Two weeks and counting, more or less, to the departure of Johnny Carson from NBC's "Tonight Show." Tonight, the late-night monarch gets an affectionate salute from another of the network's top shows, "Cheers" (at 9 o'clock, Channel 2).
In an episode in which Carson and bandleader Doc Severinsen both appear, we also see subtle hints that all is not harmonious in the transition process. (Carson's final show is scheduled for May 22, with designated replacement Jay Leno and company taking over the following week.)
Yet tonight's show is "Cheers" all the way, capitalizing on the strongly established characters of its bar-stool regulars, Cliff and Norm (John Ratzenberger and George Wendt).
Earlier this season, we learned that Cliff is a wannabe comedian. Tonight, it seems he has been sending jokes to Carson and has been steadily rejected. To cheer him up, buddy Norm doctors the latest rejection letter to make it seem otherwise.
Presto! In the sitcom tradition reaching back at least to "I Love Lucy," Cliff, Norm and Cliff's mom (Frances Sternhagen) are off to "Hollyweird," as Cliff calls it, to sit in the studio audience when Johnny does the joke.
Just like when the gang visited Carla in the hospital in an earlier season, a funny mock home video shows the trio at tourist sites before they settle into the familiar "Tonight Show" studio audience as Doc announces, "Heeere's Johnny!"
It would spoil the laughs to reveal much more here. But some funny insider byplay occurs as Norm tries to bribe the cue card guy to slip Cliff's joke into the monologue.
Although perhaps a gratuitous cameo plug (as if Carson needs one), the show nonetheless works warmly because everybody in it remains more or less true to their TV form.
Local viewers should also know the script was co-written by Ken Levine, who last year at this time was calling Orioles baseball games on WBAL radio.
ON A WING AND . . . -- The comfortable workings of another well-established repertory cast highlight the season-ending episode tonight of "Wings" (at 9:30, Channel 2).
In one of those sequences of events that could only happen on a sitcom, the whole cast is duded up in tuxedos and formal gowns and jammed into a twin-engine Cessna airplane.
They're flying to Boston to see the debut of Helen (Crystal Bernard) with the Boston Symphony, but the plane develops engine trouble over the ocean.
Again, it would not be fair to reveal a lot more, except that we will not learn the outcome of the cliffhanger until next season. At least this is a show already renewed for the fall and will not end like "ALF," with no resolution of a dramatic climax.
Like all good regular series and particularly like "Cheers," with which it shares some production links, "Wings" has developed a steady company of regulars. And tonight's episode gives them a chance to stay perfectly in character.
On The Weekend Watch:
IN THE BEGINNING . . . -- In a demonstration of another long-running successful TV formula show, ABC tonight is screening "Columbo: Prescription Murder," the film (from 1968) that introduced Peter Falk as the detective in the raincoat with a deceptively sharp eye for details. In a clever casting touch, Gene Barry plays the suspect, a psychiatrist. Remember when he was also a sharp TV detective? ("Burke's Law," 1963-65 -- but he had a much better car, a Rolls-Royce.)
THE MOMS REPORT -- Some of the best-loved mothers of TV's past appear in "Mom Knows Best," a CBS special Friday (at 8 p.m., Channel 11). Among the guests/in this pre-Mother's Day special with host Phylicia Rashad, are Florence Henderson ("The Brady Bunch"), Barbara Billingsley ("Leave It to Beaver") and Shirley Jones ("The Partridge Family").
THE PAGEANT PARADE -- Bangkok, Thailand, provides the backdrop for "The 1992 Miss Universe Pageant" on CBS Friday (9 p.m., Channel 11). Dick Clark and Leeza Gibbons handle the host chores, introducing more than 70 young women from around the world, including "Miss USA 1992" Shannon Marketic of Malibu, Calif. Get ready for dancing elephants in an opening production number.
OUT TO SEA -- After months of eliminations, the America's Cup yacht race gets down to the final best-of-seven series this weekend, with Italy's Il Moro challenging the U.S. boat of the America3 (America cubed) syndicate. ABC carries Race One live from the waters off San Diego, at 3 p.m. Saturday (Channel 13), after which coverage reverts to the ESPN cable series for Sunday's 3 p.m. race and beyond. Note also that at 9 p.m. Friday, the Arts & Entertainment cable network is screening "America's Cup 1987: The Walter Cronkite Report."
GOODBYE GIRLS -- Ending a seven-year run (and already in repeat syndication), NBC's "The Golden Girls" will say so long Saturday by saying goodbye to Dorothy (Bea Arthur), as she marries Lucas (Leslie Nielsen). But the other cast members -- Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty -- are due back in the fall as the same characters in a new sitcom, "The Golden Palace." Note, however, that Channel 2 is scheduled to carry an Orioles baseball game Saturday night. Barring a rainout, the station will screen "The Golden Girls" finale at 10 a.m. Sunday. (The NBC show will air at 9 p.m. Saturday on Washington's WRC, Channel 4.)