‘Wings’ (Seasons 1 & 2): Bridging ’80s & ’90s situation comedy

Charming, formulaic, not-quite-a-Cheers-spinoff that gradually gets better following a short 6-episode first season.

Having busted their chops throughout the eighties on Cheers, producers David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee concocted this ensemble set at a small mom and pop airport on Nantucket Island. The fictional “Tom Nevers Field” is close enough to Boston for Cliff and Norm from Cheers to stop by for a quick visit in season 2. Though Wings isn’t a spinoff of that earlier hit, it’s set in the same universe.

Spring, 1990. Joe Hackett (Tim Daly, The Sopranos, Private Practice, Madame Secretary) runs Sandpiper Air, a small, private single-aircraft airline. His life is turned sideways when his estranged brother Brian (Steven Weber, Once and Again, NCIS: New Orleans) shows up after their father dies and winds up taking a job at Sandpiper.

This competing-brothers framework sets up the backbone of the series, which takes place inside the small airport and has an ensemble feel similar to Cheers. Rounding out the cast of main characters are Helen (Crystal Bernard), the airport’s lunch counter waitress and object of the Hackett brothers’ affection, Fay (Rebecca Schull), a retired flight attendant who handles Sandpiper Air’s ticket counter, Roy (David Schramm), owner of Aeromass, a larger airline operating out of Roy Nevers Field, and Lowell (Thomas Haden Church), a dimwitted mechanic who sometimes surprises the gang with his mad genius insights.

Premiering on NBC in April of 1990 for 6 episodes, Wings performed well enough with mid-level ratings to get a full season pickup the following fall, where it finished 47th in the Nielsens in its first full season.

Having not caught but a handful of episodes in syndication over the years, I found an interesting contrast between that abbreviated first season and the following year, both of which are included on Paramount’s ‘Seasons 1 & 2′ DVD release from 2006.

Those early episodes laid the groundwork for the series, explaining how Brian had run off with Joe’s fiance years prior, leading to the brothers’ reconciliation when Brian returns following the death of their father. This sets up a series of sweet, family-friendly episodes that don’t quite have the bite of a typical Cheers outing.

The brothers are shown competing once again for Carol (who left Joe for Brian all those years earlier), and the pump gets primed for their rivalry over employee and childhood friend Helen, the airport’s beautiful lunch counter clerk.

There’s a slight change in tone when the second-season episodes hit. The writing is sharper and the performances funnier. The show takes on a more adult feel, rather than the family-friendly vibe the month-long mini season had from April to May of 1990, and it’s apparent from the start with the season opener. “The Puppetmaster” is a hilarious farce that has has jokester Brian hiring an actor to date Helen in an attempt to sway her from her “I don’t date pilots” mantra.

While the Hackett brothers are the focal point, the real gem is the ensemble cast. Much like how Cheers‘ side characters made the Sam and Diane ensemble click, so too does the supporting players of Wings.

The main antagonist is Roy Biggins, owner/operator Aeromass, played by David Schramm to overblown, hilarious effect. The portly Biggins takes joy in seeing the smaller Sandpiper Air struggle, though the brothers realize the big guy himself is just struggling with his many insecurities.

Rebecca Schull plays Fay Cochran, the grandmotherly three-time widower with a heart of gold, but who always manages to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Schull, who was in her mid-60s at the time, clearly has fun with the role and it shows on screen.

The most important supporting character is, of course, Helen (Crystal Bernard), who relishes teasing the boys, even though she loves them both. As childhood friends, she was the chubby little kid who grew up to be the beautiful woman all the men now clamor for. However, she doesn’t date pilots, which throws a wrench into Joe’s and Brian’s plans to get with her.

But stealing the show is the character with the least screen time — Thomas Haden Church’s dim-bulb airline mechanic Lowell Mather, and it took a little while for the writers to realize the character’s potential. At first, they didn’t seem to know how to write to Church’s comedic strengths, with much of his punchlines coming off as groan-inducing duds. But once the second season kicked in, a perfect marriage of writing and comedic delivery formed, giving the series a memorable supporting player.

Church would prove so popular that he’d eventually leave the series after six seasons to co-headline his own show (the two-season FOX sitcom Ned & Stacey with Debra Messing). He’d follow that with a career in movies, including roles in Tombstone, Idiocracy and Spider-Man 3.

Running for 7 seasons, Wings was a moderate hit out of the gate, netting more than 21 million viewers for each of its six season 1 episodes. It would finish 47th overall in its first full 22-episode season in 1990-91 and held its highest average Nielsen rating (14.6) the following year, finishing 19th in 1991-92. Following a dip to 30th the following year, Wings hit its highest ranking (18th) (with a 13.9 average rating) in 1993-94.

Wings: The Complete First and Second Seasons was released on standard DVD by Paramount/CBS Video in 2006. Mill Creek re-released the first 4 seasons to disc in 2013, including another Season 1-2 compilation, and a Complete Series set in 2014.

If you were a fan of, say, Cheers and Friends, Wings feels like a perfect bridge between 80s and 90s ensemble sitcoms. You can sometimes detect the old dated formula and delivery mixed in with what would become edgier, more adult fare that the mid-90s would usher in. Either way, I found myself chuckling often while re-watching these episodes, and that’s all I can really ask for.

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