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Series / Gimme a Break!

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Gimme a Break! is an American sitcom that ran on NBC for six seasons (1981–87), starring Nell Carter as Nell Harper, a once-aspiring singer who became a housekeeper for the Kaniskys: patriarch Carl, the chief of police of the fictional Glenlawn, California, and his daughters Katie, Julie and Samantha (the last of the kids played by a young Lara Jill Miller). Later additions to the cast included Stanley Kanisky (Carl's father), Adelaide "Addy" Wilson (Nell's best friend, played by Telma 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 an 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 Retool, with most of the cast (minus the older Kanisky daughters) moving to New York City.

The series contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Carl physically slaps his two older daughters (and threatens to spank Samantha at least once) in various episodes. Fair for Its Day, but unheard of today:
    • In the series pilot, Katie is arrested for shoplifting. When Carl demands an explanation, Katie makes a snide remark — "She can't say anything, she's dead!" — to his question about how she'd think her mother would react if she knew her daughter had been arrested.
    • A later Season 1 episode, "Katie the Cheat," has Carl fuming when he learns that Katie did not actually take a college entrance exam (while Julie did). When the two are arguing, Katie makes a snide remark about why she thinks her father wanted her to take the test, prompting him to warn her to stop, and when she presses on, he takes off his belt and chases after her. Nell intervenes (by standing in the way) and stops him, and he eventually cools off and backs away.
    • The Season 2 episode "Julie Smokes" has Carl slap his daughter across the face when, after she lied to him that she was not smoking, she accidentally blew smoke in his face, having unsuccessfully concealed that she had currently been smoking a cigarette. This prompts her to move out of the house temporarily, and when Carl stands his ground and justifies his actions, Nell, Katie and Samantha ostracize him ... forcing his hand and, in talking to Julie, getting him to reveal why he was so furious with her. In revealing that their late mother, Margaret, was a heavy smoker, Carl reveals that he and Margaret had fought about the issue many times and that he wishes he had slapped her to get her to realize she was killing herself. He never did, however, and eventually, Carl's worst fears — losing his wife and partner in raising their daughters to lung cancer — came true. This instance accidentally retcons the pilot episode's instance by having Carl say he's never slapped one of his daughters before.
  • 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."
  • Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: Boy-crazy Katie, brainy Julie, and tomboy Samantha.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Nell. And very assertive about it. For example, her singing advice was that if you're going to sing Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy", put everything into it — your voice, attitude and especially your body.
  • Big "NO!": Nell's response to the Chief when he asks if she's seen Julie—who had just gotten back from Las Vegas after eloping with her boyfriend, Jonathan Maxwell.
  • 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: Season 4's "Cat Story".
  • Characterization Marches On: Grandpapa Stanley started out as a senile old fool with bad hearing, little interest in his wife and no shortage of fat jokes against Eddie. Some episodes give him brief flashes of awareness. Come season three and he's now portrayed as a wise, sensible, open minded and snarky grandpa with no shortage of insults against Carl.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • The "wacky" Swackhammer character, who served as a foil to Nell, disappeared after a few episodes in the second 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.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: An especially memorable one comes in season 2 at the end of "Katie Steals Julie's Jock," when Katie and Julie have finally made peace with each other, only to have Samantha show up and begin gleefully repeating the best insults they hurled at each other. When she fails to quit, do the girls leave? Do they tell her to shut up? No, the older two sisters charge Sam, drag her behind the couch, and ...
    Katie: (from behind couch) Let's rip her clothes off and throw her in the street naked!
    (As Sam screams for help, her shirt is seen flying through the air, followed by her pants, and some underwear.)
    Sam: Nell! Help! Dad! Murder!
    (Cut to the Chief and Nell in the kitchen, calmly drinking coffee and reading the paper.)
    Chief: (Without looking up) Think we ought to do anything?
    Nell: (Without looking up) About what?
    Chief: (Without looking up) About that.
    Nell: (Without looking up) I didn't hear nothin'.
  • Cousin Oliver: Joey (played by Joey Lawrence) was added to the cast early in Season 3. Not content with one Cousin Oliver, Joey's brother Matthew was later added to the show as Matt.
  • Daddy's Girls: Chief is old-fashioned and cannot for the life of him relate to the 1980s, its trends and cultural tastes, which the girls – especially Katie – have embraced fully. He also has a hard time understanding that Katie is quite promiscuous and fights with her a lot over the issue. Yet, he reveres each of his daughters and loves them very much and, despite sometimes threatening to cut them off in the end stands by them and knows he is the rock they depend on, and that they are the greatest gifts his late wife, Margaret, gave him.
  • Dies Wide Open: In "Your Prisoner Is Dead" (the episode where Chief shot a would-be armed robber), Chief effectively shocks Samantha into reality about what happened: After being wounded, the robber was crying for help and had his eyes wide open the whole time. This was in no way, he goes on, like the scene from CHiPs (that Sam had described) and other police shows where the bad guys shut their eyes after being fatally shot.
  • The Ditz: Officer Ralph Simpson.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In "Baby of the Family," Samantha is disgruntled with Nell over what she [Samantha] sees as letting Joey get away with things, when Nell disapproves of her going on an unchaperoned camping trip... with teenage boys going along. Her jealousy over Nell's treatment of Joey compared to Nell's treatment of her, leads Samantha to dress Joey – who is performing "Toot-Toot-Tootsie" from the now-infamous Al Jolson classic The Jazz Singer at the church Nell attends – in blackface (as Jolson did in the film). Considering he was performing in front of an all-Black congregation, Nell, Addy and the rest of the congregation weren't pleased. To make matters worse, as shown shortly after Nell pulls Joey off-stage, then-seven-year-old Joey didn't know the racist background behind blackface, having mistakenly believed Jolson himself was Black (rather than a white, Jewish actor portraying a character doing a Black minstrel act for a nightclub performance). When she confronts Samantha, Nell states that putting Joey up to do blackface was equivalent to this...
    Nell: I never thought that I would live to see the day when you would use the word 'nigger'.
    Samantha: Nell, that's horrible! I would never say that.note 
    Nell: Well, you might as well have. Because that's what you did by putting Joey in blackface. You offended me and a lot of other decent Black people.
    Nell later tells Samantha – whose apology, upon realizing the consequence of her actions, is accepted by Nell – that her treatment of Joey doesn't mean she loves Sam less, but now that Sam is a teenager, she can't be treated as if she's the "baby of the family" and ask to be treated like an adult as well.
  • "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: Nell Carter sings the main theme (both themes in fact). Nell Carter was an accomplished stage performer, best known for the stage show Ain't Misbehavin', and former dancer, so her singing chops were used frequently on the show.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Carl removes his with the intention of whupping Katie good when he confronts her about ditching out on taking her college entrance exam and she makes a snide remark about Margaret in "Katie the Cheat". Nell has to intervene to keep him from following through on it.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • The first two seasons use a different theme than the later seasons.
    • A rare intro exists that features Rue McClanahan as the Chief's new girlfriend.
  • Elevator Failure: In "Porko's II", Nell and her overweight support group get stuck in an elevator while trying to stop the group's founder from committing suicide.
  • 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: 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. In addition, she was close friends with Carl's deceased wife, and took the job because 1) she needed the money, and 2) to honor Margaret.
  • Fat Comic Relief: The show was not afraid to indulge in weight humor. For instance, when an elevator stalls with Nell's Overeaters Anonymous group, she checks the elevator's weight limit (1200 points), counts how many of the group are in it, and says, "Oh, we're a few hundred pounds past that!" The show, however, made sure the humor was laughing with Nell and others, and not at them.
  • Flanderization:
    • Katie got increasingly dumber in later seasons.
    • Nell became an uptight, overdramatic control freak after season two.
  • Fun with Acronyms: PORKO (the weight loss support group of which Nell is a member in a handful of episodes during Seasons 1 and 2)note , which stands for “People Organized to Reduce and Kick Obesity”.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Innocently Insensitive: In the episode "Baby of the Family," Joey is tricked by Samantha into performing "Toot -Toot -Tootsie" by Al Jolson in blackface at Nell's church. Justified since he is only a kid and he wasn't even aware of the racist background of blackface. And he mistakenly believed that Al Jolson was a black man. Nell corrects him on this.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: When Addie tells her African-American friend that Black women have finally evolved past the "Aunt Jemima" image, Nell walks in (having done the household chores) exhausted... and wearing a do-rag.
  • Kavorka Man: Female version. 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.
  • Later-Installment Weirdness: By Season 6 (the final season), Nell, Addy and Joey had moved from California to New York City, the Kaniskys were all either written out or demoted to occasional guest appearances (or dead, in Carl's case), and Nell's mother and Joey's brother were added to the cast, with the original premise seemingly forgotten about (although Nell remained a caretaker to Joey and brother Matthew, while maintaining a proofreading position at a publishing firm).
  • 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.
  • Mammy: In Addy's first appearance, she tells the girls how proud she is to be among the successful black women who are showing the world that they're not "a bunch of Aunt Jemimas"...and at that moment, Nell stumbles in the front door wearing a kerchief and carrying a basket full of laundry.
  • Maximum Capacity Overload: In "Porko's II", Nell and the members of her overweight support group get stuck in an elevator while stopping the founder of the group, Dr. George Avery, from jumping off his top-floor apartment. (During his visit to their meeting, Nell’s fellow PORKO members had made light of Dr. Avery having regained the 180 lbs he had previously lost.) The people inside argue for a while, then try going down in the elevator, which works. Nell gets off at the lobby but the elevator then closes and goes back up, now no longer over capacity, forcing Nell to have to take the stairs. As they talk Dr. Avery out of jumping, he, Nell and the other PORKO members are later forced back into Dr. Avery’s hotel room after the balcony starts crumbling underneath them.
  • Miranda Rights: In the episode "The Groupie", the Chief is seen reciting them upon arresting Andy Gibb and his band after believing that the singer had slept with his daughter, Julie. However, he is interrupted four times before completing the reading, though only the last two interruptions are actually seen (the first when Julie shows up and then when the other teenage girls see Andy and Squee).
  • Missing Mom: The mother has recently passed away as of the start of the series. This is also a case of Early-Installment Weirdness, as it is later established that Margaret died six or seven years before the show started.
  • 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.
    • Another episode has Julie not knowing the cause of her mother's death (it was lung cancer, which is how Carl convinces Julie to quit smoking).
    • 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 initially 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 so far as to say that Nell was his favorite. Nell's younger sister's name also changed from Marie to Loretta, and went from an immature brat who still watched Sesame Street to a snob. She also went from being married in her first appearance to getting married in the second (and the characters react as if she was on the verge of becoming an old maid, suggesting he's her first.)
    • 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?
  • No Periods, Period: Played ridiculously straight with three teenage girls and an adult woman living in the house, yet the topic never came up.
  • N-Word Privileges: In the first season episode "Samantha Steals a Squad Car", as Carl and Nell are arguing over the latter accidentally sitting on (and flattening) the cap of the police uniform that Carl was going to wear to a policeman's luncheon, Sam – in frustration to the two adults failing to pay attention to her issue – uses the N-word when, in equating her situation, she exasperatedly asks Nell "how would you like it if somebody called you a nigger?".note  After being chased by a perturbed Carl, she ends up locking herself in a bathroom and later escapes and steals her father's squad car. When Carl and Nell meet up with Sam at the police station, during which Sam apologizes for using the word and notes to Nell that she didn't use it to be mean but to compare the hurtfulness of being called one racial slur for being a Black person to her being called one relating to her Polish heritage, Nell explains to the Chief (who clearly didn't like the word being used) that its meaning can differ depending on who's using it:
    Nell: (to Carl) Chief, you and I both know some people can use the word "nigger" with malice and it can be ugly and hateful. But, then again, two black people can use it with love, and it can be beautiful.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Nell, first for the girls' mother, and then later after the death of their father.
    • In a meta-sense, Carter received bushels of mail from children who watched the show, who saw her as one for them.
  • Platonic Co-Parenting: Nell and Carl raised his three daughters (and later, adopted son Joey) together. Though it was clear Carl had final on any important decisions.
  • Poorly Disguised Pilot:
    • "Nell and the Kid" is about a deli owner who takes in a homeless girl at Nell's insistence. The Kaniskys only appear in one scene, and the episode was a pilot to a proposed spinoff that never happened due to the deli owner's actor (Don Rickles) not getting along with Nell Carter.
    • "The Purse Snatcher" also seems to be one of these. It revolves around the manager of a Greek restaurant and his assistant investigate the disappearance of Nell's purse while dealing with the manager's father, who owns the restaurant. Again, the Kaniskys only appear in one scene, and most of the focus is put on the boys.
    • "Parents' Week". It's about Nell visiting Samantha at the latter's college and becoming the house mother to her and her dorm-mates. Considering it was a two-part episode and one of the last in the series, it's possible that it was a test episode for a possible continuation series or maybe even a seventh season.
  • Posthumous Character: Margaret Kanisky died sometime before the series began. Her death kickstarts the whole show's premise, as Nell agreed to watch over her kids.
  • Put on a Bus: Older daughters Katie and Julie (and Julie's new husband, Johnathan) moved out prior to the Retool. The same was true with Officer Simpson, who was last seen early in Season 6.
  • Replaced the Theme Tune: In Season 3, once again with Nell Carter performing it.
  • Retool: 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).
  • Running Gag:
    • That poor fish....
    • "There ain't no Julio here!" after the phone rings.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Both Nell herself and her friend Addie.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Reversed, but how Julie initially justifies her (one-episode) habit. In the end, Carl convinces her that it will only lead to health issues such as the one that killed her mother.
  • 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, thanks to Sam's manipulation. 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.
    • Joey accidentally shoots Nell in the leg while playing with Carl's gun, not realizing that it was loaded.
    • One episode has Katie hospitalized when her I.U.D.note  malfunctions. An IUD Carl didn't know she had. But her mom did and helped her obtain it. And didn't tell Carl because they both feared the exact angry reaction he ended up having.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Nell and Addy were described as best friends, though the two were not averse to taking potshots at each other.
  • 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, California, is within driving distance of Bakersfield and Fresno. That's as close to a location as we get. One episode also shows it within walking distance of the beach (Nell catches Joey there without permission), and another has Carl boasting that his new squad car can get to Sacramento in just 23 minutes (meaning it probably isn't as close to Bakersfield as was suggested in other episodes).
  • Would Hit a Girl: Carl slaps Katie and Julie (on camera) at least once each, although it could be argued that it was justified ... Katie making a smart remark and about her mother, Julie when caught in a lienote . He also threatens to use his belt to whip Katie in "Katie the Cheat" when he found out that she lied about taking a college exam.
    • In the episode he slaps Julie, Carl reveals his regret he never slapped Margaret (his now late wife and daughters' late mother) when he couldn't get her to stop smoking, in what would have been a misguided (to say the least) attempt to wake her up to the fact that she was killing herself with her chronic smoking.
  • You Are Fat: Many overweight jokes have been made at the expense of plus-sized characters during the first two seasons. This is thankfully downplayed from season three onward.
  • You Talk Too Much!: Samantha was prone to this during the early seasons, and would sometimes blab something the others didn't want to have known.
  • You Wouldn't Hit A Girl With Glasses: Yes, Carl would, as he does to Julie in Season 2's "Julie Smokes," after she is caught lying to him about not smoking.