Here at the end of Season 3, our final episodes look both backwards and forwards. In the backwards camp is "Injury," an episode filmed as part of season 2 but not aired until the following year due to conflicts with NBC Standards and Practices. In the forwards camp is "Space," the first thoroughgoing whacked-out experiment in which the sitcom's situation becomes a thin slab of cake underneath a mountain of what-the-hell icing.
And somewhere in between is "Mistake," yet another Very Special Guest Star Episode (VSGSE, or "vassgassy") featuring French Stewart of the erstwhile hit show Third Rock From The Sun. Stewart plays Brent, a temp hired for the day to organize file tapes, but who seems intent on making a place for himself as the weird guy in the office -- to the consternation of Matthew, the office's resident weird guy. But Stewart's not the Mistake of the title; that would be a cover interview with a broadcasting magazine in which Dave somehow could not stop himself from calling the staff a "well-intentioned but totally inept group of bumblers" (hey, at least they're well-intentioned!), accusing Mr. James of being a "logic-impaired hayseed who uses the station as his own personal dating service," and, speaking of himself, reveal that in earlier years "I slept, ate, and breathed tap."
"Mistake" is a bit half-baked, but that half is choice. The simple delights of Dave handing out a stack of cream-colored envelopes containing personalized apologies to everyone he offended with his interview -- and then handing Lisa a second one after she predictably tears up the first -- cannot be overstated. And while Brent, the French Stewart character, is written well ("What do you want me to do with these?" he asks, displaying some plastic doohickeys, and when asked where he found them, "In my pocket -- I brought them from home"), he doesn't have the range or groundedness of Matthew's weirdness. That storyline seems to spring from a meta-observation about the types that sitcom ensembles, and I just don't think it can sustain the weight of several minutes of TV time. It's more suited to tossed-off little jokes like the uncommented-upon appearance of another spunky redhead who works for the environmentalists upstairs in "Office Feud."
Let's jump to the end and take a glance over our shoulders at the remnants of Season 2 before we end with "Space," the bridge to Season 4. "Injury" is a classic in its way, a lyrical example of the rhythms that NewsRadio established early and depended upon for its greatest moments. The very framing of the activity that ends in the titular injury -- Who Can Get The Coffee Cup Off The Light Fixture -- brings a smile to my face, as the camera sets up for a trademark NR perpendicular shot but includes the low-hanging fluorescent that Matthew knocks down while trying to leap for the coffee cup. Look, there's Bob Odenkirk as Dr. Smith ("Are you ... the boyfriend?" he asks Dave, draped about as he is with Matthew's good arm). Norm Macdonald gives his swan song performance as Roger, Jimmy's ubiquitous lawyer ("Weren't you summarily dismissed from that job for stealing an apple pie?" he accuses Matthew in order to blackmail him into signing an affadavit that he was involved in "a non-work goof-off situation"). And the paper-thin B-story about Bill's never-approved McNeal Perspective decrying a rival broadcaster's repeated use of the word "penis" on the air (violating Bill's sense of "decency, the meat in the broadcasting sandwich"), is gloriously minor, pulled off with the speed and panache necessary for a running joke in which Dave tells Bill he needs to see the script right away for approval moments after Bill has delivered the Perspective on-air.
But it's in "Space" that we see right through the sitcom form itself to the sense of humor and oddball obsessions that define its creator and writing staff. I admit to being fascinated by highly personal work, whether it's completely successful or not; these glimpses into the soul of the people behind collaborative media creations make me feel strangely bonded to them. And so when Space Dave sits in his Kirk-esque command chair and offhandedly replies to Beth's "I'll come back later" with "Make it so," followed by an affectionate "I'll never get tired of that one," I don't think it's the characters telling us what they love; it's the writers. They've got the Erector set of a situation comedy, and they've made a lot of the examples in the booklet that came with it, adding their own personal flair of course; but now they're ready to create practically from scratch. "What if instead of reporting the news, we reported ... the space news?" Phil Hartman asks in the framing scene. "After tonight's very special episode, all those questions will be answered, or at least raised and dismissed."
I don't know if I can really evaluate something like "Space." I can only list the ways that it makes me happy. The varieties of boots that add a retro flair to the space uniforms (Dave's old-school Doc Martenesque numbers; Lisa's white platforms). The Macintalk voice of the computer -- never not funny, by the way ("there someone at the door, Dave"; "in or out, Lisa, in or out"). The fact that "gazizza" has become a standard greeting. Lisa's complaint that Dave's space pod is too spacious. The Governor Spacetaki interview that Dave is waiting on. Catherine's report about the tragedy as terrorists struck the Death Star. The space dollars that the station is virtually hemorrhaging. "Soylent Green: Made from the best stuff on earth. People!"
A cautionary tale, or a grim portent of things to come? Either way, we'll be back for Season 4 next summer to see what became of WNYX. Thanks for reading; see you in the jetpack world of 2010.
Grade: "Mistake," B+; "Space," A-; "Injury," A
- Is it possible Dave was misquoted in the interview? Unfortunately, no: "'You can quote me on that' seems to be my mantra," he laments.
- Bill's hair is out of control in both "Mistake" and "Space" -- a center-part nightmare that wouldn't have looked good on Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer -- so it's a relief to see it back to Season 2 normal in "Injury."
- Hey, It's 1997! "You hand out more letters of apology than Union Carbide"; Dave going to watch Melrose Place with Matthew; Governor Spacetaki.
- "Why would you tell the reporter that you took tap-dancing lessons?" "I was on a roll?"
- "I've taken the liberty of reserving a suite at the Four Seasons ... I gather that's how this sort of thing is done."
- "It only looks like crap. It's actually quite flavorless."
- "Pig's dead, people are dead, they all died centuries ago, I couldn't care less," Dave declares unconvincingly when caught watching Green Acres on his window-screen.
- "Hallway soccer season's over," Joe declares. Funny how everyone at the station seems to know about hallway soccer.
- Bill's previous McNeal perspective was a three-part series on how smoking should be allowed in movie theaters like in the olden days. His next McNeal perspective will be about turn signals: how come no one uses them anymore?
- Of course I'm not really going away. Not far, anyway. I hope many of you will join me for the regular seasons of How I Met Your Mother, the new and highly anticipated ABC comedy Modern Family, and Season 6 of So You Think You Can Dance (which I'll be sharing with Genevieve Koski). And don't forget Breaking Bad, the other remarkable, Emmy-winning AMC original series, returning early in 2010, presumably.
- "Quanto tiempo studiente Espaňol, Seňor Nelson!"