So we’ve come to the beginning of the end. In between seasons four and five, Phil Hartman was killed. Tragedy and change offscreen had to be reflected onscreen as the last season of NewsRadio opened. And then the creative team had to make some tough decisions about how to move the show forward.
One of the big questions for this summer’s last look back at the show is whether the team succeeded. Is season five still the NewsRadio we love and admire, without Bill and with the necessity of making do? I’m hoping, based on these first two episodes, that the answer is yes. It’s striking how much “Bill Moves On” is unquestionably a NewsRadio episode, with the show’s signature sense of humor and style (though the latter is muted). I was afraid that what we might see would be a broken, grieving, limping endeavor. But there’s confidence here. The show strides forward with purpose, even though the ground underneath it is shifting. What moved me as much as any of the remembrances of Bill McNeal was the way the other characters reappeared, complete and solid, as if their relationships were simply part of the fabric of the universe. “Of course we’re back,” the show seems to say in its unselfconscious process of getting on with season five. “Life’s a bitch, but you can count on us.”
That familiarity has a consoling quality—not to imply, though, that “Bill Moves On” is just a big ol’ plate of comfort food and a mound of tissues. No, there’s real artfulness and creativity in the way the episode goes about “moving on,” starting with the decision to bring us back together after the funeral. There’s no shocking revelation, no passing around of the bad news. Everybody’s already begun their stages of grieving, although some are further along than others. Matthew, notably, is mired in denial, asserting that Bill has dropped out of society and moved to a remote Asian locale to live a life of rugged outdoorsmanship. The main conflict of the episode is the staff’s attempt to tiptoe around Matthew’s delicate sensibilities while helping him face reality. “Right about now, I bet Bill’s just tooling around some lake in the Himalayas in his own private submarine,” Matthew suggests, and Joe, Beth, and Mr. James are all too eager to play along: “I bet he puts the submarine on autopilot, so he can catch a few winks.” “I hope the air’s not too thin up there.” “Oh it is, but if you take the submarine down to the right depth…”
What the NewsRadio team understands perfectly and what sets this apart from other episodes of its kind in sitcomdom is that the show is not about the person who is absent but the ones still present. From the moment in the cold open when Dave tentatively lets Bill’s memorial coffee dribble from his mouth back into Bill’s memorial coffee cup, we are firmly back with the foibles and endearing-but-doomed projects of the WNYX crew. In a sense—and I mean no disrespect—Bill’s death turns into a sitcom situation, a conflict generator, a chance for the ensemble to respond in their particular, character-driven ways, a setting for clashes of personality and meaning. What else can it be, if we are not to go all meta and hold an actual funeral on the air? The perfect wake for a man who lived, breathed, and sweated show-business—one of the all-time greats, versatile beyond belief, blessed with one perfect sitcom role in Bill McNeal and enough career highlights over enough other shows and venues for three ordinary people’s careers (and three different careers, come to think of it)—is a great half-hour of television that uses everything available to make its connections and doesn’t burn any bridges while doing so. Because the next day you need to be able to get up and do it again.
So the staff, having dealt with the news offscreen in their various ways (Joe going to his childhood home and crawling in bed with his parents—“that was the first time I met my mom’s new husband; he’s pretty uptight”; Mr. James punching a wall then driving a backhoe through his new house; Beth calling at Bill’s apartment window until someone yells, “Shut up, you crazy bitch”; “Makes me think his spirit lives in others,” she smiles; and Lisa going on a multi-day bender that makes everyone think she’s still drunk), turn their energies toward two often incompatible tasks: taking care of each other and telling the truth. Because Matthew worshipped Bill, everyone is afraid of what will happen when he has to face the fact that Bill is really gone. And because Dave did a horrible, horrible job with the eulogy—at 2 hours and 17 minutes, “it was totally comprehensive” and “it didn’t suck at all” according to the staff’s first reviews in the cold open—he’s lost without the one person who both transparently sucked up to him and simultaneously, with unveiled condescension, communicated his incompetence. Dave’s lost his antagonist. What’s a manager to do without the force of chaos that made managing both futile and essential?
“Bill Moves On” culminates in the scene in Dave’s office where the staff welcomes back Catherine Duke and opens the envelopes that Bill left for them. That’s the scene we all remember, and it’s a tear-jerker, undeniably cathartic for cast and crew and therefore for us, who need to know that NewsRadio feels its loss. But the tears are not where the episode’s heart really lies. Instead, it’s the laughter from the show’s familiar yet ever-fresh beats that make a statement about what it wants to be in this moment. There are grace notes in that weepy scene that refer to it—the little Bill-isms in the notes, like “Kudos!”, “I salute you. Salut!”, and the use of the word “delicious” in reference to Catherine’s lovemaking—but what I want to remember are the jokes where Bill’s absence becomes a setup for a NewsRadio-style punchline. Everybody getting up from the conference table in disgust when Dave raises Bill’s coffee to his lips; Matthew having a marshmallow in his pocket; Dave wanting to look under the tiny Post-It bikini bottom on Lisa’s Rolodex card; Matthew sticking the coffee cup down his pants; Matthew thinking Lisa’s note, with its meditation on seeing her naked, was meant for him; Dave and Jimmy sparring over whether the latter’s condemnation of his eulogy is sincere or just a comforting gesture (“I know you’re just trying to be nice” “No, I’m not, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been to”); Lisa rolling her eyes at being called a “pie-eyed drunk.”
Those, after all, are the ingredients that will need to sustain the show as it moves into the post-Hartman world of season five, starting with “Meet The Max Louis.” Let’s get it out of the way right at the top: Jon Lovitz’s rhythm doesn’t immediately mesh with the NewsRadio style in this episode. Or actually, it does, quite compellingly, right up until the moment that Lovitz starts in with the bewildered blathering that is part of the stock-in-trade he brings to the table. His subdued supplicant Max Louis, looking for a job and certain he’s not going to get it, is a perfect match for this show, allowing Dave to pull out some real boss dramatics (“You heard me right! Nothing you can do for the next two weeks will get you fired!”) and generously giving way, through underplaying, to the folks whose show this already is. But his hysteria when handed over to Lisa (and then to Beth, to whom he leers “Hello, Barbara,” followed by Lisa tagging her and muttering, “You’re it” before dashing away) is a miscalculation. We don’t need someone to come in and be the chief crazy of the office, dominating with his physical presence and personality the way Bill used to. That feels like a usurpation. What’s more, the little hand-flaps and hesitant muttering are a bit too close to Matthew territory.
I never thought about it before rewatching “Meet the Max Louis,” but the rationale given by the episode for hiring Max Louis—that he was a friend of Bill’s, and that having him around is both a fitting tribute to the deceased and potentially a good fit for the office—works as the rationale for hiring Jon Lovitz. Hartman and Lovitz overlapped for four years at Saturday Night Live, and the creators must have felt some tension about bringing in someone to “replace” Hartman; hiring someone who worked closely with him but who had his own well-established style must have seemed like a good way to finesse that difficulty. And as I recall, Lovitz does find that elusive fit at times in season five. From our perspective, however, reassessing the season in the context of the show as a whole and of television history, I want to make sure we don’t overemphasize Lovitz either as spoiler or secret savior. No matter how we feel about the tragic circumstances of his arrival and no matter how his particular style fits or doesn’t fit into the ensemble moment to moment, these first two episodes have demonstrated that the NewsRadio engine is strong enough to keep purring along despite the installation of non-OEM parts. A predetermined narrative that this last season is a sad, withered, vestigial thing, an inevitable decline, a death march toward a mercy killing, is going to blind us to the accomplishments and pleasures the show is still clearly capable of delivering. On the other hand, just because the capacity is there doesn’t mean the show is destined for achievement, so we also have to be careful not to give the season a pass because it reminds us of better times.
Despite the miscalculation of Max’s manic side, “Meet The Max Louis” is stellar NewsRadio, every bit as lively and sharp as the past several seasons have led us to expect. Nothing is guaranteed to lift a somber NewsRadio fan’s spirit faster than the way Dave’s introduction of the job candidates’ resumes gets hijacked by the staff into mockery of the candidates’ names and headshots. Peabody-winning Jack Calloway is disqualified for having an Afro (“Fight the power!” Matthew growls, holding up his headshot), Jan Sanburger for rhyming with hamburger, “This guy’s name is Sky Maximus—what a dork!”, and of course, “Look at this stupid fool Frank Peterson, stupid fool!” Later, Lisa and Beth put the headshots over their faces and do a little puppet show behind Dave’s desk, culminating in their making the photos smooch and almost smooching themselves. Then when the team begs Dave to hire Max Louis, Lisa makes a confident attempt to spin the 37 jobs on his resume into a positive: “Sounds like a veteran!” “Sounds like a drifter,” Dave corrects her, in a classic bit of Dave-Lisa banter.
What I really like about the beginning of the Max Louis era is the way it makes Dave believe he has a chance to be a mentor rather than a wrangler. It’s a great chance for Dave to be a different kind of boss, and he seems to relish the thought, only to have the possibilities crash down around him with comic quickness when Max pulls out OSHA regulations and demands to be treated according to the letter of employee law, rather than as a mentee. So much for a new day for the general manager. Much of the larger framework of humor in “Meet The Max Louis” is the turn-on-a-dime switcheroo between Dave’s and the staff’s positions on Max’s employment—first Dave opposed and the staff wheedling for Max to be hired, then Dave convinced and the staff demanding that Max won’t work out, and finally Dave resigned to firing Max and the staff wondering if he’s been given a fair shake. In one of the funniest meta-moments of the series, they ask: “How are we going to tell if he’s any good on the air?” “Well, we could listen to one of our own broadcasts,” Dave suggests half-sarcastically. “Does anybody have a radio?” Lisa wonders; “A what?” Matthew deadpans.
And then the episode ends, thankfully, with Lovitz in subdued on-air mode, thanking everyone at WNYX for accepting him, a classic, almost Bill McNeal-style rundown with a uniquely Max Louis touch, paying off a fairly flat series of gags about not learning anybody’s name with a lovely final punch: “The station’s owner Mr. Jameson; Barbara, the red-haired temptress; beautiful brown-haired journalism woman; tall skinny guy with glasses; electrical man of course; and especially the man who’s given me the confidence to be myself, my news director, Dave Nelson.” A moment of grace for Dave, finally receiving the recognition he wants, only to be followed by: “I’m sorry, Doug Nelson — thanks again Doug!” Nope, Dave, you don’t get off that easy. For which I am grateful; otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about the brilliant show that has gotten us to this point and bids fair to take us all the way to the end.
Grades: "Bill Moves On," A-; "Meet the Max Louis," B+
- I promise they won’t all be this long, folks. With all the changes these two episodes represent, there was a lot to chew over. The season five episodes aren’t on Hulu, unfortunately, but I hope that many of you have the DVD set or can locate the episodes through other legal means.
- Hey, it’s 1998! The whole Y2K bug subplot in “Meet the Max Louis” (here called “the year 2000 problem”—had we not agreed on nomenclature yet?) contributes to the classic feel of this episode, with things suddenly catching on fire, puffs of smoke, and folks jumping into action at the drop of a hat. Joe explains that's because he set up the electronics based on “the actual birthday of Jesus,” so it’s going to hit WNYX a little early. Basically all the computers are going to freeze up, and “freeze up’s an electro-technical term for explode, Dave.”
- Max Louis is introduced with one of the weirdest effects the program has so far created: CGI of the elevator dropping down the shaft. Too bad the Jimmy James stunt-driving team got caught in traffic and missed the welcome.
- Mr. James suggests to Dave that there are benefits to going along with the mob: “Wouldn’t it have been smarter for Frankenstein to pick up the torch and help the villagers hunt down some other freak?”
- Max has done it all in his 37 previous jobs: “Rock, country, chat, hard rock, soft rock, soft country, soft country chat …”
- Matthew has some especially fine moments opposing Max’s employment: “I have an idea. Go to hell”; “This guy looks like he’s just pretending to be a friend of Bill’s”; “Face it, Dave, Max Louis has been a dead weight around our neck for far too long.”
- Joe is drinking a Red Bull at one of the staff meetings! I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of Red Bull in 1998. (Then again, I was sheltered; I’ve still never tasted one.)
- “All what?” “All news.” “How often?” “All the time.”
- “Matthew seems like the ablest man for this challenging task,” Bill’s instructions for note-distribution read—followed immediately by everyone swapping envelopes.
- Max boasts about his bowling prowess, with the tiniest touch of Tommy Flanagan, “Lifetime average 1—290.”
- “Farewell. Take care of each other, and I’ll see you whenever you get to wherever I am now.”