TV reunions try to recapture that old magic

Tonight’s episode of Happily Divorced will reunite Fran Drescher with her Nanny costar Renee Taylor, and it was recently announced that the show’s first-season finale will feature a guest spot from another Nanny alum, Charles Shaughnessy. It got us thinking about other TV reunions that have come and gone, and how getting old costars together in a new setting is often just used for a quick sight gag — and, of course, a nice ratings bump. But then there are other times when it’s a full-fledged new venture. Take Drescher and Shaughnessy, for instance, who also reunited full-time for the comedienne’s short-lived Living With Fran a few years back.

None of these reunions will make you forget why we loved these folks together in the first place, but they all stirred the warm and fuzzies that comes with comfort-food TV:

Hot in Cleveland

TV Land’s first original show gets a special entry all its own, as it has become a reliable resource for onscreen reunions. Betty White memorably shared a jail cell with Mary Tyler Moore in the second-season opener; John Mahoney cracked wise with his old Frasier pal Jane Leeves in an episode earlier this year, and Bonnie Franklin made an appearance with her One Day at a Time daughter Valerie Bertinelli. Here’s hoping George Segal can stop by and check in on his Just Shoot Me pal Wendie Malick. It’s not like he’d have to go very far. He’s also on TV Land, playing a randy senior citizen on Retired at 35.

Michael Gross/Meredith Baxter & Michael J. Fox (Spin City)

Michael J. Fox got to work with both of his Family Ties parents many years later on Spin City, and his character even had the same relationship with one of them. Meredith Baxter played Mike Flaherty’s mother, who inadvertently got involved with a sex scandal with the mayor of New York. Michael Gross showed up in a clever cameo in Fox’s final two episodes as a replacement for his regular therapist. He’s introduced just as Fox’s character is complaining to his regular doctor on the phone that he’s afraid  he won’t be able to bond with this new guy. What are the odds, he says, that he’ll feel that immediate connection with this stranger? You know, like a father? I had occasion to speak with Gross not long ago, and he still fondly recalled the experience, saying, “That was a great setup.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus & Jason Alexander (The New Adventures of Old Christine)

In the third-season finale of Louis-Dreyfus’ comedy — you know, the one that officially ended the Seinfeld curse — Alexander played her gynecologist, Dr. Palmer, who informs Christine that she may be entering menopause. There’s a bit of an awkward moment as Alexander reveals himself, after having been under a hood giving Christine her exam, when the actor seems to pause to give the live studio audience an opportunity to hoot and holler at recognizing him. Only it never really happens. The moment just sort of passes, and we’re onto the next scene. That aside, it’s a pretty funny bit, with Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus switching their well-known personas, having him come across as the sane, responsible one, while she acts like a delusional nitwit.

Courteney Cox & Jennifer Aniston (Dirt)

For her first post-Friends starring role, Courteney Cox played ruthless tabloid editor Lucy Spiller in FX’s gleefully sleazy drama, Dirt. In what the creators must have felt was an extremely clever conceit, the real-life paparazzi target would now be on the other side, invading fictional celebrities’ privacy and neglecting journalistic standards all in the name of getting the latest gossip. By the season finale, though, the show needed some juice, so in comes Cox’s old Friends costar, and fellow paparazzi magnet, Jennifer Aniston. She had a decent setup, playing a rival tabloid editor who shares a colorful past (i.e., the kind that’s the subject of male fantasy) with Lucy. But really, it was just an excuse to see the two ladies in a lesbian lip-lock. The kiss itself was brief and relatively tasteful, but everyone involved knew it would get people talking. Aniston even joked to People magazine at the time about how she knew the press would eat it up. All told, Dirt managed to stick around one more (abbreviated) season, and we never got to see — or even hear much about — Aniston’s character again.

Johnny Galecki & Sara Gilbert (The Big Bang Theory)

They were the goth-nerd couple that for many seasons was the heart of Roseanne, and their flame was briefly reignited on The Big Bang Theory, this time with as a nerd-nerd couple. The move was so popular with fans that Gilbert was actually promoted from a recurring guest star to a full-time regular, until a few months later when the writers decided they didn’t have enough material for her. But it’s worked out fine for everybody. Gilbert used her stint on the popular show to reintroduce herself to the general public and launch The Talk, while Galecki has continued to thrive on Big Bang.

Patricia Heaton & Doris Roberts (The Middle)

New show, same adversarial relationship. Roberts tortured Heaton as her perennially disapproving mother-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond, and picked up where she left off as an elementary school teacher to one of Heaton’s children in The Middle. Only this time, Roberts’ character is clearly in the right, which makes her deadpan yet incredibly judgmental delivery all the more wicked. Hearing the quintessential buttinsky mom preach about overparenting is comedy gold.

Bill Cosby & Phylicia Rashad (Cosby)

The Cos did what so many male TV stars do upon their return to TV: He went grumpy. (Tim Allen’s upcoming Last Man Standing is only the latest and most putrid example.) As Hilton Lucas, a downsized airline worker forced into retirement, the affable comic traded his likable Cliff Huxtable persona for a more curmudgeonly, get-off-my-lawn view of modern life. Making the transition more palatable was the addition of Rashad, who replaced the actress originally cast as Lucas’ wife. Their playfully combative relationship from The Cosby Show was mostly just plain old combative on Cosby, but the reunion of one of TV’s most famous couples helped the series stay on four seasons.

John Schneider & Tom Wopat (Christmas Comes to Willow Creek)

The Dukes of Hazzard featured a lot of exciting car chases and good-ole-boy fun, but one place it never went for excitement was family drama. Bo and Luke Duke were always on the same side, you know, never meaning no harm. But in the 1987 TV movie, Christmas Comes to Willow Creek, the duo played truck-driving brothers who just don’t get along. It takes a treacherous drive through an Alaskan snowstorm to get them to reconcile. The pair went on to get together for several Dukes of Hazzard movies, but this effort still resonates for many who consider it a yuletide classic — at least if the customer reviews on Amazon are to be believed.

Photo: Copyright: Greg Gayne