Let's subtitle this week: "A Study In Contrasts." Because the whims of the two-at-a-time schedule have thrown up a draggy, dreggy episode and a solid near-classic for our consideration, we can put them side by side and see what separates the winners from the losers.
"Friends": The building security guards won't let Bill upstairs without his ID; the temp hired to help Beth organize the files is her old nemesis Sandy, who imitates everything Beth does.
"Bill's Autobiography": Bill has been approached by a publisher to write his autobiography, but now realizes his life is completely uninteresting. However, when the rest of the staff finds out about the project, he has to pretend it's going swimmingly.
Analysis: The two stories in "Friends" are Standard Sitcom Fare 101 -- or at least, that's true of Beth's Doppelgänger. Bill vs. Security Guards might be better termed Seinfeld 101. There's a distinct "can we do a whole episode while they wait for a table in a Chinese restaurant?" feel to Bill's antics in the lobby. By contrast, "Bill's Autobiography" has no B-story, and springs from Bill's braggadocio -- from character, in other words, instead of situation.
"Friends": Tone L?c makes his first appearance in a recurring role as the building's security guard. Bebe Neuwirth is Sandy, the Beth disciple.
"Bill's Autobiography": None.
Analysis: It's not that Newsradio couldn't do great things with guest stars -- we've seen it before and we'll see it again. But Tone gets outplayed by Toby Huss as his sidekick, a familiar character actor whose low-rent Jeremy Davies thing is far more interesting than Tone's standard-issue heavy. And Bebe -- for the record, I'm a huge, huge fan -- is just misused here. In her heels she's so much taller than Beth and Dave that you'll notice she actually slumps in some of the scenes they have together. Her shiny purple micro-mini suit, all va-va-voom and Velma Kelly when she first enters, is just bizarre by the third act. Yes, it's fun to see her come on to Matthew when Beth drops the hint that she's interested. But she was tapped to guest star because of her familiarity to NBC viewers as Lilith on Cheers and Frasier (I can almost reconstruct the episode promos in my head: "And look who's on Newsradio -- it's Bebe Neuwirth from Frasier!" followed by cheers and wolf whistles), and while she's playing against that type, she's not fully immersed in her Broadway persona either. She's dressing the part, but isn't allowed to let go since she's supposed to be aiming at Bethesque ditz.
"Friends": Small groups. Bill is away from the main cast for most of the episode, seeing them only in passing as they enter and exit the building. Beth interacts with Dave and Lisa, then with Sandy and Matthew, while the other characters stop by occasionally.
"Bill's Autobiography": Full-on. Bill's autobiography is revealed to the entire staff in the opening act, and he spends the rest of the episode playing the great writer for them, while confessing his desperation to Dave and Lisa in private.
Analysis: Here's where the relative strength of "Autobiography" becomes clear. As soon as I saw the staff gathered around the conference table after the cold open, I let out an audible sigh of relief. After the fragmented, dissipated energy of "Friends," just the sight of all the actors together was a confidence builder. And "Autobiography" builds on that promise relentlessly, having Bill switch his pretense on and off with increasing rapidity depending on who he's with. By the time he's standing next to Jimmy James' promotional idea -- a lifesize cutout of himself holding a book labeled "Title Coming Soon" -- the storyline is written all over his face: shallow bravado barely staving off naked fear of failure.
"Friends": Beth tries to tell Dave and Lisa that Sandy is imitating her, but they always arrive just too late to see it. Bill continues to argue with the security guards.
"Bill's Autobiography": Dave lets the staff in on the secret that Bill hasn't written anything, and everyone tries to build him up by telling him how interesting he is.
Analysis: The whole Snuffleupagus thing with Beth never quite works -- it's half-hearted at best, since by act 3 everyone sees the imitation and Beth's claims are vindicated. And that's the problem with "Friends": it dashes through several iterations of "what makes this situation funny?" without committing to any of them. But "Autobiography" builds on its premise organically, yet surprisingly. Nothing seems like it's been purchased off the sitcom shelf, even though every particular piece of the puzzle has a classic pedigree. It's fleet and twisty, but the turns in the road are taking us somewhere, not just marking time.
"Friends": Bill never gets in, after he foolishly tears up his ID thinking it's expired. Sandy confesses her parasitism to Beth.
"Bill's Autobiography": Dave and Bill stage a scene where Dave refuses to sign the waiver allowing Bill to write, even though Bill's broken through his block.
Analysis: The end of the Beth's Doppelgänger storyline is distractingly flat. After a lifetime of following in Beth's footsteps, Sandy suddenly admits that she has no personality of her own, under what seems like very little pressure (except for the meta-pressure of ending the episode). And again, maybe it's just my sensitivity from several years of office work myself, but I feel too sorry for Bill in the lobby. Rank injustice isn't very funny for me, at least not in this unadorned, hey-that's-the-whole-gag! guise. Maybe that's why I responded to "Autobiography" so strongly -- the episode has compassion for Bill in his plight, even as we enjoy seeing him hoist on his own petard. We don't want him to be humiliated, and we're happy that he is able to resume his place in the office without being exposed as a fraud. And we're even happier that someone else (Lisa) is in on the scheme, layers upon layers of little kindnesses through playacting and mute witness.
Grade: "Friends," C+; "Bill's Autobiography," A-
- Saving Grace #1: Jimmy's Pal Shredder provides some of the only real Newsradio-style comedy in "Friends," from Beth gathering donuts in the office ("anything that would look cool in little pieces") to the delicious irony of the instruction booklet ("shredding the instructions for the shredder ... dare I?").
- Saving Grace #2: Vicki Lewis's performance, although hampered by being pushed out of Beth's element, nonetheless is a vintage example of her importance to the show's first seasons. "All hail King Man!" she yells with facetious anti-feminism when Dave posits that Sandy once stole her high school sweetheart, leading to Beth's consuming hatred. Followed immediately by: "But yes, she did steal my high school sweetheart." Another thing Sandy stole: "My eclectic, some say daring, sense of style." And of course, no geek could be unmoved by Beth's impression of Michigan J. Frog.
- Saving Grace #3: Matthew's tone-deaf response to being hit upon by Beth and Sandy. When Sandy praises his strong hands, he responds, "Oh, that speckle -- I used to have the Michael Jackson disease."
- People carefully repeating numbers wrong: one of those comic tropes that never fails to amuse me. Here it's Toby Huss trying to dial Bill's extension as Bill feeds him the number: "2441." "1 ... 1 ... 4 ... 4 ... 2 ..."
- The staff's rapid-fire brainstorming for the autobiography's title: "Give Me 12 Minutes, I'll Give You The World!" Followed of course by no one being able to reconstruct the ideas they ended up liking. (Bill's choice, of course: "I Suck: The Bill McNeal Story.") This is a bit that works as well as it does because the whole ensemble is playing along, and they're not worrying about timing it to leave space for audience laughter, but instead about timing it to make the bit build. Also see: "We're playing some kind of game where we can't look at Bill."
- I hope someone with better transcription skills than I will post the whole monologue where Bill pegs each staff member's type (Beth's "go-nowhere job," Joe as "a two-bit hood manqué").
- Matthew's perky answer to the question "Who killed himself?": "Bill!"
- Phil Hartman gives a monumental performance in "Autobiography." His desperation as he waits for inspiration that will never come, listening to the empty tape recorder ("this is the part where I get so depressed that I swerve into oncoming traffic"), is so deep that it verges on hardboiled.
- What is Dave's obsession with "A Horse With No Name"?