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, and PHIL HARTMAN as Bill McNeal. KHANDI ALEXANDER appears early as Catherine.
Many hardcore fans of NewsRadio consider this the series’ apex — filled with the highest highs and the greatest concentration of gems. No doubt, there are a lot of strong episodes this year. As you know, though, I prefer Season Four’s predecessor, which I’ve posited as the most ideal balance of what the show was built to be and what the show becomes… However, I want to preface this discussion by noting: this isn’t a case where I think the series’ peak is followed by a sharp decline. Rather, just as Season Two seemed a little too “normal”, Four is a little too abnormal — with a less perfect modulation of the show’s low-concept identity and its high-concept comedic intentions (stemming, I believe, from issues with the way characters were initially defined). That is, Four isn’t a fall; it’s a shift. And part of this shift has to do with broadening and a weakening connection to reality… Now, my preference tends to skew towards realism, for that’s typically where the most potent displays of character-driven writing occur. But I have a higher tolerance here, and indeed, the heightening of the comedy isn’t really a main concern — neither is the occasional heightening of the characters. My concern is that this heightening is packaged to a greater emphasis on story, further negating the importance of character when motivating plot (which was always tenuous based on their emotionally thin depictions) or even just anchoring the comedic ideas this show has always prized. The irony? While this aesthetic drift away from the smaller ideas does take the show out of the office — undermining the Workplace identity that we’ve already established as being key to NewsRadio’s design — the structure it can rebel against, the rules it can bend, and the only context through which we can care about these characters — Season Four has some of the best Workplace stories ever, including an extensive arc designed specifically to shake up the office.
In this regard, Four supports the show’s identity, even though the core issue mentioned above — story trumping character — asserts itself more frequently. It simply isn’t as noticeable until we’re out of the office and nothing’s grounding the aggrandized high-concept ideas — neither the characters nor the show. To that end, you’ll notice the episodes I’ve chosen to highlight are the ones that — surprise, surprise — most reinforce the Workplace. Many come from the half-season arc that starts with the introduction of Andrea Planbee (Lauren Graham), an efficiency expert who fires Matthew and ushers in a period where Lisa takes over for Dave as the boss (following their latest romantic split). This storyline — lasting from September to February — actually begets NewsRadio’s most comprehensive concentration of office-based stories. I’d ordinarily quibble about plot driving character, which is what happens here, but NewsRadio has never been great by this metric, and because there are many character-motivated moments within the episodes, I won’t quibble — I have to save that criticism for when the show leaves the office and loses itself in disconnected, character-less broadness… This arc, meanwhile, is a demonstration of what I suggested above: when the show uses its mundane Workplace elements as an oppositional force, it can then have fun with its heightened comedy, for this juxtaposition is thesis-related and justifying… Interestingly though, the Planbee idea may have come from the network — the primary villain for NewsRadio and its fans — as NBC wanted to experiment with a possible new regular. This didn’t sit well with the cast, particularly the women, who feared replacement. Graham only lasted a few weeks, but Khandi Alexander was allegedly so incensed, rightly recognizing that she’d never been well-used and would be featured even less now, that she opted to leave the series. (The fact that her departure has no consequence is indication that she was correct in her assessment….) Nevertheless, Graham’s temporarily Planbee is a true boon to Season Four — tethering the loosening show to something sturdy.
Unfortunately, there are only so many episodes that take advantage of the premise’s office setting. The rest of the season is uneven, filled with both bizarre ideas removed from the Workplace, and heck, station-set ideas (such as the entries with Walt), that, unlike the Planbee/boss switch arc, don’t have enough character-based moments to overcome how little the regulars matter in shaping the action. (Regarding the Walt arc, in particular, it doesn’t work because we’re not invested in Dave/Lisa in a personal context, for, again, the show paired them too early. We only care about what they do in relation to their coworkers. So, Walt may exist in the office space, but his relationship with Lisa plays to personal stakes that NewsRadio simply doesn’t have and never will. It’s, thus, just story.) And while some think Four’s high points are sufficiently compensatory, the show “shifts” into a lesser aesthetic place, where regardless of story or setting, the characters come second to plot, and that’s indicative of trouble… As for the series’ relationship with the network this season, the brass kept their word and moved it back to Tuesday at 8:30, where it consistently was the block’s lowest-rated comedy (and third place in its slot). Although tested briefly on Thursday again — behind Friends, where NewsRadio proved capable still of holding onto the 18-49 demo — network commitments kept the series from ever being moved into MSTV’s primary night. With NBC still fixated on comedic evangelism — this was the season where the network had a record 18 new comedies scheduled in the fall — NewsRadio was moved back to Wednesday at 8:00 in the spring, where its numbers dwindled… But it didn’t matter; the show was deemed okay enough ratings-wise to be renewed — a deal that would also allow a syndication sale. Sadly, nobody knew then what tragedy was just around the corner… Yet that’s for next week. In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. (They are listed 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 55: “Planbee” (Aired: 09/30/97)
Jimmy brings in an efficiency expert.
Written by Brian Kelley | Directed by Tom Cherones
Lauren Graham, introduced for an arc that could potentially keep her around permanently, makes her first of just four appearances in this installment, which launches the Andrea Planbee storyline — a vehicle ultimately used to shake up the Workplace by splitting Dave and Lisa (a development about which we care little, since we’ve never been able to invest much in their romance due to how it was first established) and then having them switch places in the office (a development about which we do care, for this is where their dynamic has always existed). But none of that’s quite clear in this entry, which creates the idea of an efficiency expert and adds some jeopardy by making everyone’s job unstable. Matthew is the biggest worry, and they all try to protect him, leading to a wonderful sight gag seen through the window of Dave’s office.
02) Episode 56: “The Public Domain” (Aired: 10/28/97)
Andrea tries to replace Dave; Bill readies a cabaret act.
Written by Joe Furey | Directed by Tom Cherones
The Planbee arc continues in this popular offering, which ably illustrates some truths about the season while also getting big laughs, particularly in the subplot where Bill rehearses a political cabaret act (all to tunes that are, per the title, in the public domain). To that first point, there’s a lot of story here — in addition to the further job insecurity suggested by Andrea and the aforementioned laugh-driven Bill idea, there’s the fallout of Matthew’s firing and the incorporation of a documentary crew. It’s a lot of different threads to track, and while the episode actually does a good job of keeping us focused (and again, rewarding us with comedy), it’s another example of how, in Season Four, story is more prominent than ever.
03) Episode 57: “Super Karate Monkey Death Car” (Aired: 11/04/97)
The staff takes polygraph tests and Jimmy reads his autobiography.
Written by Josh Lieb | Directed by Tom Cherones
My favorite from the Planbee stretch, this outing is the broadest — asking that we jump high for the sake of comedy, primarily with regard to character. I’m thinking specifically now of Lisa’s criminal past, which only comes up because of a contrived plot involving a polygraph and seems like it only exists for this story. However, the idea is offset by a foundation that tries to keep her character connected to what we know of her persona (and why she would commit a crime) along with her strengthening relationship with Andrea. And ultimately it gets its laughs… as does the subplot that earns the offering its title, where Jimmy James reads his re-published autobiography, which has been translated back to English from Japanese… and had some of its meaning altered in the process. It’s a jokey premise — we’d laugh at the silliness of the words, irrespective of his character — but, hey, it’s funny without lobotomizing anyone.
04) Episode 60: “Catherine Moves On” (Aired: 11/25/97)
The office tries to remember exactly why Catherine quit.
Written by Josh Lieb & Paul Simms | Directed by Tom Cherones
Khandi Alexander missed a few episodes earlier in the season and was allegedly rankled by the introduction of Lauren Graham (who’s, incidentally, gone by this time) because of how this would affect the series’ already limited and strained usage of Catherine. So, this is her final appearance as a regular. As noted above, she lifts out easily, and it’s an unfortunate testament to the actress’ apparent fears… Nevertheless, Catherine has always been a presence conducive to quick, easy comedy and anytime she’s featured, we take notice. And Alexander never gets to be the focus like she is in this entry, which celebrates her by using a Rashomon construct that also lets the audience into the minds of the others, too. As a result, this one — despite its functional objective — is well-supported by character-based interests. MVE contender.
05) Episode 64: “Chock” (Aired: 01/13/98)
Dave reunites with his college a cappella group.
Written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Directed by Tom Cherones
As we start moving into the second half of the season, the gimmick of the above serialized Workplace storyline gives way to gimmicks of a more episodic nature, and this is where I really think it becomes obvious just how much the characters are being pushed into the background in deference to humorously premised ideas. However, this list isn’t a great indication of that fact, for I’ve tried to select episodes that still manage an appropriate balance, where big comedy doesn’t necessarily come without character merit. For instance, this installment features a great subplot for Lisa and Matthew, where the latter is hurt after the former (now the boss) yells at him — it’s an idea that deals with interoffice character dynamics and it works. And while the A-story, where Dave reunites with his college a cappella group (Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and Brian Posehn — all funny Mr. Show veterans) is a simply plotted one-note idea with little place to go, it fits what we know of Dave and, once again, gets its laughs.
06) Episode 66: “Who’s The Boss? (II)” (Aired: 02/03/98)
The office holds an election between Dave and Lisa for boss.
Written by Brian Kelley | Directed by Tom Cherones
This entry marks the official conclusion of Season Four’s semi-serialized Workplace arc, for after a stretch of stories where Lisa and Dave switched places, making her the boss, this one — the second of a rare NewsRadio two-parter — sets its sights on returning to the status quo. But getting there is such fun, especially because the teleplay wisely establishes the idea that neither wants to be the boss and would prefer not to get the job. This yields a lot of amusing moments where Jimmy forces them both to campaign for it (ahead of an office vote), despite how they really feel. Obviously, this is a great foundation for a Workplace gem, where everyone at the station gets moments to shine. One of my absolute favorites on this (or any) list.
07) Episode 67: “Security Door” (Aired: 02/24/98)
Dave installs a security door and Bill is hired for a commercial.
Story by Joe Furey & Lewis Morton | Teleplay by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Directed by Tom Cherones
Regarded by many as a NewsRadio classic and probably the one most of you knew would be my MVE, this is an episode that, I have to confess, I find a little uneven. Don’t get me wrong — I love the eponymous A-story where Dave, once again the boss, tries to re-exert his authority by introducing a security door that nobody takes seriously. That’s a perfect idea in the tradition of “Complaint Box” and other Workplace hallmarks. Indeed, that part of the episode works wonders… What doesn’t enthuse so much is the Bill subplot, which ham-fistedly incorporates Lisa (they work well together, but the narrative pairing here is a convenience) and takes them away from the office, breaking the sanctity of the world. If that’s not a metaphor for what Season Four offers — Workplace brilliance alongside broad and unnecessary comedic disruptors — I don’t know what is. That’s why this is my selection for the year’s most valuable.
08) Episode 70: “Balloon” (Aired: 03/25/98)
Jimmy decides to travel the world in a hot air balloon.
Story by Joe Furey & Paul Simms | Teleplay by Josh Lieb | Directed by Tom Cherones
Another installment well-liked by the fan base, this is also one I include not because I love it, but because I think it’s instructive in telling us about Season Four. You see, there are some viewers who will excuse the broad and story-driven nature of the eponymous Jimmy James A-plot by arguing that the show always presented him as a wildcard conducive to bigger ideas that didn’t need to be contained by the office; so this is all in-keeping with his depiction. But the simple fact is, when you take him out of the Workplace, you’re taking the show out of the Workplace, thereby mitigating its identity. And so when Jimmy decides to go up in a balloon — regardless of whether or not you think it’s a character leap (it’s certainly broad) and even if the reveal is that he’s merely on a soundstage — NewsRadio doesn’t feel entirely like its best self.
09) Episode 71: “Copy Machine” (Aired: 04/08/98)
A man in the office is killed by the copy machine.
Written by Drake Sather | Directed by Joe Furey
It’s tempting to cite this offering as NewsRadio‘s version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s classic “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” for it deals with similar subject matter — a surprise Workplace death that’s sillier than “normal” and therefore forces the characters into responses that seem irreverent and ill-fitting. But while other series certainly have associated themselves with the same themes, this show is far more casual about the implementation of the storyline, and I think it’s because “irreverent” and “ill-fitting” are words that would describe the series in every single episode. To wit, this isn’t the brilliantly obvious gem you might expect it to be, but rather, it’s a strong outing that works because of its Workplace intentions and its use of character.
10) Episode 75: “Sinking Ship” (Aired: 05/12/98)
The newsradio team is aboard the Titanic during its fateful voyage.
Story by Chris Marcil, Lew Morton, Drake Sather, and Paul Simms | Teleplay by Joe Furey, Brian Kelley, Josh Lieb, and Sam Johnson | Directed by Tom Cherones
There are several other episodes mentioned below that I could have featured on this list in place of “Sinking Ship.” But they’re all far more forgettable, and because this excursion — yes, a gimmick of the most gimmicky order — actually impresses instead of disappoints, it deserves to be singled out as a notable offering from the season. Now, I maintain that last year’s similarly sketch-like May Sweeps stunt, “Space,” was more interesting because of its inherent novelty, but this entry, which parodies the season’s biggest motion picture release (Titanic, of course), maybe offers a more interesting surrealistic blend of character-based moments and concept-driven hijinks. That is, it commits more to both character and story… and as usual, it’s funny, too.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: the last entry in the Andrea Planbee storyline, “French Diplomacy,” which features a couple of funny ideas and makes the boss switch between Dave and Lisa, “Pure Evil,” which has several smart moments (evil Dave is quite memorable) that keep it solid, and “The Secret Of Management,” which has Seinfeld‘s Ian Abercrombie as Bill’s new butler and a few laugh-based charms (despite some empty illogicalities). Also, the plot-driven and overrated “Jumper,” with future regular Jon Lovitz, is worth noting. (And Part I of “Who’s The Boss?” is a de facto Honorable Mention.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of NewsRadio goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!