Empty Nest

Empty Nest

1988 - United States

“Mulligan won Emmy and Golden Globe recognition for his portrayal of Harry and the show was undoubtedly better than its lack of repeat showings might suggest”

Empty Nest reviewed by Brian Slade

In the 1980s The Golden Girls became an overnight sensation for NBC and it was no different in the UK in its Friday evening Channel Four slot. Its creator Susan Harris was a one-woman production line of successful comedies, most notably Soap and its spin-off, Benson. In 1988, with The Golden Girls at the top of its game, Harris took an unusual step – creating a spin-off where the connection with the parent show was not a senior character, but the neighbourhood in which they lived. While rarely commented upon or repeated these days, the result was a seven-season run for Empty Nest.

At his home in Miami, Dr Harry Weston (Richard Mulligan) has been attempting to get back to some normality after the early death of his wife Libby. His life has been devoted to others, caring for not only his wife but his three (now adult) daughters. With his wife gone and the daughters now moved out with lives of their own, Harry’s only company is his wonderful dog, Dreyfus, a giant bundle of comfort in the form of a golden-brown St Bernard Labrador cross.

Only two of Harry’s daughters are part of his daily life. Barbara is a straight-talking undercover policewoman played by Kirsty McNichol. Her job is a constant source of worry for Harry, fearful of losing another of the important ladies in his life. His interference and concern is not welcomed by Barbara, but he does his best to keep his disapproval to a minimum.

Empty Nest US sitcom

Barbara is the middle daughter. A very different character is her older sister, Carol (Dinah Manoff). Carol has been through the mill with men, including an ex-husband. As such, she has a distinctly cynical approach to much of the world. Men are largely scoundrels never to be trusted and her cynicism stretches to neuroses in other areas, stressing about her father’s cholesterol and love life, constantly trying to manage his life.

Daughter number three Emily is actually the first we hear of, but we don’t see her for a long time. She’s in New York on her studies and her first involvement is calling her father for advice on the correct outfits to wear to an opera. It’s not until the middle of season five that Emily (Lisa Rieffel) returns from college to add to Harry’s headaches.

Empty Nest US sitcom

The main characters in Empty Nest are not limited to Harry’s family. He works as a paediatrician at the local Community Medical Centre and here he gains all manner of quirky advice, wanted or not, from nurse Laverne (Park Overall), a brutally upfront woman from Arkansas. Her advice is often a glimpse into a more direct world – ‘back home we don’t have exes, we just have husbands and corpses!’

Last of the initial crop of main characters is neighbour Charley Dietz (David Leisure). Charley works on a cruise ship and is as glib and dense as he is sleazy. He brags about his behaviour with women, but every woman he encounters sees through him in an instant and largely finds him repulsive. Thankfully for Charley, he is too deluded to be offended. On the rare occurrence he does show some level of humanity there is normally a moment of crass tactlessness following on to restore the natural order.

Empty Nest US sitcom

Empty Nest was given a helping hand early on. In its fourth episode, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), the man-eating element of The Golden Girls, is carrying an obsession for Harry, throwing herself at him in every manner possible, including sneaking into his home and infiltrating his room at the medical centre. Harry does his best to let her down gently, resisting the advice of Laverne to, ‘Shoot her with a tranquiliser gun and move her to Yellowstone.’ The fact that Blanche has a key to Harry’s home is the first connection with The Golden Girls on screen, but the crossovers continued at pace. All four of the girls would appear at various points, in particular Sophia who returns to Miami in season six. In reality, this was the Sophia character continuing after The Golden Girls and its short-lived sequel The Golden Palace had left our screens.

The Golden Girls spun-off Empty Nest

Empty Nest ran for just a few less episodes than The Golden Girls. Unlike its parent show however, it was heavily reliant on one principal character. Richard Mulligan was no stranger to Susan Harris, having played Burt Campbell, the family patriarch who would eventually be captured by aliens and replaced by an overly amorous replica, in Soap. Mulligan plays Harry to perfection…he’s jumpy and reluctant to dive into any new relationships, despite it being 18 months since his wife passed away. Thankfully, his and the girls’ grief is never overplayed, keeping the mood largely light. The daughters themselves are decent enough characters, albeit a little too much like straight characters for others to bounce off. Leisure plays Charley well, ensuring that we have little to no sympathy for such a sleazy person, but keeping him comical enough to tolerate. Laverne is doubtless the scene-stealer in the show, Overall delivering some hysterical lines without a hint of smiling.

Where The Golden Girls was still going strong towards the end of its seven-year run, only disappearing when Bea Arthur decided to end her time on the show, Empty Nest was running out of steam. McNichol’s departure during season five, balanced by Emily’s arrival, was indicative of attempts to save flagging ratings. Increased involvement of Charley and Laverne did the show no favours, nor did the weightier storylines of pregnancies and marriages, and despite attempts to save the show by the more permanent arrival of Estelle Getty as Sophia, later season ratings fell away drastically.

'Empty Nest' spin-off, 'Nurses'
Nurses

Mulligan won Emmy and Golden Globe recognition for his portrayal of Harry and the show was undoubtedly better than its lack of repeat showings might suggest. Harris was also not done, spinning off another show in the neighbourhood for both Harry and The Golden GirlsNurses, a three-season comedy set in the same hospital as Harry’s paediatric office and again featuring many guest spots for the stars of the two shows.

Empty Nest’s success is understandably eclipsed by the remarkable success of The Golden Girls, but it should not be forgotten as a failure, particularly for the most lovable of all television dogs and a chance to see the wonderful Richard Mulligan on such good form.

Published on August 11th, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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