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.
As the second and final year of the Dan Wilcox era, Season Four is the entry point into the series’ peak — commonly defined as years Five and Six, the period run by David Mirkin and Douglas Wyman. This pair joined in Season Three and stuck around to contribute to Four as well, along with the majority of Wilcox’s stellar show-cementing team: Miriam Trogdon, Barton Dean (the only staff member from Newhart’s freshman season), Shelley Zellman, and the notable duo of Arnie Kogen and Gary Jacobs. Newcomers this year included Phoef Sutton and Janet Leahy, funny scribes who’d each go on to have separate runs on Cheers (and Sutton would co-create Newhart’s next sitcom, 1992’s Bob, discussed here back in 2015). Finally, with a group of talented writers now claiming both a mostly solid ensemble (remember, we’ve still got unresolved Joanna issues) and a whole prior year of stability utilizing the current cast and construction, Newhart became able to take off comedically in the same way that The Bob Newhart Show was ready to do by its second season, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show really began doing in Season Three. In my estimation, Newhart’s fourth year is to this show what Moore’s third year was to hers, as the cultivated understanding of character has now been well-communicated to the audience, and emotional bonds have been established. This in turn allows the show to increase its base level of comedy through that newfound awareness – gearing the players for higher highs of hilarity. And there’s no doubt that from the minute Season Four begins, the show is ready, willing, and often able, to deliver this elevation in humor – beginning with a figurative bang in “Pirate Pete,” discussed below. We started to see the show moving in this direction at the end of Three, when big laughs slowly became a paramount goal. This is nothing about which to gripe — and maybe it should even be celebrated — for the repeated fulfillment of Newhart’s comedic obligations supplies an additional reason to tolerate and excuse potential narrative concerns that might otherwise initiate emotional divestment.
But with this increased humor comes, perhaps as usual, a broadening of the show’s general sensibilities – both in its stories (ex: the ensemble believing their inn is haunted by a ghost) and in its characterizations, particularly Larry and the Darryls, who appear in 14 of these 24 outings and are given greater license to dominate, along with the show’s perennial lovebirds, Michael and Stephanie, whose personas and relationship have now seen enough exposure that the year can comedically “play” with their dynamic. For these last two, this means moments that are bigger, bolder, and generally more extreme in every way. But with the knowledge of the aesthetic places they’ll go in later years, Season Four’s “bigger, bolder, and generally more extreme” comes to represent a relatively happy medium, with grounded humanity still more often than not reinforced within this more pronounced comic objective. Also, because Newhart’s exploration of this coupling has only spanned a single year, their depictions – and the narrative use of their relationship – are allowed to be slightly more superficial and joke-driven right now than in, say, Season Seven, when it’s harder to justify the single-dimensionality and lack of nuance. (In this regard, perhaps we should be ruing this time for not granting them more of the non-story-driven supporting substance that could have better sustained them in the series’ final era; but I digress…) This idea of a “happy medium” transcends beyond these two characters and helps define, with the benefit of hindsight and foresight, the season, because while broadening is obvious and gimmicky stories aren’t unseen, the year’s storytelling nevertheless inspires greater character-connected truths than we’ll find in the more unrealistic seasons ahead. (You see, I find that some of the aesthetic descriptors commonly afforded to the next two eras – like “intentionally surreal” – are largely unfounded: supplied by fans who want to mitigate growing contrivances and maximize their enjoyment; it’s understandable, if not deserved. Stay tuned…)
In calling this year a “happy medium,” Season Four would seem like it should be my favorite, as Newhart starts quieter and less enamored of its laughs (the years prior) and grows to become louder and too driven by its laughs (the years ahead) – and both of these modes of operation are polar extremes unconducive to MTM’s style of character-driven comedy. However, you’ll see that I prefer the two upcoming years over Four, for a few reasons. First, I think the increased comic motive makes this Wilcox year a bit schizophrenic. His episodes are typically either quiet character affairs or loud hijinks-filled romps; there’s not much middle ground or an ideal elemental balance. Second and in favor of the Mirkin/Wyman era, I think the show has to be even funnier to compensate for some of its baked-in, lingering issues, which exist regardless of its newfound ability to be mostly character-driven and structurally okay. In other words, Newhart works better when it has the bigger laughs of Seasons Five and Six, even if this mode of operation suggests (and yields) character trauma. (A devilish catch-22 borne from past foibles!) Also, because I think there’s still a sense of toil this year – a tension about making sure Newhart‘s out of the hole that was Kemp’s initial construction – the year appears to not be as creatively free as Five and Six. In fact, a big example of what’s more labored now (than later) is Joanna, who still eludes definition four seasons into the run, even though the show has never entirely given up, rightfully believing that she’s currently limited. However, upcoming seasons, while also repeatedly trying to pin her down in the one story that solves the problem and exposes her thereafter to consistent character-driven material, don’t waste as much effort fighting against the apparent tide — unlike Season Four, where we can see the show valiantly sweating over her utilization. Attempts are made throughout this year — usually with story, but occasionally in installments where her role is functional/supportive — to find how Joanna can be funny.
As a result, she’s a little sassier, a little bigger – in tandem with the rest of the characters. But, it’s not always noticeable; this mite of sass isn’t enough to form a full characterization, especially when the motivation for these occasional one-liners is absent. That is, we’re never able to expect from Joanna a certain type of line, for she’s still lacking a definable point-of-view — in contrast to how Dick, George, Stephanie, Michael, and even Larry (despite his inherently gimmicky existence as the stereotypical bizarre blank canvas) consistently reinforce their unique, individual perspectives. So, needless to say, this doesn’t work. Again, though, the year reserves its most ambitious Joanna ploys for a few episodic stories – notably by building for her a more obvious friendship with Stephanie (and by proxy Michael) in “Oh, That Morocco” (see below). This installment’s utilitarian objectives are — surprise! — handled wisely and with the support of working characters, creating an enhanced connection that will stick for the rest of the series; a victory for Wilcox! Yet… other story attempts to capitalize upon the women’s dynamic aren’t as successful, as evidenced in “The Shape Of Things.” Here, while purporting to turn Joanna and Stephanie into comedic and narrative equals, we bear witness to their finite chemistry and the current emptiness of Joanna’s depiction, as she tends to adopt the personality of whichever character she’s directly relating with in story, forcing her partner to grow larger in response. And that’s not good for anyone. (Barry Kemp recalled that during the second year, the women approached him with the proposal of crafting a Lucy/Ethel rapport. This went nowhere when they couldn’t decide which one would be Lucy.) Thus, the newly christened Jo-Jo goes back to offering functional support, now better connected to the ensemble, but only gaining relevance, as usual, when a story goes out if its way to give it to her — and that’s hit-and-miss.
In reverse of Joanna, there are two things I want to highlight now that click especially well. The first is the season’s handling of the TV station and Dick’s new job, which as we saw and discussed last week, isn’t used to supplant the inn and its characters, but simply to increase the amount of story opportunities that these writers have – specifically with Dick, who they must and most want to serve, and Michael, who benefits and will always benefit from as much humanity as the show can muster. These episodes tend to be a season’s comedic highpoints, bringing boffo laughs in part through the situational (or elemental) spoofing of the television industry. As mentioned before, this type of self-awareness is in-keeping with those late ‘80s ironic sensibilities, and it’ll increase as the show progresses. (You’ll remember that I don’t consider this directly detrimental to character-development, except that it’s complicit by being a focal distraction.) Again, most of the station’s value exists because its plots often put Newhart in the center of funny situations, and installments that feature him well stand out. The second element I want to mention here is the use of the town and its inhabitants. With the fish-out-of-water premise not holding much water through the cast changes of years Two and Three, the show shifts its notions of the setting and these peripheral players so that Dick can remain the odd man out… but not because he’s a city slicker and they’re country folk – rather, because they’re all slightly odd. (Believably odd, mind you, like Bob Hartley’s patients; not surreal or cartoonish like the Hooterville residents – again, more later). The show’s ability to use these side characters as kooky, hilarious agents off of whom Newhart can react will only become stronger – both in the peak years and those following, when troubles with Michael and Stephanie make the townsfolk even more appealing. But I’m getting ahead of myself… In the meantime, this year is filled with merit, and I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. (It wasn’t easy!)
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 67: “Pirate Pete” (Aired: 09/30/85)
Dick fills in for the host of a children’s program.
Written by Gary Belkin | Directed by Peter Baldwin
It’s already clear within the season premiere, scripted by a freelancer who’d written for Caesar, Burnett, and Carson, that Newhart intends to enter its fourth year with a more pronounced form of humor — broader, bolder, and less beholden to the characters specifically (which it probably had been in the less confident, but more even-keeled third year). We might say that this kind of storytelling, embodied by an episode like such — in which the plot has Dick filling in for the host (David Wayne) of a pirate-themed kiddie show — is gimmicky. But it allows Newhart to be humorous, and doesn’t contend with some of the show’s weaker constructional motifs, so the narrative ends up mostly worth celebrating. Am I bothered by how Dick’s motivated? Sure. But am I grateful for these laughs? Absolutely. It’s funny and ultimately worth the foolishness.
02) Episode 69: “Summa Cum Larry” (Aired: 10/21/85)
Larry secretly goes to night school.
Written by Arnie Kogen & Gary Jacobs | Directed by Peter Baldwin
A terrific showcase for both the series’ esteemed namesake and Sanderson’s Larry, this installment finds the latter attending night school to earn his diploma — a secret that he initially asks Dick to help keep from the Darryls. (This yields several funny moments for Newhart.) There are obviously a greater number of laughs in a Larry outing than in a, say, Michael outing, for instance, but with the brothers already so caricatured from the start, it’s true that this constant exposure does damage, hurting their truth as they ask for more of our disbelief to be suspended. Fortunately, Season Four finds the show intentionally supplying the characters, including Larry, with humanity; this, as it does in an Honorable Mention below, makes the installment worthwhile — overcompensating for some narrative contrivances.
03) Episode 70: “Oh, That Morocco” (Aired: 10/28/85)
Joanna decides to become best friends with Stephanie.
Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Mentioned above, this is the excursion that sets its sights on developing a more evident and exploitable friendship between Joanna and Stephanie, in the hopes that the new “Jo-Jo” can cultivate an actual personality and therefore be better utilizable for story. The episode’s objectives are all too obvious, but there’s nevertheless some character-rooted truth inherent in the idea: Joanna does need friends (which is also an excuse to do a laugh-getting, but cringey and beneath-this-series gag with a group of Satanists), and it’s logical to explore the dynamic that exists between two regulars. Of course, as shown, pairing Joanna with Stephanie means the former will assume the latter’s characteristics, and that’s not wise for longterm narrative viability.
04) Episode 72: “Locks, Stocks, And Noodlehead” (Aired: 11/11/85)
Stephanie’s separated parents visit during Colonial Days.
Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Peter Baldwin
This is an episode with which I struggle. Initially enjoying the entry at face value — the costumes, the jokey script, and the climactic centerpiece (with the hysterical final gag), I then went through a long period of detesting the gimmicky premise and its reliance on Ferrer and Morrill as Stephanie’s parents, a duo whom I like better in theory than practice. (That is, they’re great performers and usually exist in shows meant to give depth to Stephanie… but they seem to do the opposite — presented as stereotypes who unintentionally make obvious the limitations increasingly defining Stephanie’s own depiction.) But, during this survey, I’ve come to appreciate the entry’s New England sensibilities, its ensemble laughs, and that Stephanie isn’t hampered by her parents — because, instead of her going to their world, they come to hers.
05) Episode 73: “The Geezers In The Band” (Aired: 11/25/85)
Dick is disappointed when his old high school band reunites.
Written by David Mirkin | Directed by Dick Martin
One of the best and most character-based entries of the season, this installment reminds me a bit of a Taxi story, in that the plot only functions as a means of exploring, through a chosen character (in this case, Dick: our, and the show’s, rightful favorite), a deep universal human truth — here, man’s realization of his own mortality and the sad changes that often occur with age. It’s something to which we can all relate, and therefore it’s something that doesn’t need to be so fixated within plot; rather, a sensitive teleplay and the right performers (including Newhart and Sorrell Booke) can make extraordinary, palpably human, magic. All of that is true in this stellar outing, which boasts one of Mirkin’s finest scripts in the Wilcox era — balancing honesty with great humor (always a must for Newhart and me). My MVE — MTM indeed.
06) Episode 79: “Larry’s Dead, Long Live Larry” (Aired: 01/20/86)
Larry believes he’s escaped death in order to help Dick.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by John Pasquin
Lissa Levin, whose credits at the time included MTM’s WKRP In Cincinnati, is the freelancing author of this funny, Larry-heavy script that seems to have a basic, elemental understanding of the characters — such that the not-so-original premise (“you saved my life, now I’m indebted to you” bit) is made fresh by these players. However, more than the overall execution of the narrative, I appreciate Levin’s hilarious text — she has a track record of crafting comedic, smart teleplays (even when the story is totally unworkable, which was the case in her sole Cheers entry) — and this is no exception. With quirky little gags — like Larry’s insistence that death looks like Tootie (Kim Fields) from The Facts Of Life — this is one of the year’s funniest.
07) Episode 81: “The Stratford Horror Picture Show” (Aired: 02/03/86)
The Loudons fear that their inn is haunted.
Written by David Mirkin | Directed by John Pasquin
A popular entry by Mirkin, author of a sincere character-rooted entry explored above and one of the two showrunners who’d lead what many deem the series’ best era (often for its absurdist connotations — a description that I generally find externally applied; stay tuned…), this is exactly the opposite: gimmicky, not driven by character, and not firmly within the realm of common sense, despite Newhart‘s continued reality-based suggestion. However, it’s a great ensemble entry that delivers its laughs, uses the show’s mythology, and ends up entertaining in spite of these ingrained narrative shortcomings. So, it’s still not one I’d consider a favorite or great for the series in this period, but it does what it needs to do — and quite well.
08) Episode 84: “Will The Real Dick Loudon Please Shut Up?” (Aired: 02/24/86)
Dick is replaced in the video adaptation of his book.
Written by Phoef Sutton | Directed by Dick Martin
An MVE contender, this entry exemplifies the year’s grand flirtation with more potent and larger forms of comedy, which I suggested above was imperative to the series’ most self-actualized functionality. The premise once again returns to the world of show business, over which the series delights in being metatheatrical and nontraditionally aware (projecting MTM’s brains not through its characters, but through a chosen aesthetic), while doing what all great Newhart outings must: making room for Newhart to secure stratospheric laughs. This script, by Phoef Sutton (later of Cheers), ensures that the star is well-served, and with the show’s main problems seldom in sight, it becomes a slam dunk. A hit — and one of my favorites!
09) Episode 86: “Dwight Schmidlapp Is Not A Quitter” (Aired: 03/10/86)
Dick submits his new book under a pseudonym and is rejected.
Written by Janet Leahy | Directed by Dick Martin
Another episode that seeks to explore some of the deeper relatably human underpinnings within Dick Loudon (as always, the series’ prime asset and the only reliable diversion away from lingering constructional problems — cough Joanna cough), this script by Leahy, another author who’d soon become a Cheers alum, succeeds both for writing the character in a manner congruous to the MTM brand (read: well-motivated), with revelatory moments for the player to whom audience members most easily connect, and on its meeting of the anticipated base level of humor. There’s clearly flashier, funnier episodes in the Honorable Mentions that could be highlighted, but this simple excursion is a good showing for Dick, and also, Newhart.
10) Episode 89: “Replaceable You” (Aired: 04/14/86)
Dick enjoys a replacement producer and Joanna redecorates for George.
Written by Miriam Trogdon | Directed by J.D. Lobue
Although I don’t often see this entry listed among fans’ favorites (again, many might see fit to include one of the more ostentatious Honorable Mentions from below), I consider it an underrated outing that does several smart things for the series. First, it explores the dynamic between Michael and Dick, which has heretofore been mostly narrative-driven and joke-based, by making clear precisely how Dick feels about the former’s abilities as a producer. There’s drama, there’s tension, there’s laughs. Also, this entry finds something wonderful to do with… wait for it… Joanna! Yes, she gets a laugh-filled subplot that manages to contrast her perspective against George’s, using her character in a way that’s actually… wait for it… comedic!
Other episodes that merit mention here include: the most difficult exclusion, “Candidate Larry,” a Wyman script that was mentioned above for attempting to afford Larry a greater depth of humanity, along with a handful of other installments that nobly intend to expand the players’ dimensionality — “The Way We Ought To Be,” which hopes to deepen the Stephanie/Michael relationship, “Look Ma, No Talent,” which is a strong contender for Michael, “Stephanie Nightingale,” which is a terrific showcase for his better half, and “I Do, Okay,” which grants Newhart some nice moments and tries to make comedic, realistic use of Dick’s relationship with Joanna (and half succeeds — on his end, of course). Of more Honorable Mention quality is “The Snowmen Cometh,” which boasts fine use of the town and its most active participants. (Also, I’d like to briefly discuss “The Shape Of Things” here; I mentioned it above in relation to its failure on behalf of the burgeoning Joanna/Stephanie friendship. I think this dynamic — along with the contrived narrative — indeed hampers the outing’s appeal. However, I’d be remiss for not mentioning Newhart’s very funny contributions within the entry’s second act. I can see why it’s so well-liked!)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Newhart goes to…..
“The Geezers In The Band”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!