By the 1980’s, the American nuclear family was becoming an endangered species on US television, with a growing number of fictional households run by a single parent because of divorce or other circumstances. Kate & Allie personified that trend by featuring two newly divorced women who decide to combine their households in one crowded New York apartment. Despite their differences, they made it work. And so did this well-written, well-acted sitcom.
High school friends Kate McArdle (Susan Saint James) and Allie Lowell (Jane Curtin) were not alike. Kate was more assertive but not terribly domestic. Allie was a modern incarnation of Donna Reed, more uptight and practical. Not only did Kate and Allie bring their personalities to their Greenwich Village home, they brought their children. Kate had young Emma (Ari Meyers); Allie was the devoted mom to Chip and Jennie (Frederick Koehler and Allison Smith).
Kate & Allie was the brainchild of producer Sherry Coben, who noticed at her high school reunion that there were many divorced women, and they tended to gather together. With that in mind, Coben created the series and shopped it around. It caught the attention of Michael Ogiens, who was head of New York program development at CBS. He liked the single parent theme and helped get the show approved by the network. By chance, Saint James was under contract to CBS for a series at the time. She had been known for such light dramatic series as The Name Of The Game and McMillan And Wife, but Saint James liked the Kate & Allie script, and the role of Kate. She demanded that the show be taped before a live studio audience in New York City, and CBS agreed. Saint James enlisted her friend, former Saturday Night Live regular Curtin, to play Allie. Curtin was one of SNL's original Not Ready For Prime Time Players, along with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner. (Curtin and Saint James also co-starred with Jessica Lange in the 1980 comedy film How To Beat The High Cost Of Living.)
Kate & Allie debuted as a midseason replacement on March 19th, 1984. Despite its late start, the show immediately jumped into the top ten. Saint James and Curtin made an excellent team, and the scripts focused on such issues as parenting, dating after divorce, and getting along with ex-spouses. (Most episodes were directed by the legendary Bill Persky, who worked on such comedies as The Dick Van Dyke Show and That Girl. Kate’s ex was part-time actor Max; Allie was divorced from Charles (played occasionally by Paul Hecht).
By the fall of 1987, Kate left her job as a travel agent and joined forces with Allie to start a successful catering service. Although the two women went on dates during the series, it was shy Allie who had the most success in the romance department. In 1988, she met and Bob Barsky (Sam Freed). By this time, Kate and Allie’s daughters had gone to college. To make sure the two women stayed together, Allie asked Kate to move into her high-rise apartment to keep her and Chip company while Ted went out on sports assignments. Both continued to work as caterers, but the original magic that made the premise work was gone. (By this time, Persky had left his directing chores, and new producers were brought in.) In its final season, Kate & Allie became more of a traditional domestic comedy without the distinctive feel that marked the early years. (The ratings were also sliding, not helped by the network’s decision to shuffle the show around its Monday night schedule.) CBS aired the final episode on September 11th, 1989.
Jane Curtin won two Emmy awards for her role as Allie Lowell, and Persky picked up one for directing the show’s first season. After Kate & Allie, Curtin went on to even more sitcom success as Doctor Mary Albright on Third Rock From The Sun. Saint James has guest-starred on a number of television series in recent years. One of those appearances has to make her proud: She guest starred on The Drew Carey Show as the mother of series regular (and niece) Christa Miller. (Years earlier, Miller auditioned for a guest shot on Kate & Allie, and got the role without any help from her aunt.)
While not really groundbreaking entertainment, Kate & Allie was well-done and blessed with two very funny women as leads. Their chemistry helped the show gain a following, and it remains one of the best-remembered US sitcoms of the 1980’s.
Published on December 28th, 2018. Written by Mike Spadoni (May 2001) for Television Heaven.