Mar. 21, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of NewsRadio.
With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
It’s impossible to determine what makes a sitcom work and what makes one fail. There are shows that succeed inexplicably and others that, on paper, appear to be perfect creations yet never find their niche in reality. In some special cases, the combination of all the things that go right and all the things that go wrong creates something uniquely perfect. The best example of this is NBC’s long-mistreated workplace comedy, NewsRadio.
The sitcom debuted 20 years ago on March 22, 1995. It was never the ratings hit the network hoped it would be. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the network went to great lengths to try to dictate to Paul Simms, the creator and showrunner, what it thought he should be doing with the show. It was feedback Simms was not particularly interested in taking.
The tensions between Simms and the network were no secret, and things came to a head in an April 1997 interview in Rolling Stone in which Simms referred to NBC executives as “cocksuckers” and to the Thursday night “must see” lineup as a “big double-decker shit sandwich.” As though that weren’t enough, Simms went on to complain that head of scheduling Preston Beckman hated the show, thought the characters were too mean, and said NBC had informed him that “it’s not enough for a show to be well written and well acted anymore. It’s about stars.”
As awkward as the bitterness that suffused that interview was, it was nothing compared to the awkwardness of a New York Times piece that ran two months later. While the first interview was conducted during a period when flailing ratings convinced Simms that his brainchild would not be renewed for a fourth season, NBC issued a surprise pickup, leading everyone involved to playact at being nice while clearly still seething below the surface. When Beckman was asked about his feelings on the show, his answer was the blunt, “The fact that it is now in that time period on our fall schedule speaks for itself.’’ Alternatively, Simms fell over himself trying to make up for the previous interview, for which he seemed deeply embarrassed. As a whole, the Times piece seemed to take pains to justify every NBC decision Simms had so derided earlier.
Conflict between network and creative wasn’t a new development, but what’s curious about the case of NewsRadio is that the conflict may not have hurt the series as much as Simms seemed to think it did. It might have made the show what it was. Willful, Simms would often take notes from the network and run with them, in the exact opposite direction of the one they might have hoped he would go. Some of the show’s most notable hallmarks, like the series’ romantic leads hooking up in the second episode, flew in the face of NBC’s wishes. (The network hoped to see the relationship between news director Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) and producer Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney) as its new Sam and Diane.) Still others took the network’s demands and made a mockery of them. When the network asked for an episode featuring a funeral, Simms and his staff answered that request with the self-explanatory “Rat Funeral” episode.
But more than that, many of the show’s best episodes sprang from mistakes that Simms made either running the show or dealing with the network. Specifically, the late season-three entry “Mistake” seemed a direct response to the Rolling Stone interview. In it, Dave makes disparaging comments about the station in a magazine interview, upsetting the staff. Or consider “Bitch Session,” another episode based on Simms’ experience running the show, in which Dave’s feelings are hurt when he learns what the staff say about him when he’s not around. There are any number of instances when the show uses the tenuous environment it existed in to great, self-referential comedic effect, be it in imagining WNYX as the doomed Titanic or the show-within-the-show grasping for ratings by booking a Jerry Seinfeld interview.
As dastardly as NBC may have seemed for never giving the show an opportunity to find a time slot to call its own (the show was moved 11 times during its five seasons) and as unhelpful as Simms may have found its input, NewsRadio found its brilliance when dealing with the sturm und drang of network interference.
That said, no matter what the head of production at NBC may have thought in the mid-’90s, there was still a place on TV for shows that were well acted and well written, and NewsRadio was both of those things. Essential to the integrity of the series, despite how many issues he may have exacerbated, NewsRadio never had a more passionate advocate than creator Simms. He was protective, yes, but Simms, a veteran of The Larry Sanders Show, had plenty of creative genius to back up his passion and his writers’ room turned out some of the funniest, most consistent sitcom scripts ever written, with more jokes per minute than most shows could dream of.
But scripts mean little without the right people performing them, and NewsRadio had acting talent in spades. Though the cast was populated largely with unknowns, the chemistry and comedic timing of each and every individual was impeccable. Saturday Night Live veteran Phil Hartman was the biggest name in the cast, and his characterization of vain blowhard Bill McNeal is one of the most essential sitcom performances of all time. Dave Foley of The Kids In The Hall fame played Wisconsin transplant Dave Nelson, forever embroiled in romantic flings and/or arguments with resident know-it-all Lisa Miller. Filling out the cast were Andy Dick, Vicki Lewis, Joe Rogan, Khandi Alexander, and Stephen Root—names that are now meaningful, due in part to NewsRadio.
NewsRadio took these disparate parts, the good and the bad alike, and made them into a whole far greater than any single element. Through the contrary visions of network and creator arose something accidentally complementary, an alchemical solution that few could have predicted and none can replicate. In this yin and yang, this perfect imperfection, NewsRadio found a balance and a brilliance few shows have ever matched, cementing it as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.
“Smoking” (season one, episode three): One of the reasons NewsRadio is one of the funniest shows in television history is because it finds humor on any number of levels. This was exhibited almost immediately, with the third episode of the first season. In it, the station has become a newly smoke-free zone, meaning that Bill will have to start taking his cigarettes elsewhere. As happens with every Bill-related development, what should be a simple change in routine becomes a full-blown conflict, offering no end of opportunities to exhibit Hartman’s comedic physicality. Whether it’s Bill taking advantage of the new window-adjacent smoking lounge (and accompanying breeze) or finding ultimate cigarette solace in an smoke-engulfed, unventilated booth, NewsRadio established its appreciation for big, bold sight gags right from the start.
“Rat Funeral” (season two, episode three): Given Simms’ fractious relationship with the NBC, it’s probably unsurprising that he had repeated conflicts with the network about its insistence on incorporating its notes into his episodes. That’s where “Rat Funeral” enters in: Tasked with incorporating a funeral into the plot for the network’s “Three Funerals And A Wedding” promotional stunt (three episodes featuring memorial services followed by one with nuptials), Simms defied conventional wisdom and chose not to kill a character, but rather scads of wayward rats. The effect underwhelmed NBC and likely didn’t strengthen the relationship between the two, but the episode itself is a classic, complete with not one, but many, funerals, plus a final line gag for the ages.
“The Cane” (season two, episode nine): One of the most vital components of NewsRadio was its varied relationships, few as central as the one between Dave and Lisa. Subverting NBC’s wishes to turn the pair into grist for the will-they/won’t-they mill, the series instead hooked the two up almost immediately, placing the bulk of the relationship’s conflict not on what would become of the two romantically but on how long the two could co-exist, knowing that they both want Dave’s job. “The Cane” is a fine example of the latent strain this places on both individuals, as Lisa fails to inform Dave of the yearly company ideas meeting, leaving him empty-handed. Through simple show savvy, NewsRadio manages to have its cake and eat it too, transferring the focus of a will they/won’t they from romance to business, keeping viewers invested not on if the couple will get together but if they can stay together through the fog of workplace warfare. And as if that weren’t enough to recommend this episode, Bill also has a cane for no reason, and its disappearance sets up one of the show’s finest prop comedy bits.
“Arcade” (season three, episode four): Another fine Dave and Lisa episode, “Arcade” digs into the deep-seated neuroses of both characters and how exactly they came to be the delightfully bizarre adults they are. In replacing the floor’s sandwich machine with a Stargate Defender machine, Beth accidentally throws the entire office into disarray, with Bill attempting to stock up on the rancid, desiccated sandwiches that remind him of those his mother made and Dave attempting to avoid the siren song of the game that ate up so much of his adolescence. Lisa, on the other hand, frets that she’s getting dumber and decides, based on a wholly sarcastic remark by Dave, that the solution is to retake her SATs. She persuades Dave to do the same. It’s no surprise that Lisa was just as type A as a teen or that Bill had a bizarrely neglectful mother or that Dave was a huge geek, but something about seeing the characters regress so thoroughly underlines just how deeply the humor on the show runs.
“Complaint Box” (season three, episode 14): One of the best television episodes of all time (coming in at number six on The A.V. Club’s list of best sitcom episodes of the last 25 years), “Complaint Box” has a deceptively simple premise that spirals wildly out of control. After the installation of a mandated complaint box (equipped with a special buzzer), the staff immediately takes it upon itself to flood the box with complaints, both legitimate and otherwise, driving their boss just a little bit madder with every passing moment. Though the plot is simple, the giddy energy that suffuses the episode is not. What NewsRadio depicts, with great joy, is that sometimes you find a job that makes you crazy and a group of people that drive you nuts, but in a way that you’d never want to work anywhere else. It was a show that could sometimes be cynical, but never at the expense of its characters. “Complaint Box” gets at the heart of the fact that working in an office means inevitably having to put up with mindless bureaucracy while also understanding that mindless bureaucracy doesn’t mean that you can’t have a good time.
“Office Feud” (season three, episode 19): One of the most vital things about NewsRadio was its ensemble cast. All were brilliant comedic actors who served as essential threads in the overall fabric of the show. Because of this, Khandi Alexander’s departure from the show near the beginning of the fourth season was devastating. Only later was it revealed that she left because she wasn’t given enough to do. In looking back at the series, it’s hard to argue that she was wrong to feel that way. Yet Alexander’s performance as Catherine Duke was spectacular on all levels, if only because she was one of the few characters capable of putting Bill in his place. In “Office Feud,” while much of the office is going to war with the noisy new neighbors upstairs, Bill and Catherine are butting heads over Bill’s new endorsement deal with Rocket Fuel malt liquor. Disgusted at Bill’s use of “street language” to try and attempt to shill for a product he has no intent of using, Catherine decides to beat him at his own game and exploit his supposed street cred for exactly what it was: a complete sham. On top of the episode tackling cultural appropriation, it also delves into the awkward business of political correctness when it turns out that the loud new neighbor is actually in a wheelchair (though still a complete dick).
“Super Karate Monkey Death Car” (season four, episode four): One of the strangest issues with the legacy of NewsRadio is how occasionally it seems overshadowed by its own quality. In Bill McNeal, the show and Phil Hartman created one of the great sitcom characters of all time. But with McNeal serving as such a sitcom high-water mark, it’s sometimes easy to overlook that Stephen Root’s performance as Jimmy James was basically perfect.
Both stern and wise, unhinged and unreadable, Root’s performance as the equally lovable and respected big boss man made for high comedy in “Super Karate Monkey Death Car,” as his autobiography Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer, a bestseller in Japan, is then retranslated into English as Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler, a joke that only gets funnier as James reads a selection of the book to an eager, if sparse, audience. The gibberish is funny, sure, but it’s Root’s performance that sells it, elevating something absurd into something akin to comedic genius.
“Sinking Ship” (season four, episode 22): Like any number of other popular cult sitcoms, NewsRadio loved to indulge in self-referential humor. Whether it was joking about how every office seemed to have a quirky redhead working there (throwing shade at the inclusion of Kathy Griffin on Suddenly Susan) or having Dave dress up as a (very convincing) woman (as a nod to his time spent with The Kids In The Hall), the show never failed to make the most of meta humor. Few episodes capture this feeling as well as the fourth-season finale, “Sinking Ship,” a fantasy episode that relocates NewsRadio’s setting to the Titanic. It works surprisingly well, simultaneously lampooning the then-massive popularity of the film Titanic and the fact that the series was (as those involved saw it) doomed. Though a somewhat bizarre episode for a traditional multi-camera sitcom, it wasn’t the show’s only foray into the surrealism of pure fantasy, merely the best representation of its experimentation. It’s an episode worth seeing not only for the commitment to the endeavor, but because it serves as the last hurrah of Bill McNeal.
“Bill Moves On” (season five, episode one): There are few episodes in sitcom history that are more difficult to watch than “Bill Moves On.” That’s not because it’s not funny. It is. But because the episode contains so much raw emotion, it is at times excruciating to watch. The premise is straightforward: Bill has suffered a heart attack and died, and the WNYX crew is trying to process the sudden and unprecedented loss. It’s not that beloved or cantankerous sitcom characters haven’t died before. They have. It’s not even that beloved actors haven’t died before, forcing their shows to carry on without them. It’s that few shows have experienced one of their stars being brutally murdered and had to pick up the pieces and carry on filming a handful of weeks later. The loss of Phil Hartman was heartbreaking on its own, but to watch the cast openly weep for Bill and the man who played him makes “Bill Moves On” simultaneously unwatchable and deeply cathartic. When tragedy strikes, there are few comforts more acute than those offered by true friendship. While the episode serves as a sort of raw nerve through which every emotion flows, it does so in the best way possible. There is opportunity to weep for the loss of both life and light, but also to laugh and rejoice for all of the good that came before that loss. “Bill Moves On” stands out for so many reasons, not just for acting as a true finale for one version of NewsRadio, but also for being one of the rare instances where pop culture fully captures the prismatic and complicated experience that is grief.
“Assistant” (season five, episode 15): “Assistant” may not be one of the best episodes of NewsRadio, but it is certainly representative of a certain type of episode, particularly from the fifth and final season. Largely inoffensive and often quite droll, the episode has Joe and Dave in competition for the affection of Lisa’s new assistant, an amusing guest star (Tiffani Thiessen as the assistant), and a silly B-plot involving the rest of the cast and a newly remodeled men’s room. There’s nothing wrong with “Assistant” other than it’s not what NewsRadio used to be. It’s an easy out to attribute the seeming drop in quality in the show’s fifth season to the loss of Phil Hartman, whose presence was so vital to the show. But the reality of the situation is that many sitcoms begin a slow decline into mediocrity in the fifth season, simply because there is a limit to how many stories one can tell in the same environment without getting repetitive or forcing your characters into a hellish bit of stasis. Simms was largely absent from the show’s final season, as he was busy developing a new show, OverSeas, about Peace Corps volunteers. Though he wrote the premiere (“Bill Moves On”) and provided the story for the final two episodes (“Retirement” and “New Hampshire”), Simms left the management of the season in other hands, and the show remained good, if not what it once was.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Sweeps Week” (season one, episode seven), “The Breakup” (season two, episode four), “Station Sale” (season two, episode 11), “Bitch Session” (season two, episode 12), “Coda” (season two, episode 20) “Halloween” (season three, episode five), “Christmas” (season three, episode 10), “Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show” (season four, episode eight), “Chock” (season four, episode 11), “New Hampshire” (season five, episode 22)
Availability (as of Mar. 20, 2020): The show is available in full on DVD and episodes can be viewed for purchase on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, iTunes, and more streaming services.