Series / Gimme a Break!

Gimme a Break! was an American sitcom that ran on NBC for six seasons (1981-1987), starring Nell Carter as Nell Harper, a once-aspiring singer who became a housekeeper for the Kaniskys, patriarch Carl (the local chief of police) and his daughters, Katie, Julie and Samantha. Later additions to the cast included Stanley Kanisky (Carl's father), Adelaide Wilson (Nell's best friend, played by Thelma Hopkins), adopted son Joey (Joey Lawrence) and Nell's mother, Maybelle.

Most of the show's humor came from the clashes of culture (Nell, the Sassy Black Woman from the South vs. straightlaced second-generation Polish Chief Kanisky) and generation (Nell and Carl vs. the girls) in a otherwise standard 80s Dom Com setting. After the death of Dolph Sweet (Carl) after Season 4, the series continued for a season with Nell as the sole head of the Kanisky household. For the final season, the show underwent a Re Tool, with most of the cast (minus the older Kanisky daughters) moving to New York City.

The series contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents : Carl slaps Katie in the series pilot, which was Fair for Its Day, but unheard of today.
  • Amazing Freaking Grace: In one episode, Nell sings this at a funeral.
  • Bad to the Last Drop: Carl was on a stakeout, and brought a thermos of coffee that had been made by one of the daughters. When his partner drank some of it, he asked if it was supposed to be coffee. Carl looked at it and said, "I think so. Turpentine doesn't have grounds in it."
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: One time, Nell accidentally burns a steak black, which Carl then eats, happily saying, "You finally cooked it the way I like it!"
  • Broadcast Live: The Season 4 episode "Cat Story".
  • The Cast Show Off: Nell Carter and Thelma Hopkins were both professional singersnote  given plenty of opportunities to show off their skills. The Lawrence brothers were given spots to show their musical skills, as well.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome : The "wacky" Swackhammer character, who served as a foil to Nell, disappeared after a few episodes in the first season. Officer Simpson also disappeared after Season 5, but it can be assumed that, without the Chief, there was just no excuse for him to be around.
    • The Chief's brother, to a degree. While it can be assumed he started a new life after marrying, some lines act as if the Chief were an only child. Added to that, he did not help with taking care of his brother's children after the Chief died.
  • Cousin Oliver : Joey, played by Joey Lawrence. Not content with one Cousin Oliver, Joey's brother Matthew was added to the case as Matt.
  • The Ditz: Officer Ralph Simpson.
  • "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune : Nell Carter sings the main theme. Nell Carter was an accomplished stage performer and former dancer, so her singing chops were used frequently on the show.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first two seasons use a different theme than the later seasons.
  • Epic Fail: In an early episode, the Chief tries to play a video game with Julie and loses a life just by pressing start.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor / Mammy : Nell is a version of this, although she is the main character and receives top billing. She is also always on the same authority level with the Chief with the girls, and often defers to Nell since he's unable to deal with adolescent girl issues.
  • Game Show Appearance: Nell and Addy appear on Wheel of Fortune during "Best Friends Week." (This was different than the current "best friends," where teen contestants play in teams of two; here, the friends play against each other and one other studio contestant.) With $7,600; Nell mis-solves the Quotation puzzle GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH ("Give me liberty or give me a car!"), but Addy solves correctly for $2,700; the remainder of the two-part episode involves a trip to New York which Addy purchases (with a guest appearance by Tony Randall in part two).
  • Hollywood Nerd : Julie, the middle daughter, complete with Nerd Glasses.
  • Instant Death Bullet: [Averted] When Carl shot and killed a perp. He is extremely depressed about this, and when his youngest daughter acts like he was a hero for doing it, he explodes angrily at her that it was not like the movies. The perp died slowly and in pain, calling out for his mother.
  • Kavorka Woman : Nell, despite being short, significantly overweight, and not terribly pretty, seems to have plenty of men hitting on her. Sometimes averted when a would-be suitor rejects her, but she's unfazed by any rejection.
  • Kissing In A Tree: After Samantha had her first kiss with a boy, Katie and Julie sang this to her and the boy.
  • Live Episode: Did one in February 1985 ("Cat Story"). NBC was to have an entire block of live episodes the night the episode originally aired, but by that point all of the shows to air that night except Gimme a Break had been cancelled.
  • Missing Mom : The mother has recently passed away as of the start of the series.
    • A rare intro exists that features Rue McClanahan as Marian Kanisky.
      • That's actually from the second episode where she plays the Chief's new girlfriend; the dead mother's name was Margaret.
  • Modern Minstrelsy : An interesting example. Nell is putting together a charity show. Sam is mad at her for not allowing her to go on an unchaperoned camping trip with teenage boys, and convinces Joey to perform in blackface.
  • Negative Continuity:
    • How long ago Margaret died. Early episodes implied it was recent, and any bad behavior from the girls was treated as a reaction to it, and the plotlines of a few early episodes revolve around Nell getting used to the family. However, Samantha usually acted as if she never knew her mother. The "Flashback" episode shows her alive when the girls were relatively young, but still old enough to remember her.
    • Nell's family. Originally, Nell's mother supported her dream of being a singer, but later became a shrill woman who never had faith in her. To the show's credit, they initally did handwave her mother's change in personality as a reaction to her husband's death, but they also changed her name (from Emma to Maybelle) and the actress. Nell's father was originally the one who disapproved of Nell's dreams, but after he died, Deceased Parents Are the Best came in full force, going to so far as to say that Nell was his favorite. Nell's younger sister's name also changed from Mary to Loretta, and went from an immature brat who still watched Sesame Street to a snob.
    • Addy was originally an Alpha Bitch who picked on Nell, but later episodes acted as if they were always busom-buddies. To be fair, they did say they were closer than Nell let on in her first episode. A later episode acted as if they were both bullied by another local Alpha Bitch.
    • Joey's supposed backstory of living with an uncle was originally treated as a lie. When his backstory is finally explained when he reunites with his father, in particular that his mother is dead and his father was at sea, it turns out that he really was living with an uncle at the time Nell adopted him. This does bring up the question of what happened to said uncle this whole time?
  • Posthumous Character: Margaret Kanisky
  • Precision F-Strike and N-Word Privileges:
    Nell: (to Sam) I never thought I'd ever hear you say the word nigger." (She didn't, but having Joey do blackface was its equivalent, according to Nell.)
    • Actually, in the first season episode "Samantha Steals a Squad Car", Sam does use the N-word when she asks Nell "how would you like it if somebody called you a nigger?" (another girl had used an ethnic slur on her at school). She ends up locking herself in a bathroom and escaping by stealing her father's squad car.
  • Parental Substitute : Nell, first for the girls' mother, and then later after the death of their father. Sadly, Dolph Sweet passed away after the fourth season.
  • Put on a Bus: Older daughters Katie and Julie (and Julie's new husband, Johnathan) moved out prior to the Re Tool.
  • Re Tool: Season 6 moved the show to New York, and Nell and Sam were the only ones left from the original cast (with Sam only making occasional appearances).
  • Replaced the Theme Tune: In Season 3, once again with Nell Carter performing it.
  • Running Gag: Those poor fish....
  • Sassy Black Woman : Both Nell herself and her friend Addie.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl : Sam and Katie (the youngest and eldest daughters), respectively. Sam wears a Tomboyish Baseball Cap.
  • Very Special Episode:
    • Carl has to deal with the aftermath of shooting a man dead.
    • Joey insults Nell by dressing in blackface. He thought he was honoring black people by imitating Al Jolson.
    • The series also had to address the real-life death of costar Dolph Sweet.
  • Vocal Dissonance : Nell's friend Angie is a Statuesque Stunner ...until she opens her mouth and speaks in her high, squeaky voice. It's Played for Laughs, as the laugh track goes crazy even when her lines aren't particularly funny. Those who know the actress, Alvernette Jimenez, claim it is her real voice, so be nice.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Glenlawn, CA is within driving distance of Bakersfield and Fresno. That's as close to a location as we get.