NewsRadio: "Monster Rancher" and "4:20"
B-

NewsRadio: "Monster Rancher" and "4:20"

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Walt -- at least with Walt as an idea.  He’s just The New Guy, and The New Guy is a sitcom convention that sitcoms have never been able to escape.  Sometimes The New Guy is a comic opportunity, a chance to shake up relationships and pry open dormant fault lines among the regulars.  Sometimes The New Guy is an imposition, some network suit’s idea of how to solve a problem that doesn’t exist -- a Stephen Shortridge, if you will.  And sometimes, as we all know, The New Guy is The Replacement Guy ... that’s coming.  

Walt, though, is a pale, watery version of The New Guy.  And I hate to say it, because Brad Rowe seems like a perfectly nice guy from his Facebook fan page, but it’s mostly because he’s miscast.  He’s a Shortridge, a pretty boy thrown into the monkey cage because somebody thought it needed dressing up (and assured everyone that the contrast with the Sweathogs would be hilarious).  They’re always blond, it seems.  And it’s not their fault, maybe, because their job is to merely provide visual contrast, but they’re always bland.  

Mr. James describes Walt as “so normal he makes Richie Cunningham look like a crack-smokin’ porn freak,” and that’s one of the two ways to spin The New Guy: a sane person who ends up in the nuthouse.  Almost nothing about the way Walt is worked into NewsRadio challenges the type.  He’s resented by various members of the group, but because he flatters their egos he's embraced by others, and those two camps shift as flattery to one becomes threat to another.  And of course, he’s a romantic rival.  It’s like he’s a dry run for Johnny Johnson, who does all those same things but spun in the other direction: Seems Sane But Is Actually A Madman Who Will Destroy Us All.  (Not for nothing is Warburton tall, dark and handsome while Rowe is young, blond and frat-boy cute.)

I realized that Walt wasn’t going to work out during his encounter with Dave in the breakroom.  He’s supposed to rattle off Dave’s obscure radio accomplishments and pithy quotes from interviews with trade magazines, turning himself from liability to asset in Dave’s eyes.  But Rowe’s acting here misses the point.  He plays it like he’s Dave’s equal playing the part of the eager acolyte, rather than like the eager acolyte.  There’s a whiff of acting about it, in other words, the slightest histrionic tinge, but not in the direction of too much sincerity.  It’s spun the other way, towards the broad side of knowingness.  And that’s fatal to a character whose comedic role is supposed to be innocence of the ways these people he’s joining try to manipulate each other.

And so, as Walt goes about fulfilling his appointed sitcom tasks in “Monster Rancher” -- getting hazed by Bill, acquiring Dave as a mentor, prompting Mr. James’s incomprehensible avuncularity, wooing Lisa -- it feels stale at worst, warmed over at best.  Yet it’s a tribute to the cast and the writers how much funny stuff there is in this episode despite the big honkin’ problem at its center. Bill gets a chance to assert that his tormenting of Walt because of his prettiness is justified not only by tradition, but by functionality (“Corporate America is finally catching on to what fraternities and biker gangs have known for years - hazing works!” he intones in the manner of someone quoting a Wall Street Journal article).  Jimmy’s baby talk (“pay no attention to ol unca yimmee!”) is adorable.  And Dave reveals, tellingly, another side of his disaffection with the boss role: It’s forced him into cruelty.  When Matthew comes to him for permission to ask Lisa out, Dave gives his blessing not so much as a kindness to a friend, but so he can watch and be amused by the spectacle.  And when Beth complains that Walt, by working for nothing, is poised to take over her position as the person who makes next to nothing (“Already he almost makes as much as I do!”), he manages to turn her laughter into tears with a horribly ill-conceived faux-parental bromide: “With an attitude like that, you’re not going to go far in this world.”  It’s like he can’t stop himself from saying and doing things that will hurt people.

Of course, when people are about to volunteer to hurt themselves, like Matthew’s yen to ultimate-fight Joe in “4:20,” Dave offers up his usually horrified “No!” but otherwise leaves it to the rest of the staff to dissuade Mr. James from his choice of smoker entertainment.  Joe (back in rare form after being completely absent from “Monster Rancher”) leads the charge, but faced with Matthew’s frequent taunts, can’t find a way not to go through with the fight.  Those taunts are far and away the funniest thing in “4:20.”  Andy Dick simply sells the hell out of them.  In the cold open, when he gets so far in Joe’s face that they’re practically kissing and mutters “You’re goin’ down, bitch!”, Rogan can barely hold it together.  Almost as funny: Dave remembering the intern who had a crush on him a while back (“he brought his mother in to work and introduced me as his boss slash husband”), Dave reassuring Beth of his affection through the office door (“I mean, I love Beth on account of she’s so wonderful and all”), and -- repeatedly -- Bill listening to the audiotapes of his phone conversations with Lisa.

Not that funny: Tickle fighting.  Look at the studio audience’s delayed (and three-quarters-hearted) reaction when Joe taps out and Matthew bounds around the ring -- sorry, the octagon of horror -- in triumph.  Here’s a comedy rule for you: Watching someone else get tickled is not funny.  We feel like it should be funny because the tickled individual is laughing, but it’s like other people laughing at a joke you’re not in on.  (Exception: Little kids getting tickled and just losing their shit completely = very funny.)  The fact that it’s the supposed climax to the episode just deflates the whole “4:20” enterprise.  Also not that funny: the ring of acting-crazy-so-that-people-will-go-away.  It’s great when Dave says “deedle-eedle-eedle” for no apparent reason then acts like nothing happened, but even though it ends with Matthew naked and Lisa holding up a magazine to shield her eyes from the sight, I find the progression less hilarious than it ought to be.  Part of the problem is that the whole gag is concentrated, one right after the other, rather than brought back throughout the episode as a running joke; and part of it, I’m sorry to say, is direction and blocking.  The shots do not make use of perpendicular constructions and the edge of the frame; had the direction been attuned to NewsRadio house style in these matters, the gag might have had some real bite.

Maybe it’s the knowledge that we’re down to our last two Phil Hartman episodes that makes this week’s pair seem like a slide downhill.  Maybe it’s the seeming disengagement of the NewsRadio creative staff, as demonstrated in the episode titles (“Monster Rancher” is either a non-sequitur or a bowdlerized epithet, and “4:20” is just the episode number).  Or maybe it’s Walt.  He’s certainly a convenient scapegoat for what makes these episodes falter and stumble, even though on his own terms he’s no disaster.  It’s just that when his evil twin Johnny Johnson shows up next season to demonstrate how to do The New Guy right, Walt’s unsuitability for the role stands out all too clearly.

Stray observations:

  • Matthew’s attempts to work his way up to asking Lisa out are as adorable as he gets.  I especially like the drumroll he gives himself, complete with tossing his imaginary drumsticks in the air, catching them to continue to drumroll, then tossing them away at its conclusion.
  • And then, when Lisa tries to let him down easy, I find the conclusion to his metaphor for the result hilarious: “We’re just two good friends who took one crazy shot at romance ... so one of the friends took the other one’s heart out, pulverized it flat with a meat tenderizer, then sat on it and cut one!”
  • Jimmy isn’t convinced that Walt has radio in his blood, as Dave contends.  After all, he’s got “crazy mad money and a buttload of nephews” all of whom need internships in his various industries.  “Radio, bauxite smelting, it’s all the same really.”
  • Bill eventually comes to grips with Walt’s good looks, which displace him from his seven years as “the resident hunk in the office”: “They’re not rugged good looks -- that comes with time. You’re still soft and downy like a summer peach.”
  • After Lisa comes back from her date with Matthew, we catch the end of her description of the wacky dance-floor conclusion for Dave’s benefit.  In a throwaway exchange that charms me utterly, Dave comments, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dance normal!” and Lisa exults, “It was like I put myself in the mind of a robot!”
  • The best part of “4:20” is the cold open.  Dave repeatedly corrects Bill on his understanding of Jimmy’s smoker entertainment: “Once again, you’re thinking of nude greco-roman wrestling.  This is amateur flyweight boxing.”  Matthew comes out in his satin robe and requests, “Can we get these sleeves cut down? I’m swimmin’ in this thing.”  And Joe’s experience with Ultimate Fighting is revealed: “Well, I haven’t done it, but I’ve watched it on pay-per-view.  I haven’t paid for it ...”
  • “Dave, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most of the stuff I do is weirder than hell."
  • “This swing and swing alike attitude might have worked back in the glory days of free love and Fredo’s Retreat ... You’re talking to a card carrying member of the hot tub generation, with emphasis on the word member!”
  • “You better have some audiotape to back that up or I’m going to have to ask you to leave this office!”
  • “Are you sure you won’t reconsider the wrist corsage?”
Filed Under: TV, NewsRadio

More TV Club