When Andrea Planbee made Lisa the news director, she also rearranged the "situation" part of this situation comedy. We've talked before about the center-eccentric structure of which NewsRadio is an example — the relatively sane person (with whom the audience identifies) trying to hold together a group of crazies. This week's two episodes demonstrate what happens to Lisa Miller when she has to embrace the role of the center. In short, the effort doesn't so much change her personality as reveal facets of it neither we nor Lisa new before. The center role isn't the chance to be a hero; it's a mirror that exposes all of your flaws.
You'd think that changing roles means a chance to change yourself, to try on a different personality, to grow. The sitcom format discourages that. No matter how much the writers move the pieces into different positions around the board, they are obligated to keep things essentially the same. What's fascinating about "The Secret of Management" and "Look Who's Talking" is how boldly they play with that basic tenet of the form. Almost every plot element deals with the characters' potentials for change, sometimes in the familiar sitcom playacting form (Bill gets a butler, Beth pretends to be the Duchess of Greater North Chesterborough), but more deeply in Lisa's effort to grow into her job, and even subtly in the staff's efforts to reintegrate Matthew into the workplace.
Lisa's desire to change is the A-story of "The Secret of Management." Why does Jimmy feel comfortable enough with Dave to tell him apparently hilarious stories about being "stuck in the elevator with the only remaining living members of Bachman Turner Overdrive, and Turner turns to me and says 'you kinda remind me of Bob Hillis,'" but escapes Lisa's office as quickly as he can ("Anything else?" "Nope." "Okay, then")? Lisa's sure that she can become Jimmy's buddy, too; she just has to bond with him over shared knowledge — like who Bob Hillis is ("he's just a guy," according to Jimmy). Or maybe she just needs secret knowledge that Jimmy has already shared with Dave, but thinks she's not ready for: The Secret Of Management. When Lisa persuades Jimmy to tell her the secret, she's sure that she is on the way to changing in a way that will make her new role fit perfectly. Dave, who's already been through that gauntlet, doesn't have to strive anymore from his new position out in the office; he can just sit back and watch the show. And Jimmy's not inclined to give anything away, either. Despite the hundreds of banal "secrets" he reveals in the quasi-mystical ceremony, management won't get any easier until Lisa finds the single theme underlying all of them. She gives it a game try — "Always consider sound advice, but only follow your instincts" — but that's a maxim that's pure Old Lisa. She may believe she can change, but her effort to shortcut the process is a failure.
The flipside of Lisa's desire to change is her reaction to Bill's adoption efforts in "Look Who's Talking." Bill's plan to become a father is met with pure disbelief by Dave at the staff meeting — "no, you're not!" — but as the evidence mounts that Bill is not only serious but also might be suited for fatherhood, Dave changes his mind. From his new position, he's willing to entertain the notion that people can change. After all, he has. Not voluntarily, but still. Lisa, on the other hand, clings to the belief that Bill cannot change. As he seemingly proves her wrong, Lisa falls into an interesting kind of despair. Her ambitious, perfectionist personality, combined with her precarious position of responsibility, requires that people remain utterly predictable. As Bill collects loving children at the park with no effort, she mutters, "he must be warping them on the inside in some way we can't see." Yet her absolutist attitude leaves her paradoxically less flexible when action by the responsible center is required. Dave, who came around to the notion that Bill might be both serious about raising a child and suited for the job, was also prepared to deal with the consequences if things turn out to be exactly the same as always. He took the precaution of lifting Bill's keys in case the adoption agency visit ended with Bill grabbing a child and making a run for it. Look at the multiple possibilities he's managed to hold simultaneously in his head while Lisa is still trying to wrap her mind around the metaphysical implications of a Bill in a position other than the pigeonhole she's assigned him. And the point isn't that everything's back the way we started (although that's a collateral benefit) — it's that Dave was ready for anything while Lisa was torturously analyzing the implications of events for her own self-understanding. When Lisa lists all of Bill's unfatherlike qualities — his egoism, his self-aborption — Matthew shoots back: "Sounds to me like you're talking about Lisa Miller!" Turns out he was right.
Interesting, too, how Matthew's dissatisfaction with things being back to normal counts as a poke at the constraints of the sitcom format. On the surface, order has been restored and your normal comedy routines can commence. But after being a focus of his co-workers' energies for several weeks, Matthew is finding it difficult to resume his former position. Beth and Joe take him out to lunch to make him feel special, but Matthew bolts when he finds out that Bill isn't coming. Then, although Bill (and his gentleman's gentleman Cadbury) participate in the outing to the kiddie pizza place, it's just not as fun as when Matthew's mom used to bring him there (last week). The message is a familiar one in sitcom territory — be careful messing with identity and group dynamics, because the plan usually spins hilariously out of control — but whereas the theme plays out in a more-or-less standard fashion when Jimmy gives Beth a "duchesshood" so she can bid on him at the big charity bachelor auction, there's a real subtlety to the as-yet-unresolved question of Matthew's status in the office. Even when putting things back the way they were, one can't rely on assumptions about personality based on prior categories. Matthew's peculiar brew of lackeyhood, self-deprecation, and incessant running commentary on his own neuroses has fermented during his time away. After weeks of having to go outside the office to encounter Matthew, even though he was restored to his job and desk at the end of "Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show" we are still in the same situation in the next episode: going offsite in an effort to help him find his feet so he can be part of the group. It's not as simple as most sitcoms make it, NewsRadio appears to be telling us. Change isn't just a mechanism for generating comedy. It's the condition that generates character.
Or if that's too highfalutin for you, just focus on Lisa. She's always been the least eccentric of the eccentrics — although if you scratch her even slightly, the crazy comes pouring out. These episodes are about how the qualities she thinks of as her center-like strengths perversely refuse to function when she gets a chance to act that role. "Do you think we could just skip ahead to the actual secret of management?" she pleads (just before a genius cut to an exasperated Jimmy suddenly wearing a Pharaonic headdress). Nope, Lisa, I don't think we can.
- Wonderful dashing-out-of-the stationary-frame action in "The Secret of Management" by characters who don't ordinarily get to it: Jimmy ducking out of the office after letting slip that there's a secret of management, and Lisa performing a whole series of sprints back and forth after Jimmy invites her to his mansion ("Time is of the essence, let's go!"). In fact, you could enjoy the whole episode as a chance for Lisa and Jimmy to play off each other, culminating in that little Abbott-and-Costello they do in the breakroom ("anybody tell him?" "what" "what are we talking about?").
- Ian Abercrombie, familiar to television viewers as Mr. Pitts (Elaine's boss) on Seinfeld, plays Cadbury the butler. And Mary Lynn Rajksub, a comedian now best known for her role on 24, has a hilarious couple of deadpan lines as the kiddie pizza place waitress: "Ahoy, welcome to Petey the Pirate's Funtime Pizza Palace. Petey the Pirate has prepared a pizza for you in his pirate pizza parlor. Here are your drinks, no refills." Then in the ball pit: "Ahoy mates, it appears as though your keys are forever lost in Davy Jones's locker. Please check for lost items in Petey's Lost and Found Treasure department. Time for my break."
- The whole butler gag works perfectly as a wacky B-story that, counter to all comedy intuition, actually turns out to be far less wacky than the Masonic-ritual A-story. Best moment, Bill's little pursed-lips shake of the head when Cadbury inquires on Dave's behalf whether he is "in."
- The secret of Season Four may be the way irresistible characters get their showcases without relegating the rest of the cast to merely supporting roles. Look at Bill's central performance in "Look Who's Talking," something the writers and Hartman clearly have a great time with … but Beth, Lisa, Joe, and Dave also get not only get good stuff to do, but little dramatic arcs of their own. That said, let's enjoy some Bill quotes, shall we? "Being loved isn't enough for me anymore. I need to give love. I need a baby, end of story." "I wear your scorn as a badge of honor, the scarlet A that stands for Single Dad." "Parenthood is something you can learn while you experience it, like riding a bicycle or filing a restraining order against a crazy aunt." "If this were Logan's Run I'd be soylent green by now." "It's not as easy to find that special someone as you think. I've called literally hundreds of sex lines …" "You must have some extra babies back there somewhere, can't you just check? … You didn't even check!"
- I'm still kind of aghast that the adoption center lady actually takes Bill's bribe! Which changes the wait time for a baby from 4-5 years to 3-4 years.
- Another small and wonderful moment allotted to a guest star: After Joe bids Jimmy's whole wad of $15,000, the elegant lady acting as auctioneer asks, "Do I hear $15,100? No, of course not."
- "Would the gentleman care to cotillion with one's self for yon evening?"
- "If she isn't married, she's usually escorted by a homosexual bachelor friend."
- "I think people are really getting fed up with Muammar Gaddafi, and I'd like to take him down a few notches, what do you think?"
- "I believe their exact words were what kind of jackass hires a discount butler from a classified ad in the local pennysaver? Then I became verbally abusive and they hung up on me."
- "What kind of cookie you got there?" "Cookie."