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.
Despite what these critical appraisals may suggest, I do have love for Newhart. But, goodness, it can be tiring! After having weathered a storm represented by the first two seasons – problems the show had to work through in order to reach a consistently acceptable (by its own MTM-branded standards), star-servicing, audience-delighting place – this final era containing the last two seasons brings us right back into another hurricane. And yet, because I used the middle two eras to introduce and preempt a lot of the concerns that manifest themselves more explicitly during this period, the bulk of what I need to say has already been said. So, here, I’ll just reiterate it. First thing’s first: the biggest problem right now is that the characters have become less believable. Whatever palpable humanity existed has since been undermined by easy laughs and flashy stories. In Season Seven, I only have regular faith in Dick (or rather, Newhart) and George (when the story is right)… okay, and Joanna, but my faith is rather that she’ll remain un-defined, so that doesn’t really count. The others, in contrast, are all over the place. We’ve become oversaturated of Larry and his brothers – and any further attempts to supply them with some unforeseen complexity is gimmicky and poorly motivated; they are broad laugh-getters, and now they’ve been overused. That’s it. However, the year has a larger issue in Stephanie and Michael, who are positioned for a half-season arc in which he loses his job, splits with his long-time paramour, has a mental breakdown, and then reunites with his beloved in time for next year (and Duffy’s incorporated pregnancy). All of this, obviously, is intended for weekly story, but if done right, could also be construed as a great chance for character growth. That is, this pair has been together since the beginning of his tenure – with little jeopardy — so shaking them up, and especially Michael, the one-off caricature whose episodic occasions for depth never penetrated his permanent characterization, seems vital and wise… I so wish it worked…
I think it’s too convenient to say the whole year is dragged down by its commitment to the ongoing arc thrown to these two characters. But there’s some truth here. First, a heavy focus on Stephanie and Michael usually means the show is deviating from its core asset, Newhart, the only presence on whom the eponymous series can always rely. Additionally, I’d wager that most viewers don’t tune in for Michael and Stephanie’s contributions exclusively; if they don’t watch for Newhart alone (which is the way I lean), then they come for the ensemble of which he is the center. (You know, in that inescapable and classically MTM mold…) So, on pure enjoyment, this pair’s relationship-heavy outings really have to prove themselves. But I’m not resistant to the idea. In fact, some substance-supplying character-focused material for the two of them would be beneficial, and the impulse to offer it is logical — like humans, they need to evolve. Unfortunately, this couple has gotten so broad that when the show attempts depth, as it has in every single year (the departed team of Mirkin and Wyman tried, as did Wilcox earlier), these efforts also become broad, showcasing a vacillation between story-based extremes that exposes a lack of humanity. Michael’s suffering isn’t soul-revealing – it just illustrates how empty his character really is underneath all these laugh-seeking clichés. Stephanie, too, is no better. And because these two extreme players have been growing more distant from any realism-anchored modulation, there’s nothing supportive to ground even their aggrandized humor – let alone the pathos necessary for this arc to work. How am I supposed to invest in their romance when it’s always been one-note, predictable, and used primarily for narrative-based comedy? To wit, the show has never been sincere in presenting their dynamic – they’ve seldom had a non-story based conversation; they’ve never grown beyond narrative confinements; and the show heretofore hasn’t cared about giving them earned drama, ‘cuz, hey, they’re just comedic relief.
So, it doesn’t work that well – you’ll see some of their episodes here because, generally, the pickin’s are comparatively slim – even though it’s nevertheless noble of the new showrunners to try. Yes, Newhart has new sheriffs again in the form of Mark Egan and Mark Solomon, both of whom had written for, among other things, Alice (never a paradigm for logical and well-motivated happenings). The only returning voices are those of Shelley Zellman, a long-time contributor back on staff for the first time since Season Four, and future Frasier showrunner Dan O’Shannon, who wrote one script last year and joined this team with new partner Tom Anderson, with whom he would jump to Cheers. (Also, Ellen Guylas, who wrote two entries in Season Three, pens one more freelance outing.) Other new staff members include the team of Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, relative newbies whose credits would go on to include Anything But Love and Martin, and brothers Bob and Howard Bendetson, who had worked on The Jeffersons, Alice, and Alf. David Steinberg, a frequent director for the series, was also credited as a creative consultant. As you can see, this is practically a whole new crew – gone are Mirkin and Wyman, along with veterans Miriam Trogdon and Arnie Kogen – and the show is moving even further away from its MTM ideals… Although character remains the paramount concern in this era, as it should for all quality-minded situation comedies, there’s even more value than before placed on stories and gimmicks. Additionally, there’s a palpable increase in the show’s strangeness. Yet, hold the figurative phone – don’t be tempted to cite this as full tilt surrealism; the series finale may make that claim seem feasible (especially with next year’s foolishness), but the year’s connection to the aforementioned character-rooted (albeit contrived and not character-helping) Michael/Stephanie arc proves that MTM’s humanity directive is still very much being invoked – even if it’s not successful. Rather, as we’ve discussed, Newhart and this new staff still want us to connect to the show – and ideally through character.
It’s not making this easy though, for in the absence of the new crew’s understanding (the kind that Wilcox, Mirkin, and Wyman had found), the scripts turn more frequently to gimmicks (i.e. flashy, jokey stories that aren’t motivated by character)… like guest appearances from Don Rickles and Johnny Carson, and cameos by The Bob Newhart Show’s Jack Riley, whose presence now has added importance given the series finale, but actually just serves as a typical self-aware gag (the kind the show has been trotting out, lazily, for years) — an easy joke that enlivens an episode that otherwise intends to do right by its characters, even though it can’t stand alone on its own merits with them… However, Season Seven, in realizing that there’s trouble with some regulars, has another, smarter solution — one of the more rewarding elements in this final era, used to counter the led-balloon-effect of Michael and Stephanie (specifically). I’m writing of the show’s re-pivoting outward towards the town and its people. In this new era, Newhart doubles down on its faith in the peripheral players (like Chester, Jim, Shifflett), and even introduces new faces, like Kathy Kinney as Miss Goddard, the town’s horny librarian, who becomes a wonderful recurring presence once the show cultivates this persona (next season). These people are indeed quirky and different from Newhart, giving him something off of which he can react: the sole reason for their quirkiness in the first place. Yet, they’re more often than not grounded in MTM’s humanity, and they reinforce the basically sincere aims of the show when it comes to character. Sure, the stories and laughs continue to encroach upon lines of believability that shouldn’t be crossed, but the fact that the show must rely on human interactions with Dick to elicit a motivated character-based response from him illustrates the year’s impulse for a realistic, consistent relatability — even in the face of such alarming broadening.
At any rate, if Seven seems like a comedic crash following the Mirkin/Wyman era — the moment when the show is no longer funnier than the regulars are depth-lacking — don’t forget that the eighth is worse; it’s even less character-driven and takes risks that don’t reward as well. Also, remember that the first two years were insurmountably flawed on a structural level, and although they did better by the folks who were truly working (Dick and George, and then eventually Stephanie), they had big trouble with the elements that weren’t. As a result, those middle years couldn’t help but represent some relatively smooth-sailing – not perfect or calm – but far superior to Season Seven, which suffers for the juxtaposition. Additionally, although the MTM playbook doesn’t need to be invoked totally or perfectly for Newhart to be at its best (Five and Six proved this), if we can agree that MTM still connotes visions of quality, then the year’s movement away from these principles, intended or not, isn’t going to be a development worth celebrating. Thus, Season Seven is already poised for rough going; the key to enjoyment now is adjusted expectations… So, in summation, while this year and its successor may appear to make a case for heightened absurdity, the characters’ broadness and narrative or joke-based affronts to logic don’t desire to alienate us and make us question the truth of these characters; we’re still supposed to believe them capable of growth (see: Michael) and care enough in their journeys to take story leaps. (These new writers, true to the set pattern, even try unsuccessfully to define Joanna — this time through new jobs as a real estate agent and then as a talk show host; now she and Dick both have three occupations… but only one of the pair has a characterization.) The goal posts haven’t changed, even if the field goal success rate has. It’ll be up to you to decide whether a single entry, the series finale, can forgive all the mounting misses… But that’s for next week. In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 141: “This Blood’s For You” (Aired: 11/14/88)
Stephanie learns that her blood transfusion came from Darryl.
Written by Mark Egan & Mark Solomon | Directed by Dick Martin
One of only two outings this season written by Newhart‘s final showrunners (Mark Egan & Mark Solomon), this offering is more a Victory in Premise than anything else — albeit, one with a lack of originality that’s saved by a comedic script. The plot has Stephanie needing a transfusion and receiving it from one of the Darryls, which naturally disgusts her. There’s an issue regarding the hollowness of caricatured personas hanging over the story and this installment, for it contends with many of the show’s broadest and most depth-needing players. But some of these concerns are assuaged by decent laughs and a strong scene for Stephanie and the blood-donating Darryl, giving them both humanity and connecting the show to MTM.
02) Episode 148: “George And The Old Maid” (02/06/89)
George gets a visit from the inn’s former maid, his old flame.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson | Directed by Dick Martin
Inga Swenson, best remembered to television lovers for her long stint on Benson, guest stars here as one of George’s old flames. With a narrative centered around the palpably human work of Poston’s George, this is probably one of the more delightfully MTM-adhering entries on this list, and even better, the reduction in its haha quotient is negligible (if anything). As with another wonderfully humane and grounded George episode featured below, this script comes courtesy of O’Shannon & Anderson, a team with probably this staff’s most notable MTM ties (because they’d go on to Cheers, the great non-MTM MTM comedy of the ’80s). Their work for this show is hit-and-miss, but the style is unmistakable: broad for Cheers, but not for Newhart.
03) Episode 149: “Hi, Society” (Aired: 02/13/89)
Stephanie has Dick play her date at a high society ball.
Written by David Silverman & Stephen Sustarsic | Directed by Michael Lessac
Because Newhart was able to cultivate a worthy MTM foundation following its first two years of damage control, it’s been allowed to play with nifty ensemble dynamics — like pairing together characters who don’t usually interact in stories. We’ve seen it before with George and Stephanie, and Larry and Michael; this time it’s Dick and Stephanie, not as unusual a combination, but one of which I wish we’d gotten to see more, especially because both players are well-defined (if not stereotypically, in her case) and bring laughs. This outing pairs them together at a high society ball filled with Stephanie’s old cohorts (including Frances Fisher). Also, Merv Griffin makes a cameo and Leslie Jordan plays a guest at the inn. Gimmicky, but fun and distinguished.
04) Episode 150: “Cupcake On My Back” (Aired: 02/20/89)
Michael can no longer afford Stephanie’s lifestyle.
Story by Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore and Mark Egan & Mark Solomon | Teleplay by Mark Egan & Mark Solomon | Directed by Michael Lessac
A narratively important offering, this entry launches the second half of the season and culminates in the first serious (that is, it lasts longer than one hour) break-up of Michael and Stephanie, a development towards which the year had been building since he lost his job three episodes prior (but, really, even earlier). Although I noted above that these characters don’t have the emotional complexity to truly give this arc the oomph from which it would certainly benefit, the novelty of a genuine dramatic moment between the two makes this installment, at the very least, a curio. Fortunately, there are laughs too, as Michael is humiliated at a fancy restaurant, and in a subplot, Jim and Chester end their friendship over a poker game. Significant.
05) Episode 152: “The Nice Man Cometh” (Aired: 03/13/89)
Dick is forced to be the sidekick on a local late night talk show.
Written by Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore | Directed by Dick Martin
Admittedly, this is a popular effort with which I struggle, for it’s built entirely around the guest appearance of Newhart’s real-life friend, comic Don Rickles. (Next season sees an increase in episodes devoted to these guest gimmicks; I like them even less as more of them come — they’re easy and not character-based.) This story would not exist if not for Rickles’ starry presence, as the role of a late night talk show host, whose shtick involves repeatedly insulting Dick, is tailored to this memorable funnyman’s style. However, the script, by the comedic team of Van Zandt and Milmore, is filled with just enough details to detract from the tenuous merit inherent in its concept. Also, “It’s Always Moishe,” Rickles’ character’s sitcom, is a hoot.
06) Episode 154: “The Little Match Girl” (Aired: 03/27/89)
Dick runs into Corinne, the illustrator, while visiting Michael in a sanitarium.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson | Directed by David Steinberg
Eileen Brennan, who guest starred in a delicious installment from Season Six (easily one of the year’s best), returns in this outing that, frankly, doesn’t live up to those past heights. (I have to note, though, that this performance earned her an Emmy nomination, while last year’s, for whatever reason, didn’t.) I mentioned last time that contrasting her two episodes not only shows the sixth year’s to be stronger (despite the future pedigree of this excursion’s two authors), but also illustrates the differences between the two eras. What was once small and character-based is now broad (strange and extreme — not surreal; our universe’s rules of logic still apply), and Brennan gives a more manic portrayal. Also, the series tries some darker Cheers-esque motifs as Michael enters a sanitarium. Sure, it’s played for kooky laughs… but I didn’t expect otherwise.
07) Episode 156: “Message From Michael” (Aired: 04/24/89)
Michael espouses his new philosophy on Dick’s show and becomes a sensation.
Written by Shelley Zellman | Directed by Jim Buck
One of the genuinely good contributions from the year (hate to say it, but most of the above are touch-and-go, and here only because of a significant reduction in the standards to which I held Newhart in its middle seasons), this offering takes what’s been going on in the season’s big Michael arc and uses him with great humor — all the while incorporating the townsfolk and Dick’s show for a grand representation of the series’ strengths at this time. Note that among the new ensemble of peripheral players is Kathy Kinney, who was introduced in the Honorably Mentioned “Twelve Annoyed Men… And Women” and who’ll become an even more visible (and joyfully so) presence next season. Very nearly my selection for the year’s MVE.
08) Episode 158: “Georgie And Bess” (Aired: 05/08/89)
George gets a visit from a woman with whom his father had an affair.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Tom Anderson | Directed by Lee Shallat
Ann Morgan Guilbert, best remembered to classic sitcom fans for playing Millie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, appears in this entry as George’s “Aunt” Bess, whom he’s shocked to learn once had an affair with his father. Naturally, with a simple humanity-laden story for George and a guest appearance from a sitcom veteran, this is already an installment that grabs one’s attention. But O’Shannon and Anderson’s script walks the very fine line — quite well, might I add — of combining motivated humor with his genuine heart, especially in the final scene that the two share, when she reveals the extent of the affair and how it affected her life. (Also, in a memorable subplot, Dick plays chess with one of the Darryls.) Another good one.
09) Episode 159: “Murder At The Stratley” (Aired: 05/15/89)
The townsfolk accuse Dick of murdering Joanna.
Written by Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore | Directed by Michael Lessac
Yes, I’ve decided that instead of choosing either of the two above excursions, which (along with this one) constitute the best of this year, I’ll go along with the fan favorite as my MVE. But before you accuse me of kowtowing to peer pressure — especially because I’ll gladly admit that this is the kind of story I’d revile on a smart, character-driven sitcom (because would a good friend really accuse another good friend of murder?) — know that there’s simply no other offering here that delivers its laughs like “Murder At The Stratley,” which is un-coincidentally written by Van Zandt & Milmore. It’s also a great show for the ensemble, including the primary townsfolk (again, which now includes Miss Goddard), whose intelligence has never been supreme (hence why we’re able to go along with the premise). Also, the entry gets around the series’ ever-present Joanna issues by predicating its narrative on her disappearance. So, the script ends up proving its brains and making the initial story leap worthwhile: ideal Newhart.
10) Episode 160: “Malling In Love Again” (Aired: 05/22/89)
Michael and Stephanie try to find each other’s perfect match.
Written by Bob Bendetson & Shelley Zellman | Directed by Dick Martin
This list has thus far avoided all but one of the year’s ostentatious Stephanie-Michael episodes, but I’m rounding it out with one more: the season’s finale, a sweetly functional installment whose reconciliatory intentions for this over-the-top duo are obvious from the start. However, the teleplay, co-written by the staff’s most senior presence (Zellman), delivers its comedy and finds room to reconcile it against a basic humanity. The final climactic cameo appearance from Johnny Carson is so gimmicky that it nearly makes one want to discount the entire excursion, but it’s an accurate button to this troubled season, and because the rest of the episode is otherwise amiable and distinctly memorable, there are enough reasons to celebrate its strengths.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: “Town Without Pity” and “Twelve Annoyed Men… And Women,” both of which are decent townsfolk entries that just aren’t as good as their gaudy premises suggest, “Goonstruck,” a Van Zandt & Milmore script built around the single comedic idea of Stephanie lusting after a stonemason, and “One And A Half Million Dollar Man,” which actually isn’t a laudable installment, but is memorable for the image of Michael hitting rock bottom while dressed as a mime. The closest to the above list was Zellman’s “I Married Dick,” which features the aforementioned cameo of Jack Riley. It’s funny, sets the course for the season, and tries to squeeze in some character moments along the way. But no one’s as smart as they should be, and the cheap bits (like Riley) are off-putting.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Newhart goes to…..
“Murder At The Stratley”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Eight! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!