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.
Season Five of Newhart finds the series with a new set of showrunners – Douglas Wyman and David Mirkin, both of whom joined in the post-Kemp structurally stable third year and succeeded Dan Wilcox to lead the show during what many fans cite as its finest era. As we noted several weeks ago, although neither enjoyed prior experience with MTM and its style of excellence, Wyman had worked on the humanity-filled Barney Miller and Mirkin came from the laugh-heavy Three’s Company, making them a compatible pair to run the series following Wilcox’s departure. Not surprisingly, I find myself in agreement with the general consensus: Seasons Five and Six constitute Newhart’s most enjoyable era, if only because these years collectively form the peak of the show’s comedic capabilities – despite the aforementioned “happy medium” of character integrity (read: believability, nuance, consistency) and humor discussed last week regarding Season Four, which better represented MTM. To this point, although Newhart both remains beholden to its esteemed production company’s reputation because of its episodic seal of approval (deserved or not) and was obviously designed in the tradition of MTM’s classic character-driven ensembles, the series isn’t actually its “best” self unless it’s slightly more divergent from the associated brand. That is, calling these two seasons the series’ best requires acknowledging that despite the base of MTM-rooted support (from the slow-to-establish ensemble, which isn’t ever great, but became sustainable in Season Three), the show is simply unable to satisfy alongside the same metrics we can afford to apply to the company’s ‘70s hits. We’ve always known this to be true – my commentary started with this general conceit – so now that the initial character limitations are few, if Newhart can still fulfill its comedic obligations without asking too much of the audience, then moving away from MTM, and its ties to what many (myself included) consider the sitcom’s best modus operandi, isn’t a sin.
Of course, it ain’t a virtue either. For instance, I don’t think the peak of Newhart resembles the terrific peaks of either The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Bob Newhart Show. Why? As usual, it all goes back to the beginning. Those initial developmental shortcomings embroiled Newhart in such ongoing conflict that the series had to undergo major cast swaps (out with Leslie and Kirk, in with Stephanie and Michael), an addition to its premise (giving Newhart’s character a third job), and the growing reliance on external sources of comedy (like Larry, Darryl, and Darryl – who on any other MTM series would have been a once-a-year gag) – all in attempts to fix and distract… And by the way, this took three long years! Essentially, Newhart saved itself during this period by finding and focusing on the immediately gratifying comedy… even if this meant that while characters were theoretically being cultivated for an MTM-approved usage, the show’s reverence for their truths was collaterally subordinated for humor. It was a Kemp-based Catch-22, for after the show’s legitimate quest to fix itself by expanding outward (like with industry mocking self-awareness) and amping up the big laughs, Newhart was eventually able to reach a period, years Three through Six, of knowing four of its five core players (along with Larry and the Darryls) well enough to ably motivate comedic story. (That fundamental base of MTM-rooted support!) However, “amping up the big laughs” was not always through, or beneficial to, character. Instead, this usually meant gimmicky stories, broad characterizations (designed for easy hahas; see: Michael and Stephanie), and concessions that undervalued the human-based truth customarily a given in MTM’s aesthetic. MTM characters, especially, are supposed to be realistic, even as their varying degrees of eccentricities provide comic opportunities.
Speaking of eccentricities, now’s a good time to address a Newhart fallacy. Later seasons more reflect this phenomenon, but clearing it out of the way here better explains what this era collectively entails. First, I have to reiterate that I’m obviously a lover of the MTM style… but I give Newhart leeway regarding its differing mode of comedy – my threshold for laughs a little bit more story-sparked, peripherally found, and tonally unmodulated is higher as a result of the figurative hole out from which the show needed to dig. I’ve adjusted my expectations and standards (when able). But I can’t give the same leeway when it comes to believability of story, and more importantly, character. That is, believability is a tenet from which I can’t credit the series from straying — both because I rarely support breakdowns in logic on the situation comedy, and also because I don’t think Newhart ever actually rejects (or wants to reject) truth. If it strays, it does so, I believe, unintentionally… Although many fans say otherwise. Because the show was forced to continually rely both on stories more heightened than the typical MTM fare (there are better examples ahead; the well-regarded “Take Me To Your Loudon” is one) and characterizations big enough to get immediate laughs while depth was still needed (like Michael and Stephanie, who were designed for heavy comedic usage – despite a mounting lack of applied dimensionality), some viewers take note of these growing trends and label the latter half of the series, and even this peak era in which the show is working, as being surrealistic: knowingly absurdist. Comparisons are often made to Green Acres (another show with a fish-out-of-water, city vs. country premise). Evidence for this tonal direction is seemingly corroborated by Mirkin’s future stint on The Simpsons, which as an animated series, boasts a different playbook regarding logic — requiring, and thus providing (no doubt, like later Newhart), less of it.
Still, as you know, I don’t buy into this for Newhart… First, surrealism, which right now we’ll allow to be comedically synonymous with absurdism, is not synonymous with broadness, a word with which it’s often conflated. (I myself have been guilty of mixing these ideas — like when discussing Seinfeld’s cultivated hyper notions of reality. The distinction from broadness is especially necessary for Newhart, though, because this theory of “surrealism” is falsely used as an excuse for strained humanity. So, I won’t make this mistake again!) I use “broadness” on this blog to refer to a style of comedy (and comedic storytelling) that’s obvious and indelicate in its bid to deliver laughs; a piece of writing that’s broad is big and hews to extremes – often predicated on larger-than-life moments that might not reflect the humanity well-designed characters are supposed to inspire. Thus, broad works are susceptible to audience disconnection because said extremes are an affront to realism and logic. And while broadness can be a purposeful choice (often established within a show’s identity early on), disconnection is seldom a goal. (It’s usually just a risky side effect!) In contrast, something surreal or absurd is ridiculously and intentionally illogical – challenging an audience to connect on these terms, knowing full well that it might not get them. Humanity isn’t non-existent here, but the inhuman finds a pronounced importance. When people discuss Newhart, I think they often merge these two concepts to maximize enjoyment and rationalize things that don’t make sense or ring true: the heightened stories and extreme characters. This is an institutionalized problem stemming from the initial weaknesses that forced such distractions. But in order for Newhart to be surrealistic, I think the intent would have to be clearly stated, with more of a commitment to the whimsical and bizarre outside of over-compensatory gimmicky narratives and broadening depth-wanting characterizations (all borne from past mistakes) — and without a “pick and choose” relationship to logic, where humanity (as we’ll continue to see) remains the suggested goal.
A show like Green Acres is more deserving of the surrealist title because of its casual absurdity, willingly flaunting a disregard for common sense. Oliver didn’t just meet over-the-top people and act in kooky stories. His wife talked to pigs and saw the show’s on-screen credits, which helped create an entire universe that supported the choice — a choice it didn’t have to make, but decided was worthwhile after its first year. Newhart, instead, never reaches much further than its cheap meta bits and go-for-the-joke stories and characterizations – instead hoping to call upon MTM’s “character-driven” realism when able, and counting upon us, throughout all but one of these remaining episodes, to trust it like we would any other MTM comedy. So, ultimately, I think Newhart’s illogicalities are too associated with past failures to be genuinely regarded as an aesthetic choice; I don’t believe that as the series aged, it chose to be more often unrealistic because it found this preferable; I believe the series simply was more often unrealistic as it aged because it found realism harder to obtain. So, until the convenient finale, I maintain: Newhart is broad — not surreal. (More later…) Fortunately, this year isn’t nearly as guilty of these conflation-inducing elements as its successors – and in fact, Season Five is benefited by its position between the more truth-based character-driven material evidenced in Four and the hysterically poised firing-on-all-cylinders (future be darned) material evidenced in Six. Heck, as part of the show’s peak era, the fifth year of Newhart is a good one! The main point of this discussion was to further examine how the series could simultaneously connect to MTM’s reputation (through its intended human relatability, afforded by a collection of characters that, unlike the original bunch, had possibilities) while also being unable to represent it completely, for reasons both intentional (its humor motive) and unintentional (its diversionary broadening).
In fact, while MTM will forever be imprinted – literally – on the series, Newhart does kind of pivot away from the company’s identifiable brand at the midpoint. A look at the writing staff for this year shows why. Aside from the two showrunners, the regular contributors included Arnie Kogen and Miriam Trogdon, the only scribe from the Kemp-Bull-Marshall era, and new additions Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser (Murphy Brown), Chris Cluess & Stuart Kreisman (Night Court), David Tyron King (Empty Nest), and for the first half of the year, Michael Loman, who had experience with both Norman Lear and Garry Marshall. For the most part, these folks went on to write for shows that (at least) gently touched the MTM style. But without having truly worked there in its prime and with those people (Kogen is the only exception), they nevertheless foster here a dilution of its themes. For Newhart, though, that’s not a terrible thing — as we’ve noted. Aside now from the bigger laughs (on which the show has become reliant), there’s also sometimes less friction; for instance, in Season Five, the series stops trying to be so nobly “MTM” with its attempts to develop Joanna. It doesn’t give up, but it doesn’t push either. And you know what? She ends up participating in some great episodes — and doesn’t hurt the show like she did in past years. Also, Wyman and Mirkin are smart enough to often find character truths (for some more than others) – even within this questionable broadness. So, with stable writing and peak laughs, Newhart is in good shape. It may not be generally superior or totally MTM-worthy, but it certainly entertains… in its own way. And that’s worth celebrating. So, 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 91: “Co-Hostess Twinkie” (Aired: 09/29/86)
Dick gets a new show and a new co-host.
Written by David Mirkin | Directed by Dolores Ferraro
As with Season Four, Newhart‘s fifth year opens with an entry centered on Dick’s exploits at the television station — a source for a smarter, more satirical kind of comedy than the fare being offered at the inn (by characters growing in extremes). Not surprisingly, this ends up being a strong episode for Newhart, launching an entire season that makes it a priority to service him well. In fact, it’s precisely for the moments of big-laugh-getting afforded to the eponymous series’ star that we excuse some of the broader, logic-challenging elements inherent to this outing — the primary being the over-the-top, un-connectable performance by guest Julie Brown as Dick’s obnoxious co-host. (If not for the work of Newhart, this would be a misfire.)
02) Episode 93: “Dick The Kid” (Aired: 10/13/86)
Dick goes to a dude ranch.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Barton Dean
I’ve seen this offering specifically labeled as being one of the series’ most surreal, but the truth of the matter is that it’s simply just a story that utilizes a narrative gimmick — contriving a scenario that gets Dick away from the inn (never a coincidence, you know) and onto a dude ranch, where writer Arnie Kogen knows that the “Newhart as cowboy” concept can get laughs. There’s nothing intentionally bizarre or truth-flaunting beyond the machinations the installment puts out — through Dick’s character, mind you — of his desire to be a cowboy. It’s a bit ostentatious for my tastes, but once again, because Newhart is so well-served (and the dude ranch scenes actually work — That ’70s Show‘s Kurtwood Smith guests), the silly idea hits.
03) Episode 96: “Desperately Desiring Susan (II)” (Aired: 11/03/86)
Stephanie confronts Michael’s new girlfriend.
Written by Miriam Trogdon | Directed by David Steinberg
The show’s utilization of Michael and Stephanie becomes more of a problem as the run progresses, as the series’ inability — even during this peak era — to supply a depth and multi-dimensionality that transcends episodic narratives will leave them empty when the next staff attempts to “cash in” on their emotionality. In these Wyman/Mirkin seasons (and Wilcox’s, too), the lovebirds do get episodes that try to provide support underneath the laugh-getting caricatures often seen; this two-parter, of which this is the second and more comedic half, is among those entries, providing a jeopardy heretofore unknown in their relationship. This kind of shake-up is vital, and though narratively supplied, one wishes for a lingering human impact.
04) Episode 104: “First Of The Belles” (Aired: 01/12/87)
Dick gets a visit from his old college sweetheart.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Shelley Fabares, who’d play the leading lady on another series created by Barry Kemp, Coach (headlined by George Utley almost Jerry Van Dyke), guest stars in this outing as an old flame of Dick’s who reveals to an unknowing Joanna that she once turned down a marriage proposal from the red-faced innkeeper. It’s not a terribly original idea, but it nevertheless doesn’t require any dude ranches or annoying co-hosts — instead basing its laughs and its heavier moments on the characters and the relationships they share. It’s actually one of the year’s most MTM-inspired affairs, and throws some material to Joanna, who though ill-defined, participates in the narrative ably and does what she must — surprisingly not dragging it down.
05) Episode 107: “Unfriendly Persuasion” (Aired: 02/02/87)
Dick helps Joanna conquer a fear while George drops Stephanie as a friend.
Written by Miriam Trogdon | Directed by David Steinberg
Joanna, as mentioned in the commentary, actually contributes to several entries during Season Five that constitute the year’s best or most memorable. One was the outing highlighted directly above and another is this one, which has her succeeding, as usual, on the coattails of the story’s success (given that her weekly definition is confined to what the plot has her doing). This one has her acting perhaps childish — Jo-Jo’s fear of eye doctors is a goofier variant of Emily Hartley’s fear of flying — but provides Newhart with enough worthwhile moments to smooth over the contrivance. Yet, the show really gains distinction for the character-driven and revealing subplot with George and Stephanie, an unlikely pair whose combination benefits both.
06) Episode 109: “Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Loudon” (Aired: 02/16/87)
Dick gets a reputation for being abrasive and confrontational.
Written by Merrill Markoe | Directed by Michael Lessac
Another television-based script, this installment by freelancer Merrill Markoe (best known for Late Night With David Letterman) puts Newhart’s Dick in another funny situation and derives its merit from this fact. (Easy? Yes. Enjoyable? Double yes.) The story has Dick berating a guest on the air and cultivating a reputation for being one of those confrontational, abrasive talk show hosts. This increases his ratings and creates a new following, which demands that he maintain this persona. Naturally, this is antithetical to Newhart’s own sweet, palpable humanity, and the comedy comes from both his uncomfortableness in this regard, and the scenario’s climax, in which Dick wants to go back to normal but is chided himself by a guest he respects.
07) Episode 110: “Fun With Dick And Joanna” (Aired: 02/23/87)
Dick tries to prove to Joanna that he can be spontaneous.
Written by Linda Campanelli & M.M. Shelley Moore | Directed by Peter Baldwin
My pick for the year’s best, this atypical entry was written by a pair of freelancers (both of whom were better known for their work on dramas/soaps) and is focused on the dynamic between Dick and Joanna — yes, the series’ fatally undefined leading lady! I think the fact that the offering works, not just in spite of her, but with her, is the reason that it deserves to be singled out here, for that’s truly not an easy feat. The premise is a simple, focused, character-driven one: Joanna accuses Dick of not being spontaneous, so he sets out to prove her wrong. Naturally, hijinks ensue. It’s low-concept, rooted in the relationship shared between these two players and their own individual objectives, and it delivers consistent laughs with ease. It almost even suggests a forthcoming personality for Joanna — someone who’s more vital than her normal life allows her to be, which provides (for this episode only, sadly) comedy and conflict.
08) Episode 111: “Night Moves” (Aired: 03/09/87)
Dick tries to find a place to sleep after Joanna kicks him out.
Written by David Mirkin | Directed by David Mirkin
Furthering trends witnessed throughout the season, this excursion written and directed by Mirkin (again, one of the era’s Executive Producers) takes, like the MVE, another low-concept idea — Dick trying to find a place to sleep for the night — and uses it as the platform through which the show can explore character-based comedy with all of the regulars (excluding Joanna). In this period of general character satisfaction, this is easily a winner — and what’s more: no big gimmicks needed! Additionally, the story is centered on Dick, who not only drives the action, but also is naturally designed to react off the foolishness of the ensemble players. As a result, it’s sort of a quintessential representation of Newhart and its comedic goals. A great peak era show.
09) Episode 112: “Harris Ankles PIV For Web Post” (Aired: 03/16/87)
Michael interviews for a network job.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Douglas Wyman
While Mirkin wrote and directed the above, both credits for this installment go to the show’s other Executive Producer, Douglas Wyman (who tends to get overshadowed in most discussions of the series; Mirkin’s Simpsons experience shapes many viewers’ perceptions of this era, while ignoring the more character-based, darker elements implanted by Wyman; but I digress…). I don’t consider this a phenomenal outing, but it’s one I especially wanted to highlight here because it’s probably, until the last scene of the series finale, the most self-referential about television, including discussions of “quality” on TV and a reference to Bob Newhart. I don’t find it character-hindering, even though it is a gimmick; and, while it’s not ideal, it gets laughs and embodies one of the show’s truths: Newhart can’t rely solely on character.
10) Episode 113: “Good Bye And Good Riddance, Mr. Chips” (Aired: 04/06/87)
Dick’s typing class is taught by one of his old teachers.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by David Steinberg
I consider this one a bit of a companion piece to “Dick The Kid,” also written by Arnie Kogen (one of the few Newhart scribes who’d penned a few scripts for the comic’s prior MTM sitcom). As with the aforementioned, it contrives to put Dick in a situation that’s naturally comedic, requiring little on behalf of the storytelling. The situation has Dick going to typing school to improve his skills (never mind that he’s been an author for an extended period of time), where he runs into his old tyrant of a teacher, played by William Windom (seen recently on this blog in a post on My World And Welcome To It). It’s a bit too easy, and not as funny as others here, but it works on behalf of Newhart, and gives the character some history. (Plus Windom is an asset.)
Other episodes that merit mention here include: “My Two And Only,” a Larry-heavy show that delights mostly through its premise (which finds the Darryls befriending someone new), “Sweet And Sour Charity,” a town-centered offering that cements the Loudons as members of the community (making it more structurally important than anything else), and “Chimes They Are A Changin’,” which is another solid excursion for the town’s ensemble. All are enjoyable, but the one closest to the above list is “Saturday In New York With George,” a sincerely rendered relationship-based, premise-rooted installment for Dick and George, still Newhart‘s finest players. I wish I could have included it above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Newhart goes to…..
“Fun With Dick And Joanna”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!