They say you should always try to go out on a high note. And so it's fortunate that in the last few weeks of this summer edition of TV Club Classic, Newsradio has been hitting the sweet spot consistently. There's been very little for your faithful correspondent to do but sit back and marvel at its rock-solid rhythms and daring innovations. As we bid farewell to the WNYX crew for a few months and look forward to welcoming them back for Season 3 next time first-run network television lets us down, this week's trio of episodes contains, whaddya know, another classic alongside with two merely very good half-hours.
Also known as "Poker Game." What I had forgotten in the intervening years is how cleverly the A-story (Mr. James risks WNYX assets, including the talent, in a high-stakes poker game) is integrated with the B-story (Bill, having been lost to the owner of Atlanta's WTSB, tells the rest of the staff what he thinks of them and gives them back the stuff he's stolen). The latter leads to one of the most indelible images I carried with me after the show's demise: Bill sitting at a desk in front of a line of employees, summing up his feelings for them in a sentence of two, then handing them miscellaneous office supplies. If I had to pick one Bill McNeal line for the ages, it would be: "For years I thought your name was Loni. Now I know it's Bonnie. Here's your thesaurus."
In an episode overflowing with riches, everybody's bound to have individual favorite moments. Some will zero in on Joe's Boba Fett figurine and Dave's geeky delight in same. (I remember that somebody brought up the cut to Joe in the VR helmet flailing his arms and legs on the hotel bed after Lisa tosses Boba Fett out the window in response to one of the very first posts in this series.) Others might profess a preference for Dave and Lisa's argument about whether she called him Stewart in the height of passion. (She claims she said "stalwart.") For Beth fans, there's a lot to love, including her justly famous, Lucyeseque attempt to get information to Lisa from Joe's Boba Fett camera: pretending to be room service delivering "two pears, a king crab salad and a jack cheese omelette."
That's all wonderful, the more so because it seems to stem directly from the characters and because it comes off as so lovable. But my latest viewing reminded me of the little things, the glue that held all that brilliance together. Dave's anxiety about having lost the coffee machine, for example; when Mr. James claims to be on edge while teaching Lisa poker in the breakroom and asks if there's any coffee, his bark of "No!" is an unexpected callback to his trembling, angry "well, there isn't any!" in the first act. Bill's guess about how much Mr. James lost in the poker game, interspersed with his requests for somebody to pass the salt shaker: "Three million? Salt? Four million? Salt?" Matthew's "lucky haircut," and Dave's horrible poker face. I won't quibble that the jokes about Beth's OCD are a little too obvious. This is what we came to Newsradio for. Let's just bask in the glow.
Also known as "Hamptons/Opening Day." It's a little difficult to limit the title to the A-story -- Matthew's attempt to organize a summer rental in the Hamptons -- both because it's so slight and because the B-story (Bill objects to Dave's editing of his "the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd" Yankees opening day promo) is at least as memorable. Or maybe I like the promo editing story because it's almost a radio comedy sketch in conception and execution. As the brain trust in Dave's office begins to play with the editing, getting punchier and less coherent by the moment, we hear a version with just every third word ("crack bat roar crowd ... yankees WNYX. Team!") and a version that impugns that junkie pederast Bill McNeal ("I'm Bill McNeal on crack. I like boys!"). Although the visuals do add to the amusement, especially in the third act when we cut to Dave's office to see everyone lying back in their chairs staring at the ceiling in utter defeat, this is a plotline driven by sound. And there's something about characters just listening to a sound effect in a sitcom that takes us back to the primal roots of comedy.
Although the Hamptons trip A-story attempts a characteristic Newsradio rhythm -- the interactions between the characters speeding up until they're simply shorthand -- I think the reason it's not quite up to snuff is that it portrays Matthew as almost competent. As he's juggling everyone's objections and conditions for the trip ("Big room?" "Maybe you!" "Speedo?" "Spee-don't!"), his anger almost comes from a place of strength. In other words, in this storyline, he's the center surrounded by eccentrics. And that's just a little weird, a little off-model for Matthew. The third plotline involves Joe studying with Lisa's help for an electrician certification exam, and it's notable mainly for a moment of game-show-host mimicry, when Lisa intones: "The correct answer was ... extension cord. Extension cord."
"Led Zeppelin II"
Or "Building On Fire." Dave tries to keep the staff from panicking when they learn there's a fire on the third floor of their building; meanwhile Mr. James tries to remember why he rejected Ruth as a wife candidate. Or maybe we should call it "Slappy," since Catherine spends the episode slapping everyone in sight. Although this episode has terrific manic energy and flows seamlessly from one plot to the other, it doesn't have the inspired premise that might elevate it to perfection. Again, though, this is the gold watch ceremony, folks -- we're not going to dwell on the negative. Because the high points easily clear the bar. There's Bill trying to lead a party down the stairwell ("To the stairwell! To life! The devil mixes his lies with the truth, people, let's go!") on the sheer funny side. And then there's Mr. James suddenly finding out what that symbol beside Ruth's name on his list means: She doesn't like the WNYX staff.
The latter is one of those almost thrown-away moments of sweetness that bind us more closely to Newsradio than we might have expected. We love the WNYX staff. And Mr. James, for all his own eccentricities, is our Obi-Wan Kenobi; we trust his wisdom, and it's soul-gratifying to know that he loves the staff, too. It makes it okay for us to feel that connection. And with that -- let's just bask in the glow. Again.
Grade: "Presence," A; "Coda," B+; "Led Zeppelin II," A-
- One reason the ending to "LZII" works so well is because in "Presence" we see a tired, rumpled, almost defeated Jimmy James -- and we see the staff not just rallying to save their station, but to restore him to his glory. It's a great extension of the Jimmy James character, and it's brilliantly played as always by Stephen Root.
- Hey, It's 1996! Alert -- I Still Love You New York Edition: Public caning, that Super Bowl soda can contest, Se7en, two references to the Unabomber.
- Bill looks forward to a summer of "blissful Speedo freedom -- or should I say Speedom!"
- Mr. Teddy Bear (or whatever his nauseatingly cutesy real name is) is kept in a cabinet in the office, ready to be pulled out for the really difficult problem-solving sessions. But you know, I would have hoped he would be more attractive than that stiff, midway-prize-quality gray number Mr. James tosses back in there.
- No, I didn't mention how the threat of immolation caused Dave and Lisa to fall into each other's arms ("They're calling it a Dresden for the nineties!"). That plays out funny, with all the interruptions, but I don't really buy the premise; they were really just pretending anyway, so why couldn't they keep pretending after the fire crew came and gave the all-clear ("the fire's out, ma'am, you can put your shirt back on")? However, I will pluck out Dave's reassurance to Joe about the fire: "Everything's fine, everything's good, everything's great, you're aces, get out."
- Or maybe it's just that skyscraper-on-fire humor doesn't play as well post-9/11. Discuss.
- I've always felt that compromise is overrated, and I plan to haul out the following useful line the next time I need a good example thereof: "Compromise is how we ended up with 'join us and the boys of summer for action!', which would be fine if we were running a gay chat line."
- One more bow for Beth, whose season of mostly sheer delight ends with her calling her mother to say I love you, and then collapsing in frustration when her mother immediately wonders if she's responsible for the fire.
- All together now: "Goodnight, pumpkin."