One week a month, Watch This offers television recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the return of Fox’s Wayward Pines, our favorite episodes about weird towns.
WKRP In Cincinnati, “Jennifer Moves” (season three, episode two; originally aired 11/8/80)
WKRP’s formula of workplace sitcom, social commentary, and character comedy had plenty of room for experimentation during its four-season run. Whether it was Gordon Jump’s ineffectual but good-hearted boss having a Christmas Carol fantasy, or a The Sting-worthy caper with the gang stealing back surreptitiously shot nude pictures of Loni Anderson’s preternaturally capable and beautiful receptionist Jennifer, WKRP had room for it all. It even had room for a foray into 1970s paranoia horror, when Jennifer’s purchase of a suburban house sees the show skillfully introduce just enough creeping weirdness to suggest that Jennifer’s chosen to move into The Twilight Zone.
Things start out ordinarily enough at the station—it’s only when nerdy newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) stalks obnoxious salesman Herb Tarlek with a pair of scissors that we’re clued in to what’s in store. Sure, Les is a weirdo, but it’s still jarring.
Most of the episode takes place in Jennifer’s kitchen, as the WKRP crew helps her move—and the citizens of the show’s fictional Cincinnati suburb of Landersville start filtering in. There are Jennifer’s new next-door neighbors, Ken and Dottie, who fulfill their sitcom stereotypes of lustful suburban husband and jealous wife with a touch too much sameness—from their use of the same phrase upon meeting their sexy new neighbor (“I can’t believe this is happening to me”) to the fact that they’re wearing the exact same outfit.
The mild-mannered Mr. Furgood has a petition about the planned construction project of a massive office building just a block away from Jennifer’s new house. When Jennifer blanches, “I didn’t know about that,” the little guy’s haunted “none of us did” segues into a monologue about the hive of corruption at city hall and observations about good and evil that have clearly left him a little unbalanced. “You don’t find out about the rot and scum of local government until you get knee-deep in it,” he says ominously.
Les doesn’t help any, immediately latching onto the idea that the strange noises he hears means the place is haunted, comparing it to the cavernous home of his late Aunt Eureka, who went mad in a house swarming with free-roaming parakeets.
And then there’s Wayne Craven, the beaming phone company representative whose announced purpose of welcoming Jennifer to the neighborhood sees him smilingly admitting that, yes, because of the monopoly’s lack of competition, they’re perfectly comfortable with the fact that Jennifer might be without service for a month. That’s before he starts hitting on the her with an unsettlingly sleazy, “Well baby, I guess it’s just you and me.” Thankfully, station hunk Andy Travis pops back in to shoo the guy away, right before a cop and an old lady enter to inform Jennifer that not only has her runaway piano totaled the lady’s hatchback, but that there’s a “sex pervert” in the neighborhood—pretending to be from the phone company. (“He’s quite nice,” says the old lady, helping herself to Jennifer’s proffered sherry right from the bottle, a laugh line as uncomfortable now as it was then.)
The episode keeps seeding in other little details throughout. Bailey offhandedly observes that every man they’ve encountered in Landersville has precisely the same male-pattern baldness. A sudden crash of thunder and lightning momentarily knocks out the power. There’s no music in the episode, and shots often take an extra beat. What’s doubly unnerving is that it’s the ever-unflappable Jennifer who’s put ill at ease. She reasserts her authority by the end (“Ignore it,” she smilingly tells the rattled cop after the lights go out), but also spins a skillful tale of terror the next day at work in revenge for Les’ unhelpful spookiness: that she did encounter the malevolent spirit the night before—and gave it Les’ address.
Availability: “Jennifer Moves,” along with the entire run of WKRP In Cincinnati, is available on DVD.