The Ten Best NEWHART Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our coverage on Newhart (1982-1990, CBS), which is now available in full on DVD!

An author and his wife run a quaint country inn in Vermont. Newhart stars BOB NEWHART as Dick Loudon, MARY FRANN as Joanna Loudon, TOM POSTON as George Utley, JENNIFER HOLMES as Leslie Vanderkellen, and STEVEN KAMPMANN as Kirk Devane.

Following my decision to move coverage of our two HBO comedies into the summer, so that the forthcoming Wings could be positioned next to Frasier, I decided there needed to be a palate cleanser in between Larry Sanders and Wings. So, circling back and making good on a promise from years ago, I’m dedicating the next eight weeks to Newhart, Bob Newhart’s second situation comedy, which was finally released on DVD in full earlier this year. But, before we dive into the series and its best offerings, we’ll need to address the elephant in the room: there’s no competition in my mind between the overall merits of The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. The former was more character-driven, established both a workable identity and sustainable tone quicker, and simply was better constructed for success – in its premise, its cast, its writers, etc. I prefer The Bob Newhart Show, and these commentaries will tangentially underscore why. My intention, however, is not to use this preference for the prior series as an explicit frame of reference for analyzing Newhart; what works and what doesn’t here has nothing to do with anything but Newhart itself. Yet, it’s impossible to remove that first show from these discussions, for several reasons. First, the memory of Bob Newhart influenced both the development and reception of this series. Second, Newhart drew explicit parallels to its predecessor in its much ballyhooed finale, for which the entire series is now (dishonestly) best remembered. And third, coming from MTM, I’m interested in examining how it represents the company’s legacy of high-quality character-driven comedy – established by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and reinforced by The Bob Newhart Show, MTM’s sophomore sitcom and, in my estimation, the second best embodiment of the brand’s core quality-defining themes.

Okay, so, for the record, I don’t like this vehicle for Bob Newhart as much as I like his ’70s one. And, furthermore, I think there are better sitcom offerings from the ‘80s (Cheers, The Golden Girls, and early The Cosby Show). But… this is still an MTM show with a brilliant star – and its worthy of fair, often celebratory, discussion. In fact, Newhart is the only successful MTM comedy of the 1980s, a decade during which the company was better known for its dramas. Going into all the reasons for this comedy drought at MTM would be a distraction. Suffice it to say, aside from the departure of Grant Tinker in 1981 (he went to NBC), MTM suffered for the loss of heady talents with experience on the flagship series, like the John Charles Walters foursome (James L. Brooks, David Davis, Stan Daniels and Ed. Weinberger). Remember: they created Taxi, which honed the talents of other MTM vets like Glen and Les Charles, who took valuable lessons from that brilliantly written, but imperfectly designed, series and went into the ’80s with Cheers: the decade’s great MTM sitcom. Yet Cheers is not an MTM sitcom; Newhart is… Now, as with the comic’s prior effort, I’m not going to use Cheers as a routine point of comparison to Newhart – that makes little sense. However, MTM has high established standards, and to be a hit attached to this brand, I believe the series deserves a sharp critical eye. In this regard, while using MTM’s own legacy as the figurative lens through which I’ll craft commentary, signs of similarity and differentiation between Cheers and Newhart will become clear – as they will for Newhart and The Bob Newhart Show – independent of any formal comparative frameworks. Again, the reference we’ll most often be using isn’t any tangential work – but MTM itself, as that’s a fairer, more legitimate benchmark.

Let’s start by noting that Newhart is notorious for its evolutionary developmental kinks, which it forever attempts to work through, especially in its first two seasons. (Actually, dividing the show conceptually into four separate two-season eras, corresponding to the different showrunners, is helpful for analysis.) The first two years were helmed by both creator Barry Kemp, whose work on Taxi was his most notable credit, and his right-hand man Sheldon Bull, who had experience on second-rate MTM (The Betty White Show), lesser Witt-Thomas (It’s A Living) and esoteric Miller-Milkis (Angie). Their staff writers included Barton Dean (Taxi, Oh Madeline) and Emily Marshall (Rhoda, WKRP In Cincinnati, Angie), with several contributions each from John Steven Owen (Operation Petticoat, The Associates) and MTM stalwart Earl Pomerantz (Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, Taxi, Cheers, etc.). When Kemp was first approached to create a new show for Newhart, he was asked to continue with the characters of the last series. But the author insisted that a fresh format, and a new leading lady, were in order. Drawn to New England and inspired by George Washington Slept Here, Kemp talked Newhart into a Vermont setting (away from the comic’s own Seattle notions), and from there they constructed the series like a classic MTM ensemble comedy; Newhart’s character Dick Loudon would run an inn with his wife, supervise two employees, and deal with a bizarre neighbor. (Sound familiar?) Yet, unlike Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore, there was no distinction between the lead’s home life and work life, for although he had another occupation besides innkeeper – author – it didn’t require a separate location. So, this design was much more like Taxi‘s and Cheers‘, with its success riding totally on the ONE setting and its characters… This is where Newhart first falls short.

Of the initial five-person ensemble, three fight against MTM’s style of honest character-driven comedy. First is Leslie (Jennifer Holmes), the beautiful, perky, perfect, BORING maid. She’s got no flaws, no personality, and no derivable humor. Blah. Then there’s Kirk (Steven Kampmann), who’s anything but boring. In fact, he’s figuratively loud, with a high energy that makes him conspicuous amongst this quieter cast. He can get laughs because he offers an extreme off of which Dick can react (see: Elliot Carlin). The problem? Kirk’s defined only as a chronic liar, which means no matter how a script tries, he’s automatically resistant to the audience’s full investment, for his authenticity is, from the jump, invalidated. We’ll talk more about him next week; for now let’s note that Newhart wants to use Kirk in story because his boldness better poises him for laughs, but he has no real characterization. Neither, sadly, does Mary Frann as Dick’s wife Joanna. Okay, Suzanne Pleshette would be a tough act for anyone to follow — she anchored her material with a sense of contemporary truth, validated the realistic MTM brand, and also had an eye for comedy that allowed her to exploit subtle character cues in early scripts, helping to guide a firm characterization. Yet, there’s no comparison here, because Frann simply lacks those skills. Sure, she’s warm, charming, and likable… but she never registers as particularly truthful and, more obviously, she hasn’t a comedienne’s instinct. The scripts try often this first year (and every year following) to throw the character definition for the actress to help make stick. Nothing materializes. I don’t want to dog Frann, who’s wrongly mired in memories of Pleshette, but she’s weak. And while Newhart has larger and more ostentatious problems than Joanna right now, her permanency makes her the most ultimately crippling.

Countering the series’ weaknesses are its strengths — one being handyman George Utley, played by Newhart’s good friend Tom Poston, a recurring presence in the latter half of The Bob Newhart Show. The George role was originally written for Jerry Van Dyke, who would star in Kemp’s Coach, and was designed to play opposite Dick as more of a bumbler – a goofball (not unlike Bill Daily’s Howard). But Poston isn’t a bumbler; he’s an everyman, with an energy comparable to Newhart’s. So instead of offering hijinks, he brings humanity – the kind of “palpable humanity” I regularly use to describe the characterizations that typified MTM’s ’70s style. When Dick and George have a scene, just like Mary and Rhoda, one gets the feeling that two human beings are merely interacting – no pretenses. Comedically, the character is amusing (not necessarily uproarious), for George’s charms reside mostly in this connection – this truth. He’s a reason to watch… as is, of course, Bob Newhart, whose response to the foolishness of the world melds humor and honesty – without even requiring a spoken word. The trick in designing a show for him is supplying the foolishness… and doing so believably, for part of MTM’s brand remains realism. This is where the townsfolk come into play; one of the most consistent sources of comedy – which I think could have been used even more frequently here (to offset the era’s character problems) – is the setting’s authentic and unmistakably New England charms, along with the quintessentially Vermont people who live there. Frankly, the best stuff right now comes from entries that alleviate these main cast issues by emphasizing the fish-out-of-water premise, making use of the town and its folk to create Dick’s universe of quiet strangeness. (Note: Quiet strangeness. Much is made of Newhart‘s perceived bent towards the “absurd” and its loud surrealistic extremes. This is an aesthetic description that I don’t fully support; more later…)

As a result, the first season’s victories come mostly in the cultivation of memorable tertiary players – like Chester and Jim, along with Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (discussed more below and later) – and the suggestion of a possible fix (Stephanie) for one of the aforementioned ill-rendered regulars. And as the season alternatively tries to turn its negatives into positives and distract from its negatives, I’m reminded of Taxi’s construction (partly because of Kemp), for not all players there – especially in Season One – were of equal value. Similarly, Newhart is in a metaphorical hole and will stay there, until it, like Taxi, can rectify most of these character concerns… Nevertheless, design aside, we know that character-driven comedy needs time to develop, for established relationships are its foundation. Ask fans about Bob Newhart, and many’ll tell you it took the whole first season to reach the fertile period. Mary Tyler Moore? While finding riches throughout its run, it wasn’t until Season Three that the characters started yielding big laughs. (In fact, many of the best entries in those first years came from the opening 13 weeks, when the scripts relied more on narrative-based and premise-establishing material; the same is true for Newhart.) Thus, the series would have been due growing pains no matter what. However, because of the inherent problems – making it hard to craft story, garner investment, and mine humor – these years that are supposed to be spent building the audience’s understanding of its characters are instead spent building the show’s understanding of itself – further prolonging the moment where it all clicks. For a comedy with the MTM logo, what’s offered here does not impress as being viably character-driven. Instead we look to the star and his periphery… But, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.

Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)


01) Episode 1: “In The Beginning” (Aired: 10/25/82)

Dick learns a shocking secret about his new inn.

Written by Barry Kemp | Directed by John Rich

Newhart‘s pilot is actually a terrific representation of the series’ original construction — all its possibilities (the best it has to offer) and all its inherent shortcomings (the worst is has to offer). While it’s clear that we’ll have assets in the characters played by Newhart and Poston, trouble with both the dull Leslie and the habitually untrustworthy Kirk seems likely. (Joanna, meanwhile, is a wild card; future development seems possible.) Really, however, the series premiere gives us a great taste of New England culture and the unique (if, perhaps, limited) opportunities for story based on the premise, which is used here in this week’s centerpiece of Dick having to tell the very New English “Daughters of the War for Independence” that his new inn actually served as a brothel for their forebears. A classic line: “[Y]ou may not be so much Daughters of the War for Independence, as you are daughters of a three-day pass.” Hysterical; a high point.

02) Episode 2: “Mrs. Newton’s Body Lies A-Mould’ring In The Grave” (Aired: 11/01/82)

The Loudons try to remove a dead body from their basement.

Written by Katherine Green | Directed by Will Mackenzie

My pick for the strongest episode of the first season (written by Katherine Green, a freelancing Taxi vet whose best known credit would be Married… With Children), this entry is often noted in Newhart lore for introducing Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, the trio of backwoods brothers who come to remove a body from the Loudons’ basement because, as their business says, they’ll do “anything for a buck.” They’re already broadly depicted (i.e. cartoonish and requiring we stretch our believability), but since their function here is only to be episodic guests, we don’t have to take our investment to an elevated level; this means we can appreciate their humor and how the story uses them. Actually, though, I truly like this offering again for its use of the inn setting and the New England sensibilities, as the Loudons learn the body in the basement was accused in the late 17th century of being a witch (in a very funny scene with Bill Quinn as a minister). See, the premise and this environment distract from the ensemble, allowing the funny idea and well-written teleplay to showcase Newhart and his strengths. An all-time favorite.

03) Episode 3: “Hail To The Councilman” (Aired: 11/08/82)

Dick is asked to run for town council.

Written by Sheldon Bull | Directed by Will Mackenzie

As mentioned above in the seasonal commentary, some of the best episodes from Newhart‘s entire first era (its initial two seasons), come within the first few months of its freshman year. (We saw the same thing with, not The Bob Newhart Show, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) While this installment’s two predecessors made good use of the broader Vermont atmosphere for both story and comedic ambience, this one — the first script written following the pilot — decides to introduce us to the town and its main players, which include Jim Dixon (Thomas Hill) and Chester Wanamaker (William Lanteau), two recurring characters who’ll be utilized to solid effect throughout the series’ eight-year run. Another winning premise-based entry.

04) Episode 4: “Shall We Gather At The River?” (Aired: 11/15/82)

Joanna is embarrassed during the annual River Day Festival.

Written by Paul Robinson Hunter | Directed by Will Mackenzie

In upcoming weeks, you’ll see just how much of an unsolved problem I consider Joanna (because it’s going to factor in most of the seasonal commentaries), but even if I don’t like every episode centered around her, I appreciate when the show tries to correct the issue — that is, when it tries to give her a characterization. This is the first offering that attempts to supply something that so far hasn’t been present on the page or the stage, and although we’re obviously left wanting, the suggested idea of Joanna thinking she’s superior to the other townsfolk is an interesting thread; too bad it’s dropped and barely hit upon again. It’s not hilarious by any means, but here is the time in which Joanna’s character should be crafted, so we’re open to it all…

05) Episode 14: “What Is This Thing Called Lust?” (Aired: 01/31/83)

Leslie’s cousin Stephanie visits the inn and romances Kirk.

Written by Emily Marshall | Directed by Will Mackenzie

With evident problems writing for Leslie, a character who has no flaws and therefore no personality, the show must focus on Kirk’s half-hearted non-reciprocated feelings for her (while, in contrast, his personality is defined by one insurmountable flaw). This episode is best known for introducing Julia Duffy (perhaps still smarting from losing the role of Diane Chambers) as Leslie’s cousin Stephanie, who sets a lustful gaze on Kirk before she herself is supposed to be wed to a much older man. Obviously, we know that Stephanie will become the series’ permanent fix for its Leslie dilemma, but that’s temporarily what she does here, as her joie de vivre (especially in a scene with Newhart’s Dick) distracts from the story’s Kirk/Leslie core.

06) Episode 16: “Ricky Nelson, Up Your Nose” (Aired: 02/14/83)

When Kirk goes to the hospital, the cafe is put in the charge of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.

Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Will Mackenzie

There are several episodes this season thrown to the knowingly problematic Kirk (and there’ll be even more next week as the show desperately tries to remedy his issues); this is one of the year’s two Kirk stories that I could actually justify including here. (The other is honorably mentioned below.) However, the reason I’m highlighting this installment, whose story has Kirk going to the hospital to have a trinket with Ricky Nelson’s face on it removed from his nose — it’s quirky and odd, so I guess we’re supposed to laugh — is because the bulk of the entry downplays Kirk and treats us to some good laughs supplied by Larry, Darryl and Darryl, whose sporadic presence is now welcome, granting Newhart his necessary foolishness.

07) Episode 19: “Heaven Knows Mr. Utley” (Aired: 03/20/83)

The town ridicules George after he believes he saw a UFO.

Written by Bill Taub & Jeff Lewis | Directed by Will Mackenzie

Another freelance script, this is one of two potential George entries this season that supply his aforementioned “palpable humanity,” which serves as a counterpoint to the characterization issues plaguing three of the other regulars. (The other George show, which guest stars the ever-charming Rue McClanahan, might have been easy to highlight, but it’s included as an Honorable Mention.) Neither of these two outings are hilarious, because George isn’t always hilarious, yet this one is probably funnier and better for Newhart as a whole, for it makes fine use of the core ensemble, as the story of George spotting a UFO isn’t about whether or not he saw it; it’s about his friends choosing to stick by him even though they have doubts. It becomes a human entry then — not a gimmick — developing, especially, the George/Dick friendship.

08) Episode 20: “You’re Homebody Till Somebody Loves You” (Aired: 03/27/83)

Joanna gets a job after Dick calls her a “homebody.”

Written by Emily Marshall | Directed by Will Mackenzie

The second episode on this list in which Joanna is a prime participant, this entry reveals how much she differs from Emily Hartley by trying to make her more like Emily — for 24-minutes anyway (to see how it works). That is, Emily had a job independent from the home; Joanna doesn’t, but this entry presents the idea that she would like one. Marshall’s teleplay starts amusingly by showing us some needed character-centered conflict between Dick and Joanna, when he calls her a “homebody,” but then loses its way later when it goes to Joanna’s new office, a travel agency (with a boss played by Utley-almost, Jerry Van Dyke, who derails the Joanna focus — perhaps to her permanent detriment). Yet, the initial suggestion remains strong. If only!

09) Episode 21: “Grandma, What Big Ears You Have” (Aired: 04/03/83)

Kirk’s grandmother tags along on his date with Leslie.

Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Will Mackenzie

Ruth Gordon guest stars in this episode as Kirk’s grandmother — or rather, as a named Emmy-winning star who can bolster the merit of this Kirk outing with her strong comedic presence, the audience’s good-will, and her ability to scene-steal and divert attention away from the major issues with her character’s grandson. Yes, in the same way that Stephanie was used to overtake another Kirk/Leslie offering, Ruth Gordon is applied in the same manner — tagging along on a date between the two, adding laughs and conflict that otherwise wouldn’t have been provided. It’s an obvious ploy and doesn’t offer any practical solutions, but Gordon does what she’s supposed to — she makes the episode worthwhile, distracting from Kirk’s poor design.

10) Episode 22: “I Enjoy Being A Guy” (Aired: 04/10/83)

Dick tries to lose the money he won while gambling with the townsfolk.

Written by Bob Perlow & Gene Braunstein | Directed by Will Mackenzie

One of the things that will become clear within the next several weeks of coverage is that the only tried-and-true recipe for success on Newhart is delivering on behalf of its star, the lovable Bob Newhart, a material elevator in whom we are already emotionally invested — and who must only be made able to react off solid characters and motivated scenarios. This entry, the year’s finale (written by a pair of freelancers best known for Who’s The Boss?), puts all its figurative chips on the star, giving him a lot to do, while utilizing more of the male townsfolk, including the previously introduced Chester and Jim. It doesn’t make the same use of the Vermont setting or its sensibilities, but Dick remains an outsider, which the premise needs.


Other episodes that merit mention here include: “No Room At The Inn,” a well-liked outing that has a welcome unity of time and place, “The Way We Thought We Were,” the aforementioned George entry that features Rue McClanahan and a lot of achingly nice (if not funny) palpable humanity (the closest contender for the above list),  “A View From The Bench,” a fairly popular excursion that has at least one good sight gag for Newhart and a gimmicky, unnecessary guest appearance by MTM’s own Daniel J. Travanti, and “The Boy Who Cried Goat,” the other previously referenced Kirk offering, which hopes to deepen his character but suffers from the unfixable problems he suggests. (Kirk fans will enjoy this one.)


*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Newhart goes to…..

“Mrs. Newton’s Body Lies A-Mould’ring In The Grave”



Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!

29 thoughts on “The Ten Best NEWHART Episodes of Season One

  1. i 2 prefer bob newhart show from 1970s but newhart does get better as it goes along. joanna never improves but michael and steph are much better than kirk and lesley–lookin forward 2 later wks more here and curious ur thoughts on wings ahead

    • Hi, BB! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Stay tuned for more NEWHART coming next week – and WINGS starting in November!

  2. Agree with you on all accounts. THE BOB NEWHART SHOW was about humans. NEWHART was about characters and many of them one-dimensional (Kirk, Stephanie), or undefined (Joanna).

    I understand that the Kirk character has an odd internet following. Don’t know why. He’s a terrible – completely unbelievable by any stretch of the imagination.

    If not for Newhart himself, I’m not sure the series would be worth watching. However, there are some good episodes IIRC in the middle of the series run. I only have Seasons 3-6 on DVD and I’ve barely touched them. Your lists may finally inspire me to revisit.

    • Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You’ve certainly got the show’s best entries (largely) covered – I hope you do revisit them and enjoy!

  3. Having watched the first season, I feel that this list is pretty spot-on. Looking forward to the rest of the series, as I have loved watching it on Antenna.

    • Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Each year yields something new to discuss; stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Two – next week!

  4. Glad you’re covering NEWHART. There’s a lot to say about the series, perhaps more than any show you’ve covered here, as it lurches in one direction or another with each change in showrunners.

    I’ve always thought that THE BOB NEWHART SHOW suffered a second-tier, also-ran status (nary an Emmy) because it had the bad luck of airing concurrently with splashier, more daring, and yes, better comedies in the glorious 1970s. As much as I love the show, it barely cracks my list of top-10 ’70s sitcoms because sitcoms were just THAT good at the time.

    But while sitcoms were (eventually) just as plentiful in the ’80s, those quality shows were few (as you say, CHEERS and GOLDEN GIRLS and, OK, some COSBY). Yet somehow NEWHART never lifted itself into the ranks of the decade’s great comedies (again, not one single Emmy), this time due to maddening flaws and inconsistency. Still, it is often quite watchable and occasionally exhibits a promise, even a specialness, that gives hope but sadly never sustains.

    Good work and much appreciated, as usual.

    • Hi, Red Herring! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree with your assessment that the ‘70s boasted a greater volume of superior comedic offerings (in relation to the ‘80s) – which then might cloud analysis of Newhart’s two successful sitcoms and how they stood against the competition in each of their respective decades. However, it would seem I’m more “up” on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW than you; I think its sensibilities are closer than any other ‘70s sitcom to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW’s – save only mid-era TAXI – with comparable, character-rooted, riches in regular supply.

      I have much more to say later on NEWHART – I enjoy discussing it more than watching it – but I was more verbose with MURPHY BROWN and SEINFELD; I don’t feel that NEWHART’s shortcomings are particularly complex: they begin and end with character (and, as we’ll see, the need to compensate for these recognized failings becomes responsible, often, for magnifying them); stay tuned…

  5. Newhart is so much funnier than The Bob Newhart Show. Newhart’s performance is sharper. And, at least eventually, the supporting cast is much better than TBNS’s largely dull ensemble.

    • Hi, Scott! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I do agree that NEWHART (in comparison to its predecessor) pushes more often for bigger laughs and makes more regular attempts to provide its star with grander comedic moments (as there’s no one else as reliable). But I disagree with your verdict surrounding the show’s comedic superiority – due to my belief in NEWHART’s inconsistency on this front, along with the characterization issues that forever limit how the humor, and the stories, can be motivated.

      I more vociferously would challenge your characterization of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, for while I do think that – like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW – certain characters on the former proved more comedic and/or better story anchors than others, each member of that ensemble was quickly well-defined and consistently believable. I don’t think the same is true for NEWHART, even after the series replaced two of its initial era’s weakest links; stay tuned…

  6. i actually liked the later seasons better than the first. Stephanie and Michael were funny together and i loved seeing Joanna’s designer sweaters. speaking of his two wives, i always thought if Bob was training for a baseball game, Emily would be out in the field practicing with him while Joanna would be in the stands rooting him on. both very different but both needed.

    • Hi, Sean! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think you’re right – NEWHART’s best years are still to come. But I’m not sure your pithy and sagacious description of the difference between Emily and Joanna (in relation to Newhart’s character) proves the latter had a consistent, definable characterization from which regular comedy could be derived; stay tuned…

  7. So glad you have gotten to Newhart. I do agree that seasons 1 & 2 are not my favorites (especially 1). Leslie is a bore and Kirk was just annoying. Did Steven Kampmann get fired or leave on his own?

    Like I said last week this show just made me laugh. I enjoyed most of the characters for all their quirkiness. Michael and Stephanie are my two favorites. I like Joanna but I understand her not being defined. I don’t believe the character was meant to be as independent as Emily. Loved her sweaters though. I will say that Bob and Dick had wonderful taste in women. Mary and Suzanne both died too young.

    I love that you are reviewing this show even if we may not agree on everything. It is so much better than most of what’s on today. Thanks again.

    One question not related to Newhart. I just finished watching That 70’s Show (my son got me to watch it). I liked it so much better that I thought I would. The parents are hilarious. Any chance it might be reviewed?

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      From my understanding, Kampmann did not leave of his own accord; stay tuned for more on Kirk next week…

      As for THAT ’70S SHOW, I’d say it’s a great possibility for future coverage!

  8. I am very much looking forward to your thoughts on this series over the next couple of months. I actually preferred the first season of NEWHART to subsequent seasons, which reveled in broadness and in the bizarre and seemed less grounded than the initial year. In particular, I loved the pilot episode, and actually consider it one of the best episodes of the entire series. And the “Ricky Nelson, Up Your Nose” episode is noteworthy for the “dregs of humanity” line uttered by Larry, one of my all-time favorite punchlines.
    But you rightly highlight all the issues that are already troublesome here in Season 1, like Leslie’s dullness, Kirk’s lack of character credibility and Joanna’s weakness when she is inevitably compared to Emily Hartley. But I would add another problem, which the series thankfully addressed pretty quickly: Season 1 was shot on videotape, while all subsequent seasons were shot on film. While I don’t loathe videotape sitcoms nearly as much as some folks do, it really does not seem like an appropriate medium for a bucolic setting in Vermont.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, Season One is certainly the show’s quietest, with more realistic stories and grounded characterizations. However, I don’t consider the videotape format a problem that hinders the year; in fact, I think discussions surrounding how tape and film impact the quality of character-driven comedy are mostly overstated: a well-timed response from a well-defined character said by a well-regarded performer will get its laugh on any physical media.

      That noted, the studied viewer does receive subliminal suggestions from the chosen style, and indeed, I think being on tape subconsciously removes the first season of NEWHART from the memory of MTM’s finest ‘70s sitcoms. (This may be a positive though, if the show is trying to downplay potential comparisons.) Because this is an MTM sitcom and also tries to be like one, I would nevertheless agree that switching to film made more sense for NEWHART and its intentions…

      Of course, as we’ll see next week, this new look doesn’t do anything to fix or even mitigate the text’s still unsolved issues; stay tuned…

  9. I’m so glad you are covering Newhart! Reading your comments above I found myself agreeing with nearly everything you said. All your criticisms are valid and on point. And yet…I still prefer Newhart to TBNS. For whatever reason the collection of characters on Newhart make me laugh just a little more. Especially once Peter Scolari is made a regular and Stephanie and Michael are a strong focus. Looking forward to your takes on future seasons!
    One thing though. I was surprised you didn’t talk more about the fact that season one is on videotape. Perhaps that will be discussed next week when the show goes to film?

    • Hi, Christopher! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think the switch from tape to film is relevant for a discussion surrounding how the series tried to revamp itself following its creatively addled first season. However, as I wrote to Guy above, I don’t think the different medias had any bearing on quality, and, as you’ll see next week, I specifically don’t think that moving to film (arguably the “look” for which most fans think NEWHART is better suited) fixed any of the series’ underlying issues; stay tuned…

  10. How nice that you are beginning reviewing NEWHART on Peter Scolari’s birthday (even if he wasn’t in season one)! I hate parroting the previous commentators but they are so right: Leslie was dull, Kirk was beyond annoying, and Joanna is and will be the weakest link in the series. (I had no idea the original Newhart Show cast was planned to reunite! As their old characters or as new ones in the Vermont setting?) I also like the filmed shows better than the videotapes of season one. The following years are better, but at least as you say in season one we have Dick and George. I found Poston’s Peeper in TBNS grating (and could never buy how silly Bob Hartley was with him) but George is a bucolic hoot, and Poston is wonderful, especially so in season six. Thankfully we’ll have Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari coming up in season two, and I really look even more forward to your NEWHART reviews henceforth. One question: Why didn’t Newhart’s shows ever get any Emmy love? Duffy and Scolari and Poston were criminally overlooked, as were Suzanne Pleshette and Marcia Wallace earlier. (And Bob was too, of course in both series.) Sorry to be verbose but I’m always glad when you focus on a series I really like (as in HE & SHE last week!).

    • Nobody is a bigger fan of Bob Newhart the performer than myself, but the reason HE never won an Emmy for his work on TBNS in the 1970s was that the Best Actor category in a comedy series in that era was a veritable murderer’s row: Carroll O’Connor, Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Alan Alda, Redd Foxx, Hal Linden. It’s a shame he was never even nominated, but look at that list.

    • Hi, Mark! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Kemp recalls MTM first considering a Bob and Emily Hartley series. The new premise, new wife, and new setting came after he backed away from that initial idea.

      I think Guy is absolutely right about why Newhart, and his series, was largely ignored by the Television Academy during the 1970s. I’d also posit that he, and even his co-stars, made the work look so easy. Most of the era’s competition, specifically in the leading man category, were either funnymen or terrific actors; you knew they were working hard. Newhart underplayed.

      On NEWHART, Newhart, Poston, Duffy, and Scolari all received Emmy nominations. As for why they never clinched a win, I honestly think it’s because their competitors (specifically in the supporting categories), more often than not, got better material. And on this note, stay tuned…

  11. I agree that Bob Newhart was robbed of earning an Emmy. He is a wonderful actor. He did a serious guest appearance on ER and killed it. I believe he was nominated for that role. For some reason I thought Julia was nominated.
    I could not stand the Peeper on Bob Newhart Show. He grated on me. But I loved George Utley. Tom Poston played him so well.

    • I agree with your – and Mark’s – preference for Poston’s work on NEWHART in comparison to THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. However, I should also like to add that the majority of Poston’s appearances on the latter came in 1976 and thereafter. These later years relied more upon broader forms of humor, occasionally forsaking humanity, and not always within the show’s heretofore established realism. I think the Peeper very much exuded the final era’s defining qualities, which incidentally, would have been more “at home” on NEWHART; stay tuned…

  12. The Joanna problem is so important that it’s difficult for me to fathom how some prefer NEWHART to THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. Like, she really has no character. Wearing sweaters and being pretty is not a personality. Everyone on BOB NEWHART was defined- and not nearly as broadly.

    Also, as someone who was able to watch both first run, I always felt the first series was underrated and the second was overrated. The first was really different than most of the period’s comedies, jsut as MTM was (truly in the company’s mold, I agree). People loved Newhart himself so they almost automatically loved his 80’s sitcom, even though it wasn’t particularly fresh or different. At times, frankly I found the comedy hacky.

    I watched on and off hoping it would improve. Friends would always tell me that it had. I was usually always disappointed in a big picture way. Small picture, there were episodes here and there that could make me laugh. So I look forward to seeing the rest of these posts. Seems like we’re in a lot of agreement here.

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree with you about the severity of NEWHART’s Joanna dilemma, but if you adjust your expectations, you can still find plenty to enjoy here; stay tuned…

  13. My ideal cast for Newhart would be , in this order, Bob Newhart, Steven Kampmann, Tom Poston, and Jennifer Holmes with guest appearances by Mary Frann and Julia Duffy. I think that that would really offer the best dynamic. Why do I prefer Jennifer Holmes over Julia Duffy? Jennifer Holmes is a blank slate (a pretty one at that) that allows for creative fluidity and spontaneity within the narrative. Whereas the character of Stephanie Vanderkellen is ill defined and just a walking stereotype of wealth and vanity as its only foundation. Jennifer Holmes was dropped after the first season because her potential for comedy was limited. Kirk also stopped going after her in the last episode of the first season. As for the statement that she was “flawless’, all the writers would have had to have down was write her some and the series could have slowly built up her and Kirk’s newly formed friendship.
    Why would I bill Kampmann second? Kirk Devane brought edge to this series, he’s easily my second favorite character after Bob, and the character had so much story potential. The character is there to be a mostly unintentional antagonist. This type of character has been a staple of a comedy since day one. Kampmann was very expressive as Kirk and a gifted physical comedian.
    Kirk’s character annoys Bob greatly but Kirk thinks of Bob as his best friend. Storytelling reaps the rewards of great heroes and villains and Kirk was both. Removing Kirk lead to mostly run of the mill which never ceased up until the series’ end. it took away the edge, it took away the chance for Mary Frann to develop her character, it made the delightful Larry and the Darylls used to the point of Tedium. Worst of all, it made the lifelesss Michael one of the central characters.
    The characters never grew beyond the one and only 10/10 episode Heaven Knows Mr. Utley. This is the only episode truly worthy of its predecessor series. It dealt purely in human emotion which is the core of The Bob Newhart Show. It amazes me that his next series after Newhart, Bob, went right back into the humanity territory so easily. Despite its swift cancellation, I thought that that series was way better than Newhart (for the first season anyways.) Bob even has a Kirk Devane style character in the form of Harlan Stone which proves the durability. Bob series was a breath of fresh air and return to form for a Bob Newhart sitcom.
    These are just my thoughts.

    • Hi, Jacob! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Ill-defined means “not having a clear description or limits; vague” — and that’s the opposite of Duffy’s Stephanie; she may have been a caricature, but her definition was both limited and, more importantly, clear. In fact, she’s perhaps the only female lead on the show to actually have an obvious personality, and to think that “all the writers would have had to have down was write [some flaws]” for Holmes’ Leslie is an ironic statement for the same is true of Joanna… and the show spent eight years trying (and failing) to create any kind of sustainable character for her. So, it wouldn’t have been as easy as it looks to produce something worthwhile on a “a blank slate.”

      As for Kirk, it’s also ironic to champion the humanity of the early seasons in comparison to the later ones while simultaneously supporting the inclusion of a character missing that fundamental trait because the series decided to define him as a chronic liar, meaning that nothing he said could be inherently accepted as truth, which then made it impossible to latch onto an emotionally investable characterization. From the beginning, this was a corrupt idea for a regular because there would always be a distance between him and the audience, even if he was diluted into a generic run-of-the-mill sitcom nuisance (as he was in Season Two). I know we often regard Michael, along with Stephanie, as single-dimensional, but at least their single dimensions made it easy for us to understand who they were and then root for their mutual and individual objectives (if we so choose). That’s important for characters on a series: identification. We never had that with Kirk.

      Lastly, I bring it back to Joanna. I fail to see how losing Kirk stopped Frann from being able to develop her character. The writers kept throwing ideas at her; she kept not picking up on them. This has nothing to do with Kampmann.

      • Thanks for responding.
        I have a few things I’d like to say in response to your analysis.
        Firstly, I do believe that Jennifer Holmes would have worked well as a blank slate. The same could not be applied to Mary Frann for when Kirk was removed from the series, the show’s tension had all but disappeared. After a few episodes into the third season, the show became content to stay where it was and not develop its regulars any further (with the exception of George.) Not utilizing much in the way of antagonists makes your show feel too peaceful. It won’t force characters into a corner to reveal their true colors.
        The only ways around not having a villain are to a)let the character be their own enemy through self doubt etc.( A bad way considering the writing often not being rooted in humanity,) or b) Let the situation be the enemy. ( The situation for one of the series’ best where Bob hosts a telethon.)
        As for Kirk, I disagree that he is lacking humanity. He is a very flawed individual for sure but that doesn’t mean he lacks humanity. As for being a chronic liar, the other leads could pretty much always call him out on it. Episodes that come to mind that really show his humanity are A View from the Bench, Best Friends, Kirk Goes for the Juggler, and, to a lesser extent, the pilot. However, I think most episodes do an adequate job at showing this.

        • I think your pro-Kirk position has prevented you from a clearer look at the seasons following his departure. Stephanie, Michael, and every single regular introduced into NEWHART’S world in Season Two and beyond function exactly the same as Kirk was supposed to — as a nuisance and threat to Bob’s sanity.

          Conflict in narrative drama is defined as anything that hinders a main character’s ability to achieve a goal. In the sitcom, sometimes these goals are obvious and sustaining (like Lucy Ricardo’s desire to break out of the home, the castaways attempts to get off the island, Samantha’s promise not to use witchcraft). Often, however, as the sitcom has gotten more realistic — largely thanks to MTM’s efforts — weekly plots have gotten smaller, more individually situational, and they can succinctly be categorized as anything that disrupts the happy status quo.

          That’s the case with THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, and later NEWHART, as everyone around the title character is a purveyor of weekly conflict, pushing it onto Bob and/or annoying him in some ideally amusing way. The comedic premise, or promise, of NEWHART, then, is that Bob is a Vermont inn owner and local TV host surrounded by a group of eclectic, extreme agitators to his peace of mind — this extends even to Tom Poston’s George, the most believable and humane of the bunch (more in the initial BOB NEWHART mold), because even his dilemmas become Bob’s. So, everyone around the lead is designed to fill the same role.

          As for the series being content and not growing, that’s a purposeful mischaracterization of the next six seasons, which expressly tried to evolve Michael and Stephanie’s characters via their relationship. We can debate how successful this was (it wasn’t) — and we can certainly agree, again, that their characters were largely caricatures incapable of much sincerity — but to describe the show as stagnant, when EVERY new showrunner brought change — with tone, with stories, with characters (like Joanna, whom the series was *perpetually* trying to provide a personality, despite Frann’s shortcomings) — is just false, used to bolster a losing argument.

          To that point, it’s also completely false to pretend that conflict — or “tension” as you call it — went out the window with Kirk. As a matter of fact, there was more “tension” after his departure as the show became more boldly committed to characters who, while, yes, single dimensional, had heightened depictions that made it more possible for the comedic premise to operate: for Bob’s sanity to be jeopardized. Kirk was a totally unsatisfying presence in this regard because he lacked the characterization necessary to bring continuity to his agitation — first because nothing he said could be accepted as true (and therefore couldn’t stick), and later because he was stripped of that singular character trait and had no definition whatsoever. Not even story arcs like an engagement and wedding could provide a reliable personality for him, and when I said that his character lacked humanity, I meant that audiences couldn’t connect to him.

          But we’ll never agree on Kirk, so I’ll let Bob Newhart have the last word on the matter. While discussing the series at a Paley Center tribute in 2018, he revealed that Kirk was axed because audiences didn’t take to the pathological liar — they didn’t know whether to laugh or not, so they didn’t. They couldn’t relate to something that wasn’t consistent enough to recognize and identify.

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