The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete First Season

Michael Buening

The Bob Newhart Show manages to rise above generic formulas.

The Bob Newhart Show

Cast: Bob Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette, Marcia Wallace, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz, Patricia Smith
Subtitle: The Complete First Season
Network: MTM
First date: 1972
US Release Date: 2005-04-12
Last date: 1973
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I knew a lot of Bob Newharts growing up. Midwesterners are known for being friendly, down-to-earth people, but this friendliness is strictly enforced at the expense of allowing outward expressions of difficult emotions, particularly in men. The acceptable way of getting around this psychological barricade is to make jokes, since laughter recognizes but also defuses pain. From this passive-aggressive emotional landscape has developed a rich tradition of distinctly dry, reserved, slightly absurd, WASPy comic sensibility, counting Johnny Carson, Bill Murray, Jean Shepherd, Charles Schultz, and of course Bob Newhart, among its practitioners.

Newhart was raised in the Chicago suburbs. While working as an accountant he developed a low-key, neurotic persona that sent up the white-collar businessmen of the same middle class suburbs in which I was raised. Outwardly, Newhart is an affable everyman, but the bloodhound bags under his eyes reflect deeper troubles. He combines the clean-cut frustrated straight man of Dick Smothers with the stutters and hesitation of Woody Allen, albeit with far more repression. To convey sorrow and turmoil, Newhart relies on his nearly immobile face. With the subtlest shift of his eyes he conveys exasperation, befuddlement, amusement, wariness, and desperation. I saw those expressions on many "Newhart" faces in my Midwestern youth.

Learning how to read these signals can take some getting used to, so it's somewhat surprising how consistently successful Newhart has been. His The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the first comedy album to chart at #1, he's the only comedian to win a Best New Artist Grammy, and he's had two successful sitcoms over the course of twenty years. The first season of his first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, has just been released on DVD after twenty-seven years off the air and almost zero exposure in syndication.

It might seem odd that such an uptight personality was chosen to play Windy City psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley, but the temperamental gap between empathy and selfishness illuminates the secret of Newhart's success. The show tackled adulthood with maturity rarely seen in network sitcoms today. The running theme is the loneliness and frustration of single, divorced, and generally overanxious middle-age urbanites of the early '70s. Bob's wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) is afraid of flying, his secretary Carol (Marcia Wallace) is afraid of being single, and his friend Jerry (Peter Bonerz) is afraid of growing older. The main characters drink cocktails, go out every night, date actively, but aren't particularly attractive. Never fully comfortable in the swinging city, they yearn for stability. At one point Carol wails, "I'm stuck between two generations here and I don't get the good parts of either one."

The irony is that Dr. Hartley is also annoyed and fed up with everyone's problems and unable to verbalize his aggravations or inability to help himself or others. His friends frequently solve their problems on their own and Hartley's patients never seem to get better. Newhart never tells his friends when they are annoying him, he just shift his eyes slightly and says: "It's no problem, Jerry."

Strangely, Bob's patients remain largely anonymous. None of them (including notorious self-hating crank Elliot Carlin [Jack Riley]) would develop as memorable characters until subsequent seasons. Patient sessions are frequently used as comic bits preceding the plot, except for a couple of occasions in which group therapy sessions are used to drive the story forward. That the writers didn't seek to incorporate this aspect of Dr. Hartley's life, an obvious source of material, is mind-boggling and the main aspect of the show left undeveloped in the first season.

More often than not it is Bob's friends who end up on the couch, both literally and figuratively. Howard Borden, exuberantly played by Bill Daily, is a divorced airline pilot who lives across the hall from Bob and Emily. He is childish and caring, sociable, gawky, and terribly lonely. Flying around the world at all hours seems to have left his life perpetually off-kilter. Though he refers to an active dating life, we never see him in a happy relationship. Storylines about his troubles are invariably touching: he fears that his son doesn't like him, is overprotective of his sister, is alone on Christmas Eve, and a bore on a date with Carol. Bob and Emily have practically adopted him as their overgrown son, and his friendship with Bob forms the most complex relationship of the series.

If only 20th Century Fox had given Newhart's show the DVD treatment it deserves. Technically, the series is presented in decent condition but the discs are devoid of any special features. Perhaps this is the tradeoff for paying less than $30 for twenty-four episodes, but the package feels rushed: the onscreen menus are cheap and cheesy looking, and the lack of any commentary tracks is hugely disappointing.

Buying first seasons of sitcoms often means putting up with a lot of faltering. Comedic timing and chemistry take time to develop. Accordingly, the pilot here is generically broad, a style that clashes with Newhart's persona. After that the players and writers gel quickly. However, the '70s sitcom-style pacing, repetitive structure, and over reliance on predictable jokes remain part of its DNA and can make watching multiple episodes in a row quite tedious. That this comedy was once part of a revolutionary shift towards adult-oriented sitcoms that included All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show may seem hard to believe now, and saying that doesn't necessarily help to erase its hackneyed faults.

Yet The Bob Newhart Show manages to rise above generic formulas, mostly through Newhart's offbeat timing and subtle physicality. The Bob Newharts I knew usually used humor to construct another emotional barricade. In the character of Dr. Hartley, Newhart developed his comic persona from the stuttering, inept professional to one that at least recognizes and tries to overcome his faults. He strives to coax his gaggle of grown-up repressives into opening up at a time when psychology was largely associated with East Coast intellectuals, not Midwestern men. This original and gentle exploration of loneliness, companionship, communication, and anxiety resonated with viewers and made Newhart a television star. In revisiting the show, every "Hi Bob" still sounds poignant today.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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