blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Becker (1998) s01e01

I have a history with “Becker.” When it first came on, I was aware of it because it was the new Ted Danson show post-“Cheers,” Terry Farrell had jumped ship from “DS9,” and Alex Desert from “The Flash” was on it.

I watched a lot of TV in the 1990s.

But I didn’t watch “Becker.” In the mid-aughts, after Ken Levine started blogging and talking about “Becker” being this under discovered gem—something I would listen to Ken Levine on, because we’d been marathoning “Frasier” DVDs (I also watched a lot of TV in the 2000s)—I decided I’d try to give it a shot. And I didn’t make it through the pilot.

I don’t think I made it through the first scene. Now it’s funny because now I love the first half of the first scene. A few years after that first fail, I was still reading Ken Levine and he was still talking about “Becker” so I gave it another shot and made it through the rough stuff into the good stuff.

The show started in 1998 and the pilot has a very late nineties, we’ve figured out how to make sitcoms feel. It’s assured. The show knows you can make Ted Danson’s Becker only so much of a dick. He can’t be racist but xenophobic is okay. He has to respect strong women in his life to make generalized gender cracks. And the funny thing, going back to “Becker” a second time now, is how it’s Ted Danson. Old Man Ted Danson doesn’t incorporate any of the Sam Malone, but he does use some Becker. Just with a lot of pot.

The pilot introduces Danson as the loud-mouthed meanie doctor with a heart of gold. Spoiler: he uses his personal savings to get a young Black patient into an HIV treatment program because it’s 1998 and it was on CBS and old people have always watched CBS so there’s something false saccharine about it but Danson and the other actors are still able to get some material from it. And “Becker” is an actors’ show, at least once you get out of the diner and away from Terry Farrell—who’s really not funny and really trying—and Alex Desert—who gets to be the butt of Becker’s mean jokes because you know, gosh darn it, Black, blind guy Desert is actually Danson’s best friend. “Becker” isn’t aging particularly well. It’s not aging poorly, but it’s got some major strikes from the era.

Like the transphobic joke. It wasn’t funny then. Danson’s got a number of rants in the first half of the episode before it gets serious and he starts showing vulnerability; the joke about talk shows seems like it’s going to be good, ends up crap. Most of the other rants in the first half are gold. Laugh out loud gold.

Back to the actors’ show thing. Hattie Winston and Shawnee Smith as Danson’s assistants are great. Even if they’re both problematic character types. Winston is the sassy Black woman who runs the successful White man’s life, Smith’s the ditzy grunge girl. But they all have great timing. The rhythm of their back and forth. It’s fantastic. And the time they both get to just act. Desert and Farrell just get reaction shots—until the end of the episode when Farrell gets the close and still can’t deliver the line with any humor but it’s a pilot so hopefully it’ll get better. Smith and Winston get some time. And they maximize it.

Occasional cringes over dated material aside, “Becker” has a good pilot. Though some of being positive about it is knowing it does indeed improve. Even Farrell.

Not sure how it’d play from scratch.

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