The Bob Newhart Show might be the driest American sitcom to ever attain anything like major success. While the show was buoyed by running after The Mary Tyler Moore Show for much of its run, making it more of a beneficiary of a good time slot than a breakout hit, in some ways, Bob Newhart has aged even better than that series. Mary Tyler Moore was more historically important, but the center of the show is the uneasy tension arising from the increased entry of women into the workplace in the ’60s and ’70s, which gives the series a certain quaintness in 2014. Bob Newhart—produced by MTM Enterprises, the studio behind Mary Tyler Moore—is about the perils of trying to lead a mentally sound and fulfilling life in the morass of modern society. It’s a subject that will never go out of fashion—even if the series’ ’70s trappings and outfits seem occasionally ridiculous.
The Bob Newhart Show has gotten even more modern in tone with the passage of time, an unusual trick for a TV show. The complete series, collected on DVD for the first time by Shout Factory recently, centers on the home and work lives of Dr. Bob Hartley (Newhart), a Chicago psychologist whose life is rigidly defined by dealing with his patients—both individually and in the group therapy sessions that became a famous source of jokes for the show. The personalities at his office—orthodontist Jerry (Peter Bonerz) and their receptionist, Carol (Marcia Wallace)—are rarely the draw for the show, but they’re perfectly fine as foils both for Bob and his patients.
It’s on the other side of the series that the show crackles to life. When Bob goes home, he arrives to his wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), and the relationship between the two is the thing about the show that most feels like something no network executive would ever greenlight today. The two are deeply in love, and reading between the lines of their dialogue also reveals they’re having lots of sex. But the show codes their conversation as their sex, taking a tip from the great screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. There’s nothing they love so much as ribbing each other with jokes that would be acidic in lesser hands but feel affectionate coming from the mouths of Newhart and Pleshette. What’s more, the two don’t have children and rarely discuss having them. This was because Newhart didn’t want the show to turn into one where he played off of cute kids, but it played as quietly revolutionary at the time and even more so now. The Hartleys are eternally childless, finding their fulfillment in their professional lives and each other, building a marriage that’s more about finding a solid partner to navigate life with than anything else.
The Bob Newhart Show is also notable for breaking down into three rough eras of two seasons each. Where many other sitcoms of this era (the best ever for American sitcoms) were shepherded by a handful of the same producers from start to finish, Bob Newhart began life as a sort of drier, chillier riff on Mary Tyler Moore, under the tutelage of Lorenzo Music and David Davis. This version of the show, its weakest but still an enjoyable one, ran for the first two years, before spending the next two seasons with Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses working first as head writers, then as showrunners. Tarses’ darkly misanthropic streak and lack of love for the sitcom form blended well with a show about psychoanalysis, and the series became one of the darker sitcoms in TV history. By its fifth (and best) season, it was practically death-obsessed, with frequent riffs on suicide and serious psychological conditions. Yet these final two seasons (which gave some of the best TV writers in history their big break) also up an absurdist quality that was already in the show to quantities that hadn’t been seen in the sitcom since the heyday of Green Acres.
That absurdism also taught future writers who would work on shows starring Newhart a valuable lesson: Newhart, in and of himself, is not the driver of the story. He is, instead, the reactor, the modern man trapped in an absurd system and forced to remark quietly on how bizarre it is. Despite being deliberately low-concept, The Bob Newhart Show is one of the weirdest sitcoms in history, especially as it goes on. Even the characters who seem to be the most traditional sitcom types, like Bill Daily’s Howard Borden, go beyond what they initially seem to be (in Howard’s case, a generic dumb guy) and take on a specificity that other shows would avoid. Howard, for instance, is a navigator for an airline, who has terrible luck in love and a tendency to spiral blame for things he’s done wrong outward at others. What seemed like a generic riff on Mary’s Ted Baxter early in the show’s run becomes something else entirely—not a buffoon but, rather, a man limited by his own perceptions.
All of this reaches its apex in the show’s best character, Jack Riley’s Elliot Carlin, one of Bob’s patients and an almost perfect foil for Dr. Hartley, his dark, dour demeanor acting like a funhouse-mirror version of his therapist. The scenes between the two can feel like minimalist one-act plays at times, with Newhart and Riley bouncing off of each other in barely varying monotones that take on the vibe of complex business negotiations disguised as therapy sessions. In Carlin and Hartley, the show found two very similar men who looked at the dehumanizing state of American society of the ’70s and chose wildly different reactions. Hartley, an optimist, chose to believe people could improve themselves; Carlin, a pessimist, was pretty sure they never would. The genius of The Bob Newhart Show was how it knew Carlin was right but admired Bob Hartley for trying anyway.
The one episode you must watch: Though it features minimal appearances from Carlin, season five’s second episode, “Caged Fury,” is a terrific example of the show performing at its top level, including a Fourth Of July costume party, lengthy scenes where Bob and Emily spar as a substitute for sex, and a unique time capsule look at the American bicentennial celebration.