cast is well chosen and the players have an obvious rapport with one another. I hated Michael J. Fox's mini-Trump character of Alex Keaton in "Family Ties," and I could only get through a few minutes of "Back to the Future," despite being an ardent fan of Christopher Lloyd. Additionally, Fox's one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else Mike Flaherty had his work cut out with me because he's one of those tightly-wound Type A control freaks I so often encountered when I worked in Public Relations. Given the opportunity, I'd pummel a gnat like Flaherty, but business etiquette (and the need to eat) required my giving a relentless tornado like Flaherty a wide berth -- and being rewarded with a good laugh whenever one of his breed crashed and burned. Personal vendetta's aside, I applaud Fox for taking a potentially despicable character and filling his lungs with biting, funny lines, as well as executing some original physical comedy. Fox is part Charlie Chaplin, somersaulting over beds as he removes his pants (you'll have to see it to believe it), and as lightning-fast with a barb as Groucho Marx:
Carla Gugino has given a number of commendable dramatic performances ("American Gangster," "Chicago Hope") but she's no comic. Her character of Ashley Schaeffer and Fox's Flaherty are already dating when the show begins and quickly move in together. Once that happens there's nowhere for their relationship to go, and little for her character to do except complain that she and Mike don't see each other often enough. Plus she's now faces the moral dilemma of having to embarrass her boyfriend in print in order to do her job. The writers must've realized very quickly that the Ashley/Flaherty relationship was a dead end because the opening scenes that took place between Ashley and Mike were dropped in favor of Flaherty's daily staff meeting. Carla realized she was an anchor too - she quit the show halfway through the first season.
Barry Bostwick's dullard Mayor Winston is warm, genuine and clueless. Much is made of his height (he really does appear to be twice as tall as Fox), but what makes Bostwick's character lovable and sympathetic (aside from his innocence) are his occasional moments of clarity:
Flaherty: Do nothing. Sir, it's inspired.
Mayor: Let it be, Mike, and the path will reveal itself.
Flaherty: You're a very spiritual man, aren't you sir?
Mayor: I'm part Chippewa.
As the series progresses, so do the hilarious exchanges between the supporting characters. Michael Boatman ("Arlis$$") and Alan Ruck ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off") are superb as Carter and Stuart. Ruck's drooling, pleasure-seeking Stuart was a groaner even back in '96, but watching him get his come uppence or deliver an over the top inappropriate line is a guilty pleasure.
Boatman agreed to take the role as long as he didn't have to play the stereotypical lisping, sashaying gay man, and the show's brain trust, Gary David Goldberg, Bill Lawrence and Michael Fox, got more mileage out of Carter trying to prove how normal he really is. The clashes between Carter and Stuart are among the funniest moments in the show:
Stuart: Dan Donalson is brilliant. He's the real estate developer. Did you read his
book? Dan I Am?
Carter: Brilliant. Except for the title, which he clearly ripped off.
Stuart: From who?
Carter:Think about in your chair. Think about it anywhere.
Richard Kind (who once played a character named Harvey Corman on "Scrubs," get it?) is Press Secretary Paul Lassiter. Having served as a Press Secretary I can tell you anyone as incompetent as Lassiter wouldn't have lasted more than an episode, but of course it's his ineptitude, gullibility, and bad luck that makes him the perfect comic patsy:
Paul: I see you're supposed to be meeting with the lesbian activists tonight, and I've got Sister Margaret. So I was wondering. What do you say we trade my nuns for your lesbians?
Carter: Paul, they're not baseball cards.
Paul: What do lesbians know about me? And besides, what do you know about
lesbians? This could be a great opportunity.
Stuart: So we can remind them why they're lesbians?
Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") is Nikki Farber, the staff's red-haired, brainy beauty with horrible taste in men (nice how that balances out, eh?). During the first year she was Stuart's able adversary until Carter took over. Unfortunately, the writers jumped the shark in later years, cooking up an office romance between Nikki and Mike that hastened Britton's departure mid-way through the series six-year run.
Alexander Chaplin plays shy, virginal staff writer James Hobert. Guess I'm sympathetic to his occasionally pathetic character because he graduated from nearby John Jay High School. The nature of his character means he'll be as whiny and needy as Flaherty's is in-your-face and confident, and he's often on the short end of Carter, Stuart and Mike's caustic comments:
James: Nikki asked me to buy her a drink. What do you suppose I should get her?
Carter: How about a drink.
James: That's the thing. She said surprise me.
Carter: Serve it to her naked.
As Janelle, the Office Administrator, Victoria Dillard is the show's "magic negro" (hey I didn't coin the phrase). It's a small role, but it's obvious that next to Flaherty, she's the most informed and steadiest personality on the staff - and one of the few characters that can strike fear in min-Mike. Taylor Stanley has a lesser role as Karen, the always smiling and constantly upbeat intern who's even more trusting and naive than James, and naturally has a crush on him. She was given little else to do but say "Okey-dokey," but I swear every time she said it I howled. Too bad Stanley was written out after 8 episodes.
Carla Guigino's departure opened the door for a series of guest girlfriends for Flaherty. Some of the actresses were virtual unknowns when they appeared on the show, like Daphne Zuinga, (who plays the edgy Carrie, who's so ready to have a child she freezes Flaherty's "guys") and Amanda Pete, who promises Flaherty a spin-dizzying one night stand just as a blizzard cripples the city. All fall for mini-Mike (it is, after all, a comedy) with riotous results. Courtney Thorne-Smith ("The World According to Jim," "Melrose Place") pops in for two episodes as a lawyer who has the misfortune of meeting Flaherty when he's an emotional wreck still pining for Ashley, while Cynthia Watross ("Titus," Libby on "Lost") appears to be the perfect woman for love-starved Flaherty, despite her elusiveness about her job.
Other guest stars provide comic grist for the show. Riding the success of "Cheers" George Wendt ("Norm") and Woody Harrelson ("Woody," how creative) appear in successive episodes. Although I didn't buy Wendt as a ruthless land baron modeled after Donald Trump - he's still too cuddly and his smile remains too warm - his battle of wits with Flaherty still amuses, and as I said, Harrelson shines as Tommy Dugan.
Other guests to keep an eye out for are then-unknown Jennifer Garner, who impresses as James' innocent, dewy-eyed girlfriend who shows up in New York just as he decides to dump her; Gretchen Mol ("Donnie Brasco") a reporter with a crush on country boy James; Luke Perry, suave and snappy as Carter's often talked about ex-lover Spence, who drops a bomb on his old beau; and Marlee Matlan ("Children of a Lesser God"), who appears as an advocate for the deaf determined to take Mike and the Mayor down for a perceived slight. Toward the end of the first year's run, Marin Hinkle (now on "Two and a Half Men") shows up as Stuart's exceeding pleasant and loving girlfriend. Of course none of the others can understand what such a wonderful woman is doing with such a hedonistic rat like Stuart. Kim Dickens ("Deadwood") sports a scary dominatrix hairdo and an equally intimidating attitude as a maneater who actually turns Mike down. And see if you can spot Stephen Colbert who makes a brief cameo in "The Competition."
Additional Spinning...The Extras
The extras include "The Making of Spin City" with comments from the cast and creators. The cast, to say the least, looks very relaxed, as if they were filmed mere minutes after waking up. (Check out Richard Kind's exclamation point hairdo, or Fox's scruffy jaw line.) The actors comment on their roles (Kind: "I was the Press Secretary who was supposed to know everything. Yet I was always kept in the dark.") as well as their admiration for Fox, who continued to work as long as he could without complaint while fighting a losing battle against advanced Parkinson's Disease. It's a lovefest, and pleasant memories abound.
"Spin City" is well written, wonderfully acted biting political sarcasm. The next time you need some laughter in your life, cast your vote for "Spin City."