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.
In last week’s entry, we discussed Newhart’s relationship with its MTM label during this peak era – specifically how the scripts became able to operate with a fundamental base of character-rooted support, while also deviating from the company’s finest efforts in bolder laugh-driven narrative pursuits and a divergent, broader dynamic with logic and realism. On a necessary tangent, we also began the conversation surrounding the show’s claim to surrealism, which I charged as being a falsely applied aesthetic description that neither stemmed from a committed intention or even deserved to define, unintentionally, these later years’ overarching characteristics. Instead, I made known my opinion that crying surrealism was merely a good excuse to absolve the series of its failures with regard to believable characterizations and sense-based storytelling, mostly by fans who hope to make these mounting extremes seem purposeful (or at the very least, happy accidents), and thus, more worthwhile. I didn’t buy into this idea and succinctly called Newhart broad… not surreal. It was no surprise that I pinned this cloudy evolution on a somewhat vital and organic impulse (to up the laughs!) after the show’s initial developmental problems — representing a trend that, despite prognosticating future issues, nevertheless also contributed to Newhart’s relative strength during Seasons Five and Six: the comedic peak helmed by showrunners Douglas Wyman and David Mirkin. I cleared a lot of that talk out of the way early, for what’s both great and “needs-improvement” about Season Five is also true for Six, and they share a lot of the same qualities – differing only slightly in their writing staffs (Seinfeld’s Marjorie Gross has replaced Cluess & Kreisman) and in the ever-escalating boldness that distinguishes the sixth year from all its predecessors.
That is, Season Six is riskier in its storytelling (and story-crafting) and more ambitious in its crusade for big laughs; it still prizes character (just like every season aims to do, actually), but pushes for more leeway regarding its supporting brand of MTM truth — asking that we, the audience, take more leaps with these writers. As a result, it’s tempting to say this year is less consistent than the fifth. But that’s not entirely true. Yes, the highs this year end up higher for the risk-taking, which means there are clearer hierarchies of worth (and entries that obviously don’t work as well). Yet it’s a testament to Newhart, and these writers’ sheer tenacity, that Season Six is a comparatively terrific showing in total – the positional peak before an obvious descent. In fact, it’s important to emphasize how fond I am of not just this era, but of this year in particular, for I know that despite my appreciation for Newhart, I’ve been harsh (I hope justly harsh, but nevertheless harsh) on the series – especially when it had glaring obstacles in its path. So, now that the show has proven itself capable of being basically character-driven and is also delivering some of its finest moments, I’d like nothing more than to end the commentary here and tell you how wonderful these episodes are… However, I can’t, in good conscience, do that. First, we have to once again address the beast that plagues all long-running sitcoms: broadening. I’m not as tough on Newhart and its external pursuit of humor as I would be on The Bob Newhart Show, for instance, because I recognize this as being a method that the former employed to distract from operational failings and then stave off utter defeat. So, I’m braced for some silly, not totally reasonable story points and jokes. But I’m less on board with some of the broadening that happens to the characters, especially when it progresses at such a rapid rate.
To be fair yet, the characters whose broadness is the most troublesome are the ones who were always designed for such. For example, Larry and the Darryls were, from their first appearances, ridiculous, not inherently relatable, and in the beginning, used solely for laughs. On any other MTM show, they would have recurred once a year. But their presence increased as the series needed to pull attention away from the Leslie issues, the Kirk issues, and the Joanna issues. Fortunately, the writers did make it a point to provide them, particularly Larry (the only vocal one), with some depth in years Three and Four; it may not have been enough to counterbalance their logic-defying extremeness, but it was appreciated: a foundational support… Flash-forward to this peak era, where laughs are big and we feel we know the characters well enough to handle their disconnect-worthy depictions: Newhart begins to overuse this trio – not in the sense that they dominate every episode, but simply that we see them too much (14/24 this year, 15/24 in the fifth) – and we’re asked to leap so often that it becomes less rewarding, more presumptuous. The irony is strong though; once they were used to save us from Kirk and Leslie; now we want to be saved from them… This won’t develop into a crucial dilemma until the final era, but it’s certainly intensified here within this laugh-heavy period. (After all, Larry and the Darryls were always designed for bigness, so naturally, the more often they were used, the more likely it was they’d eventually become alienating.) More complicated are Stephanie and Michael, two characters always poised for this direction, but with more opportunities to avoid it — after being introduced in Seasons One and Two and then joining the ensemble in Seasons Two and Three, respectively. We’ll start with Michael, one of the show’s more interesting figures…
In his debut, Michael was a caricatured yuppie — vain, arrogant, and scruples-strained; this was fine because he was a one-off guest star. Like Larry and the Darryls, he was someone extreme off of whom Dick could react. Michael’s big laughs earned him a permanent spot, with the intent that he’d flesh out Dick’s new work life and also connect it to the home via Stephanie. So, from his second episode, broad Michael was designed with a clear show-serving functionality. Stephanie, meanwhile, had been created with a history and an obvious point-of-view, both of which also made her conducive for, what in the Kemp era were, “big” laughs. Yet, the Kemp-Bull-Marshall sensibilities of that second season, despite using her as an asset to alleviate pressure from other failings, really made an effort to keep Stephanie relatable, showcasing the humanity that existed at her core… Now, I don’t think it’s fair to say that pairing her with Michael contributed to her unfortunate heightening (even though, after all, he was already bigger than she was). But I think it is fair to say that their relationship, which the show has used for story and structural purposes (all within a super objective of securing quick laughs), ended up diverting some needed attention away from the individual development of both characters – the MTM base of humane support, of which she needed more and which he needed, period… This is not to suggest, however, that attention wasn’t paid; I’d argue that the showrunners (Wilcox, and then Mirkin & Wyman) dedicated episodes throughout Seasons Three through Six to the idea of giving depth to each character and their shared relationship… it’s just that they were confined to episodic story. In other words, Michael might have had a growth-giving experience one week, but this change was never indicated thereafter. On Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart, such growth, though perhaps born equally episodically, nonetheless seemed more able to subliminally saturate their humanity going forward. Their shallowness will be most obvious next year, when the new writers expect these two characters to be more dimensional than they are.
As it stands now, despite this lack of nuance, the pair is part of this peak era, high-laugh, character-knowing time, so they’re okay… until the inevitable fall, of course. But, let’s stop the gloom and doom talk. If there’s any uncertainty as to how the above issues hinder the sixth year specifically, let me put your mind at ease. In terms of Newhart’s eight seasons, you don’t find many, if any, better than the sixth. (Truly, the only candidates are its two predecessors!) This is a superior entry from the show’s eight contributions, filled with great stuff for every working character (including Newhart’s, the one about whom we most care). It’s the zenith of the series’ mutual ability to deliver on behalf of both its players and its laughs, and although it represents the MTM brand as much as it doesn’t, it’s an entertaining year of sitcom fun… Also, as to the relationship this season shares with upcoming problems, I look at it like a race. [Tortured, mixed, metaphor alert…] You see, Newhart’s original sins (Leslie, Kirk, Joanna) slowed the series down and delayed it from reaching certain milestones. To stay competitive, the show was forced to play various means of “catch up.” These solutions, most of which didn’t solve the big problems (i.e. giving Dick a TV show didn’t grant Joanna a characterization), nevertheless gave the series enough boosts to prolong its collapse… but they also inspired new issues (i.e. big laughs from tenuous logic). By the end of this peak era, these cultivated characters, with their wobbly MTM underpinnings, are finding the artificial “boosts” wearing out, and with those new concerns following behind in hot pursuit, the players must run faster than ever to stay ahead (funny and somewhat relatable). In Season Six, they’re still winning the race; until they aren’t, let’s be happy… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s best.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 115: “Prima Darryl” (Aired: 09/21/87)
Larry learns that he’s not the oldest brother.
Written by Arnie Kogen | Directed by Dick Martin
Despite what was written above about the show’s growing over-utilization of Larry and the Darryls, I think it’s wise to clarify that getting laughs is never really a problem for them — nor is there a lack of depth within their vocal leader’s depiction (the third and fourth years were especially good about giving him emotional weight and, for the most part, a brand of logic). The problem simply is that they represent an extreme that makes it difficult to want to invest in them often, especially if the results don’t seem worthwhile. Yet, this, I’d argue, is their best episode of the Wyman/Mirkin era; it explores the dynamic of the trio (like last season’s “My Two And Only”), but with more laughs and a better, smarter usage of the Larry character.
02) Episode 121: “Take Me To Your Loudon” (Aired: 10/26/87)
On Halloween, the townsfolk believe aliens are invading.
Written by David Tyron King | Directed by Zane Buzby
A beloved excursion, many fans cite this installment as their very favorite of the entire series. They’re also likely to use it in evidence of the show’s supposed bent towards the surreal — something I expressed my rejection of last week and will do again when covering the next two more illogical seasons. You see, this story doesn’t totally forsake logic — it just asks that we find it in the broad, heightened, and not all together relatable depictions of some of the characters. That‘s the reason that it’s hard to believe and thus seems “surreal.” So, I struggle with this outing, because I also think the premise is inherently comedic, makes good use of the ensemble (including the peripheral players — something this year does magnificently), and delivers its laughs. Even though there’s another here that could be my MVE, given this one’s memorability, I think it represents the era most accurately, and, as such, is the most valuable.
03) Episode 124: “Telethon Man” (Aired: 11/23/87)
Dick hosts a 48-hour telethon for the station.
Written by David Mirkin | Directed by David Mirkin
There’s no doubt that this offering, written and directed by one of the era’s two showrunners, works for the simple reason that Newhart is given the opportunity for big laughs. The story is something we’ve seen before on other shows in some capacity — both the telethon idea and the “stay awake for X amount of hours,” the latter of which forms the crux of Newhart’s comedy, as his delirium grows as the event progresses. But, Newhart does this all especially well (for although usually sane, he’s proved time and again what a delight it is to see him not in full possession of his mental faculties), and the whole episode works as a result. Also, the action even finds a few big laughs from other sources — like in Stephanie’s “Ol’ Man River.”
04) Episode 125: “Laugh At My Wife, Please” (Aired: 12/07/87)
Joanna bombs with a comedic speech written by Dick.
Written by Dan O’Shannon | Directed by Michael Lessac
Credited to Dan O’Shannon, who made only one contribution this year before earning a promotion next season (and partnering with Tom Anderson), this entry is a wonderful showcase for Dick, and tangentially Joanna — and even though it’s often overshadowed by other flashier offerings, its simple focus on the characters makes it, to me, a seminal standout. The premise of Dick writing a funny Vermont History speech for Joanna to deliver is naturally amusing — with room for conflict between the two when it lands horribly. (She’s usually defined by story alone; we’re used to it by now, so if the plot works, we don’t complain.) Then Dick decides the problem is her delivery, and he’ll prove it by doing it himself! It goes as you would expect.
05) Episode 129: “Presence Of Malice” (Aired: 01/18/88)
Dick feuds with a local TV critic.
Written by Marjorie Gross | Directed by David Steinberg
One of only two excursions credited to staff member Marjorie Gross, a very funny scribe who would go on to write for Seinfeld, this is yet another outing that centers itself on Dick’s career as a television host. But it does a better job than most of finding a way to incorporate the town at large, as Dick’s open feud with a critic who rails against his show affects Newhart‘s most frequently seen and longest lasting townsfolk, Jim and Chester. Now, I don’t think the script ever really hammers home the guffaws that could be suggested by the essentially sharp premise — which puts Dick in certain scenarios where Newhart is bound to earn laughs — but it’s still a generally well-written show, utilizing the parts of the series that currently work the best.
06) Episode 131: “The Buck Stops Here” (Aired: 02/08/88)
Dick accidentally kills the town’s good-luck charm.
Written by Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser | Directed by Lee Shallat
If I hadn’t decided that the popular favorite “Take Me To Your Loudon” was MVE-worthy for its sheer insight into the type of material being utilized in this peak era, I would have given the honor to this entry, which finds great opportunities for Newhart when Dick accidentally kills “The Great White Buck,” the town’s good luck charm. Beyond just the tragedy-tinged hilarity that this idea could inspire, the premise also taps into a now-seldom invoked part of the series’ premise: Dick as the outsider in this world. So, even beyond the laughs, this episode is structurally sound — one of the finest of the season and easily the best script written by Seeley and Gunzenhauser (Murphy Brown) during their two-year stint on Newhart. A rare gem.
07) Episode 132: “Attention WPIV Shoppers” (Aired: 02/15/88)
Dick reluctantly co-hosts a home shopping show with Stephanie.
Written by Merrill Markoe | Directed by David Steinberg
The second of two scripts written by Merrill Markoe (Late Night With David Letterman), the prior of which was highlighted in last year’s list, this installment once again is based around Dick’s television career. But as with all of the smartest outings, it finds a way to connect with the inn, by way of Stephanie, who coerces Dick to co-star with her in a home shopping show. It’s a bit of an easy idea — a chance for Newhart to do some trademark uncomfortable shtick off of the big, broad Stephanie; yet the fact remains that these TV entries, particularly the Dick-focused ones, simply operate with a higher merit. (Although, like Larry and the Darryls, we probably don’t want to see it every week either.) And yes, the centerpiece is too broad, but Newhart shines.
08) Episode 134: “Draw Partner” (Aired: 03/07/88)
Dick works and spars with a well-known illustrator.
Written by Marjorie Gross | Directed by Dick Martin
Although I may not have picked this episode (or heavily considered picking this episode) as the year’s MVE, it’s actually one of my favorites of the peak era, with a memorable guest appearance by Eileen Brennan as a crotchety chain-smoking illustrator who clashes with Dick as the two collaborate on a new book. Brennan and Newhart are two achingly funny performers and putting them together does not disappoint — both in terms of comedy and in terms of construction, as Dick is the focus and has a lot to do. Gross’ script, her second of two, is supreme, and both its quality and the year’s as a whole (implanted largely by the showrunners) can be favorably contrasted against Brennan’s second appearance, coming next season…
09) Episode 135: “A Midseason’s Night Dream” (Aired: 03/14/88)
Dick, George, Stephanie, Michael, and Larry have odd dreams.
Written by David Mirkin | Directed by David Mirkin
Is this a gimmicky installment? Oh, no doubt about it. The “let’s tap into everyone’s dream” design is essentially a way to do a glorified sketch show that doesn’t require the same narrative build or, as is more beneficial to Newhart in particular, the same fidelity to logic. The good thing about dreams, however, and one of the reasons that it — when not overused — can be a wonderful tool in the situation comedy (on everything from Gilligan’s Island to The New Dick Van Dyke Show), is that the lunacy can be character-rooted, sometimes even revealing deeper truths about them and their desires. This entry succeeds on that front; and while some sequences are easily better than others (Larry’s is a dreadful gimmick, for instance), I feel that every main player has their personas well reinforced through their comedic features. It’s worth it. (Also note that Joanna doesn’t get a dream to herself… hmmm; the perils of being an undefined lead?)
10) Episode 136: “Newsstruck” (Aired: 03/21/88)
Michael’s personality changes when he starts producing the news.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Douglas Wyman
This is the best installment of the entire series focused around Scolari’s Michael, a character whose initial creation in a big-laugh one-off appearance excused the caricatured depiction. Once a regular, it became imperative to supply him with depth (and to do it outside of Stephanie, who was broadening to abstraction herself). So, the show has routinely tried over the past four years to do so — but it’s often been superficial, story-driven, or only episodically felt (that is, it doesn’t extend beyond one week). Nothing is completely changed here — Michael’s realizations aren’t reflected beyond these 24-mintues — but it’s far more probing than usual, seeming to explore his personality with fewer gimmicks (like no more meta jokes) and a rare believability.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: “Reading, Writing, And Rating Points,” a Michael-heavy entry that derives all its merit from mocking the television industry (broadly) and depicting him in extremes, “Till Depth Do Us Part (I),” the first and funnier half of a two-parter that plainly attempts to give Michael/Stephanie some growth and depth (none of which lasts), “Support Your Local Shifflett,” a rare outing built around Officer Shifflett, and “The Gleeless Club,” which has a couple of really funny ideas but suffers from both the lack of a comedic climax and ever-present Joanna issues. Of more Honorable Mention quality: “Here’s To You, Mrs. Loudon,” “Vintage Stephanie,” and “Would You Buy A Used Car From This Handyman?” (I’ve listed a lot, but this is the last chance I’ll have to be so positive!)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Newhart goes to…..
“Take Me To Your Loudon”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Seven! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!