This ’90s Sitcom Ran for Eight Seasons But You Probably Don’t Remember It
Quagmire: “What, nobody here watched Wings?”
Peter: “Is that the one where there’s a guy, and he’s a pilot or something?”
Quagmire: “There’s two guys. And they’re brothers, and they’re both pilots.”
Cleveland: “Was this a cartoon?”
Quagmire: “No… It took place in an airport. The thing was on for ten years. And the funny repair guy was Lowell. It made Tony Shalhoub’s career… Crazy people living under a rock. Don’t know Wings. I love Wings.”
— Family Guy, Season 5, Episode 5
You Know ‘Wings’… Even If You Think You Don’t
What do you get when you combine a laugh track, mildly predictable plots, exuberant personalities, a causal approach towards sex, and attractive main characters? That’s right, you get a ’90s sitcom. Wings premiered April 19, 1990, on NBC, and lasted till May, 21, 1997, in total, lasting for eight seasons with 172 episodes all together. The series is a loose spinoff of Cheers, with characters from the show sometimes making appearances. So why is it then that a long-lasting series has fallen by the wayside of our collective memories of the ’90s, especially considering that it’s from the same universe as mega hits Cheers and Frasier?
Wings has a tone and feel of its era. If you haven’t watched Wings, you’ve watched a show like it. But it has a unique setting and premise in that it takes place in a fictional airport in Nantucket, Massachusetts. During its run, most sitcoms focused on friends living in a big city, often The Big City. But Wings dared to be different by using a mix of characters that ranged in age and made its setting calm and coastal Nantucket. The series focuses on two brothers, Joe Hackett (Tim Daly) and Brian Hackett (Steven Weber), who own and operate a one-plane airline, Sandpiper Air. Joe and Brian, naturally, couldn’t be more different. While Joe is worrisome, pragmatic, and strait-laced, Brian is a hedonistic playboy with an ego. Despite their conflicting personalities, they somehow manage to keep things afloat (yes, flying pun) for Sandpiper Air.
Their one employee is Fay Cochran (Rebecca Schull) who operates the front desk. She’s a former flight attendant who is also a three-time widow. Helen Chappel (Crystal Bernard) operates the airport café, but her true goal is to be a concert cellist. She is a strong-willed former classmate of Joe and Brian, the former whom she has an on-off, will-they-won’t-they relationship with. Helen also has a thick Southern accent that is never quite sufficiently explained given that her backstory is that she grew up in Nantucket with Joe and Brian. Sandpiper Air’s only competition is Aeromass, which is owned by the hubristic Roy Biggins (David Schramm) who often antagonizes Joe for Aeromass having a larger fleet of planes. Thomas Haden Church plays goofy repair man Lowell Mather for the first six seasons of the show. And before Tony Shalhoub was a neurotic detective on Monk, he was Antonio Scarpacci, an Italian immigrant taxi driver first appearing in Season 2.
‘Wings’ Is Predictable, But a Comfort Watch
Like many sitcoms, Wings leaves viewers expecting what will happen next; but that’s not always a negative thing. Wings is an excellent source for comfort watching — an underrated genre of media, and if it’s not an established genre, then it needs to be one. The show doesn’t require the attention of, say, Game of Thrones nor does it have the intensity of Breaking Bad — it’s a sitcom, after all — but there is something reliable about that; you know what you’re going to get it. No, instead Wings lends itself to laidback laughs, good screen activity while doing things throughout the home, and good material for remembering what the 1990s were like. Its strength is its levity. Even its introduction is of a plane soaring throughout the picturesque New England skies while instrumental music plays instead of a lyrical song, which lets viewers know that this is easy watching.
There are wild storylines such as Joe having to pretend to be a corpse at a wake after a mix-up with delivering a casket or them barely surviving a plane crash. But most of the stories are more grounded–yes, another plane pun. And occasionally an episode can divert into a different direction than what is to be expected.
Of course, the show had its flaws. Fat jokes were still an acceptable form of comedy in that time, which Wings liked to deploy, and the show had very little diversity. But there are also refreshing elements about it. Sex isn’t a taboo subject, and the characters are able to exist as sexual beings without being chastised for it. It’s also nice seeing a sitcom have a main cast that includes different age groups instead of just 20-somethings or 30-somethings.
Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Captain Speaking
Even while it was running, it didn’t garner as much attention as the heavy hitters at the time like Seinfeld. In an interview with HuffPost Live, Daly spoke of how the show was overlooked during its time. “When we were on the air, we were sort of the stepchild of Cheers and Frasier. And Seinfeld came along. So we were obviously on the air for a long time, but we really never got the glory until after we were off the air and started rerunning. We had a weird sort of life. And now I think we’ve become one of the classic sitcoms of that era.”
Daly was also interviewed by The AV Club in 2014 and had this to say about his long-running sitcom, “I don’t know why we didn’t get the credit we deserved at the time. But it’s odd —now people think of it as a classic TV show. Critics, maybe not, but the citizens are whoever seem to think it was one of the all-time greats. At the time, nobody cared about it that much. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m just really proud to have been in it. And I’m sorry to the writers and creators that I wasn’t maybe as positive about it then as I am now. Because it was a great show.”
Steven Weber also stated in a 2016 interview with The AV Club when asked if taking the titular role of Jeffrey, 1995 film about a gay man dating a man who is HIV+, had any pushback since his Wings character was such a ladies man, he said, “No, and that’s the weird thing…It might be that Wings wasn’t that huge of a show. For instance, if someone from Friends had done it, then maybe it would have caused a bigger response.”
From its takeoff, the show’s lack of attention was evident even from its pilot episode with the New York Times saying, ‘With all the fuss about ABC’s Twin Peaks, there has precious little attention left over for a new NBC sitcom called Wings, which is running directly opposite of Twin Peaks on Thursdays at 9:30 and is quietly chalking up more impressive rating records. Of course, it helps enormously that Wings immediately follows Cheers, one of NBC’s most popular series.”
The review even speaks to how the show evokes a familiar and comforting quality, and comments on the show’s unique setting. “‘Wings is a shamelessly amiable show. Like Cheers, it offers a collection of mildly offbeat characters who grow on you if given half a chance. It also has one of the more unusual settings devised for a sitcom. The action takes place in an airline terminal at Tom Nevers Field on the island of Nantucket… The comedy is familiar territory… Being given a trial run of seven episodes, Wings is already feeling remarkably comfortable.”
While it may not have been complete smooth sailing for Wings, it did avoid major turbulence in the eight seasons it had. Even though Wings never reached such great heights as some of its contemporaries, it still was a good show that landed many hilarious jokes. It’s never been hailed as the best, but it doesn’t need to be. Something can be appreciated without it being the best. A little airport on a little island proved to have eight seasons worth of laughs, and that in itself is a soaring achievement.