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“Stinkbutt” (season 5 episode 11, original airdate 1/5/99)

Okay, now I’m starting to see it. There is something sad about the latter days of season five.  

Yes, inspired moments and even whole inspired plots still occur. Yes, Dave is perhaps at his pinnacle of greatness, delivering rapid, pedantic speeches full of $10 words and multiple backtracks at nearly every opportunity. Joe and Beth are stepping up as major players. But a sense of cohesiveness, of shared commitment and delight in the results, is missing. Those stretches of perfect timing and left-field inspiration now come only with great effort, and the energy spent moving the pieces around to try to engineer them saps the drive that used to fuel them.

In a perfect world, “Stinkbutt” would be all—well, stinkbutt. It’s a classic NewsRadio plot. Beth and Joe demand full artistic freedom over the WNYX mural in the building lobby, then half-ass it because they can’t agree on what to paint, leaving Dave to insincerely yet vociferously defend their work in the name of free expression. Dave’s speech before the building supervisors is a mini-masterpiece, from the incongrously formal setting (with the supervisors on a raised dais like Supreme Court Justices hearing a landmark case) to the disconnect between his heightened language and the ridiculously juvenile word he is defending. “If taste is our criteria, I have problems with a lot of things,” he protests. “I find black and white photography pretentious. The fabric on these chairs is ugly. And I can’t begin to tell you how much or how often this man”—Matthew—“offends me.” “We’re twins,” Matthew confides to the supervisors.

True, you couldn’t have that awesome little bit of escalation without the more minor of the two (!) other plots in “Stinkbutt,” the one where Matthew initially comes to work dressed in the same faux-fur-collared sweater as Lisa, then returns after being ordered to change in the same snappy navy suit, blue shirt and blue-on-blue tie as Dave. (And doesn’t he look smart in it?  In fact, Matthew’s adoption of that look makes one suddenly realize how good it is on Dave, too.) The problem is that this storyline continues the “Matthew annoys Lisa” trope that was already dead in the water last week in “Spooky Rapping Crypt.” And the other problem is that there’s still a third plotline, arguably the A-story since it has the guest star and the most screen time, with Toby Huss as Jack Frost, ostensible security consultant and actual compulsive imposter. (“Like Tony Curtis in that movie,” Dave comments, thus revealing that someone on the writing staff has seen The Great Imposter (1961), even though likely few members of the viewing audience have.)

Although it builds to a funny scene in the breakroom where Max reveals his hideous, throbbing, botched appendectomy scar to Jimmy and Jack, the Jack Frost business never flows. I believe that’s due to the relationship between Mr. James and Max, which never feels less than strange. Stephen Root has always seemed to be able to play well with anybody in the cast, but something about the Lovitz-Root combo fails to gel. Maybe it's the similarity in their physical types; more likely, it’s just that the creative team wasn’t clear about what they wanted the pairing to provide. There’s a hint of a boffo comic relationship when Max tells his dramatic appendectomy story— “Bourbon was my anesthetic! A pocket-knife served as a scalpel!”—and Mr. James comments, “You could sell that story to Reader’s Digest.” “Yes, for half the price,” Max murmurs mysteriously. “For that is only HALF the story!” Max’s theatricality has the potential to merge well with Jimmy’s aw-shucks attitude about his own colorful life and history. But that possibility takes a back seat here to Max’s toothless campaign to unmask Jack Frost, a job the imposter himself does perfectly well when he can’t stop himself from jumping in the booth and improving some drive-time patter (“This is the time of day I like to call the home stretch, because if you think you’re getting home— honk honk, aaooga!—it’s gonna be a stretch”).

“Apartment” (season 5 episode 12, original airdate 1/12/99)

And yet despite the clouds that seem to be gathering over Season five, despite the grind-it-out aesthetic that replaced the picture-perfect swings and home runs with which we started the summer, close inspection reveals some new pleasures emerging. Take the relationship between Mr. James and Dave, a thematic strand that NewsRadio returns to again and again. As Dave loses all hope of effectively managing his staff, that relationship becomes a refuge, making the denouement of this episode unexpectedly sweet. The show’s willingness to go meta at the drop of a hat, too, elevates “Apartment,” as everyone in the office assumes that Lisa and Dave are sleeping together again because they’re back to the adorable bickering that we now know turns them on. Matthew’s quiz show—complete with bell!—belongs in any NR highlight reel, and it works because Dave and Lisa are so willing to play along for the big prize, while simultaneously, Dave, at least, is disgusted with himself.

In fact, the closer we get to the end, the more fascinating Dave becomes. His desperation no longer arises from the disconnect between his self-image and his reality; it’s morphed into a survival response. He needs the new apartment because he’s getting kicked out of his old one, leaving him potentially homeless; in a few episodes, he’ll be faced with losing Lisa forever. He reacts by regressing to brother-in-the-back-seat level point-scoring (“Dave Nelson, I saw it first”) lumped in awkwardly with his usual appeal to authority and reason. Increasingly, Dave not only realizes that no one in the office (and possibly in the outside world) shares his assumptions but also believes that the time he has to spend arguing on their behalf demeans him, even as he can’t help himself.

This is all on display in Matthew’s quiz. Caught in the moment as Matthew takes out notecards, rolls a printer cart over already equipped with a bell, and begins asking questions, Dave initially retorts, “This is dumb.” “Another point to Lisa,” Matthew dings and records, and Dave’s desire to win wrestles his dignity to the ground. The next question—“If I was sick, what would you give me?”—sets off a rapid-fire escalation. Dave: “Tea.” Lisa: “Cocoa.” Matthew, condescendingly: “Are those your answers?” Dave, having succumbed to the absurdity, with nothing to lose by flip-flopping: “Soup!” Lisa, unwilling to give ground: “I’m sticking with cocoa.” “Soup, good call Dave!” Matthew enthuses with a ding of his bell, and Dave’s eager look of triumph is a sight to see.

Over in the B-story, an oddly mannered little conceit develops into a stage for Joe and Beth to shine. Mr. James is upset that the WNYX Web page (“created with GarrelliWare,” Joe modestly announces) consists of Joe’s college basketball pick of the week, a scam to get girls’ phone numbers, and a blurry picture of Max on a rock (“On my rock in the park!” Max realizes in horror) that Joe is passing off as a pregnant Bigfoot. So Joe makes a bid for hits by setting up a 24-hour breakroom webcam, then manufactures all kinds of drama to take place in front of it. He and Beth, his willing partner in amateur dramatics, do an alien autopsy on a masked and gloved Matthew, invent a steamy office romance, and hire a stripper for some Benny Hill-esque yucks. Joe’s take to the camera at the end of the latter, bug-eyed and biting on his palm, is one of the best things Rogan did in five years. Mr. James breaks out his on-camera monotone not once, but twice (interrupting Beth and Joe’s torrid embrace: “Okay, I will leave you two lovebirds in peace,” and introducing the vote for the apartment: ““Decision '99, the rooooad… to the apartment”). Beth is a delight, swooning hastily on her way out the door in service of the recurring gag where the thespians drop everything and leave the webcam hanging whenever called to the office (“Are we going to be married or not? Stay tuned!”).

When the dust clears and Lisa (along with her prop Daisy) wins the apartment, Dave reveals that Mr. James has offered to let him crash at his place. “Fort Awesome is a lonely place in the winter—just me and the hounds,” Mr. James muses. For every crushing defeat and ostensible personal failing, Dave displays a silver lining. He becomes ever more endearing, in a Wile E.Coyote way; he gets a cool new roommate. Even as NewsRadio crumbles as a franchise, the milieu that is creating this endlessly absorbing character grows more appealing.

Grade: “Stinkbutt,” B-; “Apartment,” B+

Stray observations:

  • Toby Huss’s best moment is when Jimmy introduces him to Dave as the protector of the rich and famous—Goldie Hawn, Donald Trump, Princess Di. After Dave mocks the last name on that list, Jack Frost mutters, “We still have Goldie.”
  • Art comes first for Joe. Actually, places 1, 2, and 3 are taken up by art. His job is fourth.
  • “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark,” Max muses in Dave’s presence. “Shouldn’t you be doing this foreign report on the air?” Dave responds distractedly.
  • Another example of Dave’s wonderful rhetorical flourishes in even the most mundance conversations: “This scar of yours, is it sensitive to atmospheric disturbances, can it predict rain, does it talk? Then it is of no interest to me!”
  • Hey, it’s 1999!  Live 24-hour webcams, enlightened people can wear whatever they want.
  • Maybe my favorite line of the week, snuck in under the radar during the scene where Mr. James is tallying up the staff votes for who gets the apartment: “What is this, an election or something?” “No, it’s a popularity contest.”
  • Max’s attempt to counteract Lisa’s cute-puppy Internet appeal: “I hear some dogs are happier at the pound! That’s where their friends are!”
  • Jack Frost’s impersonations are singularly unconvincing. And apparently, they weren’t any better in the past, when he was on Oprah as “Pepe Lopez, the world’s foremost authority on nuclear waste.”
  • Mr. James’ goatee is gone, so now of course the staff informs him that the ladies found it sexy.
  • “The winner will get a letter of recommendation from me, James James, the man so nice they named me twice.”
  • “The correct answer is Judge Reinhold. Judge Reinhold.”

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