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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "The Breakup" and "The Shrink"

Illustration for article titled iNewsRadio/i: The Breakup and The Shrink
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Illustration for article titled iNewsRadio/i: The Breakup and The Shrink

You know when you rave about a TV show to your friends or co-workers, and they come back in a few days and say, "Yeah, I tuned in, but I couldn't see what's so special about it," and you say, "That wasn't a very good episode; I promise, it's really better than that"? You know how you feel kind of desperate and crazy trying to convince them against the evidence of their own eyes, as if you're one step away from becoming a fanatic yelling on a street corner and putting tinfoil on the windows?

I imagine there were Newsradio obsessives in exactly that situation after "The Breakup." A few episodes into the second season, we fans felt the momentum and the buzz building. This is our moment! And then Tommy from Customer Service reports being underwhelmed. We start to wonder: are we the crazy ones?

So many of the elements of effective NR comedy are present in "The Breakup": Bill's unfocused suspicion, open-plan office eavesdropping, Matthew's heedless enthusiasm, and Dave and Lisa in Bickering Bickersons mode. They've had a fight the night before in which Dave let slip the b-word (Beth: "we are talking about bitch, right?"), and now Lisa's giving him the cold shoulder. Beth is about to snap because of the strain of keeping the relationship secret from the staff. Meanwhile, Catherine would prefer that everyone ignore her birthday, but when Bill insists on broadcasting his felicitations ("Here's to 36 more wonderful years!"), she employs all her wiles to discover his birthday and return the favor.

But it mostly falls flat, and it's up to us to figure out why. Here's my theory: The episode is mostly designed to solve a story problem, to move the Newsradio premise from point A to point B. Dave and Lisa's secret romance is played out, and the creative team decided that they needed to go public so the show could get on to other business. "The Breakup" is largely tactical, then, and it shows. When Beth contrives to make Dave and Lisa think that the staff already knows in order to make them admit it, it's not only unbelievable — it's highly conventional. Hoary, even. Hasn't this plot device been trotted out in every sitcom since the Paleolithic era? It's disappointing that the writers couldn't think of any way to twist it into something less expected.

Even though Bill gets some choice moments in both storylines — I love his quickly-abandoned interrogations of Beth and Lisa over the keys and the white sock in a plastic bag, and his foiling of Catherine's machinations — the Catherine-birthday storyline crosses the line from playful pranks to near-hostility. It's probably just my own dread of conflict and my hatred of practical jokes, but I get uncomfortable when the staff is hateful to each other. When Bill is tormenting Matthew, it works because Matthew's pathetic sense of wounded dignity keeps our sympathies where they belong and because everybody else will stand up for him, but in the Catherine-Bill fight there's no one to root for: Catherine is driven by pure vanity, and Bill is just being mean.

Extract some of the elements, though, and you could put together a clip reel of good stuff: Dave feeding Beth a full rundown of lies for Matthew and Bill, Beth trying to hold it all together at the conference table ("Lisa's fine, menstrually"), Matthew providing running commentary on Catherine's extraction of his gift from the big box and tissue paper, and Dave doing his lurching self-conscious walk (the one with the exaggerated head bobs that attempts to say, "No problem, just walking from here to there!") as he and Lisa exit his office to admit the relationship to the staff. For anyone tuning in for the first time back in 1995, though, I think they'd be hard pressed to unwrap the latent genius from all the extraneous wrapping in this episode.

The show perks up (at first) in "The Shrink," an episode with a solid premise tailor-made for the Newsradio style. The staff is at each other's throats, and Jimmy calls in Dr. Frank (John Ritter) to spend a day counseling them and clearing up the stressful vibe. Dave is wounded not only by his employees' eager embrace of Dr. Frank's advice, but also by the revelation that Lisa had an affair with him when she was in his psychology class in college. In the office's most visible example of pathology, Bill has erected a freestanding cubicle around his desk to get the privacy he needs for psychic equilibrium (and for smoking).

The show's unique spin on the center-eccentric formula is on full display in the first two acts of "The Shrink." An element of office culture that predates Dave's arrival puzzles and perturbs him. The staff responds with relief and enthusiasm to what Dave perceives as unwarranted intervention in his domain. A confident and charismatic outsider threatens Dave's position in the office. Best of all, the cubicle itself, which is always shot so that the gray walls take up the entire bottom half of the screen, creating only a sliver of space above it for interaction among disembodied heads. Framing-based comedy … it's the show's bread and butter.

But something goes terribly wrong in the last act. There's a classic sitcom reversal: the powerless gain power, the mighty are dethroned, what was topsy-turvy is set aright. Except it's not aright. Dave shouldn't become smug and confident — that's not his character, and besides, it's kind of ugly. Dr. Frank should not be humiliated — we've gotten too much pleasure from his easy competence, and besides, he really seems to help people that we care about; what's the point of exposing him with a moralistic "physician, heal thyself" twist? It's Dave's ascendancy that bothers me most, I confess. I find vindictive Dave and even magnanimous-winner Dave antithetical to the comic tone of the show, and the laughs I enjoyed prior to his transformation start to feel hollow.

So let's go back to that cubicle, shall we? Because that's sheer genius. Three examples: (1) Joe prairie-dogging up out of the cubicle to exclaim how spacious it is just after Bill's told Matthew that there's no room for him. (2) Bill "taking the elevator" down from talking with Dave (the sudden, swift descent is explosively funny mime). (3) Matthew getting his dander up and demanding "I want this cubicle removed — immediately!" to a cubicle that (unbeknownst to him) contains no Bill.

What's great about the cubicle — like the previous gags of food appearing on Bill's desk and his smoking habit — is that it mines comedy out of the redefinition of space. Bill's character depends upon him carrying his own reality around with him (in a moving ten-foot radius, like his ideal office smoking area), and when he creates actual physical manifestations of that alternate-reality bubble, everyone else bumps up against it and either makes allowances or engenders conflict. Other characters do it too, or try — Matthew generally fails miserably (although his efforts shed new light on his Bill McNeal hero worship, which has yet to emerge in the series), but Jimmy James manages it without any fuss at all, and with tangible delight instead of Bill's arrogant entitlement. There's almost too many examples of this phenomenon coming up to list: the cane, the men's bathroom, the piano in the lobby… It's a Newsradio staple. And I'd rather meditate on its brilliance than dwell on poor John Ritter, whose grace and charm are systematically beaten out of him by the end of the show.

Grade: "The Breakup," C+; "The Shrink," B+

Stray observations:

- Vicki Lewis does especially fine work in a losing cause in "The Breakup," capped by her spontaneous, near-hysterical story about a ticket mishap when Joe enters the break room while she's begging Dave and Lisa to come clean about their relationship.

- I think I know what bothers me about the cantina set: It's too shallow. The characters sit at the bar, all in a row, and behind them there's just enough room for a table of extras, and then the wall. The depth of the newsroom set, with its many opportunities for movement and many visual planes, seems so integral to the comedy that I feel claustrophobic in the cantina.

- Hey, It's 1995! Watch: Lisa gives Beth 3.25" floppy disks to take to Dave.

- Isn't it great to see guest stars on television out of their familiar sitcom elements? John Ritter's power as a comic actor is suddenly on display, turned up to full wattage, when he's not doing what we expect out of him. Check out his masterful use of body language, his command of the set. It truly hurts me when he's cut down to size, because before that I was completely in his thrall.

- Dave, after he opens up to Dr. Frank: "I kind of enjoyed that. … It was okay!"

- Is this the first time we've seen Matthew playing solitaire on his office computer? By the way, Newsradio, please invest in some 30 fps monitor displays so that I don't get mesmerized by the slow screen flicker. Oh, and also invest in time travel.

- I always disbelieve television characters when they laugh hysterically over the reveal of someone's funny name. I don't believe it here when everyone breaks up over "Evelyn," and I don't believe it on Seinfeld when they fall out over "Cosmo." Fakey fake fake.

- At first that gray wrap top Maura wears throughout most of "The Breakup" is stunning, but the more we see it, the more its … pointyness … proves distracting.

- Bill's line of the week: "Wow, secret keys."

- Dave's line of the week: "I love advice that rhymes."

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