NewsRadio: "Bitch Session" and "In Through The Out Door"

NewsRadio: "Bitch Session" and "In Through The Out Door"

Attention Classic Clubbers: Your Newsradio schedule will soon accelerate in order to complete Season 2 by September 2. Supersized posts (three episodes!) are coming for the final two weeks.

And that means I've got to practice leaner, meaner posting habits. No time like the present! So I'm counting on the Jimmy James Robot Army to mention all the great lines I left out, analyze the blocking, and critique Maura's wardrobe.

Because I've got to take care of poor, maligned Dave Nelson after he is put through the wringer in "Bitch Session," and that's a full-time job, people. Reportedly inspired by creator Paul Simms finding out about his staff's own bitch sessions, the storyline has Dave accidentally overhearing his staff ridiculing him. Adding insult to injury, Lisa, the woman who supposedly loves him, joins in. Mr. James has the job of restoring Dave's confidence and reestablishing trust between the staff and their boss.

The mockery is bad enough: Matthew imitating Dave's propensity to carry around a coffee cup and almost-but-never-quite drink from it ("I can't actually put my mug down or I'll lose my magic powers"), Joe and Beth speculating that he buys his suits in the boy's department, Lisa imagining him in a Norman Rockwell painting: "First Day At Bible College." Beth and a Dorf-On-Golfing Bill McNeal put on a play spoofing Dave's shortness and Wisconsin accent. "I want to know how you guys manage to come up with a new play every day!" enthuses Matthew as they leave Dave's office. But the end of the scene is heartbreaking: From under the desk where he was trapped during the whole humiliating affair, Dave snags the phone and dials. "Hello, mom?"

I've made no secret of the fact that boyish, slightly confused Dave brings out the mother instinct in me. So this episode has me locked up from that moment on. And yet Dave and Jimmy pile it on with the whole "pumpkin" bit. ("What did she say?" Jimmy asks about the phone call home. "Come home, pumpkin," Dave confesses.) As Dave feels ever sorrier for himself, Mr. James gets ever sloppier. "There's nothing wrong with two drunk men loving each other!" he declares, before trying to prove a point about having thick skin by singeing his fingers on the table's candle. Dave looks terribly hurt, but also defensive and embarrassed about the pettiness of the staff's complaints. "They said I make ridiculous gesture with my coffee cup," he complains, and Jimmy responds testily, "That's something that really pierces a man's soul."

And in one of the sweetest endings the show has yet pulled off, Jimmy arranges for Dave to hide behind a curtain and hear the staff defend him against Jimmy's plan to fire him. Even Bill stands up and unironically calls him the best news director he's ever worked for. (Catherine: "Compassion and sincerity from Bill McNeal!" Bill: "Those dimensions are there; they're just unexplored.") Followed by the double switcheroo, in which Lisa is hiding behind yet another curtain in order to hear Dave forgive her for participating! Although that one doesn't work as a reunion tactic, it does set up the strained relationship Lisa and Dave will have for the rest of the season.

And now we begin the Led Zeppelin series at the end of Season Two, complete with annoyingly uninformative titles such as "In Through The Out Door." The A-story here is Dave finding out that he has to introduce Bill at a broadcaster's convention, and confessing to a fear of public speaking. Meanwhile, Matthew has asked Joe to teach him how to gamble so he can join in the water-cooler conversations about sports betting. (Joe: "I'm thinking of a number between one and five." Matthew: "Four?" Joe: "No, three, good try though.")

This is a slight episode whose main plotline is enhanced by some beautiful editing and absolutely stellar work by the comedy duo of Foley and Hartman. Bill offers to teach Dave the finer points of speechifying (as enumerated in his Learning Annex course on the subject), but eventually cops to a crippling fear that Dave's terrible introduction will leave his own presentation high and dry: "Nobody cares how beautiful the souffle is if the appetizer is turds in a blanket!" He pounds on the desk with his umbrella and screams in Dave's face, "No, no, NO! 'Pa PAA pa, pa-pa-pa-PAA-pa-pa! Good EVE-ning, ladies-and-GEN-tlemen!" And then in a brilliant cut, Dave is shown concluding his introduction at the event, relaxed and in command at the podium, as the crowd protests the end of his talk ... followed by Bill apologizing for straining his voice. "Speak up!" yells someone at the back of the room, echoing Bill's first rule of speechmaking.

Two other lovely edits stand out: Dave standing at his door looking wistfully out at the office after we've just seen Matthew and Joe agree emphatically that "Wichita Lineman" sucks. "God, I love that song," he muses. And Dave getting angry at the bettors throwing paper balls into his trashcan while he's working on his speech, followed by the revelation that it's Lisa chucking the wads his way. These are cuts that work because they allow characters to be juxtaposed, not just action and dialogue. It's a subtle mark of professionalism in the writing and directing. (The same cannot be said for Joe Rogan failing to keep his composure while Andy Dick carefully examines his hands to figure out which one the pencil is in, but because I tend to crack up at actors cracking up, I'll forgive him.)

Grade: "Bitch Session," A-; "In Through The Out Door," B+

Stray observations:

- The B-story in "Bitch Session" is paper-thin -- Joe insists on "rigging up" a voice modulator for Bill rather than buying one. But it's nicely connected to the A-story (Dave's under the desk jiggling the phone jack when the session starts), and it makes possible a funny callback to the cold open when Bill mentions Joe's propensity for using old clocks for spare parts. "Just these two hands, a soldering iron, and some parts from an old clock," he boasts to Dave regarding the hard drive he fixed. "Is that why my old clock doesn't work anymore?" Dave responds.

- We must also thank the B-story for giving us Bill's line: "Thomas Edison wasn't trying to invent something that was readily available at a variety of stores near his home."

- James Burrows, the veteran sitcom director, was at the helm for "Bitch Session," and you can see his signature touches everywhere -- not only in the masterful cutting, but also in the use of mime. Jimmy cooling off his burned fingers in his martini, then pulling them out and sucking the alcohol off of them, all the while continuing to comfort Dave -- that's pure Burrows. Update:The rest of this bullet point refers to James L. Brooks, not James Burrows. Your addled correspondent regrets the error. Those of you who watch a lot of sitcoms probably can recognize his braying laughter which frequently stands out from the gentler hum of the studio audience. And of course, we Albert Brooks fans always share a secret smile remembering his cameo in Modern Romance as the director of the George Kennedy sci-fi movie that Brooks is editing, talking about the little "mysterioso" in the "I know the code, sir!" "You know nothing!" scene.

- Hey, It's 1996 Now! Alert: Rush Limbaugh and Robin Quivers references were bracingly au courant.

- We're completely engulfed in Matthew's pratfalls in the cold opens now, but they still amuse me -- and I suspect will continue to do so. I myself have accidentally dumped a drink on myself while checking my watch (although not goaded to do so as a practical joke -- just out of plain stupidity). And the unmotivated pulling-over of the snack table at the beginning of "In Through The Out Door" is so well timed that I couldn't care less that it's kind of random.

- Joe and Matthew are wrong about "Wichita Lineman." Dave is right about "Wichita Lineman."

- I'm impressed by how consistent the show has been about Mr. James' wife list. Every week it's been mentioned, the original number has held steady at 36. In "In Through The Out Door" he claims to have eliminated 13 candidates, leaving 23 still in play. Perhaps this admirable devotion to continuity can lead to one of those Holmesian cults where we all figure out on what actual date and time events in the series took place.

- Important Commercial Message: On October 28, Newsradio: The Complete Series goes on sale. To quote a great man: "12 discs for 60 bucks list price = buy this set!"

- "Do I hear the plaintive cry of the crested North American quitter? Quit-WHO! Quit-WHO!"

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