Thursday, July 6, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 7: Newsradio

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER

It occurred to me that this post might be a bigger hit if I had it translated into Japanese, and then translated back from THAT to English.  And if that joke makes no sense to you then you're probably not cool enough to have seen today's show: Newsradio.

Why Newsradio? Why not Cheers or Frasier or Friends or any other sitcom that lasted nearly a decade and was at the top of the ratings the entire time?

That's a good question. All three of those would definitely make it into my TV canon, but when I took a good hard look, I couldn't honestly find the mindblowing "holy shit" moments that I got with some of the other shows on this list. All of those shows are examples of the sitcom at the peak, and frankly, all of them probably endured longer than Newsradio.

Created by Paul Simms, Newsradio is set in a New York AM radio station. As with most workplace sitcoms, the characters drive the story as much as the workplace, and man does this show have some great characters.

Writer Lesson 1 - You don't have to make "the straight man" the boring foil for other characters. Dave Nelson has just started at WNYX as the news director and immediately has to deal with kooky billionaire boss Jimmy James, ambitious reporter Lisa Miller (who thinks SHE should have Dave's job), pompous blowhard radio personality Bill McNeil, abrasive radio personality Catherine Duke, flighty assistant Beth, useless and spazy reporter Matthew Brock, and surly handyman Joe. Writing logic that Dave then should be the "normal" guy who we relate to and empathize with while he navigates these loons, right?

If you watch the series in order, Dave relaxes pretty quickly. He seems like an all-business type at the start, but the writers gave him a nice sarcastic side, particularly when dealing with Jimmy James and Bill. There's the expected comedic exasperation, but he's capable of getting in a good zinger and it not feeling out of character. This opened the door to later reveals like how Dave is an accomplished tap dancer.

Writer Lesson 2: To hell with "will they or won't they" - TV loves unresolved sexual tension. It lets characters dance around their attraction for each other for months, maybe entire seasons on end while keeping the audience in suspense about if these two crazy kids will get together. Generally, shows delayed this as long as possible because Moonlighting went down the drain once the lead characters hooked up and the sexual tension was dissipated. (I've heard convincing arguments that the show's decline was unrelated to the story turn and that the two merely correlated.) Dave and Lisa hook up in the second episode, immediately upending the will-they-won't-they of Ross and Rachel and letting any romantic tension between them come from that existing relationship. It's a good lesson in breaking sitcom rules.

Writer Lesson 3: Egotistical characters are fun to write for, and the more pompous you make them, the more outrageously awful behavior the audience will accept.Technically Bill should be the office villain, but Phil Hartman (RIP!) plays him with such an overblown attitude that it utterly diffuses the nastiness of moments like rudely smoking around his co-workers, being an utter jerk with his cane, getting pushy with Jerry Seinfeld during an interview, openly insulting his guests on the air and basically attacking Dave at every turn. Making your bad guys funny can be a good antidote to viewer hate, but Hartman's overblown genial delivery somehow turns Bill McNeal into the "I don't give a shit" office asshole we all secretly wish we could be. It also takes the character far enough that we believe the rest of the staff would put up with him because he's basically toothless.

Writer Lesson 4: Don't be afraid to go very weird and broad. They did one episode that was "What if the station was on the Titanic?" and another one that remade the setting as a sci-fi premise. Those are the most extreme examples of weirdness, but there are other out-there plots like a comatose Jimmy James being kept in the breakroom while he recovers, Jimmy deciding to run for President, Lisa having serious federal crimes on her RAP sheet (all offenses are SAT-related). Jimmy James always seemed to exist on another plane of reality from the rest, and so he could lead the show into weirder corners that Dave and the others couldn't. Some of this is about not being afraid to go weird, and some of it's about having a character that gives you license to go there. Jimmy James is a comedy gift for those reasons.

I feel like you can kinda draw a straight line from this show to 30 Rock, which elevated this sort of surreal style to an art form. (I almost considered putting 30 Rock on the list, but all of the reasons I came up with pretty much traced back to here.)

I miss this show, but not as much as I miss Phil Hartman. And Stephen Root needs to be working more often.

Part 8: The X-Files

1 comment:

  1. On your Lesson 4, that's why I always say, "Bring the weird."