While reviewing the first season set of this iconic '80s sitcom, Judge Bryan Pope learned two things: It is possible to OD on references to Nancy Reagan, Tab, and the Funky Chicken, and the late, great Nell Carter was more woman than he could handle.
"Well this sure ain't The Brady Bunch." -Nell Harper (Nell Carter)
Like the Brady family, the Kaniskys of Gimme a Break! were a new type of family, one formed as a matter of necessity following a parent's death. Oh, and both families had three daughters. But the similarities end there. So buh-bye Alice. See ya, Cindy. Take a flying leap, Tiger. Here's a show that broke new ground by depicting a young, strong-willed black woman who took charge of a middle-class white household and held it together after the mother passes away. Touching on such sensitive issues as racism, birth control, and obesity, Gimme a Break! wanted so much to be revolutionary. It was a huge ratings success for NBC, but how it holds up 25 years later is another matter altogether. The late Nell Carter, always a force to be reckoned with, is still immensely watchable, but Gimme a Break! is tainted by cookie-cutter writing, fourth-rate jokes, and a forgettable supporting cast lead by a thoroughly unappealing male lead.
Facts of the Case
After Police Chief Carl Kanisky's (Dolph Sweet) wife passes away, her best friend Nell Harper (Carter) agrees to help the chief raise his three daughters and serve as his housekeeper.
Gimme a Break! Season One contains all 19 episodes from the series' 1981-82 season spread over three discs.
Along with NBC's The Facts of Life and Different Strokes, Gimme a Break! ushered in the age of the "very special episode," a trend that would reach its pinnacle with Blossom. (Hmm, another show that at one point or another featured Joey Lawrence. I detect a trend.) Gimme a Break! is the least cloying of the bunch, but its drama is still on par with that of an after-school special (uh oh, Katie's best friend is pregnant; oooh, Katie's on birth control; yikes, Chief Kanisky shot a burglar!) and is at odds with by-the-numbers jokes that are not only lazy, but instantly date the show (I counted not one, but two uses of AT&T's "reach out and touch someone" slogan as a punchline).
Ms. Carter has her hands full with three charges who spend an alarming amount of time either watching soaps or talking about sex. Only Laurie Hendler, as the precocious ugly-duckling-of-a-whiz-kid Julie, makes an impression. Hiding behind the kind of humongous eyeglasses that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud, Hendler displays keen comic timing and bone-dry delivery. Her sisters, the tomboyish Samantha (Lara Jill Miller) and rebel-without-a-cause Katie (Kari Michaelson, trying to convince us that someone has come between her and her Calvin Kleins), are less memorable. But what's the point in comparing? All three actresses fell into obscurity after Gimme a Break! closed up shop in '87.
Of course, heaven help any rugrat left under the care of Chief Kanisky. As played by Sweet, Kanisky is a blustery, hot-headed, verbally abusive ogre who, according to my notes, pokes fun at Nell's weight, calls one daughter a tramp, then slaps another before kicking her out of the house. Neither Sweet nor the writers invest the character with a single endearing quality, leaving us to cringe while we wait to see what corporal punishment he'll dole out next. Need I remind you that he's a high-ranking officer in the LAPD?
But then there's Carter, whose presence and spunk almost make me forgive the show for its flaws. A newly minted Tony-winner for her role in Broadway's Ain't Misbehavin', the warm, funny, charismatic Carter was a natural choice for television, although the medium was almost too small a venue for a personality this size. With better material, she could have given The Jefferson's Marla Gibbs a run for her money when it came to throwing a zinger.
With this first-season DVD set, Universal doesn't celebrate Gimme a Break! so much as it does the sheer cheesiness involved with revisiting any show from the 1980s (this series' retro-hip, exclamatory title alone makes one's eyes almost roll out of one's head). But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Gimme a Break! is presented in its original full-screen format with Dolby 2.0 Mono audio, and it looks and sounds as good as it needs to, although the lighting was often too bright and the laugh track too loud and shrill. Still, that's consistent with most sitcoms from this era, so I doubt purists will complain. I'm pleased by the inclusion of English subtitles, but disappointed by the lack of chapter stops within episodes.
The package includes a generous helping of extras, and if they seem targeted more toward helping Universal sell other DVD sets, so what? They're still hefty. We get three bonus sitcom episodes. "A Very Loud Family," from the first season of Kate & Allie, is the best of the bunch, thanks to the pairing of Susan Saint James and the always wonderful Jane Curtin. Next up is "Extracurricular Activity," from Scott Baio's silly Charles in Charge. "Nell Goes to Jail" gives us a preview of the inevitable Gimme a Break! Season Two package. Finally, there's the 30-minute retro ride "The Great '80s Flashback," in which television producers, personalities and pseudo journalists from the likes of The Hollywood Reporter and TelevisionWeek bend over backward telling us how Knight Rider changed the cultural landscape. Yes, and now we have David Hasselhoff peddling his "music" at Sam Goody, so thank you very much.
Well, golly. What to do, what to do…
Alright, here's the deal. Gimme a Break! is middle-of-the-road, lackluster entertainment, especially to audiences whose tastes have become more sophisticated thanks to shows like Arrested Development and, to a greater extent, Seinfeld. Still, I won't hold this show responsible for our changing tastes or for not knowing how television would evolve over the next quarter of a century, and Universal has put together an adequate package. The extras say less about Gimme a Break! than they do about Universal's shrewd marketing tactics, but they provide a fun trip back to the Reagan Era for those so inclined. If you need a quick '80s fix, go for it. As for me, I think this is one show best left to memory.
My sentimentality may be overriding my good judgment, but I'm gonna let this show slide on its nostalgic value.
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Scales of Justice
• The Great '80s Flashback (featurette)
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