Judge Patrick Bromley figures that if everyone around here thought he should jump off a bridge, they'd just get together and push him.
Our reviews of NewsRadio: The Complete First And Second Seasons (published February 8th, 2006), NewsRadio: The Complete Third Season (published March 8th, 2006), Newsradio: The Complete Fifth Season (published April 4th, 2007), and Newsradio: The Complete Series (published November 5th, 2008) are also available.
Lisa: I'm not selfish and self-centered, am I?
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.
Facts of the Case
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):
• "Plan Bee"
• "The Public Domain"
• "Super Karate Monkey Death Car"
• "French Diplomacy"
• "Pure Evil"
• "Catherine Moves On"
• "Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show"
• "The Secret of Management"
• "Who's the Boss?"
• "Who's the Boss? Part II"
• "Security Door"
• "Big Brother"
• "Beep, Beep"
• "Copy Machine"
• "Jackass Junior High"
• "Sinking Ship"
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.
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