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.
Season Three is the happy medium for those who appreciate NewsRadio’s heightened comedic posturing within more absurdist narratives, but still want it to remain rooted in the low-concept Workplace environment where the comedic idea, though prominent, is not regarded as so much more important than the depiction of character. As we’ve explored, NewsRadio has never been the best example of a character-driven show, for despite defining its regulars comedically (so that we know the type of humor they can offer), it spared them of the nuance and depth that would help sustain emotional interest and motivate story. With increased usage, this should theoretically have become less of a problem — like a muscle being exercised — for the more the show uses the characters, the more it becomes clear how they can suggest plot. But, in NewsRadio’s case, time instead brings more reliance on the comedic idea (funny stories that are indeed hilarious, but don’t necessarily come from or even need specific characterizations), and this is eventually troubling, for the character issues are never solved. Here in Three, although story is already strained as a result, the success rate is still high, and the tonal modulation of “broad… but not too broad…” makes it far more ideal than Four, a year that many hardcore fans champion because of its elevated comedy, even though character-centricity matters less as the Workplace identity is narratively undermined… That’s a concern for next week though, for Three is the middle ground, and some of the bigger (read: non-character-grounded) ideas employed — cheesy guest star outings and episodic narrative stunts — are as motivated by the later seasons’ rebellious desire to be different (itself a way to compensate for earlier shortcomings), as they are the network-related commercialistic desire to stay alive.
To that point, Season Three is the best embodiment of the ultimate tension within NewsRadio about its denied fidelity to convention, for just as the series is freer to be what it wants to be (or what it needs to be now) — a show not dependent on much realism — and can move away from some of the things that didn’t work as well (like heavier Dave/Lisa stories), the show is also at its most dire place with regard to viewership and network attention. The temptation at this juncture is to associate the show’s rejection of convention with its weakened popularity. But that’s more a problem for the show in the beginning — when it could have built a bigger audience (and never did). I’ve already gone through how I think Simms purposely avoided things that would not only have made the show’s creative life easier, but also would have made it more likely to reach a broader, popular audience; I stand by those thoughts… However, regarding the unconventionality evidenced here — namely, the broadening that sometimes encroaches upon absurdism — there’s no correlation. Because by Season Three, even with the writing getting weirder and seemingly ignoring the mainstream audience that every show desires (and which hits like Friends and Seinfeld could boast — even though NewsRadio refused to be falsely feel-good like the former and was unable to claim the fake version of character-realism suggested by the latter), the trouble wasn’t that NewsRadio wasn’t building; it was that NewsRadio was falling. And in this era of increased comedy and familiarity with the characters (who are more defined, if not well-defined), most of that fall has to do not with quality, but with availability — time slot. And that, of course, has everything to do with the network. Thus, while the rejection of convention has lingering creative consequences, as far as Three is concerned, that’s not an issue related to the audience, but rather to the brass. Let’s talk scheduling…
NBC claimed to view NewsRadio as a “utility player” — one that was solid enough to move around and plug in holes where nothing else fit. This designation seems foolish; yes, NewsRadio never fell when it was moved to Sundays, but it never grew either. It wasn’t big enough, in ’96, to become an anchor — even the cast and crew would admit that. So, when it was moved to Wednesdays at 9:00 for its third season — leading into a new comedy (Men Behaving Badly) — alongside two other dying ones (Wings and The John Larroquette Show) — this looked like NBC was putting the series out to pasture. And this would also make some sense: NewsRadio didn’t like playing by NBC’s rules and, as with the similarly strange Larroquette, it wasn’t deemed promotable within the MSTV brand… Now, I don’t think the network actually had the goal of killing this show, and in later years, Simms and his cohorts have admitted that the network let them do what they wanted (for the most part), so their working relationship was good. Instead, the animus from the series towards the network revolved around what the move represented: a comparative disregard for a show that wasn’t like the rest. And while one could rationalize NBC’s decision — maybe it wasn’t expecting the series to win up against ABC’s block; maybe it was just supposed to make a dent, specifically in the 18-49 demo (which acquitted NewsRadio slightly better than its totals did) — the fact remained that NBC was treating shows that, qualitatively, were far beneath NewsRadio, better, giving them stronger times in more popular nights. In plainer terms: NewsRadio wanted to be on Thursday, MSTV mecca, and resented that it was never respected enough to be granted a legitimate test there. When the pilot was produced, it was expected to be slotted at 9:30 after Seinfeld, but with Friends grooming to become an MSTV anchor and Hope & Gloria deemed more compatible with Mad About You (ha!), NewsRadio became a hammock in the MSTV-B night — and not behind its finest (Frasier) either, but behind another Workplace series (Wings), its most apparently suitable companion.
There’s a lot to be said about NewsRadio not being on Thursdays. As we’ve seen from some of our tangential Wildcard Wednesdays, NBC believed that in order to create shows that could anchor an hour, they first had to be hammocked between hits. Success for new series then meant retaining the majority of their lead-ins, and the network, particularly in ’95, figured the best way to do this was to purchase shows that were designed for the same audience as their lead-ins. So, if NewsRadio had premiered on Thursdays, it would have had to stay more “traditional”; by its second season, it was already too “rock ‘n’ roll” for Thursdays. (Even though Seinfeld was equally rebellious, its growing popularity, pre-move, belied where its formula resided: proclaimed realism that was just as accessible as NBC’s norm...) By putting NewsRadio on Tuesdays, next to another workplace sitcom, it was actually able to develop itself and find an audience. I think it may have done better, commercially, had it gotten the stronger Frasier lead-in, but anywhere on Tuesday was a good start… Also, I think the underlying presumption, that NewsRadio is creatively comparable to Friends and Seinfeld, may not be clear-eyed; as we’ve explored, its character work was far less commendable, and the show’s storytelling, which purposely eschewed the emotional cues NBC’s viewers craved, hurt its chances of catering to Thursday’s broad audience (especially because it didn’t hew to realism like Seinfeld). Sure, and to its credit, an original NewsRadio was slotted after Friends in December ’96 and had a 95% retention rate, proving exactly what a good time slot could have done… But that mattered little, for Thursdays was designed to either establish new comedies that resembled Friends/Seinfeld, or, in the post-Seinfeld era, to house studio commitments that the network was forced to put there in order to keep its hits. You see, NewsRadio was never MSTV-A fodder for NBC.
Yet, it didn’t belong as the headliner of a MSTV-C block on Wednesdays either, where it, never a reliable winner, unsurprisingly couldn’t offer victories against Grace Under Fire, and later, Drew Carey (another workplace comedy that also relished in being unconventional). The network promised to find NewsRadio a better time, but never did. The best it could do was swap it with the soon-to-touch-down Wings at 8:00. The numbers didn’t improve though; in fact, they got worse. Frustrated at these machinations — making NewsRadio an anchor on a terrible night, and moving it again, all the while favoring terrible shows — Paul Simms then gave an infamous interview to Rolling Stone in the spring of ’97 where he accused the network of not respecting the series, and called NBC’s Thursday’s line-up a “double decker s*** sandwich.” Frankly, he wasn’t wrong; after two years of the Friends/Seinfeld/ER tent poles, nothing had emerged on Thursdays that was nearly as worthwhile as NewsRadio. (You can read the article here.) Today, Simms seems presumptuous, arrogant, and hostile — taking the network’s decisions too personally. But his harsh, frank words got him results — Warren Littlefield promised to renew the show if it made some efforts to be promotable within the MSTV brand: guest stars, gimmicks, and other more conventional (or conventionally unconventional) fare. And the last five episodes of the season fit this bill. The numbers didn’t rise, but it was an olive branch — a sign that NewsRadio would cooperate. The implication there being that earlier — when NewsRadio was offering some of its best material ever — the network considered it difficult to “promote.” Had Wednesday at 9:00 been a punishment all along? It’s a theory that NewsRadio would like…
But I don’t blame the network entirely, for while it set the series up for failure, agreeing to renew it after its terrible performance showed that NBC did have some faith (or guilt). And again, who’s to blame for the fact that NewsRadio didn’t grow its audience earlier? One could say the show might have established a stronger baseline by being on Thursdays, but a good show in a decent time slot should build (and both of its Season Two periods, because of the lead-ins, were decent). And while the move itself was ill-advised, the show is partly culpable in its own banishment for establishing a reputation of being purposely uninterested in the “mainstream.” Also, in a self-fulling prophecy correlated to both the network and the show’s treatment of convention, it was moving further away from the rest of what NBC was offering. By not fitting in, NBC had trouble fitting it in… But the irony, again, is that, though few were watching, this is NewsRadio’s most worth-watching season, as the show locks into an identity that it respects more than ever before, and the ongoing tension regarding the network’s need for viewers provides an interesting counterbalance — one that doesn’t necessarily bring greatness, but modulates what’s now become an unstoppable trend: towards a necessary character-subjugating broadness (bordering on surrealism). Whether it’s familiar gimmicks or formulas ripe for bending, this friction will be missed in later years when the show is left to be as wild as it wants. That is, the show benefits from the rigidity of convention that contextualizes everything that’s unconventional. The takeaway? The drama between the show and the network, which may not have been as acrimonious as Rolling Stone suggests, helped tether the show to an aesthetic blend that gave the series some of its finest moments and proved its point: the network should have been treating it better… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify’s Three’s strongest. (As usual, they are listed below in AIRING ORDER.)
Regular writers this season included: Paul Simms (Larry Sanders, Girls, Atlanta), Joe Furey (Michael Richards, Watching Ellie, The Soul Man), Josh Lieb (Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, The Simpsons), Drake Sather (Larry Sanders, SNL, The Naked Truth), Lewis Morton (SNL, Futurama, Veep), Brian Kelley (SNL, Michael Richards, The Simpsons), Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil (Frasier, How I Met Your Mother, Hot In Cleveland), and Alan J. Higgins (Malcolm In The Middle, ‘Til Death, Mike & Molly).
01) Episode 30: “Review” (Aired: 09/25/96)
Matthew discovers Dilbert and the staff gets a magazine critique.
Written by Josh Lieb | Directed by Tom Cherones
Following a season premiere with a laugh-laden teleplay but a non-office, non-ensemble premise that inherently strains logic, this — the year’s sophomore excursion — is a return to the lower-concept Workplace form that really came into its own in Season Two. To that point, I consider this installment to be the year’s most reminiscent of its predecessor, for it features a simple (basically) two-character story and weaves it around a subplot that also contends with the station staff at large. Both ideas work well — as Matthew is discovering the joys of Dilbert (a perfectly chosen strip given its shared Workplace interests) and providing hilarious moments like when Dave catches Matthew on the desk after being suspended down through the ceiling, the rest of the office is contending with a bad review. (Bill’s feigned happiness at being called “adequate” reminds of Phil Harris’ ignorance on The Jack Benny Program — that’s a gag he did often.)
02) Episode 31: “Massage Chair” (Aired: 10/02/96)
When office snacks fall victim to budget cuts, Bill leads a revolt.
Written by Lewis Morton | Directed by Tom Cherones
Among the season’s funniest, this is another terrific Workplace offering that wouldn’t feel out-of-place had it come within the latter half of Season Two, where these kinds of stories were the narrative norm and the humor was becoming increasingly larger than the contemporaneous network fare. However, this entry is a little more forceful in going after its laughs, and indeed, I think it represents a comedic heightening even from the one directly above. In this regard, while “Review” is a fine example of what the show looked like in Season Two, this is an example of what a smaller episode (one that’s mostly confined to the office and doesn’t venture outwards, like more and more ideas do this season) is going to be like for Three. And with laughs like these — Bill in the chair (with Matthew watching) never fails to delight — it’s quite promising. Also, note that this is where Joe’s crush on Catherine becomes an occasional subplot sparker.
03) Episode 32: “Arcade” (Aired: 10/23/96)
Dave becomes re-addicted to video games, Bill fights for a sandwich machine, and Lisa studies for the PSATs.
Written by Brian Kelley | Directed by Tom Cherones
A fan favorite, this is an outing that I often see singled out by hardcore NewsRadio fans as being one of the series’ best. I certainly understand why — I think it’s actually among the most hilarious and laugh-filled (from start to finish), not just of the season, but of the series. There’s an elevation in both the humor and the show’s success rate with the humor here (that is, the teleplay goes for big laughs and gets them) — particularly as Bill fights to bring back an old sandwich machine that has been removed from the office. There’s also a surprising narrative cohesion to the rest of the episode too, for the machine has been replaced (by Beth) with an old arcade game… with which Dave used to be obsessed. And this ties into the C-story where both Lisa and Dave are going to retake their PSATs, for just like in high school, Dave fails to study because he’s too busy playing… What I like best, though, isn’t just the humor or the narrative structure, but the character work — both for Dave, who really shines as the anchor, and also for Lisa and Bill, who ably drive their respective persona-fitting stories. A classic.
04) Episode 35: “Daydream” (Aired: 11/13/96)
The staff daydreams on a hot day with a broken thermostat.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Tom Cherones
As regular readers know, this is the kind of offering whose gimmickry simply can’t be denied. Unfortunately, any time a series messes with its structure for episodic jollies, the changes usually take precedence over character-driven comedy. But, as NewsRadio moves into the latter half of its run, one has to be more forgiving about these kinds of structural gimmicks, for the series delights in rejecting convention and feels more self-actualized when it can. That sense of rebellion — this premise isn’t uncommon for the sitcom as far as gimmicks go, but the pacing (and the general lack of narrative purpose) does feel unique for the genre — counteracts the fact that this is a promotable Sweeps stunt in an era where the network was demanding the show do anything it could to find eyeballs. In this case, the series is “stunting” on its own terms and in a manner congruous with its comedic brand. Also, because it attempts to be somewhat revelatory for character (we see their daydreams), it’s a prime study of NewsRadio taking (and not breaking) the rules, but finding ways to be itself within (or against) them.
05) Episode 36: “Movie Star” (Aired: 11/20/96)
James Caan does research for a movie while Dave takes Lisa TV shopping.
Written by Lewis Morton | Directed by Tom Cherones
Another episode with a Sweeps stunt, this isn’t one of the strongest on this week’s list. It is, however, one of the most interesting for discussion (which is why I decided to upgrade it from the Honorable Mentions). What most fans remember is the eponymous A-story where James Caan, the title’s movie star, comes to the station to research Bill for an upcoming part, but instead becomes fascinated by Matthew, who is as bizarre as ever. It’s a Victory in Premise and it’s actually rather low-concept — James Caan simply can’t get over how strange this person is. That idea gets its laughs with little effort… I’m more intrigued, meanwhile, by the Dave/Lisa story, as the show creates its association with Green Acres here by highlighting just how much Dave loves that iconically surreal ’60s series, and yet does so by using it as a character detail that can be contrasted against Lisa’s total disdain for the medium… until she discovers the wonders of C-SPAN, an idea that well-embodies her persona and allows for an ultimately pro-TV message in the end: TV can do anything, and maybe NewsRadio can, too.
06) Episode 41: “Led Zeppelin Boxed Set” (Aired: 01/15/97)
The power dynamics shift when Matthew stands up to Bill.
Written by Lewis Morton, Sam Johnson, Chris Marcil, Joe Furey, and Josh Lieb | Directed by Tom Cherones
The relationship between Matthew and Bill becomes, in Season Three, one of the show’s richest and most comedically inclined. I think it’s because both Hartman and Dick are such nuanced comedic performers that their characters, by extension, feel better defined and more conducive to character-related laughs than most — especially when they can play directly opposite one another. So, this installment — which pairs Catherine and Jimmy in a B-plot that’s a little too middle-of-the-road (on Three’s exceptional comedic terms, that is) to allow this entry to be considered a classic — is notable because it’s predicated on the Matthew/Bill dynamic and gets to play with the episodic power shift between the two, aided by some interoffice go-betweening from Dave and Lisa, who help push the story along. Again, it isn’t one of this list’s finest, but because it’s more rooted in character than some of the Victories In Premise that could have replaced it, the entry is more rewarding and feels more worthy of being highlighted.
07) Episode 42: “Complaint Box” (Aired: 01/29/97)
Dave regrets instituting a complaint box and Jimmy keeps in touch with the office via satellite.
Written by Brian Kelley, Lewis Morton, Joe Furey, and Josh Lieb | Directed by Tom Cherones
Although Three is NewsRadio at its sharpest and there are very few episodes this year that don’t have something legitimately recommendable about them, there was no doubt about which one would be selected as my MVE. “Complaint Box” is quintessential NewsRadio in that it, like most of the series’ best offerings, supremely embodies the show’s structural identity as a Workplace classic while also indicating just what a comedic powerhouse it’s developed into — particularly in Season Three, as the happy medium of humor and narrative purpose services every goal. As this installment so brilliantly indicates, the show’s office-based raison d’être forms the bones around which the comedy can flourish. While the ensemble gets thrown a terrific Workplace story involving the titular “complaint box” (which is not only a great idea given the series’ premise, but also because it puts Dave at the center, as always intended, and allows room for surprising character moments from everyone else as well), the show also deploys its unique comedic sensibilities in the subplot where Jimmy James, who’s gone fishing, keeps in touch with the office via a giant satellite box… chiming in whenever he feels like it. It’s basically an ensemble show… with a box used in place of Stephen Root. Whenever I need evidence of what NewsRadio is, how it best functions, and why it is indeed a Workplace comedy with a brand of humor that bends the rules, but doesn’t break them, I look here. A gem.
08) Episode 45: “Airport” (Aired: 02/19/97)
Bill and Dave are stranded at the airport while Lisa runs the office; Beth and Matthew explore Bill’s apartment.
Written by Drake Sather | Directed by Tom Cherones
Despite spending the past several weeks extolling the virtues of setting the show and its stories specifically in the office, where low-concept ideas featuring the ensemble could play out with the space needed to support NewsRadio‘s broader forms of comedy, I’m right now featuring an episode that separates the cast (which is usually unwise in any ensemble series) and takes place in several different locations, thus mitigating the importance of the Workplace — the very thing that defines NewsRadio and makes it tick. In other words, this is an excursion that shouldn’t work and shouldn’t be highlighted… Yet it’s good, because by isolating two pairs of regulars in new locations, we get fresh interplay that maybe isn’t motivated by, but at least calls upon, their established characterizations. As Lisa gets to run the office (addressing her initial super-objective), Beth and Matthew explore Bill’s apartment — Matthew is great with anyone, and here’s a chance to reveal more about Bill in the process — and Dave is stuck in the airport with Bill, giving the show’s anchor and its prime comedic asset the chance to bounce off one another… which, as we saw in last year’s MVE (“The Cane”) is usually a recipe for success.
09) Episode 51: “Mistake” (Aired: 05/14/97)
Dave regrets giving a disparaging interview; Matthew feels replaced by the new weird temp.
Story by Joe Furey & Paul Simms | Teleplay by Josh Lieb & Drake Sather | Directed by Tom Cherones
This underrated outing works even without the behind-the-scenes knowledge that adds to its appeal. I’m referring, of course, to the aforementioned interview that Simms did with Rolling Stone where he trashed NBC ahead of what appeared to be an imminent cancellation. From that event, which probably saved the show, came this idea about Dave, again our anchor, giving an interview that causes trouble in the Workplace. It’s ideal NewsRadio fodder, and the legend of the “show vs. network” tension — from which the series would increasingly derive its cultural cachet — isn’t even necessary to appreciate it. Additionally, there’s a hysterical subplot where Matthew is out-wierdo’d by the office’s temp weirdo, played by 3rd Rock From The Sun‘s French Stewart, whose casting is another Sweeps gimmick, but one that works for NewsRadio, as it’s used as a way to exploit the easily comedic Matthew persona.
10) Episode 52: “Space” (Aired: 05/21/97)
In the future and in space, the newsradio staff prepares for a disaster.
Story by Brian Kelley & Lewis Morton | Teleplay by Joe Furey, Josh Lieb, & Paul Simms | Directed by Tom Cherones
You may be surprised to see this one here; I am too. It’s the Sweeps stunt to end all Sweeps stunts — throwing the show into a new time and place for no apparent character reason. Except it’s not the end all, because it’ll be thematically replicated again next year with the Titanic episode, which has less inherent novelty. Speaking of novelty, part of the reason I like this entry is that it’s physically atypical… But that’s only half the story, you see, because while the space setting and the story details play into the unusual gag, the actual dialogue and the featured character interactions are typical low-concept NewsRadio; they could happen in any offering, regardless of where it’s set — meaning that the series’ claims on being a pure Workplace comedy remain reinforced, even within an absurd stunt that not only indicates the series’ relationship with the network (which desperately wanted to build a bigger audience for the show), but also the kind of humorous convention-flouncing that maybe kept it from a wider appeal and yet also supplied its one-of-a-kind comedic integrity. Again, NewsRadio is bending the rules… but not breaking them, for at the end of the day, it’s still about the Workplace… So, this one is a little too unforgettable — and not enough of a train wreck — to exclude.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “Halloween,” a gimmicky and easily enjoyable show where the characters dress up for Halloween and Dave dons a wig and a dress, “The Trainer,” an entry that was broadcast in a special Thursday slot behind Friends, guests Ben Stiller, and employs a Victory in Premise where Dave is revealed to be Canadian (thus deriving a lot of its humor from the audience’s external self-awareness about the actor), and “Office Feud,” which features a hysterical story where Catherine has fun with Bill as he agrees to be a product spokesman on the air. “Rap” and “Kids” would be of Honorable Mention quality, and I’d also be remiss for not mentioning (but not by name) three more heavy guest star shows — the ones with Jon Stewart, Jon Lovitz, and Jerry Seinfeld.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of NewsRadio goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!