If I were a better TV Clubber Classic (TV Club Classicker?), I would use today's entry to kick off a seven-part series on the deadly sins as expressed by NewsRadio. But since it's just me, I'll settle for devoting this post to Vanity and hoping that somehow the other deadly sins will come up before Season 3 is over.
Why else would Bill join a gym other than his vanity? I'll grant you that this motivation is never spelled out in "Trainer," but since the alternative is the cynical view that Bill joins a gym so that guest star Ben Stiller can have something to do, you'll forgive me for preferring my version. Then there's Mr. James' desire not to embarrass himself in front of President Clinton by using the wrong fork -- or worse. ("I've cut millions off of deals by eating baked beans with my hands," he asserts to explain the origins of his bad table manners.) And Dave's vanity -- okay, his desire not to be branded as a spy by the neighborhood five-year-olds or the newsroom staff -- leads him to hide his Canadian origins.
"Trainer" is kind of a mess, but not necessarily for the reasons I thought it would be. In memory, Stiller's brand of manic improv didn't fit well with the NR aesthetic. But watching it again, I'm surprised at how toned-down his Vic the sleazy gym membership guy turns out to be. Other than the goofy dance he does when he claims to be Ted Chambers' puppet (which unfortunately causes the laugh track to step on the much funnier line, "he's Wayland Flowers, I'm Madame"), Stiller is fairly restrained.
What really screws up the dynamic is the faux outrage over Dave's Canadian origins. Positing that being Canadian is something to be ashamed of -- that turns out to be the whole joke, rather than the springboard to higher levels of humor. It's almost worth it to see Dave despair, "I'm a Canadian. Who cares? I don't," and plunk his forehead onto the desk. It's really close to worth it to have Dave trot out American trivia in rapid-fire response to Bill's assertion that it doesn't matter if he knows the state flower, bird, and motto of Hawaii ("Hibiscus, nene goose, and 'the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,'" Dave responds). But trying not to say "aboot?" Having Matthew insinuate that Canadian bacon is a mysterious password? And most of all, having the whole staff express astonishment and dismay at the birth certificate as if they, like all New Yorkers, are card-carrying members of the He-Man Canadian-Haters Club? It's distractingly fantastical without really committing to the alternate reality premise.
Ah, but Vanity really gets to strut her stuff in "Rap," a wonderful grab bag of WNYX staff neuroses. Bill gets on a high horse about offensive lyrics in rap music and insists on doing an on-air editorial about it, although Dave pleads with him to get on a time machine back to 1988 when he'd have a chance of being among the first thousand journalists to do so. When Mr. James arranges for Chuck D to come on the air to answer this "McNeal Perspective," however, Bill is undone by his core belief in "sucking up to famous people." His shameless flip-flop is a reminder that vanity, to Bill, means stroking your own ego by playing the role of cultural gadfly and contrarian, until it appears that someone whose opinions you believe must be better than your own (as proven by their fame) might disagree with you. Then it's all "ticketed live with yours truly BizNeal McNeal!"
And Lisa struggles to subdue her vanity, which she believes unworthy of her as a journalist, when New York magazine wants to name her Cutest Reporter in their Best of New York issue. But Catherine and Beth find her reticence appalling, since their vanity has been hurt by the magazine's failure to recognize true beauty (in the first case) and imprecise use of the word "cute" (in the second case). When Lisa suggests an all-or-nothing strategy to get the magazine to back down on the photo shoot they want, Catherine and Beth fall all over themselves to get in front of the camera. But upon their arrival, Lisa has already fully embraced the idea of whoring herself out to the unblinking eye, going so far as to put on a Seussian novelty hat. ("It was my idea," she assures her colleagues.) It's the final twist that elevates the storyline to the Mortal Sin Hall of Fame, though -- and the fact that it's all conveyed visually, through the juxtaposition of still frames, puts it in my personal NR pantheon. What line will the ladies refuse to cross? They assure each other that if the photographer wants them to do something stupid, they'll walk out. But their vanity -- and Beth's exhibitionism -- mean that they'll happily come up with the stupid themselves. They can't wait to cross the line. Lisa walks out once the clothes start coming off, but pretty soon Catherine and Beth are striking dominatrix poses.
Vanity, thy name is woman. And also McNeal.
Grade: "Trainer," C+; "Rap," A-
- Hey, It's 1996! And 1997!: President Clinton, Ben Stiller, New York Magazine (I kid because I love, Ben and NYmag!), not-yet-famous Patton Oswalt.
- Essential differences between the gold and silver membership packages at Ted Chambers' gym: The gold sells itself (parking's extra), and silver doesn't include spinning, sauna, or shower privileges "and that is enforced."
- Do ten-day-old donuts even count as old food? I'd buy ten-day-old donuts at full price without blinking an eye.
- Dave's memories of Canada: "I have a very vague recollection of a clean, state-run day-care facility, and that's about it."
- "I'm on the phone!" "But I am on the megaphone. Megaphone wins."
- Great physical comedy in "Rap": Items on Lisa's desk jump up when Matthew gooses her and makes her hit her head, pencil flying at Matthew's head right at the end of the cold open, Catherine swatting Matthew on the way out after he says "nincompoop," Mr. James entering and exiting the office overcome with emotion about the importance of advertising ("not to mention Kermit the damn Frog!"), Matthew mouthing the words along with Bill (and Dave!) as they read the McNeal Perspective ("it's not rap music ... it's crap music").
- Wardrobe notes: In that gray ribbed sweater with the black yoke, Lisa Miller is indeed the cutest reporter in New York! She's come a long way from the argyle sweater, black blazer, short skirt and rights in "Trainer" ... ewwwwww.
- I hereby propose that dipping Hershey bars in giant industrial jars of Jif peanut butter be named the official snack food activity of NewsRadio, and that various games be devised surrounding events in the show to accompany said activity.
- "It's not just about the almighty dollar. It's also about the omniscient dime, the plucky nickel, the ferocious quarter." (And not to be outdone, Andy Dick's great delivery of the line "Let's just say I was persuaded by Bill's friends Mr. Lincoln ... Mr. Washington ... and oh, Mr. Washington again!"
- I refrain from listing Beth's definitions for adjectives complimenting a woman's looks only because Milkman so thoughtfully took care of that in the comments last week.
- "I myself am descended from the ancient Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower from ... Portugal or somewhere."
- "But seriously, you serve a function."