"Boston" (season 5 episode 9, original airdate 12/9/98)
So we've come to the moment where season 5 falters. There is a bad odor hanging around "Spooky Rapping Crypt," but it emanates almost entirely from one of the two major plot lines. And while Lisa's accent in "Boston" isn't the font of hilarity the episode wants it to be, almost all the business surrounding it is excellent, sometimes superlative. Is this the beginning of the end or just a blip in what so far has been a wonderful surprise of a season?
Listen, we may have a long way to drop in the season still to come, but you can't get too worked up about an episode that begins with such a sublime discussion of Dave's Wisconsin roots. Dave is crafting an inspirational video message for the students of his favorite high school teacher, Mr. Thernstrom, and Joe starts the ball rolling by suggesting that the kids do their best to get out of Wisconsin or "You'll wind up working at the cheese mill for the rest of your life." Everybody piles on, forcing Dave to rebut each stereotype in turn ("The overall is a very comfortable and functional garment for the working man, something you cynical urbanites tend to overlook"). When Dave rejects the suggestion that Mr. Thernstrom inspired his kids by telling them not to do drugs ("No, of course not! He abhorred a cliche!"), Max deadpans, "So his message was do do drugs?" Matthew collapses in laughter at the syllables "doodoo," and Dave wearily gives in: "Yes, Matthew—doodoo. Poop-poop. Caca." "That kind of material might have gone over big at the cheese mill, Dave, but here I think we're a little bit beyond that," Lisa responds.
"Boston" is a key text in the overarching season five theme many of you have identified: Dave's descent into bitter madness. Here he watches his uplifting platitudes being destroyed by a parade of pessimistic co-workers. Joe urges the kids to "aim low" because his attempt to major in applied mathematics in college ended in failure, crushing his dream of reverse-engineering alien technology for the government. Mr. James shoots down "follow your heart" because an early romance ended with his college girlfriend feeding him covertly out of dining hall: "The campus police busted her for stealing trays; she blamed me. I of course joined the army to get back at her and spent the next two years dodging mortar shells in Southeast Asia." Beth begs the kids to "conform, don't stick out, fit in, go along with the crowd," thanks to her experience mistakenly wearing a uniform to a school without uniforms and thus becoming the wacky-dressing girl for life ("Once you start, you can't stop, or people think you're chickening out!"). And Matthew's positive messages of following a dream ring a little hollow when he credits them for his dubious success in life.
In the B-story, Max tries to cure Lisa of her heretofore unnoticed sibilant s ("I love it when she says 'seesaw'," Joe enthuses), only to undo years of effort overcoming a South Boston accent. I like Max's Henry Higgins mode, especially since it turns out to be an especially roundabout plan to evict her from the booth and take over her job, but other than Lisa's disembodied radio voice intoning "WNYX news time haaahf past fohwa" the storyline doesn't have that many laughs.
Now Beth pretending that she can't use her hands because she might have carpal tunnel? That's gold from start to finish. (Interesting how Beth re-emerges as a central player in season five, isn't it?) From her explanation of the bandaged mitts ("People get that from typing too much, right?" Mr. James asks; "How'd you get it?" "No idea," Beth confesses), to demonstrating her magnetic abilities by picking up Lisa's stapler, to taking phone messages with her feet ("Dave, I just put my shoe back on," she whines when Dave, alarmed at Lisa's refusal to speak, asks her to call the doctor). "Boston" is a solid episode by any season's standard, packed with comedy that springs both from character and from situation, with moments that harken back to the heyday of the show's crackerjack timing.
"Spooky Rapping Crypt" (season 5 episode 10, original airdate 12/15/98)
This one's a different story, though. It's off kilter and a little desperate all the way through, as if it had been written by someone who had the wrong idea about what made NewsRadio funny. (It was written by Mark O'Keefe, whose only NR credits are in Season 5: "Flowers for Matthew" (with Ron Weiner) and "Ploy.") Vicki Lewis and Stephen Root do their level best to rescue it, ratcheting up the tension between their daddy-daughter and employer-employee vibes to wonderful effect. But the Satanic ritual abuse recovered memory thing is just... tired. The episode attempts to poke fun at just how tired it is by having Joe and Lisa mock the idea at every turn, but the core problem is that it's utterly simplistic. Matthew's so stupid he mistakes a Halloween party for a demonic orgy, haha! And unlike other examples of Matthew's idiocy, there's no core of sweetness or sadness, no sense that he knows better somewhere deep down or feels shamed by his lack of understanding—just sheer boneheadedness abetted by Joe for shits and giggles.
It's too bad, because the Beth/Jimmy negotiations over profit sharing could have used a bigger stage and more room to breathe. Ditch the other plot completely and let everyone take up sides or try to run interference in that dispute, and we might have had something. Because Beth in serious mode is simply as charming as hell, and thanks to their long-established relationship Jimmy can bust his buttons with pride at her prowess while simultaneously resenting her for backing him into a corner. "Nice work, kiddo, you're doing great!" he enthuses after Beth maneuvers him into the lower seat at the table and denies him soda. But then he turns around and despairs that she'll never back down because "She's got a little thing called gumption, Dave—she's got a little thing called pride!" When both emotions collide in a single moment, the effect is explosive and classic. "Beth is like a fragile, helpless doll that is full of bile and must be crushed," Mr. James explains to Dave; then later while having the security guards carry her out of the building, "If you come back, I'll have you arrested! Poor little lamb!"
A hint of where the episode could have gone if the ensemble had not been fragmented into two plotlines comes from Dave and Max's roles in the profit-sharing brouhaha. Dave knows he has to be the adult in the dispute, but he can't help being despondent when Mr. James confirms Beth's favorite-child status ("I can't pretend that doesn't hurt," he objects). Max couldn't care less about profit sharing, but he sees both a chance to ingratiate himself with Beth and play the agent of chaos. One of the best little touches in the episode occurs right after his grand entrance into the office with his little "MR. JAMES" sign—"Paging Mr. James! Mr. Jimmy James!"—when he pauses to check the sign briefly after Jimmy identifies himself. It's exactly what you might see an airport limo driver do after a long stretch of holding up their sign, and it's an indication that the show has settled on "opportunistic thespian" for Max's character. There's no sign in either of these episodes that Max is Matthew II; quite the opposite. He's very good at what he does, and what he does is brazen sabotage, whenever an opportunity presents itself.
But as promising and as often wonderful as that storyline is, the whole episode is poisoned by the awfulness of Matthew's campaign to expose Lisa's witchcraft. The more it becomes apparent that the situation is a comic dead end, the less it feels anything like a NewsRadio storyline at all, and the more exposed and threadbare are the casts's efforts to sell it with frenetic performance energy. "Dude, the reason we wanted you to go to therapy is so you wouldn't bother us with your problems," Joe explains early on, and if only Matthew had taken the hint.
Grades: "Boston," B+; "Spooky Rapping Crypt," C
- Hey, You Can't Possibly Miss The Fact That It's 1998!: Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory, Southie accent turmoil clearly inspired by Good Will Hunting
- Dave is surprised that Joe went to college: "You always said that college was just a spawning ground for the mind slaves of the secret ruling elite." "Not every college," Joe explains, "just Ohio State."
- Mr. James ruins Dave's videotaped rumination on the limitations of logic as a life guide by suggesting to the kids: "Always use a condom, and if you're too embarrassed to buy them at the drugstore, just shoplift 'em. It's easy!"
- As angry as Matthew's stupidity in "Spooky Rapping Crypt" makes me, he's far from a lost cause this week. When he insensitively quizzes Lisa about whether her mother "talks like that all the time—you know, ugly talk?" then tries to show sympathy for such a deprived upbringing, it's a great demonstration of how his character's layers can result in wonderful, even shocking comic moments.
- Lisa's desultory gesture as she slaps a ketchup handprint onto Dave's door is brilliant: "I curse you and your domain."
- Mr. James's standard opening move in any negotiation is the Full Khrushchev.
- "The American dream is a six-pack and a subscription to Playboy, but how are we going to get there without profit sharing?"
- "Hey kids... go Grizzlies... drugs are bad, huh?"