… And here's where my high expectations begin to get me into trouble.
I was jazzed by the unexpected riches and already-crisp pacing of the first two episodes of the series. And look, here comes "Smoking," one that we all remember fondly as an all-time great, right alongside "The Crisis" which features Bill's obsession with Matthew's new desk! I settled back for my second dose of Newsradio with complete confidence.
Only I wasn't laughing as much as I expected. Yes, both episodes — especially "Smoking" — have moments of absolute perfection, further defining the Newsradio aesthetic early in its run. But the relationships between the A stories and the various B stories are uneven. The episodes — especially "The Crisis" — limp as much as they fly.
"Smoking" begins with Dave posting a state ordinance that forbids smoking in the workplace, and then follows his running battles with Bill over whether it's possible for the broadcaster to refrain from smoking. Meanwhile, Lisa is concerned that Joe saw her and Dave at the movies because Joe is avoiding her (with what she calls the "hey-hey thing"). The fourth episode, "The Crisis," has the newsroom mobilized to deal with a subway fire and derailment: Matthew's trying to get into the tunnel, Dave's trying to get the transit commissioner on the phone, and Bill is waiting for Lisa to fail at her on-air anchor assignment for the crisis coverage. But it's hard for them to stay focused with a shiny new red desk arrives for Matthew and everybody suddenly wants their fair share of the office furniture pie.
At its best (as I began to realize while considering why the episodes didn't soar), the Newsradio redefinition of television comedy depends on a cumulative effect. Not tension-release, tension-release; but as many gags as possible without a release, so that when the over-the-top finish comes, it's explosive. "Smoking" achieves that snowball-hitting-the-bottom-of-the-hill effect in one particularly beautiful moment. Dave has given up coffee in solidarity with Bill's effort to stop smoking, and the two of them are in Dave's office talking about how they're holding up. When Matthew innocently enters to ask Dave a question, both the men turn on him in a sudden double-barrelled snarlfest. (When Dave yells "What we need around here is an anti-whining ordinance!" it's a near-perfect confluence of sharp writing — referencing the premise for the episode as a whole — and brilliantly unexpected delivery.) What's more, the two actors don't pause to acknowledge the cresting waves of laughter from the audience; they just keep piling on the volume and the anger. That refusal to compromise the pacing that makes the moment transcendently funny in the face of the live-audience reality of its sitcom format is a great early example of Newsradio's determination to let pure comic rhythm dictate the form.
"Smoking" also features the emergence of Bill McNeal as the dominant force in the cast of "eccentrics" surrounding Dave's "center." (Thanks to commenter Joe Rossi for that helpful bit of dramatic terminology.) If the creative team didn't know it before, "Smoking" shows that they were confident by episode 3 that Phil Hartman was going to be a heavyweight foil for Dave's frustrated attempts at simple competence. The way Phil Hartman saunters up behind Dave as he tacks up the no-smoking notice, flicking his lighter and exhaling a casual cloud of carcinogens, is a reminder once again of the man's consummate professionalism as a comic actor; his entire body language gets into the act, and he doesn't need to overplay any bit of it — the juxtaposition does the work of making it funny.
But aside from the continuing emergence of Matthew's fastidious geek personality and the business about how many dinners Dave has had with Matthew and Lisa, "The Crisis" just doesn't gel. There are priceless bits: Bill's face going slack as he tries to process the arrival of the new desk for Matthew, his muttered sour-grapes response to Dave's dinner invitation ("Actually I'm busy this month"), and his outrage upon hearing that Dave has perhaps had a couple of dinners with Lisa ("Two dinners?! This is unbelievable!"). Perhaps the best is the "fake fight in front of everybody" with Dave that Matthew suggests in order to defuse the staff's anger at Dave's favoritism; Dave's real anger at Matthew's insistence on treating the desk crisis as more important than the subway crisis then becomes the fake fight Matthew was looking for. It's a rapid boil, not a slow burn.
I think my problem with "The Crisis" stems from its attempt to be bigger than the newsroom (and at the same time, of course, much more petty). Constantly telling us that something big is going on — even if the plot is intended to defuse that sense of eventfulness — just puts us in the wrong frame of mind for the Newsradio style, I think. And here we might see an inkling of Seinfeld's influence on the style: I think the show is best when it's about the least. ("Security Door" and "Complaint Box," which many commenters have rightly hailed as series high points, are prime examples; by contrast, Jimmy James' wacky billionaire stunts typically aren't my favorite episodes conceptually, although they might be saved by brilliant execution.)
Grade: "Smoking," B; "The Crisis," C+
- Boy, they sure were fond of people crossing in front of the actors in the early days. Extras tend to get that job a lot, but in "Smoking" it's used for a joke when Matthew crosses in front of Bill and Dave coughing ostentatiously.
- When Bill peels off a $100 bill and hands it deadpan to Dave who has just threatened him with a fine, it reminds me of how much I love people extracting cash for a roll of bills in the movies and television. There's something so evocative and sophisticated about it, like the way letters crinkle when a character unfolds them out of the envelope, or the appearance of a tray loaded with carefully halved sandwiches — real-life money can't compare.
- I believe I recognize the clunky, monochrome profile of a PowerBook 100 on Dave's desk (being whacked by Joe to get it back in commission). And the reason I believe I recognize it is that I still have one tucked away in a closet somewhere.
- Men, back me up on this one: The costume designers are putting Maura in far too many loose-fitting outfits in these early episodes. Not only is it unsexy, but it's kind of slobby for a careerist like her. And in other Tierney costume news, check out the shoulder pads on that jacket in "The Crisis" — she could play second-string linebacker for the Giants in that thing.
- What's with the little gold hoop earring in Joe's left ear when Lisa confronts him about going to the movies? He didn't have that the whole series, did he?
- "That magician guy, what's his name?" "David Copperfield?" "No." "Siegfried?" "No." "Roy?" "That's the one."
- Hey, It's 1995 Watch: The staff is amazed that somebody would have a "cellular phone" on the disabled subway train.
… And here's where my high expectations begin to get me into trouble.