Sony // 1995 // 600 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Chris Claro (Retired) // March 8th, 2006
One of the sharpest comedies of the 90s hits its stride.
Newsradio's third season found the well-oiled machine that was the show's cast continuing to churn out great comedy, even as the show itself began to exhibit signs of excessive loopiness and self-indulgence.
Creator Paul Simms, who had just come off a successful run on The Larry Sanders Show, concocted Newsradio out of standard sitcom elements: a workplace filled with quirky characters in contrived situations. On paper, it probably looked as flaccid and lifeless as any of the time-filling pap for which primetime is known.
But Simms infused Newsradio with a wit and sensibility that hadn't been seen since the glory days of such sterling workplace comedies as Barney Miller and The Bob Newhart Show, proving that, while a recipe could be pedestrian, good, fresh ingredients can make it relevant again.
The writing, casting and staging of Newsradio brought the show to a level above that of standard television comedy. Less directed than choreographed, the show's speed and timing, combined with its character-based comedy, often recalled the days of the mile-a-minute screwball comedies of the '30s.
* Massage Chair
* Awards Show
* Movie Star
* The Trainer
* Led Zeppelin Boxed Set
* Complaint Box
* Rose Bowl
* Office Feud
* Our Fiftieth Episode
* The Real Deal
* The Injury
The cast of Newsradio was composed of performers of all disciplines. Dave Foley (Sky High) made his bones as part of the brilliant '90s sketch troupe, "Kids in the Hall." Andy Dick showed his versatility as a member of the cast of the late, lamented Ben Stiller Show. Joe Rogan (Fear Factor) came from standup, Vicki Lewis was a Broadway singer-dancer and Stephen Root established himself as a guest star on dozens of sitcoms and hour-long dramas. Even Khandi Alexander, arguably the weak link in the Newsradio comic chain, had unique roots, as a choreographer for Whitney Houston. Then, of course, there was Phil Hartman.
Originally a member of the L.A.-based Groundlings comedy troupe, Hartman co-wrote Pee-Wee's Big Adventure with Paul Reubens before establishing himself as a premier sketch player on Saturday Night Live. In the wake of his SNL duties, it appeared that Hartman would be relegated to a life of second-banana work in cruddy big-screen "comedies" like Houseguest, Sgt. Bilko and Jingle All the Way. But, betraying a self-awareness that has eluded many other SNL cast members, Hartman walked away from the movies and joined the Newsradio ensemble as anchorman Bill McNeal.
(The recent news of Matthew Perry joining the cast of Aaron Sorkin's new pilot about a fictional Saturday Night Live, shows there's hope for TV stars who have the wits to take truly meaty TV part, rather than dive headfirst into one-weekend-and-out shlock like Fools Rush In and Serving Sara.)
Fatuous, arrogant, selfish and utterly self-obsessed, Hartman's Bill one of the truly perfect sitcom characters: hard to like but harder not to. Indeed, Hartman always injected a measure of vulnerability into his Bill's pomposity, particularly when his ego trips would skid to a halt, thanks to one of Dave's withering putdowns.
From the preening Bill, to the slow-burning Dave to Maura Tierney's (ER) brilliant but insecure Lisa, Newsradio's third season is filled with episodes that remind viewers the show is about characters. This is the rare sitcom whose humor arose organically from the characters, not out of a box of dusty sitcom staples.
When Lisa, an anti-TV crusader, discovers in "Movie Star" that there's a channel that shows nothing but the senate all day long, not only does she get hilariously hooked on it, but she's forced to acknowledge her own high-handedness. After Dave is found to be concealing his Canadian heritage in "The Trainer," he reluctantly comes clean to the staff, revealing his willingness to be honest, even at the expense of his dignity. (Which he sacrifices when he tells them why he kept his nationality secret. I won't spoil it, but it's one of the biggest laughs in the box.)
Andy Dick plays Matthew -- the writers reveal in one of the commentaries that they never knew what Matthew actually did at the station -- as a man child, at once wonderstruck and (woefully) self-assured. His "discovery" of the "Dilbert" comic strip and the mania he experiences in its wake makes the "Review" episode one of the best scripted of the set. His hero-worship of Bill is priceless as is the physical shtick he does in almost every episode.
Station owner Jimmy James is played by the incredibly versatile Stephen Root. When you realize that this is the same guy who played Milton, the aggrieved office drone in the Mike Judge classicOffice Spaceand is the voice of hapless Bill Dauterive on King of the Hill, you really marvel at his portrayal of the clueless-or-is-he head man at WNYX. (Root's range will be further exposed later this year when he portrays White House adviser Richard Clarke in an ABC miniseries about the events leading to 9/11.)
In addition to the regular cast, Newsradio's third season boasted a wealth of talented guest performers. From Ben Stiller as a sleazy trainer, to Jon Stewart as Matthew's "twin" brother, to James Caan, researching a part with Bill but entranced by Matthew, Simms and his producers wove the appearances in seamlessly, without making them seem like stunts, something that Will and Grace has been unable to do for years.
Sony's packaging of the third season box mirrors that of the previous set, with 2 sleek plastic snap-cases housing the three discs. The extras are satisfying, including a gag reel, commentaries on ten episodes and behind-the-scenes footage of two. The video is acceptable, but the Dolby 2.0 digital surprises, offering a clarity that really makes the show's machine-gun dialogue pop.
Every series has its clunker episodes and Newsradio was no different. However, there are off weeks and then there are ideas that look like they shouldn't have made it past the writers' room. The penultimate episode of the third season, "Space," is one of those ideas.
Opening with an explanation from Phil Hartman, the episode depicts WNYX operating in space, replete with cool astronaut suits, virtual-reality goggles and long-term sleep chambers. What it doesn't display is even a whisper of the wit that bubbles through the other 24 episodes in the box. The whole episode plays like a bad sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, full of corny jokes and sci-fi clichés. The one barely mitigating factor about "Space" is that one of the two backstage featurettes focuses on the production of this episode.
Any show that can work in references to Stargate Defender, "Green Acres," and C.W. McCall's "Convoy" is ok in my book. Paul Simms' sleek grooming of that old warhorse, the workplace sitcom, Newsradio: the Complete Third Season is one of the best TV comedies of the '90s.
Not guilty on 24 out of 25 counts. The writers of the "Space" episode are sentenced to a week of listing other beaten-like-a-dead-horse story ideas.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 600 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Writers and actors commentaries on ten episodes
* Gag reel
* Two behind-the-scenes featurettes