Was there ever a show that you loved as a child but then lost track of for a decade or two? If you re-discovered the show again as an adult, did you notice how it felt like seeing an ‘old friend’ once again? How after so many years, you could still vividly recall different elements of the show – story lines, characters, jokes, even the sets?
That is how I feel about Gimme a Break. Actually, it is spelled Gimme a Break! The exclamation point is part of the name but when I place a period after the exclamation point, spell check gives me the dreaded “green-highlight of doom” which just drives me crazy.
Anyhow, the show tells a simple story – Police Chief Karl Kanisky and his three daughters are reeling from the recent death of their beloved mother. Before her death, Margaret Kanisky asks her friend Nell to step in and be a surrogate mother to her children and keep the family together after her passing.
The show certainly deals with this quite a bit, and it is often quite touching but it never delves too deeply into sorrow, for this is first and foremost, an 80’s family sitcom.
I first tuned into GAB for the series debut on October 29th, 1981. When season one bowed on DVD in 2006, I was 34 years old and shocked at how things were coming back to me while watching the show. I knew every detail of the Kanisky house – the living room, kitchen, even the bedrooms! I was also happy to see how many of the actual story lines came back to me as I watched them. I didn’t realize how many times I must have caught these as re-runs back in the day.
Another fact that will hit the retro-minded is how much it brings you back to “that time”. It is amazing how simple the story lines are, mostly because they come from a much simpler time. What did a teenager at that time have to content with on a daily basis? Should I buy an Atari 2600, Intellivision or ColecoVision? How can I get tickets to Devo’s concert? Will I pass my driver’s test? What time should I meet you at the mall tomorrow? So aside from the universal pangs of teenage awkwardness that are still – and always will be – felt, the teen experience was quite different then. Having lived through that time, it is incredible how a show like this can bring those feelings swarming back.
I was 9 years old when the series began and loved it from the start. I guess it was hard not too at that age – the show had some brilliant visual gags and a 9 year old boy would certainly find himself under the beguiling influence of the three charming Kanisky kids – the beautiful Katie, the nerdy Julie and the tomboyish Samantha. They were kids with different personalities that automatically spoke to a wide-range of audience members.
And then there was Nell.
The force of nature that was Nell Carter was unstoppable on this show as it was clearly a star vehicle for her. And as a star, she lost not a single chance to dominate every scene she was in – in a good way. Her comic timing and delivery was perfect and she never stopped being utterly hilarious at every turn. She also was able to flex her acting chops throughout for some of the more dramatic moments. And while said moments were quite often, too sentimental, Nell herself would not let subpar writing bring her down as she was so natural – that it never felt forced.
The first two season of Gimme a Break are wonderful. The chemistry between the actors really made it feel like a ‘family’. In true 80’s sitcom fashion, a good show couldn’t be left alone and GAB unfortunately fell victim to the, “If it ain’t broke – add a little kid to the show” syndrome!
Oh season three, how you toyed with me! For this was when we had to contend with “Joey”. You see, Nell just happens to find an orphan and before you know it – they have a 5 year old in the house!
I will reserve judgment on the other seasons and the direction the show took from this point onwards but I should say that season three also had a new, synthesizer-heavy version of the classic theme song. Fan-boy fact of the day – this was the third version of the theme song. Season two’s version featured the same music backing but with a new, slightly more confident, vocal from Nell Carter. All three versions are classic examples of 80’s sitcom themes.
So, does Gimme a Break! give you the same warm fuzzy feeling?