This week’s pair of episodes wraps up a lengthy story arc and returns to stand-alone episodes. Out in the real world of 1998 Nielsen ratings, NewsRadio continues to struggle along in the bottom half of prime-time programming. By the time “Who’s the Boss Part II” and “Security Door” were filmed, it must have seemed inevitable that the show would not perform up to its corporate patron’s standards. The creative team had to negotiate a number of dilemmas simultaneously in these two pivotal half hours: how to exit the Lisa-as-boss arc, what to do once they get there, and what identity to assert in the face of failure by external criteria.
Their response is a virtuoso piece of ensemble footwork, followed by a reassessment of Dave’s role at the center with a breakneck pace and a wicked twist. In short, two more top-notch episodes demonstrating a dogged commitment to the house style. Both the dependence on written dialogue and the use of non-dialogue gags crank up to an unprecedented pitch. In the face of challenges to “our outdated notions of who we are and where we belong,” as Dave puts it to the staff, NewsRadio makes a splashy statement this week -- regardless of whether anyone was watching.
How to end Dave’s long sojourn in the wilderness and put the characters back in their original positions? Never show ‘em how much they made you sweat. Instead, Dave and Lisa compete to stay out of the center, promising the staff escalating levels of hardship if elected boss. “Remember, a vote for Dave is a vote for no free sodas in the break room ... for as long as you work here,” Dave threatens. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with this station that could not be fixed by locking all the bathrooms and attaching the key to a large, heavy plastic crate I will keep in my office,” Lisa asserts. But their reversal has not erased their underlying character. Dave still wants to be loved, and that means winning the vote (even though winning means losing his freedom from responsibility). And Lisa is still ultra-competitive, and that means winning ... something (getting what she wants? winning the vote? even she doesn't seem to know).
Their race to the bottom is set in relief by Matthew’s insistence on making the election for floor fire marshal into a competitive affair, even though no one is running against him. The linked storylines are an opportunity to toss the whole situation in a ballotting blender and keep everyone together out on the office floor, most notably in the lengthy debate setpiece and in Bill’s desktop fire gag. I’m strangely moved by the fact that Bill sticks around to hear Matthew debate himself, offering hearty “hear, hear’s” from the gallery, despite the obvious function of this sequence to turn Bill against Matthew when he hears the “no more smoking area” plank in the platform. And the fire gag is a gorgeous example of the NewsRadio signature shot in slow-motion: Matthew enters the frame to Bill’s hail, remains oblivious to the flames shooting from his lunch tray for several beats, then exits, followed by Lisa entering, exiting, then returning with a fire extinguisher -- all while Dave watches in mute astonishment from his chair stage right.
With the blend of cynicism and heart we’ve come to love, “Who’s the Boss Part II” resolves with everyone voting for Lisa, crushing Dave’s soul because they all separately promised him their support, then Jimmy giving Dave the job of boss because the person everybody wants to be boss is exactly who they shouldn’t have. (“All hail Dave the hated boss!”). And that puts the pieces in place for “Security Door,” one of the show’s crowning achievements. In response to items being stolen from his desk, Dave installs a keycard-access door at the office entrance. The combination of staff pity over his outsized reaction to not being able to remember where he put things (Joe's take on the "thefts"), and staff undermining and circumvention of the door itself, quickly sends Dave off the deep end into the paranoia his employees believe prompted the door in the first place.
What’s bracing about “Security Door” is that it gives new-old boss Dave no chance to play the responsible, competent manager before he's plunged into a situation that exposes his anxieties and plays to his resentment of his employees. The chime of the door’s intercom is a sonic marker that prompts increasingly frantic reactions from Dave, echoing and developing the way the complaint box buzzer punctuated “Complaint Box.” A season ago, the buzzer elicited Dave behavior that we laughed at out of sympathy. Dave reacted the way we would, with frustration tempered by a veneer of professionalism. Now the door chime is supposed to start a simple staff process -- Beth asks who it is and then buzzes them in -- but instead has a Pavlovian effect on first Matthew (who jumps up and lets people in as soon as he hears it) and then Dave (who commandeers the intercom in a control-freak bid to regain control of the process). Now we don’t laugh because we identity with Dave; we laugh because in his efforts not to be made a fool of, he’s become the fool.
Dave was one of the open-office-plan denizens for eight episodes, and even though all has been set to right in terms of the sitcom’s situation reset, he hasn’t emerged from the experience unchanged. In “Complaint Box,” the plot was driven by his efforts to be responsive to his staff, and his attempts to resolve the situation relied on appeals to them as colleagues. He was trying to be a part of the group. In “Security Door,” his elevation back to boss has cemented his belief that he’s not part of the group -- that no one else can be trusted, and that the gulf between employee and manager is vast and unbridgeable. The irony is, of course, that this belief makes him one of the crazies rather than the sane center. He’s become part of the group because he thinks that’s impossible.
And so the NewsRadio team welcomes us back to normalcy by pointing out that nothing can ever be the same again. At this precise moment, when opinions of the show were pinging between critical acclaim, audience indifference, and network neglect, it’s a bold thesis about the comedy these people want to create: not the kind that elicits laughs of recognition, but the kind that reflects a world always teetering off balance.
- Hey, it’s 1998! Jimmy James takes a picture of himself standing in front of his image on the big Times Square screen -- with a Polaroid OneStep.
- I can’t drum up much enthusiasm for the Garrelli Brothers B-story in “Who’s The Boss Part II,” although Rogan plays it with verve and Beth’s attempt at creating peace goes hilariously awry. It’s too self-congratulatory when the audience hoots in recognition at Robert "Epstein" Hegyes’ teensy cameo. Interesting to see Nick DiPaolo this week, though, just after the airing of a fantastic Louie episode in which he guest starred.
- The other planks of Matthew’s fire marshal platform: Fire extinguishers should not be so easy to shoot off in your face, and computers should not burst into flame every time you touch them.
- Dave’s suggested slogan for the campaign: Vote For Me Seeing As I’m The Only Candidate Even Though I’m Completely Inept. (Matthew rejects it as “too wordy.”)
- The four votes for Lisa explained: Joe voted using a computerized number generator, Beth voted for fewer phone calls and no getting coffee, Matthew is a lifelong Republican and had no choice, and Bill still thinks he voted for Dave.
- Far more wounding than Matthew’s assaults on Carl, who won floor fire marshal thanks to write-in votes, is the fact that Dave still has no idea who he is.
- “Security Door” rings the changes on a comic trope I’ll call look-away-look-back. We saw it with Matthew wandering away after Lisa looks away briefly in “Chock,” leaving his box behind (and its pedigree on the show goes all the way back to the food appearing on Bill’s desk in “Big Day”). Here it becomes a paranoid’s nightmare, with Bill taping the door’s latch, Matthew racing to open the door for all comers, chairs appearing to prop it open, and ultimately, Dave’s briefcase being nabbed as Jimmy is ushering him out of the office for a much-needed rest.
- The B-story in “Security Door” is a little masterpiece of rapid-fire dialogue and Hartmanesque insecurities, as Bill begs Lisa to act as his agent with the producers of a TV commercial for Czechoslovakian blue jeans (because she’s “cold and logical and heartless and emotionless, almost more of an automaton than a human being”). After falling all over himself to undercut her negotiations (“I will do this for basically whatever you guys want to pay me. I would rather not wear a sombrero. On second thought, let’s try the sombrero”), he ends up in blue full-body makeup as the Blue Genie, joshing “Now has anyone seen my lamp?” and then slumping in despair as soon as the cameras stop rolling (an outcome he describes as “I lucked out and acacadabara!”).
- Of course the cartoon burglar entering the office in slide two of Dave’s presentation (“A thief has entered! We are all in danger!”) is the carafe-smashing Hamburglar from Matthew’s version of “Catherine Moves On.”
- Dave’s ability to anticipate all ridiculous questions in his security door presentation (“However, most earthquake activity is clustered around the so-called Ring of Fire on the Pacific Rim ... In the event that a wizard casts a spell on us ...”) is why he’s a more successful boss, echoing his precautions against Bill’s babynapping in “Look Who’s Talking.”
- “This is radio -- if they fire me so what? I get a job scraping gum off the sidewalk, it’s a lateral move!”
- “They chime, I ask who it is, they tell me, I buzz them in. That is the system and the system will be followed.”
- It’s great to see some vigorous physical comedy from Dave: flinching in pain from Lisa’s opening of his office window blinds, followed by a desperate dash out the door (“In God’s name, who are you?!”).
- “He said ‘Yes, Bill, what is it?’ and I panicked and asked for a pay cut.”
- “Maybe it did click and we just couldn’t hear it over all the chatter!”
- “Sounds like a job for Dave Nielsen!”