Evening Shade: Season One (DVD)

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear evening shades.

A while back, executives at CBS made a never-before-heard-of announcement. A handful the network’s hit shows were to be renewed for not one, but two whole seasons. This rare show of faith by a network gave actors and writers a guarantee that they’d stay in work for a while. One of the series to receive this distinction was Evening Shade.

Although it has a reputation as a comedy strictly for the Geritol audience, Evening Shade is a well-made sitcom, offering plenty of laughs and some clever plotlines, and a stellar cast. Just look at these names: Burt Reynolds, Ossie Davis, Charles Durning, Hal Holbrook, Marilu Henner, Michael Jeter, and more. With all that talent in front of the camera, the show must have done something right.

Meet the townsfolk of Evening Shade, Arkansas:

• Wood Newton (Burt Reynolds, Boogie Nights) is a former Pittsburgh Steeler who has returned to his hometown to raise a family and coach the high school football team.

• Ava Newton (Marilu Henner, Taxi) is Wood’s wife, who’s running for district attorney as the series begins. She then learns she’s pregnant, a surprise for everyone, especially considering Wood had a vasectomy years earlier.

• Evan Evans (Hal Holbrook, Creepshow) is Ava’s father, who has never quite approved of her marriage to Wood, but he’s always around to dispense friendly advice about the way life should be.

• Frieda Evans (Elizabeth Ashley, Ship of Fools) is Evan’s sister, who helps him run the local paper. Although she means well, she can sometime be…bothersome to others. Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it. (A mean way to put it would be to say she’s “annoying.”)

• Wood and Eva have three kids. Taylor (Jay R. Ferguson, Sleeper Cell) is more interested in acting than football. Molly (Candace Hutson, The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through the Mists) is an adolescent forward-thinking type. And at age 5, Will (Jacob Parker, The Power Within) is already master of the non sequitur.

• Harlan Elldridge (Charles Durning, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is the family doctor, who, along with his wife Merleen (Ann Wedgeworth, Steel Magnolias), usually involve themselves in whatever’s happening with the Newtons.

• Herman Stiles (Michael Jeter, The Fisher King) is Wood’s new assistant football coach who doesn’t know the first thing about football. That’s not going to stop him from earning his swanky $400 a year salary, though.

• Nub Oliver (Charlie Dell, Date Movie) rides around town on a small wagon, delivering newspapers. He’s not what you’d call “bright.”

• Fontana Beausoliel (Linda Gehringer, As Good As It Gets) is the local stripper, but don’t call her that. She considers herself an “artist.”

• Ponder Blue (Ossie Davis, Bubba Ho-Tep) runs the local diner, where the above characters like to hang out, and where Wood can often be found listening to the jukebox. Ponder is also our narrator…in a place called Evening Shade.

What we have here is yet another entry in the “small town filled with quirky characters” genre. With a huge cast to juggle, including a number of other recurring roles, episodes never feel repetitive. Some deal with the Newtons at home. Others center on their relationships with their extended family. Still others are ensemble episodes dealing with a specific aspect of life in town. My personal favorites, though, are the high school-based episodes, which put the spotlight on Reynolds and Jeter, who developed great comedic chemistry as the season went on.

It’s true that the humor is a kinder, gentler sort, but funny is still funny. As I said above, Jeter and Reynolds play off each other excellently, with Jeter’s manic slapstick bouncing right off Reynolds’ deadpan delivery. Charles Durning is another one who always delivers, spouting out a series of almost-but-not-quite-offensive witticisms with his usual great timing. Holbrook’s best scenes are with the kids, especially with young Molly. Her “let’s change the world for the better” conflicts with his “old-timey values” point of view, and their back-and-forth dialogue is another high point.

I might sound like the second coming of Dr. Elldridge by saying this, but, honestly, the ladies don’t fare as well in the acting department. Henner is too often used as the “straight man” for the comedy antics going on around her, but she does get to the usual “sitcom pregnancy” jokes near the end of the season. Ashley and Wentworth’s characters are meant to be the ones who annoy and are over the top. They fill that role OK, but they’re too often just there only so the other characters can hurt jokey putdowns at them.

Still, this was obviously an actor-driven show. I noticed a few instances of mistakes, such as a dropped prop or a flubbed line, being left in the show. On most TV series, these would end up on the outtakes reel, and the actors would do another take. On Evening Shade, however, the actors “cover” for the mistake in the way that stage actors do, when their only audience is the one seated live right in front of them. These little bits didn’t take me out of the show, but instead contributed to the naturalistic, laid-back feel of the series.

Like a lot of first seasons, Evening Shade’s debut year had some kinks to work out before it really got going. The first episode starts out with information overload as we get a quick (too quick?) rundown of all the major characters and their relationships with each other, followed by lengthy scene with Wood and Ava that leans more on the light drama scale than on the light comedy scale. The episode follows Wood throughout a busy day, which is fine, but it doesn’t exactly tell us what type of series this is going to be. The latter two-thirds of the season are better in which the “quaint, down home” feel isn’t laid on as thick, and the cast sticks to straightforward comedy.

Charlie Dell is pretty funny on this show, but I have to admit that his “riding around on a wagon” shtick struck me as awkward. He kneels on the wagon with one leg, and kicks it along the ground with his other leg, and it looks just strange. What’s wrong with just a bicycle? I don’t know, maybe he’s based on someone one of the writers used to know or something.

All 24 episodes of the first season are on this five-disc set. The picture quality is very soft. Some of this might be the overall look of the series, but some of it likely a below par DVD transfer. If nothing else, couldn’t they at least have removed the “In stereo where available” graphic that covers the bottom of the screen at the start of each episode? The 2.0 stereo (where available!) is not flashy, but serviceable. There are no extras.

“It was a hot day that became a warm night. The food and drink kept flowin’ at Ponder Blue’s barbecue villa, where the Newton clan gathered and chatted it up with ol’ Doc Elldridge and his wife. Nub just wheeled through the door on his wagon after another day of deliverin’ papers. He looks like he wants to chat it up with Miss Beausoliel sittin’ at the bar, but instead he parks next to Wood, who’s standin’ by the jukebox, as always. And over there in the corner is that friendly visitor from DVD Verdict. He raises his paper cup full of beer in a toast for our little town, and the townsfolk respond in kind.”

The Verdict

Not guilty…in a place called Evening Shade.

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