68. "Slow Donnie," Just Shoot Me! (1999)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Last year, Maclean's TV critic Jaime Weinman wrote a post called "Unmemorable Show, Memorable Episode." It's about an installment of a now-obscure sitcom called Day by Day in which one character dreams of living with the much better-known Brady Bunch:
I enjoyed that episode so much at the time that when my parents asked me what shows I liked watching, I mentioned Day By Day — but specified that it was only for that one episode; I wasn’t into it at all otherwise, and I don’t think I even watched it more than once again before it was canceled. Later when internet discussion of TV took off, I discovered that many people had the same reaction: they couldn’t remember anything about the show, but they remembered that one episode with the Brady Bunch. The dream sequence is still pretty funny to me, especially the coffee running gag and Maureen McCormick’s delivery of the line “Chuck Brady, this means war!”
My immediate thought: David Cross singing, "Chicken pot, chicken pot, chicken pot pie!"
None of this mattered when series creator Steven Levitan let Cross, previously of Mr. Show and later of Arrested Development, take over an episode. Cross plays Donnie (the brother of a regular character), who has been rendered "slow" since falling out of a tree as a teenager. At first, he's just obnoxious, throwing food on the floor and asking strangers for "green quarters" (i.e., paper money). Then, only because he wants to sleep with her, he reveals to Maya that he's faking his disability:
Donnie: (sing-song voice) Donnie has secret. Promise not to tell anybody?
Maya: I promise.
Donnie: You swear? Cross your heart?
Maya: Cross my heart.
Donnie: On a stalk of bible books?
Maya: I swear.
Donnie: (normal voice) Okay, here's the thing. I'm not really slow. I just faked falling off that tree, and now they wait on me hand and foot. It is the sweetest scam in the world.
This is a breaking a big taboo in sitcoms, where dimiwittedness almost always means a lack of guile and the ability to teach other characters Important Things about themselves. Imagine Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Jim from Taxi, Coach from Cheers, or Erin from The Office suddenly dropping the silly voice to admit that it's all an act. (The closest I can think of is Sam pulling out a pipe and telling Diane that his dumb jock persona is a pretense for his blue-collar clientele on Cheers, but that turns out to be part of "Diane's Nightmare.")
Cross, who has played a variety of characters whose stupidity or stubbornness is more creepy than endearing, is a perfect fit for the role, especially as he keeps turning on and off his "slowness."
Maya: I think what you're doing is terrible.
Donnie: What's the big deal?
Maya: It's demeaning to people with real problems.
Donnie: Demeaning? No, it's an homage!
Donnie is eventually done in by his inability to tolerate the unforced stupidity of George Segal's character. Part of me wishes that he had stuck around for a few more episodes, but if the "Slow Donnie" story had been stretched out, we might not remember any episodes of Just Shoot Me!
• I knew I wanted the Top 100 list to include an instance where a guest star elevated a less-than-classic show. Another possibility was "The Pickle Jar" episode of Hung, in which the fabulous Margo Martindale plays a client of the male prostitute referenced in the show's title, but the serialized nature of the show limits Martindale's screen time.
•Any list of top episode stealers would also have to include Philip Baker Hall in Seinfeld's "The Library" (see clip here). I also got a kick out of Mary Wickes in Sanford and Son's "The Light Housekeeper." Any more you can think of?