From 1995 to 1999, I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, attending graduate school and living in a furnished two-bedroom apartment (one bedroom of which was occupied by my boa constrictor, Cuda). During this period I got married (1996) and got my Ph.D. in religious studies (1998). I worked in customer service at a plant that made computerized numerical controls for industry. And almost every night, I sat on our uncomfortable dorm-style couch with Noel and watched network situation comedies.
We had cable, but cable wasn't much to speak of back then in terms of original programming. And why would you ever need to leave the loving embrace of the networks when they were airing Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, Ally McBeal, Frasier, The Drew Carey Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Will & Grace? Sitcoms ruled the airwaves and dominated the ratings charts. We were blissfully ignorant of the coming onslaught of unscripted reality competitions. Everyone on TV seemed as smart and funny as we young adults thought we were.
It couldn't last. By the time NewsRadio closed up shop in 1999, I had landed my first (and so far only) academic job and was making plans to move to Arkansas (and give away the snake, a pet my mother regarded as out of the question for a home that might soon have children in it). Curb Your Enthusiasm and Malcolm in the Middle were about to make single-camera comedies the new in thing, and only a few years later, when Arrested Development hit the air, people were talking openly about the end of the traditional multi-camera format. We were all growing up, it seemed, and putting away childish things.
The truth was more complicated, of course; evolution isn't that sort of straight line, and the many sheltering nooks and crannies of the expanding cable and satellite universe have nourished species of television that might have died out in a more restricted environment. But let's not allow reality to complicate our narrative just yet. Because we're at a wake, celebrating the short, spectacular life of one of the most beautifully crafted of those dinosaurs, and mourning the way it had to go — feisty but altered, diminished and bitter. The same energetic three-note sting that announced its presence at the start still played us into the act breaks, but five years on, those notes lost their freshness and came to feel a bit old-fashioned.
Watching the last two episodes — in which Mr. James decides to retire and move to New Hampshire, then returns to take as many of the WNYX staff with him as he can — there's a tiny sense of lift, a hint of a way out. Creator Paul Simms left the door open for a radical change in the show should it, by some miracle, be renewed. Looking back over the five-season run, you can see evidence that this was the last-ditch effort of choice for the show, which was in danger of cancellation more than once; the creative team would ditch the constraints of their premise, cash out whatever equity their characters had built up, and throw a big party with it. The problem with that behavior, cleansing and bracing as it may be for both creators and viewers, is that if the show doesn't flatline, you're right back in the four-by-eight cell of your premise the next year, with the network executives as your cellmates.
And NewsRadio seems a little like sitcom jail at times in season 5, as it tries to get past the loss of larger-than-life Bill McNeal in the newsroom and entertainer extraordinaire Phil Hartman in real life. In order to keep the premise going, you have to rebuild your roster and put somebody else in the uniform. Something about that process seems to have broken the spirit of this show — as if exposing that the magic of its best days were just a piece of theater, after all, where the world demands that you pretend that murder and death don't make it all seem pointless. The cynicism that overcomes Dave like a creeping cancer is an expression, it seems, not only of a creative team tiring of the fight, but also of a performer who realizes it's all a sham and can barely muster up the energy to go through the motions.
So the New Hampshire reboot never really seems possible, even for those of us with the benefit of hindsight. It's less of a Hail Mary than a "we've got two more episodes, why the hell not?" And funny episodes they are, too, with conscious references to the history of the show (though none to Bill, sadly) and moments of magnificent comic energy. There's even a glimpse of poignance when the entire staff is in the elevator urging Dave to join them, and he hesitates, leaning toward them before pulling back and retreating into the open-plan office. It's an echo of a Dave double-take from the pilot, when he waffles visibly for a moment between the lobby and the office. Does he follow the action where it is leading, or does he try to do his duty and clean up the mess that's been left behind?
In the pilot, the office is the future — Dave is chasing Mr. James who has already confidently stepped out of frame. In "New Hampshire," the office is the past. And as the final stinger shows, it's a kind of Sartrean hell, too. "Forever," hisses Matthew, leaving us to contemplate Dave trapped eternally with the person who embodies everything he hates about the job. What a bleak version of comedy this is, especially for a show that, at its peak, unapologetically and unironically presented this group of co-workers as a family.
Now Dave has given up the effort of holding the family together, and it falls to Lisa — both last week and this week — to exert herself on behalf of the station and its denizens. She organizes a send-off for Mr. James when Dave wants to sit back and wait for his attention-seeking behavior to fizzle out. "We're going to go with this plan, the 12345 plan, which is my plan, and it's a good plan!" she insists, marrying her control-freak personality with some of Dave's old exasperation over the cat-herding responsibilities of his job. Meanwhile, Joe and Beth are putting on another of their delightful playlets for the ostensible purpose of honing Matthew's interviewing skills. (Best moment in this wonderfully-crafted subplot: Joe in a fake mustache yelling into a phone "That's right, I said sell, dude, sell! Thanks, dude.")
And in the second part of the series finale, another of the sitcom tropes that NewsRadio does as well as any show in history is brought back for its curtain call: One by one everyone who at first professes to be horrified by the thought of moving to New Hampshire is seduced to the other side, until only Dave is left trying to convince them of what they used to believe. Max changes his mind after hearing about the weekly square dances ("Do they call the Virginia Reel? Do they require membership?" he inquires excitedly; "No, just a lust for life and comfortable shoes," Mr. James responds). And Lisa can't resist the endless political posturing of the primaries and, even better, the pre-primary grassroots organizing ("Perhaps a replay of Bruce Babbitt’s famed October semi-surprise! Or maybe another Mo Udall come to sweep a cynical nation off its feet!” she fantasizes). Also, Mr. James promises to pay their rent so they won't have to give up their New York apartments, and anybody who wants one gets a pig. That doesn't move Dave, especially since Mr. James doesn't know Arnold the Pig's name, but it does win over Max: "Big Green Acres fan?" Dave asks, and he answers, "Green what?"
No, strike that: It almost moves Dave. Watching him hesitate between the rural dream he's never allowed himself to have, and the big-city managerial duty he believes he can't refuse, provides the key moments of pathos in these final two episodes. And frankly, that's a relief, because as sinfully fun as it is to watch Dave dream of firing everyone and killing Matthew, we need his sincerity and not just his maniacal grin. Therein lies what I now think is the key problem with season 5, a season I've come to believe is indeed lesser and problematic despite an enviable lineup of excellent episodes. When Matthew replaces Bill as Dave's chief antagonist, Dave's ability to inhabit fully his role as boss, to express and believe in the station and its mission, seems to be compromised. Bill opposed Dave as an active agent of chaos; Matthew is just clueless and annoying. So Dave's hatred of him seems cruel rather than principled. The loss first of Dave's idealism, then his pragmatism, is perhaps an inevitable arc for the show, but if Bill had stayed around, it surely would have proceeded much more slowly and been accompanied by much less despair.
The Dave I want to remember isn't the one who hates, but the one who loves — who treasures his co-workers and actually enjoys radio in ways that his formulaic professions of affection fail to express. I'll leave the show right outside that elevator, with Dave's indecisiveness, with the allure of starting over and the honor of sticking it out. That's where we all were as the year 2000 approached: torn between pride in our accomplishments, anticipation of the future, and fear that we'll never get where we were hoping. In the no-win situation of the situation comedy at the end of the twentieth century, that's as good as it's going to get.
Grades: "Retirement," B+; "New Hampshire," A-
- Before we get into the quotable quotes and memorable moments, let me just say that it's been a privilege to watch this show with all of you, whether you've been here since the beginning four years ago or just showed up last week. I knew when I started that NewsRadio was beloved by many, not just me. But it's the kind of love that really needs a support group, unlike the more prominent geeky obsessions of our time. I tried to discover and articulate what made the show so important to me and to television, and you helped immeasurably season after season. I'll miss our weekly staff meetings, and though I'll be looking for another classic to revisit starting next summer, none of them will ever be like this show, the one I always knew I wanted to explore deeply and enjoy in public. I'm grateful to the A.V. Club for creating a space where the past can be brought into the present and shared over the span of months and years with whoever wants to come along.
- The staff's dreams of starting over include Lisa's return to print journalism (she recalls winning an award when editing her college paper's arts coverage for "a particularly devastating review of Devo's third album"), Max's unfinished novel (Dave: "You wrote half a novel?"; Max: "No, I read half a novel"), and Joe's kiddie TV show ("Gotta get 'em early, before they've been brainwashed by the thought police").
- Joe's grilling of Matthew on the premise that he's being interviewed for NASA is pure genius: "Question one, have you ever been to the moon? Do you have your own space suit? We may be able to provide one for you, I can't guarantee it. Can you type … in space? How many words per minute?" When Matthew answers that he once got 8 but will say 5 to be safe, Beth interjects: "Are those minutes — or space minutes?" "I … do not know the answer to that question," the thoroughly flustered Matthew finally confesses. Perhaps best of all is the cut to Joe whirling Matthew around in an chair and yelling, "Better get used to it, dude, office furniture in space is very unstable!"
- One of Beth's finest moments in a stellar season five is her incoherent speech at the Jimmy James Farewell Jubilee: "In one day, Mr. James and I were mugged in Central Park … got run over by a drunken cab driver … fell ten stories out of my apartment building … and I got evicted because my rent was one day late! One day! And Mr. James turned to me and said 'That's this city … we’ve got to get out of this hell-hole!'"
- Dave at first refuses to speak at the Jubilee, in front of the David Letterman pre-show audience that Beth hijacked into the room, because "I can't follow the three dancing Matthews! They were terrific!" He finally relents and expresses his feelings thusly: “Whatever you’re up to, I wish you’d get on with it, because this phony tribute to your fake retirement has eaten up three hours of my life that I’ll never get back.”
- Mr. James's idyllic life in New Hampshire consists of "cows to moo at me while I sit on my front porch, listen to 'em moo."
- A nice callback for longtime fans: After Mr. James breaks down in Dave's office ("I'm so lonely!"), he wipes his eyes on one of Dave's spare blue shirts from the desk drawer full of replacements we first saw in season 2.
- Mr. James tries to lure staff up to New Hampshire by telling them that New Hampshire is for lovers ("saw it on a t-shirt, made it my own") and that "The Vermont maple syrup only has to travel one state; believe me, you can taste the difference."
- Oh, so Green Acres is not Dave's favorite TV show? "Granted, it's a wonderfully rendered half-hour of absurdist comedy."
- When Lisa excoriates Dave for not having a sense of adventure, he whines, "But you said that's what you liked about me!"
- Beth finally gets to tell off Dave the way she's apparently always wanted to: "Sarcasm — the last resort of SONS OF BITCHES!" (She also terms him a "know-it-all hick," which is an especially felicitous turn of phrase.)
- "Confronting your fears — that's the coward's way!"
- Matthew offers to fetch Dave coffee: "How do you take it?" "Hot and black." "How about cold with little things floating in it?"
- "Do you guys remember when Mike Dukakis won New Hampshire and we all thought the second coming of Camelot was imminent?"
- "The Collins County Register! Do you think everybody would just hate it if we called it the Daily Jimmy?"
- "I think the best thing for me is to just get out of town and start somewhere fresh … but where?”
- "I'm gonna miss you most of all, you grumpy bastard."