“Flowers for Matthew” (season 5, episode 5; originally aired 10/28/98)
In which Matthew gets smart.
Workplace comedies often return to themes of observation, surveillance, control, and vicarious experience. We are endlessly fascinated by the people who co-inhabit our offices, especially since their presence in our lives is a matter of vaguely, unevenly-combined happenstance and personal choice. They become for us piles of stock traits that form the foundation of anecdotes, inside jokes, pet peeves, and our own self-definition set against them as foils. Our competence is measured against their failures, our normalcy against their weirdness.
Hence the key image of “Flowers for Matthew”: Mr. James and Joe peering under the blinds of Dave’s office window, mesmerized by the sight of Smatthew reading four books at once. It’s a great example of a standard sitcom strategy: Establish characters by a set of broad shorthands, and then create comedy by having them undergo sudden, temporary personality transplants. In the office setting, you can then augment your comic possibilities by having others observe and react to the changes. Joe and Jimmy treat Smatthew as a prize specimen, observing the results of Joe’s smart drink formula like researchers stunned by an unexpected breakthrough. Dave is just as interested, but for different reasons. He’s put off by the way Joe and Jimmy settle in to watch the Smatthew show, by the notion of human development, growth, and change as spectacle, entertainment, or experiment. But he can’t help but want to get closer to the new Matthew, learn from him, even solicit him as a friend, despite Smatthew’s condescension toward him as a lesser intellect.
A sitcom can’t go to this well too often. If your characters change their traits too often, they cease to be characters at all. The heart of the sitcom form lies in the interaction of a conflict-generating situation with characters drawn specifically enough to have an individualized response, yet universally enough for us to identify with that response. Both the specific and universal aspects of the characters must exhibit consistency. So the transformation trick needs to be deployed with caution. Do it wrong or poorly, and you won’t get another chance at it for years.
And “Flowers” does it extraordinarily well. Smatthew (“I like that,” Dave muses after Matthew proposes the name; “I knew you would,” Matthew responds) is grounded in Matthew’s recognition that as much as he knew he was the butt of jokes in the past, he had no idea of their extent. His old sense of inferiority deepens and inverts to a world-weary sense of superiority; the enthusiasms and experiences he once longed to share with someone other than his cats turn inside out into “you can’t possibly understand” loneliness. Andy Dick makes his case for greatness by incorporating so many notes in his portrayal. Watch the light dawn as he responds to Mr. James’ suggestion that only a very special person could handle a very special assignment like “Donuts vs. bagels: Which one is rounder?”: “That’s very flattering, of course… but simultaneously a tad bit patronizing.” And then, when Smatthew is flickering in and out at the end of the day and Dave expresses the wish that he could meet his old self: “I did meet him, Dave. Today, you were my stupid Matthew.”
“Jail” (season 5, episode 6; originally aired 11/4/1998)
In which Mr. James might be D.B. Cooper, and his nemesis takes over the station.
The other major way change gets injected into sitcom ensembles is with the introduction of new characters for multi-episode arcs. The same principles apply: Here’s a chance to explore the reactions of members of the core ensemble to a new element, with all the varieties of perception and interpretation that are bound to ensue. And once again, the NewsRadio team comes up with an utterly distinctive take on the situation. Here it’s Johnny Johnson’s evil empathy vibe, a threat only Dave and Mr. James can perceive. That’s three episodes in a row—“Noise,” “Flowers,” and now “Jail”—where a person familiar with the series and its tropes, given the basic plot outline (relaxation machine, Matthew + smart drink, possibly evil new manager), would be unable to pinpoint the resulting themes and variations. Yet each works organically, seeming inevitable in retrospect while remaining full of delight, nuance, and surprise while it unfolds.
The D.B. Cooper plot is a throwback to NR’s early seasons, when a new facet of Mr. James’ past, present, or future could get introduced at any time to provoke comic mayhem. Half the fun is in Stephen Root’s layer cake of laid back mannerisms; as he joshes with the prison guards, menaces Dave for a joke (“Excellent big house humor, Mr. James”), and delivers thinly-veiled warnings about green duffel bags with deadpan stares, we relax knowing that the big guy is in control. And then the creative team pulls an Oliver Warbucks on us, stranding the tycoon in prison as an unscrupulous associate plots to steal his empire. There’s real tension in that development, amplified by Patrick Warburton’s performance as the supremely competent Johnson, able to use his managerial talents to win the affection of the staff for nefarious purposes that only Dave can discern.
This is a good moment to appreciate the season five mixing bowl, which throws some different combinations of characters together to see what happens. Tastycakes: Mr. James and Joe, side by side sipping their “elusive homemade smart drink” out of milk jugs with comically long straws. (Joe guesses after a sip that Smatthew stands for “Smooth Matthew,” and Mr. James suggests, “You can call me Smimmy.”) Nice bites: Matthew interviewing Jimmy in his cell ("Let me get straight to the question that's on everyone's mind: Mr. James, are you Doobie Keebler?”). Underbaked: Beth and Max, Lisa and… well, nobody. Isn’t it astounding, though, that after four complete seasons the show could find underused team-ups that bring out new comic sides of each character?
Ditto in spades whenever a formidable guest star enters the mix. I find few things more endearing than watching everyone in the ensemble instantly form a strong attachment to some new stimulus, leaving Dave sputtering in futility as he tries to use mere logic to persuade them otherwise. Watch how Matthew falls for Johnny Johnson ("Tall heavyset guy, devilishly handsome, real touchy-feely?" as Mr. James describes him) immediately after drawing Dave’s attention to Mr. James’ handwritten, unambiguous warning: "He's evil and must be stopped at all costs. Help me." Observe how Lisa, who always knows better but gets suckered in every time by flattery and praise, asks for time to go change clothes before her date: "Dave, Johnny's evil, he's not blind!" And of course, even Dave’s heroic stand against Johnny ("He's not weeping, he's laughing -- maniacally!") has psychological depth, since Johnny succeeds without any apparent effort at the task where Dave has always felt he failed: making the staff want to work for him.
As a Warburton fan from the Puddy years on, I’m thrilled to revisit these episodes and see exactly how effective he was as a physical presence (since we’ve mostly been encountering him as a voice in the past few years). The show draws a mute but powerful contrast between his doorway-spanning square shoulders and squints of concern and Dave’s relative tininess and ineffectual darting about. Every time Johnny slaps him on the shoulder (let alone calls someone “champ,” “sport,” or “guy,” or shoots an imaginary finger-pistol at them), Dave winces, understanding how he’s being belittled by an apparent signal of intimacy. And unlike previous versions of this “Dave’s sanity against everyone else’s lunacy” plot, there’s some bite to Dave’s mission; he’s not just out to prove himself right but to remain on watch while Mr. James is locked up and unable to keep tabs on “the heart of the beast,” as he calls WNYX.
But Dave is also out to prove himself right, because he’s insecure about his supervisory role, which calls for constant vigilance, analysis, and judgment. And for that, there’s no better image than Dave refusing to join Joe and Mr. James on the couch staring through the window at Smatthew but unable to resist lifting the slats on the blinds for a curious, guilt-ridden peek.
Grades: “Flowers for Matthew,” A; “Jail,” A-
- Under normal circumstances, I’d have to dock “Flowers” points for its lame Max-and-Beth-sitting-in-a-tree B-story. But the plot is totally rescued by execution all around: Max panicking when Beth gets close to his heart-to-heart with Lisa (“How much is a driver’s side airbag, sir?”), Beth suavely flipping her long minidress train out of the way upon entering the breakroom (then later slinging it over her shoulder after not forgiving Max for the Lisa subterfuge), Max’s Gene-Wilderesque bugout line reading of "I apologize Lisa if you misinterpreted my vibe, but that does not make my body your plaything!"
- The best part about Smatthew is that the old Matthew doesn’t completely disappear, as when he proclaims: "Whole new vistas are opening up before me, mathematics, philosophy, literature!" while flinging the papers on Dave’s desk dramatically into the air.
- When Mr. James appeases Smatthew (“What you did was good, Matthew! Real good!”), it’s a reference to the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a 6-year-old is constantly praised by adults since he can wish them into non-existence at any moment.
- Dave is mesmerized by Smatthew’s interpretation of Star Wars as an allegory for the Vietnam War (“Once you realize Lord Vader represents McNamara, it all falls into place”) but thinks that Yoda as Nixon is a hole in the theory, since Yoda is “a wise old pacifist.” “Yoda was a muppet,” Smatthew corrects him. “But the puppeteer who made Yoda authorized the secret bombing of Cambodia." "Kissinger?" Dave realizes.
- Mr. James’ pointed objections to Matthew’s proposed D.B. Cooper story (“Dave, I don't wanna tell you how to do your job, I'm just saying, D.B. Cooper—who cares?") are perfectly bookended by Matthew’s clueless excuse for not informing Dave of Johnny’s evil intentions right away: "Kinda busy, Dave; you're the one that assigned me the Dobie Gillis story."
- Callback to Lisa’s checkered criminal past (as seen in “Arcade”): She asks Dave to see if he can slip Mr. James her old shiv.
- Beautiful, and increasingly rare, use of the large, open-plan office set space, when Joe hoists himself into the ceiling (practicing for busting Mr. James out of prison), followed by everyone turning to stare into the booth where he fails to appear in the designated five seconds.
- A typical example of Johnny Johnson’s inspiring yet nonsensical rhetoric: "Can that thing measure a New York minute? Because Jimmy could be walking through that door any minute. And this is New York City!"
- Hey, It’s 1998! “Welcome to Gattaca, son.”
- “What’s going on?” “Smart drink party.”