[8 December 2008]
In terms of comedy history, Seinfeld is essentially the last traditional sitcom, the one that made way for the format’s demise. Its observational style spawned the more traditionally likable Friends, which eventually became more of a soap opera with laughs (a creative dead-end for those who followed it), and its freewheeling absurdity and lack of moral fiber made way for the single-camera brilliance of Arrested Development, The Office, and 30 Rock.
But while Seinfeld was tearing down the sitcom and made way for the future, its network-mate NewsRadio was making one final go at the old format. The late ‘90s show, which bounced around NBC’s schedule amicably for five seasons (sort of the Scrubs of its time), was a workplace comedy replete with wacky types: the straight-arrow boss (Dave Foley), his hard-bitten romantic foil (Maura Tierney), the pompous news anchor (Phil Hartman), the office weirdo (Andy Dick), the gum-cracking secretary (Vicki Lewis), and so on.
Unlike so much sitcom boilerplate, though, NewsRadio is positively adored by comedy nerds (check out Donna Bowman’s ongoing episode-by-episode analysis at TV Club for a wonderfully detailed analysis, as well as an example of fan devotion). While the show operates within a standard framework, it does so with expert, sometimes underappreciated craft. Now that the series is available in a single, complete DVD set, you can program your own NewsRadio syndication feed that never was.
Watching the show as a 97-episode whole, I don’t always find myself laughing out loud; the workplace punchlines may seem a little, well, punchy for those accustomed to the dry silences of The Office. But NewsRadio is fascinating to watch even when it’s not exactly hilarious; the cast’s chemistry and the writers’ and directors’ understanding of it is entertaining in its own right.
Over time the show’s smooth acceleration becomes clear: it’s a well-oiled machine in the first season, and by the third it moves at a breakneck, sometimes wonderfully absurd pace. In particular, subplots featuring Joe Rogan and Andy Dick take on even more precisely timed slapstick and sight gags, playing off of Rogan’s vaguely paranoid nonchalance and Dick’s loose-limbed eagerness to please. Neither actor would be nearly so wonderful ever again.
The same could be argued for just about everyone on the show—most sadly Phil Hartman, whose life was tragically cut short between the fourth and fifth seasons (in a lovely tribute, Hartman’s character passes away in the show, too). When Jon Lovitz hops on board in his stead, the show’s rhythms, while still enjoyable, are undeniably shakier, and the show’s creators admit as much on that season’s commentaries. Lovitz gets some laughs as an insecure anchor; the problem isn’t so much the actor as the vital piece of comedic machinery he’s forced to replace.
The commentaries that deal with the loss of Hartman are among the most frank and touching in the series; others, scattered throughout the seasons, are less focused, and sometimes frustrating the way complaints about the network or information about the show’s construction will be mentioned only in passing. Stranger still is Season Four’s “One-Man NewsRadio” short: a four-minute distillation of the season’s stories with staff writer Joe Furey making fun of characters and plotlines.
What the series lacks on DVD is a corresponding history, taking viewers through the five seasons chronologically and/or comprehensively. There are no additional extras for the Complete Series set, representing an admirable lack of enticement for fans who have already purchased the seasons separately. But for anyone holding out for the full-series set, the drastically reduced price is the only advantage. Designed to save space, the packaging is a flimsy box housing a spindle of DVDs, stacked like the kind of blank discs you’d get at Staples—the box doesn’t even advertise the commentaries or making-ofs that remain from the individual season sets. True to its five-year run, this classic for the comedy archives remains underhyped.