Newsradio began its life as a midseason replacement on NBC in 1995. Though it never became a big hit in the five seasons it was on the air, the smartly written sitcom about the members of the news team at a fictional New York radio station earned a much deserved cult following that has kept it alive in syndication and now on DVD since it went off the air in 1999. The series' 97 episodes stay fairly true to a format that shows the gang at work, tossing the various members of the ensemble situations to deal with and then letting them run. In addition to ongoing interpersonal relationships, the news setting allowed the writers to constantly invent new scenarios based on what kinds of news the station would cover or what kind of guests might visit the offices.
Of course, it helps when you have such an impressive cast, and the Newsradio core stayed solid through most of its run:
* Dave Foley (The Kids in the Hall) as the uptight news manager Dave;
* Maura Tierney (ER) as Lisa, Dave's often equally uptight second-in-command and girlfriend;
* Stephen Root (Office Space) playing the eccentric and loquacious station owner Jimmy James;
* Phil Hartman (SNL) as pompous newscaster Bill McNeal;
* comic time bomb Andy Dick as office weirdo Matthew;
* stand-up comedian and future Fear Factor host Joe Rogan as regular guy handyman Joe;
* Khandi Alexander (CSI: Miami) as sophisticated news anchor Catherine;
* and, finally, Vicki Lewis as the sexy free-spirit Beth.
The only significant change to the cast came after the tragic loss of Phil Hartman, forcing Jon Lovitz to fill the chair for the show's fifth and final season. Lovitz, a good friend of Hartman's, gives it a noble try, thankfully not playing the same character but instead trying to embody the same kind of comedic space that made the show hum with such brilliance for the first four years. It's never quite the same, but you can't fault the team for their effort.
All five seasons of Newsradio have been released on DVD previously, coming out in four individual sets between 2005 and 2007 (the first two seasons were put together, as season one was only seven episodes). The 12 discs that are gathered in the Newsradio: The Complete Series collection are exactly the same as the previous individual editions and there has been no bonus content added for this boxed set. All in all, this is a pretty cursory release, with the flimsy paper box and plastic interior tray that holds the dozen DVDs stacked on a spindle doing little to inspire an upgrade. The only benefit is likely storage space, and even then, though this new box will take up less shelf area, the old slimpack versions are really more sturdy than this cheap packaging. The box doesn't even have new artwork, merely recycling the cover photo from the Season 1 & 2 set for the front cover here and printing an episode list on the inside of the box.
This means, then, that the only real draw of this boxed set is for those who have not yet bought the other seasons. Newsradio: The Complete Series offers the chance to buy the entire show at once and for a price tag that is about 25% cheaper than if you were to buy the individual seasons separately.
That's a pretty good deal, and one worth taking advantage of given the quality content the sitcom offers.
Seasons 1 & 2 (1995-1996)
The "Pilot" episode kicks off the set, and it starts with Dave Nelson (Foley) arriving for his first day as news director, fresh off the bus from Wisconsin. Despite different actors being in the Joe Rogan and Khandi Alexander roles, the office dynamic is pretty much established right away, with Jimmy James (Root) calling the shots like some drunken puppet master, Bill McNeal (Hartman) acting like a blowhard, and a quickly established tension between Lisa (Tierney) and Dave, since Lisa wanted his job. By episode two, the cast is solidified and the romance between Dave and Lisa has already begun. No "will they or won't they" for this show, though they will at least play with the concept of the affair being a secret until early into season 2.
Season 1 is shaky at times and almost feels like a warm-up. Certain plot elements are even recycled in Season 2, including trouble when Joe sees Dave and Lisa at the movies, Bill thinking he has a stalker, and Catherine not wanting to celebrate her birthday. Most everything has clicked together, however, and the relationships between all the characters--Matthew (Dick) always irritating Bill, Joe's homemade handyman gear, people exploiting Dave's newness, the competitive streak in his relationship with Lisa--solidify rather quickly. Season 2 has many classic episodes, most of which revolve around Phil Hartman's gung-ho comedy style. Watching him play Bill was like getting a full twenty minutes of Troy McClure every week, and as with his many SNL characters, there is nothing that Hartman won't do, no matter how bad it makes Bill look. In this selection of episodes, I particularly like "The Cane," where Bill starts walking with a cane as an affectation much to Dave's irritation, and "Friends," which sees Bill trapped in the lobby for the entire show, arguing with security guards over his lack of I.D.
Guest stars in this first set are kept to a minimum (this isn't Will & Grace), which makes them all the more memorable and likely served to bring the fledgling show some added attention. Janeane Garofalo shows up as Dave's clingy ex-girlfriend in "Sweeps Week," the season 1 finale, while Bebe Neuwirth plays Beth's old copycat rival ("Friends"), Dennis Miller is a conspiracy theorist ("Goofy Ball"), George Hamilton is a mafia boss ("Zoso"), and John Ritter plays an office psychologist who just so happened to have dated Lisa ("The Shrink"). There are also bit parts by comedy all-stars like the Mr. Show guys, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, and Norm MacDonald. All the guests are worked into the show organically, always being smart choices without seeming like stunts. There is an intelligence to everything about this show that really makes it stand apart. It can be absurd without getting silly, caustic without ever being mean-spirited, and smartypants without being eggheaded. It's a wonder to me that Newsradio wasn't more popular.
EPISODES: Season 1: Pilot * Inappropriate * Smoking * The Crisis * Big Day * Luncheon at the Waldorf * Sweeps Week * Season 2: No, This is Not Based Entirely on Julie's Life * Goofy Ball * Rat Funeral * The Breakup * The Shrink * Friends * Bill's Autobiography * Negotiation * The Cane * Xmas Story * Station Sale * Bitch Session * In Through the Out Door * The Song Remains the Same * Zoso * Houses of the Holy * Physical Graffiti * Presence * Coda * Led Zeppelin II
For some reason, there is also a bonus episode not listed on the box. By all accounts, "The Injury" is the last episode of season 3, not the last episode of season 2. Yet, it appears here following the real season 2 finale, "Led Zeppelin II," which features Dave and Lisa getting back together after a fire in the office. "The Injury" involves Matthew hurting himself horsing around in the hallway with Joe and the fallout after it is discovered he has no insurance. The show does reappear where it belongs on disc 3 of Season 3.
Twenty of these episodes contain commentary tracks, usually with a quartet of speakers taken from this pool of commentators: series creator Paul Simms; former NBC president Warren Littlefield; producers Kent Zbornak, Joe Furey, Josh Lieb, Julie Bean, Brad Grey, and Brad Isaacs; writers Lewis Morton and Brian Kelley; director Tom Cherones; and actors Foley, Root, Tierney, Alexander, Lewis, Dick, and Rogan. These tracks stay surprisingly fresh, with the shake-up in participants keeping them from getting repetitious after a couple of episodes or from being undercooked. The back-and-forth of the groups makes it so there is always someone with something to say.
Extras Seasons 1 and 2:
Not counting the commentaries or the trailers on disc 3, all of the bonus features are on disc 1. We get a fairly funny gag reel as well as the basic network promotional documentary from the time, featuring cast interviews and on-set footage.
Season 3 (1996-1997)
Despite being regularly on the cancellation bubble, the third season of Newsradio displays the creative confidence that normally comes with great success. With the characters and the setting firmly established, the show creators could go on with the business of being funny without having to worry about explaining anything. The Dave and Lisa relationship continued, but when not driving plots to create dissension in the ranks, it often took a backseat to the day-to-day shenanigans. There were plenty of shows about the workplace, including an episode where the office gets a complaint box and it only caused more things to complain about (episode 14), a visit from James Caan to research a role as a radio newsman (episode 9), and Bill and Lisa going to great lengths to keep Bill's opinion show on the air, complete with an ambush interview with Jerry Seinfeld (episode 22).
Often even better, though, were the episodes that moved beyond the confines of the newsroom. These usually involved Bill, giving Phil Hartman ample room to show his total commitment to playing a delusional bastard. Episode 17, for instance, saw Dave and Bill stranded in a St. Louis airport, with Bill running afoul of Midwestern values. Episode 20, which was also the series' 50th installment, goes for broke by having Bill committed to a mental hospital. This also features the first guest appearance by Jon Lovitz, playing another mental patient. Lovitz would return in season 4 as a suicidal man, and then in season 5 as Hartman's replacement.
My favorite episode of the season, though, is probably the 5th, "Halloween," featuring the annual Jimmy James Halloween party. Legendary for its lengthy duration and open bar, this year Jimmy has decided only to invite Matthew and ban the rest of the news staff. In previous years, the other members of the WNYX gang were "too cool for school" and showed up without dressing up. Desperate to get back in, Lisa promises that everyone will get in the spirit and that Dave will lead the charge by wearing the best costume of all. Kids in the Hall fans should get a pretty big kick out of seeing Dave Foley back in drag. (Also, the later episode where he is unmasked as a Canadian!)
In addition to Seinfeld and Caan, guest stars this season include Bob Costas and Chuck D as themselves, Jon Stewart as Matthew's twin brother, French Stewart as an office temp, and Ben Stiller as a shady gym salesman who cons Bill into an expensive membership. Aficionados of Fox's Ben Stiller Show, where many of us first saw Andy Dick, will note that with the appearance of Stiller, the entire ensemble has now guested on Newsradio--Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, and even old-man bit-player John F. O'Donohue. You might also spot early career appearances by Patton Oswalt, Mad TV's Michael McDonald, and blink-and-you-might-miss-her cameo by Lelee Sobieski, playing a high school student in another of my favorite episodes, "Arcade" (#4). In it, Dave and Lisa get in a competition over whom is smarter, causing them to regress to their adolescence and take the SATs over.
Overall, it's an amazing run of episodes, and the only real misstep is ending the season with the episode "The Injury," which features a fairly standard slapstick set-up for Newsradio. Much more special is the penultimate episode, "Space," which transplants the entire operation to, you guessed it, outer space. It's not an exceptionally funny script, but it does have a bigger impact than the standard Newsradio plot.
EPISODES: * President * Review * Massage Chair * Arcade (commentary from writer/producer Joe Furey, writers Al Higgins, Lew Morton, and Sam Johnson, and actor Stephen Root) * Halloween * Awards Show * Daydream (series creator Paul Simms and actors Dave Foley, Stephen Root, Andy Dick, and Vicki Lewis) * Movie Star * Stocks (Simms, Foley, Root, Maura Tierney, Lewis, Furey and writer/producer Josh Lieb ) * Christmas (Furey, Higgins, Johnson, Post Production Assistant Todd Chambers, and Script Supervisor Robert Spina) * The Trainer (Simms, Foley, Root, and Furey) * Rap * Led Zeppelin Boxed Set * Complaint Box * Rose Bowl (Furey, Higgins, Morton, Johnson, and Root) * Kids * Airport * Twins * Office Feud * Our Fiftieth Episode (Furey, Higgins, Johnson, Chambers, Spina) * Sleeping (Foley, Root, Dick, Lewis, Furey) * The Real Deal * Mistake (Simms, Foley, Dick, Lieb) * Space (Furey, Higgins, Morton, Johnson, Chambers, Spina) * The Injury
Extras Season 3:
The commentary count drops down to ten for season 3, and so I have indicated what episodes and who participated above. These are still excellent tracks, though not as fresh as the first time around.
The season 3 gag reel is included, and it runs about 17 minutes. There are also four featurettes: "'Space': From Table Read to Film" (15 minutes) detailing the creation of the episode; a behind-the-scenes look at the 23rd episode, "Mistake" (10:25), that gives an unfettered peek into show night; "A Visit to Andy's Trailer," 14 minutes with the actor; and the 4-minute-30-second "One Man Newsradio," where writer Joe Furey recreates "Mistake" with himself in all the roles. All of these bonuses also have commentaries from the cast and crew, giving us a behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes!
Season 4 (1997-1998)
Season 4 starts strong with a stand-alone episode guest starring Jon Lovitz as a suicidal man who perches on the ledge outside of Dave's building. The returning comedian gets to share more quality scenes with Phil Hartman, as Bill climbs out with him in order to talk him down while live on the air. It's a confident kick-off for the show--a confidence that serves the series well for the internal shake-ups the creators toss out for the first half of the season. Future Gilmore Girls-star Lauren Graham joins the cast for a cycle of episodes, playing an efficiency expert who fires Matthew and has Dave and Lisa switch positions. This adds new comedic possibilities with the many subplots involving Matthew trying to get back into the office and Dave now having to act as Bill's producer. Lisa and Dave also split up as a result of all of this, making way for a new love interest for Lisa when the intern Walt (Brad Rowe) joins later in the season. Though the Dave/Lisa fights are quite good, the Walt character brings mixed results.
Another big change wasn't so much a story plan as a real change. In episode 7, "Catherine Moves On," Khandi Alexander leaves the cast, and though it doesn't fatally wound the show, it definitely changes the dynamic of it, even allowing for a later episode in the season (episode #21, "Jackass Junior High") to make light out of the fact that there are barely any women at WNYX. Catherine's departure also provides for a stellar gag in her final revenge on the lovestruck Joe and the self-lovestruck Bill.
Things return back to normal midway through season, with the two part "Who's the Boss?" wherein Lisa and Dave, neither of whom wants the job anymore, fight over who will have to suffer through being news director. It's a good duo of shows, with each cast member getting to shine as they shift their allegiances from one to the other. Other classic bits from Season 4 include Jimmy James' autobiography, which has been translated into Japanese and then disastrously translated back into English (episode #4, "Super Karate Monkey Death Car"), and Dave's college all-male acapella quartet attempting a reunion (#11, "Chock"). The other members of the quartet are played by David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Brian Posehn, all of whom had bit parts in earlier shows (Posehn was in episode 4 this season, attending Jimmy's reading). Following the example of last season's space show, the finale of Season 4 is "Sinking Ship," a Titanic parody that is fairly fun and actually yields better results than "Space"--though, Phil Hartman's closing words have an ironic morbidity now.
Season 4 is not as good as Season 3, which is easily the series' zenith, but it does at least point to a comfortable level of performance that could have carried Newsradio for many more years had not tragedy struck.
EPISODES: * Jumper (commentary by series creator Joe Simms, script supervisor Robert Spina, post production coordinator Todd "Spider" Chambers, writer/producer Joe Furey, Maura Tierney, and second assistant director Michael Risner) * Plan Bee (commentary by Simms, Chambers, and Furey) * The Public Domain (commentary from Simms, Furey, writer/producer Al Higgins, writer/producer Lew Morton, and Stephen Root) * Super Karate Monkey Death Car (commentary from Simms, Furey, Higgins, Morton, and Root) * French Diplomacy * Pure Evil * Catherine Moves On (commentary from Simms, Spina, Chambers, Furey, and Vicki Lewis) * Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show (commentary from Simms, Furey, Higgins, Morton, associate producer Julie Bean, and writer/producer Josh Lieb) * The Secret of Management * Look Who's Talking * Chock (commentary from Simms, Spina, Chambers, Furey, Dave Foley, and Vicki Lewis) * Who's the Boss? * Who's the Boss? Part II (commentary from Simms, Bean, Furey, Lieb, and Higgins) * Security Door * Big Brother * Beep, Beep * Balloon * Copy Machine (commentary from Simms, Chambers, Furey, and Lewis) * Monster Rancher * 4:20 * Jackass Junior High * Sinking Ship (Simms, Spina, Chambers, Furey, Lewis, and Risner)
Extras Season 4:
The gag reel returns, with a 19-minute collection of gaffs and goofs, as well as another one-man take on the show (4 minutes, 25 seconds).
There are also several trailers for other TV on DVD sets.
Season 5 (1999-2000)
The final season of Newsradio begins fittingly with a tribute to Phil Hartman and his Bill McNeal character. After the tragic death of the actor, it must have been rough to pick up and keep going. The first episode features the aftermath of the funeral for Bill McNeal, who is said to have died suddenly from a heart attack. His friends sit around and read letters he wrote to all of them and reminiscing, and even Khandi Alexander returns for the occasion. It's reverently irreverent, a celebration of Hartman as much as anything, and I think better than a clip show would have been, saying more about the love and awe the man inspired. For the rest of the season, Hartman's presence is felt thanks to a framed magazine cover that is always visible in Dave's office.
The memory of Bill McNeal is also kept alive in the choice for his replacement. The character of Max Louis is an old friend of Bill's, just as Jon Lovitz is a buddy of Hartman's--art imitating life. Max has some of the same self-delusion as Bill's, but infused more with Lovitz's loveable loser schtick. He does an admirable job trying to keep things afloat, but it's just not the same. The guest turn by Patrick Warburton as Jimmy James' rival, Johnny Johnson, is also another high point, but there is no getting around the fact that something is missing.
Actually, it surprised me watching these shows again how much of the lynchpin Phil Hartman was. While Foley's Dave Nelson character is supposed to be the most normal, the perennial straight man, it was Bill McNeal that kept the show grounded. As a personality, the character was solid as a rock and having him as the magnetic pole for Newsradio kept the even stranger characters, particularly Jimmy and Matthew, from spinning off out of control. Perhaps it was how Bill so often stuck pins in their balloons, because without him, a lot of the antics this season start to feel more like routine. Granted, this run of shows is still better than the bulk of sitcoms that sit on top of the ratings week after week, but it's probably good that the show lowered the curtain at the end of their fifth year, leaving us with our good memories before any continued decline could put so much distance between that they'd no longer seem valid.
EPISODES: * Bill Moves On * Meet the Max Louis * Lucky Burger (commentary with Paul Simms, Stephen Root, Josh Lieb, and Robert Spina) * Noise * Flowers for Matthew (commentary with Simms, Root, Lieb, and Spina) * Jail (commentary with Simms, Root, Lieb, Spina, and Todd Chambers) * The Lam * Clash of the Titans * Boston * Spooky Rapping Crypt * Stinkbutt * Apartment * Towers (Simms, Spina, and Andy Dick) * Hair * Assistant * Wino * Wedding (Simms, Dick, Root, Sam Johnson, and Chris Marcil) * Ploy * Padded Suit (Simms and Dick) * Freaky Friday (Simms, Root, Chambers, Johnson, and Marcil) * Retirement * New Hampshire
The commentaries this time around obviously have a lot fewer participants than previous seasons, but they are still quite worth a listen.
Extras Season 5:
The gag reel returns, this time running over 22 minutes, as does Joe Furey's one-man show, this one just under 4 minutes. Furey does a second one-man act that comes in under 2 minutes and this time also features an optional commentary about the sketch.
Finally, there are more trailers for other TV sets.
Newsradio was shot in full frame (1.33:1), and the sources used to put these shows on DVD are pretty good, at least better than the syndication prints you're likely to find in circulation in local television markets. I did notice a gradual improvement across the series, with a particular difference in the quality of the earliest episodes, which are a tad faded and not as sharp. As the series moves forward, I think it gets progressively better, though there are some minor compression issues with so many episodes being crammed onto each disc (about nine per, which translates into about three hours of programming).
A stereo mix (Dolby Digital) of the original English soundtrack is very good, with some subtle use of the front and back speakers (I mainly noticed canned laughter and some ambient sound effects in the background). Not much to complain about or praise here, the audio is given fair and decent treatment.
Additionally, there is Closed Captioning in English and Portuguese subtitles.
Please see the sections for the individual seasons for the specific extras for each year. Again, these special features are all carry-overs from the earlier sets, there is no new content in The Complete Series boxed set.
Despite being a disappointing, thrown-together box, Newsradio: The Complete Series is Highly Recommended. This is one of the best sitcoms from the 1990s, consistently smart and funny and with one of the most talented ensemble casts of the day. It's the kind of show you will watch again and again and appreciate all the more as its familiarity reveals even deeper layers to the comedy. It's a series that was also blessed with a good heart, meaning the characters are more than empty constructs designed for getting the most laughs out of the right demographic groups. If you haven't been buying these season sets all along, now is your chance to make up for lost time.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.