Like it or not, Newsradio became increasingly disconnected from reality as the series went on. Personally, I'm in the "like it? no — love it!" camp. Why quibble about whether a sitcom, one of the most artificial theatrical conventions this side of Kabuki, is grounded in realism? Like many of the most inventive television shows, Newsradio can soar to its greatest heights when it acknowledges the slender thread tethering it to recognizable human behavior and situations by yanking on it as hard as possible. (There's a kite metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm trying to quit.)
In "The Song Remains The Same" (or as it would have been called if the writers had had any inkling that people might want to, you know, talk about episodes some day, "New Hampshire Primary"), the show turns its surrealism on its head almost before it started being surreal. Bill has to play straight man to Jimmy James' zaniness, pretending not to notice the April-Fools-in-February pranks so that he can impress a Wall Street Journal reporter doing a story on him. The storyline culminates in the sublime scene in which a gorilla with a bunch of balloons runs behind an impervious Bill and the reporter, who continues his monologue even while his chair rises three feet off the floor.
In fact, the setup of two characters talking seriously while mayhem commences behind them was so nice that Tom Cherones used it twice. Dave and Lisa carry on an intense conversation about Matthew's competence to cover the New Hampshire primaries while Matthew, framed between the two, tries in vain to stuff springy fabric snakes back into his joke salted nuts canister. Matthew's eagerness to get in on the prankishness provides the episode's sweetest moments: Joe explaining that Matthew should open up the canister himself because "sometimes they mess up and put a real can of nuts in with the joke ones," and Matthew offering the can to the Wall Street Journal reporter with "how about you, dear sir, salted nut?"
The delightful A-story is Dave's struggle with the New Hampshire primary coverage; he can't send Lisa because the office suspects she's getting all the plum assignment by virtue of their relationship, but Matthew is not only unqualified but unable to travel because of his two cats. The impromptu game show setup in Dave's office (which Matthew wins not only because of superior knowledge but because he, like Dave, is far more interested in game show similitude than in winning) is one of Newsradio's classic set pieces: Matthew leaning in to an imaginary microphone to announce his answers, Dave's delight in correcting Lisa ("Oh, I'm sorry, we were looking for … Dartmouth. Dartmouth."), and Lisa's slow burn as she's bested ("Why don't you just ask Herb Stempel here?") make for terrific sustained comedy.
But for some reason the B-story concerning Beth's love affair with the guy whose desk she's cleaning out doesn't work as well for me. Maybe it's because Vicki Lewis chooses to slow down her delivery and her whole demeanor. Instead of being manically excited about her detective work, she moons. The rhythm seems off and draggy. But the kicker is tremendous: Beth declares her love to Anonymous Extra when he comes back in to pick up some tax forms, only to find that her Brian is a curmudgeonly dude who still very much works in the office. "Who cleaned out my desk?" he demands angrily as the credits roll.
"Zoso" (aka "Dumb Donald Hat") isn't as peppy. Beth invents a floppy three-quarter tuque with eyeholes, intending to take advantage of the mid-nineties nostalgia for the seventies by tapping into the lucrative Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids novelty hat market. Too much of this story takes place in the relatively cramped confines of the breakroom, and Beth and Jimmy's trip to see George Hamilton as a mobbed-up department store buyer feels forced. But I think the hand of series creator Paul Simms, one of the episode's writers, can be discerned in the linkages that are forged between that story and Lisa asking for a raise. The sequence where Lisa ducks into the breakroom to listen to Mr. James' negotiating tips, then bursts out to try them out on Dave, gives Maura Tierney a chance to do her quick-change emotion trick — from ebullient, confident, and even smug, to confused and dejected in five seconds flat.
You also can't beat Bill pretending to be British — not even with a bobby's billy club. He's gotten himself into hot water by affecting a British accent to impress a woman, and since she's coming up to the office he asks the staff to play along. While Bill's accent is minimal — really confined to British expressions rather than to any change in his enunciation — Matthew goes whole hog. "Howdy do, guvnah, what's all this then?" he greets the woman jovially. "So how long have you and Lord Mac of Neal been shagging?"
And even though the storylines are thin and there's no flash of inspiration to the writing here, James Burrows makes the most of what he's got. Jimmy pouring cream into the coffeemaker's carafe and drinking right out of it … Lisa raiding Dave's desk for the stash of blue shirts we saw way back in "Goofy Ball" … Lisa singing the song that she wants $3200 to help Stuart record ("Come back Lisa … you little lovekiller … come back lisalisamiller"). Well-staged, well-timed, well-sold bits. The start value of "Zoso" isn't very high, but those execution scores are coming up 8 across the board.
Let's face it: The main reason why this week's episodes make me happy is that they feature grinning Dave. I love grinning Dave. He's not the boss man ("Dave the boss can be such a jerk, it's always the budget with him!"). He's finding a way to enjoys the cracks in the workplace armor. He's on the side of the eccentrics, and sometimes he can't help but let it show.
Grade: "TSRTS," B+; "Zoso," B
- Sometimes the best lines aren't the ones that get the laugh track goose. I'm inordinately delighted by Dave's rejoinder to Lisa when she comes into his office to complain about Matthew getting the New Hampshire assignment: "I am not going to be harangued into rescinding this directive."
- Variation on the signature Newsradio shot: WSJ reporter asks for a drink of water, Bill hastily steers him out of frame stage right, water dumps on nobody stage left.
- Check out the turning radius on this little joke. Lisa responds to the news about Matthew's refusal to anger his cats by traveling: "And people say you're whipped!" Dave then confesses, somewhat abashedly, "Yes, they do." First it was about being emasculated — but then it became about Dave being aware that people are claiming that he's emasculated. Nifty trick, that.
- If Newsradio Characters Had Facebook Pages: Dave's favorite movie: Logan's Run. Lisa's favorite movie: Persona. Beth's favorite book: The Firm.
- Hey, It's 1996! Alert: "OK, now I feel like I'm in a Quentin Tarantino movie … and I want out."
- Somebody should put together a clip reel of Dave reading things aloud — it's a real comic gift of his, akin to Bob Newhart's famous talent for conveying telephone conversations from only one side. Here he demonstrates it by reading the note that Beth found in Brian's desk alongside the rose stem: "If I did get the courage to give this to you, please disregard above."
- "This isn't the morning zoo on K-CRAP with Boogerman and the Gang!"