Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 16, 2007)
When movies transfer from the big screen to the small, they usually lose something in the translation. Very few flicks have adapted smoothly to the TV setting, so most come and go quickly, and the majority remain in the shadows of their cinematic brethren. M*A*S*H is undeniably the biggest hit of this genre; indeed, I expect more people remain the series than recall the Robert Altman movie. Though not as legendary as M*A*S*H, Alice also may inspire more glimmers of recognition than the Scorsese effort that preceded it.
Of all the TV shows based on movies, in my book, there’s only one that I think clearly outdoes its inspiration: The Odd Couple. It almost becomes apples and oranges to compare the film and TV versions of M*A*S*H and Alice, as both come with distinctly different tones. That’s doesn’t occur in the same way for the two sides of Couple. Both the series and the 1968 flick presented similar kinds of comedy.
Only the TV show did it better, as we can see with this DVD release of the series’ first season. This set compiles all 24 episodes from the program’s inaugural 1970-71 outing. I’ll look at them in the order broadcast, which is how they appear on the DVDs. The plot synopses come straight from the package.
The Laundry Orgy: “Oscar and Felix’s first date with their ditzy neighbors the Pigeon Sisters is a total disaster… with poker, laundry night and Felix’s cleaning all getting in the way.”
“Orgy” provides a surprisingly aggressive pilot episode. Usually this kind of program would give us a recap of the situation and introduce us to the characters. I guess the folks behind the series figured we already knew what to expect, as Felix, Oscar and their pals all come fully formed. (Or maybe not – later in Season One, the opening credits would include a recap of how Felix and Oscar became roommates.)
I don’t know if that put off the audience back in 1970, but it allows “Orgy” to become one of the better pilots I’ve seen. Most of the time, series start slowly and need a while to come together, but “Orgy” fires pretty well right off the bat. The script packs in lots of funny little moments – like Felix’s admiration for Grace Kelly because she’s “neat” – and never slows the pace. It’s a great leadoff episode with more wit in its first seven minutes than found in full programs of most series.
The Fight of the Felix: “After Oscar gets into a fight with a hockey player, Felix tries to stand up for his roommate but ends up in the boxing ring instead.”
“Fight” comes with an awfully “high concept” premise, as the idea of Felix in the boxing ring could become silly and precious. Happily, the episode mines its material for laughs without any qualms. Most of the humor derives from Felix’s prissy antics in the ring, and the bright dialogue helps make this a strong show.
Felix Gets Sick: “Felix comes down with a 48-hour flu bug and guilts Oscar into taking care of him, ruining Oscar’s weekend with a beautiful stewardess.”
Like “Fight”, “Sick” takes a very simple concept and milks comedy from the characters. For once, we feel worse for Felix than for Oscar. Sure, Unger’s a pain in Madison’s side, but it’s not his fault. That factor makes “Sick” a little less effective than usual; the humor fares best when we identify with Oscar’s annoyance. Nonetheless, we get more than a smattering of funny moments in this generally good program.
The Jury Story: “One night, Oscar and Felix tell the Pigeon Sisters how they first met. Oscar was the foreman on a jury and sure enough, Felix was the lone holdout.”
For the series’ first flashback program, we get a fun look at how our heroes originally got to know each other. It also acts as a cool nod to Twelve Angry Men, one of Klugman’s best-known film roles. Flashback shows can be hit or miss, but this one’s terrific.
The Breakup: “After a big fight, Oscar kicks Felix out for good. And while Felix moves from apartment to apartment, Oscar can’t help but notice that his life is going downhill.”
“Jury” gave us a hint of how irritating Felix can be as a roommate, and “Breakup” explores those comedic possibilities to a greater degree. Indeed, it gives us greater admiration for Oscar’s ability to put up with Felix’s nuttiness. All his antics make the program a delight.
Oscar’s Ulcer: “When the doctor tells Oscar he has a stomach ulcer, Felix plays nursemaid for one week. His three rules? No stress, no poker and no women!”
I don’t know if I’d call “Ulcer” a great episode, but we do find a terrific guest character: Marilyn, the bimbo who loves to call everything “plastic”. The rest of the show works fine as well, but I maintain a particular soft spot for Plastic Marilyn. Oh, and we also meet the delightfully sardonic Dr. Melnitz, a new – and hilarious – occasional character.
I Do, I Don’t: “During a wedding rehearsal, best man Felix recalls his own marriage and divorce, causing the groom to get cold feet and call off the wedding.”
Some good guest performances help make “Do” a fun show. Joyce Van Patten’s work as Phyllis gets the episode off to a great start; she pulls off her character’s insecurity and anger to hilarious effect. George Furth’s Harvey is also an amusing schlub. “Do” provides another of this season’s solid programs.
Casting footnote: look for Richard Stahl as the minister. This is the first of his many, many appearances on the show, all in different roles.
Oscar the Model: “When a young ad exec sees a photo of Oscar, he claims to have found a fresh face and orders Felix to use him in a big cologne campaign.”
How fun is it to see a young Albert Brooks as the slick hipster ad exec? Lots of fun, indeed, and the concept of sloppy Oscar as a fashion model adds lots of comedy to the proceedings. We find many sparks between Oscar and Felix as they attempt to work together, and all these elements combine into a strong episode.
The Big Brothers: “After volunteering for the Big Brothers program, Felix tries to impress a little boy with his knowledge of the arts. But the kid is more impressed with Oscar.”
Is it possible to imagine a less exciting “Big Brother” than Felix? Yeah, I guess, but it seems unlikely. That fact makes “Brother” a winner, especially as Felix micro-manages young Randy’s behavior.
It’s All Over Now, Baby Bird: “When Felix’s beloved parrot dies, he has trouble finding a final resting place for it. But then he and Oscar visit a pet cemetery, where a funeral is planned.”
“Bird” suffers a little from Sitcom Convenience Syndrome. If Felix loves Albert the parrot so much, why did we hear nothing about him until now? Because he didn’t exist until the series’ producers decided upon this plot device.
Nonetheless, “Bird” presents many laughs and actually makes Felix sympathetic for once. As a pet-lover myself, I can totally understand his feelings toward his dead bird. That doesn’t mean that Oscar’s callous behavior is any less funny, though. I’m not wild about the plot convenience factor, but this is still a good program.
Felix Is Missing: “When Felix flies to Canada for work without leaving word, his poker buddies assume he’s dead, and Oscar is accused of foul play.”
After so many good shows, I suppose a relative dud becomes inevitable. While I wouldn’t call “Missing” a bad program, it doesn’t inspire a lot of big laughs. Even with another appearance from Albert Brooks, it comes across as relatively average for the series.
Scrooge Gets an Oscar: “Oscar refuses to act in a benefit performance of A Christmas Carol, then has nightmares that he is the character of Scrooge in the classic holiday tale.”
“Scrooge” stretches credulity at times, as Oscar behaves in a manner that seems to be unrealistically mean-spirited. Despite that weakness, “Scrooge” presents a funny twist on the traditional holiday tale. The best part comes from the auditions from the poker buddies as Scrooge; these are hilarious and make the episode.
The Blackout: “During poker night, there is a power outage and $50 is stolen. Oscar is the prime suspect, so he insists on recreating the crime to prove he is innocent.”
Some of the first season’s best moments come from the gang’s poker games, and the challenges created by the criminal drama help make the scenario even more winning. Of course, we know Oscar will prove his innocence, but the path the episode takes to get there manifests a lot of amusement. This turns into another winner, and it even offers the first of many times Felix will moan “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!”
They Use Horseradish, Don’t They?: “Even though Oscar divulged a secret recipe to a competitor at a cooking contest, Felix still needs his help. Felix’s nerves have caused his arms to go stiff!”
“Horseradish” loses some points due to weak casting. Recipe thief Barbara really isn’t particularly attractive, so it becomes tough to see her as a femme fatale. Still, the show uses the cooking competition for some good laughs, especially when Felix’s neuroses create the expected problems.
The Hideaway: “An Alaskan football player is a houseguest while Oscar negotiates his contract. But then Felix discovers he’s a cellist and urges him to give up sports.”
This episode offers a good demonstration of what makes The Odd Couple work. It takes a slightly skewed view of the universe with its Eskimo athlete and derives humor from its subtle gags. This isn’t a series – or an episode – packed with broad moments, as it prefers understated amusement. It does so well and turns into a very fine program.
Lovers Don’t Make House Calls: “Felix needs a doctor in the middle of the night. So when pretty Dr. Nancy Cunningham arrives at the door, Oscar is smitten and asks her out.”
Most shows would throw out love interests who seem too hot for men of such humble physical charms. However, The Odd Couple doesn’t go down that path, and as played by Joan Hotchkis, Nancy is an attractive but fully believable match for Oscar. Their initial stabs at romance generate a sweetness not typical for a sitcom, and those elements make “Lovers” a charming, enjoyable episode. It lacks the skewed humor of something like “Hideaway”, but it’s a winner in its own right.
Engrave Trouble: “When his ex-wife’s watch is stolen from a jewelry store, Felix lets Oscar contact his shady underworld friends to try and get it back.”
While many Odd Couple bits make me laugh, this episode contains one of the funniest: Randall’s hyperventilating when forced to talk to Gloria on the phone. That’s another example of Randall’s genius, as he takes a small moment and makes it utterly hilarious. Excellent writing with great performances allows “Engrave” to delight.
Bunny Is Missing Down By the Lake: “Oscar brings a depressed Felix up to his cabin, where a pretty camp counselor and three girls take shelter from the rain. But then one little girl gets lost!”
As a lifelong slob, I rarely identify with Felix, but I’m with him in his disdain for the outdoors. That theme gets plenty of good laughs, as does the tension between Oscar and Felix as they go through cabin fever. It’s nice to get the guys out of the city for once – despite the fact the shoot clearly occurs on a soundstage - and the show makes the most of the various opportunities, though it’s a little more sentimental than usual.
Odd casting issue: Pamelyn Ferdin plays Cindy, one of the kids. She’d return in later seasons as Felix’s daughter Edna. It’s not unusual for TV series to recycle actors – heck, Harry Morgan popped up as a nutty officer before he later became Colonel Potter – but there’s still something a little freaky about a kid popping up again as Felix’s daughter.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: “Oscar doesn’t want anyone ruining his big night at the sportswriters dinner. But then Felix arrives home with a baby left behind at his studio.”
If you read that synopsis, “Way” doesn’t sound too promising. Injecting a baby into the proceedings – especially right after a program with heavy kiddie involvement – seems like a cheap story twist. And that interpretation fits, as “Way” is a lesser program that feels a little too much like a precursor to Three Men and a Baby.
At least we get our first taste of freaky neighbor kid Phillip (Christopher Shea), the antithesis of the usual cutesy tyke; he didn’t show up for too many episodes, but he enlivened each one. Otherwise, “Way” is a bit of a clunker; it even sticks us with a tedious recitation of “Who’s On First”.
Continuity concern: here Oscar and Nancy seem to be a couple, as he even refers to her as “his girl”. But just last episode, Oscar hit on Julie like there’s no tomorrow.
Casting trivia: “Way” continues a mini-trend related to kid actors. Both Pamelyn Ferdin and Christopher Shea played voices in Peanuts specials and movies. She played Lucy and he was Linus. Alas, they never did voice-work for the same projects, though if IMDB is to be believed, they both performed on the same episode of Green Acres once.
A Taste of Money: “When young Phillip next door is found with $2000 in cash, Felix is worried that it’s been stolen, so he and Oscar have to find out where the money came from.”
Shea has to go down as one of the more interesting kid actors, as he doesn’t even remotely try to endear himself to us. He’s more than a little psychotic in presentation, a fact that makes him very entertaining. We got a nice teaser for him in the prior show, and he helps carry “Money”. The show proves satisfying and a nice rebound from the lackluster “Way”, especially when we meet the rightful owners of the $2000; that scene provides one of the series’ classic moments.
SCTV footnote: I don’t know if Alicia the maid (Queta De Acuna) acted as an inspiration for SCTV’s Pirini Scleroso, but the characters have more than a few similarities. Indeed, De Acuna even looks a lot like an older Andrea Martin.
Oscar’s New Life: “After Oscar is fired from his job, Felix gets him a position on staff with a popular girlie magazine where Oscar discovers he’s no swinger.”
There’s never a bad situation that Felix’s meddling can’t make worse, and that inevitability occurs again in “Life”. We also get a fun guest spot from John Astin as a Hugh Hefner type. Oscar’s attempts to live the “Harem” lifestyle are a hoot, and this is another fine show.
Note that “Life” presents the option to watch the show with or without a laugh track. It accidentally ran that way when originally broadcast, so we can check it out in either version.
What Makes Felix Run: “In order to cure Felix of his neatness and win back his ex-wife, Oscar comes up with a plan to turn his finicky roommate into a slob.”
I suppose a high concept story like this was inevitable, so the best we can do is hope that it’s done well. Happily, that’s the case with “Run”, as the expected laughs result from the tale. We get a fun bit in which Randall plays Felix’s grandfather, and even a potentially cloying fantasy sequence in heaven amuses. Add to that the torture sequence in which Oscar overwhelms Felix with messiness and the show succeeds.
What Does a Naked Lady Say to You?: “Felix is dating a wholesome librarian who looks familiar to Murray. Then he remembers he busted her for indecent exposure – as an actress in a nude play!”
“Lady” loses some points due to its dated nature. Productions like Oh! Calcutta and Hair caused a stir in the early Seventies with their sexual nature and nudity, and “Bathtub” acts as a spoof of those. This means “Lady” may not pack a great punch for those without the memory of its on-stage precursors, but it’s still a fun show. Via “Bathtub”, the folks at the series offer a hilarious spoof of pretentious avant garde theater, and Madelyn (Marj Dusay) is arguably the hottest of the show’s guest actresses. If only the DVD offered actual nude outtakes of her!
Trapped: “On their way to a costume party, Felix, Oscar and Oscar’s girlfriend Nancy are accidentally locked in the building’s dusty basement with no way out.”
Season One ends on a positive note. It finds creative ways to form good gags with the actors stuck in one place, and it gives us another fun visit from weird Phillip. Lots of solid laughs come out here and the series’ first year finishes well.
Although I never remembered Season One of The Odd Couple as a great one, the evidence on these DVDs proves me wrong. The level of quality seems consistently quite good, largely due to the immense chemistry between Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Both had their characters virtually perfect from minute one, and they make the shows even more entertaining than they otherwise might be.
Indeed, Randall may well be the best comic actor I’ve ever seen – at least as Felix. Has ever an actor matched a role this well? He develops so much hilarity from the material and makes the shows sensational. Klugman is also excellent, and the supporting actors bring out great comedic delight through the shows.
I’ve not consistently watched The Odd Couple for a while, so I was happy to rediscover the series via this Season One package. There’s a lot of wheat and very little chaff here. Bring on Season Two!