Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re launching coverage of NewsRadio (1995-1999, NBC), one of the pluckiest Peacock Network Sitcoms from the MSTV era. As of this writing, the entire series is available in full on DVD!
NewsRadio stars DAVE FOLEY as Dave, STEPHEN ROOT as Jimmy, ANDY DICK as Matthew, MAURA TIERNEY as Lisa, VICKI LEWIS as Beth, JOE ROGAN as Joe, KHANDI ALEXANDER as Catherine, and PHIL HARTMAN as Bill McNeal.
As we begin coverage of NewsRadio, we’re making a big pivot from Friends. Although both shared a network and counted themselves as contemporaries, one was beloved, protected, and groomed to become an anchor in NBC’s most popular and prestigious block. The other was given the lesser of two hammock slots in a B-comedy line-up and was forever viewed as a “utility player” — a show that could be moved around the schedule as NBC sought to expand its comedic stronghold on additional nights. While Friends epitomizes Thursday’s “Singles In The City” template and the feel-good, optimistic, emotionally-charged rom-com sensibilities that the network aimed to commercialize, NewsRadio is a workplace comedy — one that, as we’ll see, only cares about its regulars’ private lives within the context of the office and doesn’t want to engage with the extraneous sentimentality common to network TV. No, NewsRadio is tonally more like Seinfeld — decidedly irreverent, with great humor and (purposely) no heart, and a narrative fixation on the comedic idea, as opposed to the sympathetic character… That’s a backhanded compliment. As we’ve explored for years, the best sitcoms tend to be those that are character-driven — ideally, in the MTM vein, where the players motivate plot (or at the very least, suggest it) — and although NewsRadio is a hilarious show filled with brilliantly funny performers, I’m going to posit during coverage here that it never has the type of multi-dimensional characterizations that can inspire both intense emotional investment (which is necessary, even in irreverent shows — just look at Seinfeld, we cared because we found them “real”) and a functional link between the characters and something every show, no matter how low-concept, needs: story. These posts are going to be about NewsRadio‘s quest to define itself — partly through its reputation of rebellion — in the absence of exceptional character writing.
Now, I do intend to celebrate NewsRadio — so put down your pitchforks, fans — but that first requires honesty about where it fits within the landscape of ‘90s comedies. Then we can work through some of the excuses the show uses to explain why it wasn’t so successful. From there, it’ll be more possible for us to recognize what works, what doesn’t, and where the best stuff resides… For starters, I have to clarify that by drawing comparisons between Friends and NewsRadio, I’m not meaning to imply that the aesthetic differences between the two are synonymous with differences in quality. That is, NewsRadio’s refusal to engage with the sentimentality in which Friends was then indulging — at times, to a fault — is no more a hindrance to character-driven comedy than it is the badge of honor some suggest. (Personally, I prefer sentiment in smaller doses, but I’m also not going to use the deliberate absence of it as a primary source of my critical enjoyment.) The series actually appears to operate under a Seinfeld-ian “no hugging, no learning” rule, and that’s a good point of reference here, for Seinfeld proves that this tonal conceit can also yield terrifically funny, memorable characters. And while it’s tempting to say that feel-good romanticism is more conducive to a broad popular appeal, Seinfeld also reveals that viewers will follow a good show… even if it’s cynical. My thesis, then, is that NewsRadio may have laughs of a similar caliber — that can be open for debate — but it doesn’t have the same classic-making characters, which means not as much character-driven comedy, and more practically troubling for the series itself, not as much character-driven story. This has little to do with attitude, but may, as we’ll see, be related to the broader trend of flouncing network convention and not adhering to traditional advice.
But when discussing the show and its construction, we need to turn to the workplace genre. One notable ancestor is The Larry Sanders Show, for which creator Paul Simms had written in its first three seasons (and later served as EP). With a similarly laugh-laden rhythm — noted also for its irony — one can see aesthetic commonalities between Simms’ efforts. However, when we discussed Larry Sanders last year, one of the remarkable things we observed was just how character-driven it was — in laughs, story, style, etc. — and how it employed a structure reminiscent of the classic MTM workplace comedies, which established the high-water mark for the genre. The earliest from that famed company — Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart — divided their time between work and home (just like The Drew Carey Show, coming up here next month), but they set great examples for how funny, nuanced characters can inspire emotional investment without being so schmaltzy that they appear false or conventional. (And indeed, Bob Newhart had a strong sense of the ironic, too.) Perhaps more pertinent to our discussion of NewsRadio, though, are the later MTM (and MTM adjacent — John Charles Walters, thank you very much) comedies, like Taxi, which is more workplace-oriented, and WKRP In Cincinnati, which is also set mostly in the office… and, coincidentally, a radio station. Like NewsRadio, Taxi is not emotionally optimistic — those regulars are pretty sad, with dreams they’ll likely never realize — but it’s so steeped in its characters that, like Moore’s series, its humanity shines bright. WKRP, on the other hand, derives more of its humane drama from era-specific issues — there are as many social concerns as character ones. And yet, unlike NewsRadio, WKRP gets many stories from its radio setting, just as Larry Sanders mines the late-night TV world.
Interestingly, NewsRadio doesn’t care about those specifics; in contrast to WKRP, it doesn’t have much to say or explore with regard to radio. The number of stories related to the medium are few. Rather, this workplace could be anywhere — a department store, a magazine company, a mayoral campaign; the only thing that is important is that it’s an office, where coworkers are forced to interact. While some of the above — like Friends — were charged with being generic by using their “Singles In The City” aspiration to appeal to a broad audience, NewsRadio’s claim on universality came from the presumed relatability of corporate culture in the ‘90s — something with which most people, particularly in the 18-49 demo, could identify. Although perhaps this was not a conscious determinant (NewsRadio never made efforts to be “mainstream” — especially when it wasn’t mainstream and therefore couldn’t even fake it), the show’s use of story reveals that NewsRadio might as well be called The Office, for that’s the part of the premise that it chooses to emphasize — the fact that these folks are forced to interact in the Workplace (capital W), where very few stories will actually leave. Accordingly, we’ll find that the best episodes of NewsRadio aren’t just the funniest (even though, of course, that’s always important) — and they definitely aren’t the ones that most contend with news radio — but they’re the ones that best maximize the ensemble dynamic within the office, dealing with typical Workplace problems concerning quirky, supposedly realistic characters… and later, dealing with atypical Workplace problems concerning quirky, intentionally odd characters. Thus, the legacy of NewsRadio can be — or rather, it could have been (had it run a little bit longer) — that it’s the purest embodiment of the workplace sitcom in the 1990s, without the clichéd personal trappings added to the era’s other entries in this catalogue (like Drew Carey, Just Shoot Me!, etc.)…
But the legacy of a show like Friends is its characters. And whether or not we have to care about NewsRadio’s regulars as much as we’re supposed to care about the Friends (and I think not, for Friends was overbearing in how it tried to force and then maintain this investment), these characters aren’t the most memorable thing about the series. And that’s indicative of my aforementioned (and only fundamental) criticism of NewsRadio: that it isn’t as rooted in character as it needs to be. Now, hear me out, fans — I think every character is basically defined (with the possible exception of Beth), but I think this definition is largely one-dimensional, built around the personas of externally interesting quantities (Hartman, Foley, and Dick, specifically), established only in relation to story (Beth, who pushes plot but can never motivate it, and Lisa, who exists and is defined in these early episodes by a relationship construct), or confined and reserved for comedic purposes (Joe and Catherine, both of whom didn’t settle into existence until after the pilot). I think the most nuanced character is Stephen Root’s Jimmy, but that’s perhaps because the design, with his character as the boss, allows him to inspire plot in a way the others can’t. And that’s where this shortcoming regarding character best exhibits itself: episodic story. Take a gander at this first season (and the next) and witness the abundance of situational narratives — comedic ideas that could work on any series, with any roster of regulars — and relationship-driven, character-subordinating, plots. (More on the “romance” in a moment.) It’s easy to laud the show for its comedic mainstays, because performers with the energy of Phil Hartman (whose death, needless to say, was a huge loss) and Andy Dick (who is incredibly unique) are fascinating to watch, and the writing has a natural understanding of what’s funny… but the continued reliance on idea, not character, is forever troubling.
Again, I believe the quality of the characterizations has a lot to do with the desire to be “unconventional” — wanting to avoid the tropes and gimmicks associated with the sitcom. NewsRadio didn’t want to have the same kind of present emotionality as Friends or Mad About You (and most of the other network comedies of the time), so it pushed forward the comedy and decided to eschew drilling emotional objectives and employing other conventional, but reliable, tactics for dimensionalization that Simms nevertheless felt were false — a product of the medium, not of actual human interaction. (Note that this resistance to convention was born, at first, from a desire for “realism.” That won’t be the case later…) And there’s a really good point there: Friends is glossy, convenient, and fantastical. It’s never realistic. NewsRadio doesn’t want to be untrue in that way, so it decides not to define its characters by the traditional “sitcom” playbook — with traits that are hammered and hammered and hammered: reinforced so often that it is unrealistic… But that also doesn’t negate the fact that the playbook exists for both the audience, who needs to know the characters, and the characters themselves, who, when better defined, better inspire story (which is to the benefit of the show). The most visible symbol of this dilemma in Season One (and Two) — the purposeful rejection of convention that later proves detrimental in the long-run — is the relationship: the romance between Lisa and Dave. On the DVD commentaries, Simms expresses some regret at having done so many relationship stories in the first few years, and yes, this speaks also to the legitimate tension between the show and the network, for the presence of a primary couple was an NBC necessity (even when it was totally wrong — just look at Jerry and Elaine on Seinfeld). I agree that this coupling doesn’t seem appropriate for NewsRadio, even in this more realistic era — and to the extent that the relationship episodes don’t work as often here as they should, that’s something over which we can’t begrudge Simms for resenting the network.
Yet, by all accounts, Simms wasn’t resistant to the idea of a relationship… he just didn’t want to structure it predictably and use it as every other show had. (Cheers being the most obvious example at the time.) And there, in the choice to ignore the network’s formula, Simms made it worse for himself, for in opting to pair Lisa and Dave in the series’ second episode, he made it harder to define them, harder to define the others, and, maybe, harder to build an audience. I get the reasons for doing it this way — by knocking it out early, NewsRadio got to be fresh and different, and there is some truth to the fact that the long-simmering will-they-won’t-they tension is clichéd and obnoxious in its commercialized intent. (Friends in its second season shows us how — timing every Ross/Rachel development for Sweeps, at the expense of the characters’ emotional integrities.) By having characters sleep together quickly upon meeting each other, the show can avoid the will-they-won’t-they contrivance and get to claim some immediate form of realism — for this is what people who are attracted to each other usually do: they have the dalliance quickly after meeting… right? (Again, realism!) Maybe. But in putting Dave/Lisa together a week after we meet them, the relationship becomes something about which we don’t care, for we didn’t know enough about them at the time of their coming-together to care about them together (let alone apart). Here, we’re not seeking the touchy-feely-ness of Friends, but rather, just enough understanding of the characters so that their choices are motivated, and we can root (or not root) for them. And this has commercial ramifications, too. Friends built an audience with Ross/Rachel, and the network is probably not wrong in believing that if Dave/Lisa had been a more marketable pairing, the show would have had a better chance at reaching a broader audience… Still, though, that’s a secondary concern.
The core concern with the relationship exists within story — for as we’ve seen on other shows, romances can be a narrative gimmick, claiming character-rooted intentions, but actually allowing for plot that isn’t character-led. In this case, while Dave is never a big problem because the show structurally positions him as its anchor (and Foley grounds his material with equal parts honesty and kookiness), Lisa is defined in these early years by her existence within the relationship (which stems from her initial story goal of wanting to be the boss — the most interesting part of her persona). She’ll get better fleshed out through time and exposure — as it should be — but had she gotten more of this before hooking up with Dave, their relationship would have been far more nuanced and inspired better episodes. As it stands now, the relationship also feels tonally at odds with the rest of the show and only works when the romance is contextualized more explicitly within the ensemble. You see, because we don’t care enough about Dave/Lisa to be invested in stories focusing only on them, their dynamic is only of value when it’s factored into the office’s at large — you know, this being a quintessential Workplace sitcom, after all. And to its credit, because NewsRadio so very rarely leaves the station, it intuitively (and I think purposely) keeps its perspective on the personal locked within the professional realm. This allows the series to avoid that gross sentimentality, while also contributing to what we’ve already acknowledged is its strongest suit: the depiction of a playful, character-filled office culture. Yet, the fact that these heavier Lisa/Dave offerings, though, are so hit-and-miss — more than series television’s norm — indicates something with which I’m sure many NewsRadio fans would likely want to disagree: that network convention may exist for good reason. In stubborn defiance of custom (however creatively argued), issues arise that are greater than the ones avoided.
Nevertheless, for as much as Simms may have retroactively balked (although his heavy reliance on the relationship belies his criticism), the show actually benefits from the romance in the short-term, because it grants the writers a heady succession of stories right away. This is good — the show needs ideas in this era because the characters aren’t well-defined enough to motivate them. But this is also bad — because by being able to rely on the relationship to carry an episode, the show has an excuse to avoid doing more character-based stuff with the others. That’s dangerous in the long-run, for it fosters more half-intentional convention-flouncing while also making the show less rooted in character (even as they’re theoretically getting more usage). At the same time, though, from these perhaps unintended consequences of a choice that the show made — to handle a network necessity that it may not have wanted to employ in the first place (keepin’ up?) — came another unintended consequence… One that the show, and some fans, might claim as purposeful (as a means of differentiation), even though it’s more necessary: the show’s broadening, which is so tenuously connected to logic sometimes that surrealism feels like an appropriate term… Look, folks, it’s natural for a show that can’t really use its characters for motivated story to turn outwards, requiring hyperbolic forms of humor and less fidelity to realism. (Newhart, anyone?) That’s precisely what happens with NewsRadio, and it’s something that many fans celebrate — for this aesthetic drift contributes to some of the show’s funniest moments and makes the series legitimately more unique, especially in the furtherance of that “network rebellion” narrative it helps cultivate for itself (in the absence of popularity and, I think, the creative decisions that usually come packaged to widespread success).
I think NewsRadio’s broadening falls somewhere between Green Acres’ and Newhart‘s; like the latter, it arises from character shortcomings (while Green Acres’ broadening was supported by a strong bedrock of character), but like the former, the claims of surrealism feel a little more deserved, for the show marches into its strangeness earlier and with more abandon. So, I’m with the fans who recognize the broadening as a positive — with the caveat that it can only take us so far. And while it seems like I might prefer the earlier days — where realism is more prevalent, meaning there are more truthful characterizations — I think NewsRadio’s sense of humor makes it such that its identity (more than just its reputation, its actual identity) is truly associated within a zanier, stranger mode of operation. (More on this soon…) Therefore, you’ll find that my tolerance for the foolishness is higher than it might usually be. I’ll still draw the line when I feel the show has really pushed its characters too far into the background (in its last few years), but I think there’s a happy aesthetic medium for the show. (In other words, Season Three.) To that extent, although I think this shift happens because of initial shortcomings born from decisions the show makes (going against custom — and hurting itself), I also think that this first season of NewsRadio is a wonderful collection of seven episodes… and yet not the best of NewsRadio, for its standards will evolve. It will advance its form or rebellion from convention-rejecting realism to convention-rejecting non-realism. This will yield creative results both positive and negative, make it harder to find a mainstream audience, and then further influence the network’s decision-making — in some ways, forming a cyclical and self-fulfilling prophecy. (We’ll talk more of scheduling and ratings and NBC in the weeks to come…)
The underlying tension for me when analyzing NewsRadio has always been whether it’s as good as its cult following would suggest. That is, if more of what’s attractive about NewsRadio is the anti-establishment narrative Simms created for it, in the absence of A+ characterizations (and to be fair, time slots) that could have given it a Friends-like audience, or if there are actual merits propelling the love… Ultimately, I believe that when pushing aside the network, you’re left with a show that loves the situation comedy medium but aspires to be different. There’s something inherently respectable about that. Also, by trapping this rebellion in a premise and setting that, as we’ve explored, is so generically Workplace, there’s a back-to-basics theatricality that truly allows for a sense of reinvention in the medium. And therefore, while I maintain that its work with character leaves a lot to be desired (and maybe contributed to its limited commercial success, and its correlated relationship with the peacock brass), the show’s genuine differentness, packaged with some incredible comedy, helps legitimize NewsRadio as not just the most interesting workplace comedy of the ‘90s (rivaled only by Drew Carey, which was similarly absurdist — but more joyful, supplanting an anti-network bite with an air of exploration), but also as one of the decade’s funniest. In an era of duplication and sameness, NewsRadio looked familiar… but it was determined never to be the “same old, same old.” That’s why it stands out today and deserves to be highlighted here. So, this week, I have chosen three episodes (from only seven) that I think exemplify the season’s strongest. (They are listed in AIRING order.)
Regular writers this season included: Paul Simms (Larry Sanders, Girls, Atlanta), Brad Isaacs (Newhart, Roseanne, Larry Sanders), Josh Lieb (The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, The Simpsons), and Joe Furey (Michael Richards, Watching Ellie, The Soul Man).
01) Episode 2: “Inappropriate” (Aired: 03/28/95)
Dave and Lisa begin a secret relationship.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by James Burrows
I think there’s a tendency, by most fans, to overpraise the pilot, because it establishes the show’s rhythms — for the most part — and indeed represents one of the funniest sitcom premieres of the year. I think that’s all true… However, it’s hard to discount the huge improvement evidenced in the sophomore excursion, credited to the same author (Simms) and director (the legendary James Burrows). Like the pilot, it also has a narrative goal — pairing Dave and Lisa — but it does so within a teleplay that has better-defined characters. To wit, even in light of what I wrote above about the complications that stem from the decision to couple these two regulars in only the second installment, it also offers quick story that can anchor an episode (now, that is — it’ll be harder as time goes on when we still don’t know much more about the two of them), meaning that the inherent surprise and comedy of a new hook-up gets to play without the emotional constraints that’ll dog the duo later. And not only does it provide story — supplanting the need to define character via more episodic plot (and within plotless moments, which is harder) — but it also allows the show to reinforce its anti-sentimental viewpoint, which contrasts it against the majority of network offerings in ’95. In this way, “Inappropriate” is a perfect representation of NewsRadio from this early era, and because its characterizations are stronger than the pilot’s, it’s more fit to be singled out here as one of the year’s best.
02) Episode 3: “Smoking” (Aired: 04/04/95)
Bill tries to quit smoking as Dave tries to quit coffee.
Written by Josh Lieb, Brad Isaacs, & Paul Simms | Directed by James Burrows
One of the most popular episodes of the entire series, this installment is — I hate to say it — overrated. Not only is it far from NewsRadio‘s funniest, but I actually don’t think I can call it the best of this abbreviated season either. Even on this list, there are entries funnier (see below) and ones that make better use of the series’ ensemble workplace structure (again, see below). Additionally, the incredibly unique NewsRadio won’t win any points for originality here — we’ve seen the “one person gives up X, while another gives up Y” yarn before (on more than one series) — and this story therefore feels imposed upon the characters as opposed to a natural outgrowth of them or the premise as we know it to exist. (Perhaps, though, this can then serve as an early indication of the show’s hairy relationship between character and story.) However, I think this offering is still easily worth highlighting because of the character moments that erupt within the telling, and for the fact that by focusing on Bill and Dave, and their relationship, the show is helping to define them and hopefully make them more conducive to character-driven comedy going forward. Also, it’s an early showcase for Phil Hartman, which is always a draw.
03) Episode 5: “Big Day” (Aired: 04/18/95)
Dave has to choose who gets the big bonus… and “the shaft.”
Written by Joe Furey, Brad Isaacs, Josh Lieb, & Paul Simms | Directed by Alan Myerson
As indicated above, I think this is the best episode from the first season because it’s the year’s most ideal blending of NewsRadio‘s two greatest assets: the show’s uproarious sense of humor, which isn’t as pronounced or well-represented in Season One as it will become in its sophomore go-’round, and its projected awareness of the thesis, which is to be a straightforward workplace comedy where the coworkers may be like a “family” — as the cliché goes — but they’re also still co-workers (and thus not conducive for cloying sentiment). In other words, this outing — with its tight, low-concept A-story where Mr. James forces Dave to allocate the annual bonuses (making him choose the most deserving and least deserving) — is the first season segment that most resembles the series as it more readily exists in better years, where its individual identity is better established and the ensemble is better utilized; it’s the offering most like the next season of NewsRadio. Because of the quality of the comedy — and a terrific engagement with the office-driven premise — that we’ll witness a lot more next week, this is a high compliment, especially given the nature of this year, which even though it’s brief, might actually stand as one of the best and least uneven collection of episodes of any debut season. This deserves some qualification, though, for while this is a great season of a workplace comedy… once again, it’s not a great season for NewsRadio, which will later settle into an evolved understanding of itself. This entry simply exhibits the most understanding of itself in Season One; so, it’s my MVE.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: all of them, because the season is so short and its quality is fairly consistent. The “Pilot” is a moderately amusing set-up for a generally hilarious series, establishing its tone and understanding some of the basic characterizations (but this will improve tremendously before the next entry — especially after some casting tweaks). “The Crisis” is a theatrical half-hour that’s split between some fun office pettiness over Matthew’s new desk and an atypical A-story involving a “news radio” narrative. “Luncheon At The Waldorf” is another relationship show that seeks to better define both Bill and Beth (and does so fairly well — making it the closest to the above list). And “Sweeps Week” guest stats Larry Sanders‘ Janeane Garofalo as Dave’s old girlfriend and is heavy on the Dave/Lisa romance (but still packs in some worthwhile laughs).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of NewsRadio goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!