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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Bob Newhart Show stages a cage match of wits

Illustration for article titled iThe Bob Newhart Show /istages a cage match of wits

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the premiere of WGN’s Underground, we’re honoring TV episodes about great escapes.

The Bob Newhart Show, “Caged Fury” (season five, episode two; originally aired 10/2/76)

The Bob Newhart Show was the ultimate in understated sitcom sophistication, so describing the escape depicted in “Caged Fury” as “great” requires the dry delivery that’s the lingua franca in the home and office of Chicago psychologist Dr. Robert Hartley (Bob Newhart). Spinning a storage locker variation on the old “locked in a freezer” plot, the stakes of “Caged Fury” are “high” like anticipation for Bob and Emily Hartley’s bicentennial costume party is “high”; it’s a whiz-bang thriller in the same way Elliot Carlin’s (Jack Riley) chunky necktie and wide-notch lapels is the outfit of a Revolutionary spy. The escape attempts and the action peak simultaneously, when Bob impotently rams his right shoulder into a locked door, failing to break through the barrier separating him and Emily from their guests. The sarcasm is even baked into the episode’s title, which riffs off the same T&A extravaganzas that also inspired Charlie’s Angels’ “Angels In Chains.” (The TV writers of 1976 must’ve spent most of their summers at the grindhouse—“Caged Fury” and “Angels In Chains” premiered 18 days apart from each other that October.)


And yet “Caged Fury” still captures the stir-craziness of the genre, devoting most of its second act to a chamber play starring Bob, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), and the stuff that’s piled up over the course of their marriage. Physical stuff as well as emotional stuff: Stuck in the basement with nothing but wedding photos and sporting goods to keep them company, the Hartleys’ frustration unearths simmering grievances and fuels petty sniping. Newhart and Pleshette made up one of TV’s greatest fake couples, and though that marriage was never immune to occasional bouts of Lockhornsism, the fact that they’re usually such good sports intensifies the impact of “Caged Fury”’s punches. Eventually, a scene from the party (with an all-time great visual gag) relieves some of the tension; later, a storage-locker staging of a signature Bob Newhart shot (Bob and Emily, upright, gabbing across the bed they share) signals the end of the fight. Alliances are re-established, and they’ve moved on to a quintessential topic of Hartley conversation: Who gets all the stuff in the locker if they die down there?

The closed-quarters centerpiece of “Caged Fury” is foreshadowed in the episode’s opening sequence, in which Dr. Hartley and Mr. Carlin talk through the latter’s fears of agriculture, open spaces, snails, and small spaces. (Bob: “In addition to your other problems, maybe you’re claustrophobic.” Elliot: “What do they call it when a person’s claustrophobic?”) It’s a clever bit of scripting by husband-and-wife duo Gordon and Lynne Farr, whose marital status was reflected in a handful of scripts about the domestic lives of Bob, Emily, and company. “Caged Fury” mines a couple’s spat for laughs, but it’s not down on the institution. It’s the storage locker that’s trapped Bob and Emily, not their marriage. Neither case calls for an urgent escape.

Availability: “Caged Fury,” as well as the rest of The Bob Newhart Show’s six seasons, is available on DVD.

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