Conventions sometimes frustrate me to the point of physical distress. I'm not opposed to conventionality, not in the slightest; without an understanding of what is supposed to happen in a given art form or genre, we can't evaluate a work or enjoy having our expectations either met or toyed with. But frequently I find myself in the painful situation of caring so much about the characters that I want them to break free of the conventions that limit them to certain prescribed actions and outcomes. When they don't — because they can't — I feel so bad for them that it hurts.
The paradigm case of this affliction is Beth's performance of "Makin' Whoopee" in "Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show." I want Beth to be able to finish that song and enjoy her moment in the spotlight. I want it so bad I can taste it. But Bill is always there to spoil it by jumping in tunelessly, sure that she (like him) suffers from paralyzing stage fright and is just about to "freeze up." No matter how many times I watch, Beth never gets to finish that song. Comic convention dictates that she not be allowed to showcase her talent, no matter how much the character deserves a triumph. And I've been suffering because of it for the last decade.
Surely this is a measure of how successful NewsRadio is at developing characters that I root for so wholeheartedly. But that success comes wrapped in a paradox. This isn't a show that's supposed to pull at your heartstrings. The characters are occasions for comedy — wacky, anarchic comedy at that. Their success at achieving life goals and fulfillment is on the other side of the universe from the point of their existence. If you care too much, you're going to end up as frustrated as I. Something about their struggles, though, breaks through that construct and defies that convention. And I'd call that thing that breaking-through thing "talent." I want them to succeed for the same reason I want the villain captured and brought to justice, for the same reason I want Russell to get voted out at a Tribal Council one of these days: because they deserve it. They're so good at what they do — here I'm blatantly conflating the talent of the actors with that of their characters, unable to help myself — that I want them to experience the applause and the rewards. What a cruel joke that their talent for comedy has locked them into the one conventional structure that will systematically deny them that talent's just deserts!
So I appreciate the two subtle counterexamples that this week's episodes provide simultaneously with that paradigm. Here we find characters achieving mastery that is invisible to crucial segments of the assembled company; we root for them to recognize it. In "Catherine Moves On," the WNYX crew is so used to having their endeavors undermined by their co-workers (as they see it) that they all assume Catherine is leaving because of something one of them did. After her surprise announcement at an impromptu staff meeting (punctuated by one of the most poignant exit-quickly-stage-left maneuvers the show ever produced), Jimmy listens as his other employees recount their varying versions of the morning's events Rashomon-style. Dave was too distracted by Bill's various noises — crunching cereal, tapping his fingers — to hear Catherine's explanation. Joe believes his unrelenting inappropriate advances finally drove Catherine away. ("Sexual harassment is no joke, sweet cans.") Bill, on the other hand, fantasizes that Catherine's desire for him finally drove her mad: "The fact that she couldn't have me made her quite simply insane with what the great poets have called manimal lust." Lisa thinks that her inability to handle the work piling up in her office rendered her powerless to solve Catherine's problems, whatever they were. Matthew thinks that a cartoony robber snuck into the office and made him drop the coffeepot, and also that he and Bill had a talk while riding a raft down a stage version of the Mississippi that turns out to have nothing to do with Catherine.
"Catherine Moves On" has got to be one of the least sentimental and best-conceived character-farewell episodes ever. The conflicting stories get increasingly disconnected from reality (culminating in Bill playing the banjo on that raft with cardboard waves moving back and forth in front of him), almost every member of the cast is used well, and Jimmy's combined version of their accounts is one of the funniest fifteen seconds of the whole season (as Catherine and Bill go at it, Dave covers his ears and bangs his head on his desk while Lisa walks behind them throwing paper in the air and yells "I can't handle this job!", the robber smashes carafes in the foreground, and Matthew in Tom Sawyer get-up announces "Bill! I'm fixin' for another homoerotic adventure on the Big Muddy!"). Catherine's revenge for all of Joe's sexual advances has her leaving on a cruel, triumphant note that is just a bit much for me. But then, I wouldn't have minded seeing the two of them have a tender moment, given that Joe's cluelessness to Catherine's signals meant he had no chance of success until now. And blaming Joe and Bill for their objectifying of Catherine seems a tad unfair; her décolletage in this episode is a slam-dunk sexual harassment claim all by itself.
While the WNYX staff could not fathom that Catherine might be trading up to enjoy the fruits of her competence rather than quitting in disgust, Dave in "Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show" can't fathom that his heretofore secret life as Throwgali, master of the throwing knife, won't become just another reason for everyone to make fun of him. As he demonstrates his prowess — "And even though the light switch is over 15 feet away, I should have no problem in … And even though the room is now partially darkened, it should be a simple matter to …" — Foley infuses the theatrical patter with defensive world-weariness. "Let the merciless mockery commence," he concludes. But not only are his co-workers glad they have a shoo-in to win the talent show, help Jimmy prevail in his bet ("how much is a 10-spot? Oh … I thought it was a lot more"), and get Matthew his job back, they're also legitimately impressed. Dave is so focused on his own long-nurtured inferiority complex and coping strategy of blaming it on everyone else, though, that he can't see that he has their respect.
It's heartwarming when Lisa demonstrates her confidence in Dave by agreeing to be his assistant when no one else will ("except Matthew, and he likes to improvise"). It's heartbreaking when Dave loses his nerve because Throwdini shows up and revives the specter of "that incident in Grand Rapids." The door through which Dave could walk to success closes as Lisa lights a cigarette for their final rehearsal, Throwgali's knife breaks a mirror several feet away, and Dave ducks out of the frame to the right with his back to us. Then suddenly, another chance for a character to succeed swoops in from nowhere: Matthew and his ventriloquist dummy, who participated in competitions back in the day. Can Spaz rid himself of that label once and for all? Nope. In a performance reminiscent of Albert Brooks' inept ventriloquist bit, Matthew utterly fails to throw his voice, laughs desperately at the dummy's non-existent reactions, and finally walks off-stage to thunderous applause for his honesty. "I didn't want to win on a pity vote, that's how I win everything," he complains, back at his desk in the WNYX newsroom. The comic convention that characters are not allowed to succeed — that they must be thwarted in order to remain figures of fun — has doubled back on us twice over. Dave can't believe in his own success, and Matthew apparently succeeds all the time by failing. Now if I can just get a clip of Beth making it all the way through her song without Bill interposing "something, something!", I'll be able to die happy.
- We haven't talked about Season 4's constantly changing opening credit sequences, which give the show an opportunity to pay homage to the departing Khandi Alexander through a montage of Catherine moments — mostly slaps. A lot of slaps.
- Joe's particular brand of street-smart dimness is at its best in "Catherine Moves On": the giant cassette tape recorder he keeps tucked into his waistband, his flinch every time it plays back the sound of a slap, his tone-deafness to even the most direct proposal ("Meet you for what?" he asks Catherine after being invited up to her apartment) his belief that he's at the center of the WNYX universe: "I think my shoebox full of Krugerrands is common knowledge. … Didn't I tell you about that?"
- My favorite of the versions of Catherine's last day is Lisa's. In her world, people are constantly parading through her office dumping armloads of paper on her desk, her phone never stops ringing, and Dave is both vengeful ("I wanted to remind you that I hate you and I'm telling everyone what you're like in bed") and casually competent at the tasks that befuddle her ("I'll do that for you! There, there, there … done!").
- "Super Holiday Charity Talent Show" is a highlight episode in a season full of highlights, what with Matthew's serenade for the lighting of the WNYX Christmas tree in the cold open ("I'm really going to belt this out since I'm at a pay phone!"), the parade of staff non-talents (including Joe's immortal "I can hit anything really hard and I don't hurt my hand"), Kevin McDonald's brief guest appearance as Throwdini ("your wit is as sharp as your knives, sir!"), and Beth and Bill's abortive song that, even though it hurts me in my heart, is fall-down funny ("I'll take it from here, you just do a little dance or something").
- Jimmy vetoes Dave's offer to "dust off the old tap shoes one more time" ("fruity acts don't go over so good"), and Bill expresses mock disappointment: "sad news to all of us who enjoy watching a grown man prance about in a straw boater."
- Accomplishments Dave is loath to expose to the mockery of his co-workers: He can tap dance at a semi-professional level, he won the gold meal three years running for best preserves at the 4H Club, and he played Danny Zuko in a high school production of Grease (maybe). Joe strikes back after Dave denigrates his hitting-things talent: "That really hurts coming from a tap-dancing jelly-maker who may or may not have been a high school thespian."
- Dave's casual use of knife-throwing jargon is a delightful touch: "In the hands of an expert, live targeting is safer than driving a car!"
- Throwdini's assistant is named Throwdetta.
- Lisa's proposed talent, performing complex mathematical calculations proposed by the audience without mechanical assistance of any kind, is rejected by Jimmy because it isn't exciting enough without nudity. But it would be exciting enough with nudity, as proven by the appearance of Petrushka, the Fan-Dancing Mathematician at the show.
- "This was like my one chance at getting hired back, which now that I think about it doesn't really make any sense at all."
- "How do I make this clear to you? Throwdini!"