Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing our coverage on the best episodes from Bob Newhart’s first situation comedy, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978, CBS). I’m thrilled to announce that every single episode of the series has been released on DVD.
Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley juggles life at home, where he resides with his loving wife Emily, an elementary school teacher, and their zany neighbor, Howard Borden, a flight navigator, with his life at the office, where he regularly interacts with a goofy orthodontist, Jerry Robinson, and their quirky receptionist, Carol Kester. The Bob Newhart Show stars BOB NEWHART as Bob Hartley, SUZANNE PLESHETTE as Emily Hartley, BILL DAILY as Howard Borden, PETER BONERZ as Jerry Robinson, and MARCIA WALLACE as Carol Kester. JACK RILEY recurs as Elliot Carlin.
Season Five, which I’ve seen some describe as the best of the entire series, is filled with a lot of very funny moments. The comedy is broader, the stories are zanier, and the characters are looser. But to what extent are the big laughs detrimental to the storytelling? When in comparison to seasons past, this year marks the beginning of the slow and continual shift away from simple (but unquestionably unique) stories rooted in simple (but surprisingly layered) people. Realism is eschewed for more wacky and surrealistic modes of narrative, in which laughs become more important than the characters. Perhaps this is in reaction to the less intelligent programming of the late ’70s, because The Bob Newhart Show, although delineating itself with a darker and edgier tone, no longer feels as unique as it once was — and it’s because the show tries not to be as, what some might have considered, elitist. Yet while I find many of the stories in Season Five to be gimmicky and routinized, it is hard to complain when practically every episode is filled with a couple of big laughs. (And I mean belly laughs!) Thus, while I believe the “golden days” of the show’s storytelling have passed, this is still an excellent season of a superb sitcom. (And I actually think The Bob Newhart Show turned out a funnier ’76-’77 season than all of the other MTM shows, The Mary Tyler Moore Show included.) So don’t let my harsh critique, predicated on the fact that the past few seasons have been exceptionally stellar, mar the fact that the show is still great (especially when in comparison to its competition). It’s existence has just changed a little bit. But to illustrate its maintained quality, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 98: “Caged Fury” (Aired: 10/02/76)
Bob and Emily are trapped in the basement during Howard’s Bicentennial party.
Written by Gordon & Lynne Farr | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Although the premise of this episode — two characters accidentally trapped in a small space for an extended period of time — is one that we’ve seen many times before and since, this series adds a bit of its own unique slant. One, they’re trapped in the storage closet while going to retrieve a punch bowl for Howard’s Bicentennial party (one of the few things that dates the series, but joyously so). And secondly, the characters trapped are Bob and Emily, two of television’s finest. Now, while I think the script is a bit… needlessly gaggy and one-liner heavy, genuine character laughs still abound.
02) Episode 99: “Some Of My Best Friends Are…” (Aired: 10/09/76)
One of Bob’s patients comes out as gay to the group.
Written by Patricia Jones & Donald Reiker | Directed by James Burrows
This is probably the closest his series ever gets to a “very special episode” as Mr. Plager, the writer played by future WKRP star Howard Hesseman, comes out to the group. (He’s joined the main gang by now.) Naturally, there’s a lot of prejudice and stereotyping — particularly from Peterson and Carlin. (Meanwhile, Mrs. Bakerman tries to set him up with one of her relatives.) Despite the potentially preachy premise, the series never actually loses its focus on the comedy, and because stories like this are still a novelty on TV, it’s an enjoyable and memorable installment. (Michelle’s last appearance.)
03) Episode 100: “Still Crazy After All These Years” (Aired: 10/16/76)
Howard sees a a therapist to cure himself of his dependency on the Hartleys.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Alan Myerson
Bill Daily is the star of this laugh heavy, but ultra silly, episode in which Howard visits one of Bob’s colleagues, Dr. Podbillion, to cure himself of his co-dependency on Bob and Emily. Unfortunately, Howard soon adopts the extremely obnoxious mannerisms of the vain Podbillion, who blinks a lot and has a fondness for saying “fine and dandy.” It’s actually a very funny episode with a lot of great bits, but again, we’re in much broader territory than we were in many of the early seasons. Surprisingly, however, because of the high laugh quotient, it may be among the season’s best.
04) Episode 101: “The Great Rent Strike” (Aired: 10/23/76)
Bob organizes a rent strike against their new slumlord: Elliot Carlin.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by John C. Chulay
Here we have an example of another story that bends the boundaries of realism. As the audience, we have to accept that Elliot Carlin has become the Hartley’s slumlord, refusing to turn up the heat for them in winter. When we do, the episode becomes one of those classic sitcom rent strikes that we’ve seen before on everything from The Honeymooners (1955-1956, CBS) to The Odd Couple (1970-1975, ABC). However, like most this year, it’s hard to complain when the script is filled with SO MANY great comedy bits — like Carol’s missing S, and Bob’s teeth-chattering rendition of “Summertime” .
05) Episode 102: “Et Tu, Carol?” (Aired: 10/30/76)
Carol quits once again and Bob must find a new secretary.
Written by Gary David Goldberg | Directed by Alan Myerson
In contrast to the episodes above, this installment returns to a relatively simple premise. In fact, it’s one that we see at least once a year on The Bob Newhart Show: Carol quits. But this episode is special for several reasons. Not only is it written by the future creator of Family Ties (1982-1989, NBC), but this script is brimming with institutional memory. In short, there’s a real sense of understanding and self-awareness about this episode. For instance, the script itself addresses that Carol quits once a year. It’s refreshing when a show treats its audience maturely, and this episode, with its awareness, does just that!
06) Episode 109: “Making Up Is The Thing To Do” (Aired: 12/11/76)
Bob tries to reunite his separated parents at Christmas dinner.
Written by Gordon & Lynne Farr | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky
In the second half of a two parter, Bob tries to reunite his separated parents, played by Martha Scott and Barnard Hughes, fresh off his run in Doc (1975-1976, CBS). (The first part of the story, which I also like a lot and really wanted to include is on the honorable mentions list and deserves your attention as well.) Also, this is the series’ annual Christmas episode, and although it lacks the overt cynicism that has typified the holiday in past seasons, it’s another fine seasonal entry, and a good excuse to see two of this series’ best recurring characters.
07) Episode 111: “The Ironwood Experience” (Aired: 01/15/77)
Bob unknowingly agrees to give a lecture on interpersonal relationships at a nudist colony.
Written by Phil Davis | Peter Bonerz
Although this episode reminds me of an installment from the single season flop Good Morning, World (1967-1968, CBS), which I covered here almost a year ago in a Wildcard Wednesday post, I think the premise is otherwise original. Bob goes to give a lecture on sex at what turns out to be a nudist colony, Ironwood. Naturally, Bob’s shock at the discovery of this fact is the comedic highpoint of the episode, but I’m also fond of the interactions between Bob and Emily, both before he goes, and after he returns about sex. (As usual, their chemistry is unbelievably good.) Because of its consistent comedic quality and the story’s focus on Bob, this is my favorite episode of the season.
08) Episode 112: “Of Mice And Men” (Aired: 01/22/77)
Emily role-plays with Bob’s group of henpecked husbands.
Written by Bruce Kane | Directed by Peter Bonerz
It’s narratively thrilling when the show can blend Bob’s group members with people from his personal life. As the series went on, some of the tactics for doing so became trite and hard to believe. This episode does a pretty good job, as Bob holds a session at home and Emily role-plays while Mr. Peterson tries to learn how to handle his overbearing wife. More interesting to viewers of 2015 may be the handful of jokes about Barbara Walters, who in both 1977 and 2015 remains an easily mockable part of American culture.
09) Episode 115: “Death Be My Destiny” (Aired: 02/12/77)
Bob is obsessed with mortality after he has a near death experience.
Written by Sy Rosen | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Even before I screened the fifth season for the first time last summer (when the last two years were FINALLY released), I knew this episode was a fan favorite. And I can understand why; not only is it deliciously dark, filled with truly superb jokes about death, but the episode is entirely relatable — all human beings live in varying degrees of fear. Furthermore, the entire episode is centered around Bob, which is always a subtle plus for the series, as the show works best when he is in the center of everything. And it’s just a well-written script filled with character moments; it’s very funny too. One of the year’s best.
10) Episode 119: “Shrinking Violence” (Aired: 03/12/77)
Bob goes against his own advice when dealing with an obnoxious mechanic.
Written by Sy Rosen | Directed by Peter Bonerz
There’s a nice parallel between the attempts Bob makes in the group to cure Elliot Carson of his misdirected anger towards the other members (and there are a lot of laughs there, naturally) and Bob’s insistence that Emily get tough with a mechanic who’s giving her the runaround. The first story provides more laughs of the second, but the narrative cohesiveness is always a delight. Also, this is a very performance driven episode, and because the ensemble is so sharp, the episode is naturally imbued with high quality. It almost feels like an early seasons episode.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Slammer,” in which Bob and the Peeper are picked up for soliciting (big laughs, but very broad — the one I most wanted to include above), “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” the first part of a story mentioned above, “Love Is Blindest,” in which Elliot Carlin gets a girlfriend, “Taxation Without Celebration,” in which Bob must forgo anniversary celebrations to finish up his taxes, and “You’re Having My Hartley,” the infamous episode in which Bob dreams that both Emily are Carol are pregnant. All five of these episodes, particularly “The Slammer,” were incredibly close to making the list.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The Bob Newhart Show goes to…..
“The Ironwood Experience”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Six! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!