For a long while now I’ve wanted to write a post about Kate and Allie, the barely-laugh-out-loud comedy that was too quiet to embed itself too deeply into the memories of those of us who grew up in the 1980s. You think of 1980s comedies, you think of the more gregarious fare like Family Ties, Growing Pains, Night Court, The Cosby Show… the NBC lineup that was filmed on large sets and ran on plenty of stunts (of the jumping-the-shark, sitcom kind).
Up until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon Kate and Allie on YouTube, I wouldn’t have recalled the show as part of my childhood. Except, as it turns out, it was, and significantly so. Everything about this show had stirred in me a kind of envy and, even years later, a perhaps unrealistic ideal of what life as an adult woman could be. I, too, wanted to be an ultra-urban kid who lived in New York (having a rich dad in Connecticut, to boot, was not a bad bonus). My favorite book at that time was Remember Me to Harold Square, a New York-set young adult paperback that was really my first introduction to travel guides (in this case disguised as a light novel).
In retrospect, those who remember Kate and Allie see it as a feminist statement, one of the few shows then or since to focus exclusively on the lives of women, both at work and at home (although in this case, home was the primary setting). And it was, of course, although some bits and pieces still make me cringe — specifically that one episode, which I remember so clearly from my youth, when Emma is bothered relentlessly by a boy at school, even after she tells him repeatedly she doesn’t want to date him. Her family is won over by his advances, and as a viewer, now (and maybe then), all I want them to do is say to him, “Dude, back off. She said no.”
What’s remarkable about Kate and Allie is not just the absence of men — it’s the fact that the women’s dating lives were not a priority for the show. Sure, the women had social lives, but their main focus was on the children, their home, their jobs, paying the rent, and looking after one another. They seemed to have more important things to do rather than date, and there was also a subtle “been there, done that” feeling to their romantic encounters, as if — as two divorced women — they looked at the possibility through the lens of experience than giddy, youthful idealism.
It’s why, “Landlady,” Season 2, Episode 2, is so effective. In the episode, Kate’s landlord insists she pay higher rent because, with Allie and her children living there, it’s no longer a single-family dwelling. The women eventually pretend to be a lesbian couple to avoid the rent increase. To their surprise, it turns out the landlord/lady is herself in a relationship with a woman. Quickly, the landlady and her partner want to become friends with Kate and Allie and to introduce them to the local queer community. The rent increase, of course, won’t apply since they are one family (as long as they can keep up the lie). The lie is a point of contention between Kate and Allie, the latter of whom says she “doesn’t want to play ‘Three’s Company.'”
I’d never seen “Landlady,” or even heard of it, until I went Googling for something to say about Kate and Allie a few nights ago. The show was there in my memory, all right, its intelligence, its reality — but I found it hard to describe what the hook was, why, upon reflection it seemed so important to me years later (even if I wouldn’t have listed it as an 80s sitcom of my childhood, like I would have, say, Family Ties.). I came across this article about the episode (I haven’t watched the video on this article yet, so if I repeat some of his observations, that’s accidental) and that was my introduction to “Landlady.”
Watching the episode in its entirety, I was struck by its sensitivity. It was progressive as hell to be that sensitive and aware in 1984. The show’s plot is driven by Allie’s guilt at lying to the landlady (Janet), and then, Janet’s feelings of hurt and betrayal when the ruse is exposed. There’s an expected throwaway line about “what makes a family,” but have no doubt — this was not an episode about single motherhood, or any other deviations from the nuclear family. This show was about gay equality, when it was still perfectly acceptable to socially and legally harass and exclude queer people.
At 17:45 in the episode, while Allie is telling Kate she feels bad about lying to Janet and doesn’t want to go to the gay dance to which they were invited, Kate responds by saying, “I’ll let you lead.” It reminded me immediately of that scene in Friends where Susan, Ross’ ex-wife’s new wife, says the same line. She says it to Ross after the women get married (at 3:50 in the clip below), while thanking him for stepping up to give Carol away after her parents decline to come to the wedding. It may have been mere coincidence, but it seems now like a deliberate reference, from one sitcom where a lesbian couple could form part of an ongoing plotline to an earlier sitcom where just one episode was probably groundbreaking.