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'Wings' Going 'Gently' in Last Flight

Television: NBC's workhorse sitcom ends after eight seasons. The cast and one of the creators say the timing is appropriate.

May 21, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't expect any big fireworks or bizarre surprises when the NBC sitcom "Wings" takes it final flight tonight after eight seasons and 172 episodes.

"I think 'Wings' ends the way it began," offers Steven Weber, who played Brian Hackett, the carefree womanizer who operated a one-plane airline on Nantucket Island with his serious-minded brother Joe (Tim Daly).

"It ends gently," Weber reports. "It doesn't go for a big sensational wallop. It ends the way it began. It sort of strolled in, hung around and then strolled out. Not everything has to have such an incredible dynamic that it captures audiences by the nape of the neck, shakes it around and throws it against the wall and then runs out."

He believes "Wings" reflected how people really are in terms of their everyday lives.

"People aren't all gorgeous and blond with tremendous breasts, and handsome with square jaws," says Weber, who recently starred in the ABC miniseries "The Shining." "There is not a lot of shooting and car chases. In many ways, the show portrayed a kind of heightened average behavior."

In the one-hour finale, Joe finds a suitcase in the attic that belonged to his dead father; it contains $1,000, a key and a note hidden in the lining that reads, "There's a lot more where this came from." And Joe's wife, Helen (Crystal Bernard), who runs the tiny airport's lunch counter, is offered a chance to study the cello in Vienna.

"Wings," created by David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee--who went on to create "Frasier"--was sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of sitcoms. The comedy, which premiered in April 1990, never received an Emmy and earned little or no respect from critics. Many believed "Wings" achieved hit status simply because it aired for several seasons between "Cheers" and "L.A. Law."

"It was a good, utilitarian show," Weber says. "We did yeoman work for the network."

"They moved us around a lot," acknowledges producer Casey. "To the show's credit, for as much as it was moved, it was always put in a workhorse position and it usually ended up pulling the plow pretty well for them. It was a really good, solid, successful show and probably unappreciated."

Bernard, who is also a popular country-western singer, believes that "Wings" finally got a bit of recognition when it was chosen to anchor the Tuesday lineup beginning in the fall of 1994.

"It was NBC's worst night, and when people started watching Tuesday night, the network said, 'Well, "Wings" is a good show.' We felt like a stepchild. I think even the network didn't really know how solid we were or appreciate us."

Casey says the NBC ratings improved when the USA cable network began showing repeats in September 1993.

"More people were exposed to it," he says. "I must have bumped into three different episodes [on USA] when I was channel surfing yesterday. There was one year we counted five different shows that made jokes about how often 'Wings' was on the air. Obviously, other people were noticing."

Daly says "Wings" wasn't taken seriously because it was an "old-fashioned" show. "It was beautifully made and very smartly written," he says. "It was never sort of pushing the boundaries of the situation comedy like 'Seinfeld.' "

And it never made headlines. "I think a lot of times people in the media can only be excited by some kind of extracurricular media event--someone having an affair, someone coming out of the closet, someone fighting on the set," Daly says. "I think we should have been appreciated more for the quality of the show than [for] being some sort of an event."

Casey and the actors believe "Wings" is coming to an end at the right time. Last season, the series ranked No. 32 with an average of 15.7 million viewers. "Wings," which moved to Wednesdays in September, has lost a third of its audience this season and currently ranks 93rd.

"I think that our feeling was that one more year would have been one more year too many," Casey says. "The year before last, we felt there were some good shows left in it. This year it just felt like the right time. I think some of the cast was getting restless."

Daly acknowledges he was ready to bail. "I actually went to our creators at the beginning of December. I said, 'I can't come back. I can't do this anymore. Not because I am unhappy but because we sort of milked it for everything that was possible.' "

Casey says that "Wings" was a great learning experience for him and his partners, Lee and Angell, who previously had been writers and then executive producers and writers on "Cheers."

"It was a big difference running someone else's show and then creating your own show and running it," he says. "We were fortunate that we did a good and successful job with 'Wings.' I think 'Frasier' wouldn't have been as good a show as it is if that was our first effort."

* The final original episode of "Wings" airs at 9 tonight on NBC (Channel 4). Repeats of "Wings" air weekdays at 5, 5:30, 11 and 11:30 p.m. on USA cable.

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