As a child of the '80s, I have very vague memories of Newhart from scattered Monday nights where my parents were either permissive enough or neglectful enough to let me stay up and watch TV past my bedtime. Newhart was memorable for me, but it was nowhere near my favorite show on TV. Heck, it wasn't even my favorite show on Monday nights, which at the time was probably ALF. In more recent years, as I've been filling in my comedy knowledge, I've gotten familiar with Bob Newhart's outstanding comedy albums, like The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (the only time in history that a comedian has gotten Grammy awards for both Album of the Year and Best New Artist). From there, I graduated to his first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, which cast Newhart as a psychologist and was a tremendous vehicle for his established deadpan persona.
Then, Fox released the first season of Newhart, and I decided to see how it stacked up. It was not the show I remembered at all. First off, season one was shot on video, not on film. Many of the familiar faces I had long associated with the show were not yet included in the cast. Plus, the whole tone just seemed sort of... off. It's not necessarily the show's fault, but I didn't end up giving the whole first season a chance. I decided to wait for the later episodes that I used to watch to re-emerge. But, for five years or so, they never did.
Now, those pop-culture saviors at Shout! Factory -- who lately seem determined to release complete DVD runs on TV shows whose original studios gave up on them part-way through (see also: Barney Miller and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) -- have announced they are releasing the rest of Newhart. This season two set arrives February 11, with a season three set already in the pipeline for April 22.
Long story short: this second season from 1983-84 is much more like what I initially had in mind when I wanted to stroll down memory lane with Bob Newhart and Co. From the opening strains of Henry Mancini's instrumental theme to the sound of Newhart's voice saying, "Meow," over the MTM logo at the end of the credits, each episode is a welcome dose of warm, humorous nostalgia. While no one would argue that Newhart is anything more than a pleasant chucklefest, its sensibility is so perfectly attuned to the strengths of its cast as to be irresistible.
These 22 episodes feel transitional, and not only because of the switch from season one's video set-up to the use of film here. The cast was also in the midst of gradually mutating into what would become the show's signature ensemble.
At the center is Newhart as Dick Loudon, low-key author of how-to books and owner of a Vermont B&B called the Stratford Inn. Helping him run the Stratford is his wife Joanna (Mary Frann), often seen in this season somewhat quixotically trying to find ways to fix the small town where they live, such as getting the townsfolk to allow the men and women to sit together at the community potlucks and convincing the local repertory theater to mount a theatrical production of something other than My Fair Lady Without The Songs (i.e., Pygmalion). The delightful Tom Poston appears again as George Utley, the somewhat simple caretaker, and the less delightful Steven Kampmann returns from season one as Kirk, the annoying owner of the Minuteman Cafe next door to the Stratford. While this season is strong overall, I felt like many of the weakest moments could be laid at Kirk's feet. It comes as little surprise that the character disappears after the end of season two.
Reprising a one-off appearance she had in season one, Julia Duffy joins the main cast as Stephanie Vanderkellen, a spoiled rich girl who has been cut off financially by her family. Stephanie doesn't let the fact that she has never lifted a finger in her life prevent her from taking a job as the Stratford's maid. Peter Scolari makes a few appearances as Michael Harris, a self-centered local TV producer who offers Dick work as the host of two different interview shows and naturally becomes interested in Stephanie. In the first two episodes of this season, the show attempts to introduce Dick's money-grubbing literary agent, but he's quickly forgotten. Michael seems like a better-realized second draft of that character -- thanks in no small part to Scolari's hilarious characterization -- and he would maintain his place in the ensemble for the rest of the series. The three backwoods brothers, played by William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad, and often introduced by the catchphrase, "Hi, I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl," make a few choice appearances this season. In one episode, Stephanie gets lost in a snowstorm and ends up in the brothers' shack, in a sequence that playfully references "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
While the stories of Newhart are oddly not often about Dick Loudon, the character that Newhart plays, his understated reactions to what is going on around him are always the key ingredient in most of the scenes. A few of the funniest moments in this season actually involve Dick reacting to phone calls, which directly references Newhart's comedy albums. The choice to have Dick become the host of a TV interview show which features over-the-top guests is particularly inspired, since Newhart's muted response to his guests' insanity is riotous.
- "It Happened One Afternoon" - Part 1 & 2
This 2-episode story has Dick going to New York and being offered to ghost-write a notorious actress's tell-all memoir. The actress, played by Stella Stevens, insists that happily-married Dick sleep with her if they're going to work together. Meanwhile, back at the Stratford, Stephanie Vanderkellen arrives after abandoning her husband on their honeymoon and takes the maid job vacated by her cousin. As a side-note, these are the only two episodes where the audience laughter seems not to be occasionally augmented by a laugh-track; as two of the weaker episodes of the season, this is an unfortunate choice.
- "Animal Attractions"
Stephanie's ex-husband shows up at the Stratford, and it turns out he's a senior citizen. Also, George finds a giant sheep dog and reluctantly tries to track down its owner.
- "The Stratford Wives"
Joanna drags Dick to the local potluck dinner, but is horrified to learn that the women are forced to sit in a separate room from the men.
- "The Girl From Manhattan"
Joanna convinces the local community theater to put on a production of a play Dick wrote for her a couple decades earlier. Dick gets corralled into directing the production, and much to Joanna's chagrin, he casts Stephanie in the ingenue role he had originally written for Joanna.
- "Don't Rain On My Parade"
George is put in charge of the local Thanksgiving Day parade, and Joanna is reluctantly put in charge of making dinner for the parade workers -- all 100 of them.
- "Lady and the Tramps"
Stephanie gets lost in a snowstorm and ends wandering into the shack belonging to Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
- "The Man Who Came Forever"
Dick tries to finish a book with a short deadline, but is constantly taken away from his work by everyone's problems.
- "The Looks of Love"
Kirk decides to start a singles club at the Stratford, in hopes of finding himself a girlfriend.
- "Kirk Goes for the Juggler"
Kirk finds a woman he considers perfect... until he learns that she is a professional clown.
- "A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread, and Pow"
Stephanie decides to cruise Dartmouth College men, and she brings Joanna along to a poetry reading. Stephanie strikes out, but Joanna accidentally catches the eye of the poetry professor. Dick gets violently jealous... it's pretty darn funny.
Stephanie's high school sweetheart and her high school rival have married each other -- and they've decided to honeymoon at the Stratford Inn.
- "Curious George at the Firehouse"
George becomes a volunteer fireman. On his first overnight shift at the firehouse, he manages to lose the keys to the firetruck.
- "Book Beat"
Dick goes on a TV show to promote his new how-to book and gets an offer from the show's producer, Michael Harris, to become the new host.
- "Kirk Pops The Question"
Kirk has trouble asking Cindy to marry him.
- "Best Friends"
Dick's friendship with Kirk comes into question when a burger chain comes to town, looking to replace the Minuteman Cafe.
- "Kirk Ties One On"
Kirk gets cold feet about getting married again. This time, at the actual wedding.
- "Go, Grandma, Go"
Ruth Gordon guest stars as Kirk's freewheeling grandmother, who arrives late for the wedding and ends up bumming around the Stratford.
- "Leave It To The Beavers"
George tries to get Dick to join his fraternal lodge: The Beavers.
- "Vermont Today"
TV producer Michael Harris re-appears, this time offering Dick a chance to host a brand-new "classy" program. Michael also manages to catch Stephanie's eye.
- "Send Her, Ella"
Dick is made the emcee of the Maple Syrup Days pageant, and Stephanie is stuck watching the Stratford. When a "fairy godmother" arrives, willing to watch the Inn for her, Stephanie decides to sneak out and compete in the pageant in disguise.
- "New Faces of 1951"
Dick and Joanna plan a birthday party for George, but then have trouble getting anyone to show up.
The Video & Audio:
"The following episodes were mastered from the best available video sources."
Well, the Shout! Factory disclaimer pretty much says it all. Though the show was shot on film, the standard 1.33:1 transfer was not made from original film elements (no doubt, those elements probably got pitched somewhere along the way). That means there's not a lot in the way of fine detail, and there are occasional analog glitches from tape wear. Often the film footage has specks and scratches. Plus, since so many episodes have been jammed onto each disc, there are compression artifacts. But, does it look that much worse than a syndicated rerun broadcast? Nah, on those terms, it's pretty much what you'd expect. On the sound side, the mono audio is not particularly impressive, but it does not suffer from technical flaws. Everything sounds clear and balanced -- and quite good, considering the source. No subtitles, but there is closed captioning.
While it's not innovative or edgy, Newhart doesn't feel particularly dated either. Rock-solid writing and the brilliant ensemble cast make this a series worth revisiting. I laughed out loud dozens of times while watching this second season set. I can hardly wait for more. Highly recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his band's new Nick Lowe tribute album.