Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wings wasn’t the best sitcom of the ’90s, but here are 10 episodes that show the heights it could hit

Gif: Natalie Peeples

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent 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. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

Wings isn’t likely to top anyone’s “best TV shows” list. But it’s probably difficult to find someone who was of TV-viewing age in the 1990s who isn’t at least slightly familiar with the sitcom, which celebrates its 30th anniversary on Sunday, April 19. Not only was the series a major component of various NBC weeknight lineups from 1990 to 1997—starting out among the network’s “Must See” Thursday sitcoms—Wings was also a popular choice for syndication. If you had a hole in your broadcast schedule, the sheer multitude of Wings episodes could easily fill it. At some point in the pre-streaming era, viewers could watch Wings several times a day, enjoying its very specific brand of Nantucket airport charm. It’s ’90s sitcom comfort food.

The show had a lot going for it, even if it wasn’t super-flashy—primarily, the chemistry between its two very charismatic leads. Tim Daly and Steven Weber were both relative unknowns before Wings: Daly had a small part in the 1982 movie Diner, Weber had started in soaps. They played odd-couple siblings Joe and Brian Hackett, pilots who frequently competed for love interests. Joe was the Felix, the type who, as Brian points out in the pilot, puts a Post-it on an empty drawer to mark it as empty. Brian was the less-responsible Oscar, a NASA dropout who favored shirts that resembled pajama tops and outlandish ties.

The brothers ran a single-plane airline called Sandpiper Air on the island, backed by a cast of familiar sitcom types: Crystal Bernard’s Helen was the Hacketts’ childhood friend and ran the lunch counter at Tom Nevers Field when she wasn’t trying to kick off her career as a cellist; Thomas Haden Church played Lowell, the offbeat mechanic; David Schramm was Roy, the Hackett’s obnoxious competitor; Rebecca Schull played Faye, Sandpiper’s sweet, elderly ticket agent; and Tony Shalhoub followed up a humorous season-two guest spot as a waiter to join the show’s third season as Antonio, an Italian cab driver. The vast majority of the series took place in the flexible setting of a regional airport, with scenes easily moving between the ticket terminal, lunch counter, Joe’s office, or the airplane hangar.

If this sounds even remotely similar to another Massachusetts-set workplace comedy from the era, it’s because Wings had a Cheers pedigree: Creators David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee all came to Nantucket from the place where everybody knows your name, whose patrons would show up at the airport from time to time. That included the Cheers character Angell, Casey, and Lee eventually spun off into his own show: Kelsey Grammer’s season-three guest shot as Dr. Frasier Crane was responsible for one of Wings’ three Emmy nominations, via a one-off technicality that allowed guest actors and series regulars to compete in the same categories—the same tweak that gave Tyne Daly (Tim’s older sister) her Emmy nod for that season’s aptly named “My Brother’s Keeper.”

Most Wings episodes unfurl the way you’d expect: The cold opens are predictably corny, and plots revolve around Joe and Brian standing off over everything from a UFO sighting to their long-lost mother; Joe and Helen’s endless will-they/won’t-they (they finally married toward the end of the series); and various squabbles among the Tom Nevers crowd. (Helen thinks Faye hasn’t paid her lunch bill, Joe accidentally smashes Lowell’s hand-crafted blimp, etc.). Some of the show’s humor has not aged very well: various fat-shaming jokes related to Helen’s formerly obese past, an unfortunate episode where Roy refuses to accept his son coming out to him, and some oddly casual transphobia, like Joe trying to deflect an admirer of Helen by telling him she used to be a man. Also, Wings fashion was wholly and painfully a product of the ’90s: Check out the scrunchies worn by Helen, large as grapefruit. And you can count on someone to sport an ugly vest in nearly every episode.

But every once in a while, Wings would land on sitcom greatness—sometimes thanks to another stunning guest star or the show’s willingness to go completely off the rails, but sometimes just due to the creators’ and cast’s innate ability to tap into some achingly relatable ties between people. As Tim Daly told The A.V. Club in 2014:

I hadn’t really appreciated Wings until sort of recently. When I was doing it, I had a great time, because there were a lot of really talented people, and we laughed a lot—it was very funny. […] But, you know, it didn’t get very good reviews, and it wasn’t, like, hip, you know?

It wasn’t Seinfeld, it wasn’t Friends, it didn’t really have a reputation as a “hot” show, and—it kind of made me feel a little bad. I was like, “Hey, how come nobody likes this show?” Well, in retrospect, being many years removed from it, I look back at it, and that show was really fucking great! […] I don’t know why we didn’t get the credit we deserved at the time. But it’s odd—now people think of it as a classic TV show. Critics, maybe not, but the citizens or whoever seem to think it was one of the all-time greats.

Here are 10 selections out of the series’ 172 episodes that sum up the sitcom legacy of Wing—all of which are available to stream on Hulu if you’re looking for a ’90s-era binge-watch right about now.

“Legacy” (season 1, episode 1)

The pilot not only deftly puts all the pieces of Sandpiper Air in place, it also perfectly sets up the dynamic between the brothers Hackett, who are the backbone of the series. Joe and Brian haven’t spoken in six years after Brian ran off with Joe’s fiancé Carol and married her; a newly single Brian is returning to Nantucket to claim what he assumes is the hefty inheritance left by their recently deceased father. The opposite personalities are immediately apparent, and Brian’s constant heckling softens up Joe’s stuffed-shirt persona. After a wild goose chase, the two finally find a picture of them together from their childhood, with the message “You are rich.” Realizing that their dad set this all up to reunite them, Joe hires Brian to work at Sandpiper, kicking off eight seasons of butting heads between brothers.

“A Standup Kind Of Guy” (season 2, episode 5)

This early episode is a perfect example of the way Wings could, unexpectedly, be devastatingly effective, going right for the gut. Joe gets a call from his old high school pal Jerry Stark (Kelly Connell) asking him to be his best man; the only problem is that Joe has no recollection of Jerry, and neither do Brian or Helen. The misunderstandings escalate rapidly, as Joe inadvertently hires Jerry’s old flame to be entertainment at his bachelor party, messing with the wedding plans. Joe eventually blows up at Jerry, demanding to know how they know each other. Turns out, popular sports star Joe was nice to Jerry in high school, calling out, “Hey buddy” when passing him in the hallway, and occasionally picking him for his team in gym class. Jerry is heartbreakingly earnest about how much Joe’s attention meant to him, and the episode is a sweet reminder of the positive effect we may be having on people when we don’t even realize it.

“Airport ’90” (season 2, episode 12)

“A Stand-Up Kind Of Guy” proved that Wings didn’t have to generate all of its storylines from the runway, hangar, or cockpit. But on the other hand: Why waste a perfectly good airport setting? When Helen wants to learn how to fly, she and Brian take off in the Sandpiper plane, and Brian accidentally falls down in the cabin and knocks himself out. Near-novice Helen then has to land the plan by herself, Airport-style, while Joe talks her down from the tower. It’s a genuinely exciting sequence you’re not often going to find on a sitcom, highlighted by the show’s flyboy jargon. Naturally, Helen’s eventual brush with death leads her and Joe to finally admit their feelings for each other, kicking off several years of their relationship-go-round. But the highlight of “Airport ’90” may be how space cadet Lowell kicks into super-efficient survival mode while preparing the runway for Helen’s emergency landing.

“Planes, Trains, And Visiting Cranes” (season 3, episode 16)

Frasier Crane enters the Wings universe when he travels to Nantucket to give a seminar with the eternally deadpan Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) in tow (“Now, you know how I feel about these seminars…” “Yes dear, I know how you feel about everything.”) It’s fun to watch the acerbic Crane marriage play out in a different arena, but even more enjoyable as the two settings collide: Upon arrival, Frasier is called out by Helen, who took one of his seminars before and calls it a crock. Naturally, everyone then winds up riding “The Crane Train To Mental Well-Being,” where things quickly spiral out of control when Helen, Joe, and Brian all bring their various deep-seated resentments to the surface. Kelsey Grammer earns that Emmy nomination by undergoing a series of shouty breakdowns, all while wearing an engineer cap and a whistle as part of Frasier’s failed, pre-broadcast attempt at pop psychology.

“Goodbye, Old Friend” (season 4, episode 20)

For all the charm of the Hackett brothers, like all successful sitcoms, Wings relies a lot on the strength of the background players in its ensemble. This season four episode is one of Thomas Haden Church’s best, as Lowell is tasked with writing the eulogy for the elderly mechanic who was like a second father to him. Lowell wanders around spouting awkward couplets for most of the episode, until he figures out that the best way to honor his mentor is to finish working on the antique plane the old man dearly loved. In one of the show’s sweetest moments, Lowell proudly shows the plane to an impressed Joe; when he admits, “I just wish I knew how to fly,” Joe immediately agrees to take him up. There’s also a minor but cute B-story about the Hacketts having to keep an exhausted Helen up for 18 straight hours, bringing the show’s original three musketeers back together again.

“Date Package Number Seven” (season 4, episode 22)

Desert Storm vet Alex Lambert (Farrah Forke) became the latest in a long string of women for the Hackett brothers to fight over when she started working at the airport in season four. Things finally reach a head at the end of the season, when Brian finally coerces her to go on a date with him. Alex thinks it’s the most spontaneously romantic evening ever until Joe and Helen inform her that she actually went on Brian’s “date package number seven,” a night specially planned to assure romantic greatness, right down to the tandem bike set up under an oak tree. Brian eventually convinces her that he only went that route because he was so desperate to impress her, and he kicks off his only longterm relationship of the series. Weber and Forke have a steamy chemistry (his goofiness, her strength) perfect for strings of sitcom episodes, and it was nice to see him finally getting ahead of Joe in the love department for once. This episode also contains one of the show’s best cold opens, when Antonio, Lowell, Brian, and Joe fall into an impromptu jam session using objects around the office.

“Joe Blows” (season 5, episodes 7 and 8)

From the second Wings dawned, Joe Hackett was the stalwart foundation of the series: The guy who loves his labelmaker too much, who can never drop any of his responsibilities because his brother, his friends, and all of Sandpiper Air depend on him. This all comes to a head in this high-energy two-parter, which kicks off with Joe floating face-down in a pool à la Sunset Boulevard (whose main character is also named Joe). In part one, Joe is pummeled by everyone else’s problems, like co-signing a loan for Antonio, or hearing about Helen’s and Brian’s relationship troubles. He finally snaps, having a public meltdown in the middle of the airport when he realizes that he himself has no one to turn to: “Where do I go when it finally dawns on me that my life sucks?” Turns out, he heads to Florida to become a party boy, while Brian attempts to run the airline. It’s an impressive showcase for Daly, who somehow transitions from an unbridled version of a character we’ve grown to love into an unrecognizable sun-drenched beach god. But Weber steps up as well, as Brian finds his own way to run the airline that’s entirely different from Joe’s, leading to a whole new partnership for the brothers.

“Death Becomes Him” (season 7, episode 3)

Wings was sagging a bit toward the end of its run, but this slapstick-filled episode is a fun must-watch. Joe and Brian are hired by the island’s richest family to go bring back the Howard Hughes-like patriarch’s body from Miami. But a hungover Joe accidentally signs for the wrong casket, and hijinks ensue as Brian convinces Joe to dress up as the dead body for the viewing while they wait for the correct casket to show up. Naturally, Joe can’t keep perfectly still at the open-casket wake, leading to some outlandish reactions (Antonio just passes out cold), highlighted by a shocking twist ending.

“Final Approach, Part 2” (season 8, episode 24)

For its last episode, Wings wisely revisits its first: that suitcase from the Hacketts’ dad resurfaces yet again. Somehow after all these years, no one realized that there was actually cash in the lining, sending Joe and Brian on an elaborate quest that resembles the one in the pilot. This time, though, the locker key they find reveals more money, changing the brothers’ outlooks significantly. Brian is all ready to depart for a desert island somewhere until he learns that Helen has been offered a chance to go study the cello in Vienna. So he offers to stay back and run the airline so that Joe and Helen can take off instead; as he tells Joe, “It’s your turn.” It’s a poignant role reversal of the two brothers’ destinies, as Brian finally grows up and Joe finally loosens up enough to be able to leave his own life behind to follow his wife’s dream. As the Hackett brothers essentially switch places, after so many episodes, Wings wraps up as well as any sitcom could hope for.

And if you liked those, here are 10 more: “Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places” (season two, episode 17); “Murder She Roast” (season two, episode 21); “Stew In A Stew” (season three, episode 14); “Lifeboat” (season four, episode one); “What The Cabbie Saw” (season four, episode 12); “2 Good 2 B 4 Gotten” (season five, episode nine); “A Decent Proposal” (season five, episode 24); “The Spark And How To Get It” (season six, episode four); “Here It Is: The Big Wedding” (season seven, episode 24); “Burnin’ Down The House, Part Two” (season eight, episode two).

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.