Cast: Richard Mulligan as Dr. Harry Weston | Kristy McNichol as Barbara Weston | Dinah Manoff as Carol Weston | David Leisure as Charley Dietz | Park Overall as Nurse Laverne Todd | Paul Provenza as Patrick Arcola | Lisa Rieffel as Emily Weston | Bear as Dreyfuss
Ratings: #45 (10.96 million viewers)
Season five is one of change for Empty Nest. A principal cast member flies the coop, two new characters are added to the mix, two of the show’s stars (Richard Mulligan and David Leisure) face real-life divorce and another faces serious injury. But, despite it all, as a whole this underrated season manages to produce a batch of excellent episodes.
After four seasons of losing out in love, Carol finally lands a steady boyfriend. Much of the season focuses on her relationship with eccentric artist Patrick Arcola, played by newcomer Paul Provenza. As Harry’s shiftless sprinkler man, Patrick already isn’t on the doctor’s good side, and when word gets out of his relationship with Carol, the trouble begins. It only worsens when, after his apartment building is condemned, Carol persuades a reluctant Harry to let Patrick move into the garage. After finding the two in bed together, Harry tries his best to keep the lovebirds apart.
Carol and Patrick develop a fun chemistry as they sneak around behind her father’s back. A struggling artist, Carol is fascinated by Patrick’s offbeat insights but doesn’t always understand the meaning of his sculptures. Her jealousy often gets the best of her, such as when she becomes convinced that Patrick thinks her too fat after finding him sketching a gorgeous nude model and begins a quest to lose weight. Patrick, on the other hand, isn’t always thrilled to follow along with Carol’s whims. In one episode, she forces him to attend a Halloween party in a skin-tight neon green body suit as “Radium” alongside her Madame Curie.
Five episodes into the season, Kristy McNichol leaves the show to better care for her health. At first, Barbara is said to be on vacation, then undercover assignment. While still hopeful that Kristy will be able to return, producers begin casting the role of Emily, Harry’s youngest daughter who has been away at college since the show began. Lisa Rieffel, 17 at the time, wins the part of the adventurous 23-year-old Emily and makes her debut midseason. Her independent nature and globetrotting lifestyle do not always sit well with Harry and Carol. Carol, while extremely jealous of Emily’s perfect life, tries to instill in her kid sister a sense of maturity, coming off as a mother hen and driving Emily out of her mind. Meanwhile, whenever Harry attempts to discipline his daughter, he ends up caving in after her doe-eyed innocence gets the best of him.
Despite all the shakeups, Dinah Manoff (who also makes her directorial debut with the episode “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”) manages to shine this season as Carol becomes more outrageously neurotic than ever. She adamantly pickets a plastics company and tries her best to get arrested, but then changes her tune when Patrick tells her the toilets in jail have no stalls. Feeling guilty after sentencing a man to prison during jury duty, she tries to redeem herself by hiring a manipulative convict to help with her catering business. When Dreyfuss starts giving her the silent treatment after Carol scolds him, she consults an animal psychologist but ends up driving the woman mad when she turns their meeting into her own therapy session.
Carol isn’t the only one looking for love this year. After spending an evening with Barbara, Charley develops a massive crush on her at the start of the season. Newly divorced Laverne reenters the dating scene when Barbara fixes her up with a coroner’s assistant. Inexperienced when it comes to dating, she convinces herself she is in love after their first night out. An old friend reenters Harry’s life but the two realize their relationship is more platonic than passionate. Later, he is overwhelmed when Laverne fixes him up with her overbearing, loud-mouthed friend, played by country music legend Barbara Mandrell.
Holiday themed episodes are prominent this season. The aforementioned Halloween show finds Harry as Count Docula and Laverne as the Wicked Witch of the South trying to upstage one another while giving out candy at Laverne’s apartment, while a costumed Carol and Patrick get mugged by a gang of street thugs. At Thanksgiving, the Westons disagree over the details of a disastrous dinner two years before, in which the turkey caught fire, resulting in a holiday feast at Denny’s. Finally, Ursula Dietz arrives to spend Mother’s Day with Charley, who is shocked to find out that his parents have gotten a divorce.
In other memorable episodes, the Westons appear on Geraldo, which results in Harry breaking the host’s nose; Emily goes undercover for the FBI to nab her jewel-smuggling boyfriend; Harry and Charley end up broke and stranded during a trip to Las Vegas; and Carol drives herself and Harry to the verge of insanity when she becomes convinced that Patrick and Emily are having an affair.
With all the changes in the show, as well as the revamped Saturday night lineup – minus the beloved Golden Girls – Nest begins to dip in the ratings over the course of the year, finishing the season at number 45 – the first time the show failed to make the top 25 in ratings. Kristy McNichol is missed, especially the comic antics between her and Manoff. By spring, the next season is already looking shaky. Park Overall, who spends several episodes on crutches after breaking her leg in a skating accident, is rumored to be leaving the series (there is even talk of a Laverne Todd spinoff that never materializes), so her return for season six is up in the air, as is Kristy’s, whose absence looks to be permanent.