Judge Erich Asperschlager's fanatical love of sweaters is completely unrelated to his having watched this show as a kid.
Dick: Checking out, Mr. Carlson? I have your bill right here. Let's see, that's six nights in the Martin van Buren room…plus tax would be two hundred and seventy-four dollars.
Guest: When we called you said you'd give us a 50 percent discount because you were still fixing the place up.
Dick: Right…So that would be a hundred and thirty-seven dollars.
Guest: And you said something about giving us a discount if we didn't eat breakfast here.
Dick: Right…right again. Let's see…that would be forty-five dollars from a hundred and thirty-seven…ninety-two dollars.
Guest: Right. And we sent you a hundred dollar deposit.
Dick: Right…so I owe you eight dollars…(to his wife) Honey, do you have any money on you?
As one of those '80s sitcoms that threatens to fall into obscurity, Newhart is the perfect candidate for second life on DVD. The show was deadpan comedian Bob Newhart's second shot at sitcom stardom. His first title TV gig was the aptly named The Bob Newhart Show, on which he played psychologist Dr. Robert Hartley opposite his TV wife, played by Suzanne Pleschette. The show, which ran for six seasons, is fondly remembered by fans—many of whom prefer it to Newhart's primetime return in the '80s. I won't get into that debate. Either way, Bob Newhart's turn as Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon is the series I remember him in best. It's been a long time since my last visit to the Stratford Inn. I'm not even sure my younger self stuck with the show long enough to see its eighth and final season (though I seem to remember the brilliant series-ending twist). I liked the show as a kid. So, how well does Newhart hold up a quarter century later?
I've got good news. First, Henry Mancini's hummable theme song still tugs on the ol' heartstrings; and second: Newhart is darn funny. Sure, it falls into the standard trappings of most pre-Seinfeldian sitcoms—thin plots, predictable twists, and too-neat endings—and it suffers from first-season growing pains, but legendary comedian Bob Newhart makes it well worth watching. As far as star vehicles go, Newhart gives its title performer plenty of opportunities to show off his trademark dry humor—usually while reacting to a parade of increasingly weird townsfolk, or having one half of a telephone conversation.
If you remember Newhart's later seasons, you'll probably be surprised at the different (and missing) faces in the first season cast. Of course, Dick and Joanna (Mary Frann, The Rockford Files)—the New York City author and his wife, who decide to run an inn in Vermont—are there, as is bumbling handyman George Utley (the hilarious Tom Poston, The Bob Newhart Show). Those looking for materialistic maid Stephanie (Julia Duffy, Designing Women) or backwoods brothers Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, however, will have to wait for season two…well, sort of.
Like many sitcoms, Newhart got retooled after its first season—the biggest post-season change being a shuffling of its cast. Most notably, original housekeeper Leslie Vanderkellen (Jennifer Holmes, Misfits of Science) left, and was replaced by the vacuous Stephanie (who made her debut as Leslie's visiting cousin in the season one episode "What is This Thing Called Lust?"). It was a necessary change. Leslie isn't a bad character—she's just too sweet to play well against the easily flappable Dick. Unfortunately, taking Leslie out of the equation signaled the eventual end for would-be suitor Kirk Devane (Steven Kampmann, Analyze That), owner of the neighboring Minuteman Café and pathological liar. Kirk occupies an odd place in season one. He's by far the quirkiest character, but as the requisite comic neighbor his one-note performance gets a little old.
Besides Newhart himself, the characters most often identified with the show are the popular (yet vaguely creepy) Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (William Sanderson, Deadwood, Tony Papenfuss, Coach, and John Voldstad, Stripes, respectively), who made their debut in the season one episode "Mrs. Newton's Body Lies A'Mould'ring in the Grave." The trio started as one-off characters, but audience reaction was so strong they got a second shot in the mid-season episode "Ricky Nelson, Up Your Nose," when they filled in for a hospitalized Kirk at the Minuteman (which they'd eventually take over after Kampmann's departure). But that's it for hillbilly brother action on this set; they didn't become semi-regulars until season two.
The plots in season one are generally less wacky than they'd become in later seasons, but there are a few highlights that suggest the direction the show would take. Holiday episode "No Room at the Inn," for example, brings a stranded man and his pregnant wife to a packed-to-the-rafters Stratford on a snowy Christmas Eve. The aforementioned "Ricky Nelson," meanwhile, includes a nasally-lodged charm, soot-covered rednecks, maximum security prisoners, and a clubbed weasel.
This first season of Newhart was the only one to be shot on videotape (they later switched over to film), so the quality is pretty bad. Overall, the full frame and mono sound presentation are disappointing. The series doesn't exactly warrant restoration, but a little more care in bringing the show to DVD would have been nice.
The special features are relegated to disc three. The first two, "Guess Who's Coming To (Bed And) Breakfast?" and "You Really Should Wear More Sweaters," are four minutes each of fairly light reminiscing about the actual Vermont inn that stood in for the Stratford in exterior shots, and the show's dated fashions. The second is a bit strange in that it relies heavily on interviews with Julia Duffy, who wasn't a cast member until the second season (I guess they're just as eager as we are to get the final lineup together). The third and final extra—considering the "What A Cast!" featurette advertised on the box is conspicuously missing—is a much longer, 18-minute retrospective. Again, it leans curiously on Duffy interviews (I guess her schedule wasn't that busy), though there's plenty of Bob Newhart and William Sanderson as well. Sadly missing are Mary Frann and Tom Poston, who at least get a nice little tribute to commemorate their passing.
Newhart: The Complete First Season is merely the opening volley for a great show that got better over time. Sure, the cast had yet to gel into the solid group that carried the show for eight seasons, and maybe the DVD presentation and extras aren't as nice as fans were hoping for, but with Bob Newhart leading the way, this set is still worth watching—if only to get up to speed before the (hopefully) inevitable season two release.
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• "Guess Who's Coming To (Bed And) Breakfast?"
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