In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: ABC’s throwback, which makes its old shows available for streaming.
For a network that ended the last TV season by mercilessly axing almost everything, ABC apparently has a lot of affection for some of its dearly departed series. Last week, the network announced that a variety of its now-canceled shows would be available on its website. These upstarts on the site are marked with the moniker “throwback,” and range from a multitude of recent one-season wonders to modern classics like Sports Night, My So-Called Life, and Ugly Betty.
For this version of 5 To Watch, we decided to delve into the more random selections now available on the ABC site, featuring shows that you may not have heard of or remember but still deserve a second look. And now you can stream them for free, so why not? Five TV Club writers pick their favorite under-the-radar places to start:
Donna’s pick: Samantha Who?, “The Hockey Date” (season one, episode seven)
Co-created by author Cecelia Ahern, Samantha Who? has a beach-read premise (thirtysomething has amnesia, goes on various quests to discover her personality). But stream it for the effervescent lead performance of Christina Applegate. In this episode, Samantha’s mom (Jean Smart) throws her together with a handsome sports fan in an effort to get her back in the dating pool, and Samantha enlists her pre-amnesia live-in boyfriend Todd (Barry Watson) to teach her about hockey. Applegate, along with Melissa McCarthy and Jennifer Esposito as her best friends, invigorate this standard sitcom plotline with feeling, energy, and impeccable timing. The joy of Samantha Who? is watching Applegate’s pixie face run through a gamut of emotions, from determination to triumph to weary resignation, in the course of a 20-second exchange. Why can’t Samantha just tell the hot handyman about her condition instead of undertaking an elaborate comedy ruse? Because “there are 4 million hot girls in the city, and he likes me, and the only thing I have to offer is my passion for hockey,” she tells Todd, all sparkling moxie, barely hiding her anxiety that with no backstory, she might just disappear. Watching Samantha discover herself is the kind of summery, binge-ready, low-key pleasure for which broadcast television was built.
Steven’s pick: The Knights Of Prosperity, “Operation: Oswald Montecristo” (season one, episode nine)
Some prematurely canceled shows can, with a little revisionist squinting, be fondly looked back on as “we meant to end things here”-style miniseries. ABC’s underrated (and under-viewed) The Knights Of Prosperity falls neatly into this category. End things a couple of episodes early and you’ve got a not-too-shabby finale on your hands. A good thing, since Knights was never long for this world, courtesy of its oddball premise: down-on-his luck-janitor Eugene Gurkin (Gotham’s Donal Logue) assembles a mismatched group of lovable losers to rob Mick Jagger’s Central Park West apartment. If you’re thinking, “Well, the writers probably can’t sustain this idea indefinitely,” you’d be right, and the Rolling Stones frontman is cast aside after a botched robbery attempt eight episodes in. Which brings us to episode nine, where the Knights Of Prosperity lads—along with a pre-Modern Family Sofía Vergara—hit the reset button by finding a new mark: Live host Kelly Ripa (playing herself). To infiltrate her home, Eugene poses as pretentious, world-famous architect Oswald Montecristo, a man so erudite, he knows the difference between Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. The good news: Ripa hires him and his team for a renovation job. The bad news: Eugene falls head over heels in love with her, compromising the entire robbery. The end result is charming, ridiculous, and very funny. Bonus: “Operation: Oswald Montecristo” introduces a multi-episode storyline featuring Ray Romano as an irritable, self-hating version of himself. (“No, I’m not beautiful; I’m an old Zach Braff!”)
Dan’s pick: Dinosaurs, “I Never Ate For My Father” (season one, episode eight)
In recent years, Dinosaurs has gotten an undeserved bad rap (even on this very site), with critics usually tearing apart its odd blend of grotesque live-action puppetry and social commentary. All right, so the show wasn’t exactly subtle. But when has Jim Henson Productions ever been subtle? Fraggle Rock was just as blunt, although it did have a sweetness to it that endeared its lessons to younger and older viewers alike. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, was ugly—its teachings often concerned with showing how greedy, intolerant, and destructive its prehistoric characters (stand-ins for modern human beings, of course) could be, even in their most well-intentioned moments. People often balk at the series finale where Earl Sinclair inadvertently induces civilization-destroying climate change to the planet, but aren’t we currently doing that exact same thing? The episode (season one, episode eight by ABC’s throwback listing, though historically it was in season two) “I Never Ate For My Father” is equally as ballsy. When Earl’s son Robbie discovers that he likes vegetables better than meat, his vegetarianism (a sin in the eyes of his father and most other dinosaurs) becomes a stand-in for everything from drugs to communism to counterculture in general. But the most obvious metaphor is homosexuality—a move that’s especially brave on the part of writer Rob Ulin. When the episode aired in the fall of 1991, the AIDS crisis was at its peak, and the media wasn’t known as being especially kind toward gay culture. Still, Dinosaurs sympathizes with Robbie not wanting to conform to the traditional ideas of masculinity. After Earl yanks him out of a “secret club” for vegetarians, they get swallowed by a gargantuan swamp monster, and the only way to escape is to show male affection. That’s considerably progressive for an ABC sitcom from almost 30 years ago. Maybe Dinosaurs wasn’t so ugly after all.
Jesse’s pick: Trophy Wife, “The Minutes” (season one, episode 19)
Poor Malin Åkerman. For years she was stuck in thankless generic hot girl parts, and one of her highest-profile roles involved her participating in perhaps the most laughable scene in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Åkerman found a better vehicle in the form of Trophy Wife, an immensely likable and often hilarious ABC comedy that was canceled after a single season. She played Kate, the third wife of Pete (Bradley Whitford), who maintains cordial if sometimes fraught relationships with both of his previous wives and mothers to his kids (Bailee Madison, Ryan Lee, and Albert Tsai, all giving uncommonly brilliant child-actor performances). “The Minutes,” from late in the series’ sadly curtailed run, is a particularly strong showcase for Åkerman’s work as Kate. Feeling unappreciated by Marcia Gay Harden’s imperious Diane (who refuses to offer a thank-you when Kate saves her from choking), she finds solace in running a PTA meeting, where she feels validated by the group’s laughter at her goofy impressions of Diane and various school staffers. Åkerman emphasizes Kate’s slightly daft eagerness to please (she keeps trying out a weird robot voice, convinced it will help some joke or another land) and, as she did throughout the series, makes her hapless underachieving decidedly winning. The side plots give Whitford, Michaela Watkins (as Pete’s second wife), and the three kids plenty of funny material, too, particularly when Warren (Lee) gets help from little Bert (Tsai) in his quest for a date to his upcoming school dance. The multiple stories demonstrate one of the show’s primary strengths: an ensemble of characters so well drawn that grouping any two or three of them together would be a delight (and also reinforcing a sweet message about the malleability of families). This episode also finds time to delve into a parody of fellow ABC series Scandal, which would feel like shameless cross-promotion if not for the fact that Scandal was a huge hit and Trophy Wife struggled in the ratings. A few years later, the series serves as a reminder of how good everyone in the cast, Åkerman included, can be.
Gwen’s pick: Brothers & Sisters, “Affairs Of State” (season one, episode three)
There were so many excellent pieces to the soapy puzzle that was Brothers & Sisters: Thirtysomething alumni like Patricia Wettig, Ken Olin, and David Marshall Grant both in front of and behind the cameras; beloved series vets Calista Flockhart, Rob Lowe, and Rachel Griffiths; a pre-Americans Matthew Rhys; and executive producer Greg Berlanti, who was soon to enter the world of superheroes. But towering over this embarrassment of riches was the show’s Oscar-winning matriarch, Sally Field. She ruled her brood with equal parts fierceness and compassion as Nora, a widow who comes into her own after the death of her husband (Tom Skerritt, who also played her spouse in Steel Magnolias), who, as it turns out, was an unfaithful embezzler. The Walker clan contained everyone from a conservative pundit to an out corporate lawyer to a recovering drug-addict veteran, but always came together for the series’ frequent high points: dinner parties at Nora’s palatial Pasadena house. No one got through one of these events unscathed (although they kept coming back for more): accusations, confessions, even the tossing of food was a frequent occurrence. But none of these was as epic as the party that kicked it all off: In the show’s third episode, Nora plans an elaborate (catered!) pool party ostensibly to help her aqua-phobic granddaughter Paige get back in the pool, but secretly to confront the woman her husband had been having an affair with for 15 years, which all five of her children know about and have kept from her. She does it in the most casual and diabolical way possible: while everyone else is silently eating at the absurdly long dinner table, then is wracked with guilt afterward. That unparalleled combination of Southern California splendor with refreshing emotional honesty made B&S such a compelling—and now, binge-worthy—watch; see how far you get into the show’s five seasons after viewing this tantalizing kickoff.