Judge Neal Solon tuned in for light rock but got heavy metal.
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 Fourth Season (published June 20th, 2006), and Newsradio: The Complete Series (published November 5th, 2008) are also available.
WNYX works through the sudden death of Bill McNeal.
On May 28, 1998, Phil Hartman was shot and killed in his California home by his wife, Brynn. Just under four months later, NewsRadio began airing its fifth and final season. While only the first few episodes deal directly with filling the void left by Bill McNeal's absence, Phil Hartman's death left its mark on the whole of the show's final season. Most notably, Hartman was replaced on NewsRadio by his long-time friend Jon Lovitz, as broadcaster Max Louis (as of this writing, wrongly credited on IMDb as Max Lewis) at New York radio staion WNYX.
Facts of the Case
Sony's recent release of NewsRadio: The Complete Fifth Season collects all 22 of the show's final episodes on three discs.
While it may be a critical cop-out, the biggest question that faces anyone who approaches the fifth season of NewsRadio is simply what effect adding Jon Lovitz to the cast had on the show. The fifth season is by no means where one unfamiliar with the show should enter into it. Its best years were necessarily behind it, and anyone looking for details on the nature of the show itself should read reviews of the earlier seasons (which are linked on the side of this review). Suffice it to say that before Phil Hartman's death the show had reached creative cohesion. While it was far from the most watched show on television, NewsRadio was critically acclaimed, undeniably funny, and, quite simply, one of the consistently best thirty minutes on network television.
The show was full of instantly recognizable faces, but none of their personalities overpowered the cast. This was the very definition of an ensemble show; every person somehow indispensable and equally important. The writers of NewsRadio wrote for their cast so well that somehow even Andy Dick worked on-screen, in a way that he hadn't before and hasn't since (even on VH1 clip shows). These facts make it seem all the more incredible that following Phil Hartman's death, NewsRadio went on.
There are rumors that when the fifth season began, some in the cast were upset that the show was continuing without Hartman. Like many, I was a fan of Hartman's and watched no more than two episodes of NewsRadio with Jon Lovitz before promptly changing the channel for good. In retrospect, I may have been a bit hasty.
Watching the whole run of the fifth season again, it is surprising to find that many of the season's biggest laughs come from Jon Lovitz's finely honed, obnoxious persona. Even the writers admit in one of the episode commentaries that learning to write for Lovitz's rhythm rather than Hartman's was difficult, and that his first few episodes were shaky. Yet as the fifth season progressed and Lovitz's Max Louis moved out of the spotlight, things began to gel. Once they did, this season was as consistent, if not quite as funny, as those that came before it. The problem was that NewsRadio's audience had moved on. Just before preparation was to begin for a sixth season, the network pulled the plug.
Of the fifth season's 22 episodes, two stand out. The first, "Bill Moves On," opened the season and is the sole tribute to Bill McNeal (or Phil Hartman) in this package. This was the first episode filmed after Hartman's death, and it features bittersweet humor and genuinely touching moments as the staff of WNYX returns from Bill's funeral. It stands among the best of NewsRadio's episodes and is a fine tribute to Bill McNeal and the man who portrayed him.
At the other extreme is "Wedding," which comes near the end of the season and is, perhaps, one of the worst episodes of the series. In it, broadcaster Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney, ER) marries Johnny Johnson (Patrick Warburton, best known as Elaine's boyfriend Puddy from Seinfeld), former Vice President of the company that owns WNYX—and now homeless "wino" living in the 72nd Street subway station. While this episode is the conclusion of a story arc that spans the whole of the fifth season and provided a number of well-wrought episodes early in the season, this episode lacks any of the humor or the bite of the rest of the show. The rest of the episodes are nothing extraordinary in the context of the show, but still hold up well when compared with other television at the time.
Sony's presentation of the final season of NewsRadio is better than even they would have consumers believe. All of the episodes are presented in their original, full frame aspect ratio and feature clean, clear picture and sound. The big surprise, however, is that, while the packaging simply lists a "Season Five Gag Reel" and "Deleted Scenes," this package features ten commentaries from the show's writers and an occasional actor. These commentaries are entertaining, if not always screen or episode specific, and often feature the writers answering questions received via email from fans of the show. The included gag reel, running at nearly 25 minutes, is also quite entertaining and features a number of cut scenes mentioned by the writers in their commentaries. There are no deleted scenes, but rather two gag skits captured on video by writers of the show and a commentary explaining their origins. In truth, the only thing missing, apart from the big-name actors on not on the episode commentaries, is a proper tribute to the late Bill McNeal.
As surprising as it may be in light of Jon Lovitz's initially awkward fit with the rest of the cast, NewRadio: The Complete Fifth Season is a passable—perhaps even a creditable—piece of the NewsRadio corpus. Fans of the show who tuned out after spending a few painful weeks with Lovitz should give this season a second chance. Sure, Lovitz is no Phil Hartman, but he's paying tribute in the way he knows how. Plus, once the writers figure out what to do with him, he turns out to be funny, even to those who may find his persona tiring.
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