Two scenes in our inaugural set of NewsRadio Season 4 episodes -- one from "Jumper," one from "Planbee" -- illustrate why I'm thrilled to dive back into the show for TV Club Classic this summer. First, a briefish moment in "Jumper" as Dave attempts to call 911 to report the man on the ledge outside his office window, threatening to jump. The camera is positioned to look past him as he dials, through the open door into his office where nearly the entire cast is crowded around the window to gawk at the jumper. They all duck in unison as Jon Lovitz's suicidal Mike Johnson swivels his head towards them. Dave stares at their coordinated move, and while his back is turned, Bill strolls by and presses the switchhook to hang up his call. As the cast at the window slowly stands back up, Dave returns his attention to the call -- but he's lost the connection.
Second, in "Planbee," a longer sequence centered around Lisa distracting Lauren Graham's efficiency expert to prevent her from witnessing Matthew's incompetence. Matthew (shirtless due to an opening-sequence mishap with wet paint) is at Lisa's desk to punch up her copy -- a job Lisa has insisted he do because of his astounding journalistic genius. On the right side of the frame, as Lisa sings his praises to Andrea Planbee at downstage left, he picks up the computer monitor and starts shaking it vigorously to dislodge some contaminant. There's a pop, and the monitor starts to smoke; Matthew backs offscreen to the right. As Lisa increases her animated efforts to hold Andrea's attention, Joe runs in from offscreen left with a fire extinguisher, waits for Lisa to sneeze loudly so he can blast the monitor and put it out, then whisks it offscreen as Andrea remarks on the power of that sneeze. As he returns with a new monitor, Matthew wanders back into the frame from the right to begin working again as he believes he's been instructed, and Joe intercepts him by tossing his shirtless torso over one shoulder and hustling him back offscreen to the right. Finally all has been set to rights in the background and Lisa can stop her song and dance and let Andrea turn around.
Both those scenes are about choreography -- specifically, farcical choreography. When I rewatched the episodes this week, I was reminded of the split-second entrance-and-exit timing of theatrical farce. Then last night, I watched the Party Down episode "Not On Your Wife Opening Night," which channels the same genre, but shoots it like standard television. What puts a giddy smile of delight on my face is the way these two NewsRadio scenes play out within an unmoving frame. I've written about the signature NR comedic style many times in the course of this retrospective, and in the "Planbee" scene it is elevated into a breakneck dance of laughs, as that same action is played out at various speeds (most hilariously at a dead run by Joe), in various directions, and without cuts. Watching these two episodes that begin season 4 back to back, it was like seeing the cast and crew dipping their toes in the water with the brief "Jumper" scene -- which uses a very narrow frame and emphasizes the depth of the shot all the way back to the far wall of Dave's office -- and then diving into the deep end with all their clothes on for the far more horizontally-oriented and much longer "Planbee" scene.
Season 4 contains some of the series' best episodes, and some real fan favorites. But discussion of this week's installments tends to be dominated by the guest stars. Jon Lovitz's turn on the ledge is an unwitting audition for his permanent position in the cast in Season 5. And the Andrea Planbee episodes tend to divide fan opinion into those who find Graham distracting and those who find her delightful. Count me in the latter camp. But first, let's talk about how "Jumper" gets the season off to a measured but promising start.
Mike Johnson's threat to jump sends the station into a frenzy, with some hoping to save him, some to exploit him, and nearly everyone hoping that the whole thing will make money for WNYX. The real brilliance of "Jumper is the way it plays with that NewsRadio trope of entering and exiting a static frame. Thanks to the series of mishaps that leave Mike Johnson and Bill McNeal danging back to back a floor and a half beneath the WNYX offices at the end of Joe's homemade rope, we get to enjoy that same idea turned ninety degrees. Joe pops down with alacrity from the top of the frame as he rappels between the danglers and the office for communications purposes, then (in one of the episode's most outrageous and effective jokes) Dave is lowered with painful slowness, in a complete prone position, to assure Mike Johnson with the Boy Scout Oath that Jimmy James will give him his job back if he agrees to be rescued. The other hilarious play on the concept occurs as Bill is plotting to evade Dave and get out on the ledge to cover the story: Matthew gets tangled in the rope attached to Bill's crotch-tourniquet safety harness and is dragged slowly through the frame on the floor in a sitting position, making no attempt to escape and inquiring of Dave desperately, "What's happening to me?" as he gradually exits to the right. I've always liked Lovitz, and although he's muted in this episode, I love the way he adds a couple of extroverted flourishes to these lines: "I ran over [to Dan Rather] and I kissed him on the lips!" and "I do not blame my supervisors or co-workers, even though they are all a bunch of jerks and liars!"
"Planbee," extraordinary choreography sequence aside, is more of a mixed bag. I love Lauren Graham too, and there's nothing wrong with the mutli-episode "somebody's gonna get fired" arc that she heralds. But I'm just a little bothered by the willful obtuseness of the WNYX crew as they talk about how Matthew is much better at their jobs than they are. Yes, it's necessary for the next couple of episodes to happen, but there's a kind of arrogance about their assumption that they won't get fired even though they're doing nothing but run themselves down. However, the search for a patsy to bear the brunt of Andrea Planbee's ax yields one of the best metajokes of the series, as Dave focuses on Carl the accountant at the coffee machine and brings him over to join the news team for lunch. "I've been waiting for this day for three years now!" Carl enthuses with all the gratitude of a longtime background player suddenly given a line. As Dave points out Carl through the window wall, Andrea notes that he seems to have taken the place of Matthew, and asks where the latter is. "Matthew, I guess, is off doing what Matthew does best: excellent work," Dave asserts, as the silent movie of Matthew taking exception at Carl's place at the lunch table plays out behind him.
Maybe what bothers me about the Matthew-getting-fired storyline is that we're about to say goodbye to two other cast members, one mid-season and voluntarily, one at the end and tragically. Retrospective-wise, I don't like to be teased about fake departures when real ones are coming. But that's not the show's fault, exactly, and I shouldn't hold it against "Planbee." Not when it can still make the dance so thrilling.
- The use of the top border of the frame as an entrance/exit location is initiated in "Jumper" by Joe ascending into the ceiling to wire the phones for speed-dial: "For 911 you press star 27." That might actually be useful to Matthew, who can't get 911 dialed and finally throws his hands up and flees: "I don't know, I'm an idiot ..." Joe also uses the rear of the frame, so to speak, somersaulting out the window like a scuba-diver when he's not diving out head-first.
- Mike Johnson has a beef, according to Bill's report: "It's about how the little man -- no offense, Dave -- is treated shabbily by the bean-counting corporate fat-cats -- no offense, Jimmy."
- "A lone man, sad, despondent, lone, man, reaches out for help and finds ... Bill McNeal."
- Matthew's raise was a clerical error. It's possible Carl in accounting was responsible, don't you think? Maybe he should be fired.
- The cross-cutting between the staff strategizing in the bathroom and Andrea in Dave's office plotting whom to fire seems very choppy, as if the scenes weren't planned to play this way. In other scenes that don't work, the makeup artist at the TV station sabotaging Bill's audition is very strange, although Bill wandering around the studio not knowing where to go is priceless.
- Matthew's litany of incompetence: once fell asleep at his desk for 36 straight hours, once missed three days of work because he thought one of his cats was on the verge of learning to speak, tried to check himself into a rehab clinic because he was afraid he was becoming addicted to computer solitaire, once ate so much sugar he got on air and screamed "I'm alive!" before he passed out and slammed his head off the mixing board.
- You should brush your teeth in your pajamas, according to Matthew, "because if you get toothpaste on your day clothes, you're screwed. True story!"
- "An optimist would say I'm half-dressed."
- "His alacrity is matched only by his thoroughness."