Sunday, December 16, 2012

Hitting A Stride, Hitting A High With NewsRadio - The Complete Third Season!

The Good: Hilarious, Well acted, Interesting characters, Good DVD extras, Funny, Decent plots
The Bad: Hmmm...I can't come up with any, sorry! (I could always use more commentary tracks!)
The Basics: NewsRadio hits its stride and peak with this boxed set that is as close to perfect as a comedy can get!

Sometimes, there comes a show that when it returns for the new season, a fan will sit, smile and be instantly transported to somewhere that feels familiar. There is a sense of homecoming when great television returns and in the case of NewsRadio, that sense of welcome and familiarity began the moment I put the first disc of season three into the DVD player. It felt like I was coming home to a place I had missed after replaying the first NewsRadio DVD boxed set (reviewed here!) over and over again for a few years. And the truth is, there came a point that I was hooked in the first Season Three episode. Jimmy James has decided to run for president and he is telling his staff about it. He says, "You know what's wrong with this country? Absolutely nothing." To which Bill McNeal responds, "Your complicated thesis intrigues me. Tell me more." in an overly serious deadpan that only Phil Hartman could pull off. And I spent the rest of the day and night as a NewsRadio junkie.

Yes, NewsRadio - The Complete Third Season is that good.

Dave Nelson continues to manage New York City news station WNYX while being micromanaged by station owner, crazed billionaire Jimmy James. While dating producer, Lisa, Dave is constantly stressed by managing the on-air talent, figuring out what Matthew is doing and making sure Joe keeps the station up and running. He reluctantly rallies the staff to have fun at the staff Halloween party, attempts to keep a bad magazine article from getting the staff down, leads the station to victory at an award's show, deals with a complaint box and tries to save Matthew from destitution from medical bills when he is injured. As well, the staff hallucinates when the air conditioning breaks down, the women have a photoshoot, and experience an alternate future.

This is a situation comedy that does not suffer from the predictability of most situation comedies. Instead, it is refined, biting, hilarious and consistently well-written. Equally important is the casting. They say that the better part of great acting is great casting and NewsRadio seems determined to prove that. The show features one of the ensemble casts that is a dream for a comedic writer. Look at the talent involved in this show!

Dave Foley stars as Dave Nelson. He's one of the comedic geniuses who made The Kids In The Hall (season two reviewed here!) so painfully funny. He has a disarming wide-eyed face and the ability to deadpan with precision and deliver sarcasm with a tone that is the very definition of irony. But at the same time, he has the serious demeanor that gives him a leadership quality to make the viewer believe that he could be a station manager.

Phil Hartman appears as Bill McNeal. Coming off the wickedly funny seventh season of The Simpsons, which Hartman contributed to with voice acting in nine of the episodes as his iconic Troy McClure or Lionel Hutz, Hartman was given the opportunity to explode the character of Bill in the third season with episodes that give the voice actor some truly meaty roles. Hartman is easily the most believable member of the on-air staff of WNYX (though Khandi Alexander as Catherine Duke certainly has the voice for it as well!) with his vocal talents, but his comedic delivery never stumbles in this season. Instead, he plays a character that is arrogant, egotistical, condescending and deeply sarcastic. Hartman lends his comic brilliance to the role through a pretty simple and effective formula; he keeps a rigid, dignified posture and combines it with a serious tone of voice that makes the most outrageous things his character says seem serious. That just makes them funnier.

The rest of the cast is similarly intense and smart. Stephen Root has the role of his lifetime as Jimmy James, Maura Tierney does more than simply pout or bring angst as Lisa, Vicki Lewis has a spontaneous quality to her that keeps her often underused role as Beth fresh, and Khandi Alexander has a dignity that completely defines her character. But it's the surprising use of actor Joe Rogan that works out brilliantly. Like Tony Danza in Taxi, Rogan is asked to pretty much just lurch around the set being a guy and he makes it work and he enhances the often-zany rest of the cast with his understatement. And even Andy Dick manages to bring something to the table. Before Dick became a half-rate photocopy of Tom Green, he managed to be remarkably ridiculous with a minimal of physical comedy, profanity or just outrageous prankstering. This season of NewsRadio showcases his ability to be funny by simply playing the dimwit. And it's possibly the best role he plays as well.

For those unfamiliar with NewsRadio, it is worth understanding who the actors are cast as to understand why they make so much of their roles. The characters on NewsRadio are funny and in this season, they are put into more interesting situations to be funny in. Here are the principle characters:

Dave Nelson - Station manager, he is responsible for day-to-day operations at WNYX. Dating Lisa, he is prompted to retake his SATs to prove he is not getting dumber, buys a television to keep up on his love of Green Acres, goes in drag to the Halloween party, covers for everyone on Christmas and has a revelation that shocks those who work at the station about where he is truly from,

Lisa Miller - Is given more responsibilities than producing, including reporting. She covers the White House Easter Egg Hunt, has a photoshoot when she is named "Cutest Reporter In New York," takes control of the station when Dave is stuck in the midwest, and she decides to have a baby,

Matthew - The office punching bag becomes obsessed with Dilbert, brings in a twin brother who truly isn't, and is put off by the weirdness of a new intern. James Caan, sent to study Bill for a role, becomes obsessed with the awkward behaviors of Matthew and is captivated. He also goes on vacation to Japan . . . sort of,

Catherine - Is pursued by Joe and imagines having other people of color in her life as opposed to the very white staff she is surrounded by,

Joe - Hits on Catherine, works to fix the air conditioner, subs for Bill when he is incapacitated and continues to make weird devices. In a hilarious turn, this brutish, often inarticulate handyman practices law when Jimmy needs someone sued,

Beth - Is mostly just a supporting role this season with her best roles being in the daydream episode when she is freaked out by Matthew and when she and Matthew discover Bill's love nest,

Bill McNeal - On-air reporter for WNYX, he is possibly the highest paid member of the staff, which leads him to a constantly heady feeling expressed by him lording his position over everyone of the staff. This season, he does a hilarious advertisement for a malt liquor ("Damn!"), takes on the lyrics from rap music, objects to a word Howard Stern uses on air (and in the process repeats the word many, many times), and joins a health club. As well, he deals poorly with learning that he will die in thirty-six years and attempts to explore James Caan's acting methods,

and Jimmy James - The crazy billionaire who owns the station, he decides to run for president, occasionally pursues potential wives, and has a heart attack. He continually cuts the budget and penny pinches, but also tries to keep around his staff by teaching Beth how to use the stock market, using one of Joe's inventions to stay in touch during a fishing trip and taking staff members to events outside work.

The episodes seem - in a description like this - to be pretty standard sitcom fare, but the truth is that the magic is in the writing and the performances. It is what separates this truly spectacular workplace comedy from so many that came before and have come since. There are few shows that have such a spectacular cast to use and fewer still that use the cast they have to their full capacity when they have them. NewsRadio does not make those mistakes.

On DVD, the third season is graced with ten commentary tracks over the twenty-five episodes. The commentaries are funny and often insightful and one only finds themselves wishing Phil Hartman had been alive to contribute to them. There is a pretty standard gag reel and a couple of featurettes on the behind-the-scenes thoughts and evolution of the show into the third season. The DVD extras are decent and pretty much the standard for a comedic release.

But the nice thing is the show is so accessible. Anyone who picks this boxed set up and gives it a fair viewing is going to be entertained, laugh a lot and want to pick up more NewsRadio boxed sets. It's that good, it's that original and it holds up well enough to deserve to be in your permanent collection!

For other works with Stephen Root, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Cedar Rapids
Red State
Everything Must Go
No Country For Old Men
True Blood - Season 1
The Soloist
The West Wing - Season 7
Just Friends
Jersey Girl
White Oleander
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Bicentennial Man
Office Space
“Control Freak” - VR.5
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
“Unification, Part II” - Star Trek: The Next Generation
“Unification” - Star Trek: The Next Generation


For other television and movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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