Alex Desért

Becker (1998) s01e14 – Larry Spoke

This episode of “Becker” has Steven Wright guest starring, so even though it’s not the best writing for Steven Wright, it’s still at least great whenever Wright is on screen.

Wright’s a new patient of Ted Danson’s who hears God. God’s name is Larry and Larry tells Steven Wright to repaint his apartment all the time. Not the funniest situation, but Wright makes it great. It’s actually sort of strange to see some middling plot device so perfectly executed as Wright doesn’t seem very CBS sitcom at all. He’s in jarring contrast to the rest of the show, even when the rest of the show is totally serviceable.

In addition to Wright, Danson’s dealing with a slowly dying patient, Nathan Davis, and the patient’s impatient yuppie daughter, Mary-Joan Negro. It’s not a funny subplot, but a depressing one and it’s borderline unpleasant. Especially juxtaposed against the absurdity of Wright on this show.

The episode also has Hattie Winston and Shawnee Smith stopping in at Terry Farrell’s diner for the first time. Almost more interesting—they all just talk about how obnoxious it is to deal with Danson—it also implies something about Winston and Smith’s life outside the workplace. They walk to the train together, at least on this day, which is kind of nice. Especially since Winston and Smith are in the middle of this C plot about Smith keeping a nice jacket her dry cleaner gave to her by accident.

Though the end of the episode is a little too much; all of a sudden wants to comment on Danson’s apparent atheism versus everyone else’s religiosity. Sure, Wright’s plot brings in the discussion of God… but it’s not like it’s a great concept or anything. It’s great because it’s Steven Wright doing a sitcom guest spot playing Steven Wright. His comebacks are consistently hilarious throughout the episode. The holier than thou finale really misses Wright, who doesn’t get to participate. He’s already had his big finale. The rest is regular cast wrap-up.

Still, there are a lot of solid laughs throughout. Thanks to Wright, yes, but also some with Winston and Smith.

Maybe if Danson were more enthusiastic about the hard drama stuff with Negro, but he’s still sitcom star here.

Uneven or not, it’s nice to have the laughs.

Becker (1998) s01e13 – Becker the Elder

Whenever an episode of “Becker” starts, I hold my breath until the writing credit comes up. This one’s from series creator Dave Hackel, who likes doing the Ted Danson is a master doctor and basically right bastard; the episode opens with him ranting about little people. And even though it’s 1998 or whatever, they know it’s wrong because Alex Désert comments on it. Little bit later Danson’s making fun of how his Hispanic patient talks. So when “Becker” is being icky just to be icky, it’s in Hackel’s line. Andy Ackerman does do a solid directing job, however, because it’s Andy Ackerman.

The episode’s about Becker’s dad, Dick Van Dyke, coming through town. Van Dyke ran out on the family when Danson was eleven and Danson’s never forgiven him. Van Dyke’s never really asked for forgiveness either—until this very special episode, which isn’t even trying to be funny unless you count Hackel punching down (no blind or Black jokes about Désert so apparently someone said there were limits)—but since Hackel writes Becker like a complete Dick, who cares if Van Dyke had a reason to run out or whatever. It’s a waste of Van Dyke as a guest star and rather concerning the show creator hasn’t figured out when the show works.

There’s actually some decent stuff with Hattie Winston and Shawnee Smith, with Smith making Winston laugh, which is at least something pleasant. Because despite Van Dyke being a lovable career salesman, the show positions him as a deceptive dick (no pun) and then walks it back, then forward, then back, then shrugs it off and goes out on a character building moment for Danson.

Of course, Danson is an asshole so who cares. It’s okay he’s an asshole, however, because he treats a guy living on the street—apparently for free—but whatever. Sitcom is an abbreviation for a situation comedy. This episode is a very light, very thin situational drama. I watched the show because I wanted to laugh.

Nope, not this time.

Becker (1998) s01e12 – Love! Lies! Bleeding!

Either I made the comment you knew “Becker” was troubled when not even a solid sitcom director like Andy Ackerman could make an episode work or I meant to make that comment. This episode has Ackerman back and, this time, he’s able to compensate for some of writer Michael Markowitz’s stumbles. Not the misogynist stuff with Alex Désert but there are only so many miracles one can work. So, this episode’s the Valentine’s Day episode and Ted Danson hates Valentine’s Day. He has a rant about its suspect history, which doesn’t seem—based on a Wikipedia glance—to be accurate. If Danson’s going to rant about something, he’s got to be right. Otherwise he’s just a blowhard. The point is he’s right, not he’s a blowhard. Or at least when it works.

But it doesn’t work with Désert or Terry Farrell this episode. Danson implies Désert’s girlfriend is ugly and Désert freaks out, the unspoken joke (for a while) Désert’s blind so what does he care. He cares because he’s a misogynist and so’s Danson. Joy. When Danson later comforts a female patient, it takes a moment before he’s obviously sincere. For a second, you’re expecting him to dig in and humiliate her because… it’s a laugh somehow? At least in Markowitz’s mind.

The episode is Danson running into different kinds of Valentine’s Day goings on, but not specific to the holiday, just romance in general. There’s the girlfriend who stabs the cheating boyfriend, there’s the teenager who wants a vasectomy so he can have unsafe sex, there’s the female patient, who’s allergic to roses. Curmudgeon Danson just can’t get away from signs of love, not even at the office where Shawnee Smith has a whole relationship in one day over the phone (minus the consummating, which might be for the best but also maybe not) and Hattie Winston gets to… talk about her offscreen plans and shake her head at Smith and Danson. Not a great episode for Winston. Or Smith. But Smith at least gets material.

The episode’s got some successful moments, including the return of Saverio Guerra, whose every moment is fantastic. He’s back to torment Farrell and probably a little worse of a guy than Danson and Désert, but not much.

The show’s bottom is higher than before, which is good.

Becker (1998) s01e11 – Scriptus Interruptus

I feel a little like one of those jokes about training an AI to write something because this episode of “Becker”—specifically how I write about it—is going to be very similar to the last time I wrote about an episode of “Becker” written by Ian Gurvitz.

I thought having Andy Ackerman directing would make a difference. Nope. It’s still a very Gurvitz episode. Ted Danson’s rants have that sensational edge to them. Sensational versus inspired. It’s also weird because last episode Danson supposedly learned he didn’t like it when people stopped wanting him as a doctor because of his mouth. This episode doesn’t acknowledge any change.

Also bad with Gurvitz is whatever he’s doing with Terry Farrell. Moving her around, giving her bad lines, it’s a real bummer because she was starting to get her comedy bravado down and instead she’s floundering again. But because of the script having jack for her.

The script’s also got jack for Hattie Winston, which seems weird because the show knows Winston’s awesome. The show—Gurvitz even I’m fairly sure—has showcased her. She gets jack here. Shawnee Smith ostensibly gets more—she’s in between apartments and has to live in the medical office—but she doesn’t actually get more. She’s just around a little more than usual. Not leading scenes around or having a subplot around, just physically around. To give Danson a yelling target.

The episode’s about Danson having to write a medical article and not being able to get any solitude to do so. Spoiler, he pulls it out of his ass, because “Becker” is arguably a more adept version of, you know, “House M.D.” He’s a brilliant jackass. Please laugh.

Alex Désert gets a subplot with Kenna J. Ramsey. Ramsey wants to move in together, Désert doesn’t. It’s a subplot set entirely in the diner, somewhere else for the camera to go when Danson and Farrell are taking a break from expository banter.

It’s not an endearing subplot.

Elya Baskin’s fun as Danson’s new super. It’s a silly, lazy bit but he’s still fun.

This show is so rocky. It’s way too inconsistent, quality-wise. Sure, people watched it once a week but it’s not like you’d care about tuning in after a couple stinkers.

Relatively, obviously, for a generally well-acted and competently produced sitcom. I just want it to get better. Or at least less inconsistent in its mediocre.

Becker (1998) s01e10 – P.C. World

There are some weird optics to P.C. World. You’ve got Ted Danson, who just six years earlier burned out due to a really bad public blackface incident and is coming back with this “Becker” show, reformed. Now, Danson’s gone on to be one of the least problematic Hollywood liberals and a damn fine actor, but in 1999… Danson getting to aha an East Coast liberal type (Robert Joy) on the radio? It was optics.

See, Joy was at Danson’s breakfast place and heard Danson yelling about how he hates rap music, making fun of Alex Désert’s blindness and possibly through in a Black jab (related to the rap music?), and saying “you people” to the Asian American guy (Phil Nee) who has just hit Danson’s bar. Now, we all know it’s okay because Danson’s not racist, he’s just an exceptional asshole. It would probably would better if writer Michael Markowitz’s rants were better or Jeff Melman’s direction was better. Markowitz also appears as the radio show host interviewing Danson and Joy. He’s more fun as an actor.

Then there’s this whole subplot about Hattie Winston being okay with Shawnee Smith selling cosmetics from the doctor’s office because Smith’s got the skin care secrets now. I’d think there’d be some kind of ethical violation, patients rights or something, especially since Smith’s doing it in one of those direct selling pyramid schemes. The subplot gives Smith one of her biggest focuses in the series so far, but it’s not a good subplot. It’s not a good focus. She’s fine, but she’s just being silly—as she becomes the make-up “dealer”—not funny or even good. It’s a waste of a subplot. Versus the waste of a main plot.

“Becker” had shown some major improvements the previous couple of episodes, but this episode learned none of their positive lessons. The misanthropy vs. bigotry thing ends up being a cop out, which is weird since the best scene in the episode is when Black man Earl Billings stops going to doctor Danson because of Danson’s bravado.

It’s like someone said, hey, maybe let’s take this seriously. And then someone else said, no, let’s have Danson stick it to the performative liberal.

Zing.

Becker (1998) s01e09 – Choose Me

It hadn’t occurred to me some of “Becker”’s problem so far might have been direction. I rarely think about sitcom (the three-camera style) direction. They’re just going through the same kinds of shots over and over. But then again, maybe some of the directors are infinitely better with the format and the actors. Case in point, Choose Me is immediately divine, both in direction (Andy Ackerman) and writing (Marsha Myers). It’s funny from the start, without going in too hard on any of the characters (or even supporting cast). The show’s immediately got a better sense of itself. I wonder if Myers and Ackerman team up again; fingers crossed.

This episode’s about Terry Farrell getting hockey tickets and deciding to torture Becker (Ted Danson) and Jake (Alex Désert) over who gets to go with her. She’s finally got personality, gumption, a sense of humor. It’s a really nice, really immediate turn for the positive.

So that’s the A plot, then Danson’s got a B plot involving a disease he can’t crack no matter what he tries (including turning his hookup with fellow doc Colleen Quinn—who’s really good for someone almost no credits—into a cram session), while Farrell and Désert are contending with the return of Bob (Saverio Guerra). Guerra’s phenomenal. His absurdity brings the show a very nice sense of balance. When Danson mocks someone, it’s usually just a regular guy. Guerra’s a caricature of a caricature of a jackass. So when he’s a target, it’s just works better.

Yes, it does suggest some of the key to “Becker” is finding the right person to mob and bully, but… it’s a sitcom and Guerra’s an intentional creep (though not too much of a creeper).

Hattie Winston and Shawnee Smith are mostly just occasional support for Danson, but Winston’s got an amazing flight attendant bit. She’s always about to laugh too, but pulls it in. I wonder if Winston did it in the first take or if she lost it. It’s a great scene. She’s awesome. And Smith has a really good scene at the end.

Myers and Ackerman make all the difference.

Becker (1998) s01e08 – Physician, Heal Thyself

It’s distressing how little writer Ian Gurvitz handles Alex Désert’s Jake character. Last credited episode he didn’t do anything with except make blind jokes. This time Désert gets more to do, but barely—we see his apartment, partially, for the first time—and it’s not funny. And I think there’s an opening blind joke because when I saw Gurvitz’s name I made a groan and had it almost immediately validated by something in the script.

But then something happens—the show starts getting really, really funny. Becker (Ted Danson) has a hurt back and he doesn’t want to go to the doctor, because of course he doesn’t. It gives the show a chance to literally knock Danson over and laugh at him. And it’s really good at laughing at him. Even more, Danson’s really good at being laughed at. He’s really good playing the obnoxious stooge. He keeps throwing his back out and needing help from the rest of the cast—I suppose, technically, they’re on their way to being “friends” but… Weird thing, he doesn’t call Shawnee Smith, which is too bad. When he throws out his back the worst, he tries Désert (for his one shot subplot), Hattie Winston (who’s got a strange, problematic subplot about her workplace flirting with fellow married John Cothran, which ends up giving Smith funny moments but not Winston), and, finally, Terry Farrell. Farrell, who drags Becker to an acupuncturist for the big punchline scene.

The show’s definitely improving. So is Farrell. She’s still having trouble with her comic delivery, but her timing is a lot better. She’s a lot more likable, which also might be because she’s not stuck behind the literal counter this episode.

And who knew Danson would be so good a sitcom slapstick. He’s fantastic this episode.

Becker (1998) s01e07 – City Lights

Once again… I’m wondering how long it takes for “Becker” to start getting really good. I remember it being really good at some points. Like whole seasons.

This episode’s all about the streetlight outside Ted Danson’s apartment flickering and him trying to get it fixed. He’s not going to get the city to do anything because bureaucracy, am I right, and he can’t get his neighbors to help him because he’s been so terrible to them. Meanwhile, Shawnee Smith brings her dog to work; she and Hattie Winston get that very strange subplot. Though I guess it does give Winston more to do than sit around and react to Danson. She gets to walk around and react to Smith.

Second-billed Terry Farrell (and whatever billed Alex Désert) don’t show up five or so minutes in, long enough you forgot they were supposed to be in the show. Désert doesn’t get a subplot but Farrell gets a classical music concert one with Danson. It’s dropped in, not relating to Danson’s main plot.

If the subplots played the cast to their strengths, it might make sense. They don’t. Ostensibly Danson all riled up over city bureaucracy is a slam dunk but no. Russ Woody’s script lacks any of the charm Danson’s been finding in the character to this point.

Smith and Winston get different kind of comedy to do than usual but nothing like what they’re best at doing. Farrell’s just around, Désert’s less than around, the butt of jokes. It’s also unclear how the “Becker” timeline works because Désert seems unfamiliar with Danson’s relationship with Farrell’s (dead) father. The father owned the diner where Danson went so when Farrell takes it over, Danson keeps going. But apparently Désert wasn’t part of the diner… or Danson and the dead father were just terrible to him.

It could be either one, but where’s the show bible. Désert’s the worst-defined character; he needs all the consistency he can get.

It’s got to start getting better soon. Otherwise… I’m not sure I can make it.

Becker (1998) s01e06 – Man Plans, God Laughs

Writer Ian Gurvitz starts off with a bad joke at Alex Désert’s blind guy’s expense, which Désert doesn’t really essay very well either. Funny how the Becker (Ted Danson) rant was the most distinguishing thing in the first three episodes—at least recurring distinguishing thing—and now it’s tired and we’re only six episodes in. Who knew you actually needed content for rants.

Anyway, Gurvitz recovers somewhat with a rather touchy-feely episode about Danson palling up with patient John Slattery; they both like sports. Only Hattie Winston gets sick and she needs the day off, leaving Shawnee Smith to run things. Danson spends the day—or montage (at best, it’s mostly just good Smith moments)—worrying he’s not going to make it to a game with Slattery.

Meanwhile at the diner, Saverio Guerra plays a high school classmate of Terry Farrell’s who comes back to mock her for her station in life. See, she teased Guerra in high school and now he’s back to make her feel bad. It’s a weird subplot. Guerra’s funny. He’s a jerk, but he’s funny. Kind of bad when you have the diner, which has two regular cast members, and they needed to bring in a guest star to get some laughs. “Becker” has got such a weird split between the diner and the doctor’s office.

The end has some heartfelt stuff for Winston and Danson, which is fine. It’s a little saccharine but it gives them both different material than usual and they’re both great so… yay.

Becker (1998) s01e05 – My Dinner With Becker

It's Becker (Ted Danson) on a blind date. Danson lets himself get set up after some razzing from Terry Farrell, who's got a wonderful new boyfriend (Brian Cousins).

Cousins is a big sweetie, who treats Farrell and everyone else with respect and kindness. He does wear shorts–he's a UPS driver, apparently–and is just the kind of guy Becker would love to tease. So Becker teases him–Teresa O'Neill's teleplay has some great jokes–but then has to put up or shut up when it comes to his own dating life.

Enter Sandra Guibord, who he initially likes because she's hot, but then discovers she's into all sorts of basic things and he just can't. What makes the date scene interesting is Danson isn't mean to her, in fact he does his best not to be overly cruel. He understands himself well enough to know he shouldn't be there. That scene's juxtaposed against Farrell and Cousins out on a date and Farrell seeing the world through Becker-colored cynicism. How will Cousins react? Who cares.

Even though Farrell's good on the episode, she's straight-man to the joke good. She's get in some sarcastic response to Danson good. She's not lead her own comic subplot good.

Similarly Alex Désert's timing is a little off; though Danson being cruel to him is kind of hard to time well.

Shawnee Smith has a great C or D plot. "Becker"'s got an odd structure with the days starting in the diner, then going to the office, then getting into Becker's out-of-work life, sometimes with return trips to the diner (because there's supposed to be building chemistry between Farrell and Danson, which sure ain't happening yet). But there's nothing more for Smith or Hattie Winston once Danson abandons work. Similarly Désert's cut off when there's no one in the diner.

The show feels a little cramped by limited locations. Though when they branch out it's problematic–the restaurant set for Danson's date is distractingly bad.

O'Neill's script is maybe the all-around best so far on the show. Not the most laughs, but she at least seems to get how to make Becker function believably with other people.

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