Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion of our coverage on Newhart (1982-1990, CBS), which is now available in full on DVD!
An author and his wife run a quaint country inn in Vermont. Newhart stars BOB NEWHART as Dick Loudon, MARY FRANN as Joanna Loudon, TOM POSTON as George Utley, JULIA DUFFY as Stephanie Vanderkellen, and PETER SCOLARI as Michael Harris. With WILLIAM SANDERSON, TONY PAPENFUSS, and JOHN VOLDSTAD as Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
It’s finally time to discuss the finale. Ever since Newhart left the airwaves, much of the discussion – I think too much – surrounding the series has been overshadowed by thoughts on the last episode. Today, the show’s iconic finale is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the series, shaping how many perceive its entire run. For instance, while Newhart’s connection to The Bob Newhart Show was always subliminal given Newhart’s very presence (just as Lucy Ricardo loomed over Ball’s later shows), the grand and memorable association made in “The Last Newhart” has only increased our consciousness of this series’ self-aware, wink-wink-nudge-nudge industry-and-TV-literate motifs, which had prior been used for easy laughs (mostly with Michael at the station) and promotable casting gimmicks (ex: Bill Daily appears this year; Jack Riley made a cameo in Seven) — all to distract from core problems with character and concept. As suggested, I fear this kind of hindsight-induced analysis, which overstates the presence of a certain element (that only fully defines a single episode), may obscure a completely honest look at what actually transpired in the series’ prior 183. Yet, I know it’s unavoidable; we can’t ignore what we already know! And frankly, there’s truth here: the finale does tap into a theme we’ve seen the show casually employ since the introduction of the TV station — a universe-undermining wink, which is a non-character source of comedy used, again, to distract from shortcomings (such as Joanna). In fact, we can pinpoint moments of self-reflexivity, hacky references to The Bob Newhart Show, and stories about the mechanics of television, throughout these last three eras. So, in this regard, Newhart’s finale took one single tool – a source for comedic distraction – and used it to mold a memorable conclusion, in which Bob wakes up on The Bob Newhart Show‘s bedroom set next to Suzanne Pleshette as Emily, thus forever cementing Newhart’s reputation for self-awareness: indeed long-present but never as pronounced.
But while there’s ample evidence to support a narrative regarding the show’s history of casual (and perhaps situational) pre-finale metatheatricality, I’m less convinced that the last episode reinforces the series’ supposed bent towards surrealism. (From my research, the world “surreal” wasn’t commonly used to describe Newhart until the final episode.) I’ve already spent several weeks opining that such a label serves merely as a convenient excuse for loyal fans who need to justify staying connected during moments in which illogical stories or unbelievable characterizations fail to live up to the MTM standard (which Newhart, through its star and ensemble construction, always told us was important), making us want to emotionally divest. Now, I don’t dispute that the series, as it’s progressed, has become less logic-beholden — and not completely without intention; that is, this drift hasn’t been solely accidental, for the show’s focus has generally always been big comedy (again, as a necessary diversion). However, I don’t believe Newhart ever prioritized the surreal over the real, or even let this ridiculousness get so out-of-hand that it deserved to define the series. No, the show isn’t, to my mind, ever enveloped by absurdity, but rather by its dubious relationship with logic — a byproduct of wild broadening, which many would rather call something more artful. (See Season Five’s list for more.) To wit, I don’t think we’re supposed to doubt the universe’s veracity until the finale’s final scene; if we were, it wouldn’t have packed a punch, right? Furthermore, I don’t think at any time before the start of the last episode, in which the show is conclusively aware of how it’s closing, that Newhart’s universe was meant to be perceived as anything but “real” – with the heightened players and self-reflexive gags standing as comedic outliers meant to keep us from considering a disconnection from actual illogicalities – i.e. “hey, look at this shiny object.”
There’s room for debate though, for it’s still unclear when the writers knew how the last episode would end. It wasn’t until December 1989 that Newhart’s imminent departure went public, yet it’s possible that the dream angle even pre-dated, not just the writing of the episode, but this official announcement. Although Newhart’s wife is often said to have come up with the idea (maybe as early as Season Two), I’ve seen several writers give credit to Dan O’Shannon, who was only on staff during Season Seven, and perhaps pitched it to that final era’s showrunners, Mark Egan and Mark Solomon, who co-wrote the finale with Bob Bendetson. But, again, even if the scribes guiding the course of these final years had this notion in the back of their heads while writing believability-wanting scripts, the no-holds-barred finale amplifies this bizarreness so ostentatiously, even in comparison, that if there wasn’t some kind of dream or hallucinogenic-inspired explanation, I’d be decrying the entry for being dreadfully illogical and despicably gimmicky… which, incidentally, is how I already describe Season Eight at large. It’s precisely for that troubling reason that I understand why someone would desire to call Newhart, especially in this period, surreal, as this would explain away these growing failures. And let’s not mince words: there are quite a few stinkers here in Eight – including many of the episodes focused on Stephanie and Michael. Outings like “Child In Charge” are so difficult to believe that we pray the show is intentionally absurd, coherent enough to know this isn’t acceptable in the universe Newhart has created. But to believe the show is doing this for the finale, I’d still need to be convinced, again, that it isn’t just objective-driven broadening — the kind that’s been plaguing the series since Wilcox’s era – regardless of a button that ascribes the whole run as being a dream: a deus ex machina (for every failure, especially). And that case isn’t effectively made. Sure, Season Eight has more unbelievable episodes than any other year, but is that the writers playing to a known ending? Or just a sign of comedic decay, continuing what we saw last week?
You know how I’d answer that question… However, if Season Eight isn’t great, there are two elements that make this year unique and worth discussing. The first involves something mentioned last time – the reliability of the townsfolk in picking up slack made from the show-dragging Stephanie and Michael, along with the never-defined Joanna (sorry to say, there’s still nothing in place for her by the end). While Season Seven commendably turned outward to find comedy not being delivered by its regular cast, this year does it more aggressively – and successfully – by utilizing the kooky but truth-filled peripheral players for charactery stories and laughs. Among this crew is Miss Goddard (Kathy Kinney), who was introduced last year but really takes off in Season Eight, as the year develops for her a persona as a horny librarian, granting her license to enliven all six of her episodes. (She’s also, interestingly, the first recurring female townsperson, aside from Kirk’s plot-device-of-a-wife.) The second element that makes this year unique is the writing staff. If last year’s crew moved us further away from scripts that ably reflected MTM-learned tenets, then Season Eight’s crew, made up of writers who joined Newhart somewhere in its final era (and had no prior experience on a 1970s MTM sitcom), really struggles on this front. Aside from showrunners Egan and Solomon, only the Bendetson brothers carried over from Seven. The new scribes included Nell Scovell (Coach, Murphy Brown), Brad Isaacs (Roseanne, NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show), Ellen Herman (Doogie Howser) & Michele Gendelman, and Bill Fuller & Jim Pond (Night Court, Living Single). Some of these folks are great with laughs, but the collective group’s lack of an established understanding of these characters, which took others years to build, is obvious. They go through the motions, but gimmicks are easier. And that’s proven by the year and its base level of quality…
So, while my thoughts on the season should now be clear, I still have some things to note regarding the finale. Frankly, there’s no way to get around the fact that it’s a gimmick only partially rooted in the series’ identity (the aforementioned self-awareness). And yet, I consider the final scene, the crux of the finale, brilliant. The critics were right: it’s an unforgettable, creative, and deserved moment of TV lore, providing closure to Newhart while connecting two separate, beloved series together…. But was it a good idea? I don’t know. It inspires many questions, like does its choice to make all eight seasons of Newhart a dream indicate disrespect to the viewers who had chosen to connect (à la MTM’s St. Elsewhere)? I have mixed feelings here, calmed only by the belief that because Newhart is set in the head of a character on The Bob Newhart Show, the “reality” that the finale claims is one to which the audience has already connected (ideally, that is – this was part of the risk in harkening back to a show that hadn’t produced an original episode in 12 years) – so we’re also accustomed to Newhart‘s new world, and can remain both “in” on the joke and emotionally invested in the returning characters. In fact, one might say – and if I did, it’d support my thesis – that the finale illustrates Newhart’s desire to “wake up” from a troubled series that never lived up to its potential or its brand and return to a better embodiment of the character-driven MTM sitcom: The Bob Newhart Show. I’m not going to do that though, for while it looks like Newhart is showing favor to his prior sitcom, I don’t think this is anything more than what everything else with this series has been: a broad jokey distraction. Yes, ascribing all of Newhart as a dream could conveniently free it from its sins (which must have seemed like an attractive notion), but the show’s history simply suggests the continuation of a pattern: this is but a memorable gimmick from a show that was good sometimes and not-so-good in others. No grand statement here, just a gag.
Nevertheless, the gag’s sheer creativity has elevated the popular perception of the episode as a whole (which would be horrendous without the closing scene — but I forgive all in this case, because we know the script was written to play to the ending; it’s the only one that absolutely was). It’s also influenced our sentiments surrounding these last few years (with some claiming “surrealism” to exonerate the stupidity), and even of the show itself, making Newhart seem more in control of its arc than it was. You see, in taking this last “dream” risk, Newhart got the biggest reward it could ever hope to find: it got to alter its reputation. For the last scene’s boldness, the finale is the moment that, (again) rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), will always be considered Bob Newhart’s comedic apex — his smartest bit. As mentioned above, I, too, consider it remarkable and unforgettable — a sign of the cultural power of television: that a series could today be so loved primarily because of its connection to another beloved series. And while I refuse to be someone who lets the final episode serve as an explanation for the foolishness that occurs in any of the prior eight years’ other 183 offerings, I recognize the way it indeed reflects a key part of the show’s identity: specifically, its self-reflexivity, which as is true here, had always been used for comedic purposes — a great big laugh, a singular stunning joke. You see, in the absence of 100% MTM-proof characters, Newhart constantly had to look elsewhere. This finale did the same: it looked to The Bob Newhart Show — not by preference, but by impulse. Thus, the finale is true to the series after all… Well, this concludes my commentary on Newhart; I know I’ve been harsh, but I hope I’ve been fair, or at least helpful. As always, I’m ruthless when searching for the best, and I think that was evident here. So, for one more time with Newhart, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 163: “Poetry And Pastries” (Aired: 10/02/89)
Dick is tapped to judge the annual Poetry and Pastries contest.
Written by Michele Gendelman & Ellen Herman | Directed by Michael Lessac
One of several entries this year that finds its A-plot through the utilization of the townsfolk (and by relegating Michael and Stephanie, off in their trite “we’re having a baby now” storyline, to the subplot — generally a good decision), I look to this outing and the following for really cementing the characterization afforded to Kathy Kinney’s Miss Goddard, the lustful librarian who perks up every scene with her energy (just as she did on The Drew Carey Show). The story, meanwhile, attempts to find a place for Joanna, who argues with Dick and enters the contest. As usual, there’s nothing suggested for her beyond the episodic story, but at least the show can use her sometimes and not disappoint. So, ’tis a grounded, truth-based, more MTM-esque outing.
02) Episode 164: “Utley Exposed” (Aired: 10/16/89)
George accidentally confesses to a childhood prank on television.
Written by Howard Bendetson | Directed by Dick Martin
As with the above, this is a terrific showcase for the townspeople (as it usually is once we go to a town meeting), but this time it’s centered around George, who accidentally reveals his identity while confessing to a childhood prank in an anonymous “Hidden Shame” episode of Dick’s program. This leads to an explosive town hall meeting with all sorts of confessions, including from Miss Goddard, who’s had her fair share of married and unmarried lovers (reinforcing the persona we saw in the prior installment). Meanwhile, there’s more of all the townsfolk we love — Chester, Jim, Officer Shifflett — who, contrary to popular belief, supply the realism lacking from the portrayals of a few regulars (read: the overly broad Stephanie and Michael).
03) Episode 167: “Good Lord Loudon” (Aired: 11/20/89)
The townspeople clamor for Dick’s attention when he’s made a royal Lord.
Written by Brad Isaacs | Directed by Stephen C. Grossman
Although I don’t consider this one of the year’s most hilarious excursions (especially because in this heightened final era, the series’ anticipated laugh-finding capabilities are even grander than they were during the show’s better seasons), the state of Season Eight necessitated putting it on the list. First, while the idea of a cash-poor dignitary bequeathing Dick with the title of Lord isn’t something to which the average viewer can relate (and it smacks of sitcom contrivance), it doesn’t require the kind of leaps that other stories this year do. And furthermore, it doesn’t ask that we stretch our perspectives on any of the characters, especially in the ensemble, all of whom react with wonder to Dick’s new title. Thus: a solid episode from a relatively unsolid year.
04) Episode 170: “I Like You, Butt…” (Aired: 12/18/89)
George meets a woman with a large rear end.
Written by Renee Phillips & Carrie Honigblum | Directed by David Steinberg
I’ve seen a few fans cite this offering, by a pair whose only contribution is this teleplay, as one of the worst from Newhart‘s entire run — chiefly because it’s situated on one singular broad joke: the fact that George dates a woman with a big butt. Obviously, I disagree with the critics, for while I do concur that the episode essentially predicates its narrative on a single joke, I think this entry’s merit exists in the characters’ reactions to her superior posterior (particularly George and Dick, who share a hilarious scene — easy laughs notwithstanding) — none of which are incongruous to what we know of their personalities. So, while I do think it’s a gag that isn’t necessarily of the MTM class, the big laughs and lack of character-based leaps make it a hit.
05) Episode 172: “Lights, Camera, Contractions!” (Aired: 01/08/90)
Michael wants to turn Stephanie’s delivery into a production.
Written by Mark Egan & Mark Solomon & Bob Bendetson | Directed by Michael Lessac
To be completely honest, I’m including this episode over the Honorable Mentions listed below because it makes for the most discussion (basically, it’s the most memorable). Yes, this is the narratively functional outing in which Stephanie has her baby — common fodder for the sitcom that often revels in its own story-based bigness, proclaiming reality but never delivering it, and having to shoehorn character moments (if we’re lucky) alongside the plot-driven high-energy hijinks. To this outing’s credit, because it’s forced to adhere to a certain predictable structure, there’s not as much room to take Stephanie and Michael to the un-connectable places seen elsewhere in Eight. (It could have been a lot worse.) And, for discussion purposes, because the final montage is filled with CBS stars, it embodies Newhart‘s TV-based wink.
06) Episode 176: “Seein’ Double” (Aired: 02/19/90)
Michael produces a sitcom with Stephanie as the lead.
Written by Bob Bendetson | Directed by Dick Martin
This popular entry is ridiculous — it’s a big gimmick that places its centerpiece away from the usual sets and finds its value not in the characters, but in the spoof it offers of network situation comedies. (In the internet age, these are a dime a dozen — on second-rate sketch shows and exclusively online sources.) It’s not a great representation of Newhart. But it is unforgettable (Don Knotts makes a cameo), and it is a sharp lampoon of the domestic family fare seen in network “comedies” of the early ’90s, as Stephanie plays a pair of identical twins. Yes, it’s all broad and strange, but because it’s structured as a new sitcom Michael is producing, it’s not surreal; the script contrives a clear-cut scenario that can support this TV satire.
07) Episode 177: “Born To Be Mild” (Aired: 02/26/90)
Dick joins George’s old gang before they face off against a rival group.
Written by Bob Bendetson & Howard Bendetson | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Despite the fact that I think one of the entries highlighted below (hint: the series finale) is the season’s most valuable — for reasons that can already be intuited — I consider this the year’s most favorable representation. I find it the most consistently amusing and character-concerned of the season’s output, and also think it’s the most positive showcase of how the year was still aiming to connect with its MTM-based constructs, in spite of mounting broadness and an increase in the show’s need for bigger laughs (which, because of the tool to get there — the broadness — didn’t always work). To that point, this Dick-and-George show, which expands to include the other regular and peripheral males, is a little bolder in its comedy than an episode from, say, Season Three. But these laughs actually land, and they don’t come at the expense of the players — which is a primary concern on any series (especially an MTM one).
08) Episode 179: “Georgie And Grace” (Aired: 03/19/90)
George considers entering the priesthood.
Written by Jim Pond & Bill Fuller | Directed by Peter Scolari
Kathy Kinney’s Miss Goddard is perhaps the main reason that this entry makes the list, for her attempts to seduce the gaggle of vacationing priests are simply laugh-out-loud funny (to wit: after learning they’re men of the cloth, she retorts that she’s “a woman of the sheets”), as is her attempt to romance George, who is considering joining the priesthood. Okay, this is another plot that seems more of the sitcom world than our own — a 24-minute tenuously motivated “maybe I’ll change my life” story — but the teleplay by Pond and Fuller is so comedic that it manages to justify, through laughs, why we should invest in this clearly episodic conceit. And, as usual, the humanity supplied by Poston’s George does a lot of the heavy-lifting, too. It works.
09) Episode 181: “Dick And Tim” (Aired: 04/30/90)
The men play poker with Tim Conway while the women celebrate Miss Goddard’s birthday.
Written by Bob Bendetson | Directed by Michael Lessac
You know, I debated about whether or not I should include this entry on my list. As with last season’s episode written especially for Don Rickles, this outing finds a reason (but a less perfect one, mind you) to incorporate Newhart’s real-life friend, Tim Conway, another legendary funnyman. He’s not as ably served by this script as Rickles was in his, but aside from the excuse to put him with the regular male cast, the teleplay actually eschews most comedic gimmicks in favor of a more routine make-Dick-uncomfortable story. Truthfully though, a lot of this excursion’s worth comes in the complementary plot in which Joanna and Stephanie throw a party for Miss Goddard, which devolves into them watching her make out with a mechanic.
10) Episode 184: “The Last Newhart” (Aired: 05/21/90)
A Japanese investor buys the town and turns it into a golf course.
Written by Mark Egan & Mark Solomon & Bob Bendetson | Directed by Dick Martin
If you haven’t already, please read the seasonal commentary for more about my thoughts on this episode. Here, I’ll just reiterate that if not for the final dream revelation (thoughts on which are more abundant above), this would be one of the show’s worst. Not only does it insult common sense and the established rules of the universe — much more than any episode prior EVER did — but it also exists as a narrative-driven, big development finale (people leave, time passes, the Darryls speak). I typically hate this kind of ending, preferring a more quiet, character-driven affair. (Sadly, it isn’t until the final scene, the Bob and Emily gag, that we’re really treated to a good character moment… and even that’s a gimmick.) Nevertheless, because we know of the dream angle, the episode’s sins become excused, for in this one instance, we conclusively know the writers were aware of the illogicalities. As a result, we can revel in the foolishness, for the first and only time (as, again, I am not like the many who let the finale explain more than itself). And since the final gag is indelible — clever and iconic — I couldn’t not feature it (and as MVE).
Other episodes that merit mention here include: “Ramblin’ Michael Harris,” merely an excuse to get Michael to perform a tragically bad lounge act (and Newhart to sing a cappella), “Jumpin’ George,” which comes the closest to predicting the finale (almost highlightable), “Good Neighbor Sam,” which uses the winking appearance of Bill Daily (from Newhart’s prior sitcom) to launch an otherwise decent story about the townsfolk fighting over who’s Dick’s best friend (if only it were funnier and didn’t need the casting gimmick!), and “Handymania,” a solid George episode that plays to the herd mentality of the townsfolk.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Newhart goes to…..
“The Last Newhart”
Come back next Tuesday for the start of Wings! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!