Wrapping up its fourth season this week, Wings (NBC) proves once again why it’s a hit sitcom that gets little respect: This show set in a small Nantucket commuter-airline terminal is so consistently uneven, it’s impossible to get a handle on it. The episode starts off with a notably unfunny cameo appearance by Ray Charles, and then moves on to its beautifully written primary plot: Crystal Bernard’s Helen thinks her boyfriend, Davis (Mark Harelik), wants to dump her, but he’s actually planning to propose marriage. It’s an amusing, emotionally intricate story line as written by Mark Reisman and Ian Gurvitz, and Bernard does a wonderful job of moving from bitter anger to giddy joy. The episode ends with a twist that’s truly surprising; if you’re a Wings watcher, you certainly won’t want to miss this.
But are you a regular Wings viewer? To be sure, it’s one of the top 20 shows in the Nielsen ratings, and it’s well acted, too, with such skillful performers as Tim Daly and Steven Weber as the Hackett brothers, Joe and Brian. Over the past couple of seasons, Wings has developed a few good supporting characters, such as the tough helicopter pilot played by Farrah Forke and the wry cabdriver, Antonio (Tony Shalhoub). Bernard has moved well beyond the original limits of her role, that of standard-issue blond bombshell, to make Helen smart and ambitious. Best of all is Thomas Haden Church as dimwit mechanic Lowell; Church does TV’s best deadpan idiocy since Woody Harrelson on Cheers.
Still, there’s something too soft at the center of Wing that keeps it from inspiring enthusiasm. Because Daly and Weber share the lead roles, the series doesn’t have one primary hero; the characters of Joe and Brian are always supposed to be appealing and attractive, but beyond that, they’re pretty vague-it’s like a Cheers with two Sam Malones. As if to acknowledge this, the show’s producers have steadily added more and more supporting actors over the years, and by now, Wings is a series ruled by its minor players. This is an offbeat strategy that has kept Wings alive, if not always very lively.