Commentary : 'Wings' Flies High on a Fun Situation When Its Writing Isn't Sputtering


Despite several changes in NBC flight plans, "Wings" has distinguished itself as the little plane that could.

Since its April 19, 1990, premiere as a spring replacement series, "Wings" has endured more turbulence than a jetliner battling wind shear.

The 30-minute comedy has shuttled back and forth between Thursday and Friday nights, endured short hauls on the prime-time schedule and still managed to fly over a crowded hangar of network comedies.

The season-ender was a cliffhanger. But network executives did not leave "Wings" circling the NBC runway. In one of the network's earliest pickup announcements for the '92 fall schedule, "Wings" was renewed March 9.

Being brought back for a fourth season was due in part to good ratings. For the 1991-92 season that ended April 12, "Wings" ranked 19th out of 106 prime-time broadcasts.

Another motivating factor in the series' renewal was its manufacturer, Paramount Studios. Paramount provides NBC with "Cheers," the network's top-rated comedy.

Big Three executives never upset the suppliers of their biggest hits if they can help it.

Currently seen Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., "Wings" holds the enviable time slot immediately following "Cheers" and directly in front of "L.A. Law."

By network sitcom standards, the premise of "Wings" is avant-garde. There are no cute kids, no eternally nice moms and dads and no dimwitted stereotypes.

Well, not quite. The character of maintenance man Lowell Mather is not the brightest of bulbs.

"Wings" concerns two opposite-minded brothers--strait-laced Joe Hackett and his free-spirited sibling, Brian--and their puddle-jumper airline on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket.

Inhabiting the tiny airport where the brothers park their plane is an odd assortment of characters including Helen (Crystal Bernard), a failed concert cellist now slinging hash over the lunch counter, and Faye (Rebecca Schull), an ex-stewardess currently employed at the ticket counter.

Though its plot is above average, "Wings" often descends to the standard sitcom gimmicks of formulaic writing and flat one-liners.

The season finale followed an unlikely set of circumstances that landed Helen in the second cello chair of Boston's Symphony Orchestra.

Sample dialogue:

"You know me," said the jumpsuit-clad mechanic, Lowell, "any excuse to put on a monkey suit. Or is this one of those things where you need a tuxedo?"

Gushed Helen, "It just doesn't get any better than this."

Yes it does. Unfortunately not in this half hour.

The closest approach to humor occurred in a single exchange between Joe Hackett (played by Tim Daly, brother of actress Tyne Daly) and Lowell (played by Thomas Haden Church).

Joe: "Sometimes ignorance is bliss."

Lowell: "It's not as good as losing consciousness."

The best moments in this 2-year-old series have come in the form of cameo roles.

Television's "Cagney & Lacey" co-star and Broadway's "Gypsy" headliner Tyne Daly appeared in an episode last year. Iran-Contra scandal figure Lt. Col. Oliver North played himself in an installment. "Cheers" regulars Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth also have visited.

The season-ender found the cast of "Wings" preparing to land in the drink when the plane's engines failed en route to Helen's Boston debut.

Despite the show's longevity and good ratings, let us hope that more than the cast of this series is rescued when "Wings" returns next season.

Faced with death and missing her big break, a despondent Helen moaned, "This isn't supposed to be happening. This is supposed to be the biggest night of my life." Heavy sigh. "Sometimes you can really feel like a pawn in the hands of fate."

Or a prisoner of bad writing.

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