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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "Towers"/"Hair"

Illustration for article titled NewsRadio: "Towers"/"Hair"
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Portrait of a television show in its twilight season. Wondering what legacy it will leave. Resentful of passing years and fading fashions. Resorting to hypnosis to conjure wacky hijinks, possibly cure whatever block is keeping it from ongoing success. These are the crisis episodes for NewsRadio season 5. It’s halfway through the season, and it must have been clear at the time that the fairy godmother for the show got mugged on her way to the set (possibly by hippies). Four seasons of building an identity and imagining its possibilities, a half-season of trying desperately to hold on after tragedy wrecks a vital cog in that self-image, and now it all seems up for grabs. What will NewsRadio be as it plays out its string? And how will people a dozen years later remember it?

“Towers” (season 5 episode 13, original airdate 2/2/99)

I am unusually moved by the spectacle of Matthew thrown for a loop by his thirtieth birthday. His flailing effort to find some target for his free-floating anger makes perfect sense to me. When we start to sense that our life is being used up, drop by drop, without becoming what we dreamed — or when the age to which we clung as part of our identity inexorably drifts into our past — who can we blame? Might as well don some sort of prefab costume that says “fuck you!” to the world around us and pretend it’s all political. It’s the only way we can avoid the sad realization that we are that world, that there’s no them, that it’s all us and always has been.

Plus, Matthew sitting defiantly yet brokenly on the breakroom table screaming “Bollocks!” just might be the pinnacle of Andy Dick’s whole career. Dick is regularly brilliant in NewsRadio — frequently mind-bendingly so — because of the layers to his performance. Matthew isn’t just a manchild or a dork or a spaz; he’s aware at some level of the exasperation he creates around him, and sometimes that awareness breaks out in moments of real despair. Here it’s all bubbling right below the clown-white facepaint surface, such that his punk act and the wearying effort of maintaining a doomed facade are switching places in his demeanor with dizzying rapidity, sometimes several times within a single scene or speech. This performance could almost redeem the last few subplots in which Matthew torments Lisa; perhaps that trope was just an anticipatory attempt to claim victimhood by foisting the blame for who he’s become onto a third party.

Mr. James’s crisis is the same issue played out at a higher class level. How can I be somebody unless other people acknowledge the somebody that I am — and continue to do so long after I’m gone? Nobody knows who Guggenheim was, after all, but they say his name every day because he built an ugly building.  (Well, Lisa knows who Guggenheim was, but Jimmy’s response to her answer is telling — who Guggenheim really was is immaterial, because only the material heft of the building still exists in our time to be called by his name.) His initial plan to build giant 200-story towers shaped like the letters JJ is undone when Lisa, in her role as reporter, dutifully turns their sun-eclipsing potential into a special report and inspires an angry mob to attack him.  Lisa suggests other structures Mr. James might built, like a big-ass bridge or underwater colony, but the latter has already failed (“lost a lot of good divers”), and the former is rejected because bridges are universally the source of complaint rather than admiration (“Traffic was backed up for hours today on the Jimmy James, or some loser jumped off the Jimmy James, or I was on the Jimmy James while my best friend was in bed with my wife”).

Perhaps it’s fitting for a show scrambling to cement some kind of identity and dancing on the edge of its demise that these two stories resolve in schizophrenic fashion. Matthew, to his own satisfaction at least, gets Dave to admit that he doesn’t just want Matthew to stop disrupting the office — he actually cares about Matthew not just like an employee but “oh, let’s say, like a man I guess.” But Mr. James decides that a New York location for his legacy is unimportant, especially since Lisa doesn’t care enough about Londoners to run a radio expose about the damage the JJ Towers will do to their city (“Home of the American Werewolf!”). All is set right in the newsroom, but none of the real conflicts are resolved; the Janus-like dilemma of how to live in the face of inevitable death still stare us in the face as Mr. James whistles by his grave and Matthew pledges to work harder. I know I’m running the risk of taking this whole thing way too seriously, but damn — there aren’t many half-hours of network television that turn the scrutinizing camera eye on themselves quite so nakedly and, in the end, so nihilistically.

“Hair” (season 5 episode 14, original airdate 2/9/99)

And as night follows day, follows the episode full of existential angst is followed by the episode where people get hypnotized and wear crazy costumes. “Hair” is much maligned as the absolute nadir of NewsRadio and the poster child for season 5’s problems. And its attempt to substitute broad takes and pointless absurdity for wit is egregious, there’s no doubt. But the real sin is the decision to take us back repeatedly into Jimmy’s hypnotized head so that we see the newsroom filled with caftaned and headbanded young people. There’s no comedy in that sight beyond the first reveal — and precious little in that first reveal that wasn’t funnier when we first see the 1968 breakroom with its Williamsburg-blue fridge covered with stick-on flowers and those awesome mushroom-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the table. The arc of the episode, where that flowerchild-stuffed bullpen is presented to us as the height of the episode’s comedy, stinks of the kind of creative bankruptcy that insists costumes and set dressing are enough effort to expend on getting laughs.

It’s not a total disaster, though. The B-story — Lisa goes ballistic when Beth and Max insist on spoiling her dog Daisy — is fleet and often charming, utilizing the power of editing to magnificent effect by cutting from Lisa in the booth reading a story about consumer safety to Beth feeding Daisy Raisinets at the table on the other side of the glass. (Lisa abandons the reporting to interrupt the junk food binge, muttering “the recall affects … car seats or something” as she charges for the door.) And even in the midst of the train wreck hippiephobia A-story, there are glimpses of beauty in the Dave-Jimmy-Joe nexus — at least when no overdubbing or forest ranger hats are involved. Responding to Dave’s attempt to overcome his fear through an appeal to greed (by pointing out that Mr. James is losing millions because he won’t let a guy in tie-dye stay in the same room with him), Jimmy protests that “you can’t put a price on irrational terror.” And when Mr. James asserts that hippies are motivated by bloodlust, Dave clarifies, “Sir, I think you’re confusing the hippie with the piranha.”

You could even argue that the sharply edited payoff to the hypnosis fantasy, in which Dave cues Matthew “chicken” (Matthew: “Buk-baahh!”), leading to a sixties-regression view of Jimmy seated next to a chicken (then clutching the chicken in fear, and waking up to find Matthew on his lap), is worth a lot of silliness. It’s nifty and cute, yes, but there’s a lot of pointless, unfunny, and rather pitiable silliness on the way to it. What dominates my response to “Hair” is resentment that Stephen Root has been given basically only one thing to do — cringe in bug-eyed fear — which levels the complex and beautiful Jimmy James character edifice like a nuclear bunker-buster. I’m also angry that the writers persist in trying to force a Beth/Max pairing down our throats, when the season so far has proven that there is just nothing there.

“Hair” represents the tragic hegemony of one bad big idea over a half-dozen small good ones. And yet, one wonders whether even this, one of the worst plots the show ever foisted upon us, could have worked if the show had committed to it more strongly. I’m a defender of the crazy what-if-the-show-were-in-the-Wild-West fantasies of “Space” and “Titanic,” and “Hair” could have been recast in that genre. What if Mr. James’s fear of hippies weren’t the motivation for the newsroom-circa-1968 scenes, but simply one minor element within a completely unmotivated alternate-universe episode where the whole cast is running the station in 1968? Wouldn’t you want to see Dave fighting a losing battle against his essential squareness, Lisa in “Medium Cool” mode, Joe fighting pinkos, Matthew affecting an uninformed love of psychedelia, and Max probably ten years behind the times reciting beatnik poetry? And then in the midst of all that, it just randomly turns out Mr. James has a traumatic experience with what he thinks are hippies?

That’s a mid-life crisis for you.  In retrospect, the answers to the moment’s unanswerable questions seem obvious.  But back in 1999, the show still has some predictable stages of soul-searching to go through — like next week’s dalliance with Tiffani-Amber Thiessen..

Grades: “Towers,” B; “Hair,” C-

Stray observations:

  • The JJ Towers have a food court with its own justice system, two floors just for dogs, and the biggest disco in the world.
  • In case you were wondering, 200 floors still works as an insane height for a building.  In the episode, Lisa protests that it’s about twice the height of the Sears Tower.  Now officially called the Willis Tower, that Chicago structure has 108 occupied floors, surpassed only last year by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai with 160 floors.
  • Hey, It’s 1999!: “Dude, every week is Charles Bronson week on TNT,” Matthew is reading Cracked in the breakroom, software companies are worth $50 million.
  • Dave takes out all the weapons in the parental arsenal to deal with punk Matthew, confining him to the breakroom and opining he won’t like it nearly as much without his comic books to read and the microwave to play with. Matthew abruptly crumbles: “Dave, why are you doing this to me?”
  • Consequences of the JJ Towers: Plants will die, people will get mugged, children will be deprived of vitamin D, and entire families of mutant molepeople will come up from the sewers to enjoy Central Park’s ballfields.
  • After Beth escorts a traumatized Jimmy James to the breakroom for some pudding, Lisa finds him therein holding a plastic pudding cup to his forehead.
  • Sign that I’m going to really enjoy a Season 5 NewsRadio episode: Matthew spits out the word “fool,” e.g., “How’s your precious birthday now, fools?”
  • Eric Stark, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of StarkWare, is all-too-briefly played by the brilliant Dave “Gruber” Allen, perhaps best known as Freaks and Geeks guidance counselor Jeff Rosso and as The Naked Trucker.
  • Lisa protests to Beth that Daisy can’t have donuts; Beth counters: “Allow me to demonstrate: Daisy — donut,” a simple proof that Daisy, when offered donuts, devours same.
  • Joe interrogates Dave to protect Mr. James from hippies: “How do you stand on peace?” “I say give it a chance!” Dave answers with pluck.
  • All software entrepreneurs are not longhairs. Bill Gates has more of a Moe from the Three Stooges cut. Regardless, it’s terrifying.
  • The return of “Wichita Lineman”: We learn that it’s the song to which Matthew is headbanging in the breakroom when he warbles along: “I am a lineman for the countyyyyyyyy…”
  • The chicken says “buk-baaah!” The human says “what up.”
  • Mr. James gleefully contemplates pulling a fast one on New York City: “Things could happen while you’re building a parking garage.”
  • “Good news, Dave.” “Nixon beat Humphrey?”