I’ve been watching the first two seasons of Wings on DVD. For those who don’t know, it’s a sitcom from the early ’90s which Friends ripped off but never equalled. Since Wings was produced before the Great Deconstruction of Strong Women which happened in the late 90s or early 00s, there were some female characters that didn’t come out of a box.
The lead female, Helen Chapel (Crystal Bernard), was so girly in some ways. She had a mind-numbingly specific set of rules about what sort of gifts a woman could accept from a man on Date Number Whatever. She’d been overweight as a child, and still had a tendency to pig out when depressed. She could be whiny and insecure.
On the other hand, the love of her life was her music, and becoming a professional cellist was more important than her love life. On a more comedic but equally non-girly note, her temper had an incredibly short and scary fuse, and on more than a few occasions, she tackled people and had to be pulled off them. Her rage hit new heights when she and Joe (Tim Daly, one of the leads) broke up, and she drove her Jeep through his office. After that, she actually attended a self-help psychology group to get past her anger. It helped her with the boyfriend situation, but she didn’t stop attacking other people when she felt like it. (By the way, it’s worth mentioning that Wings was probably the last show I was really any kind of “shipper” for. I actually liked Joe and Helen, and enjoyed how they got together, broke up, got back together. It was an interesting relationship, with a lot of depth under the humor.)
Wings also featured another type of female character that has since been banned: a Woman Over Forty. Fay Evelyn Cochran (Rebecca Schull) was a relentlessly cheerful ex-stewardess and senior citizen. Like Helen, Fay had a dark side – hers was just sneakier, because people could so rarely bring themselves to see past her sweet facade, and she took advantage of it. She soaked insults in sugar and delivered them like candy. She did things behind people’s backs, and enjoyed the hell out of it. There’s an episode where someone who looks just like her appears on some knock-off of “America’s Most Wanted”, and the guy who sees it actually believes she could be this murderer.
On a more serious note, there’s a woman we only see once, but who intrigues me to no end: the mother of Joe and Brian Hackett (Steven Weber), the two lead guys. What’s interesting about their mother is that she snuck away from home one day 18 years ago while the boys were at school and their father was at work. Why? Because she was bored being a mother and housewife. She didn’t stop to think that she was condemning Joe to a life of filling in for her with his younger brother and increasingly insane father. It never occurred to her the kids might blame themselves, which Joe did. As Joe points out, she could have at least been up front about her leaving. She could’ve gotten a divorce. She could’ve gotten a maid to help out.
Nah. She did what worked for her, in a purely selfish fashion. That’s a character profile usually reserved for husbands and fathers on TV. Even in real life, we don’t talk as much about women who ditch their families as we talk about men who do it – probably because we’d rather discuss the financial impact of bad parenting than the emotional impact. What makes this portrayal of a selfish mother so interesting is that it takes five minutes of arguing for Joe to finally stumble onto a point that makes her realize just what she put him through. She says she can’t ask his forgiveness, and asks for a hug instead. It’s a nice compromise between the corny happily-ever-after resolution some audience members want, and the catharsis of an unfixable screw-up that others relate to.
There are probably a dozen other interesting women from Wings, but I’ll end with the fascinating relationship between Helen and Gail. After Joe and Helen break up, Joe starts dating Gail. This season isn’t available on DVD yet, so I’m going by memory. If memory serves, Helen starts out royally bitter toward both Joe and Gail, but once she gets it out of her system, she and Gail actually become friends – somewhat to Joe’s discomfort. This goes along just fine until it becomes obvious to Gail that Helen and Joe aren’t over each other, at which point she leaves them both on reasonably amicable terms. All the cat fighting is left to Helen and Joe.