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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "Padded Suit"/"Freaky Friday"

Illustration for article titled NewsRadio: "Padded Suit"/"Freaky Friday"
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We have reached the penultimate installment of this set of recaps, considerations, analyses, and celebrations. I’m feeling pensive, I’m not gonna lie. Four years we’ve been at this, and it’s all going to end in a rush. What’s better — to know the end is coming so you can savor every second and give some thought to one’s legacy, or (as most TV series end) to find out sometime after the last show has aired that it was the last show?

And are we projecting our own knowledge of Season 5’s finality back onto these episodes when we watch them now? Or is there an air of precognition within the episodes themselves? Watch Dave turning into a gleefully yet desperately bitter boss on the verge of a nervous breakdown in “Padded Suit,” and the end is palpably near. Not because the performance is a mess — quite the opposite. Because when you disassemble the mechanism like this, you clearly believe that it’s not going to matter if you void your warranty.    

“Padded Suit” (season 5 episode 19, original airdate 4/13/99)

Dave, at the end of his rope when his repeated calls for a staff meeting fail to put a dent in his staff’s discussion of haircuts (Joe: “I had a machine that did it, but it killed my neighbor’s cat”; Lisa: “My dad had a machine, but it was for nose hair”), hatches a plan to fire someone. “Don’t you see that our casual workplace environment long ago lapsed into rampant unprofessionalism, then sunk down into anarchy and is well on its way to utter chaos!” he explains to Lisa. “One must pay for the many — the only question is which one.” Rather than let Dave fire Matthew as the obvious choice, Lisa persuades him to ask everyone for a job description and use their performance as a pretext for the firing. “That’s delightful — prolonging the terror, yes!” Dave agrees in wild-eyed madman mode. “The ax hangs but it does not fall. Not yet!” In the B-story, Matthew has been given a shiner by a teenage girl at a Natalie Merchant concert, leading Joe to accept him and Max in the dojo of his personal fighting style joejitsu (“It’s a special blend of three unrelated martial arts plus some other crap I made up”). And the truly bizarre C-story involves Mr. James waging a campaign against Mother’s Day with Beth’s help.

I love comedy based in an escalating domino-trail of incompetence, and Lisa’s attempts to save (most of) the staff by making sure they perform at the job description task reaches classic heights. The best bit is Beth’s scribbled list of one item (make a pot of coffee every morning), to which she adds what Dave is telling her to do at that moment (tell everyone there’s a staff meeting in five minutes, leave) — which leads to her dancing out the door yelling “Staff meeting in twenty minutes!” When Max tries to turn the onus back on Dave (“If you don’t know what we do, then perhaps you’re the one who’s a bit of a goldbricker!”), it cues Dave’s second angry blow-up and clipboard-throwing fit (Joe: “Again with the clipboard!”). The joejitsu plot is almost equally as awesome, even if it lacks the delightful malevolence, what with Max pursuing Matthew so that Joe can check out their fighting styles (“Prepare yourself for the stinging blades … OF THE WINDMILL!”) and Matthew’s understated reaction to being hit while in the padded suit.

So it’s probably bad form to quibble that the anti-Mother’s Day campaign is so tossed off. Mr. James doesn’t even lapse into his stage-fright-ariffic on-air voice when he commandeers the mike to announce the Million Mama March. And the whole denouement, where it turns out he was overcompensating because he forgot his mom’s birthday, is standard sitcom silliness. A sad trombone wouldn’t be out of place when he’s finally forced onto the phone with “Mommy.”

“Freaky Friday” (season 5 episode 20, original airdate 4/20/99)

Now here’s the good stuff. Three plotlines, all strong, give every member of the cast a chance to shine. And the pairings, albeit unorthodox, don’t feel forced (the way that Beth helping Mr. James with his Mother’s Day nonsense did, for example). Stress is taking its toll on Matthew (“Permission to leave the office to spend the day at the zoo?” he petitions Dave), and after he expresses the view that Mr. James’s job would be easier, Mr. James proposes a swap — like in that movie.  (“You’re Jodie Foster!” Mr. James explains, and Matthew explodes with relief: “Finally!”) Both dress the part for the full effect, with Mr. James adopting patterned shirts and sweater vests, and Matthew getting a snappy double-breasted suit. And while Mr. James tries to grasp the difference between reporting the news and making it (“What if there were an explosion in a gas plant in Omaha and a couple of people were buried underground for a few days, would that be a good story?” he asks Dave; getting an astounded “No,” he mutters, “I gotta make a call”), Matthew calls Joe to the penthouse suite to help him get Mr. James’s computer turned on and to enjoy the food-replicator-like bartending prowess of Linda, the secretary. In a terrific (although unusual for NR) reveal, he takes his virgin daiquiri over to a table that’s completely covered with girly drinks of all kinds, suggesting that he’s spent most of his morning testing her abilities.

In the secondary stories, Dave bans Max from the breakroom after he won’t stop stealing everybody’s food (leading to the fantastically understated moment where Max stands outside the breakroom door and mumbles “Can I get a soda? Soda please?” to everyone going in or out), and best of all, Beth enlists Lisa to protect her from the Columbia Record and Tape Club, to whom she has sent over three dollars in pennies over the years under a barrage of assumed names, collecting at least 5700 CDs (at the introductory rate of 19 per penny). Everything about the CD storyline is gold: the breakroom cabinets full of jewelboxed loot, Beth’s confession that she made a dress entirely out of “recycled copies of the Steve Miller Band’s greatest hits,” Lisa’s unnervingly specific pitch to dump the whole mess on Max (“We’re talking every Sarah McLachlan, every Joni Mitchell, every Carly Simon ever, plus some very rare early Edie Brickell”), and of course the brilliant resolution in which the record club official buys Beth off with a $1000 check on two conditions: “One — that you leave us alone, two — that you don’t tell anybody else how you scammed us; we cannot afford it.” (Beth: “Now I can afford a CD player!”)

But I confess that something bothers me about this week’s pair of episodes. They both feature an angry character trying to pummel someone to the accompaniment of incoherent screams of rage and pain. In “Padded Suit,” the denouement has Matthew trapped in Dave’s office with Lisa as she works him over, leading to Matthew pounding on the glass and yelling that the suit offers no protection. In “Freaky Friday,” it’s Mr. James chasing Matthew around the office in a homicidal fervor (with not one but two dives through sugar glass) after Matthew loses $7 billion of his money while online trading. Maybe it’s my own issues with anger or violence, but I find this disconcerting and un-NewsRadio-like. Again, it’s a bit more of a standard-sitcom beat (“Why you little …” “Why I oughta …” “To the moon, Alice!”), and it seems too overt or insufficiently smartened-up for this show. I quibble as well with the way “Freaky Friday” ends — with Joe discovering that Matthew spent Mr. James’s fortune on overpaying his cell phone bill, therefore they can get it all back in a refund —  which seems too much like the usual effort to get everything back the way it was, although, as the show well knows, they really don’t have to do that.

Because when you’ve turned Dave into a power-mad dictator and married off Lisa to a convict, there’s no reason to be worried about keeping the slate clean for next week. Besides, after next Tuesday, next week will never come.

Grades: “Padded Suit,” B+; “Freaky Friday,” A-

Stray observations:

  • Hey, It’s 1999 For A Couple More Weeks! Million Man March, Natalie Merchant, Rage Against The Machine, online day trading, CDs.
  • That little confab around the desk in “Padded Suit,” the one Dave can’t break up until he pitches a fit (“Looks like somebody rode in on the bitch bus today!”), is one of the most fabulous scenes of the season.
  • Dave doesn’t get angry enough to throw things very often, which concerns Lisa: “I guess I remember that one time when you threw the cushion on the couch, but that was just kinda cute.”
  • The depths of Dave’s despair: “Today it was a haircut, yesterday it was a saliva bubble contest, the day before that it was how long can Max gargle milk.  I hate them, I hate my job and I hate myself.” Then later: “In my mind I’ve already fired each of them a hundred times.”
  • In a fabulous example of what drives Dave crazy, Matthew finds a cause for petulant obstructionism in the number three: “As far as numbers go, it’s the third smallest.”
  • Another boffo example: Beth asks for five dollars for lunch even though she brought her own because “I was thinking that today I would treat myself to a glass of wine.”
  • Lisa abandons her efforts to save the staff and joins Dave in vindictive resignation: “I’ve described several scenarios for firing them individually, plus one very very well-reasoned argument for firing them all at once. By mail.”
  • Mr. James drives Dave to distraction describing some business interaction in which he was victorious: “He paid that much — and I liked it! I was the one who liked it!”
  • Matthew’s account password: Cat. Mr. James’s: Mary Ann (Dave’s mom’s name).
  • Matthew’s stock portfolio, according to Mr. James, is “a little too heavy in the high risk commodities — catnip, mostly, cat toys, vacation spots for cats.” (Also, his dream job is “defective marshmallow finder.”
  • At least before he starts diving through window, Stephen Root is on fire in “Freaky Friday.” Best line (delivered with infinite sadness): “Oh look — Goober got a hole.” Runner-up: His mention that the family business in Florida, to which he hopes to return, is “sharecropping.”
  • Wearing the padded suit, for Matthew, is “better than learning a bunch of gay kicks and stuff.”
  • “Obnoxious mouthing off is the cornerstone of joejitsu.”
  • “We all want to kill Matthew, but what good would it do?”