Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our 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 discussed last week, my personal preferences would ordinarily suggest NewsRadio’s second year to be my favorite. In addition to featuring more defined and instructive depictions of the regulars than the brief debut season, it also keeps them — and the show — more grounded in realism, with quasi-relatable Workplace stories that aren’t necessarily motivated (these characters just don’t have the dimensionality), but nevertheless display the comedic personas capably and with a sense of truth that’s trackable from Simms’ earlier efforts on The Larry Sanders Show, another laugh-filled Workplace classic. In other words, Season Two is wiser than One but less broad than Three… However, if you’ll recall, I believe that NewsRadio becomes funnier, and is more accurately defined, when it’s broader. So, while I personally will be drawing the figurative line in later seasons, when the stories are so outrageous and so disconnected from character concerns that adjusting my standards isn’t worth it, I generally have a higher tolerance for outrageousness — big, idea-based, nearly absurdist comedy — when it comes to NewsRadio than I would ordinarily. In this way, I think there’s a happy medium with both the earlier logicality (and remember, Season One’s initial anti-network convention-flouncing came from a desire to be more honest and less false) and the later years’ hyperbolic humor, which NewsRadio does so well — meaning that Three is probably the “sweet spot” of aesthetic modulation, for frankly, in the big picture, Two is a little too “normal” for a show that never wanted to be… And the identity-rooted liminality of this otherwise show-building season seems less purposeful than it does the result of ingrained shortcomings. That is, the show isn’t yet at its most self-actualized.
Specifically, there’s a lot of relationship stuff: Dave/Lisa date, go public with their romance, and break-up… in March. Yes, March — purposely eschewing a Sweeps split. (Friends, as we saw, would never!) This kind of rebellion, and how it both positively and negatively influences the show, was something we discussed last week. Again, by pairing them so quickly, Simms forsook the opportunity to define the two independently of a relationship construct, which then limited the audience’s ability to invest emotionally. This was part and parcel, though, of the show not wanting to bow to convention when defining its characters. Yet while it’s clear how each regular can be used comedically, the decision to avoid forced (and sometimes false) sentiment, and the accompanying narrative choice to stay removed from their personal lives — justified by the non-romantic Workplace premise: they’re coworkers, not roommates — locks them in a flat dimensionality that’s not great for story, and as we’ve discussed, also pushes the show further away from realism… But that rebellion is less important right now than the simple fact that NewsRadio is employing a primary relationship and relying upon it for plot. And indeed, with characters who intentionally lack depth, the show struggles for story. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, for although one might blame network convention for the relationship — which, by itself, is not commendable and drags down episodes that focus on it — it’s because the show cleverly thought it was avoiding rote formula by pairing them together so quickly that, a) the relationship is not something about which we care, which is why those episodes don’t work and b) the characters, all of them, aren’t good at motivating plot, since they weren’t cultivated early to offer it. Thus, we get something that resembles predictable sitcom fare (even if it’s not), while the show can blame the network for anything tonally ill-fitting — ignoring that how the show handled the “predictable sitcom fare” may be the biggest part of the problem.
However, even with all that convention, which is antithetical to the brand NewsRadio always sought to establish (even when realism was the selected tactic), I maintain that there’s some value here — not when the series focuses on the relationship from a Dave/Lisa standpoint, but rather when it’s seen within the context of the Workplace. And because the action only leaves the station judiciously this year, there’s actually much more that jells in Season Two than doesn’t, for despite the side effects of a Workplace premise and the desire to not bring in more “personal” dramas, there’s a quintessentiality to the office concept and structure that gives the show a purpose beyond its obvious (and oft-achieved) laughs… Additionally, Two benefits from the increased maximization of the anchoring comedic personas, especially Phil Hartman, who becomes the leading progenitor of outrageous comedy (Bill lacks an inner life, but has sharp comedic definition — a craftier, scheming Ted Baxter), and unique, unforgettable players like Andy Dick, whose personal idiosyncrasies make his character among the most nuanced, and Stephen Root, whose position as a potential antagonist grants him the opportunity to drive more story (such as his “search for a wife” arc, which is a terrific example of how the show can reconcile sentimental ideas, with which we can connect, within a style of writing that rejects sentiment). But everyone has chances to be funny — including Vicki Lewis, whose Beth may have the least definition of anyone (which is why I think the actress always felt underserved, even though she is an integral plot-pushing presence in most episodes) — and NewsRadio’s reputation for great comedy is already crystal clear. So, with hysterical folks confined to a (mostly) singular setting, this is exactly what all the best Workplace shows are about — forget dimensionality and story — comedic characters bouncing off one another: that’s the sitcom.
And yet, for as much as Season Two — throughout its 22 episodes (one entry was produced, held, and not broadcast until the summer after the third year; I have included it as part of this collection, but given it the number of the order in which it was aired) — is indicative of a strong Workplace comedy, the cast and crew recall creative difficulty within the first half of the year, in particular. On the DVD, this is attributed to the lack of a single, guiding directorial force (like James Burrows in the beginning and Tom Cherones in Season Three). Personally, though, I think the rockiness of the early episodes is, as usual, more directly correlated to the writing (and the addition of new staff members — some of whom worked and some of whom didn’t). But I imagine this instability with directors may have indeed exacerbated the tension surrounding the show’s continued quest to find itself and the characters — during its first full season — and, to the extent that so much of the acting informed the writing, different ideas about style may have proven conflicting. That is, I think the concerns they had are probably most reflected (to us) in the scripts, for much of the concern regarding the definition of character is most felt in the early part of Two, before the show resolves itself to broader comedy that, whether low-concept and office-related or high-concept and even more idea-driven, alleviates the obviousness of the strained relationship between character and story… Also, I think it’s important to note that the series’ issues with network interference are drummed up (already), with mandated Sweeps stunts (like episodes with guests such as John Ritter and Bebe Neuwirth, both of whose offerings had allegedly difficult gestations) — in which the show seems to drag its proverbial feet, tending to negate any rewards that could be reaped — and NBC’s notorious “Three Funerals and a Wedding” gimmick, over which NewsRadio expressed its disgust…
…By turning in “Rat Funeral,” an episode that’s — frankly, not bad, for it’s an “ensemble dynamic” show with palpable series-fitting irreverence, but — a clear message to the network about its disinterest in playing by “the rules,” some of which, to be fair, were not creatively beneficial. (See more of my thoughts on this entry in the Honorable Mentions below…) Now, your opinions may differ as to whether the show’s early dissidence contributed to the network’s upcoming treatment of it, but NewsRadio was moved in January ’96 out of the Tuesday at 8:30 slot (hammocked between the aging Wings and the fine Frasier) that had kept it within the Top 40 — both during One and the first half of Two — into a Sunday night place behind Mad About You. Why was this? Ostensibly, to make room for 3rd Rock From The Sun, which the network wanted to launch in its B-comedy block. The perception today is that this move hurt NewsRadio for it hadn’t yet built enough of a stable audience. But actually, this first swap had a negligible pull on the show’s numbers, and while the Tuesday MSTV-B block was more prestigious and desirable (even though NewsRadio fought against the stunts expected of up-and-coming shows in that neighborhood), the series hovered around the same ratings and ended the year still in the Top 40. Naturally, NBC’s choices for next season would be more detrimental to the series’ success, when the network’s comedic outreach didn’t account for the fact that there were more hammocks than anchors, and NewsRadio was indeed left out to dry. That’s for next week, though… In the meantime, NewsRadio’s second season is more conventional than its current reputation might suggest, but it’s got killer comedy and is a great addition to the annals of Workplace comedies — Season Two is particularly fine in that regard. So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
Regular writers this season included: Paul Simms (Larry Sanders, Girls, Atlanta), Brad Isaacs (Newhart, Roseanne, Larry Sanders) Joe Furey (Michael Richards, Watching Ellie, The Soul Man), Josh Lieb (The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, The Simpsons), Drake Sather (Larry Sanders, SNL, The Naked Truth), Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil (Frasier, How I Met Your Mother, Hot In Cleveland), Alan J. Higgins (Malcolm In The Middle, ‘Til Death, Mike & Molly), Lewis Morton (SNL, Futurama, Veep), Brian Kelley (SNL, Michael Richards, The Simpsons), Dawn DeKeyser (Alright Already, Ugly Betty, Samantha Who?), and Leslie Caveny (Mad About You, The Naked Truth, Everybody Loves Raymond).
01) Episode 9: “Goofy Ball” (Aired: 09/26/95)
Bill has a stalker, Dave and Lisa consider revealing their relationship, and the staff plays with the “Goofy Ball.”
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Alan Myerson
As discussed, despite the show’s self-proclaimed bumpiness in the first half of the season, the early part of the year contains a handful of ensemble-driven office-oriented installments that corroborate the series’ identity as a Workplace sitcom with an increasingly unique and rarified sense of humor. More than in the surrounding episodes — both the fragmented premiere and the iconically reviled (but for the wrong reasons) “Rat Funeral,” discussed again below — this offering is the best embodiment of the year’s show-building liminality, as it contains a comedy-heavy story with Hartman’s Bill (and guest Dennis Miller), a subplot featuring Dave/Lisa’s secret romance, and an overarching office framework of, well, goofiness, when the staff plays with a talking ball. It’s an early, raw indication of seminal Workplace-based NewsRadio.
02) Episode 11: “The Breakup” (Aired: 10/31/95)
Beth forces Dave and Lisa to reveal their relationship to the office.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Season Two is the year with the heaviest emphasis on Dave/Lisa and their relationship, and as that’s been well-discussed in our seasonal commentaries, it’s important here to reiterate that while the foundation necessary to make their dynamic alone something worth structuring an episode around is missing, there’s some fun stuff that happens when their pairing is utilized specifically within the context of the Workplace ensemble. That’s precisely the case in this outing, which has a functional narrative objective — dropping the “secret” nature of the duo’s romance — but explores what the reveal does for the rest of the cast, particularly Beth, who gets to spill the beans. Also, there’s a memorable subplot with the ever-feuding Catherine/Bill (a.k.a. Evelyn), a combination that’s always good for quick jabs and easy laughs.
03) Episode 16: “The Cane” (Aired: 12/12/95)
Bill gets a cane, while Dave and Lisa feud over the annual staff retreat in Jimmy’s office.
Written by Brad Isaacs | Directed by Alan Myerson
Although there may be more comedically ostentatious excursions highlighted elsewhere on this list (particularly in the latter half of the year, as the show embraces more of its broader leanings as the season progresses), I think this is the funniest and most narratively perfect representation of NewsRadio‘s sophomore stretch. It’s basically got everything we need from the show during this era — including a Dave/Lisa plot that places them firmly within the office’s inner workings, deriving conflict from the clash of their personal lives within the professional space (while also dealing with their competing wants), along with the eponymous A-story, in which the show stretches more of its kooky muscles as Bill gets a cane and Dave hides it. Not only does this idea prioritize Phil Hartman, one of the show’s funniest performers, but it also makes effective use of the Dave/Bill relationship, and together with the Dave/Lisa story, which also gives space to another comedic presence in Stephen Root’s Jimmy, symbolizes a structural ideality — with Dave at the center of two figurative circles. This is what NewsRadio was built to be.
04) Episode 19: “Bitch Session” (Aired: 01/14/96)
Dave accidentally overhears the staff complaining about him.
Written by Brian Kelley | Directed by James Burrows
There are several episodes over the course of the series’ run in which an understanding of the behind-the-scenes happenings contributes to a cultivated appreciation. This is one of them, for the story — as the writers revealed — stemmed from a real-life occurrence when creator and showrunner Paul Simms overheard the rest of the scribes “bitching” about him. (It should be noted: this year had the largest staff and apparently the highest number of ill-suited misfits — it was the rockiest in terms of writers’ room harmony.) They all laugh about it now, but it allegedly led to the departure of Brad Isaacs, one of the show’s key writers in its earliest days. Fortunately though, it did inspire this excellent Workplace showcase, featuring Dave at the core and plenty of moments for the rest of the ensemble to shine, including Root’s Jimmy James.
05) Episode 20: “In Through The Out Door” (Aired: 02/04/96)
Bill coaches Dave on how to introduce him during a speech and Matthew gambles with Joe.
Written by Leslie Caveny, Joe Furey, Alan J. Higgins, Josh Lieb, Drake Sather, & Paul Simms | Directed by Patrick Maloney
As we move into the latter half of the season, the criteria for what makes an enjoyable NewsRadio basically remains the same, for it’s locked into the show’s identity as a traditional Workplace sitcom (where abnormal comedic notions are juxtaposed against a more normal structure). Simply, the outings that best project what the series is best built to offer best succeed. However, the aforementioned adoption of increasing broadness has tangible effects on the comedy. While the structure sticks (we’re still seldom leaving the office), the writing is finding ways to be less logic-based and “conventional,” putting less stock on character and more on laughs. An episode like such, which essentially features two comedic ideas (one for Dave/Bill and the other for Matthew/Joe), is an example of how those two interests can be paired favorably. Also, this is the first entry titled after a Led Zeppelin album — a running gag.
06) Episode 21: “The Song Remains The Same” (Aired: 02/18/96)
Pranks abound and Beth learns she has an admirer on the day Bill is to be interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
Written by Sam Johnson, Chris Marcil, Joe Furey, & Lewis Morton | Directed by Tom Cherones
There’s a great energy to this otherwise average offering that helps crystallize its textual cohesion and makes it easier to enjoy. Like most from NewsRadio‘s second season, the station is the realm in which all the plot threads exist, creating a delightful environment where characters clash and comedy erupts — all in the classic Workplace variety. Although the Beth story, like most Beth stories, isn’t a particular gem, the pay-off gag is memorable enough to make it an additive key to an ensemble-focused entry that features more Workplace pranks and gags (always a NewsRadio staple) courtesy of Mr. James, another Dave/Lisa in-the-office subplot that clicks in this context, and a uniting Bill story, in which he is to be interviewed by a WSJ reporter, which adds to the tension and gives the insanity something sane to play opposite.
07) Episode 23: “Houses Of The Holy” (Aired: 03/10/96)
Bill regrets having Joe take Catherine’s place on the air and Beth falls for Jimmy’s odd nephew.
Written by Dawn DeKeyser, Brian Kelley, Joe Furey, & Paul Simms | Directed by Gregg Heschong
Two comedic ideas drive this installment’s appeal and neither disappoints, allowing for one of the year’s funniest excursions. The A-story has Catherine, the show’s least-used member of the ensemble (it’s so obvious how little she’s used in plot that it doesn’t matter when an episode purposely excludes her), going on vacation, and Bill vainly deciding that Joe should temporarily take her place. Cue the comedic turnaround of Joe actually being good. Though this may seem a little traditional for NewsRadio, it’s an idea rooted in Bill’s character, and because we know so little about Joe at this point, the surprise of his skill is absurd in that classically NewsRadio way. Meanwhile, there’s an amusing subplot with Beth and Jimmy’s nephew, played by Arrested Development‘s David Cross. Together, these ideas make for a laugh-filled affair.
08) Episode 25: “Led Zeppelin” (Aired: 03/31/96)
Lisa will only communicate to Dave in writing and Jimmy’s quest for a wife heats up.
Written by Leslie Caveny | Directed by Patrick Maloney
You’ll notice that I have not included the entry broadcast prior to this one — the installment that features Larry Sanders‘ Wallace Langham and the official break-up of Dave/Lisa — and it’s probably not hard to guess why: it’s too heavily focused on the pair outside the office (where their relationship has always existed), and there’s therefore no there there, for the show expects us to extend some emotional credit that it’s never actually earned. This episode works because it does the exact opposite — the intended investment we’re supposed to have in Dave/Lisa is irreverently minimized when their acrimonious split is forced to reside within the office and with all the others surrounding them. Because we care about the ensemble more than their relationship, the story has an easier time of securing its laughs — especially with all the other characters, like Jimmy (who gets more in his unfulfilled “search for a wife” arc), lending support.
09) Episode 26: “Presence” (Aired: 04/14/96)
After Jimmy loses Bill in a poker game, Lisa has to win him back.
Written by Alan J. Higgins | Directed by Lee Shallat Chemel
This popular installment — NewsRadio‘s antepenultimate original broadcast during the 1995-’96 season — is probably the best indication of where the series is headed in Season Three: broader, higher-concept stories that still recognize the importance of the ensemble and the Workplace, but aren’t so confined by the office and the convention that is otherwise necessary for the show’s unconventional comedic intentions. However, as has been suggested (and stay tuned for more next week), I nevertheless consider Three to be the happiest medium with regard to NewsRadio‘s identity, particularly with comedy, for although it does forsake some of the physical Workplace trappings that do truly define the show, the freedom to seek broader laughs is an extension of rope that acquits the series well… for a while, anyway… and this episode is the perfect example of it working, as the strange story where Lisa has to win Bill back in a poker game is loaded with memorable NewsRadio guffaws. Beloved by fans.
10) Episode 53: “The Injury” [a.k.a. “Injury”] (Aired: 06/05/97)
Matthew is asked to lie about an accident and Bill gets in trouble for saying “penis” on the air.
Written by Drake Sather | Directed by James Burrows
Produced as the season’s third offering, this episode was rejected by the network because of the repeated use of the word “penis,” which comes in a gimmicky subplot where, ironically, Bill is chastised for saying it on the air. (It’s an easy allegory for the “show vs. network” narrative that would soon take on a life of its own.) The entry was finally seen in the summer following the show’s third season, as you can see by the airdate and numbering. But because it so aesthetically fits Season Two (as opposed to Three), I’m including it in this batch… and indeed, it’s one of this year’s most character-rich (and character-building, given the time it was produced) outings, primarily for Matthew, who anchors the big comedic centerpiece when he’s asked to lie about the nature of his injury for insurance purposes. This kind of small-ish, lower-concept, character-forward idea is worth rewarding… and it only fits here in Two. (Note, though, that it does go to someone’s apartment — a rarity.) Also, Norm MacDonald and Bob Odenkirk guest.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: the two closest to the above list, “Xmas Story,” which features an amusing subplot with Bill and a menacing Santa (David Anthony Higgins) plus some fine material for Matthew, and “Led Zeppelin II,” the season’s broadcast finale, which is narratively cohesive and claims an adherence to tradition that NewsRadio never again embraces. Other Honorable Mentions include: “Negotiation,” which introduces Jimmy’s quest to find a wife and features a cameo from Anthrax, and “Coda,” which is just a solid Workplace show for the entire ensemble… along with a couple that aren’t commendable but are memorable, like “Rat Funeral,” in which the show thumbs its nose up at NBC’s MSTV gimmicks and concocts a really funny idea that it nevertheless refuses to celebrate because of its own resentment (evidenced by a hit-and-very-miss teleplay), and “Friends,” which guest stars Bebe Neuwirth as Beth’s old friend in a labored story that reportedly came out of a troubled production week, but also features a decent subplot and material-elevating performances.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of NewsRadio goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!