If this were a long-winded review feature, this is where I’d have four or more paragraphs exploring the futility of “freshness” for a multicamera sitcom in the 1990s. Really, how much serialization is there going to be? And honestly, how many jokes are going to be recycled from older shows? It was the 90s, after all, and environmentalism was all the rage.
I swear there was supposed to be a laugh track for that one. Pity.
Newsradio is one of those sitcoms that tasteful critics and knowing friends speak of in reverent tones, often talking about how they watched it back in the day and how they supported it ardently. It features a strong cast of beloved comedians – Dave Foley (previously of Kids in the Hall, and later of A Bug’s Life), Phil Hartman (previously of Saturday Night Live, and concurrently on The Simpsons), and Stephen Root (later agitating for the return of his red Swingline stapler in Office Space).
It also featured Andy Dick (who had a brief cameo on Arrested Development later, plus a lot of other appearances over the years in a variety of shows).
Let’s just get the only real spoiler I know of for this show out of the way, which shouldn’t be a spoiler to any consumer of 90s pop culture in North America: Phil Hartman was tragically killed in May 1998. (This led to Jon Lovitz taking on a role for the fifth and final season of the show.) If you’ve never seen Hartman in anything or somehow never heard him as Troy McClure or Lionel Hutz on The Simpsons, you probably don’t know how keenly many felt this at the time – or, in many cases, still do.
There are some minor details I know of in passing about the show, but mostly that there were “special episodes” later on, and I think there was a character’s duties flip at some point, but otherwise, I’m quite new to all of this. Most anything that came out in 1995, as I was starting college, had little chance of being followed. I think I caught the pilot – I’m pretty sure this was a mid-season replacement, so I wasn’t off at college yet – but I don’t think I was able to fully stay on board with the show.
That’s all a long-winded lead-up to my regrets about not following the show. It’s a pilot episode, so we get a lot of exposition out of the way quickly. Dave (Dave Foley) is the new news director of WNYX, but his boss, erratic business magnate Jimmy James (Stephen Root) hasn’t yet fired Ed, the old news director (played by Kurt Fuller, a professional “That guy!” actor – you may remember him from such films as Wayne’s World and Anger Management, and IMDB reports that he was the runner-up for the role of the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager).
While politely covering as a sports anchor so as to not embarrass Ed until James has a chance to privately fire him, Dave also meets other members of the staff, whether on-air personalities (like Phil Hartman’s Bill McNeal) or the office personalities (Maura (E.R.) Tierney’s Lisa Miller, Vicki Lewis (a “That gal!” actress, seen guesting on shows like Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and heard in Finding Nemo and Batman: The Brave and the Bold) as Beth, or Andy Dick’s Matthew Brock).
And, more than anything, we’re introduced to a host of classic sitcom pilot scenarios: the mild-mannered manager in the midst of strong personalities, the office politicking, the brilliantly unstable authority figure, the actor-in-the-pilot-who’s-replaced-for-the-show, the telegraphed love interest/professional rival coupling, the quiet call-back punchline. (Will Broadcasting Monthly, which Matthew and Dave mention earlier and later mine for a joke, become a recurring element in the show? Probably more likely that it’ll be one of those things used in the pilot and not again.)
The key here is that all of this is done quite well. It’s almost an unfair advantage to have a couple of strong performers used to ensemble work like Foley and Hartman, but darn it, we’re the audience and we deserve to be entertained.
We can see telegraphed from miles away that Dave will be pranked by Bill when Dave has to read the sports; although the mugging by Hartman is a bit much as he’s mocking the clueless Dave, Foley makes the most of a ridiculous vocal warm-up exercise being broadcast on-air, and Bill sinuously slides himself into the task when Dave pulls the cord.
That’s just a small example of many. (It’s a pilot, I can’t enumerate them all. Most of the great scenes are with Stephen Root; I’m sure that I’ll talk about him at length in a later review.) A small scene like this promises us that there are professionals in charge, and that we, the audience, will get the delivery we deserve. Even if most things are pretty familiar at this point (and were then, as well) – a family made from the workplace, petty issues can be large, authority figures are ridiculous but still powerful, closeted characterizations – they’re all done with enough style and assurance that it’s not terribly frustrating, and can even be enlivening.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.
“Well, make it fast. I’m in the middle of telling the guy why he’s so special to me. No, no, it’s work-related.”
“That’s very profound, Dave… y’know… for a sports guy.”
“Don’t you think I should do the Al Gore interview? Because phone interviews keep me alert and if I’m not alert I might just start reading the news v…e…r…y… s…l…o…w…l…y…, l…i…k…e… t…h…i…s….”
“Y’know… [WXYP] never really recovered once Tom Novacek passed away…”
A Note about Condensed Malk: For most of the shows I’m watching here, I’ll be putting the next episode in the hands of the readers. There’ll be a poll attached with the next few episode titles and their IMDB summaries; the winner will be the next one that I review.