Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re wrapping our coverage on the best episodes from WKRP In Cincinnati (1978-1982, CBS), an underrated ensemble comedy with fun scripts and a marvelous cast. I’m pleased to announce that all four seasons have been released on DVD, and although the set by Shout! is only about 80% musically pure, the edits would be unnoticeable to casual fans, and therefore not a major deterrent from seeking out the retail release.
The staff of an underdog rock and roll radio station in Cincinnati tries to stay afloat and improve their standing. WKRP In Cincinnati stars GARY SANDY as Andy Travis, GORDON JUMP as Arthur Carlson, LONI ANDERSON as Jennifer Marlowe, RICHARD SANDERS as Les Nessman, FRANK BONNER as Herb Tarlek, JAN SMITHERS as Bailey Quarters, TIM REID as Venus Flytrap, and HOWARD HESSEMAN as Dr. Johnny Fever.
WKRP embraces the ’80s with sleek new sets, preppy new threads, and fresh new stories; the series and the characters are evolving. Rebounding after a disappointing and directionless third season, the final year of WKRP In Cincinnati contains several of the show’s most unforgettable installments, smartly incorporating a season long story arc in which Andy conspires with Mrs. Carlson to throw more money into the station and help bolster its ratings. Not only does this return many of the scripts back to the core premise set up in the pilot, but it allows us to see more of the indelible Carol Bruce, who’s a welcome source of laughs. Meanwhile, the scripts once more make comedy their primary focus and most of the heavier moments (and as usual, there’s a bit more than I would personally like) are reserved for character development, not that darned laugh-suffocating social significance. Yet despite the upsurge in quality, the show was once again mishandled by the CBS programmers, who scheduled the show on a new night — Wednesday — at 8:00. Then at 8:30. And then in its last two months, at 9:00, where it was moderately more successful. (Remember, Wilson always believed that the show was better suited for this hour.) But the series finished #55 and was promptly cancelled. Of course, when it got great numbers during its summer reruns, CBS had second thoughts. But they were too late; several cast members had moved on, leaving WKRP to thrive in syndication, where it was a great success. So, as usual, 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 72: “Rumors” (Aired: 10/28/81)
When Johnny stays at Bailey’s, the station believes they’re having an affair.
Written by Peter Torokvei | Directed by Linda Day
A fan favorite episode, I must admit that this installment has grown on me, and I think it’s because I initially went into the story with expectations that weren’t properly calibrated. Also, as discussed in several past entries, I find the Bailey character to be the show’s least developed, and without meaning any offense to Ms. Smithers, her timing to be hit and miss. However, I’ve really come to appreciate the chemistry that Johnny and Bailey share, along with the relish she takes in egging on their friends’ suspicions. Also, this is a really strong episode for the ensemble (and the smarmy Rex, played by Sam Anderson) as each member’s reaction to the prospect of Bailey and Fever is amusing.
02) Episode 73: “Straight From The Heart” (Aired: 11/04/81)
Herb secretly checks into the hospital for heart tests.
Written by Dan Guntzelman | Directed by Dan Guntzelman
Dan Guntzelman is credited as writer and director for both this episode and the proceeding installment, which continues where this one leaves off. My initial draft of this list did not include this particular installment, for I find the comedy inconsistent. That is, only certain parts of the episode are humorous. But the parts that are, really are. The best bit, and certainly the most memorable from the entire episode, is the scene in the theatre, where the gang sees a 3D porn film. It’s an easy, salacious little gag, but the comedy is undeniable. This is just one of many episodes from the final few seasons that served to humanize the previously one-note Herb character.
03) Episode 74: “Who’s On First?” (Aired: 11/11/81)
As Johnny tries to avoid paying a gambling debt, Mr. Carlson pretends to be Herb to make a sale.
Written by Dan Guntzelman | Directed by Dan Guntzelman
With this episode, WKRP comes closest to approaching the farce we’ve come to associate with Three’s Company, as Carlson pretends to be Herb, Les pretends to be Carlson, and Johnny pretends to be Andy. The comedy of mistaken identity arises from some continuity established in the previous episode, in which Herb goes to the hospital for some tests. With the salesman still bedridden, Carlson pretends to be Herb to make a sale, and when the client comes to the station to see Carlson, Les must play along. Meanwhile, Johnny tries to avoid a thug who’s come to collect on a gambling debt, culminating in a classic comedic crescendo. Great loony ensemble-oriented installment — my personal Season Four favorite.
04) Episode 75: “Three Days Of The Condo” (Aired: 11/18/81)
Johnny buys a condo but soon comes to regret it.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by Linda Day
The funniest installment of the season, the original premise has Johnny getting $24,000 in a legal settlement (from the station on which he said “booger”). After spending some money on substances and sluts, Johnny is persuaded by Venus to invest in a condo at Gone With The Wind Estates. This naturally allows for some GWTW related jokes, and anyone who’s a fan of the classic film and book (like I am) will appreciate the references. But the real comedy comes in when Johnny tries to get out of the deal by pretending to the owners that he and Venus are in a “homosexual” (and, obviously, interracial) relationship. Some highly quotable lines from this unique script. A favorite an MVE candidate.
05) Episode 77: “The Consultant” (Aired: 12/30/81)
The staff puts on a show for an ambitious radio consultant.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Dolores Ferraro
This episode could only work late in a series’ run, for its comedy is entirely dependent on the subversion of each character’s established personas. Usually I don’t appreciate this gimmick, for the laughs don’t come from the offering itself, but rather from the manipulative premise. However, laughs are laughs, and this episode certainly grants us those — big ones. Continuing the Mother Carlson arc, this installment has her hiring a consultant to evaluate the station. It turns out he’s a friend of Andy’s and intends to give a good report, but only if they’ll switch to his programming service. Against that, Andy schemes with the gang to discredit his findings. Jennifer as a bimbo is a highlight.
06) Episode 78: “Love, Exciting And New” (Aired: 01/06/82)
Andy fears Mother Carlson is romantically interested in him.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by Frank Bonner
Probably the most amusing Mother Carlson episode (and the one that uses her the most organically), the premise of this installment continues a beat first played in last season’s Bruce showcase, “Baby, It’s Cold Inside,” her potential attraction to Andy. Sandy gets to carry a lot of the episode’s humor (this is a rarity — especially in the later seasons), as his shock and horror at the possibility, naturally, makes him act like a fool. Interestingly, the episode also keeps us ahead of his character, for we know before he does that Mother Carlson is not pursuing the “cowboy,” and just intends to have a little fun making him think that she does. Great showing for her character.
07) Episode 81: “Changes” (Aired: 01/27/82)
Venus tries to act black for an interview, and Herb tries to adopt a new wardrobe.
Written by Peter Torokvei | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Torokvei’s script takes two stories and joins them under the same thematic umbrella. This format only happens a few times on this series, but it’s always appreciated, for, as far as I’m concerned, this is the only time that multiple story lines really work: when they connect (and it doesn’t have to be narratively). Venus and his attempting to act “black” is a fascinating sociological beat, for it addresses the concept of identity and how people can perform their race (and it fits what we know about his character). Meanwhile, Jennifer tries to get Herb to dress better, but as it turns out, his clients expect a gaudy wardrobe. Lots of satisfying character laughs — another favorite.
08) Episode 83: “I’ll Take Romance” (Aired: 02/17/82)
Herb sets Les up with a computer date, not knowing that it’s a front for prostitution.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by Asaad Kelada
Although the story is what we’ve termed “traditional sitcom” (that means, we see it done in various incarnations on many different series), the script has more laughs than a lot of others this season, so it’s able to overcompensate and make the premise worthwhile. It is also the only Les-centered story of the season that isn’t crushed by some highfalutin character-revealing aim that relegates comedy to second position (as is the case with “The Impossible Dream”), so it’s worthwhile for that alone, for his character, more of a story-focus in earlier years (when he had more episodes thrown to his character), is always a great boon to the series’ humor. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of great interplay amongst the cast.
09) Episode 89: “To Err Is Human” (Aired: 04/14/82)
Jennifer tries to save Herb’s job by consulting with an offended client.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by Linda Day
Lissa Levin’s fourth script for the season (you’ll notice that all four of them managed to make my list) and the penultimate episode, this is another offering that hopes to explore and deepen the relationship between Herb and Jennifer, whose relationship in the early episodes was solely comedy-driven, and thus, less complex. But by this point, we’ve come to see a lot of genuine feeling between the two characters, so we don’t really need this episode. However, as often with offerings that I choose, it’s notable for the comedy, most of which is driven by Herb, who is probably the show’s most ridiculous character (well, Les is right there too), but gets a lot of stories. The picture above is one of the show’s best gags.
10) Episode 90: “Up And Down The Dial” (Aired: 04/21/82)
The station’s ratings rise, but Mother Carlson plans to switch to 24 hours of news.
Written by Dan Guntzelman | Directed by George Gaynes
WKRP’s series finale was not produced as such, because cancellation was not anticipated. However, the installment does employ a nice sense of closure, and because it doesn’t consider itself to be the actual final episode, it’s able to sidestep all of the emotion and narrative wrap-up that usually precludes finales from being funny. This offering concludes the Mother Carlson arc, as she intends to convert the station to all news, despite the latest ratings placing them at #6. So, the script is preparing for an ending, only to spare us of it when Andy successfully convinces her to keep things the way they are. It’s funny, it’s feel-good, and it’s appropriate. As a finale, it’s exactly what I want.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Jennifer And The Will,” in which Jennifer is named executrix of her late colonel beau’s will (fine premise and nice appearance by Pat O’Brien, but too few laughs), “Pills,” in which the station advertises a diet pill that works like speed (too weighty), and “The Creation Of Venus,” in which Venus explains how he came to WKRP and that his flashy act was mere show (too gimmicky).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of WKRP In Cincinnati goes to…..
“Who’s On First?”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of The Jeffersons! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!