In 10 Words or Less
A great cast makes for a hilarious sitcom
A series set in an office, about how the workers don't get along and how a couple get along too well, which complicates the workplace. That listing, in more entertaining phrasing, has appeared in "TV Guide" more times than anyone can possibly remember, as the basis for countless TV shows. It's also the basis for "NewsRadio." Of course, "NewsRadio" is well-regarded and loved, even years after being canceled, while most of those other shows that shared this concept are long forgotten.
That's because "NewsRadio" took this textbook concept and wrapped it around an excellent cast of comic actors, led by "SNL" alum Phil Hartman. Smartly, Hartman is not a lead actor on this series, and instead plays a supporting role that makes his blustery character Bill McNeal much more bearable, and therefore much funnier when he's in front of the camera. There's a theory in comedy that unless a character has any self-respect, if you embarrass them, it won't be funny. Bill's excess of self-respect makes every personality stumble he takes a work of over-the-top art. A big-voiced radio guy is the part he was born to play.
While Hartman is definitely the best part of the show, the lead spots belong to a pair of fantastic comics, Dave Foley ("The Kids in the Hall") and Maura Tierney (Liar, Liar). Foley is Dave, a midwestern guy brought to New York to be the news director for an all-news station, the position Tierney's Lisa thought she was getting. As a result, they are immediately at odds, which almost immediately becomes sexual tension. But instead of letting it linger as a "will they, won't they?" situation, they get right to the "they will" and begin dealing with the complications, which are funnier than the tension. Both actors are down to earth, but extremely funny, playing their parts close to reality, so they serve to counterbalance their wacky coworkers.
That roster includes Andy Dick ("The Ben Stiller Show") as a geeky, off-kilter reporter, Joe Rogan ("Fear Factor") as the resident handyman, Khandi Alexander ("C.S.I.: Miami") as Bill's co-anchor and Vicki Lewis ("Mission Hill") as the office secretary. They bring their characters to life with memorable performances that are distinct and enjoyable, but none so much as Stephen Root's role as Jimmy James, the station owner. Those who only know Root from his role as Office Space's timid stapler-lover Milton will be surprised to see him as the near-insane time-deprived Jimmy, who steals every scene he's in.
While the regular cast is extremely talented, the guest stars in these two seasons are just as impressive, starting with Kurt Fuller (Scary Movie) as the news director in the series pilot. Among the familiar faces making appearances are Janeane Garofalo, Norm MacDonald, Chris Kattan, Dennis Miller, John Ritter, George Hamilton and David Cross.
While, in many ways, "NewsRadio" is a traditional office-based ensemble comedy, it's got that touch of eccentricity that pushes it to another level. One perfect example of how odd the series could get comes during the great episode "The Cane." Hartman is quickly tossed a series of canes from off-screen, and makes each mid-air snatch funnier than the last by increasing the randomness of his accompanying reactions. Follow that up with Cross's appearance as a reluctant magician in the equally enjoyable "Houses of the Holy" and you have the makings of an unpredictable show that could catch you off-guard and make you laugh that much harder.
It's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when there's just so much wheat, but there are some serious gems here. "Smoking" focuses on Bill's cigarette habit and Dave's coffee addiction, and mines their desperation for pure gold, while "Zoso" revolves around the ridiculous notion of Beth trying to market a hat based on a "Fat Albert" character. In terms of wackiness, "No, This is Not Based Entirely on Julie's Life" is a great choice, with several gags based around stolen gelato and Beth's interest in nude photography.
Even when an episode doesn't quite click, there tends to be scenes that make up for it. "Presence", as a whole, is not one of the stronger episodes, but there are so many hilarious moments in it, including a throwaway joke about a hidden camera, that it ends up being one of the best laughs of the series. And that's saying something when you're talking about a series with an episode that bases jokes on "You Can't Do That on Television."
The first season of "NewsRadio" barely had enough episodes to fill a cavity, getting in seven episodes as a mid-season replacement, before going on to a 22-episode second season. Because of that, Sony combined the two for this release, spreading 29 episodes over three DVDs. The discs are packed into a pair of slipcased clear ThinPak cases (one a dual-disc case), with episode descriptions on the back. Once again, a chance missed to use the inside of the covers to present more content. Why bother with clear cases if you don't use the opportunities they bring?
Static full-screen menus provide options to play all episodes, select individual ones, view special features and select subtitles. The episode selection menus feature still previews and titles for each episode. For a quirky series, the subtitle options might be the oddest menu item, as the only subtitles available are Portuguese. Closed captioning is also available.
The full-frame video for these episodes is generally clean, with a light amount of noise. Colors are appropriate, if a bit dull at times, including skin tones, which have a touch of gray to them. Blacks, though not entirely solid, are strong, while the overall image is a bit less than sharp. The video is a bit better than it looks in syndication, but might have been better with less compression due to the amount of episodes per disc. At an average of 10 episodes per disc, plus commentaries, disc space must have been at a premium.
The sound is a standard TV mix, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. There's nice separation between the music, dialogue and laugh track, but it's not the most dynamic presentation, thanks to the source material. This is most likely as good as this could get.
Incredibly, for a series of such limited popularity, this set is loaded to the gills with bonus material, mostly in the form of 20 screen-specific audio commentaries. All but one of the commentaries feature four participants (the odd duck has three), with a mix of series creator Paul Simms; former NBC president Warren Littlefield; producers Kent Zbornak, Joe Furey, Josh Lieb, Julie Bean, Brad Grey and Brad Issacs; writers Lewis Morton and Brian Kelley; director Tom Cherones; and actors Foley, Root, Tierney, Alexander, Lewis, Dick and Rogan.
These commentaries are uniformly excellent, with the participant mixes chosen very well to ensure entertaining and informative chats. Those involved have plenty to say, which is impressive for a series more than 10 years old, and the tracks rarely get bogged down in repetition, as there's something of a theme for each commentary (for example, the track with Littlefield talks about the show from the network development angle.) The mix of different roles represented is key to getting the stories straight, but the best track might be the most homogenous, as comic actors Root, Foley, Dick and Rogan share the mic on a loose commentary for "In Through the Out Door."
A gag reel made up from the second-season episodes runs just over 11:30, with plenty of flubs from Foley, cursing by Tierney and goofy line-readings from Dick, as well as a man-kiss that sets off Rogan. The majority of the footage is of the cute variety, with a few laugh-out-loud moments peppered through it.
A featurette made up of scenes from several early episodes and on-the-set footage talks about how the show was put together and the characters and actors involved. An interesting collection of interviews shot at the beginning of the series, including Hartman and most of the main cast, it's not as fluffy as one would possibly expect from network EPK tape, but it's not an expose either.
Wrapping things up, Disc Three contains three previews: Hitch, "The Partridge Family" and a commercial for Contemporary TV on DVD, including "The King of Queens," "Designing Women" and "Mad About You," among others.
The Bottom Line
Despite the series needing to find time for eight featured roles, there's not a cast member on this series that doesn't shine bright, supporting quality writing with fun performances. Plus, as Hartman's last role, "NewsRadio" is the last chance to see his fantastic work, in a part that was perfect for his style. Making the deal sweeter, this DVD collection has a tremendous depth of extras, including 20 audio commentaries. If you were a fan, these episodes hold up very well, and if you missed them, this is the perfect chance to catch up.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.