By Matt Browning, Empty Nest TV
From Tellyvision Magazine
In recent years, Saturday night has become the most dormant night of programming on television, devoted primarily to movie broadcasts and aging series past their prime. With the assumption that no one is home at the time, networks have little interest in creating strong weekend lineups. But while a show landing on Saturdays has a slim chance of survival these days, such wasn’t always the case. Throughout the mid-eighties and early nineties, Saturday night was one of the highest rated nights of programming on the air. Thanks to the creative smarts of writer/producer Susan Harris, millions of people happily spent their Saturdays in front of the tube.
The creator behind such classics as Soap, Harris struck gold in 1985 with The Golden Girls, an ensemble comedy that proved life doesn’t end after the age of 50. The series followed the lives of four active, strong-willed women, all in their golden years, who shared a house in a Miami suburb. Viewers fell in love with levelheaded Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur), dimwitted Rose (Betty White), man-hungry Blanche (Rue McClanahan), and wisecracking Sophia (Estelle Getty). The show remained in the Top Ten for six of its seven seasons and received numerous accolades, including Emmy Awards for each of the stars.
With the abundant success of The Golden Girls, Harris hatched a new idea for a companion piece to her popular series: a sitcom centering on the empty nest syndrome – that sense of loss parents feel when all their children have moved out. The pilot for the series aired as an episode of The Golden Girls at the close of its second season in 1987. Rita Moreno starred as the lonely wife of a well-to-do doctor, coping with the empty nest syndrome while her daughter was away at school. But Harris, who was experiencing the syndrome in her personal life at the time, was fearful that the show would become stale with a married couple complaining of loneliness week after week. So producers scrapped the initial pilot and headed back to the drawing board, coming up with new characters and a new concept.
In the fall of 1988, Empty Nest resurfaced on Saturday nights following The Golden Girls, this time with veteran actor Richard Mulligan at the helm. Mulligan, best known for his role as Burt Campbell on Harris’ Soap, played Dr. Harry Weston, a widowed pediatrician coping with the loss of his wife, his sudden reentrance into bachelorhood, and the empty nest syndrome with his three daughters all living on their own. Dinah Manoff, a Tony Award winner and Mulligan’s costar on Soap, played eldest daughter Carol,a lonely, bitter divorcee. Kristy McNichol (of Family fame) was on board as middle daughter Barbara, a carefree undercover cop. Youngest sibling Emily was away at college. She phoned occasionally but was never seen.
Rounding out the ensemble were David Leisure, the lone survivor from the original pilot, as mooching, womanizing neighbor Charley Dietz, and Park Overall as Harry’s no-nonsense southern nurse Laverne Todd. Charley, a cruise ship worker, stopped in at the Weston house regularly to swipe food, insult Carol, and share tales of his active social life. Laverne, who hailed from the small town of Hickory, Arkansas, used her homespun wit and tough-as-nails personality to get the best of her boss in every situation. She often got her point across with a colorful anecdote from back home (similar to the St. Olaf stories heard often on The Golden Girls). Last but not least was the Weston family dog Dreyfuss, a St. Bernard/Golden Retriever mix who oftentimes seemed to be the most sensible character on the show.
We followed the life of Harry Weston as the action shifted from home (located just down the street from the Girls), where he fussed with his daughters over his bachelor lifestyle and disclosed his problems to sympathetic Dreyfuss, to his office where he playfully interacted with his young patients and followed the orders of bossy Laverne. Stories during the first season dealt often with relationships, as is common with Susan Harris’ work. Harry found himself thrust back into the dating scene right off the bat when a lady friend insisted that their weekly meals together should be leading to marriage. A beau proposed to Barbara, who had second thoughts about walking down the aisle. Carol jumped at the chance to have dinner with her cheating ex-husband, with the intention of making him see what he lost, but wasn’t thrilled when finding out his reason for calling. Skirt-chasing Charley had a new lady almost each week.
Empty Nest established itself as a warm and entertaining comedy its freshman year, remaining lighthearted instead of overly issue-oriented. Midway through the season, the concept of an empty nest took an ironic turn. Running out of reasons to have Carol and Barbara constantly coming over to Harry’s house, producers decided to have both characters move back in with their father. This move generated more storyline possibilities and exemplified what was becoming somewhat of a national trend: adult children moving back in with Mom and Dad. By the end of the season, with the help of occasional crossovers with their popular neighbors, Nest had secured a position in the Top Ten and won Mulligan an Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
Season two saw continued success with a growing audience and another Emmy nomination for Mulligan. With Laverne and even Dreyfuss emerging as popular characters, the show began to rely less on The Golden Girls and more on sharp writing and character development to generate laughs. McNichol and Manoff were quickly becoming a comedic duo as the sibling rivalry between Barbara and the increasingly neurotic Carol became a prominent theme. Harry’s love life was the focus of several episodes as he became more comfortable with dating, and Charley continued to find unique ways to chase women and mooch food. Laverne’s scatter-brained husband, a minor league baseball player, was introduced in a recurring role. Memorable episodes from the season had Harry in the hospital with an angina attack, Laverne living with the Westons after a fight with her husband, and Carol upstaging cop Barbara by nabbing a mall thief.
The show had found its groove by season three, boasting a larger audience than that of its sister series The Golden Girls, moving up a couple notches in the Top Ten list, and receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy Series. The characters were beginning to emerge from their initial concepts, most notably Carol. Formerly written as uptight and bitter, the character became more of an emotional nut – the perfect foil for upbeat Barbara. One episode found the girls in a brawl on the living room floor after an attempt to rectify a piano recital that had similar disastrous results 20 years earlier. The unshakeable Laverne finally showed some vulnerability when one episode had the character traumatized after a mugging. This fragile side would be displayed later when Laverne’s husband left her for another woman.
As the fourth season began in 1991, Nest was the most watched series on NBC’s Saturday night lineup, which led to a move to the prominent nine o’clock timeslot. With both of her Miami shows a success, Susan Harris gave it a third try with the Nest spinoff Nurses. Set in the same hospital as Harry’s office, the show followed the lives of a group of screwball nurses and doctors. Having this Saturday night monopoly, producers decided to stage a night in which characters from Nest, The Golden Girls, and Nurses would all appear on one another’s shows, the tie-in being a hurricane that was heading straight for Miami. The stunt worked, giving Nest its highest ratings ever. Another themed event took place later in the season: a night of full moon madness. Other highlights: Barbara was promoted to Sergeant; the Westons bought guns after the house was broken into; Carol opened her own catering business; and the girls were held hostage by an escaped convict. The gang traveled to the Weston family castle in England for the season finale. The episode had Richard Mulligan doing triple duty as Harry, a wacky butler named Basil, and a sex-starved relative — Baroness Daphne Weston.
Empty Nest returned for its fifth season in the fall of 1992, but times were changing. The Golden Girls had left the air, leaving Nest to anchor the lineup alone. With the ratings slipping somewhat towards the end of the previous season, producers decided to take the show in a new direction, giving unlucky-in-love Carol a serious relationship. Paul Provenza came on board as eccentric artist Patrick Arcola, who soon ended up living in the Weston garage. The relationship would be the focus of much of the season, and while Manoff and Provenza worked well together, tampering with an already successful cast roster is always risky. Before viewers could react to the new addition, an even larger shakeup occurred. Kristy McNichol, a victim of bipolar disorder, suddenly left the series near the start of the season to better manage her health. Hoping her absence would be temporary, Barbara was said to be out of town. To fill the void left by McNichol, producers began casting the role of youngest Weston sibling Emily, who had yet to appear on screen. Lisa Rieffel won the part and made her debut midseason.
Despite the problems, overall the season produced a batch of well-written, entertaining episodes. A hilarious Halloween show had Harry and Laverne as Count Docula and the Wicked Witch of the South, and a Thanksgiving show offered the gang’s varying takes on a past holiday dinner gone awry. Dinah Manoff moved behind the camera, directing several episodes throughout this and following seasons. But minus McNichol and the beloved Golden Girls, coupled with the addition of Patrick and Emily, the show was losing the spark that had kept it in the Top Ten for so long. By season’s end, it was evident that a retooling was on the way: McNichol’s absence was looking to be permanent; and Park Overall, who was recovering from a broken leg throughout much of the year, announced her intended departure.
When Empty Nest returned for its sixth season, Overall was still around, but McNichol, Provenza, and Rieffel were out and two new cast members had been added: Night Court star Marsha Warfield as Dr. Maxine Douglas and Estelle Getty as Golden Girl Sophia Petrillo. Cast changes were only the tip of the iceberg, though. A new baby and a change of venue were on the way as well.
Harry and Laverne were transplanted from their cozy office to a grimy inner-city clinic after Harry, retired from pediatrics, teamed up with the clinic’s doctor (Warfield) to keep the struggling business open, with Laverne in tow as nurse. The expected departure of Park Overall made way for the addition of the Maxine character, who was brought in to replace Laverne. But when Overall didn’t leave, the balance shifted and was forced into a new direction. The banter between Harry and Laverne, a staple in the show from the start, was moved to the back burner as Maxine and Laverne quickly became the show’s new comedy duo (reminiscent of the Barbara/Carol team of previous seasons). While Warfield’s was a perfectly likable, entertaining character, Maxine did inherit the no-nonsense antagonist position formerly filled by Laverne, who began being written as little more than a down-home hick set against the Bronx street smarts of Maxine.
The addition of Sophia, who had moved into nearby retirement home Shady Pines, was a lackluster attempt at recapturing some of the old Saturday night lineup glory. Unfortunately, Estelle Getty was moving rather slowly when she landed on Nest, leaving Sophia without the spunk that made her so popular on The Golden Girls. The character was used mainly for background and shock value, strolling in and out of the Weston house with sex jokes and sarcastic remarks. In her two years on the show, only two episodes actually centered around the Sophia character.
In a typical sitcom ploy to increase diminishing ratings, Carol, having recently ended her relationship with freeloading Patrick, suddenly discovered she was pregnant. Opting for single parenthood, she gave birth just in time for sweeps week to a son she named F. Scotty (after Fitzgerald).
All of this was evidence that Empty Nest was mining for laughs. Things were just as shaky over at the Nest spinoff Nurses, which had yet to find its footing after two years on the air. Banking on star power, producers brought on Loni Anderson to front the series, but the move didn’t interest viewers. The series was cancelled at the end of the season.
Despite being renewed for a seventh season in 1994, it was obvious that Empty Nest was coasting on fumes. Having strayed far from its original premise, the show was without many of the factors that made it such a success: the sibling rivalry of Carol and Barbara; the love/hate relationship of Harry and Laverne; and Harry’s interaction with the young patients at his pediatrics office. Being the last sitcom standing on Saturdays, it was obvious that NBC had no interest in maintaining a strong lineup. With tired writing, a horrible timeslot, and no network promotion, the season passed by almost unnoticed as the once Top Ten series fell to the bottom of the ratings list. With the end approaching, writers made way for closure throughout the season by giving both Carol and Laverne serious love interests, and Charley made the discovery that he was the father of a teenage boy.
In April of 1995, Empty Nest aired its series finale, marking the return of Kristy McNichol as Barbara. The hour-long episode took the gang to Hickory for Laverne’s wedding. A series of events including a breakup, an elopement, and a flood, culminated in a double ceremony as Carol also married her beau. After being confronted by the ghost of his late wife in a touching scene, Harry sold his house and accepted a teaching position in Vermont. In honor of the final episode, NBC placed a trade ad reading “Our nest won’t be the same without you.” It was a fitting end to a beloved series.
In the final analysis, Empty Nest was never about breaking new ground or getting on a soapbox to express views. Once referred to as “TV’s Unknown Hit Sitcom,” the show never received waves of media attention like many do, but built its success quietly. Even at its peak, Empty Nest was more easily identified by describing its characters rather than its title. It wasn’t until hearing “the show with the dog” or “that show with the doctor and his daughters who live with him” that viewers would reply, “Oh yeah, I love that show!” Despite the anonymity, Empty Nest definitely struck a cord with viewers. It was simply warm, entertaining family comedy set against the backdrop of a variety of relevant social issues including divorce, single parenthood, diabetes, gay rights, artificial insemination, gun control, and of course the empty nest syndrome. Over the course of seven years, the show produced 170 episodes, received six Emmy nominations (with one win), seven Golden Globe nominations (with one win), and three Viewers for Quality Television Awards.
With its reputation for quality, the series was able to play host to a variety of famous guests throughout its run. Danny Thomas turned in an Emmy nominated performance for what would be his final appearance. He died the night after his Empty Nest episode originally aired. Academy Award winner Lee Grant (mother of series star Dinah Manoff) dropped by as a Weston family relative. Even stars facing public scandal chose Nest to spoof their sticky situations: Zsa Zsa Gabor and her infamous cop-slapping, and Geraldo Rivera with the broken nose he suffered on an episode of his talk show. The show’s popularity also stretched beyond Hollywood and into the world of music. Legendary songstress Barbara Mandrell made a guest appearance, and superstar Garth Brooks made his acting debut on the series. Even some future celebrities honed their skills on Nest, like Friends star Matthew Perry.
So after a nice seven-year run, where is the cast of Empty Nest now? After his stint as Harry Weston, Richard Mulligan continued to make appearances on television and in films before losing his battle against colon cancer. He died in September of 2000. Kristy McNichol retired from acting after leaving Nest. She has taught drama at a Los Angeles school and hosts an annual charity tennis tournament. Dinah Manoff won critical raves in the 2001-2002 cable series State of Grace and continues to act, write, and direct. David Leisure has done a variety of films, television guest appearances, and commercials. Park Overall has starred in two more sitcoms, three films for the Lifetime cable network, and most recently turned up in a recurring role on the popular series Reba. What does the future hold for Empty Nest itself? After making the rounds in syndication throughout the late nineties, reruns of the show have disappeared from the air, the only remnant of the Westons being those Golden Girls crossovers. Given that show’s immense popularity (it’s currently one of the highest rated sitcoms airing in reruns), along with the recent wave of TV show reunions and DVD releases, hopes remain high that “The Show with the Dog” will soon reemerge as strong as it ever was.