The 1991/1992 Primetime TV Season: 'Walter & Emily'

Post by: Rick Ellis 03 September, 2021

Every television season there are shows that appear on your TV screens almost like a ghost. You didn't have much warning they were coming, they don't make much of an impact while they're there and when they're gone, you almost forget they ever existed.

That was certainly the case with the NBC comedy Walter & Emily, a short-lived series that seems to have a lot going for it on paper. But as the case with a lot of television shows, the execution matters more than the individual parts.

Saturday nights were a problem for NBC in the 1991/1992 primetime season. The Golden Girls & Empty Nest had both been top 10 shows in the ratings the previous season, but ratings were slumping and in fact, this would be the last season for The Golden Girls. The search was on to find some compatible comedies to plug into the gaps and the season began with a lineup that included The Golden Girls/The Torkelsons/Empty Nest/Nurses/Sisters

The upsides for NBC was that Sisters had premiered with a six-episode order the previous May and while it was never a smash hit, it would go on to run for six seasons. Nurses was a also a new show and a spin-off of Empty Nest (which was itself a spin-off of The Golden Girls). The show was also never a smash hit, but it did air for three seasons. But The Torkelsons didn't really mesh with the rest of the night's lineup, although NBC executives liked the show. The Torkelsons was moved to Sundays after ten episodes and would come back the following season as the retooled series Almost Home.

But what to put in that post-Golden Girls timeslot? NBC brought in Walter & Emily, a series that they had passed on when putting together their original fall schedule. The comedy was produced by The Golden Girls team of Witt/Thomas/Harris productions and starred Brian Keith and Cloris Leachman as Walter and Emily Collins, grandparents whose sportswriter son Matt gets divorced and wins custody of his 11-year-old son Zach on the condition that the boy's grandparents are around to help him raise his son.

Aside from the fact that the premise is one of those that is built around something that would likely never happen in real life, the show had a couple of core problems. While The Golden Girls view on aging was mostly positive and optimistic, Walter & Emily Collins were cranky, often unpleasant and as broad as the Atlantic Ocean. Which is an odd creative decision, because while Keith and Leachman were best known to audiences for their surly characters (Keith has previously wrapped up his Hardcastle & McCormick series several years earlier), this comedy pushed that surliness to a point that was often unpleasant to watch.

When I interviewed Cloris Leachman in 2005 while she appearing on Malcom In The Middle, we discussed a number of her previous roles and her memories of Walter & Emily weren't the fondest ones. "I don't think anyone ever figured out the show, " she told me. "When you're working on a show, you can usually tell pretty quickly when they have things dialed in. There was a fair amount of chaos and poor Brian (Keith) was really unhappy. I don't think it was what he was promised and he was too much of a professional to have a meltdown. I'm never happy when a show ends and the work is over. But in this case, I wasn't unhappy, either."

Looking back at the press coverage at the time, there doesn't seem to have been much attention paid to Walter & Emily before it premiered. But the reviews of the series once it debuted were uniformly brutal. 

The Baltimore Evening Sun's Michael Hill described it this way:

"Walter and Emily" takes another page from "The Golden Girls" how-to-succeed handbook -- cast talented older actors so that even if they are saddled with a mediocre script, they can wring every possible laugh out of it.

In this case, it's Brian Keith and Cloris Leachman as our bickering, battling, but loveable, duo. They've been married 38 years and their divorced son has moved back in with them so they can care for his son since his job as a sportswriter is always taking him on the road.

There was only one problem with NBC's carefully laid plans to fit this into their geriatric Saturday night -- it's a lousy show. Oh, Keith can play a curmudgeon with the best of them and he has a nice moment or two, but Leachman has always been a better dramatic actress. The only way she knows how to play comedy is to overplay it. That works in a Mel Brooks movie, but not in a family sitcom.

Mark Harris gave the show a C- in his brief review for "Entertainment Weekly," saying the show had "so much benign crustiness you’d need a trowel to scrape it off:"

Right now, Walter and Emily is being kept afloat solely by the buoyant professionalism of Leachman and Keith, two veterans who work well together and attack their roles with unflagging comic vigor. Rewarding their longevity by sentencing them to play foxy oldsters who need more dietary fiber seems cruel indeed. 

Walter & Emily
did stay on the air for the full 13 week initial order, thanks in large part to a desire by NBC to keep producers Witt/Thomas/Harris happy. But once the show was gone it disappeared almost completely. There's not even an episode of the show on YouTube, which generally has at least an episode or two of even the most obscure television shows.

I did find a promo for the show (which is included below).


Last modified on Tuesday, 25 April 2023 12:28