This week is a study in contrasts. In this corner: "Kids," perhaps my husband's favorite NewsRadio episode ever. In that corner: "Rose Bowl," an episode so crushingly mediocre that I have no recollection of ever seeing it before, despite having watched the entire run of the series when it first aired and multiple times on DVD.
Let's start with "Rose Bowl" since it's chronologically first, and so we can end on a high note. Plotline A: Mr. James buys a box of fake movie memorabilia, then sues the person who sold it to him with Joe as his lawyer. Plotline B: The staff pick names out of a hat and give each other their yearly evaluations. Not ringing a bell? How about "Tubalcain?" That's the secret word that Joe insists all judges (being members of a Masonic society) must obey, finding in favor of the side that utters it and immediately heading off for a secret paddling ceremony.
That's pretty much the only good moment in the Jimmy-in-court portion of the episode (and its quality is wholly pacing-dependent -- the way the judge wraps it up and strides off with his paddle has a wonderful comic briskness). George "Goober" Lindsay's guest appearance, unfortunately, doesn't seem to fit the tone at all; although the invocation of his name over his supposed skull is pitched right at NewsRadio's pop culture sweet spot, somehow the whole thing is made too literal when he shows up. (I do like the courtroom bursting into applause as he leaves after uttering his single line: "No.")
Now Beth evaluating Lisa, Matthew evaluating Beth, Dave evaluating Bill? That should be outstanding NewsRadio material: the twisty eggbeater of relationships, rotating in and out and up and down at a breathless pace. But nobody seems to be having as much fun with the concept as you'd think they would. Maybe it's the Lisa-wants-credit-for-the-idea overlay that poisons the well, although her catalog of Things Dave Has Never Given Her Proper Credit For starts off wonderfully ("January 3, I persuaded you to try portobello mushrooms for the first time ...").
I think the problem is that there's not enough of plotline B, and waaaaay too much of plotline A. Again we take a couple of key ensemble players out of the office and lose their energy for one of the storylines entirely. (Don't you want to see Joe evaluating someone?) And even though Mr. James's personality has its clueless side, here it's entirely untempered by his savvy side; putting himself in the hands of Joe "Drunk and Disorderly" Garrelli seems completely out of character.
So what makes "Kids," the episode immediately following, so delightful? We all know that W.C. Fields proclaimed that actors should never work with children or animals. But the truth is that a gaggle of kids on a sitcom set is almost always funny, provided the action does not take place within their group but around and over the heads thereof. No matter how showbizzy the little child actors are, they're still kids, and when they do kid things -- like crumple their juiceboxes while drinking them -- it's simply adorable. Don't point it out, don't make a big deal of it, and let them be kids in the corners of the frame while the grown-ups provide the ostensible comedy. It never fails to amuse.
Then when you throw in the wonderfully incongruous element of pornography being left lying around all over the office, what you've got, my friends, is a NewsRadio classic. Naturally each child either takes on or already possesses the personality of the staffer with whom he or she is paired. Lisa's little girl has on tights under a short skirt, Beth's has wild red hair and bounces up and down, Catherine's wears animal prints and asks if she can be black, too. Perhaps my favorite, and entirely unremarked-upon, similarity is the WNYX mug that Dave's kid plays with throughout the episode. The comic itch of the episode is how to deal with the pornography issue while the kids are underfoot, leading to the women comparing Dave's apparent porn addiction to his love of sampling different kinds of apples. (Lisa is a "good old reliable Granny Smith.") And it's delightful when Beth's handwritten essay from the cold open (which she tries to insert into the side of the computer monitor for spellchecking) turns out to be a Penthouse letter to the editor ("The beginning is about golf, but then it kind of ... meanders.")
Just when you think you've got the NewsRadio formula figured out, the show seems intent on surprising you. Mr. James in a courtroom with George "Goober" Lindsay? Not funny. But throw a bunch of children into the newsroom, and you've catalyzed a comic reaction that could power Manhattan -- because the writing sticks with the setting, finds a way to call attention to the obstacles without making them annoying, and ties it all together gracefully.
Grade: "Rose Bowl," D; "Kids," A
- As someone who frequently attaches random phrases to well-known tunes, I appreciate Mr. James's rendition of "The Sound of Music" to the Hallelujah Chorus: "Souuuuund of Music! Souuuuund of Music! Soundofmusic! Soundofmusic!"
- Beth gives Lisa a good evaluation on her work, but "I wish I could say the same about her personal relationships."
- Wardrobe notes: That purple thing in "Rose Bowl" makes Maura look pregnant, doesn't it?
- "Not since The People v. Junkyard Jones has a box full of junk been so thoroughly documented."
- "Duct tape was invented a long time before you were born by somebody really smart. The end."
- Dave trying to interest his shadow in his job: "They take it into that glass room over there, and do you know what happens?" Kid: "Some other boring stuff?" Since these children are supposed to reflect the adult personalities ... does that mean that Dave really hates radio?
- Kid to Beth: "They were kissing." Beth, sympathetically: "I know, it's icky, isn't it?"
- Lisa: "Are you telling me you're part of some socialist porn-swapping club?" Dave, mildly: "It's remarks like that that drive men to magazines."
- Matthew's guess for what magazine he might have left in the breakroom: "Cat Fancier?" Dave: "No, but you're close."