Judge Adam Arseneau's name is Calvin Klein.
A romantic comedy where art imitates life.
A triumph of enjoyable characters over formulaic sitcom clichés, Caroline in the City: The First Season has been long overdue on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Syndicated newspaper cartoonist Caroline Duffy (Lea Thompson, Back to the Future) is living the single American dream: a successful career, fame, and no love life to speak of. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend Del Cassidy (Eric Lutes, So Little Time) can't commit to Caroline, which causes tension between the two—doubled by their working relationship, as Del works for the company that puts out Caroline-themed greeting cards. Her oversexed next door neighbor Annie (Amy Pietz, Rodney) tries her best to get Caroline to play the field, but Caroline is looking for a husband-to-be, nothing less.
Caroline hires a colorist to assist her with her strip, and settles on failing artist Richard (Malcolm Gets, Adam & Steve). Richard is acerbic and critical of Caroline, but nurtures a deep affection for his employer that soon blossoms into unrequited love.
Caroline in the City: The First Season contains all twenty-four episodes from the first season spread over three discs:
"Caroline and the Mugger"
"Caroline and the Gay Art Show"
"Caroline and the ATM"
"Caroline and the Folks"
"Caroline and the Opera"
"Caroline and the Balloon"
"Caroline and the Convict"
"Caroline and the Christmas Break"
"Caroline and the Gift"
"Caroline and the Married Man"
"Caroline and the 28 lb Walleye"
"Caroline and the Watch"
"Caroline and the Bad Date"
"Caroline and the Proposal"
"Caroline and the Kid"
"Caroline and the Ex-Wife"
"Caroline and the Movie"
"Caroline and the Cereal"
"Caroline and Richard's Mom"
"Caroline and the Bridesmaid"
"Caroline and the Wedding"
"Caroline and the Condom"
On the surface, there is little to make Caroline in the City stand out from its competitors. A comedy of errors, romance, sarcasm and caustic wit, it covers the same well-trodden area as other situation comedies of its era. Indeed, the show was even outshone by a little-watched show on its own network called Friends, which bore more than a few similarities (even a cross-over cameo) to the flagship sitcom on NBC. The novelty of having Marty McFly's mom on television wears off quickly.
But the show had its fans, tiny little ravenous things, and as embarrassing as it is to admit it, I was a casual one. The show triumphs over its formulaic odds through surprisingly endearing characters, which are just downright likable (if not entirely three-dimensional). Caroline is quirky, neurotic and leggy, which is a rough combination in terms of people not falling for her everywhere she goes. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend Del is a beautiful hunk of man ("great hair", Annie puts it) but whose predisposition to avoid commitment alienates Caroline into solitude, forcing herself to choose between the man who won't grow up and a string of unsuitable married men. Oh, if only there was somebody suitable! Except, of course, there is somebody, but she doesn't know it.
As hapless romantic sitcom protagonists go, Richard is among the best television was capable of offering back then. Surly, pompous, arrogant, and callous, only the audience realizes how completely mad he is for Caroline, as his caustic exterior reveals itself as nothing more than a shield of love. Oh, how sweet! Corny, sure, but it is a testament to the cohesiveness of the show that Caroline in the City can pull off such a painfully blasé cliché with a straight face and get away scott-free. We get the basis of this triangle laid out for us in the pilot, and the show spends the next four seasons milking it for all its worth. Later seasons stretch the melodrama a bit too thin and the entire show self-destructs into ridiculousness, but in Caroline in the City: The First Season, everything still works.
Yes, it's all predictable in a bad sitcom sort of way; you know things aren't going to work out between Richard and Caroline any more than they work out between Caroline and Del, because otherwise, there's no show. Annie is a slut, and Charlie is an idiot, episode after episode. It has almost a ritualistic repetitiveness to it. And yet, the show works. The characters are meaningful and likeable, the comedy is quick, free-flowing and sardonic, and the romantic comedy is perfectly timed and executed. This is one of those rare occasions where a show exceeds the net sum of its recycled parts and creates something memorable, if not entirely unoriginal.
Or maybe I just had a crush on Caroline. Darn redheads.
One thing I can't quite get behind is the scattered order of episodes on this set. Some DVD sets show episodes in order of broadcast as opposed to order of creation, which is fine most of the time…but in this case it gets pretty cockled. Caroline in the City had its episodes rearranged and shuffled around by the network like a blackjack deck in Vegas, and it played havoc with the slowly building romantic tension. This is most painfully noticeable in the last disc, where the finale, "Caroline and the Wedding" ends on a cliffhanger moment…then suddenly gets followed up with "Caroline and the Condom" right after it. An episode that failed to make it to broadcast during the first season (probably due to its constant masturbatory jokes and Caroline getting busted for shoplifting condoms) "Condom" got cut from the broadcast order and unceremoniously dumped as a one-shot during August. On television, you take what you can get, but on DVD, such strict adherence to a retarded broadcast schedule just messes up marathon viewings. It should have been the third episode as per the production numbers…so what exactly was the pressing motivation to keep it at the end like this? In fact, practically none of the episodes on Caroline in the City: The First Season are presented in their original production order.
Wacky episodic order aside, the set is passable in terms of its technical presentation. Compression artifacts are noticeable, but not overly distracting. Colors are washed out, but black levels are adequate and grail levels are satisfactory. As for audio, a simple 2.0 surround presentation is all we need; the show has little music cues, clear dialogue and a punchy laugh track. For a show of this age, the DVD presentation is strictly average across the board—not too shabby, but not impressive either.
Extras are embarrassingly non-existent. One cannot help but feel the raging disinterest in studios throwing out these TV sets to audiences and seeing which ones stick. If people buy enough copies of Caroline in the City: The First Season, maybe (just maybe) a second set gets released, but don't hold your breath on the supplemental features. The only things included on this set are episodic previews, optionally viewable at the start of each episode. These are cut right from syndication broadcast television, poor fidelity and all, and last about fifteen seconds each. Not even worth glancing up from the popcorn tub.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like many sitcoms of decades past, many elements of the show have not aged well. For the most part, Caroline and her friends hold their own by modern standards, but some of the outfits, the music, the aggressive laugh track, set designs and jokes are just painfully…nineties. The horror! I mean, let's be honest here—network comedy has come a long way in these last ten years. Black people, for one. Like Friends, the New York of Caroline in the City is distressingly homogeneous.
As a watcher of the show in its endless syndication, it is easy on my part to mistake nostalgia with competence. Viewing Caroline in the City through fresh eyes would no doubt reveal all these little dated flaws in full, unflattering light.
Even if I hated Caroline as a character, her penchant for short skirts is very endearing. For a formulaic NBC sitcom from the 1990s, Caroline in the City is—dare I say it—pretty charming. Now that the show is virtually unseen in syndication, this is the perfect time to catch up with some comfort television on DVD.
We find the defendant vulnerable yet spunky! Wait, wrong show.
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