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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "The Lam"/"Clash Of The Titans"

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“The Lam” (season 5 episode 7, original airdate 11/11/98)

I have a theory about trilogies: The second installment is usually the best.  Conflicts deepen, complications ensue. The backstory is behind us, and the inevitable letdown of bringing it all together for a conclusion is yet to come.

The three-episode Johnny Johnson arc, unfortunately, does not conform to my theory; the second episode, “The Lam,” is the weakest of the bunch.  As much to save my theory as because I think it might be accurate, I’ll posit here that the Johnson saga really ought to have been a two-episode special guest appearance — introduced in “Jail” and concluded in “Clash of the Titans.”  “The Lam” spins its wheels storywise.  It introduces no new complications (although it makes plenty of comic hay out of the ones that are already present, like the Lisa-Johnny romance).  Even Jimmy busting out of prison and hiding out in Wisconsin at Dave’s parents’ house, while frequently charming, feels like filler.  Couldn’t we have gone from Jimmy in prison, straight to Dave accidentally giving the FBI their key piece of evidence and boom, the trial that opens “Clash of the Titans” is underway?

Certainly story isn’t the overriding criterion on which NewsRadio should be judged, not when the show was often brilliant at allowing the most slender of conflicts to carry entire episodes.  But it is an appropriate standard to apply to this arc, which is premised on the kind of “our lives hang in the balance” tension that drives earlier classics like “Station Sale.”  Despite my contention that “The Lam” is largely expendable in these terms, I would be loath to lose its delightfully creepy escalation of Lisa’s attraction to Johnny.  That development leads directly to Johnny’s forthright pledge to give up his evil ways if Lisa accepts his marriage proposal (Dave: “You can’t just turn off your … your evilocity!” Johnny: “The word is evilness, Dave, and yes, I can”), and to Dave’s conflicted behavior toward Lisa, protesting how she swoons into Johnny’s arms, then trying to rush her into marriage to save the station (Lisa: “I will not be a negotiating pawn in a corporate battle!” Dave: “Why not?  It’ll be fun!”).

All my objections fade away, I confess, before Patrick Warburton’s magnificent creepy uninhibitedness.  I shudder, squeal, and laugh simultaneously when he gives Lisa a neck rub and murmurs “I must tell you, my lips are getting very jealous of my fingers,” or when he seduces Lisa with lines like “If the flames of hell burn as fiercely as your lips, then let the fires consume me."  The diction is so over-the-top, and Warburton’s delivery so sincere and understated.  How many people would have the courage to play the romance-novel object of passion with so little flair?  Yet it’s absolutely key to the character, and to the character’s effect on the entire ensemble, that he treat his pursuit of Lisa with the same matter-of-fact single-mindedness as his corporate ambitions.  That trait makes Dave believe he can fix everyone’s problems by persuading Lisa to marry Johnny (okay, not so much persuading as cajoling and dragging) so that Johnny will “give up this corporate intrigue and pursue my real dream — teaching English as a second language."

When was good management ever so simple, though?  Dave’s machinations result in Lisa turning Johnny down and feeling “strangely powerful, in an evil sort of way.”  As for the rest of the staff, they remain stuck in the same mode as when the episode began, best summed up by this exchange, starting with Max despairing after Johnny cuts him down: "My whole world is crumbling!" Dave can’t help himself: "I told you he was evil.” "I forgive him!” Max retorts instantaneously.

“Clash of the Titans” (season 5 episode 8, original airdate 11/25/98)

“Clash of the Titans” indeed.  As soon as Johnny and Jimmy start sparring in the same ring, two masterful fighters at the top of their game (and that applies to the actors as well), one realizes how much we missed by shipping Jimmy off to Wisconsin in the previous episode.  The full force of the Johnny Johnson subplot comes to bear as soon as Mr. James re-enters the office and promises Dave (aka The Angel of Death) to eviscerate his rival, and grows as first one, then the other is forced to his knees.  

It’s thrilling to watch the whole station backing up Jimmy (and doubly so since Dave is still pissed off they wouldn’t do the same for him), each character in his or her own way: Beth with ineffectual on-air protest singing (which continues throughout the entire episode whenever the booth is in the background, long after Johnny has switched the broadcast to a canned news feed), Lisa with easily-foiled ultimatums (countered smoothly by Johnny: “I choose you and the empire”), Joe with a grudging commitment to ass-whupping (tempered by recognition of Johnny’s awesomeness and desire to hang out with him), and Matthew with a bunch of orange segments wrapped in a towel (“My mom peels 'em for me — I have soft fingernails”).

And lest the parade become too homogenous, there’s Max in one of his finest moments, providing slightly less than optimal servility to his master and declaring: “I can never rest in my campaign to inconvenience Johnny!”  Oozing smarm as he plays both sides of the fence, Max deferentially offers a hot towel to Johnny as he passes the desk, then gloats to Dave: “It’s lukewarm at best!”

If your enjoyment of season 5 is tied to Dave’s likeability, as some of you have indicated in the comments, on balance you have to approve of “Clash of the Titans.”  He’s marvelously heroic (although impotent) when confronting Johnny.  He’s endearingly flustered when Lisa falls for Johnny.  Yes, his snide responses when nobody else recognizes the danger Johnny poses are off-putting.  But as I argued in the comments last week, the changes taking place in Dave and Lisa’s characters don’t have to be seen as declines from some perfect ideal.  Dave’s weariness and Lisa’s quest for approval build on traits they’ve had since the beginning.  They might not be your favorite iteration of these characters, but they are consistent developments.  This is what has surprised me most about Season 5, actually; the conventional wisdom is that the characters become unmoored and cartoonish, but I see these changes as direct consequences of the histories we’ve observed, and as deepenings rather than simplifications.

Remember when I surmised that trilogy endings are likely to be disappointments?  “Clash of the Titans” busts that theory, too.  What could be more perfect than Mr. James’s “I choose … you,” focusing his steely gaze on Johnny, after being allowed to take one employee with him to the new nexus of his empire, Hot Cup O’ Web?  And when Johnny agrees to play by the rules of the game he set up, submitting to Jimmy’s authority because he named himself news director and is thus an employee of WNYX, the satisfaction of the moment is comic in itself.  Johnny’s evilness never implied duplicity; he’s a straight shooter, which grounds his chaotic presence and allows the resolution to stick not simply through sitcom convention, but because of character consistency.  Dave, who still doesn’t understand this, protests: “But you’re evil!” “That’s no excuse for poor sportsmanship,” Johnny responds, in a particularly well-written turn of phrase.

Grades: “The Lam,” B-; “Clash of the Titans,” A

  • I had totally forgotten about Adam West’s taking the fall in Mr. James’s trial.  It’s so odd, yet as a cameo appearance, so well thought out.  The joke isn’t just that Mr. James gets West to confess to D.B. Cooper’s crime, but that West wants to ham it up while doing so — "I was short on cash, I had bad representation, I was desperate … Judge not a man by the size of his shoes!” —and has to be reminded by Mr. James to wrap it up.
  • Lisa and Beth’s mutual confusion about makeout limits is never less than charming.  After Dave accuses Lisa of allow Johnny “a stand-up triple!”, Lisa gets a tutorial from Beth on the location of third base.  “I thought that was second base,” she confesses, implying that she’s been letting her partners go pretty far.  “I thought it was first base,” Beth admits.  “Guys in high school really messed with my head.”
  • My favorite moment in “The Lam” is a further exploration of the Matthew/Jimmy pairing we saw in “Jail.”  Mr. James calls Dave from Dave’s parents’ spare room, asks him to guess who else is with him (Dave: “My dad?”), and does a brief This Is Your Life routine with Matthew: “Do you recognize … this voice?”
  • In his boyhood, Dave collected Casper comics (which he implores Mr. James not to read but to leave in their plastic sleeves since “they’re kind of collectibles”) and hid Playboy magazines under his mattress.
  • Max has found a niche — amoral toady — that has elements of Bill and Matthew but isn’t reducible to either.  He’s opportunistic and unapologetic about it: “Let's just say for the sake of argument that Johnny's evil.  Doesn't that make you want to serve him all the more?"
  • Mr. James isn’t sure what an internet cafe is, but upon being informed that it’s where lonely teenagers go to download pornography, he’s optimistic: “Teenagers love pornography!  I’ll be back on top in no time.”
  • Mr. James’s plan to topple Johnny lacks some specifics: “"I get my empire back from Johnny, someway, somehow!”  So Matthew improves it: "First A, get the empire back, then B, take everybody out for banana splits."
  • Joe threatens Johnny: “You’re not going to go quietly, huh?”  Johnny is unperturbed: “I’m not going to go at all, what’s on your mind?”
  • After Dave refuses a first-class seat on the Johnny Johnson express, Johnny explains the snubbing with a juvenile gesthre: "I stretched my hand out in brotherhood and you did one of those things" (yanking hand away and smoothing hair).
  • Hey, it’s 1998!  Check out the Bondi Blue first-generation iMac on Beth’s desk … sweet.  (I totally got one of those, except Blueberry flavor, about nine months after this aired.)
  • "Ever since you got here you've had one goal — to put Mr. James in prison and take over his corporate empire." "That's two goals, Dave."
  • "You evil son of a gun." "Guilty as charged."
  • “University of Florida Gators rule!  OK, let’s do this.”