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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "Assistant"/"Wino"

Illustration for article titled NewsRadio: "Assistant"/"Wino"
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“Assistant” (season 5 episode 15, original airdate 2/16/99)

“Assistant” is one of the few episodes I remember vividly from watching Season 5 when it originally aired, because of the indelible image of the wood-panelled, leather-padded smoking lounge that Mr. James produces from the lowly men’s room. Rewatching it this week, however — and especially in conjunction with “Wino” — a different image grabs me. Sitcoms (and maybe all television prior to the adoption of widescreen frame shapes) have an essential verticality. People stand, or sit, or even just prop their heads up in bed, and have conversations. One vertical line next to another vertical line. Horizontal energy is provided mostly by movement, like the dashes in, out, and through the frame that NewsRadio performs with such zip.

So when the actors arrange their bodies to produce non-vertical lines — when they do something other than stand or sit up straight — it’s arresting. Diagonality, if I may coin a word, turns out to be featured in both of the episodes this week, but especially in “Assistant,” and it is nothing short of lyrical.

It happens because of luuuuuuuuv. Specifically, Dave’s love for Lisa’s unfortunately- yet accurately-named new assistant Foxy Jackson. They bond over mutual interests (“It’s not often you meet someone who has a passion for tap dancing,” Foxy explains, and Dave hints, “Passion is a curious thing …”) and spend the whole episode leaning in toward each other, tipping themselves off vertical as if magnetically attracted by the skull. In one gorgeous moment, Dave leaves Lisa’s desk after admonishing her to not work Foxy too hard, and fairly dances into his office, ending with a lingering, extravagant lean out the door to get one last look, a move that suspends his entire body almost parallel with the floor. It’s a potent and exuberant visual flourish that emphasizes Dave’s transformation from beleaguered boss into besotted Romeo.

Meanwhile, the new men’s room is all about reclining. Mr. James’s first attempt at fulfilling Max’s request for a couch, like the ladies’ room has, is inadequate because you can’t lay down on it. Throw some construction crews and Corinthian leather at that bad boy, and you have a lounge, in which the guys immediately get busy getting horizontal and sending curlicues of smoke into the air. I love the way they simultaneously slump and scribble while interviewing Beth for potential membership (Mr. James summarizes why he is sponsoring her: “Most of all — she loves — the men’s room, loves it — more than anywhere else in the world”). There’s even a vertical disruption element to the conclusions of both plots: Foxy standing between Dave and Joe asking if she can date both, and Matthew emerging from the stall and announcing, to the horror of the supine club members, that he’s christened the place.

“Wino” (season 5 episode 16, original airdate 2/23/99)

The love diagonal shows up in “Wino,” too, when Lisa reluctantly separates from Johnny Johnson, telling him that her heart is his, simultaneously stretching towards him and backing into Dave’s office. It’s almost a replica of the joyful move Dave performed in the last episode at the office door, but with the difference that Lisa is tearing herself away from Johnny’s spell rather than lingering there. Many commenters have complained that Lisa’s head-over-heels act for the utterly crushed Johnny, now King of the Winos, is out of character, sudden, or otherwise unbelievable. I couldn’t disagree more.  Maybe it’s just that I also would swoon for Patrick Warburton’s vomitus odor, but even those immune to his charms surely can see how this works on Lisa. Being the focus of someone’s laserlike intensity is intoxicating, and Lisa, as a lifelong pleaser, is more susceptible than most; witness how long she strings Stuart along in seasons 1 and 2. Johnny promises 24/7 validation and utterly sincere hot and cold running compliments. Put that inside a broad-shouldered, husky-voiced package, homeless, evil, or otherwise, and Lisa has no chance.

But really, the secret of “Wino” is the magnificence of the Johnny Johnson character. Still utterly without guile, a dedicated straight shooter, Johnny embraces his wino identity with both simplicity and expansiveness. He never stops soliciting spare change (“So, anybody else, quarter?”), combs his hair with a fork (“just puttin’ myself together”), keeps his paperbagged muscatel within arm’s reach, and even after he’s dressed in Mr. James’s improved duds, spends his time in the breakroom perusing the oldest and yellowest piece of tabloid newsprint he can find. Matthew and Joe believe Johnny is pursuing some kind of devious plan with this wino business, citing as evidence the copy of The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People that they find in his pile of depressing belongings, but Johnny disarms them: “In the index to this book, which I found and use as a pillow, is there an entry for fortified wine, drinking of?”

Most tellingly, of course, and nodding to a wonderful recurring NewsRadio plot device, Johnny wins everyone else over so effectively that they turn on Lisa at the end for sending him away. (Max: “Better find yourself a roommate, Lisa, because I don’t know how you can live with yourself!”) Everyone troops down to the subway to say they’re sorry. (Johnny: “Apology accepted.  Got a quarter?”) And Lisa finally stops fighting and takes the reins, proposing with a sly “Marry me, you bum.” Tune in next week to see how deep Johnny Johnson’s cunning schemes and crazy capers go — and whether Dave’s lingering affection for Lisa can overcome her belated appreciation for popular American dance forms.

Grades: “Assistant,” B+; “Wino,” B+

Stray observations:

  • I don’t know a lot about the career or talents of Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, having never watched much Saved By The Bell or any Beverly Hills 90210 or White Collar. But she is really terrific in this episode — just as magnetic in her way as Patrick Warburton is in his. You can see why Dave gets all moon-eyed for her.
  • We had to use the subtitles to find out what Foxy says her real name is, since the line gets stepped on by laughter. It’s Gwathney.
  • An information item for male readers: One does come across the occasional ladies’ room with a couch, sometimes accompanied by a couple of upholstered stools or chairs, and a vanity mirror. I’ve never seen anyone sitting on them, at least no one that wasn't helping a bride get dressed.
  • Jon Lovitz’s finest moment on the show: After Max complains that he isn’t getting an assistant like Lisa, Dave snaps, “You can’t have an assistant and a couch.” Max, with intense drama: “I choose COUCH!”
  • Joe’s wooing of Foxy consists of bringing the copier over beside her to fix it (when she claims to be allergic to toner, he responds: “We have so much in common … Sometimes it makes me sneeze a little”) and spilling a little soda on his shirt in the breakroom so he has to take it off. Shirtless men are hilarious to me, by the way, and the more flagrant they are about disrobing, the funnier it gets. It’s because they should be so embarrassed, but they’re so not. Paradigm example: Gordon Ramsay in the credits to The F Word or in the random changing-into-his-chef’s-jacket scenes he loves to include in any of his shows.
  • Beth gets to enter the men’s room and be sponsored for membership (“I’d throw my weight behind her,” Max opines with an upper-crust insouciance) because she figures out the secret knock — shave and a haircut.
  • Visual comedy at its best: Matthew officiously holding his clipboard between Dave and Foxy while Dave fills out the secret ballot for Beth’s membership, then taking the paper out of his mouth to remind himself what Dave’s vote was before he destroys the evidence.
  • Evidence for the “Lisa is drunk throughout season 5” theory: Dave accuses her, “You’ve been drinking his wine, haven’t you?!” “No!” Lisa protests. “Well, yes, just a little bit.”
  • “Even as I battle stray dogs for scraps of meat in urine-soaked alleys, all I can think about is Lisa Miller.”
  • “It’s a little bit of Paris. Which is somewhere I’ve been. Twice.”
  • “Baby, I’m the king! I’ve got responsibilities!”