"The Odd Couple" was a rare television show because, like "M*A*S*H," it was able to equal or surpass the popular film version. Based on Neil Simon's 1965 Broadway hit, the 1968 film gave us Jack Lemmon as the fussy and fastidious Felix Unger, a photographer who moved in with his slovenly and sloppy friend, sportswriter Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau). But while those two made the perfect oil and water combination, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman settled just as comfortably into their roles as two men recently separated from their wives. In fact, the pair was so good that they both received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for each of the show's five seasons. That's almost unheard of.
Watching Randall now, it's hard to think of him as anything or anyone but Felix Unger, who wears an apron while he cooks and insists that all of the men's poker-playing buddies use coasters. With every nasal passage-clearing honk and each fussy gesture, Randall made Unger his character every bit as much as Carroll O'Connor made Archie Bunker his, or Henry Winkler made "The Fonz" his own. Same with Klugman, whose enthusiasm for his sportswriting job is equaled by his powerful indifference to Felix's house rules.
More than other comedies from Marshall ("Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Mork & Mindy"), "The Odd Couple relied upon comedy of character and witty dialogue, rather than slapstick or comedy of situation. That's one reason why the show holds up so well. Another is that the characters and relationships are so well developed. The tagline, "Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?," could have made for a simplistic opposites-don't-attract show. But Felix and Oscar genuinely like each other--enough to stick their neck out for the other, if push comes to shove (as it literally did one episode when Felix dons boxing gloves on Oscar's behalf to take on a hockey-playing behemoth).
But Season 4 dropped a stitch in the comedy department. The first three seasons featured clever exchanges in almost every scene, which took the burden off of plot. Ordinary stories were made interesting by the writing. By Season 4, though, the writers started to reach for situations they hadn't done before, and the focus on narrative took away from the clever writing. The season began with a weaker episode, "Gloria Moves In," which lacked the pizzazz the show had come to be known for. And why begin with a third wheel when it was mano y mano that made for the laughs? This season, the writers seemed to have "flashback" on their minds, as there are an inordinate number of frame shows that offer recollections. In fact, some of these shows are among the season's weakest. Fans can breathe easy that there are at least as many strong shows to counterbalance the duds. "Cleanliness is Next to Impossible" is a hilarious reversal as Oscar becomes a born-for-the-first-time neat freak after a girl confirms what Felix has been telling him for years: He's a slob. "New York's Oddest" is a fun episode that has Felix and Oscar joining the Police Reserve.
Season 4 also saw an influx of guest stars. Game show host Monty Hall makes an appearance, as does Playboy dude Hugh Hefner, tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, platter spinner Dick Clark, dancer Edward Villella, former Detroit Lions star Alex Karras, singer-bombshell Jaye P. Morgan, deejay Wolfman Jack, opera star Marilyn Horne, and actors John Byner and Teri Garr. Even producer Garry Marshall makes an appearance. And in Season 4, Marshall's sister, Penny, gets more airtime as Oscar's secretary.
Here's a rundown on the 22 episodes, which are presented on four single-sided discs and housed on "pages" in a standard-sized clear plastic keep-case:
1) "Gloria Moves In." Felix's ex-wife is having her house painted, and when Felix offers her a place to stay he gets his hopes up for a reconciliation, driving Oscar and Gloria (Janis Hansen) nuts in the process. A poor season opener.
2) "Last Tango in Newark." This bounce-back funny episode has Felix dragging Oscar to a ballet appreciation dance, and Felix taking control after Edward Villella is late for a performance of Swan Lake.
3) "Odd Decathalon." Stung by Oscar's lower insurance rates, Felix challenges Oscar to a competition to determine who's in the best physical shape. Okay episode.
4) "That Was No Lady." Felix succumbs to the charms of a woman who turns out to be the bored wife of an extremely jealous NFL football player. Former Detroit Lion Alex Karras guest stars in this funny episode.
5) "Odd Holiday." So-so flashback episode tells the story of how Felix, Oscar and their wives went on vacation together to try to save Oscar's marriage.
6) "The New Car." After Oscar wins a car in a radio contest because of Felix's coaching, parking turns out to be a real nightmare . . . almost as much as Felix's refusal to sell the car.
7) "That is the Army Mrs. Madison." Weak episode tells the flashback story of why Oscar isn't in his own wedding photo.
8) "The Songwriter." Another weak one has Oscar dating singer Jaye P. Morgan, which somehow has Felix thinking he can write a song in time for her next show. Elinor Donahue guests as Felix's significant other, Miriam.
9) "Felix Directs." So-so episode has Felix making a documentary film about his roommate, and attracting the attention of a real producer.
10) "The Pig Who Came to Dinner." Oscar loses his shirt (and the apartment and all its contents, Felix included) to hustler Bobby Riggs, forcing Felix to come up with a plan to win it all back. Amusing enough, if you remember the Riggs/King hype.
11) "Maid for Each Other." Funny episode has Felix going on strike, Oscar binging on junk food, and Felix hiring a woman to help around the house (Reta Shaw) to compensate.
12) "The Exorcists." Another funny one has Felix convinced the ghost of a former tenant has taken up residence in their air conditioner.
13) "A Barnacle Adventure." Okay episode about Oscar and his dentist trying to get Felix to come onboard as an investor in a new glue made of barnacles.
14) "The Moonlighter." One of the season's best episodes has Oscar slinging hash at a greasy-spoon diner to try to make extra money to pay off a loan, and Felix "saving" him by hiring him as an assistant.
15) "Cleanliness is Next to Impossible." Another of the season's best has Oscar trying to be as neat as Felix after he dates a woman who's turned off by his slovenliness.
16) "The Flying Felix." How many times have we seen this before in a sitcom? Felix is afraid to fly, and so Oscar agrees to accompany him. Some funny lines, though.
17) "Vocal Girl Makes Good." Another of Randall's self-indulgences. This time, it's Marilyn Horne as the guest, who plays a shy new discovery of Felix's who won't sing unless Oscar is also in Felix's little opera. Either you're going to love this one, or hate it.
18) "Shuffling off to Buffalo." When Felix's brother in Buffalo offers him a job, Oscar thinks his dream has come true and his fussy roommate might actually be moving out. William Redfield guests as brother Floyd.
19) "A Different Drummer." Felix tries to reassemble his old college band to perform on a nostalgia show hosted by "Let's Make a Deal" mainstay Monty Hall.
20) "The Insomniacs." Felix can't sleep, and that means neither can Oscar. A simple premise, but the writers rise to the occasion.
21) "New York's Oddest." After Felix delivers a baby and Oscar gets mugged, they get fed up with citizen indifference. So Felix joins the Police Reserve, and drags Oscar along to be his partner. One of the season's best.
22) "One for the Bunny." You'd think with a premise like this (Felix gets his first big assignment to photograph a Playboy centerfold) this show would be one of the best. It's entertaining enough, but you walk away thinking the season finale could have been better.
What a pleasant surprise "The Odd Couple" was, in terms of production values! So many of the Marshall sitcoms on DVD are fuzzy or grainy, with color bleed and poorly defined edges. But this first season is in great shape, which makes me wonder whether Neil Simon insisted on their using a higher quality film stock. Whatever the reason, the picture is much sharper. Even the title sequence, which is so poor on many series, is relatively clear, with a good amount of detail. "The Odd Couple" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also a notch above what we're used to seeing, with a Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono that sounds as if it could be 2.0 Stereo at times. Though it's mostly dialogue and (unfortunately) laugh-track, you really pick up on the audio quality during musical segues.
There are no bonus features.
Season 4 was a step off the comedic pace set by "The Odd Couple" its first three seasons, but it's still entertaining. The handful of disappointing episodes were at least offset by twice as many strong ones, and the rest were amusing enough.