This clever sitcom makes Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees as giddy as if she had just consumed an entire package of Lemon Wacky Hello.
"You need to grow six inches, lose twenty pounds, and find a hairdresser who gave up cocaine with everyone else."—Nina (Wendie Malick) to Maya (Laura San Giacomo)
Just Shoot Me starts with a clever premise and just gets better from there. What if a normal, commonsensical person found herself working for a magazine whose bread and butter is the most glamorous, beautiful, sexually alluring people in the world? Created by Steven Levitan (Wings), Just Shoot Me skillfully balances its appeal to the audience's instinctive attraction to physical beauty (in the form of supermodels) with reassurance that pulchritude is not all that matters. Enhanced by a terrific ensemble of actors and some of the most clever dialogue to be found in a sitcom, Just Shoot Me arrives on DVD in an irresistible package comprising its first two seasons.
Facts of the Case
Feisty idealist Maya Gallo (Laura San Giacomo, sex, lies, and videotape), fired from her job as a news writer at a television station, is forced by encroaching poverty to swallow her pride and ask her father, media mogul Jack Gallo (George Segal), for a job at his Cosmo-type fashion magazine, Blush. Maya and Jack have been estranged since his remarriage to a woman Maya's own age, and Maya is also still nursing the wounds of an ugly-duckling childhood from which Jack was largely absent. She takes the job at Blush on the condition that Jack allow her to add some more socially relevant articles to the usual lineup of sex quizzes and makeup tips.
Maya's new coworkers, who initially resent and fear her presence, include the once-great model Nina Van Horne (Wendie Malick), who is still blithely living in the politically incorrect '70s; conniving executive assistant Dennis Finch (David Spade, Joe Dirt), whose twin goals in life are licking Jack's boots and licking any portion of a supermodel's anatomy; and photographer Elliot DeMauro (Enrico Colantoni), whose job offers him the happy perk of dating the most beautiful women in the world despite his regular-Joe appearance.
Buckle up, because there are 31 episodes included in this set. Here are the studio synopses, with some editorial comments of my own.
• "Back Issues" (pilot)
The pilot effectively establishes the characters and prepares us for the quirky goings-on at Blush. Note that Maya's hair changes color after she's fired from her old job: At this point the original pilot gives way to re-shoots. Emily Procter of CSI: Miami makes a memorable appearance as the anchorwoman whose arrogance incites Maya to rebel.
• "The Devil and Maya Gallo"
Almost an extension of the pilot, this episode shows Maya's first day at the magazine. We get a taste of Jack's business savvy as he offers Maya all kinds of perks in order to keep her from tampering with what has made his magazine successful.
• "Lemon Wacky Hello"
Although the drug-induced hijinks are very funny, they are nicely grounded by Maya's attempt to win her father's approval as she takes on the responsibility of organizing the magazine's layout single-handed. Contains Nina's immortal line: "I haven't felt this way since 1969 to 1978!"
• "Nina's Birthday"
This episode shows Maya gradually becoming part of the Blush family when Jack forces her to overcome her (mutual) animosity toward Nina. Their karaoke duet of "Shout" is a highlight.
• "Secretary's Day"
This episode establishes one of the show's strongest and funniest running themes: the power imbalance and mutual dependence of Jack and Finch. Jay Leno also makes an appearance during Finch's brief taste of celebrity.
• "In Your Dreams"
We gain some understanding of Maya's insecurity while also glimpsing the genuine insight Elliot brings to photographing women. This episode also creates some enjoyable romantic frissons between the two that later seasons would capitalize on.
• "Sweet Charity"
One of the strongest themes in the series is the clash between Maya's passionate idealism and her father's casual pragmatism, and this episode uses this conflict to its fullest comic potential.
• "The Experiment"
A very clever episode, in which Maya realizes that although she preaches that physical beauty is irrelevant, in practice she's just as susceptible to good looks as everyone else. Episodes like this prevent Maya from becoming insufferable in her idealism.
• "The Assistant"
The scene in which Nina appears on a radio show hosted by the unparalleled Larry Miller (Best in Show) and attempts to impress him with a vocabulary of made-up words is one of the funniest ever.
• "Old Boyfriends"
I always enjoy the way the show can combine perceptive stories about relationships with real belly laughs, as when Jack comes face to face with his double standard regarding older men in relationships with younger women. Nina's scenes with the window washer are hysterical.
• "La Cage"
I prefer Finch as a supporting character, but in this episode he takes center stage. Also burdened with a weak subplot, this episode is one of the less memorable ones.
• "King Lear Jet"
In this outstanding episode, the machinations of Maya, Elliot, and Nina as they attempt to score tickets to King Lear come to parallel the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy. Clever, original, and surreal, this is one of the funniest of the season—and that's really saying something.
• "My Dinner with Woody"
Another of the most original and inventive episodes, this pays homage to the style of Woody Allen movies (particularly Annie Hall) and features a very funny impression of Woody Allen by Ed Crasnick as well as a voice cameo by the man himself.
• "Twice Burned"
For me, the highlights of this episode are a guest appearance by Harry Groener (in what seems like a warm-up for his stint as the Mayor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and a subplot in which Elliot and Nina discover a shared passion for a blues legend named Cholera Joe.
• "Jesus, It's Christmas"
Maya's idealism is always a rich source of comedy, and together with Jack's pretense of not wanting to exchange Christmas gifts it results in a wonderfully twisted Christmas story.
• "Elliot the Geek"
Elliot's gradual deterioration from hotshot photographer to high school geek is irresistible. My favorite joke is entirely the work of the costume designer, who dresses Colantoni in a striped yellow sweater that emphasizes his resemblance to (in Finch's words from an earlier episode) "an aging Charlie Brown."
Maya's desire to write an exposé on illegal chemical dumping results in one of the best visual jokes of the season.
• "Pass the Salt"
Dennehy is priceless as Finch's fireman father, but the subplot in which Maya tries to convince Jack that her neighborhood isn't unsafe is not particularly effective.
• "In the Company of Maya"
The injustice of Maya, of all people, being accused of harassment is a terrific premise, and it culminates in hilarious disaster due to Jack's misplaced faith in gadgets.
• "The Walk"
This is an unusually introspective episode for Jack, but it's nice to see him being forced to confront his age. It's also a graceful recognition of the paternal function Jack plays in the office "family."
• "College or Collagen"
Segal and Spade steal this episode as their bridge partnership takes on the hue of an extramarital affair. It's also fun to see Maya and Nina switch perspectives as each tries to relive her youth through Maya's protégé.
• "Nina in the Cantina"
Guest actor and former rock singer Michael Des Barres is terrific as the caricature of a once-wild rock star, and Maya and Nina have some nice bonding moments. Lots of fun—as is the subplot in which Elliot tries to outdo Annie Liebowitz.
Maya's conflict of interest between her ideals and her loyalty to her father's magazine fuels a smart episode with a nifty double-reverse plot. Megan Mullally (Will and Grace) makes a welcome guest appearance as Maya's antagonistic interviewer.
• "Nina's Bikini"
We catch a glimpse of Nina's vulnerable side in an episode that nonetheless avoids sentimentality. Health warning: Do not imbibe beverages during the last scene.
• "The Kiss"
Sure, it's a standard screwball way of getting two characters into a clinch, but haven't we been wanting this to happen? Funny and sweet.
• "Jack's Old Partner"
As far as I'm concerned, Tom Poston is always as welcome as the flowers in springtime. He and Segal create a very funny contrast.
What would the Blush world be like if Finch's position were held by someone who's friendly, efficient, and responsible? This episode will convert any viewers who harbor doubt that Spade is an asset to the cast.
• "Eve of Destruction"
Segal and Walter as the tart-tongued Eve are great antagonists; their sparring makes this episode a treat.
• "The Emperor"
I'm not crazy about Dana Carvey, so my enjoyment of this episode is dimmed by his appearance as the pretentious European designer. Nevertheless, the plot makes some cogent comments on the idolization of designers, and the ending is ruthlessly appropriate.
• "War and Sleaze"
One of the best episodes ever, "War and Sleaze" shows Maya and Nina on the same side for once, teaming up to perform damage control after Maya's disastrous date. The subplot in which Finch and Jack engage in war games results in one of the single funniest parodies of war movies I've ever been privileged to see.
• "Rescue Me"
An unusually sweet-natured but still very funny episode. In flashbacks we see a quixotic side of Jack that gives Maya new insight into her sometimes exasperating father.
Whew. Still with me? With 31 episodes, there's a lot to cover here. The first, abbreviated season of only six episodes largely focuses on establishing the dynamic of the Blush office and showing how Maya and Jack come to reestablish a relationship as father and daughter. We come to know Maya as perhaps the sanest of the inhabitants, and the one we relate to most; even though her philosophical beef with the fashion industry sometimes makes her a little abrasive, we know that her protests stem in part from the fact that she's really just as insecure as the rest of us would be when faced with a constant parade of supermodels. The first season also includes Maya's goofy roommate Wally (Chris Hogan), who was blessedly dropped after these six episodes. He serves a purpose initially in that his conversations with Maya give us useful exposition, but soon he comes to be nothing more than an unnecessary distraction from the heart of the show: the offices of Blush.
Over the second season, the show gets more inventive, producing such innovative episodes as "King Lear Jet" and "My Dinner with Woody." The beginnings of romance stir between Elliot and Maya. Some of the show's running jokes get their start, like Jack's running feud with Donald Trump and Nina's unseen friend Binnie of the disastrous plastic surgeries. Maya gradually becomes integrated into the magazine's workings despite her philosophical quibbles. This season offers some of the funniest and strongest stand-alone episodes of the show's run; although the Elliot-Maya romance that would come to the fore in later seasons has a lot of merit, I suspect I'm not alone in enjoying the episodes that lead up to any sitcom romance somewhat more than the episodes in which writers have to keep an established romance interesting and (more important) funny.
Those who have somehow missed seeing Just Shoot Me, either in its healthy seven-season original run or in syndication, may wonder what sets it apart from other sitcoms. Besides its use of a unique setting, its distinction lies in its clever writing and its excellent acting ensemble, headed up by the two accomplished film veterans San Giacomo and Segal. These two create wonderful comic chemistry as the earnest, hot-tempered daughter and self-satisfied, perpetually boyish father. The friction between them, which can't uproot their underlying affection for each other, provides a solid foundation for the show and the ensemble. Colantoni, whose previous credits as an actor tended toward more dramatic fare such as guest spots on NYPD Blue and Law and Order, brings charisma and serious acting chops to the role of Elliot, making him a lovable and even vulnerable character when he could have been nothing more than an insufferable philanderer. Wendie Malick, an accomplished comedian who had shown off her comedic flair in the HBO series Dream On, is an asset to every production she takes part in; as Nina, she brings a giddy, whacked-out approach to life that is one of the perennial delights of the show. David Spade, a belated addition to the ensemble, adds the perfect seasoning with his caustic wisecracks and ability to ruthlessly undercut a feel-good vibe.
Even though actors as strong as these could make even second-rate material work, the writing on Just Shoot Me in these first two seasons is never second-rate. Full of quotable one-liners (some of which were evidently improvised by Spade) as well as character-driven humor, the show also takes an intelligent look at issues that would naturally arise in the environment of a fashion magazine—such as the idolization of physical beauty, the mixed messages popular culture sends to women, and the responsibilities of the media. Yet the writing never gets heavy-handed and we are never forced to endure Very Special Episodes, since the series's goal is foremost to make us laugh. And that it does, without fail.
Columbia TriStar has given us a clean, attractive transfer with vivid color and excellent sound. There is also quite a nice assembly of extras. Foremost among these is the half-hour retrospective featurette, "Always in Fashion," which—unusually in these endeavors—features all five of the main actors in addition to show creator Steven Levitan. It's intriguing to see the differences in some cases between the actors in their own skins and the characters they portray; Wendie Malick in particular is remarkably soft-spoken in contrast to the attention-seeking Nina. The actors comment on their off-camera relationships as well as their filming experiences, and Levitan discusses the way the show came into being. The featurette also includes some tantalizing (soundless) clips of the original pilot, which did not include David Spade and featured a dramatically different set design. Cast and creator also discuss the parent network's anxiety over some of the edgier show content, such as Nina's unrepentant philandering and substance abuse and the psychedelic "Lemon Wacky Hello" episode. This is a very enjoyable and illuminating featurette.
We are also treated to commentaries by Levitan in the company of writer-producers Andy Gordon, Danny Zucker, Eileen Conn, and Marsh McCall on four episodes: the pilot and "Lemon Wacky Hello" (on disc one) and two of the second season's most creative episodes, "King Lear Jet" and "My Dinner with Woody" (on disc two). These commentaries are lively, funny, and very enjoyable, and they share some interesting tidbits about the genesis of the story lines, the voice cameo by Woody Allen, and even the experience of attending the Golden Globes ceremony when the show was first nominated (but lost to behemoth Frasier).
The final main extra is the gallery of Blush covers used in various episodes as the title cards. I applaud the decision to include these, since the use of these covers with their double-entendre headlines is one of the witty and unusual touches that make Just Shoot Me stand apart from other sitcoms; nevertheless, it would have been nice if the gallery had identified which episode each cover had been created for. Also included in the fold-out packaging is an insert with synopses for all 31 episodes; there are also trailers for DVD releases of other television series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was once present at a conversation among acquaintances who expressed a deep, burning dislike of Just Shoot Me. I was astonished, and still am, that anyone could harbor such fervent hatred of such a fun show. Even if you're somehow impervious to its cleverness and enjoyable characters, that's scarcely reason for violent antipathy. I didn't question my friends' sentiments, because their furious vehemence made me feel that I would end up on the wrong end of a witch hunt for standing up for the show, but I continued to mull over this mysterious incident.
Later I realized that these sad, bitter shells of humanity probably disliked the show because they disliked David Spade, and that I can understand. When the man isn't in character, he makes me feel like I need a shower. Preferably with a Brillo pad. And his character as Finch is the very essence of the smarmy, sexist, obnoxious Spade persona that he embodies so successfully. Of course, that's exactly what makes Finch such a successful character, but he is certainly not a charming one. If Spade rubs you the wrong way (and how Finch would enjoy that opening!), you may find it difficult to enjoy the series. This, of course, is a matter of personal taste, so I leave it to the individual reader to weigh any anti-Spade feelings in the balance against all the other merits of this delightful show.
Just Shoot Me is a well-written comedy with strong ensemble acting, and it never fails to put a goofy smile on my face. Even though it's in heavy syndicated rotation now, I heartily recommend the purchase of this set: The extras are great, and the ability to pop in such priceless episodes as "King Lear Jet" and "In the Company of Maya" at will is not to be forgone lightly.
Just Shoot Me is guilty of making me snort soda out of my nose, but that is scarcely grounds for conviction. All charges are dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Creator Steven Levitan and Production Team (Four Episodes)
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