The Ten Best NEWHART Episodes of Season Five

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!

Advertisements

23 thoughts on “The Ten Best NEWHART Episodes of Season Five

  1. v intresting 2 c joana in many eps here ; i agree that she nvr gets a reel defined personalty but there r few good eps w/ her lie ur HM … my fav this yr is prob “dick the kid” or “night movies” both featured here. . gr8 wrk as usual

  2. This seems like a pretty good year. Also -interesting analysis re: phony surrealism. I think its easy to compare the show to GREEN ACRES because of its premise. But one was purposely absurd. One just struggled because of its characters. Your commentary is as always very astute and convincing. Eager to see your thoughts on the rest of the show!

  3. I TOTALLY agree with you about NEWHART’S growing stupidity being more about personality extremes and easy jokes than any concerted stylistic effort to be surreal or quirky a la GREEN ACRES. Honestly, I never heard the series described that way until the finale. And I don’t think the finale should be allowed to excuse all the other eps that came before. So some may disagree but I’m right there with you on this one.

    From my memories, I only remember the season premiere. A little over the-top but Newhart shines. And the dude ranch one, which maybe I saw in syndication??

  4. I really enjoy this season. Looking over the DVD list, I think Season Six has more classics but Five, like Four, can be really funny and good for character at the same time. That’s missing in a lot of the later years. I’m not sure what my MVE would be, but I like all the ones you mentioned (and your closest Honorable Mention). “Unfriendly Persuasian” is interesting to me because of just what you noted: the George/Stephanie stuff, pairing the show’s most realistic ensemble member with one of its least realistic, aside from Larry & the Darryls of course.

    Also I’ve kind of always bought into the group think of defining NEWHART as surreal but you make a persuasive case as to why this isn’t deserved. I now think you’re right: its silliness is less of a choice as it is a necessity. And despite the ridiculousness ahead, every year tries to keep the characters honest and most important, even though they often fail.

    Looking forward to the years ahead — and your thoughts on the finale.

    • Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’ll have MUCH to say on the finale — and Deb’s comments above are a bit of a preview; stay tuned…

  5. Great points as always but I still think NEWHART is surreal in its last few seasons because its unbelievable and strange – the people, the jokes, the rules of the world. Just because this maybe wasn’t a 100% committed decision and, you’re right, actually stemmed from all those character problems doesn’t mean the effect of surreality doesn’t exist IMO.

    • Hi, Kid Rock Hudson (great name)! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree that whether or not NEWHART intends to be surrealistic is NOT the sole determinant in whether or not the show *is* surrealistic. But as discussed above, I think NEWHART not only doesn’t commit to surrealism, but also “picks and chooses” how strongly it wants to evoke the more grounded, relatable, MTM character trappings that would otherwise be antithetical to an absurdist objective, thus keeping the palpable humanity a primary goal in the process. (This goes even in the final era — in fact, the seventh season’s Michael arc could be Exhibit A here.)

      So, while strange things — we might call them surreal — are certainly present, they don’t define the latter half of the show for me; the latter half of the series, to me, is defined by the various attempts to project character truths within broader forms of comedic storytelling (borne from initial shortcomings) … and, in the final two years, often unsuccessfully.

      To use a tired expression, calling NEWHART surrealistic (regardless of intent) is to me like allowing the show to “have its cake and eat it too” — permitting it to be wild and absurd when things don’t make sense and also truthful and character-based when we’re supposed to go along with the players’ “growth” and emotional depth. Also, the fact that NEWHART might indeed go back and forth here points, I think, more towards failure on behalf of an objective than any purposeful, yet improperly calibrated, duality.

      And, to Deb’s point, I’ve never wanted the convenient finale to explain or excuse all the decisions that were made prior to that one, so I’m particularly careful; stay tuned…

  6. What I meant in comparing Newhart and Green Acres is some of the minor characters are kooky/different. I do not believe that Newhart is anything like Green Acres as TV shows go. Any chance you might review Green Acres one day? It was my favorite of the 3 Paul Henning shows.

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I discussed GREEN ACRES here three years ago — and in fact, just updated the last three posts with screen captures taken from the recently released complete series DVD set! I think the show is the funniest of the Henning trilogy, although I’m most eager to feature the quintessentially ’60s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES — and I’ll fulfill my promise when CBS makes good on theirs…

  7. I recall TV GUIDE chiding the TV Academy for excluding fifth-season NEWHART from the Best Comedy Series nominees in 1987. (NBC swept the category with nominations for THE COSBY SHOW, FAMILY TIES, CHEERS, NIGHT COURT, and THE GOLDEN GIRLS.) Given the caliber of sitcoms in 1986-87, it is impressive that four of the five regulars, all but Mary Frann, were nominated and the show copped a nomination for Best Writing (“Co-Hostess Twinkie”). In fact, I would argue that NEWHART was, on average, a finer show this season than a slumping COSBY or bland, treacly FAMILY TIES. But what do you think? At this point in its run, how does NEWHART compare to its distinguished contemporaries?

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

      Good question. I’m inclined to agree with you about NEWHART’S fifth year’s superiority to FAMILY TIES, for which I am unable to muster even half as much enthusiasm over ANY of its seasons, and the concurrently run third year of THE COSBY SHOW, which was brilliant for approximately two seasons (better than NEWHART *ever* was in its prime), but then had only scattered, intermittent value throughout the rest of its run (not markedly better than NEWHART). In ’86-’87 specifically, THE COSBY SHOW disappoints because it’s failing to meet its own established standards, while NEWHART is comedically on the ascent — and still yet to fall. Everybody loves a winner, and the latter is a much more enjoyable watch.

      On the other hand, I think several contemporaries — specifically two of the ones you mentioned above — were always more worthwhile than NEWHART, because even in years of narrative strain, either the character work or the quality of the comedy was simply stronger. For instance, a peak year (like Six) of this series still doesn’t delight as much as a concurrently running “weak” season of THE GOLDEN GIRLS (its third) or CHEERS (its sixth). Thus, there’s no competition in my mind regarding ’86-’87, which paired peak NEWHART (Five) against peak THE GOLDEN GIRLS (Season Two) and *good* CHEERS (Five). Those last two are simply better shows — and good enough to remain that way even when they aren’t meeting their own established standards.

      The most interesting comedy you cited for direct comparison to NEWHART is NIGHT COURT, which strikes me as having a similar history, with initial character difficulties and later problems reconciling a naturally broadening comedic scope alongside the series’ maintained (and sometimes lofty) character intentions. (A great frame of reference here would be to examine the two shows’ penultimate seasons, both of which are fairly dreadful. NIGHT COURT tried to deepen Dan, as NEWHART tried to deepen Michael — with about the same levels of success.) Generally, I think these are each flawed shows that have to be enjoyed on their own individual terms, but they’re especially comparable in ’86-’87, as both are in relatively healthy periods, offering fine examples of what episodes look like at their respective series’ best. I’m not sure I have a preference here: same general quality, same era of triumph.

      Also, as to how NEWHART stands (in my mind) against the other comedies I’ve covered here from the ’86-’87 season, I’d simply say that it’s much easier to be excited about the boundary pushing work on IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW and MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN (both of which premiered that year) than it is for “traditional” NEWHART, even if I wouldn’t cite any of these three as being flatly more meritorious than the other two — specifically during ’86-’87.

      • Agreed. And the fewer pixels you devote to FAMILY TIES, the better.

        On the subject of NEWHART’s contemporaries, this was the year CBS got serious about staking out Monday night with its own must-see lineup of four strong comedies (so they hoped) and a prestige drama. They had a fair amount of success, too, although nothing would rival NBC’s Thursday-night slate for years.

        Briefly, what do you think of the other CBS Monday-night comedies in 1986? You’ve expressed your dislike for DESIGNING WOMEN here before (again, agreed). How about ’80s workhorse KATE & ALLIE and Diane English’s MY SISTER SAM?

        • Briefly, I don’t. As indicated before, I find sitcom mediocrity of the ’80s, broadly, to be more odious than the mediocrity of the two surrounding decades.

          I want to like KATE & ALLIE for the many fine people involved (both in front of and behind the cameras), but it’s comedically inadequate and often cloying. Closer to FAMILY TIES than CHEERS. MY SISTER SAM, meanwhile, just *feels* like an amateur effort. I considered it for coverage earlier this year (in support of our Diane English discussions), but FOLEY SQUARE, which I like no better, simply required less of a time commitment.

    • No, strained logic + gimmicky stories does not inherently = surreal, so I would not define NIGHT COURT as surreal under the terms by which we’ve defined the concept here. In fact, I’d use this word sparingly, and with regard to only a select few titles, like IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW, which broke conventions and challenged its audience to stay invested, despite things that didn’t make sense.

Leave a Reply