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 PETER SCOLARI as Michael Harris. With WILLIAM SANDERSON, TONY PAPENFUSS, and JOHN VOLDSTAD as Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
If the first two seasons of Newhart were as much about cultivating an ability to procure consistent character-driven comedy (congruous with what’s expected of the MTM brand) as they were about rectifying and allaying structural limitations imposed by both the premise and the initial collection of ensemble players, then one must be relieved to reach Season Three. Thanks to the second year’s addition of Stephanie, in replacement of the undercooked and uninteresting Leslie, and the long-due removal of Kirk, who was dropped unceremoniously between Seasons Two and Three (by creator Barry Kemp, but allegedly only after an entire year of pressure from CBS, who wanted him out sooner), Newhart continues to whittle down its list of primary narrative and comedic inhibitors. For those who’ve been keeping track since the first week of our commentary, there’s only one big concern remaining from the first season – Joanna – and, as we know, she’ll be around until the finale’s climactic gag (on which we’ll save all discussion until that last season), so if you haven’t already, it’s time now to perish all hope for her ouster; it ain’t gonna happen. In fact, as with every year prior, Season Three and its new staff of writers, producers, and creative overseers (all discussed below), nobly continue the formula established by Kemp and his crew: try to throw Joanna definition, watch Frann not make it stick, try again, watch it not stick, try again, watch it not stick, sigh, and resume focus on better characters and other inherently comedic story distractions. It’s actually not a stretch, therefore, to consider the majority of the show’s decisions (the main story and character choices, that is) – both upcoming and prior – to be functions or responses somehow connected to the elements of the series that aren’t, or weren’t, developed properly (Joanna, especially).
Indeed, we’ve already seen how Newhart‘s reactions to earlier fundamental flaws led to potential fixes – first Stephanie (at the start of the sophomore year), who has by now been proven a success, and here with the introduction of Dick’s third occupation: TV talk show host. (The fact that Newhart’s character now has three jobs should reveal just how narratively difficult it was to work within the premise and ensemble design that Kemp first supplied.) Although the TV station “solution” was stumbled upon in the middle of Season Two, and suggested in that year’s antepenultimate broadcast as a permanent diversion, it’s really incumbent upon Three to prove whether or not this new location and occupation can fulfill what looks to be some of its core objectives: providing new story that doesn’t have to engage with the confined inn setting, putting Dick in actively reactive scenarios with greater comedic possibilities, and drawing attention away from known issues – Joanna (and formerly Kirk). Fortunately, I’d argue that this year validates the existence of this fresh narrative development on all three of the aforementioned fronts – although not to the degree that many today presume. That is, this new space for story and comedy doesn’t overtake the show or, by itself, radically change its weekly operations. On the contrary; while we do look to the station as respite from Joanna and the inn, the truth discovered in Season Three is that with Dick, George, and Stephanie all operating within funny, definable characterizations – along with the increased usage of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (who appear in 13 of these 22 offerings; perhaps too often, but, again, we understand why they’re used regularly: to maximize the show’s comedy in response to the difficulties the first two years placed upon character development, necessitating that Newhart, in this period, still play catch-up) – we finally have reasons to want to stay at the inn.
So, instead of going to the station every week, Newhart only ventures out there every couple of episodes when the show has a reason: to establish it (at the year’s start) as a recurring fixture and provide continuity from Seasons Two to Three, to offer a grand comedic centerpiece for the beloved star (who, despite his appreciating ensemble assets, is still the series’ most reliable presence), and to further explore the year’s new regular, TV producer Michael Harris (Peter Scolari), whose superficial notions of life and work clash with Dick’s and whose cultivated romantic relationship with Stephanie serves as the bridge between Newhart’s inn and its station (Dick’s home life and his work life). To this point, if the station doesn’t fundamentally alter the show’s narrative DNA, then rest assured that its regular representative does, for Michael, unlike his predecessor, isn’t resistant to our emotional investment. In fact, with a pinpointable personality, which may nonetheless hew towards extremes (especially later) and eventually signal (alongside Stephanie) a lack of growth and dimension, he’s already able to motivate both stories and laughs, thus turning the series into a more character-driven enterprise. Of course, while our gestating emotional bond to his character and the growing understanding of the Stephanie/Michael dynamic preclude them in Season Three of addressing the comedic reputation they’ve since earned – in other words, they’re not as funny as they’ll become – we also don’t have to worry yet about upcoming concerns, where both the tonal and comedic gimmicks routinized by the show (in combat of weaknesses both past and present), and the acceleration of certain characters’ heightened depictions, all counteract Newhart’s ability to genuinely motivate humanity-laden character-based comedy. (More soon…)
But, right now, Newhart is good. With Michael, the third season is the first with the show’s primary ensemble — and the first with a stable construction. Conceptually, the year might as well exist as Newhart’s second chance – a new Season One to redefine its use of setting, aggregated ensemble, and notions of comedy, which shift as a result of staff changes. (Remember, it’s helpful to divide the show’s trajectory into equal quarters corresponding to showrunners.) In Season Three, Newhart changed leaders for the first time and entered a new era when creator Barry Kemp decided, over the hiatus, to step back. (Kemp allegedly had tension with the brass at CBS that extended beyond the inclusion of Kirk; I still question how game he was to give Dick a permanent TV job, and whether this was a network enforced development…) Kemp courteously made plans for 11 more stories (nine of which were used), hired the new staff, and remained credited as a Creative Consultant to ensure a smooth transition. But, this year is clearly written by different voices, and once it goes beyond Kemp’s ideas, we really start to notice change, starting at the top with the new showrunner, Dan Wilcox, whose prior credits included MASH, Fernwood 2Night, and MTM’s The Duck Factory. (He won this position over another duo initially promised control – Richard Rosenstock and Roy Teicher.) Joining Wilcox were returning writers Miriam Trogdon, Season One’s Barton Dean, and Shelley Zellman, who’d contributed one script last year. They were accompanied by a host of smart new additions – including veteran Mad Magazine author Arnie Kogen, who had written for Newhart’s ‘70s series (not to mention The Carol Burnett Show) and his partner Gary Jacobs, who’d go on to executive produce the first three years of Empty Nest, along with Ellen Guylas (Three’s Company) and the duo that would eventually succeed Wilcox: Douglas Wyman (Barney Miller) and future Simpsons showrunner David Mirkin (Three’s Company). Much is often made about what Mirkin, in particular, brought to Newhart, but we’ll save that talk for Seasons Five and Six.
If I were to characterize this era, in contrast to its antecessor, I’d note the more forceful push for big laughs, particularly in the latter half of the season (in the stories this staff developed), and claim that in spite of the maintained reverence for character – MTM’s rooted belief that players should drive all stories and comedy – there is a slow-built reliance on humorous gimmicks and narrative tricks, mostly diversionary and born from scars that remind of how long it took this series to be “stable.” We’ll notice the foolishness more next week – and it’s nothing compared to future eras’ – but we are already seeing signs of story-trumping-character in Season Three… In spite of this, I still think the new staff retains pure, laudable intentions for its regulars (see examples below and next week), and this is most interesting because the year also begins deriving portions of its identity, not just from story, but from tone. One subtle-yet-obvious change that emerges now, by way of the TV station, is an elemental sense of self-awareness, verging on situational metatheatricality, regarding, specifically, the television medium. We’ve seen this stylistic choice a lot on this blog within the past year, as convention-defying winks became an aesthetic movement in the sitcom within the latter half of the 1980s. You might say Newhart predicted the trend, though here it’s only minor – its presence will grow as the show continues – as most metatheatrics at this point are but easy jokes. (They’ll soon culminate in the biggest joke of all – the series finale; again, stay tuned…) The million-dollar question: is this a gimmick that a traditionally built MTM show shouldn’t need? Absolutely. Does it get quick laughs? Usually. You see, because Newhart needs big humor, its willing to engage with themes that, as we’ve seen, have helped corrupt other reality-based comedies (a category in which Newhart, contrary to those “surrealistic” claims, belongs) – thus flirting, if you will, with danger.
Yet, if this hurts the show’s credibility, I don’t think the characters’ definitions are undermined by these winking sensibilities – even when they mount – for in this era, most roles aren’t sacred enough to have their truths jeopardized by a wink. Also, the show is obvious about keeping these gags contained, meaning a wink seldom interacts with the character beats; unlike on Seinfeld, no personality is going to change from any throwaway, easy, unnecessary fourth-wall-addressing: they’ll simply do the ham-fisted joke and move on. Sure, one could argue this aesthetic is a foundational obstacle to the show’s superiority, hindering the players’ humanity by reinforcing their fictionality. I myself am less bothered by this — no matter how human the performance, I know I’m watching an actor playing a character. However, I personally draw a concern here because these winks are independent of character; this means the series is not deriving a growing part of its comedic identity from its leads – and that’s antithetical to MTM’s brand. This indicates to me that Newhart is never able – despite fighting valiantly to become generally character-driven – to fully rely on its players with the same intensity as in the original MTM comedies; boosts and distractions will always be more welcome, and perhaps needed. As for “the wink,” let’s note now: the inevitable believability conundrum that develops for some (notably Michael and Stephanie) is not really caused (although, it’s also not helped) by the show’s tonal adoption of irony – which, in Season Three (at least), is muted, confined, and situational; instead I’ll blame this on the alienating bigness that comes to define their depictions, through story and independent of story: supplied by the show and its authors. (Stay tuned…) Here, this particular crew takes what Kemp discovered (or was forced to discover) last year about Newhart, finds what worked, and ratchets up those laughs any way possible. Thus, Season Three is satisfying and Four will be better… even though the show’s wounds, and how they were bandaged, may never be done stinging… But this year is good and stable and much needed, so I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 45: “Tell A Lie, Get A Check” (Aired: 10/15/84)
Dick must sell Kirk’s cafe and shoot an ad for his new show.
Written by Dan Wilcox | Directed by John Tracy
The season premiere, this is one of only two scripts under Wilcox that credits him as author. Naturally, the opener has to deal quickly with the year’s structural changes — including Kirk’s departure and the emerging relevance of Larry and the Darryls, who in a final memorable reveal, we learn are the new owners of the Minuteman Cafe. The outing must also reinforce the permanency of Dick’s job at the TV station, which features new regular Michael, Stephanie’s chosen love interest. Happily, all of these narrative obligations are fairly well met, thematically connecting Dick’s home (selling the cafe) with his work (Michael’s lowbrow producing tactics), while illustrating how the year will incorporate each setting. Not beloved, but a positive sign.
02) Episode 47: “A Hunting We Will Go” (Aired: 10/29/84)
The men get stranded in the wilderness while duck hunting.
Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Jim Drake
I have mixed feelings about this installment, for the comedic centerpiece has Dick and the other male regulars (George and Michael), along with the two most permanent recurring characters (Chester and Jim) getting drunk together. It’s highly reminiscent of a classic entry of The Bob Newhart Show — many consider it among the best — when that series’ male characters also got schnockered. It feels as if there’s a lack of originality in the source of this episode’s comedy (and it’s a bit audacious too, considering the prior show’s reputation), however if we excused Lucy for recycling bits, we can do the same for Newhart. Fortunately, the episode also develops Michael in relation to Dick, and is filled with character moments. So there’s hidden value here.
03) Episode 48: “Miss Stephanie” (Aired: 11/05/84)
Larry falls in love with Stephanie.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Dick Martin
A candiate for MVE, this is one of the few truly stellar installments of the otherwise good-but-not-great third season. It predicates its humor on the clash between uptight, prissy Stephanie and the series’ resident goofy, dirty band of brothers — particularly Larry, who develops a crush on the inn’s fair-haired maid. Simply through its premise alone, fine use is made of the working ensemble members (which basically include everyone but Joanna) and the action is thoroughly character-driven. Also, because the entry chooses to center itself around bolder sources of comedy, there’s no shortage of laughs — something with which Season Three, especially in its first half, struggles a bit. In fact, this prognosticates the type of humor we’ll enjoy with more frequency later in the run. A favorite (by newbie Wyman) that exceeds the year’s standards.
04) Episode 49: “But Seriously, Beavers” (Aired: 11/12/84)
George asks Dick to roast him at the Beavers Lodge.
Written by Arnie Kogen & Gary Jacobs | Directed by Ellen Falcon
One of several entries this year with wonderful, humane moments for the George character, this is a favorite. It’s the first of two scripts written this season by Arnie Kogen and Gary Jacobs (a strong pair), and gains distinction over the year’s other George-based offerings not only for its laughs, which are more plentiful, but also for its invocation of the series’ premise; part of the conflict that develops between Dick and George is related to the fact that they’re from different places — once again, the city vs. the country. Yet most importantly, this notion begets one of the most honest, sincere moments of the entire series, when the two have a simple character-revealing conversation. Relationship-focused, with laughs — classic MTM. (Almost the MVE!)
05) Episode 57: “Dick Gets Larry’s Goat” (Aired: 02/04/85)
Dick finds himself feuding with Larry and the Darryls.
Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Burt Brinckerhoff
There are several memorable stories this season focused on Larry and the Darryls, and because we’re at a point in the series’ history when the show welcomes their comedic vitality and isn’t utilizing them too frequently or with too much logic-defying force, most of their installments this year genuinely deserve recognition. This is one of their best, for it relies heavily upon the established understanding of these characters and their mystery (their being intentionally bizarre means the show can explore a lot of territory; it’s a blessing and a curse, I think). As a result, the laugh-filled script, made partially possibly by an inherently comedic Victory in Premise, keeps the players at the forefront, which is exactly where they should be in an MTM show.
06) Episode 61: “My Fair Larry” (Aired: 03/04/85)
Joanna attempts to makeover Larry and the Darryls, along with their cafe.
Written by Michael Kagan | Directed by Burt Brinckerhoff
Another episode with a story centered around Larry and the Darryls, this entry is actually more notable for the way it utilizes Joanna, finding a way to position her against the extremes represented by this aforementioned trio without trying too hard to forcibly supply an absent characterization. That is, the story is able to naturally find laughs off of Joanna simply in relation to the others. As always, it’s not a permanent fix, but it’s a narrative victory (which is especially triumphant because it comes from a freelancer best known for the sitcom 9 To 5). It should be a shock to none, however, that most laughs do come from other places — the premise, the brothers (of course), and the other functioning regulars. But, it’s a success!
07) Episode 63: “Out With The New, Inn With The Old” (Aired: 03/18/85)
George is upset when Dick plans to remodel the garage.
Written by Tracy Gamble & Richard Vaczy | Directed by Dick Martin
As another excursion written by a pair of freelancers (in this case, Vaczy and Gamble, a duo best known for The Golden Girls), it’s a delightful surprise that this installment works so well — and not only because it feels “fresh” in comparison to the rest of the year (although that’s also true), but really because it seems like a quintessential utilization of the setting as intended by creator Barry Kemp. With a premise concentrated on the inn and its history, the story here affords moments of quiet humanity for the two most nuanced characters, Dick and George, and doesn’t have to avoid Joanna in the process. (Wow!) Also, there’s time for big laughs — many from Jeff Doucette’s Harley Estin (discussed more directly below). Great for George.
08) Episode 64: “R.I.P. Off” (Aired: 04/08/85)
Harley is arrested for unknowingly selling swamp plots.
Written by Russ Woody | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Above I made mention of Harley Estin, played by Jeff Doucette, who debuted in last year’s Beavers offering and became a recurring townsperson for the next four seasons. This year uses him more often than any other, perhaps indicating a concerted effort by this new staff to better develop a roster of peripheral players to go opposite Dick; “R.I.P. Off,” another freelance contribution (by Murphy Brown‘s Russ Woody), makes the series’ strongest case for Harley’s repeated inclusion. Although story-driven, the teleplay comedically showcases his character well, while also delivering on behalf of its regular obligations. Plus, another recurring gem, Todd Susman’s quirky Officer Shifflett, makes a memorable second appearance. (It’s to this staff’s good judgment that they sought to expand the town’s universe of people.)
09) Episode 65: “The Prodigal Darryl” (Aired: 05/06/85)
One of the Darryls leaves home after the brothers win money in a contest.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Dick Martin
Yet another well-liked entry with a story focused on Larry and the Darryls, I think there’s a tendency to inflate this one’s worth, especially because the humor it unsurprisingly offers isn’t as supported by the character-centric basis present in their above outings. Additionally, while this might be a good episode for Larry and the Darryls alone, it’s not nearly as memorable for everyone else. We’ll see this myopic focus happening more frequently, and mostly with Michael and Stephanie (who were saddled this year in the dreadfully predictable, surface, and overbearing “Look Homeward, Stephanie” — more below) as the run progresses. However, the offering does find its laughs, especially by our good-but-not-great Season Three standards!
10) Episode 66: “What Makes Dick Run” (Aired: 05/27/85)
Dick schemes to win a local broadcasting award.
Written by Arnie Kogen & Gary Jacobs | Directed by Dick Martin
My choice for the strongest episode of the third season, this second offering by Kogen and Jacobs makes the most overt use of the televisual self-awareness that we discussed in the seasonal commentary, as the big comedic centerpiece involves Dick’s ostentatious bids to secure an award nomination. It’s “insider” without being “insider” (the same kind of fare that we saw with the Teddy Awards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Now, I could quibble with the shaky motivation that pushes Dick to these extremes — seeing as he’s usually reacting off of others‘ extremes, and we therefore don’t have a precedent for this — but because the laughs are delivered and Newhart’s both well-served and able to make it work, I think the episode easily surpasses this hurdle. After all, Newhart‘s main narrative objective is Dick, and while he usually requires someone else off of whom to play, it’s exciting and refreshing to see the star take the spotlight (literally) alone. Also, viewers will delight finding Estelle Getty, just a few months before the premiere of The Golden Girls, as a confused librarian. A favorite — guffaws a-plenty.
Other episodes that merit mention include: two that try to make use of Joanna by putting her in conflict with Dick, “Pillow Fight” and “Once I Had A Secret Love,” both of which could have been contenders if her character was better defined, along with three notable offerings on behalf of the other core ensemble players — Stephanie with “Tickets, Please” which also introduces Officer Shifflett and finds good conflict for Dick, Michael with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Hires You,” which was one of two scripts written this year by David Mirkin, and George with “Local Hero,” which simply isn’t as strong as the character’s prior highlighted entries. (I mentioned “Look Homeward, Stephanie” above; I’ll address it again now, because it seems to be popular. I think its attempts to better define Stephanie through her backstory, while also continuing to showcase her burgeoning dynamic with Michael, are, sadly, counterintuitive. Instead of making Stephanie more dimensional, the entry caricatures her by broadening a few traits and presuming for her — and her relationships — a depth that isn’t actually illustrated within the text or the overly performative, but memorable, introduction of her parents. And I’ll warn you in advance: don’t expect to see many of the Vanderkellen episodes here; I feel that most don’t offer Stephanie a nuanced depiction — this debut outing is Exhibit A.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Newhart goes to…..
“What Makes Dick Run”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!