When a sitcom is clicking on all cylinders, it doesn't even need much of a concept to be funny, fresh, and inventive. A couple of timeless gag structures, a little commitment to timing and staging, and the energy of the participants is all it takes. This week's trifecta of album-titled episodes contains, arguably, only one truly memorable main plotline. But each one piles on the throwaway gags and makes perfect use of the office setting. Let's look at the delights that linger after each one in turn.
"Houses Of The Holy"
Okay, maybe David Cross's guest turn as Jimmy James' weird nephew Theo constitutes a second memorable main plotline. (The one I'm thinking about is below.) But really, it's not in how the situation is set up but in the skewed, resigned attitude that Cross takes to his only attractive quality: his magic. "Oh, wait, where did it go?" he announces while rolling his eyes after setting a $100 on fire. Adding to the enjoyment is the fact that Beth is all the way back after a couple of down episodes, flipping through the whole gamut of emotions in the space of twenty minutes while she falls in and out of love with Theo. And even while in the midst of each emotion -- infatuation, disgust, weariness -- she seems to be almost over it, on to the next one already. It's a highly idiosyncratic way to play the classic ditz, who usually is portrayed as someone wholly in the moment, and it makes for fascinating viewing.
Then there's the duct-taped-together coffee table in Dave's office that falls apart whenever Bill enters. (I love a sight gag.) And Beth and Lisa's girlfriends relationship (which will continue to provide a crucial foil during Lisa and Dave's breakup) gets established via that well-known bonding activity, eating peanut butter out of an industrial-size jar with plastic spoons. I'm not all that interested in the storyline where Bill puts Joe on the air, but it does allow Bill to dash through the office in fear when he hears Joe reading the news. We're approaching the season two pinnacle of the Newsradio shot -- characters running into and/or out of a static frame -- and Bill is warming us up.
Stewart is back, and Dave has had it. When Lisa insists on continuing to talk to her ex-boyfriend on the phone, Dave engineers a showdown at a restaurant to try to give Stewart the message that the relationship is over. Meanwhile Bill and Catherine are being egged on by Joe in an escalating series of practical jokes that culminates with naked pictures of both on some newfangled mid-nineties invention called the Internet. Although the joys are largely around the edges of these stories, the big climax at the restaurant plays with a lot of emotion. Poor Dave fears the connection between Lisa and Stewart, and who hasn't been there -- unable to compete with a long shared history of in-jokes and common acquaintances? When they won't tell him how he reminds them of Howie Maxfield, he guesses anxiously: "Was he deformed, disfigured in some way?" But he finally gets his dander up and confronts Lisa about her inability to commit.
Here's an episode more chock-full of out-of-nowhere jokes, emerging from the fringes of the main storylines. "What kind of man writes and records a song as a joke?" Dave demands angrily, only to be immediately answered by Matthew: "Weird Al Yankovic." (In this week's episodes, we find that Matthew is a Weird Al fan, an Archie comics reader, and a Disney animation fan. Yeah, they really had that character completely pegged.) When Bill complains that Catherine has forwarded his office phone to a salsa station, Dave answers the trivia question in a sudden burst of Spanish (with Bill's distracted assistance), then protests after Bill hangs up that they just won $94. And of course, Beth is in full form, trying to start catchphrases ("bitchcakes" and "bunnymaker") and making fun of Lisa's awkward reference to Dave as her lover ("how often do you make luuuuv with your luvvahhhh?").
This is the one really strong A-story to which I referred above: Dave and Lisa communicating by memo after their breakup. Oh, the comic possibilities of Dave reading aloud from slips of paper! All the while, Jimmy James is sitting at the conference table in a headset, playing with executive desk toys and running through the 17 names left on his potential wife list. After Dave reads Lisa's first memo in response to his apparently predictable protest that the conceit is absurd ("absurd or not ..."), he writes on it: "To Lisa from Dave, Re: Memos ... screw ... this!" only to be handed a memo in return: "Handwritten memos will not be accepted." Lisa's collection of memos prepared in advance for every situation has more than a whiff of Wile E. Coyote about it, and it's an endless source of happiness.
And how can you beat the extended joke based around the shared office printer? Again, it's a situation that is familiar to the denizens of modern offices, but also has its roots in classic structures about losing control of communications -- misdirected letters, secret files, and the like. Dave gets to scuttle about quite a bit in "Led Zeppelin," and it doesn't get any better than when he leans over to delete the file on his laptop then scurries out to the printer to grab each sheet as it comes out. (Is that an AppleWriter?) The scene just goes on and on as bits of his 24-page love-letter-memo come out of every fax machine and printer in the office, brought to him by staff members who have each familiarized themselves with the contents. And at the end of the episode, there's the white envelope, peeking out of the crease in the elevator door ... unseen and unread by the person for whom it was intended. Poignant, really.
Three more and I'm out for the season. Back here for one final round next week, same WNYX time, same WNYX channel.
Grade: "HOTH," B+; "PG," B+; "LZ," A-
- Two instances of Dave's lines being overdubbed in post-production this week: "If Stewart comes by looking to get some, I'll direct him to your desk"; and "that's a typo -- it's supposed to say pushy." That last one doesn't make any sense, does it?
- Matthew whirling around with his tray full of urine tea presages one of the best cold-open pratfalls of the entire show. "I used to be a waiter, I'm fine!"
- I barely mentioned Matthew in the body of this post, but in a sign that Newsradio gets the best out of every cast member when it's really cooking, Matthew is just hilarious in all three episodes. "Magic mouth coin? Give it up! ... What's it do?" he enthuses, as he pops the quarter in his mouth ... the one that Beth just told us Theo pulled out of her mouth "with his tooonnnngue." "Reggie!" he chuckles fondly as he speculates on which Archie Comics character Dave most resembles. "I hope this isn't out of line, but you have beautiful breasts," he observes woodenly while transfixed by Catherine's internet nudie shot. And coming out of the breakroom after weeping hysterically over Dave and Lisa's split, he explains, voice breaking, "Just lookin' for my chips ... found 'em."
- Wanna know what I mean by the signature Newsradio shot? It's Theo sprinting away to get Beth some water from the first floor while she flops over in despair. But even more, it's Catherine chasing a screeching Joe through the frame just after Matthew claims that the office vibe is like a morgue.
- Hey, It's 1996! Special Triple-Sized Edition: Melrose Place, the Unabomber manifesto, cheesecake shots of Teri Hatcher, Winona Ryder, Wynona Judd, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, Bridges of Madison County.
- It's time the men got some wardrobe love. Cheers for Dave in that tailored black suit in "HOTH"! Cheers for Joe's not-too-sloppy untucked shirts! Jeers for Bill's three-piece brown number in "LZ." And I'll let the Y-chromosome holders among us critique Lisa's underwear. Within reason.
- Why is there a picture of Martin Luther on the banquette where Lisa, Dave, and Stewart are having dinner?
- "Hello Cleveland! Are you ready? Here comes Grand ... Funk ... Railroad!"