Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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 now, JON LOVITZ as Max Louis.
The fifth and final season of NewsRadio is not popular, even among the series’ dedicated fan base. The tragic loss of Phil Hartman, one of the show’s most reliable comedic assets, and his Bill, one of the ensemble’s best defined characters, is a handicap of the tallest order. In fact, when folks think of this season today — and even the show at large — Hartman’s murder is one of the first subjects that comes to mind. Why is that? Why can’t we let NewsRadio move beyond this tragedy? Well, without mitigating Bill’s importance to the show — which, I’ll reiterate, was great; he was comedically reliable and well-defined — I think it has less to do with what was taken away and more to do with what was added, and how the series’ innate shortcomings precluded it from ever finding a satisfactory replacement… The year starts well enough though. The premiere highlights Bill’s death with a fitting and necessary tribute. (Indeed, some fans find this to be the season’s best. I disagree; the muted laughs are disqualifying.) But then Max Louis comes along, dragging all of NewsRadio‘s core weaknesses to the forefront. For, you see, while the decision to replace the funny Phil Hartman with the funny Jon Lovitz (one of Hartman’s personal friends, who was welcomed on the show twice before), seems a smart one, it’s up to NewsRadio to justify the new guy’s inclusion. Lovitz already has big shoes to fill, so the only way this could work is if the Max Louis character proves his worth. And therein lies the rub. The lack of great character work afforded to Max — his limited definition, his one-dimensional relationships, his amorphous existence within story — belies the series’ problem: its perennial and never-solved issues with establishing well-defined characters.
In watching the season today, the biggest concern with Lovitz’s inclusion has nothing to do with any perceived disparity between his and his predecessor’s talent, and it really isn’t about the overarching sadness in which NewsRadio wallows following Hartman’s loss either (the show actually does a better job of “moving on” than we do of letting it) — the concern instead is that Bill had so much more personality and was so much more capable of anchoring story than Max. This, more than anything, is a testament to Hartman’s importance, for as we saw, the show used the inherent personas of its funniest players — Hartman, Dick, Foley, and Root, primarily — to supply definition. This was possible in the early days because everyone — both the writers and the audience — were getting to know these characters, and they all began on relatively even ground. That is, there was nothing within the show that could be compared to Bill’s definition and make it seem inferior; on the contrary, his confident comedic moments made others’ definitions look dubious. Now, however, with everyone “set” except for Max, we’re better able to “zero in” on the show’s character skills, and it becomes clear just how difficult it’s always been for NewsRadio to develop well-defined, believable players with firm comedic perspectives and obvious story-motivating possibilities. From this shortcoming-led disparity, the series’ balance is disrupted and everything seems more labored as a result — including the depictions of the other characters (like Dave, who has to take on some of the mania that used to come from Bill and now isn’t being offered by Max) and the application of story, which tries to be more office-based, but comedically needs gimmicks and other non-character distractions in order to maintain the aggrandized flow of humor that’s been used as compensation.
The big issue discussed last week — that character is too often subjugated for the comedic idea — is much worse in Five, and a great example of the trouble resides in the year’s most pronounced arc, in which Lisa falls for the evil Johnny Johnson (Patrick Warburton), who temporarily fills in for Jimmy (when the latter is arrested as D.B. Cooper), and then becomes a wino, marries Lisa, and is carted off to jail. Fans are torn about this storyline and although some oppose it because of their Dave/Lisa loyalties, I think the polarization stems rather from some innate dichotomies. For starters, it’s born from an absurdist story-driven Jimmy James idea that is execution-proof; it’s propelled by plot points, not by character comedy — making the unavoidable narrative leaps less worthwhile. And yet, from this unideal engine comes something thesis-related: like last year’s Andrea Planbee, Johnny Johnson resides in the world of low-concept interoffice dynamics, providing a shake-up that has obvious professional ramifications, but also personal ones as well, supplanting the misbegotten and never-defined Walt (from Season Four) as Lisa’s new love interest. As noted, these romantic developments are seldom satisfying, because NewsRadio never set up its characters to support such storytelling. But it works here, because it’s dealing specifically with how the personal affects the Workplace. Then when Johnny returns months later — no longer evil, but now a hobo living on the street — it’s another Victory In Premise. But thanks to Warburton’s distinct, mineable persona, it seems related to some form of character definition… until the show once again falls back upon the comedic idea, rejecting its self-evident truths in favor of a flashy story: a wedding between Lisa and Johnny, right before he’s arrested. Thus, this workable character ends where he began: amid story-based anti-NewsRadio hyperbole. And because these last developments all unfold so quickly, the gimmickry is heightened — it’s nothing more than conventional sitcom stunting.
It’s almost as if the show had given up (and indeed, the Johnny Johnson arc’s fidelity to both November and February Sweeps seems awfully network-friendly). That wouldn’t be a surprise; Hartman’s death was demoralizing and some of the company even doubted the decision to continue. But another year of episodes guaranteed a future in syndication, and even though Paul Simms had already relinquished the day-to-day writers’ room duties, the renewal by NBC, prior to Hartman’s death, was a gesture of good will. Additionally, after moving the show back to Wednesdays (following 3rd Rock From The Sun) to make way for Encore! Encore!, the network, after a few months, returned NewsRadio to its Tuesday at 8:30 slot, where it remained for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, both 3rd Rock and NewsRadio lost viewers, and the choice was made to keep only one: the newer series that had a slightly better track record. For many at NewsRadio, this seemed merciful — the final year without Hartman was a chore, and once this year pushed them into syndication, there was little incentive to continue. Quality eroded, morale eroded, ratings eroded. And, in fact, the show seemed to be more aware than ever the end was nigh, for this is the only year that narratively offers closure — with the departures of everyone, except Dave and Matthew, for New Hampshire. (Yes, this was designed to suggest a posited relocation, should there be a renewal, but isn’t the conscious desire for a change of setting evidence of a known problem within the status quo?) These last episodes are adequate — more grounded than most — but the spark of rebellion that gave the series its raison d’être is gone. And NewsRadio ends not with a bang, but with a whimper… a disappointing final year for a series that sought to brand itself as the iconically dissident underdog. Truthfully? It was a solid Workplace comedy with a great sense of humor, a strong cast, and an appreciated desire to reject convention. It didn’t play by the rules, and suffered for it — by the network, yet perhaps more so at its own hands — but is remembered triumphantly today for standing out… So, here are ten episodes that I think stand out as this year’s strongest. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
Writers this year included: Paul Simms (Larry Sanders, Girls, Atlanta), Josh Lieb (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), Tom Saunders & Kell Cahoon (Larry Sanders, Just Shoot Me!, Arrested Development), Mark O’Keefe (Politically Incorrect, Jesse, The O’Keefes), Ron Weiner (Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Silicon Valley), and Joe Furey (Michael Richards, Watching Ellie, The Soul Man).
01) Episode 76: “Bill Moves On” (Aired: 09/23/98)
The staff mourns the loss of Bill.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Tom Cherones
There are a lot of complicated emotions in this offering, which naturally has to deal with the devastating death of Phil Hartman. As a whole, it’s a respectful episode in which the actors are allowed to embed their own grief into their performances, for the show decides to have Bill also pass away — and not from anything comedic (or salacious). Accordingly, there’s a somberness to the entry — and, for us, the season — that, as far as sitcoms go, isn’t ever conducive to feel-good fun, no matter how earned or justified it is. I’ve seen some fans praise the show for finding “the funny” in the face of the real-life sadness, but I simply don’t think one can honestly enjoy this one for its humor — especially given NewsRadio‘s standards. Rather, I think it’s worth celebrating because there are some sincere character moments, with the letter sequence being the highlight. It’s a tough start to the season — necessary, yet not fun; somber, yet not false.
02) Episode 79: “Noise” (Aired: 10/21/98)
Dave becomes hooked on Joe’s white noise box.
Written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Directed by Tom Cherones
After the sad premiere, the introduction of Lovitz’s Max, and another entry that sought to flesh out some of his relationships in the Workplace, this (the season’s fourth outing) is the first to really feel like the NewsRadio of yore. Yes, there are still some valiant attempts to develop more of the new guy’s relationships — with Matthew, who rather than being an adoring fan (as with Bill), becomes a “mother” to Max, and with Lisa, with whom Max forms a rivalry in an amusing news radio subplot. But these are not as forceful as the earlier efforts, because it already seems like the show has stopped trying to give him a true definable personality and is instead merely setting one-sentence dynamics for him with the other cast members… Actually, what makes this reminiscent of vintage Workplace NewsRadio is the A-story with Dave and the white noise box, which is (among other things) visually reminiscent of the satellite box from a previous classic.
03) Episode 80: “Flowers For Matthew” (Aired: 10/28/98)
Matthew suddenly becomes smart after a special drink.
Written by Mark O’Keefe & Ron Weiner | Directed by Tom Cherones
My pick for the best episode of the season, this is the kind of show that wouldn’t fare great if it was forced to compete with the MVEs from prior years. However, given the reduced baseline quality of the fifth season, an entry like such — which really is predicated on a one-joke idea — is able to stand out as being the year’s most perfect. (Or, to be more accurate, the year’s least imperfect.) Again, there’s some strain during the Max subplot — the show is still seeking to establish him in relation to Beth, and the easy jokes telegraph that there’s nothing of much substance within his depiction to motivate interest or conflict. But the A-story is so dependent on our understanding of character — Matthew’s — that it’s an appropriate counterbalance. As a result, even though this seems to be a sketch-like premise — the dumb character suddenly, and briefly, becomes smart (“Smatthew”) — because it comes in an era when too few of the ideas truly root their concepts, no matter how broad, schticky, or unbelievable, in character, this one is naturally allowed to represent what a character-based story means for Season Five.
04) Episode 81: “Jail” (Aired: 11/04/98)
Jimmy is arrested in the D.B. Cooper case and appoints a replacement at the office.
Written by Tom Saunders & Kell Cahoon | Directed by Tom Cherones
My thoughts on the D.B. Cooper/Johnny Johnson arc were addressed above, but here I’ll reiterate that the Workplace half of it — with a temporary new villain played by Seinfeld‘s Patrick Warburton — works far better than the high-concept and idea-driven “Jimmy James is D.B. Cooper” notion, which takes the show out of the office and away from its established identity. Interestingly though, this offering, which does the most with the part of the arc that I don’t appreciate, actually may be among the year’s funniest, thanks to a strong teleplay that’s loaded with laughs and keeps them coming fast enough so that the leaps in logic and our distaste for the premise aren’t really allowed to become a focus. I tried to exclude it, but I couldn’t.
05) Episode 83: “Clash Of The Titans” (Aired: 11/24/98)
Jimmy faces off against Johnny for run of the company.
Written by Josh Lieb | Directed by Tom Cherones
Following the middle part of this trilogy — which is another solid (for Season Five) excursion that’s honorably mentioned below — this is the conclusion, which starts with a Victorious Premise in the idea that Adam West is the real D.B. Cooper. (Again, it’s like a sketch…) Fortunately, though, we’re quickly brought back to the office, where the rest of the story is allowed to play out as a legitimate Workplace conflict between Jimmy James and Johnny Johnson, who, by this time, has further stoked Dave’s ire by starting a relationship with Lisa (not unlike the dropped Walt storyline from the previous year). The return to the space where the show works best allows the characters to play more of a role in the storytelling, and with Warburton and Root at the center of the action, it’s a naturally comedic installment.
06) Episode 84: “Boston” (Aired: 12/09/98)
Max brings out Lisa’s old Boston accent; Dave records a message for his high school.
Written by Alan J. Higgins | Directed by Tom Cherones
This isn’t a stellar outing by way of comedy, but it’s a solid low-concept Workplace affair that stands out as memorable because of a one-joke gaggy A-story where Lisa, after speech training with Max, inadvertently reverts back to the old Boston accent that she suppressed decades before. Hearing Maura Tierney affect such a dialect is effortlessly fun and makes the whole episode unforgettable. What I most appreciate, however, is the very small Dave story that runs through the half-hour, as he tries to think up advice that he can deliver to his old high school. This is an excuse to pair him one-on-one with every other ensemble member, giving us some fine character moments that are light and, unlike most of Five, not overly broad.
07) Episode 87: “Apartment” (Aired: 01/12/99)
Dave, Lisa, and Max vie for an apartment.
Story by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Teleplay by Tom Saunders & Kell Cahoon | Directed by Skip Collector
Despite my maintained conviction that the series usually suffers when it leaves the Workplace and, more specifically, brings us into the characters’ personal lives (as opposed to keeping us firmly within the professional realm), I actually consider this one of the best entries of the season. This is somewhat surprising, for the premise is all about the characters fighting over an apartment… a symbol of their home lives, and a place to which we have very rarely ventured (with any of these characters). However, the show wisely knows that if the personal is contextualized within the office, then it’s possible to secure our investment, and that’s the case here, as three of the characters compete for the same space, and in a dovetailing with the subplot, leave the decision to the viewers of the station’s new internet webcam. Well-built.
08) Episode 91: “Wino” (Aired: 02/23/99)
Johnny Johnson returns — but now he’s a wino.
Written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Directed by Tom Cherones
Although I don’t like the wedding storyline with Lisa — because not only is it rushed, but it’s also a personal development that the show has conditioned us to not find appropriate or worthy of investment (due to how NewsRadio defined its characters and established its tone way back in the early days) — I think this amusing Victory in Premise of the rotten Johnny Johnson returning as a “reformed” wino is enjoyable enough, and in-keeping enough with NewsRadio‘s “emphasis on the comedic idea,” that it easily earns a spot here. Also, the teleplay, credited to Johnson and Marcil (who offered some of the finest episodes from the latter half of the series’ run, and then would go onto Frasier following this cancellation), is narrative-elevating.
09) Episode 95: “Freaky Friday” (Aired: 04/20/99)
Jimmy and Matthew switch places for a day.
Story by Brad Copeland | Teleplay by Josh Lieb | Directed by Skip Collector
As with my chosen MVE, “Flowers For Matthew,” this is another excursion that derives much of its merit not by being character-driven, but by founding its conceptually comedic Victory In Premise on our understanding of the characters and how they typically function on the series. In this installment, the show consciously acknowledges the established depictions of Matthew and Jimmy when the two switch places for a day. Again, it’s a storyline that’s designed for easy laughs… but it comes in another strong script that also features working subplots, one where Dave (who, as discussed, has become more manic this season in Hartman’s absence) bans Max from the break room, and another with Beth and her CD club scheme. A latter-day hit.
10) Episode 97: “New Hampshire” (Aired: 05/04/99)
Jimmy tries to get the staff to join him in New Hampshire.
Story by Josh Lieb & Paul Simms | Teleplay by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Directed by Tom Cherones
The series’ final episode was designed to function as either a finale or as the start of a retooling that would move the show to the eponymous New Hampshire, giving NewsRadio a new outside world to color its maintained Workplace structures (and allowing the show to reinforce its Green Acres comparisons — via the “city to country” swap). But this is actually a fine place to end the series, for it’s a small office-based show where every member of the ensemble is given play, as each of the characters decide whether or not they’re going to join Jimmy in New Hampshire. If it weren’t the finale, this would feel like schmuck bait, but the air of finality (even preceding the network’s axe) instills a sense of purpose and elevates the comedy, particularly in the final moments, when Dave is horrified to realize that everyone has left… except Matthew.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: the closest to the above list, “Ploy,” which features a teleplay better than its stories; the aforementioned middle part of the Johnny Johnson arc, “The Lam”; and “Assistant,” which pits Joe and Dave opposite one another for Tiffany Amber Thiessen’s affections. Of more Honorable Mention quality are two polarizing installments that derive humor from outrageous Matthew stories that, in my opinion, are a little too insubstantial to warrant much praise, “Spooky Rapping Crypt” and “Towers.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of NewsRadio goes to…
“Flowers For Matthew”
Come back next week for The Drew Carey Show! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!