The Odd Couple added depth to a classic “roommates clash” premise

The Odd Couple added depth to a classic “roommates clash” premise

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

It’s one of the simplest premises in television history: Felix Unger is fussy and obsessively clean, and roommate Oscar Madison is a quick-tempered slob. The Odd Couple, like so much TV, is about people learning to coexist. A more far-fetched series, Gilligan’s Island, examined the theme by stranding seven character types somewhere in the South Pacific. From 1970 to 1975, The Odd Couple succeeded in adding some depth to the conceit, having two middle-aged men live at 1049 Park Avenue in New York—a real building seen in the opening credits, which ended in early seasons with a narrator asking, “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”

The series remains one of the rare TV classics that was an adaptation of a successful film (which had, in turn, been adapted from a 1965 Neil Simon play). Co-produced by Garry Marshall (who later created Happy Days and directed Pretty Woman), its writing is sometimes only adequate, and its guest-star gimmicks haven’t all aged well, but the series is a classic because of the joyful chemistry between Tony Randall’s Felix and Jack Klugman’s Oscar. The series finale is bittersweet not because The Odd Couple ended too soon, but because the two actors have come to the end of their 114-episode collaboration. But even cancellation couldn’t keep them apart for long: For decades afterward, they performed together in commercials, in theatrical productions of The Odd Couple, in another Neil Simon play (The Sunshine Boys), and in a 1993 TV-movie sequel, The Odd Couple: Together Again. While it’s unclear how these two characters would have fared as roommates for 25 years, as colleagues, the actors’ differences made for a perfect relationship.

The character of Oscar remained pretty much intact from Broadway to television. Walter Matthau originated the role and reprised it in the 1968 film; the grouchy but slightly more teddy-bearish Klugman was Matthau’s first replacement on stage and a logical choice for the TV version. Art Carney was the first Felix, and Jack Lemmon played him in the movie with his usual gift for pathos, but Randall was not such an obvious fit for a character who—at least in the play and the movie—reacts to his divorce by attempting suicide. At that point, he was mostly known for playing a relentlessly cheerful teacher on one of TV’s earliest sitcoms (Mister Peepers, with Wally Cox) and appearing in several mildly sexual comedies, such as the Rock Hudson–Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk. The most Tony Randall-like thing Felix ever does on The Odd Couple may be writing a song called “Happy And Peppy And Bursting With Love” (in “Felix The Songwriter”).

But the casting works. Randall adds the “manic” to Felix’s depression, and the character crashes hard whenever his enthusiasm leads him astray. (“You always go too far,” Oscar says near the end of several episodes.) Felix can be described as a prototype for the ’90s metrosexual—he must have been a pioneering consumer of moisturizers for men—but his character is even more predictive of how chatty society would become about anxieties and neuroses. In his less hyperactive moments, Felix is candid about his hang-ups (to use a word from his era), a trait that bewilders Oscar but would be considered normal today.

Randall was also unusually fit and athletic, another way he was a surprising choice to play a hypochondriac with sinus problems and a bad back. But he integrates his real-life and fictional qualities to come off as a forerunner to Parks And Recreation’s Chris Traeger. Nothing exemplifies Felix’s physical and emotional states as well as Chris’ description of himself in “The Flu”: “My body is finely tuned like a microchip, and the flu is like a grain of salt. It could literally shut down the entire system.” The difference between the characters is that Felix encounters something comparable to the flu in almost every episode—plus he doesn’t have access to the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication that just may be keeping Chris afloat.

While Oscar is also an indelible character and Klugman is perfect as a foil, Felix is indisputably the protagonist of the series. He has objectives: to improve himself, to “fix” Oscar, and, above all, to reconcile with his ex-wife, Gloria. By contrast, Oscar is happy to be rid of his ex-wife, Blanche (played by his real-life spouse, Brett Somers), and has no greater goals than staying out of debt, testing the limits of his gastrointestinal system, and getting laid every once in a while. Matthew Perry should have considered this before taking the Oscar role in CBS’ upcoming reboot of The Odd Couple, but maybe he has some plan to prevent Thomas Lennon’s Felix from upstaging him. Will the new Oscar have bedbugs? Gonorrhea?

These two characters have become a template for roommate pairings in countless sitcoms, though regular-guy Oscar might be surprised to learn that he has fewer doppelgängers. Most of the successful roommate sitcoms have pitted someone with Felix’s control-freak characteristics against someone with normal hygiene—see Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, Mark and Jeremy on Peep Show, and Monica and Rachel on Friends. But there have been few attempts to replicate Oscar’s shambles of a bedroom. (Felix, in the first episode: “You ever look under your bed? There’s stuff growing under there!” Oscar: “Will you stop exaggerating? That’s a little dust.” Felix: “Lawrence Of Arabia couldn’t make it through such dust!”) Charlie and Frank’s disgusting apartment on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia may be the closest thing, but even Oscar would be appalled by the behavior in episodes such as “Who Pooped The Bed?

Remakes of The Odd Couple—ABC and Marshall tried it in 1982 with Ron Glass (Firefly) as Felix and Demond Wilson (Sanford And Son) as Oscar—seemed unlikely when the show first aired. It got marginal ratings during its first year, when it was a single-camera show with a laugh track, which was the norm for ’60s sitcoms, but few of them were pitched at an adult audience. During the same season, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family revived the practice of taping shows before a live audience, so The Odd Couple switched to the practice in the fall of 1971. The change energized the performances. Randall got to indulge in all kinds of stage business (in one episode, he carries on a conversation while chopping the head off and pulling the guts from a fish), and Klugman played irritation with more physical notes (for example, responding to Felix’s head-shaking disapproval by grabbing his skull and forcing him to nod instead).

Even with this change, the series never made the primetime top 30. Maybe it was too New York centric, and maybe people weren’t yet ready to find the humor in divorce. Another possibility: The Odd Couple didn’t have a strong supporting cast, which put it against the trend toward ensemble sitcoms in the ’70s. Al Molinaro’s doofus cop Murray is the only other character that appears in even half the episodes, though Garry Marshall’s sister Penny is memorable in a couple dozen outings as Myrna, Oscar’s schlumpy secretary. The simplest explanation is that third-place ABC never came up with a good companion series, so The Odd Couple spent most of its run on Friday nights with shows such as The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family.

ABC finally canceled The Odd Couple after it figured out how to get big ratings with teen-oriented shows such as Happy Days. In the series finale, Felix begs Oscar to “help me un-finick myself,” and he remarries Gloria. A few months later, the show went into syndicated reruns and became a classic, proving that a simple premise and strong characters can be more appealing in the long run than the controversial topics of a once-hot show like Maude. Co-dependent relationships never go out of style.

Here are 10 episodes in which Felix and Oscar stop just short of driving each other crazy.

“Blackout” (season one, episode 13): As in the play and the movie, Felix and Oscar’s poker-playing buddies get a lot of screen time in the show’s first season. In “Blackout,” the gang suspects Oscar of theft when a $50 bill goes missing during a brief power failure. Murray, whose large nose inspires one-liners throughout the series, gets a character-defining speech: “Somebody’s gotta enforce the law. If we took crime as a joke, we’d be clowns instead of policemen.” Everyone just stares at him, resisting the temptation to deliver a punchline. The only female role in the episode, that of a Swedish maid, entails looking sexy and acting dumb. Hey, maybe that’s another reason the show didn’t race up the ratings charts.

“Sleepwalker” (season two, episode four): The live-audience version of the show hits its stride. Oscar tries to be nicer to “Mr. Clean” after admitting to his girlfriend, “He lives inside me like a tapeworm, eating away my nerve endings!” Felix’s response to Oscar’s more tolerant attitude: “Instead of working at not being annoyed at me, you should stop being annoying to me.” But Oscar’s repressed anger comes out every night, when he sleepwalks and attacks his roommate with a rolled-up magazine. The pair work things out, but only after one of Felix’s descents into self-pity. (“There is something in me that provokes such terrible hatred… I’m a bad seed, Oscar!”) This episode also firmly establishes that Felix does not like pits in his orange juice. Then again, who does?

“Fat Farm” (season two, episode eight): Proving he’s in top shape, Felix stands on his head and jumps onto a desk (earning Randall applause from the audience), while Oscar can barely make it through a couple of push-ups. After some reluctance (“I like my blubber! It keeps me warm, it keeps me company, it keeps my pants up!”), Oscar comes along for Felix’s annual two-week stay at a health camp that serves imaginary desserts and bans food from the bedrooms. Soon Oscar discovers a delicatessen just down the road and undertakes a smuggling operation. Will Felix rat him out?

“Password” (season three, episode 11): In the show’s most famous (if not necessarily funniest) episode, Felix and Oscar appear on the ABC daytime game show Password. Password is a pretty simple game for the intellectual Felix, but he complicates things by giving Oscar the clue “Aristophanes” for “birds.” Oscar is understandably frustrated: “If Charlie Chan had these clues, he’d be running a laundry!” Despite this fiasco, several other episodes feature the pair on television shows—including another ABC game show, Let’s Make A Deal—with Oscar always being mortified by his too-intense roommate.

“My Strife In Court” (season three, episode 19): This is the one in which amateur defense attorney Felix, representing himself and Oscar in a ticket-scalping case, yells at a witness, “When you assume, you make an ass of you and me!” Even the crusty old judge is impressed, but for no reason other than the love of his own voice, Felix keeps going and publicly ridicules his roommate. Oscar gets revenge by putting Felix on the stand and providing viewers with some backstory. Oscar: “What did your school yearbook say about you?” Felix, reluctantly: “I was voted the boy most likely to interrupt.” We also learn that Felix is responsible for a legal precedent: Gloria was the first woman in New York to be granted a divorce on the grounds of her spouse’s “pestiness.”

“Take My Furniture, Please” (season three, episode 22): Felix redecorates the apartment with modern furniture, including chairs shaped like giant hands, a needlessly complicated clock, and a stylish but non-functional desk. Oscar replaces it all with décor that suggests a fraternity house for guys in their 80s. “Ratso Rizzo had a cuter apartment,” Felix complains to Oscar. “You’ve tried many ways to get me out of here. You’ve tried tricks. You’ve tried anger. You’ve even tried physical expulsion. You finally succeeded with the old standby: bad taste.” Also of note: The Mary Tyler Moore Show used the same plot the season before (“The Square-Shaped Room”), with Rhoda redecorating Lou’s house in a modern style. He didn’t like it, either.

“Gloria Moves In” (season four, episode one): One of the darkest episodes of the series has Gloria staying at Felix and Oscar’s apartment for a few days while her house is being painted. Felix naturally thinks this is a chance to win her back, but he immediately alienates her by criticizing her cooking (runny eggs and more pits in the orange juice!). Just as in the play that started it all, she throws him out of his own home. Though Oscar makes a subtle reference to Felix’s previous suicide attempt, this time his roommate merely gets stupendously drunk and ruins Oscar’s “reunion” poker game with their pals from the first season. It’s a pretty humorous delivery when Felix deals cards and says, “Here comes the card train, choo-choo-choo,” but his character is never more pathetic than at the end of “Gloria Moves In.”

“Last Tango In Newark” (season four, episode two): The Odd Couple featured a lot of ABC personalities and sports figures (including Howard Cosell, Alex Karras, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King), so it was only fair that Randall occasionally got to interact with guest stars from opera and ballet. “Last Tango” has New York City Ballet principal dancer Edward Villella improbably letting Felix co-teach a group of children in rehearsal for Swan Lake. Felix seizes the lead male role when Villella is late for a performance, with Randall doing a slightly hammy turn while reminding viewers that his first big break was a dance duet in a 1953 Broadway musical called Oh, Captain! Felix also gets Oscar to attend a ballet class and stumble through the role of “the hunter” onstage. (Felix: “Why won’t you go to ballet appreciation class? Because there’s a stigma attached? I go.” Oscar: “That’s the stigma.”)

“The Flying Felix” (season four, episode 16): Fear of flying was a socially acceptable neurosis long before everyone started sharing stories about anxiety attacks. Leave it to Felix to take his phobia to the limit, freaking out on a jet that hasn’t left the runway. This episode is a good illustration of the big difference between Felix and another famous control freak, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon, who also shows signs of Asperger’s syndrome, is oblivious to social cues, but Felix has the opposite problem, overreacting to anything that he perceives as a slight. When the flight attendant (remember it’s The Odd Couple, so it’s a ditzy stewardess) gets a bit impatient with him, he complains to Oscar: “Sarcasm. That certainly inspires confidence.” Oscar’s reasonable response: “You inspire sarcasm.” After Felix bolts from the plane, he and Oscar end up on a chartered flight, leading to one of the show’s most memorable sight gags. Also: Teri Garr has a bit part selling insurance to Felix, Oscar, and a priest.

“New York’s Oddest” (season four, episode 21): In the last two seasons, Felix’s ambitions go far beyond his spotless kitchen. He tries to get New Yorkers to be more compassionate when he and Oscar are trapped on a stuck train in “The Subway Story,” he pushes Oscar into running for the city council in “The Odd Candidate,” and he organizes fellow tenants in the show’s most epic installment, “The Rent Strike.” In “New York’s Oddest,” he organizes a civilian crime patrol for his building and immediately turns into The Andy Griffith Show’s Barney Fife, boasting, “I can smell a crime from a mile away.” Inevitably, his neighbors get so sick of Felix’s antics they side with a burglar over the whistle-blowing pest. But in all of the “Felix goes big” episodes, Oscar comes to his defense when everyone else turns against him. As Randall and Klugman explain on the album The Odd Couple Sings, “When other friendships have been forgot, ours will still be hot.”

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Laundry Orgy” (season one, episode one); “The Jury Story” (season one, episode four); “The Breakup” (season one, episode five); “Being Divorced Is Never Having To Say I Do” (season two, episode 11); “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Pencil” (season three, episode four); “The Odd Monks” (season three, episode five); “The Odd Couples” (season three, episode seven); “The New Car” (season four, episode six); “The Rent Strike” (season five, episode 17); “Felix Remarries” (season five, episode 22).

Availability: The complete series is available on DVD, and many full episodes are on YouTube.

Next time: They made a Twilight Zone in the ‘80s? Yeah! And it wasn’t half-bad either! Phil Dyess-Nugent tells you which episodes to check out from it.

Filed Under: TV, The Odd Couple

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