Sony // 1997 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 20th, 2006
Lisa: I'm not selfish and self-centered, am I?
Dave: I think you should keep in mind that you're asking an ex-boyfriend.
Lisa: No, I'm not. I'm asking an employee.
Dave: Well, then...no.
That's right, boys and girls. Let's go back once more to the time before Arrested Development. Before Scrubs and The Office. Back to a time when live four-camera, live audience, network sitcoms were actually funny. The time of NewsRadio.
The 22 episodes that comprise NewsRadio: The Complete Fourth Season are all included here, spread out over three discs. They are as follows (beware of SPOILERS):
The fourth season gets off to a rather inauspicious start thanks to this episode, featuring future cast member Jon Lovitz (Trapped in Paradise, The Great White Hype) as a disgruntled Jimmy James employee threatening to jump from the ledge of a building. It has nothing to do with any of the character or story arcs that would begin with the next episode; in a season that's already pretty out there, this one goes too far. Disposable.
* "Plan Bee"
The incomparable Lauren Graham (Lucky 13, Gilmore Girls) begins her controversial multi-episode run as an efficiency expert brought in by station owner Jimmy James (the equally incomparable Stephen Root, Robocop 3) to evaluate the staff. The episode is quite funny and a return to the real NewsRadio after the stumble of "Jumper," but a number of the problems that would plague Season Four are on display here -- namely, the frustrating story "shake-ups" (Matthew's firing, Dave and Lisa's breakup) and the addition of new cast members.
Grade: B (what else?)
* "The Public Domain"
The staff schemes to get Matthew (Andy Dick, Road Trip) his job back, as Dave (Dave Foley, Monkeybone, Blast from the Past) tries to prove to the new efficiency expert that he's worth keeping; Bill (Phil Hartman, Small Soldiers) brings a piano into the office to write humorous political songs. Any episode that allows Phil Hartman to run wild and Dave Foley to do his slow-burn-to-boil (he's never funnier) is worth the highest grade.
* "Super Karate Monkey Death Car"
The staff prepares to take a lie detector test, and learns that Lisa (Maura Tierney, Insomnia, Primary Colors) has more to hide than anyone thought; Jimmy James does a reading from his book, recently translated from Japanese (actually, from English to Japanese and back to English). The episode allows Maura Tierney and (mostly) Lauren Graham, still on board as a guest star, to shine -- though the rest of the regular cast is pretty much stranded.
* "French Diplomacy"
An installment of "The Real Deal with Bill McNeal," in which Bill calls for the head of a French diplomat, causes a chain reaction of violence in New York; Beth (Vicki Lewis, Pushing Tin) and Joe (Joe Rogan, host of TV's Fear Factor) discover that Matthew has taken up his dental practice again. The Matthew-is-fired storyline has already worn out its welcome by this point, with little end in sight. Still, Phil Hartman's commentaries are hilarious.
* "Pure Evil"
Another of Season Four's somewhat-desperate attempts to shake up the series is given the spotlight here, as Lisa and Dave switch jobs for a run of shows; Matthew, still fired, moves in to the station in order to be closer to everyone. Some funny "pure evil" Dave Foley moments (reminiscent of his "Heccubus" character on The Kids in the Hall) save this episode from being totally average.
* "Catherine Moves On"
Khandi Alexander (Dark Blue) makes her long-overdue exit from the series when Catherine takes a new job. The farewell is underwhelming, and basically just calls attention to the fact that the series never really knew what to do with Alexander's character. There is a nice alternate opening credit sequence, though, compiling all of the moments where Catherine slapped or otherwise abused members of the cast.
* "Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show"
Jimmy makes a deal with the staff that if one of them can win his corporate talent show, Matthew can have his job back. The Matthew storyline has gone on way too long by this point, but the episode does reveal some more of Dave's hidden talents and reunites him with fellow Kids in the Hall troupe member Kevin McDonald (Sky High).
* "The Secret of Management"
With Lisa still acting as boss of the station, Jimmy decides to tell her the "secret of management"; Bill hires himself a personal butler (played by Seinfeld's Ian Abercrombie). Some choice Phil Hartman moments, but the Jimmy/Lisa storyline is a one-joke (and not a very funny one at that) premise that never develops.
* "Look Who's Talking"
Bill decides he wants to adopt a child; Jimmy entrusts Beth to bid on him at a charity auction (now there's a brand-new idea for a sitcom), but insists she poses as a Duchess in order to do so. Vicki Lewis, who always manages to make the most of her brief screen time, is allowed center stage here and runs with it.
A true NewsRadio classic, as far as I'm concerned -- though that undoubtedly has much to do with the participation of Mr. Show cast members David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Brian Posehn. Dave's a cappella singing group from Wisconsin comes to New York to doggedly "make a go of it," despite the fact that more than one of the members doesn't want to give up his day job. Great, great stuff.
* "Who's the Boss?"
Joe goes on strike against the station; Lisa and Dave, both deciding they would rather not be the boss, put Bill in charge of the staff. Another episode that proves that the more Phil Hartman is given to do, the better the results will be.
* "Who's the Boss? Part II"
The annoying boss-switch storyline comes to a head when Jimmy holds an office election to decide who will lead the staff; Joe's brothers come to visit, leading to more than one family wrestling match; Matthew runs for office fire marshal. If nothing else, at least the ill-conceived Dave/Lisa trade is resolved.
* "Security Door"
Dave struggles to get a security door properly installed and used in the office; Bill asks Lisa to negotiate a commercial deal. Though the episode isn't as funny as many others (and features one of the least funny Phil Hartman B-stories of the season), it does allow for some brilliant Dave Foley deadpan frustration.
* "Big Brother"
Beth tries to intervene when she discovers that a paperwork mix-up has Matthew being sponsored in the Big Brother/Little Brother program; Bill obsesses over Lisa's personal life. Matthew is a character I never fully warmed up to, and he's given a real showcase here.
* "Beep, Beep"
Jimmy determines that office productivity is higher when Dave and Lisa are a couple and attempts to get them to reconcile; Matthew is given a toy car to drive around the office. It's good to see Dave Foley and Maura Tierney spar again, and the car stuff is pretty funny.
Jimmy creates an elaborate hoax to convince everyone that he's traveling the world in a hot-air balloon, but winds up getting busted by Dave; Bill gives up smoking and takes up chewing tobacco. The hot-air balloon stuff sinks, smacking of the high-concept plotlines that eventually bogged the show down, but the Bill/smoking scenes are dependably funny.
* "Copy Machine"
Joe gives up his tools when he feels responsible for the death of a co-worker that no one really remembers. This same material was handled better in the David Schwimmer theatrical flop, The Pallbearer, but the episode has one of the best punchlines (it's during Dave's eulogy) in its five-year run.
* "Monster Rancher"
Yet another cast member is added to the series when Jimmy James's nephew, Walt (Brad Rowe, Body Shots), is given an internship at the station; Matthew gets a crush on Lisa. The episode provides further evidence of the show's struggle to reinvent itself (which, truth be told, it didn't need to do), primarily at the insistence of NBC. The biggest problem with this development is that Brad Rowe is no Lauren Graham.
Joe and Matthew agree to participate in an Ultimate Fighting match at Jimmy James's request; Walt develops a crush on Lisa, which Bill quickly attempts to thwart. The fact that the show is repeating the exact same story from the previous week -- a staff member gets a crush on Lisa -- doesn't speak well for the quality of these last shows of Season Four.
* "Jackass Junior High"
With every female staff member of WNYX on some sort of leave save for Lisa, the station is reduced to a kind of belching, slobby boys' club. The male cast members are clearly having a lot of fun here, though I resent that fact that Brad Rowe's Walt is so quickly made a part of the group. Shouldn't he have to be funny first? The "tea party" gag is particularly inspired.
* "Sinking Ship"
Season Four ends with another of those "high-concept" NewsRadio shows that used to frustrate a large part of the fan base (think of the outer space episode last season). This time out, the series attempts to capitalize on the enormous popularity of James Cameron's mega-hit Titanic by re-creating the ship's legendary sinking with the staff of WNYX. The jokes are corny and lack any edge, but there is some fun in seeing the way that the newsroom is re-configured to serve as the Titanic. Still, an odd way to close out the season; it actually becomes quite sad when you realize that this is Phil Hartman's last episode.
As a guy who's too young for The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- too young even for Barney Miller -- I think I'd like to nominate NBC's fairly short-lived (it was on for five seasons, but consider that According to Jim is going on number six) series NewsRadio as the best workplace sitcom of my generation. Maybe it's the sharp writing, or maybe it's the excellent ensemble work of a ridiculously talented cast -- many of whom had already established themselves with great comedy projects (Andy Dick coming off of The Ben Stiller Show, Dave Foley off of The Kids in the Hall, Phil Hartman coming off of too many projects to mention...though I will later on). Clearly it's a combination of both, but I wanted to ruminate a little on why NewsRadio worked so well. NBC would repeat the formula with dreck like Veronica's Closet, but that couldn't hold a candle to NewsRadio; the most obvious offspring, Just Shoot Me!, came closest, but still came up short. NewsRadio was one of the best sitcoms of the 1990s.
There is, however, visible wear on the NewsRadio machine by Season Four. The decision to break up Dave and Lisa, made early on (the axe falls in episode 4.02, I believe), seems like an afterthought -- nothing leads up to it, and it doesn't come out of any real character knowledge we might already have. It feels very much like a wrench thrown into the works for its own sake -- like viewers (or writers) had grown tired of their romance, so it simply gets erased. Though subsequent episodes do refer back to the event (one good thing about the show is that it always assumes you've been watching, never pausing to catch the viewer up), it pretty much robs actors Dave Foley and Maura Tierney of the chemistry they had been building up for three years. This means that the writers have to struggle to find ways to get Tierney to her vulnerable/neurotic place, where she's never more appealing (though, let's face it -- it's not hard to make Maura Tierney appealing; E.R. made her a drunk and she's still luminous). Andy Dick's already-annoying Matthew is made even more annoying by being sidelined with an endless out-of-work storyline; the show demands that he justify his presence there, and the character isn't up to. Better to just have him around and let us accept it. He's funnier that way.
Season Four is especially bittersweet, though, in that it is the last season that Phil Hartman would be on the show. He was murdered by his wife before Season Five began, and the show never really recovered. I think it's easy to underestimate Hartman's talents as a comedian -- he's got none of the "look at me!" shtick of guys like Chris Farley or Adam Sandler, and always seemed more content to blend in than stick out. He was an insanely versatile team player, and he was funny, too. Don't believe me? Consider the fact that he was a player in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (which he co-wrote) and Pee-Wee's Playhouse, the second golden age of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, AND NewsRadio. Most performers are lucky if they find one project that successful or high in quality; if they find two, they're blessed. I just listed five for Phil Hartman, and guess what? He was funny in all of them. It's difficult to praise that kind of talent enough.
Sony delivers NewsRadio: The Complete Fourth Season as a three-disc set, comparable to its two previous season-length releases of the show. The episodes appear in their original, full frame presentation; though somewhat soft at times, the image should please even discerning viewers. The 2.0 stereo audio track delivers the dialogue clearly, but is somewhat out of balance with the opening theme and interstitial music -- with my speakers turned up to hear the dialogue (the fact that the only subtitles included are in Portuguese is bewildering and unhelpful), those music cues had a tendency to knock me back. Be warned.
The extras department is where the NewsRadio sets typically excel, and it's nice to see that Sony has taken the time and care to make sure that these releases satisfy the show's fans -- who may have been just as happy to simply have the series out on DVD, bonus features or not. Included here is a 20 minute gag reel (that's roughly the length of an entire episode) that reminds us how funny truly funny people can be, even when they haven't had their lines written for them ahead of time. There's also a short subject, called "One Man NewsRadio," where a guy acts out a few scenes from the show, using camera tricks to put himself into every role. It's cute for about four seconds, and then becomes totally disposable.
The real treat here -- as has been the case with previous NewsRadio releases -- are the 10 commentary tracks by cast members and the creative team. Admittedly, these 10 tracks are something of a step down from earlier seasons; Joe Rogan and Andy Dick (who bickered hilariously on Season One's tracks) are nowhere to be found, and both Dave Foley and Maura Tierney are only able to phone in -- it's just not the same when they have to react not to what's on screen, but what they're being told is on screen. Thankfully, the writers and creative team behind the series are extremely funny and engaging in their own right, and are more than forthcoming with the ugly side of Season Four, like pressure from the network to add new characters -- hence Lauren Graham, and some resentment of her on the part of the cast. Every commentary is rewarding, though including the cast some more would have been nice.
The traditional four-camera sitcom seems to have gone the way of the VCR, the Spice Girls, and Tab. Even those few popular hangers-on of the genre, like Will & Grace and Everybody Loves Raymond (both shows whose appeal has always eluded me), have recently exited the first-run airwaves. That makes the late 1990s the last great era for the format, and NewsRadio one of its shining examples. Following the loss of Phil Hartman, the show would peter out and eventually give up (and be given up on by NBC) the following year -- though this season is far from the show's strongest, it does mark the last time that it really mattered. Besides, any season of television that puts Maura Tierney and Lauren Graham on the screen at the same time has got to be worth something.
Uneven, but still too good to be Guilty. I miss you, Phil Hartman.
Review content copyright © 2006 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 480 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Cast and Crew Commentaries
* Gag Reel
* Short Film
* Fan Site
* Season Three Review
* Season One and Two Review