NewsRadio was on its way to becoming one of the best sitcoms in TV history, starting with its third episode, "Smoking," in which a radio news anchor played by Phil Hartman is forced to give up smoking in the office, and news director Dave Foley tries to empathize by giving up coffee. Within a day, both are cracking, which would be funny enough, but the style really makes the episode sing. "Smoking" was the first episode that was really framed right, in the distinctive way that made NewsRadio uniquely funny. The director holds medium shots on two-person conversations while characters wander on- and offscreen, commenting on the action as they pass. The pace picks up considerably and the storyline follows, getting crazier and crazier until it only barely has anything to do with the pressures of working at a New York City news-radio station.
The lessons of "Smoking" rooted and blossomed in NewsRadio's third season, by which time TV veteran Tom Cherones—who also helped Seinfeld find its look and rhythm—took over as the show's semi-permanent director. Those third and fourth seasons are solid gold, and even the unfairly maligned fifth season retains some crackle, even without the presence of Hartman (who was murdered during the hiatus). The seven episodes of season one were mostly directed by James Burrows, who tried too hard to fit the show into a Taxi/Cheers mold, and the 22 episodes of season two run hot and cold, as creator Paul Simms and his writing team hunt futilely for stories in the workplace-comedy vein. Nevertheless, the three-disc NewsRadio: The Complete First And Second Seasons DVD set is studded with gems. Right from the start, the ensemble cast carried the series: the insecure and impatient Foley, the blustery and malicious Hartman, gum-cracking slacker secretary Vicki Lewis, spazzy reporter Andy Dick, poised anchor Khandi Alexander, industrious frat-boy repairman Joe Rogan, and the show's two subtlest comedians, Stephen Root (as the benevolent-crackpot station owner) and Maura Tierney (as an ambitious reporter with a stone face and wondrously expressive arms).
The DVD set's special features are a celebration of that cast, with 20 commentary tracks mostly serving as a reunion between actors who miss the creative joy of working on NewsRadio. But between all the camaraderie and giddiness—most evident on a track where Foley, Dick, Rogan, and Root are left by themselves and get downright silly—the writers and stars make insightful observations about their early mistakes, from hiring too many extras to fill out the backgrounds to allowing studio-audience applause to break the absurdist mood. On one astonishing track, Simms confronts former NBC executive (and good sport) Warren Littlefield, who complains that there's been no defining office sitcom since NewsRadio—which prompts Simms to gripe, "Well, you bought one called Just Shoot Me, and promoted it more than us." It's a fair point. Though NewsRadio remains a cult item, its cult is fervent. Just mention a few key words to describe the episodes—"goofy ball," "the big bonus," "Bill's cane," "Boba Fett"—and hardcore fans can remember not just the best lines, but the inflections, gestures, and camera angles.