Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation 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, JULIA DUFFY as Stephanie Vanderkellen, and STEVEN KAMPMANN as Kirk Devane. REBECCA YORK recurs as Cindy Parker-Devane.
Many fans regard Season Two as the “fix-it” year, in which Newhart improves itself by slowly moving away from its faulty ensemble construction (and perhaps limiting premise), until it can finally reach, by the next premiere, the workable design and format we can expect for the remainder of its run. But I think this notion is generous. While it’s true the year dedicates itself to either removing entirely, or attempting to work through, the three big problems of the prior season – namely Leslie, Kirk, and Joanna – I’m reluctant to overstate its progressivity, for despite the narrative and character developments (discussed below) that really do help move the show onto a positive course, the quality of this year’s scripts is much closer to material seen last season than anything ahead. (No surprise – it’s still got the same showrunner, after all.) In fact, Season Two is hardly better for excellence-seekers than One; the volume of episodic gems is the same and character troubles still bog down the comedy. And to the “fix-it” point, only one character problem is actually nullified here; possible solutions for the other two are discovered in these episodes, but they’re saved for official implementation under the next “administration” – leaving this year stuck, just like the last, trying to squeeze lemonade out of unripe lemons. Nevertheless, I won’t discount the progress made here on last year’s proven assets, and if I were forced to choose, I’d cautiously cite this season as stronger – for the simple reason that the sophomore collection tries even harder to do right by its regulars, and with the two that are working (Dick and George), the show starts to build a foundation for the type of character-driven comedy we seek from MTM. Thus, even though Season Two generally fails to boast higher highs than One and is conceptually closer to its predecessor than its successor, we are moving in the right direction… just maybe not as fast as most of us would like.
Let’s see how the year handles its three big hurdles, starting with the one cleared away in the two-part premiere: Leslie, the boring maid. Following an off-screen departure, she’s replaced in her job (and our hearts) by her vain cousin, Stephanie (Julia Duffy), whom we met in one of last week’s highlighted excursions. Now, for any upcoming concerns that we, as viewers with high standards (especially for an MTM property), may have with Stephanie and the show’s usage of her, we have to preface her existence with the basic notion that supplanting a very undefined lead (Leslie) with a very defined lead (Stephanie) is more than just wise – it’s vital, especially when the goal is to better cultivate a cast of mildly eccentric, but believable, regulars off of whom Newhart can react. In Season Two, Steph’s not nearly as broadly depicted (or played) as she’ll become – but this is actually good for securing the audience’s emotional investment, which she gets handily. (She’s bigger than us, but, here, human.) For just as with every new character stumbling through a first year, the scripts have to slowly build for her a sustainable comedic identity – and once they do, Stephanie can enter the third season on relatively solid ground. Like Dick, she’ll be a fish-out-of-water, yet not just in the city-slickers vs. country-folk manner (which itself isn’t ever as big a theme as we think; the Green Acres parallels that some draw to Newhart are, in my estimation, forced – more later) – but also in both life experience (background) and, simply, temperament. To wit, her inclusion, while bolstering the principal ensemble’s power, also ends up diverting the series’ attention away from its initial premise; Dick fits much more into this simpler life than she does, meaning there’s theoretically more conflict for her than him in this world. As a result, everything the show used last year to distract from its character issues – the inn setting, the New England motifs, the fish-out-of-water premise – has to be re-thought.
But if Stephanie represents, generally, a problem solved, Kirk is a problem that’s never solved. And that’s not for lack of trying. It seems these writers – which include Barry Kemp, Sheldon Bull, Emily Marshall and two new staffers (Barbara Hall and Miriam Trogdon) – went into this season with a clear objective: mitigating his character’s primary roadblock, which is the fact that he’s been defined as a compulsive liar and therefore is resistant to the audience’s trust. Last year revealed Kirk to be, of the regulars, the one most poised for laughs – hampered only, but greatly, by his unfortunate and one-note definition. In attempting to reduce this sole and handicapping trait, by downplaying (if not removing) it entirely, Newhart hopes to make Kirk likable enough so that he can then enjoy the same character-building afforded to Dick and George. And yet, ignoring his pomp reveals an absence of circumstance, and the now definition-less character becomes merely an over-the-top story-driven nuisance – one whom we inherently dislike, even as the scripts no longer provide the prior year’s explicit reason. The “Hail Mary” with Kirk involves saddling him with a girlfriend, then fiancé, then wife (played by Rebecca York), whose occupation as a clown is, well… all there is to her thinly rendered plot-device-of-a-character. Needless to say, this doesn’t benefit Kirk, for although the arc gives him story and attempts to fix his troubled character by expanding the emotional life, he’s still annoying, the wife is boring, and their characters consume the show in a way that doesn’t make great use of its viable tools: Dick, George, and now, Stephanie. Fortunately, Newhart recognizes that Kirk is without hope and drops him between seasons (like Leslie). Unfortunately, the entire second year is wasted – and suffers – for aiming to fix an always terribly designed character.
Joanna is the other issue that’s never solved – not in Season Two, not ever. But, again, this isn’t for lack of trying. As before, the year hopes to create for her a defined persona, and tests a few ideas. One episode crafts a story around the city-slickers vs. country-folk premise, casting the leading lady as a modern cosmopolitan woman in a rigid tradition-based society. But Frann can’t find the nuance – the funny. Shortly thereafter an entry goes broad by making Joanna vain and image-conscious. This provides conflict for Dick… yet, again, without the added nuance, her characterization suffers from a lack of both likability and, worse, believability. Then the show tries to define Joanna in how she affects Dick – for instance, through his jealousy. But that tells us little about her… So, ultimately, the season decides the best way to handle this troubled (and still undefined) character is to draw attention away from the domestic life she shares with Dick – just keep her out of the action as much as possible – and turn to his other career (besides innkeeper) of being a how-to author. Of course, this is also usually an inn-bound profession, and even when the action is elsewhere (like in the season premiere), the job isn’t amusing enough to justify such stories. The writers needed something else… Their permanent diversion finally came during a successful one-off in the middle of the season, in which Dick becomes the temporary host of a local talk show. Based on the success of this entry, Kemp and his crew made the series’ single boldest move and decided, in an installment close to the year’s end, to make this profession an enduring one. (If you’re counting, it’s Dick’s third job.) Also, these two outings introduce us to someone who’s positioned as a potential new regular, Michael (Peter Scolari), the schmoozy producer of Dick’s new show, who’s designed as a love interest for the developing Stephanie, and promises to take us away from Kirk and Joanna – along with the now limited inn setting. We’ll talk more of Michael, what he allows for the others, and what the TV show means, next week. For now, let’s note that his two excursions are the year’s best.
Another way the show alleviates its Joanna tension is by elevating Larry, Darryl, & Darryl, the iconic trio of backwoods brothers who were used several times in the prior season and whose utilization in several upcoming years can best be described as, frankly, “too much.” As with Kirk, their extreme broadness is not conducive to regular emotional investment – for they simply require a constant suspension of our disbelief… and that’s best done occasionally, only when it can be proven worthwhile. (Again, like Kirk, they’d be better recurring players.) So, I like the way the trio is featured here – four times, and mostly in episodes that need them. Of course, we also understand why their presence continued to gain prominence: COMEDY. To his credit, Newhart asked that his series, beyond being character-driven in the MTM tradition, also be funny. But here, the scripts aren’t yet able to use the players and their relationships to regularly deliver the great character-driven laughs of the company’s prior hits. (Heck, it’s not even at the place either Moore’s or Newhart’s ‘70s sitcoms were during their first season.) So, with Season Two not anywhere near where it needs to be – grappling with two lackluster regulars and a start-from-nearly-scratch newbie – naturally it’d seek big laughs elsewhere. Should we blame Kemp? Well, even with his otherwise humane and emotionally potent style (that emphasizes character when it’s already there), it’s the poor construction he’s supplied that’s caused this whole mess. Perhaps for the show’s own good (despite his noble attempts to remedy past misdeeds – like the second year’s switch from tape to film, which didn’t improve the scripts, but incidentally strikes many viewers as being more aesthetically appropriate: better suited for the MTM brand), next year sees welcome staff changes, as Newhart finally establishes the operational mode that’ll eventually allow it to become a mostly enjoyable, somewhat character-driven MTM comedy. Thus, on this note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 28: “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (Aired: 11/21/83)
Dick volunteers the inn to host a big Thanksgiving supper.
Written by Barbara Hall | Will Mackenzie
Truthfully, I like the two episodes on this list broadcast in ’83 much less than anything that follows in ’84. (Perhaps this speaks to the year’s growing understanding of all three functioning main characters: Dick, George, and Stephanie.) It’s only because I’m faithful to my “ten per week” premise (whenever I logically I can be) that I’ve given an added boost to this one, which unlike each of the below Honorable Mentions (whose company it should otherwise be keeping), features no insurmountable flaw. In fact, this is but a solid ensemble-driven Thanksgiving outing that has a few laughs (sure, it could have more) and attempts to make use of Joanna, who anchors the action. It’s a setting specific, and show specific, entry that tries to play by the rules.
02) Episode 29: “Lady & The Tramps” (Aired: 12/05/83)
Stephanie meets Larry, Darryl, and Darryl during a snowstorm.
Written by Emily Marshall | Directed by Donna Wheeler
A popular one, I also don’t think this installment is on the year’s top shelf. But because of the state of the series during this particular era, there’s a tendency to want to elevate any outing that mitigates the big problems (i.e. Kirk and Joanna) — especially when the comedic tactic is to use Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, who make their second season debut. Are they an easy temporary fix? Yes. Are they enough to bump an episode up from the Honorable Mentions? Yes. Also, I suppose the excursion deserves credit for Marshall’s clear understanding of the three solid characters’ voices, particularly the burgeoning one afforded to Stephanie, who meets the three brothers in a Goldilocks scenario during a snowstorm. Not great, but good for Newhart ’83.
03) Episode 33: “A Jug Of Wine, A Loaf Of Bread, And POW” (Aired: 01/09/84)
Dick is enraged when a poetry professor makes a pass at Joanna.
Written by Barry Kemp, Sheldon Bull, and Emily Marshall | Directed by Dick Martin
Mentioned in the seasonal commentary, this is the offering in which the show tries to define Joanna through Dick’s jealousy when she’s hit on by her smarmy poetry professor. Not surprisingly, there’s no actual characterization that can be gleaned for her here. However, the installment actually delivers ample laughs (especially in comparison to the other Season Two entries that have preceded this one) and does so while keeping the functioning characters’ voices, again, precisely in tune. Well, that’s mostly true… Dick, for once, is a bit contorted, as his rage over the situation puts Newhart in a scenario where he has to push a little too hard (it’s a more active reaction than usual). But, honestly, this liveliness is a rare welcome distraction.
04) Episode 34: “Cats” (Aired: 01/16/84)
Stephanie gets a visit from an old beau and his new wife.
Written by Barry Kemp, Sheldon Bull, and Emily Marshall | Directed by Jim Drake
An underrated excursion written by the show’s three power players (who also wrote the one above), this is a terrific installment for Stephanie, giving us more insight into her character without sacrificing some of the bigger laughs that her persona demands (and needs in order to justify any accompanying extremeness). Earlier character-rooted Stephanie outings, like “Animal Attractions,” didn’t deliver on the humor front, but with several delicious catty encounters between our fresh regular and her old beau’s new wife, we get the needed guffaws (and they’re character-rooted). This is also counterbalanced by several quieter moments, which bring in a humanity that I wish persisted for her throughout the run. Shockingly sharp.
05) Episode 35: “Curious George At The Firehouse” (Aired: 01/23/84)
George becomes a volunteer fireman.
Written by Barbara Hall | Directed by Will Mackenzie
If last season’s George episodes suffered a bit comedically in comparison to the bolder, more premise-rooted outings, then this year’s entries look infinitely better — not only because there are fewer premise-rooted outings as competition, but also because of George; the developing understanding of his character is on target. This means that he’s becoming more able to get laughs, simply because we know him better and like him more. Now, still, it’s not yet in hilarious territory, but it’s a great place as far as Season Two’s concerned, especially in the amiably predictable sequence in which George must put out his first fire (and misplaces the keys to the truck). Some good laughs, with fine material for Poston (and Newhart, too). A favorite.
06) Episode 36: “Book Beat” (Aired: 01/30/84)
Dick is asked to host a television show.
Story by Will Porter & Rich Procter | Teleplay by Miriam Trogdon | Directed by Will Mackenzie
This infamous episode foretells an upcoming development in the series’ premise, but with a story that’s timidly tested episodically; things go back to “normal” (for now, anyway) after these 23 minutes. Dick gets his taste of local television when he guests on a talk show and then is asked to take over for the departing host. Then, in a wonderful situation for Newhart the comic, he unknowingly tells the former (and also unknowing) host of the switch. It’s terrifically funny — as is both his interview with a bizarre guest and the cafe commercial that stars Kirk and Joanna, who are uncommonly well-incorporated. And, of course, the show introduces future regular Michael Harris, who, like Stephanie, brings strong added energy. Important; comedic.
07) Episode 39: “Kirk Ties One On” (Aired: 02/27/84)
Kirk and Cindy get married.
Written by Barry Kemp, Sheldon Bull, and Emily Marshall | Directed by Will Mackenzie
The show’s issues with Kirk have inhibited my ability to highlight any of the other many (and I mean too many) episodes this season that make valiant and noble attempts to rectify the problems encountered with his characterization in the year prior. While a few of those better offerings are honorably mentioned below, this installment actually exists as a funny, likable, and generally well-executed outing for his character and the series. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that this teleplay is, as usual, written by the staff’s top three power players.) Despite the narrative goal of getting Kirk married (again, the emotional Hail Mary), the entry finds its laughs in broad, but not alienating, gags and a construction that makes time for the other, better characters.
08) Episode 40: “Go, Grandma, Go” (Aired: 03/05/84)
Kirk’s grandma lends the honeymooning couple her car.
Written by Barbara Hall | Directed by John Tracy
Ruth Gordon, who anchored a memorable episode from the prior season (by distracting from the year’s Kirk and Leslie issues), returns in this installment, which is a little more story-driven and therefore doesn’t work quite as well as its predecessor. Nevertheless, despite the fact that it’s comparatively not as strong and that Gordon’s presence is once again a big ol’ gimmick, she’s such a lovable dynamo that laughs are secured and the show’s Kirk conundrum becomes less painfully felt. Sure, it’s not a permanent solution, but in terms of quick episodic fixes (especially when the show clearly wants to help Kirk center stories and earn big laughs — because he’s bolder than both George and Joanna), this one, simply, works and doesn’t insult.
09) Episode 41: “Leave It To The Beavers” (Aired: 03/12/84)
Dick is rejected for membership into George’s club.
Written by Emily Marshall, Barbara Hall, and Miriam Trogdon | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Although I wrote above in my commentary that the show’s premise of Dick being a “fish-out-of-water” is gradually reduced during this time (albeit picked back up later in a different way — hold tight for a few weeks), I consider this offering to genuinely be a potent exploration of it — and definitely the year’s best. For while the entry doesn’t fully contend with his foreignness to this New England way of life and frame of mind, it still positions him as the city outsider amongst these country folk, including George, who’s a member of a group that refuses to admit Dick. (Yes, obvious laughs come from this development.) Of course, this story is all really a front to give more exposure to the working, developing bond between their two characters.
10) Episode 42: “Vermont Today” (Aired: 03/19/84)
Dick is offered his own television program.
Written by Barry Kemp, Sheldon Bull, and Emily Marshall | Directed by John Tracy
Ah, here it is. The famed episode where Newhart settles on one of the biggest and most ambitious fixes for its insurmountable initial ensemble and construction-based problems. Of course, as we’ll see next week, the show might not change as much as this entry and its legend may indicate, but it’s nonetheless, here, a big pivot, especially because it comes packaged to, without a doubt, the funniest and most focused installment of the entire season. (It’s my MVE, in case there was any doubt.) The final sequence is a little broad, but with the return of Michael, the quick establishment of his “love-at-first-sight” dynamic with Stephanie, the diverted attention away from Kirk and Joanna, and a generally snappy and joke-filled teleplay, I have nothing about which to complain. In fact, this entry houses my favorite scene of the season, in which Dick and Michael interrupt the cooking show “Pearl’s Kitchen,” hosted by Pearl (Anne Haney). We’re far now from what Newhart was supposed to be… but, heck, better is better.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: two entries that try on behalf of Joanna especially, “The Stratford Wives,” which engages well with the setting but suffers for its comedic mediocrity, and “The Girl From Manhattan,” which lacks logic and gives her a too-unbelievable characterization, along with two entries that try on behalf of Kirk, “Kirk Pops The Question,” which would really benefit from more of the other regulars to off-set the troubles with his character and Kirk’s bland new relationship, and “Best Friends,” which tries to build the Dick-Kirk bond but would be a more legitimate contender if it was more comedically competitive, and, lastly, “Send Her, Ella,” a Stephanie entry in which she’s in-character, but is hampered by a scenario that’s too ridiculous and burlesque for the Newhart universe right now, when common sense is suggested to still be common.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Newhart goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!