In nearly all sitcoms set in the workplace, the characters’ actual work tends to fade into the background as the show goes on. NewsRadio is no exception. It’s not radio we’re interested in, after all, and it’s certainly not news. It’s the people and how they interact. Workplace sitcoms inevitably become family sitcoms.
And yet, although the co-workers form an alternative family, they’re not a real family. People are in danger of getting fired. There are co-workers who can suddenly appear and lay claim to membership. And a job needs to get done, if the writers care to insist upon it. Those tensions are the subject of both of this week’s episodes (although it must be noted that they build on groundwork that started with the Planbee arc). In “Chock,” Dave is suddenly faced with another family’s claim on him, and never really explains why he rejects it. “Who’s the Boss?” abruptly foregrounds the workplace once again and asks what keeps this ensemble functioning and what competencies it really possesses — questioning all the while whether any of that news radio stuff even matters.
I considered trying to rearrange the order of these recaps in order to avoid breaking up “Who’s the Boss?” and “Who’s the Boss? Part II,” but it turns out sticking to the original order despite the disruption of the two-parter was the right thing to do. Even more than the implicit challenge posed by the passion of three quarters of Chock Full O’Notes for their craft — well, one quarter — Lisa’s subplot where she makes Matthew cry leads directly into the heart of the matter that will be explored in “Who’s the Boss?” She’s fed up with Matthew’s divaesque insistence on having his own way in the office by writing protest songs and playing computer solitaire all day (“w-w-w-w-wait, king of spades, king of spaaades …” he interrupts as she tries to give him instructions), and after failing to shame him by reminding him that they all stuck their necks out to get his job back, she yells at him. The conflict between her role as the ensemble’s mom — responsible but nurturing, if a little cuckoo — and her role as boss who needs to get some tapes cataloged, sends her into a tailspin. She even infects Beth and Mr. James by pointing out how annoying Matthew’s incompetence is. (In the best moment of this little B-story, Lisa turns to Beth to reassure Matthew that Beth doesn’t think he’s an idiot, and looks back to find that he’s wandered away into the booth leaving the box of tapes on a table, having forgotten all about her directive to take them to her office. A few beats later, he has to ask where the box is.) Then she discovers that at quitting time, everyone suspends their quarrels like Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf when the whistle blows. “Whatever problems you have, just leave ‘em at work,” Mr. James advises brightly, reversing the running gag wherein everyone has assumed that Lisa is yelling at Matthew because she’s having problems at home. Her befuddlement stems from the inconsistent conflation of work and family that dictates, on the one hand, that she not demand that Matthew do any work, since his status in the office has nothing to do with his productivity, just as in a family members aren’t demoted or kicked out for not contributing. On the other hand and at the same time, people keep insisting to her that she is the source of the confusion by bringing family stress to the job. And they’re able to punch out of the job-related stress as soon as the whistle blows.
The main “Chock” plot also teases a theme that becomes explicit in “Boss.” David, Brian, and Bob, the members of Dave’s college singing group Chock Full O’Notes, show up in the office on Dave’s 32nd birthday to collect on a pact they made at Denny’s after their final performance at BadgerJam '88: If they remained unmarried at 32, they would reunite and make a go of it in the music business. David has quit his comic-book store job and moved out of his parents’ garage (“My parents got a second car, so I’m essentially homeless … unless they park at an angle”), Brian broke off his engagement (“She was a good woman too … loved a capella singing”), and Bob was fired from his law firm for singing too much. Only Dave refuses to consider throwing away his career to, as David puts it, “storm the pop charts with a style of music that most Americans find extremely gay, or in some other way distasteful.” And instead of asking himself why, he tries to show his old friends that their decisions were based on an inappropriate sense of obligation to their buddies rather than “one part dream, one part sound business decision.” Not for nothing was the pact premised on their failure to establish families. David, Brian, and Bob clung to Chock as the job that would give them a family. Dave? Well, he already has a family … at his job. A family/job that he never considers leaving for the one he’d (somewhat shamefully) forgotten about.
The final joke in “Chock” is, of course, that the group is no good at singing. And that’s the thread that is expanded upon in “Who’s the Boss?” What are these characters good at? Do their talents and passions really intersect harmoniously in the world of AM radio? When Lisa reaches the end of her rope dealing with Bill, who refuses to submit Real Deal scripts to Lisa for approval (despite the fact that “when you decide to improvise your editorial it turns into a rambling discourse on the inadequacies of random objects in the broadcast booth”), she and Dave pull Mom and Dad on him, reversing roles with him to teach him a lesson about how hard it is to do their jobs. Much like his natural way with children demonstrated in “Look Who’s Talking,” Bill at first appears to have finally landed in the role that he was born to play; he motivates Beth and Matthew to do actual work, producing a sense of fulfillment they’ve never had in their jobs before, and takes charge of a breaking news story with an encyclopedic knowledge of the station’s resources. (“Tell her it’s a favor for Billy M.,” he directs Beth to call an aide in the mayor’s office, then sends Dave to find a tape of an old story in the storeroom “right at the bottom in a box mislabeled ‘1992 Sports Promos.’”)
But it’s all bullshit. Bill made Beth and Matthew feel needed, but the work he gave them was actually unnecessary. The big bomb threat story was pure invention. “Being a good boss requires more than making up fake work for people to do,” Dave tells him. “Don’t you have a value analysis report to type up?” Bill responds, dismissing the fictitious nature of this assignment with “whatever it is, I want it on my piano by the end of the day.” Yet although Dave and Lisa's scheme backfires, Lisa learns something about herself — she loves being on air delivering editorials calling for sweeping borough charter reforms and giving people the straight dope about unincorporated business tax. (When the cart plays her “Real Deal With Lisa Miller” jingle, she beams with pride.) And Bill’s talent for spinning gold out of straw with his authoritative manner and deep, businesslike voice doesn’t belong anywhere other than the booth.
The question, though, is whether any of those talents actually corresponds with what the station — or its listeners — need. Lisa’s zeal for city council budget meetings isn’t going to raise their Arbitron ratings. Bill is a star, but his irresponsibility toward the public always disturbs those with more scruples, like his bosses. Who is actually both good at his job and eager to do it? Joe, who spends the episode on strike against Jimmy James Incorporated in solidarity with his brothers at the International Retrofitters Local 238. Jimmy spends the half hour trying to get him to crack by deliberately breaking things around the office. And Joe can’t stand it; he knows his homemade duct tape is the only thing holding the operation together, and he wants nothing more than to fix everything. It’s the perfect union of competency and position.
For everyone else, dreams, passions, talents, and mundane chores remain frustratingly incongruent. The family is going to have to come to some arrangement that fits everyone in and doesn’t burn the house down. And the first question that needs to be answered is who’s going to wear the pants, Dave or Lisa. As Part I of “Who’s the Boss?” closes, a flipped coin fails to provide the answer. Silly to think it would, really. Jobs might be arbitrary, but a family is something you can’t bargain your way out of.
- For all its broad comic premise and shouting from Bob Odenkirk, “Chock” is most notable for its tiny moments of physical comedy: Dave making the slightest gesture and step to punctuate David Cross’s broad “Chock Full O’Notes!” overture to Bill; Lisa leaning into Joe one extra time after he refuses her offer of a piece of her (“I always knew she’d ask me that someday; I just didn’t think it would be in that tone”).
- Chock is not a barbershop quartet, despite their choice of striped jackets and straw hats. “It’s a bastardization of the form; it’s an entirely sagacious format of music,” according to Bob.
- Microphones: Why Do They Have To Be So Close To Your Face?
- Bill turns Dave’s “She’s not a little lady” defense of Lisa into an accusation that Lisa is overweight. “It wasn’t so much the ‘little’ part as the ‘lady,’” Dave explains. “So you think I’m manly?” she shoots back. And in classic Dave Nelson fashion: “Yes, I think you’re a big fat man.” Later Bill deliberately misinterprets everything Dave and Lisa say as a description of their sex lives, then, as boss, demands with a theatrical flourish, “Sex people exeunt!”
- Dave spits out two terrific lists in quick succession: descriptions of how central Bill is to the boss role (Bill-intensive, Bill-centric, Bill-acious, Billesque) and things Bill may have done to send Lisa over the edge (piano in the break room, hammock in the booth, hidden camera in the ladies’ room). The excuse for the last one was that Matthew was using the ladies’ room by accident. “Was he?” Lisa asks. “Yes,” Dave deflatedly admits.
- Two great sound gags in “Who’s the Boss?”: The microwave dinging after Jimmy sets an unopened can of soup inside and leaves Joe being showered with water from the broken sink; Bill retiring to his office to think about Dave’s treachery and striking dramatic Beethoven chords on the piano off-camera.
- “There comes a time in every friendship where you have to say: I never liked you, get lost.”
- “They’ve blown their whole lives to pursue this stupid-ass dream!”