Welcome, summer! Your brilliant sunshine warms us. Your high humidity and UV index threaten us with heat stroke and melanoma, respectively. Best of all, you bring us back to TV Club Classic. I'll be revisiting NewsRadio's third season all summer long, two episodes at a time. Veterans of last summer's coverage already know my obsession with the situation comedy, that ubiquitous yet oddly finicky laugh-generating machine. Every week in this space, we can vivisect one of the very best sitcoms of our lifetime to find out what makes the dang thing tick. And if I can avoid killing our specimen with over-analysis, we ought to have a lot of laughs along the way.
Ready? Let's get started with an extended reminder of our main obsessions , as illustrated in the first two episodes:
Center/eccentric structure: You don't get much more eccentric than a rich guy running for president as a way to meet women. (Gary Hart … John Edwards … Come to think of it, maybe it's not that eccentric.) But the funny isn't in the crazy. It's in the reaction of the few characters with some sense of normalcy to the crazy, juxtaposed with the reactions of the varying degrees of the other eccentrics to the crazy. Beth jumps into her role as campaign manager/security by stabbing Dave with a J. James For President button (twice) and instantly recognizing Mr. James' choice for theme song ("'Life's Been Good To Me' Joe Walsh 1975 I'm on it!"). Bill curries favor by tossing softball questions at the press conference ("Aren't you perhaps overqualified for the position of president of the United States?" "Do you have a dog? … Sounds like a real champ!"). Lisa struggles to balance her need to prove her bulldog reporter instincts and her distaste for humiliating her boss. Joe suggests the slogan "Jimmy James: No More Lies About The Government Cover-Up Of Alien Bodies At Area 52." And Dave earnestly tries to fit what's going on into his prior understanding of the Jimmy James dynamic.
B-story randomness: There's no essential connection between the Jimmy-James-For-President storyline and Matthew's mustache. (Aside from the very funny sight gag where the mustachioed Jimmy James photo shows up at the press conference behind the podium, and has to be lowered to hide the facial hair until only half the head is visible.) Yet there they are together, the latter adding zing and zip with its utter insubstantiality to the former's relative plot-heaviness. It's as if the simple situation — ridiculous mustache — frees up the writers to imagine scenes that can be dropped in anywhere to pick up the pace or provide a surprise. Case in point: Intervention in the men's bathroom. "I'd like each person to say how Matthew's mustache has affected them," Bill intones. Later he wanders over the use the urinal in the middle of a sentence, heedless of the women's presence. The intervention doesn't accomplish anything and doesn't really move the story along. Its very uselessness, in the context of the half-hour, is what provides the delight.
Cold open: The Matthew pratfall had been established as a cold-open standard in season 2. Now the fun comes in providing that explosive burst of physical comedy without simply giving in to audience expectations. This week's open is one of the absolute bests of the series, from Dave's repeated monologue about his vacation activities delivered to a succession of uncaring listeners, to the reveal of the mustache as Matthew slumps guiltily out of the elevator ("I can't pretend that's not there!" Dave protests), to the rapid-fire reactions of the three women upon seeing it (Beth flees, Lisa does a spit-take, Catherine slaps Matthew's face).
Denouement: How does everything get back to normal? Jimmy James promotes his ace reporter for figuring out the presidential gimmick ("I didn't expect anyone to figure that out, but I underestimated Lisa Miller of WNYX!"), and Bill kisses Matthew to determine whether Matthew's assertion about its attractiveness is valid ("Actually, that wasn't entirely unpleasant!").
Verdict: A solid episode for a season-opener, but things will get even better as the crew starts to loosen up later on.
Center/eccentric: Dave tries to keep the newsroom on an even keel by downplaying the significance of the annual radio guide's writeup. Everyone around him flies off into orbits of self-absorption. Bill: "Adequacy is the hallmark of great journalism!" Lisa: "Workhorse … reliable … fine." Catherine: "Catherine with a C is regal; Katherine with a K is a two-bit biker chick from New Jersey." (Dave: "Like that slut Katherine Hepburn.")
B-story randomness: In this case, the B-story — Matthew becomes obsessed with Dilbert — overwhelms the purported A story. And yet, it's just as paper-thin a situation as the mustache, although it develops into an actual arc (wherein Matthew quits and begins working at the coffee place in the lobby ("Are you a member of our Guzzlers' Club or would you care to become one?").
Cold open: Sets up the B-story (I'll hear arguments about whether it's actually the A-story at the bench, counselors) by having Matthew quiz the baristas about who drew the "comic strip here with the little dog" then inquire in a leisurely fashion, "Do you have fresh fruit smoothies?" Upon finding that the shop does not sell fresh fruit smoothies, Dave retorts, "I suggest we take our business elsewhere!", prompting an outraged walkout by Matthew — and a clear counter at which to deliver his own order. "I can't believe that worked," Joe remarks. "Some days you get lucky," muses Dave.
And oh, yes — the pratfall. In a charming reversal of tradition, it comes at the very end, as Matthew attempts to leap over the counter to rejoin the WNYX staff.
Denouement: Everyone acknowledges that the review was a let-down, even Bill, previously seen reflecting to a (probably non-existent) phone interviewer: "It's one thing, of course, to know you're adequate, but to have a fellow member of the press stand up and say yes, you sir are adequate … " Jimmy James wrote the review. (Dave: "Isn't that a conflict of interest?" Mr. James: "These days we call that 'synergy.'") Matthew is persuaded by the fake Scott Adams ("Do it for Matthew-bert!") to come back to the station. Everybody in 1996 who didn't see the non-stop NBC promos for the episode suddenly finds out during the credits that Scott Adams played "Guy in line behind Dave and Joe in first scene."
Verdict: Excellent episode elevated to all-time classic by (1) the passage of time rendering the non-stop Dilbert cross-promotion less annoying, more sweetly nostalgic, and (2) Matthew and Dave making the Dilbert doll talk; insert shots of same being held out the door of Dave's office.
Grades: "President," B+; "Review," A-
- I was too happy to be watching NewsRadio again to pay much attention to the wardrobe. But man, it's good to see Dave without the shaggy hair. And Beth's round tinted glasses in the coffeeshop scene at the end of "Review" made her look like Ozzy Osbourne.
- All Together Now (oft-quoted lines making their debut this week): "I am a cipher wrapped in an enigma smothered in secret sauce." "I'm off to astonish the world with more feats of adequodiquacity." "You talkin' about spaz?"
- The NR Dash (signature NewsRadio shots where characters run through a static frame): Matthew fleeing his intervention, passing Mr. James and Dave discussing the former's naked run through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange: "It's just a mustache!"
- "Review" also features one of the show's most accomplished comic tropes, the off-screen voice — specifically when Dave addresses a question to the ceiling while Matthew hangs from it during his attempt to circumvent the "no setting foot in Dave's office" rule: "What was that other thing, Joe?" From the ceiling: "Dude, don't drag me into this."
- Hey, It's Still 1996! "Millions of people have already discovered the magic of Dilbert and enjoy it every morning," "It gives you a just-might-be-a-redneck vibe," "Is that the '96-97 New York Radio Guide? It's here, everybody, it's here!", Mission: Impossible.
- Nominative forms of "adequate": adequacivity, adequodiquacity, adequatulence.
- "Your confusing thesis has captured my attention. Tell me more."
- "Sliced bread."