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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "French Diplomacy" and "Pure Evil"

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If you like Dave Foley reacting to things, have I got two episodes for you.  While both "French Diplomacy" and "Pure Evil" suffer somewhat from scattering their storylines around the consequences of the ongoing Planbee situation, they find themselves when they linger on Dave.  He tries to act — he really does.  He believes that's what Andrea is looking for: a boss who's out in front of his troops, leading the way.  But that is neither his nature nor his role in the ensemble.  His job is to react to the craziness around him.  The humor of these two episodes comes from Dave moving out of the center into the band of eccentrics and trying to prove he doesn't belong there, paradoxically, by acting like one of the eccentrics.  In other words, now he wants to do some cunning plans and crazy capers — in order to get back into the position where cunning plans and crazy capers are forbidden.

"French Diplomacy" is the weaker of the two, seen from this angle, because it's about putting the pieces in place and making sure that in all the hubbub we haven't forgotten about Matthew.  Dave has dumped Lisa, and not for a good reason (another woman, patriotism during a time of war or civil unrest) but "for some vague notion of how love affects job performance."  Translation: Dave is anxious about his standing with Andrea Planbee and wants to "take a break" to make sure his job is secure.  Unintended consequence: Lisa is too upset to do her job of keeping Bill from putting the station at risk, leading to a wonderful escalation of outrageous on-air editorials (the first under the familiar brand of The Real Deal with Bill McNeal, followed by several The Real Deal Apologies complete with their own jingle: "Sorry!").  After railing against ambassadors who don't have to pay their parking tickets, Bill proclaims: "These freeloading foreign diplomats should be dragged from their cars and beaten like the renegade outlaws they are."  Cue the Dave reaction, going from shaking his head while listening to the radio in his office, to a sudden look of alarm.

In the insufficiently integrated B-story, Beth is convinced that someone in the next building is watching the WNYX offices; she's witnessed it through her own pair of comically oversize binoculars (a pair of large paper soda cups fastened together).  It's a signal that the episode isn't going to work out perfectly when Joe and Lisa are shown venturing outside the building in a rare location shot — there's the TGI Fridays with the red and white balloon garland that we always see in the scene bumpers! — and head across the street to the dentist's office where the rest of their plotline takes place.  Not only is it Matthew that was watching them, but he's returned to the work for which he actually trained.  "In a nutshell, dentistry is my skill, but AM radio … that's my passion," he explains while giving calmly competent orders to his hygienist.  Nothing wrong with that joke, but it doesn't go anywhere in particular, even as we return to the Matthew Brock, DDS offices again (to find Beth in the chair in the service of the oldest dentist joke in the book, the one where the dentist keeps asking you questions exactly when you can't talk).

By contrast, the rapid deterioration of the Real Deal plotline is perfectly done.  Although Bill asserts that the assault on a French diplomat can't be pinned on him ("French people get beaten up all the time!") and Jimmy seems unable to connect the dots (Dave: "All right, that gives us components A through B … which means?"  Jimmy: "I have no idea"), Dave sends Bill back on the air with an apology — unvetted, of course: "If anyone should be dragged from his car and beaten, it's a certain ugly element in our society called Joe Vigilante."  Unfortunately, the actual Joe Vigilante then ends up in the hospital.  When Bill finally reads the apology written for him, advising people to turn off their radios and listen to their hearts, the result is that a mental patient cuts out his heart in order to hold it up to his ear.  And that plus the renewed friendship between Andrea and Lisa (after Andrea gets over her hurt feelings about Lisa and Dave's relationship being kept from her) leads to a perfect NewsRadio juxtaposition: from Andrea reversing Dave's expectation that Lisa is about to be fired by saying "I think we should give her your job," to Lisa dusting Dave's empty office shelves.  "You left your copy of The Art of War on your desk," Dave says after asking permission to enter what used to be his domain.  "Here, picture of your mother in your drawer," Lisa responds.  Dave, utterly defeated — for the moment: "Ah, keep it."

In "Pure Evil," though, the Dave action-reaction seesaw cranks up to high gear.  Freed from his position of responsibility, Dave decides to try out another persona on Catherine in the breakroom — an agent of chaos.  Catherine might protest that Dave doesn't have it in him, but "that Dave unfortunately is dead." "As of today a new Dave is born," he confidently proclaims, "a Dave who for lack of a better phrase is … pure evil."  But the pure evil determination breaks down at the slightest protest ("Takes a while to get the hang of it," Dave mutters, prompting Catherine to sympathize "Oh, I'm sure you'll get it").  The essence of Pure Evil Dave is the long unblinking stare, but Dave is so new at it that he betrays his pride at pulling off the stare with a little smile of glee.

Pure Evil Dave's plan is to demonstrate his inability to control Bill by giving the latter free with his Bill McNeal Hypothetical Interviews series, in which Bill's President Clinton impersonation professes complete helplessness before Bill's masterful interrogation skills.  "I'd just like to say put a sock in it, Mr. President!" Bill asserts before responding to himself in Clinton drawl: "I wish I had a response to that; you win, Bill McNeal."  Meanwhile, Lisa is petrified of failing at her first staff meeting.  Beth assures her she has a one week honeymoon period to gain their respect, time she squanders in brilliant day-by-day format by choking, overexcelling at bringing snacks, having her top torn off, and then just being pathetic.  While she's paralyzed into incompetence by her perfectionism, Dave can't succeed at his pure evil plan of failing; Bill's outrageous fake Clinton conversations not only send the ratings through the roof but make him a folk hero.


The giddy delight of "Pure Evil" is the twin fish-out-of-water images: Dave watching contentedly (or with insincere gestures of helpless concern) as Bill goes wild in the booth, and Lisa obsessing over her staff meeting performance.  And the secret of this comedy construct is the repeated, involuntary fissures where their old characters reassert themselves.  Lisa is certain her 1960's-era joke book for junior executives ("co-eds, hippies, Levittown, teetotalers, Sputnik, swinging singles, Polish jokes…") will get her past the all-important first moment of the first staff meeting of her first week.  Dave is just as impressed as the rest of the staff by Lisa's baking: "Is that lemon zest?" he exclaims, and Joe, walking through the frame, answers "you know it, dude."  But the best decision the writing team made, especially in comparison to "French Diplomacy," is having Matthew sleeping in Dave's former office. Not only is he thereby brought back within the confines of the station, obviating the need for characters to relocate themselves in order to have scenes with him, but Lisa is subtly placed into the same sympathetic relationship with Matthew that Dave formerly had.  After Lisa tells Matthew that his memory of them vacationing in Hawaii was a dream, he insists, "I'm pretty sure we went to Hawaii together."  Lisa gives in: "How was it?"  "Not that fun," Matthew says with some regret.  It's an interchange that could have played out word for word, gesture for gesture with Dave sitting at the desk instead of Lisa.

By the end of the episode, Dave has his head down on the conference table Charlie-Brown-on-the-desk style, and Beth's admonition to the staff to give Lisa some encouragement leads to Jimmy's wooden "Good job, Lisa!" and an awkward back-pat (before which she flinches comically).  The two are both in despair, but handling it in ways appropriate to their own peculiar developing identity crises.  Meanwhile Bill is testifying before a Senate committee: "I refuse let my gaping maw be shut!"  The people who actually want the best for WNYX can't claw their way back to square one, but their nemesis keeps falling upwards.  And the fun is in watching how Lisa and Dave — especially Dave — react.


Stray observations:

  • "Matthew couldn't go to the bathroom by himself." "Yes, he could … couldn't he?" "Noooo."
  • Another episode, another fetching wardrobe choice for Lauren Graham.  And of course, Bill notices: "Is it getting chilly in here, or are you wearing an anatomically correct bra?"  (Followed by his mocking "oh, that's going into my report!")
  • If I weren't so enamored of Dave's reactions in these episodes, I'd have said that their signature was Bill one-liners: "Does Dave yell out anything peculiar during the highest moment of pleasure?  I'm talking of course about when he beats you at Scrabble."  "These people with names you need a calculator to pronounce have their hands in your pockets!"  "I was just sitting here in the Oval Office, completely nude of course, and I thought Bill could sure make some serious hay with this."  "I understand about ninety percent of the men in the Secret Service are gay."
  • Or maybe it's Jimmy James refining and, dare I say, perfecting the random musings of Jimmy James: "Aw, nothin' … I just wanted you guys to notice my new boots."  "I knew a guy named Joe Pants once.  Guy always wore pants."  "Screw drive-time — somebody get me a fork."
  • Only Dave understands Lisa's extremely understated I'm-choking sign: tapping her throat with a pencil.
  • Hey, It's 1997!  "I've got so many lawyers standing in line to see me now you'd think I had tobacco leaking out of my breast implants."
  • Lisa was a Delta Alpha Chi, according to her office decor.
  • "Get your own damn soda!"