GIMME A BREAK: Complete Series (Alan Lansburg/Reeves Entertainment 1981-87) VEI Entertainment
1981 was a pivotal year for television sitcoms; the effect of Norman Lear’s polarizing and controversial smash hits, All in the Family (1971-79), The Jeffersons (1975-85) and Maude (1972-78) giving way to a gentler, though as progressive ilk of contenders to challenge TV’s long-ensconced edicts in providing ‘wholesome’ family entertainment. Television’s ‘safe haven’ for controversial issues in the 1980’s was the situation comedy – perhaps because, only through humor could more serious subject matter hope to be addressed, even indirectly, without causing offense – its’ tongue firmly in cheek. If we laugh, is it really serious – or is it just NBC? In 1981, the network was far off the mark of ‘must see TV’, having only two hit shows in its entire roster: Diff’rent Strokes (1978-86) and Facts of Life (1979-88). In fact, they were dead last in the Nielsen’s. They needed a hit. What they were handed was a half hour comedy about a black domestic turning a widower’s dysfunctional household upside down, in the process, becoming maid and mother-confessor to a magnificent brood of burgeoning young women. Gimme a Break (1981-87) debuted under a cloud of suspicion from the critics, who chided NBC on everything from Nell Carter’s portly carriage to the oversexed nature of its story lines. These dealt with every conceivable pre and post-pubescent crisis affecting young girls. Nevertheless, Gimme a Break was an instant hit with audiences, thanks mostly to the enigmatic Carter; a charismatic dynamo and bundle of raw energy, fueled behind-the-scenes by a horrendous cocaine habit.
Only a decade earlier Carter had made her Broadway debut in the pop/opera - Soon, a legendary disaster that closed after only 3 performances. After several other misfires, Nell hit the big time in Ain't Misbehavin, for which she took home 1978’s Tony Award. Her television reprise of the same role would win her an Emmy in 1982. By 1979, Carter was getting noticed elsewhere too; predominantly featured in Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of Hair. Making the leap from Broadway to television, Nell had a reoccurring bit part on ABC’s popular daytime soap, Ryan's Hope. But it was Gimme a Break that would shoot Carter’s star into the stratosphere; cast as live-in domestic, Nellie Ruth ‘Nell’ Harper. NBC’s president, Fred Silverman had actually seen Nell on Broadway and was certain a series could be built around her dynamic presence. What no one knew then was that Nell harbored a dark secret gnawing away at her insecurity. Her estranged daughter, Tracey was the result of a rape, not a failed teenage marriage, as she claimed. Ostracized from her community, Nell placed Tracey in the care of an older sister while she went off to New York to pursue her dreams. While waiting for lightening to strike, Carter performed in coffee houses and small night clubs, falling into the trap of recreational drug use to unwind after each performance.
With the exception of its final season, Gimme a Break is set in the fictional Californian hamlet of Glenlawn. Interestingly, Glenlawn’s actual location changed throughout the series; suggested first, as a small town an hour away from Fresno, then, near Sacramento, and finally, depicted as a suburb of Los Angeles. The character’s backstory had Nell, a runaway and singer from Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, befriend Margaret Huffman Kanisky (seen only in flashbacks and played by Sharon Spelman). Kanisky makes Nell promise to care for her family as she is already stricken with cancer. Living up to this promise will not be easy, especially since Kanisky’s husband, Carl (Dolph Sweet) is an overworked and curmudgeonly Police Chief with more problems on the home front than he can handle. The Kanisky’s eldest daughter, Katie (19-year-old, Kari Michaelsen) is gorgeous, boy crazy and pretty wild; middle child, Julie (16-year-old Lauri Hendler) – her antithesis, as the proverbial bookworm with sassy comebacks, and youngest, Samantha (14-year-old Lara Jill Miller) an absolute tomboy, praying for puberty to resolve all her self-esteem issues.
Premiering in mid-October, Gimme a Break hardly enthralled critics. Washington Post’s dough-faced, Tom Shales was particularly puerile in his assessment of the pilot, suggesting he wished he could sue NBC for such a ‘paleolithic comedy’, and, in a bizarre instance of the proverbial ‘pot’ calling the kettle black (no pun intended), he bashed Nell Carter for being ‘balloonish’, while completely ignoring the heft of her on-screen charisma. Undaunted by the negative press, NBC kept Gimme a Break on the air. Very shortly, they would be handsomely rewarded for their faith in Carter and the show. The earliest episodes in Season One are vignettes devoted to small, simple and thoroughly digestible truths about adolescence, doled out by the motherly Nell; as examples: finding Samantha come home with a black eye, dealing with Katie’s first offense for shoplifting, or having to set the record straight after Julie and a friend begin to study ‘where babies come from’. Season One also found time to investigate what the fictional Nell Harper and her employer, Chief Kanisky did in their spare time; Nell, haunting a single’s bar with disastrous results, and the Chief, briefly becoming involved with ‘an old flame’, sending the girls into a panic over the prospect of welcoming a new ‘stepmother’. Respectfully, the show also dealt head on with parental/spousal loss, and, Nell’s ongoing desire to lose weight by battling ‘unsuccessfully’ against temptation.
In hindsight, Season One of Gimme a Break was rather progressive, despite its placement as a frothy sitcom; addressing such morality issues as live-in lovers, a fatal shooting of a suspected robber, cheating on a college entrance exam, and, a near-fatal infection caused by a bleeding IUD. The most heartfelt episode in Season One engages Nell, after receiving a phone call from her mother that her father is dying. Rushing to his side, the old curmudgeon initially shuns his daughter’s affections, still miffed she ran away from home at the age of sixteen to become a singer. Meanwhile, Samantha, who has accompanied Nell, is beginning to feel guilty about refusing to hug her own father after they had an argument. In the end, Nell’s father dies and Nell learns, at his funeral, he was truly grateful for their reunion. The Chief arrives at the funeral and is given a heartfelt hug by Samantha. But the best episode in Season One, to elicit the biggest laugh, involved the Kaniskys return home to discover a burglary in progress. Held hostage by the criminals, Nell – who has arrived late to this hold-up – convinces the thieves to unlock ‘a box of jewels’, retrieving the Chief’s gun instead and keeping the burglars at bay until the police can arrive.
Perhaps feeling angst and regret over the child she had given up, behind the scenes, Nell Carter was very maternal towards Michaelson, Hendler and Miller; overseeing their dating prospects and gingerly counseling the young brood on the windfalls and pitfalls of growing up in the spotlight. Alas, on the flipside, Nell was indulging in food and powdering her nose for $1000 a week, suffering through her own anxieties in private. Miraculously, Nell’s addiction never impacted her work. Even more of a startle, at least for the cast, was Carter’s abrupt announcement shortly after Gimme a Break’s runaway success, she had secretly married mathematician and lumber executive, George Krynicki in a ceremony populated by crossdressers, bisexuals and drag queens. Auspiciously, the marriage was off to a rocky start when the bride, having consumed too much caviar and champagne, spent her wedding night hugging the porcelain bowl, sick to her stomach in their rented suite. Sometime later, Nell would convert to Judaism for her man. But the marriage remained tenuous at best; Krynicki, spending most of it abroad and apart from his wife, who continued to indulge her vices in his absence. One night, in 1982, Carter’s demons had the better of her; good friend and casting director, Joel Thurm, along with close friend, Dr. Larry Siegler breaking into Carter’s house to find her unconscious and unresponsive on the bathroom floor, wearing only a mink wrap.
Revived and brought back from the brink, Carter struggled to maintain an air of professionalism as Gimme a Break entered its Second Season. A few of the story lines in Season Two hit close to home; the opener, sending Nell to jail for refusing to pay a ‘past due’ phone bill she claimed to have already covered. Season Two also inveigled the Chief with a prostitute who helps him nail a bad cop and dealt with Kanisky’s bigotry regarding gays on the police force. On the humorous and lighter side, Nell dealt with problematic relatives, a clumsy grandpa and Aunt Blanche, who threatened to take custody of the girls; also, Sam’s imaginary playmate – Barbara Jo. Nell also helped a divorced mother find suitable work to help support the baby she was contemplating giving up for adoption. Sibling rivalry reared its ugly head as Julie and Katie engaged in an all-out catfight over a handsome young man from school. Meanwhile, Samantha dealt with teenage anxiety in a heartfelt conversation with God over death stealing too many people from her that she loved. Part of Gimme a Break’s lasting appeal was that from the outset it never shied away from addressing ‘real’ issues with unvarnished clarity. Hence, an episode about Julie taking up cigarettes morphed into the Chief bonding with his daughter over the reason he quit smoking: because it contributed to the death of his beloved wife.
Despite the relatively light-hearted atmosphere on the set, Nell Carter would later describe this period in her life as one of the darkest; an insidious cycle of cocaine, binge-eating and alcohol conspiring to tear down her defenses; using booze to bring her down for a badly needed night’s rest and narcotics to pump her up for another electrifying performance while shooting these episodes. Pressures mounting, a few of Nell’s closest friends convinced the actress to enter rehab. They also encouraged her to lose weight. Meanwhile, Gimme a Break soared in the ratings; Carter, praised for her work with a Best Actress Emmy nomination while each of her pubescent co-stars became role models for young girls across America. At one point, Kari Michaelson was coaxed by Carter into a romance with former Bee Gee, Andy Gibb who was making a guest appearance on the show in 1983. Michaelson was smitten, but quickly discovered Gibb was suffering the aftershocks from his own severe substance abuse. Although in love, Michaelson ended their affair not long thereafter, reverting to an unhealthy eating disorder to temper her mood swings and depression. Despite a stint in Betty Ford, Gibb’s spiral continued until his premature death from myocarditis in 1988. Only the year before he had declared personal bankruptcy, his drug habit having eaten through his fortunes. In a cruel twist of fate, Nell Carter’s destiny would prove uncannily similar.
By Season Three, Carter’s chronic drug abuse could no longer be concealed. Director Jim Drake recalls rehearsing entire episodes without Carter on the set, using a double to read her lines in order to get other cast member’s reactions, later to be inserted into the finished episodes. Nell would later acknowledge she lost whole weeks to these euphoric stupors, her dealer actually delivering cocaine to her house. As Gimme a Break was filmed before a live studio audience, by show time Carter somehow always managed to get her act together and perform with the ensemble on cue, dazzling fans with her rapid-fire delivery and other anecdotal witticisms, lobbed at the audiences, purely for their amusement between takes. Like the late Robin Williams, Nell Carter was unquestionably a gifted raconteur and lover of the absurdities of life which she could turn on a dime and exploit to her own comedic advantage. At the end of Season Three, Carter received her second Emmy nomination. And although producers felt Gimme a Break had proven itself a winner, when executives spied a 7-year-old blonde moppet, named Joey Lawrence in a guest appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, they immediately set about finding a way to introduce him as a reoccurring cast member. For Laura Jill Miller, Lawrence’s arrival spelled trouble. She was no longer ‘the baby’ of this ensemble, a reality made painfully clear when puberty effectively turned the one-time gawky teen into a stunningly attractive looker.
Writers grappled with three of their cast mates fast growing up before the eyes of the world; penning story lines to frankly address, among many other topics, sex, menstruation, shoplifting and boys. Season Three also marked the debut of Telma Hopkins as Nell’s shoot-from-the-hip/sometimes friend, Addie Wilson, and, a seismic shift in casting that no one was expecting. During mid-season, Carter had repeatedly called in with ‘the flu’ – code for being unable to pick herself up after another drug and alcohol binge. Her marriage to George Krynicki was over. Desolate and exhausted, Nell announced she was taking time off to go and see good friend, Liza Minnelli perform in England. But somewhere en route to the after party, Nell instead made the decision to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills dashed with champagne; a failed suicide attempt that caused Minnelli to put her friend on the first plane back to America. Carter entered a tough love rehabilitation program at the Hazelton Treatment Center in Minnesota where she was reduced to scrubbing toilets and washing floors on her hands and knees as part of her penitence. Emerging from the experience clean and sober – and, 91 lbs. thinner – producers of Gimme a Break were eager to capitalize on Carter’s new ‘healthier’ look. Alas, left to her own accord, Carter pursued her love of food even more aggressively than before, wrecking all her hard-won gains.
As Season Four began shooting, Gimme a Break was dealt another blow. Co-star Dolph Sweet had taken time off to have what was then described as routine stomach surgery for a benign cyst. Alas, the tumor turned out to be cancerous. Returning to the set in just under a month and ready to resume work, Sweet’s costars were startled by his noticeable thinness and slightly haggard appearance. For the remainder of Season Four, Sweet’s weight continued to plummet, gradually going from thin to gaunt, and finally, emaciated by season’s end. Throughout the ordeal, Sweet shrugged off rumors anything of consequence was the matter with him, encouraging producers to allow him to continue to work. But on May 8, 1985, Sweet succumbed to stomach cancer. He was just 64 years old. Ironically, his final appearance on Gimme a Break aired just 3 days later, marking his funeral. When Gimme a Break returned for its Fifth Season, the very first episode dealt expressly with the death of Carl Kanisky. In many ways, Sweet’s loss marked the real ‘end’ to a show that would continue to lumber on – increasingly with less finesse and steam – through two more agonizingly unoriginal seasons. Indeed, by 1985 NBC had grown disinterested in the fate of Gimme a Break in lieu of their latest zeitgeist, The Cosby Show (1984-92) In the shadow of ‘Cosby’s’ portrayal of the upwardly mobile and affluent all-American black family, Nell Carter’s ever-devoted house maid, rearing three white girls, suddenly appeared downright stereotypical to ‘off the plantation’.
Threatened with cancellation, producers of Gimme a Break introduced Jonathan Silverman as a compassionate love interest for Julie. They also brought in Joey Lawrence’s younger brother, Matthew to promote the show’s ‘cute factor’. Then, inexplicably – and to the show’s ever-lasting detriment – writers elected to uproot everyone from sunny California to a cramped brownstone apartment in New York, including Addie Wilson, who would become Nell’s next-door neighbor. But the most egregious overhaul was yet to follow when mid-season edicts were handed down, informing Kari Michaelsen, Lauri Hendler and Lara Jill Miller that their services were no longer required on the show. Unceremoniously, and virtually without warning, all three were fired. As Gimme a Break prepared for Season Six it introduced yet another new face to its revolving roster; Rosie O’Donnell as Carter’s boorish upstairs neighbor - dental hygienist, Maggie O’Brien.
O’Donnell had already established herself as a sassy comedienne. Now, she was aggressively making strides to become the dominant force on Carter’s hit series; a move bolstered by the writers but shunned by Nell, who believed this was a total betrayal of her audience-drawing prestige. Rumors on the set abounded that Carter would not speak to Rosie unless referring to her by the fictional character’s name, and only then, to casually reference a scene or make a comment regarding the next take. Having already sold the syndication rights for a cool $70 million, NBC finally had enough. Gimme a Break was canceled after its Sixth Season; just as well, as by then the audience had virtually given up watching it – partly, due to all the epic changes along the way that, cumulatively, conspired to completely alter the co-starring chemistry audiences had fallen in love with in the first place. Arguably, NBC also wrecked any chance the show had for survival by continuing to muck around with its scheduling, repeatedly moving Gimme a Break into the most obscure time slots, simply to fill a programming void rather than amplify its one-time high profile standing as part of their ‘must see TV’ line-up.
After being given its Last Rites, Gimme a Break went off the air in May of 1987. For Nell Carter, the cancellation was devastating. She was inconsolable for days after the cast wrap party, refusing to see even close friends as she fell into dark despair. Carter’s modus operandi had always been based on an extremely flawed premise; that her stardom would go on forever…or, at least, the foreseeable future. Denied her comedic pulpit and the cash advances that went with it, Nell Carter briefly reconciled with her husband and elected to start a family. At 41, this hurdle was not so easily overcome. Carter suffered three miscarriages before filing for divorce and officially swearing off men. But only 18 months later, she threw her heart in the ring yet again, marrying Canadian record producer, Roger Larocque in a midnight Vegas nuptial that was as ostentatious as it proved bizarre. At 300+ lbs. Carter was grotesquely overweight and diabetic.
The last act to Nell Carter’s life remained true to her rocky start. Another divorce and another diet to slim, trim and manage her health problems briefly proved successful. Alas, time was hardly kind to Nell. In the eighteen years since Gimme a Break went off the air, she had suffered through a series of aneurysms that greatly affected her ability to be as rambunctiously quick with a quip. But by the early 2000’s Nell appeared to rebound, both physically and professionally, making a comeback on stage; also, turning out for nostalgic TV interviews, and, as a guest star on such popular prime time programs as Ally McBeal (1997-2002). Encouraged to return to her first love – the stage – for Raisin (a musicalized version of the drama, A Raisin in the Sun) Carter was fitfully optimistic she could reinvigorate her career yet again. But on Jan. 23, 2003, her body was discovered by her 13-year-old son, Joshua, lying face down on the floor in the private bathroom of their rented Beverly Hills duplex. She was only 54, and, despite her fame and professional work ethic, had left behind barely $200 in her bank account. At Nell’s request, it was later made public that her children would be raised by 39-year-old Anne Kaiser who, in life, had been Carter’s business partner and (wait for it), her lover; a minor bombshell, to say the least.
In the years since its debut, Gimme a Break has remained in syndication on various cable networks, though oddly, not as readily revived as one might expect. The show’s topical and dramatic moments are certainly worthy of rediscovery, as is the exuberant central performance given by its high-octane star – always ready to give even the most benign line her very best. And certainly, in its early days, right on to the end of Season Three, few sitcoms of its generation could rival Gimme a Break for its sassy joie de vivre; exploring the pleasures and pitfalls of raising three teenage girls on the cusp of womanhood. Perhaps the best that can be said of the show today is that audiences departed most every episode with a warm fuzzy feeling in their hearts and a sincere smile spread across their faces. Today, in an era where even the most puerile dreck is frequently touted as ‘must see TV’, returning to Gimme a Break is like being startled at seeing an old friend anew, after an absence for far too many years. Nell Carter’s zest for life is really what continues to propel Gimme a Break as a cornerstone series from the 1980’s; that, and her superb interplay with co-star, Dolph Sweet – her perfect foil. The rest of the cast would be nothing at all without either presence to pluck and ply their personalities with a witty one-liner, a sly grin, or just a big ole heartfelt hug, comforting their sorrows and dashing away all of their tears. In life, one sincerely wishes for a Nell Carter to make our ordinary lives as spectacular by design. But in death, Nell Carter will always live on as the fictional Nell Harper. As Nell would likely attest to, “Ah, honey…I am good!”
Gimme a Break has long been available on DVD. What can I tell you? We are entering the summer months – a time when I usually binge watch my favorite TV shows from the past to fill a void as my favorite comfort food. The first Season of Gimme a Break was released through Universal Home Video before being licensed – along with the remaining five – to VEI Entertainment. Aside: VEI has had a long and spotty history remastering TV shows to disc, resulting in discs that lock up during playback or poor video/audio quality that renders its efforts virtually unwatchable by today’s standards. Gimme a Break looks about what you might expect: shot on tape and sporting fairly flat colors, brightly lit to the point where the image can appear almost digitally harsh. Still, there ought to be a way – costly, no doubt – to provide better image stabilization and a faux up-conversion to transfers that (let’s face it) will never look as good as we remember and, in no way, can live up to the advancements in technology that have since revolutionized television viewing. That said, this repackaged ‘Complete Series’ box is basically identical to the individually released Seasons. Curiously, VEI felt the need to include a disclaimer for Seasons 3-6 that reads “This DVD contains technical anomalies inherited in historical footage.” Exactly what this means or what they are, is open for discussion – but actually, I detected no tape lag, audio dropouts or other anomalies usually associated with tape to DVD transfers. Even better, these episodes are complete, each running approximately 25 minutes, with eight episodes per disc. The audio is a big fat Dolby Digital 2.0 mono with varying volume levels from episode to episode. Honestly, would it have cost that much more to balance the audio across all of these episodes?
As Season One was originally released via Universal Home Video, there are subtitles. VEI’s quick n’ dirty route for the remaining seasons does not afford them a similar luxury. Finally, Season One contains an 80’s Flashback Featurette (something Uni did in the early days of its TV to DVD releases) as well as bonus episodes from Kate & Allie; presumably, because if one loves Gimme a Break they will also flip for this totally unrelated sitcom. Personally, I love Kate & Allie. But its resemblance to Gimme a Break escapes me. You might as well have included an episode from Magnum P.I., Columbo and Knight Rider for all the sense it makes. Bottom line: Gimme a Break is a fun, warm-hearted and occasionally astute sitcom from the decade that certainly can be looked back upon as mining the genre for all its worth. While these transfers won’t win any awards for DVD authoring or mastering, they present the show as well as it will likely ever look without a Blu-ray upgrade. So, judge and buy according. Puttin’ a new face on the old one is a joyous way to lazily pass the time with a smile.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Season 1 – 4
Seasons 2-3 – 3.5
Season 4 – 3
Seasons 5-6 – 2