'WKRP's Fourth and Final Season Is Funny, but Sometimes Strained

by Jedd Beaudoin

4 December 2015

At 22 episodes there's bound to be some duds, but an excellent ensemble cast and some smart writing saved this season even if neither could save the show.
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WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Final Season

US DVD: 10 Nov 2015
UK DVD: Import

Somewhere early in the fourth and final season of WKRP In Cincinnati office manager Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) is part of a scheme to give the old digs new looks. The WKRP offices get a fresh coat of paint and is transformed from a vestige of the ‘70s to something forward-thinking, into the ‘80s. It’s fitting, too, as the station is on the incline: Ratings are going up, though that’s not enough to keep station owner Mrs. Carlson (Carol Bruce) happy. It’s also appropriate for the arc of the series: By the 1981-82 season WKRP was a series that looking for a fresh coat of paint as well.

Despite showing promise upon its debut in 1978, the show was being bounced around in various times slots by its third season, making it impossible to get a fix on exactly what was going on. Time slot shifts, especially during the ‘80s, seem to have been a point of contention between network executives and actors and that shifting was often the death knell for a series.

The show had tackled serious issues, including the death of Who fans at a 1979 Cinci gig (“In Concert”, from the 1980 season), entered the pantheon of unforgettable TV with the “Turkey’s Away” episode of 1978 and its classic line “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” But at the start of that final season the show was up to some tired sitcom tricks with the usual round of fake drama (a bomb scare in the opening twofer episode “An Explosive Affair”), some mistaken identity gags here and there and plays at sexual tension that come off as pale imitations of Three’s Company (“Rumors”).

The “Explosive” episodes, written by Steve Marshall, and the clumsy “Who’s On First?”, penned by director Dan Guntzelman, aren’t entirely a harbinger of the rest of the season. Despite limping into its fourth and final season, WKRP still succeeded in having some fine moments.

There are some who will argue that the series hasn’t dated well but in many ways it has; the show has been popular in syndication and there was even a short-lived spin-off in the early ‘90s; moreover, it seems ripe for a reboot in this age of podcasts and streaming as some will no doubt become nostalgic for this not-so-bygone era. But what can’t be colored by time are the fine physical comedy of Howard Hesseman (Dr. Johnny Fever), the wit that Anderson’s character possessed, and the fine acting of Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap) and Jan Smithers (Bailey Quarters) and the fact that this was something of a rare sitcom: Rather than just delivering static joke machines, these were characters who were afforded somewhat rich lives within the constraints of the medium.

There’s nothing here that’s on the level of either “Turkey’s Away” or “In Concert” in this season of the show, though there are still some nice moments. Hesseman and Reid make for a good pairing in many scenes throughout and Smithers and Anderson demonstrate that both probably deserved more acclaim beyond this series. The writing recovers later in the season with episodes such as “The Creation of Venus”, “Pills” (although that one smacks of an ABC After School Special), and “Dear Liar” which references the 1980-1 Janet Cooke scandal in which a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist was discovered to have fabricated the story of an eight-year-old heroin addict in a Washington Post article. Bailey’s story has a happier ending, of course, but it still makes for one of the more compelling episodes.

What the uneven writing can’t undo is the superb acting of the ensemble cast, one of the best in the history of television. Richard Sanders as conservative newsman Les Nessman is, of course, a treat to watch and a reminder of the ongoing debate about what needs radio should serve; Gordon Jump is the out of touch general manager Mr. Carlson, whose mother owns the station and who is lovable despite his frequent cluelessness; while Frank Bonner plays Herb Tarlek, the man whose loud suits and face have become synonymous with not-so-clever stoners whose stash has run dry. (The next time someone posts an image of Tarlek with the text, “Have you seen this man?” you’ll know.) Gary Sandy rounds out the cast as the smart and suave program director, Andy Travis.

Of course neither the cast nor the better writing could stall the show’s inevitable cancellation (making the season closing cliffhanger a little strange) but that cancellation also meant the series didn’t have to endure some of the indignities suffered by some of its long-running counterparts. Let’s talk about Happy Days with Henry Winkler stuck in perpetual adolescence while his cast mates moved on (if only to Joanie Loves Chachi), and a wide range of shows, from Cosby to Little House on the Prairie to The Brady Bunch and even Scooby Doo that thought adding a child or children to the cast would prolong an imminent death. Imagine that Johnny and Bailey finally join in a rock ‘n’ roll union, have a little Fever, and bring him/her to the station? Would that fly any higher than turkeys? With 22 shows in this season there’s reason to believe that the writers and actors were stretched more than a little thin no matter how remarkable their work could be at times.

Obsessives who want to experience the show as it actually happened will have one disappointment: Not all the music that appeared in the original series has made it to DVD due to clearance issues, but there are some surprises for music and WKRP lovers alike. Spread across three discs and nine hours, there’s plenty here to love, though this set contains no bonus features. For that, and much more music, there’s a Complete Series set that may be worth it for the most ardent fans.

WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Final Season


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