I'm swayed by cuteness. And I'm not afraid to admit it. It's a good thing that NewsRadio has so much objective greatness, because if it were a lesser show I would probably cut it way too much slack on the cute front.
Cutie Pie in Chief: Dave Foley. This week we've got the first Dave-centered episode of the season, "Arcade." Its lead-in "Massage Chair" works really well to get the cute pump primed, what with Dave and Mr. James doing their vaudeville act in front of the staff meeting. The giddy grin appeared on my face right around the time Dave responded to Mr. James' "Mickey Mouse wouldn't bail out the Hunchback of Notre Dame" Disney-fied budget analogy with "What about Scrooge McDuck? He's the one with all the money." Yes, Dave's cute because Dave's a geek. With a resigned expression on his face, as if he knows it's futile, he plays out the logical implications of whatever pop culture framework has been placed around a particular situation.
In "Massage Chair," budget considerations have eliminated the free snacks in the break room, and Dave predicts this will lead to some kind of revolt, probably led by Bill. "Dave, these people love you, and none more than Bill," Mr. James replies with conviction. Cut to Bill in the break room: "What I'm talking about is a full-scale revolt!" "Massage Chair" is a showcase for Phil Hartman in full-on dictator mode, complete with half-assed attempts at sensitivity ("Maybe none of you have noticed, but slavery was abolished in this country—no offense, Catherine"), cloudy grasp of history ("Big Chief Custer? No, he kill many paleface") and equivalence of his own good with the people's good ("Go back to your non-smoking area, you traitors! Be gone!").
The non-stand-off ends with a bit of administrative theater. "You are completely under siege, like that guy in that movie, what's it called?" Mr. James explains. ("Under Siege?" "Nope." "Under Siege 2?" "Nope." "Under Siege 3?" "That's the one!" Followed by Lisa protesting, "I don't even think they made Under Siege 3.") But if Mr. James restores the snacks — "if you waltz in there like some kind of snack hero," as Dave puts it — then the staff will consider him the good guy. So Mr. James deadpans the bad-cop role. "I'm going to be a real hardass about this Dave. No! No way! You are insane!" he screams, running into Dave's office. And Dave ducks out after him with that little dance he does, that full-body "excuse me, just a second, whoop-I'm-gone!" that I find so endearing.
When they return, Mr. James continues to lay it on too thick — and risks, for a moment, enlisting the staff's sympathy rather than serving as a magnet for their anger ("You didn't have to be so rough in there with me gosh!"). But when a severe glance from Dave restores not only the snacks, but also Beth's beloved gum, all is well again.
Our second episode this week, though, is full-time Dave cuteness. The food obsession from "Massage Chair" is back, and so is the budget-cutting theme. What do you get when you the two? Beth's idea to get rid of the sandwich vending machine ("best sandwiches in the city!" according to Bill) and replace it with a video game. Specifically, "Stargate Defender, a classic arcade game from 1981, the glory days before the 16-bit processor," as Dave explains while hunched against the wall trying to avoid looking at it. Turns out that too many hours spent saving the humanoids caused Dave to blow his SATs back in the day. Which is ironic because Lisa, convinced by her lack of success at the Jumble that she's getting dumber, has challenged Dave to retake the SATs with her.
In "Massage Chair," Bill's attempted coup and Dave's interactions with Mr. James are spot-on — inventive, beautifully timed, invigorating — but the B-story where Joe woos Catherine by hacking her desk just doesn't measure up. It has it's moments (Beth moaning "you luuuuuuuuuuuuv her," the MacInTalk voice intoning "Joe likes you"), but it's as if somebody typed "hacker courtship desk" into the Archie Joke-Generating Laugh Unit 3000.
But "Arcade" represents NewsRadio at its pinnacle. The seamless integration of A, B, and yes, even C stories. Effortless, graceful gifts of comedic moments to players at the periphery of all those stories: Beth's Jumble talent ("Junior revamp tardy and lariat, the manager said the pinch hitter would be a change for the batter"), Matthew's contribution to the cereal box puzzle ("Balloons hadn't been invented yet in cowboy times"), Mr. James' reaction when Dave tells him that he has to get up early to take the SATs. And most of all, a chance for Dave to be fully Dave. Nerdy ("it does further your understanding of other worlds"), boyish (mistaken for Lisa's son at the SAT prep course), consumed by regret (has there been a more poignant moment, outside of mourning for Phil Hartman, than Dave murmuring to the fortune-telling machine, "I wish I was big"?).
That's not just cute. It's cute wrapped in awesome smothered with secret sauce.
Grades: "Massage Chair," A-; "Arcade," A
- Hey, It's Still 1996!: Hunchback of Notre Dame.
- Hey, These References Are Oddly Specific Yet Not Timely!: "Bill, you've got to stop getting your history from Gore Vidal," "I didn't just sign for a stolen jeep, did I, Radar?", "You were great, it's the pictures that got small," "I am Sparkticus, too."
- Wardrobe Notes: All the flesh on display in "Massage Chair" — Vicki's never-ending midriff, the sheer blouse on Maura, that camisole under Catherine's suit — kind of freaked me out. Loved Maura's V-necked black cardigan at the SAT prep course, though.
- Was That …?: We all know about Eugene Jarvis's cameo in "Arcade" (or, as the credits put it, "Eugene Jarvis, creator of Defender, Stargate Defender, and Robotron 2084: Delivery Guy #3"), but I was shocked to see that the girl who asks Lisa for a cigarette during the SAT break was Leelee Sobieski, just a couple of years away from becoming (briefly) a movie star.
- Speaking of that scene with the cigarette, have you ever noticed how terrible all the WNYX staffers are with children and teens? Kids just completely unnerve them.
- Two stunning pieces of physical comedy in under thirty seconds: Beth's little bow as she claims her title of champion budget cutter, Bill's run back to the office with his arms full of ancient sandwiches.
- "I don't see what the kings of England have to do with the fact that we are virtually gumless!"
- "Partial ownership of the chair carries with it certain responsibilities."
- "Yeah, thanks College, no one really cares."
- "In the olden days, people got ptomaine poisoning and blamed it on ghosts."
- "Ooo, thumbtacks!"