NOTE: All the photos included here are from promotional materials and do not reflect the quality of the DVD set under review.
The Bob Newhart Show ran for six seasons between 1972 and 1978, and it has long been heralded as one of the finest American television shows ever aired. Back in 2005 and 2006, Fox Video released the first four seasons of the show on DVD, but gave up before completing the entire series run. This was frustrating to fans because the show always had consistently strong writing, and some of those fifth and sixth season episodes could easily be held up against the best of the earlier seasons. To meet the demand of these fans, Shout! Factory has repeated the approach they took with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Barney Miller -- both of which were halted by their original DVD studio mid-rollout. They are releasing the whole series of The Bob Newhart Show in one 19-disc box set.
Some folks are bound to grumble that they just want their final two seasons without having to re-buy the first four. That's tough to argue with -- and considering that Shout! Factory waited three years before they started offering separate Barney Miller seasons, it's equally tough to suggest that those fans should just wait patiently for the season-only releases. For folks who haven't started collecting the show (or who, like me, only shelled out for one of the prior season sets), the decision is much easier. This set collects all 142 episodes of the show, the bonus features from the previous DVD releases, plus some new exclusive bonuses. It's pretty much exactly what anyone with even a passing interest in the show would want to own.
Half workplace comedy and half domestic comedy, The Bob Newhart Show follows the day-to-day travails of Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley (Newhart). His office is down the hall from self-obsessed orthodontist Jerry (Peter Bonerz), and the two of them jointly employ wise-cracking, hard-drinking receptionist Carol (Marcia Wallace). When Bob goes home, he is met by his loving wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), a schoolteacher whose mixture of intelligence and sex appeal makes her almost out of Bob's league, but she seems to really love the guy. Their quarrels -- about watching too much football, or meeting up with old lovers, or which of them is more intelligent -- all have a realistic flavor that fits with the low-key charm of the show.
Their neighbor Howard (Bill Daily) is an airline navigator whose presence in the show was initially meant to represent the divorced man's experience, in contrast to Jerry the bachelor, but Daily's aptitude for playing puppyish naivete took Howard in a much sillier and more childlike direction. For example, in the sixth season episode "Ex-Con Job," Bob and Emily are being robbed at gunpoint by a patient of Bob's, and they have both placed their hands against one of the apartment's walls. Mid-robbery, Howard barges in and sees what's happening, so he rushes over to help: he also puts his hands against the wall to keep it from tumbling over.
Dr. Bob, much like his real-life namesake, is mild-mannered and well-equipped for listening. (Newhart's deadpan reactions were a staple of his stand-up act and they are constantly put to good use here.) Though we see Bob help a number of wacky visitors over the course of six seasons, including a depressed clown and a ventriloquist whose dummy wants to leave the act, he has a core of patients who meet for group therapy and provide many of the best quips and storylines. These include stone-faced grouch Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley), bespectacled wimp Mr. Peterson (John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet), nasal-voiced overeater Michelle (Renee Lippin), and the ever-knitting Mrs. Bakerman (Florida Friebus). Early seasons also included tough-guy fruitman Mr. Gianelli (Noam Pitlik, replaced by Daniel J. Travanti for one episode), who didn't continue with the group after the episode "Death of a Fruitman" for obvious reasons. Later, the group would cycle in new neurotics like sloppy dresser Mr. Herd (Oliver Clark) and Mr. Plager (WKRP's Howard Hesseman), one of TV's first explicitly gay characters.
In addition to the main cast and the recurring staples, the show also had a batch of notable short-run characters, like Bob's sister Ellen (Pat Finley), who suddenly arrives in season 3 and starts dating Howard much to Bob's chagrin, then disappears just as quickly in season 4. Wonderful character actors Martha Scott and Barnard Hughes play Bob's parents, who separate and then reconcile right around Christmas during season 5. Tom Poston, who essentially ended up filling the Howard role on Newhart, sporadically pops up in seasons 4 and 5 as Bob's practical joke-prone college buddy Cliff "The Peeper" Murdock. Newhart's own real-life father-in-law Bill Quinn (Archie Bunker's Place) appears as three different characters over the course of the series: first as an astrologist with bad intuition in season 2, then as a smart-aleck postman in season 3, and finally as the psychologist who takes over Bob's practice when he decides to move out of Chicago at the very end of the series.
On top of that, there are tons of notable one- and two-off guest appearances by M. Emmet Walsh, John Ritter, Teri Garr, Raul Julia, Penny Marshall, Henry Winkler, Loni Anderson, Morgan Fairchild, Rene Auberjonois, Louise Lasser, Pat Morita, Brooke Adams, Fred Willard, Keenan Wynn, Ralph Bellamy, Sharon Gless, Allen Garfield, Richard Libertini, James Hong, Tovah Feldshuh, Robert Ridgely, Michael Lerner, William Daniels, Veronica Hamel, Katherine Helmond, and countless others.
Created by Mary Tyler Moore writers David Davis and Lorenzo Music, The Bob Newhart Show consistently boasted an impressive crew of writers and directors. Noteworthy scribes who worked on the show include Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses (Buffalo Bill), Glen and Les Charles (Cheers), David Lloyd (Frasier), and Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties). James Burrows, who has directed everything from Taxi to
NewsRadio to Mike and Molly, joined the Bob Newhart crew as his second-ever job in TV, and he helmed many of the series' finest episodes (including the all-time fan favorite from season 4, "Over the River and Through the Woods," where Bob, Jerry, Howard, and Mr. Carlin get sloshed on Thanksgiving and try to order Moo Goo Gai Pan for dinner). Other noteworthy directors included Jay Sandrich (Soap, The Cosby Show), comedian Dick Martin (as in "Rowan and..."), and show costar Peter Bonerz, who got his start behind the camera with Bob Newhart then went on to direct numerous sitcoms including Murphy Brown and Friends.
Though the series was clearly at its peak from season 3 to season 5 -- with the actors, writers, and directors all comfortably playing into each other's strengths -- it's hard to pinpoint a particularly weak stretch anywhere in the series.
If you really had to try, the final season does seem a little off, but that's probably just because it has such a different flavor from the rest of the show. The season 5 finale, "You're Having My Hartley," was initially written as a series finale, with Carol and Emily both finding out that they're pregnant. It would have been a kind of neat bookend, considering that the series' pilot episode (which actually aired ninth in season 1, but let's ignore that for now) was all about Bob and Emily feeling pressure from their neighbors to have a kid. When Newhart decided to go for a sixth season, the ending of "You're Having My Hartley" was quickly rewritten to make the whole thing a dream, since Newhart didn't want to spend the last season with his character as a new father. Even so, there were a lot of changes for season 6: a new creative team was brought in, the Hartleys were moved into a different apartment building, and Dr. Bob found himself frequently out of town on a book tour (meaning Newhart barely appears in about a quarter of the episodes of the final season, apart from some brief pre-taped scenes that were edited in later).
Despite these oddities, the sixth season still has a lot to recommend it, such as Dr. Hartley's group therapy sessions with a group of colorful prisoners in "Ex-Con Job" and "Son of Ex-Con Job," the anniversary episode "Grand Delusion" where Bob and Emily fantasize about what life would have been like married to other people, and the Christmas episode "'Twas The Pie Before Christmas" where Mr. Carlin hires a service to pie Bob in the face for raising his rates.
Taken as a whole, the complete series box set of The Bob Newhart Show is invaluable. While the show is not really built for chronological binge-watching, it is a lot of fun to cherry-pick and shuffle -- and it is consistent enough to hold up to such treatment.
The Bob Newhart Show is presented on 18 one-sided DVD-9s (as opposed to the double-sided DVD-10s of the earlier Fox releases), housed in 3 standard-sized keepcases with six hubs inside of each. A box-set-only bonus disc comes in its own slim case. The box which holds these cases also comes with a 40-page booklet containing photos, episode synopses, and an essay on the show from Vince Waldron's book Classic Sitcoms.
The Video & Audio:
Ugh. While it's hard to precisely describe the look and sound of all 142 episodes -- and, trust me, there is a fair range of difference from episode to episode -- the word that does not come to mind for any of them is "pristine." These standard 1.33:1 transfers are all taken from video masters or submasters, and though the show was shot on 35mm film, there is often very little fine detail on display. Some episodes have good color reproduction, but some look too reddish and some look too bluish. The Dolby 2.0 mono audio mix on some episodes sounds nice and clear with pretty solid fidelity, while other episodes have muffled passages or even some soundtrack damage like pops and hisses. The amount of video compression artifacts and aliasing also seems to vary from episode to episode. Fortunately, there seem to be no digital audio compression issues.
The saddest news is that the worst-looking and -sounding episodes are the ones that have not been released on DVD before: seasons 5 and 6. The flaws are not enough to completely derail the viewing experience, but if you did an A/B visual comparison with season 1 or 2, it would clearly illustrate the greater lack of fine detail, the more erratic contrast, and the more unusual color shifts occurring in the later episodes. Maybe Fox just sent Shout! Factory whatever tapes they had lying around or, if these actually are the best available masters at present, maybe we have a clue as to why Fox decided not to release them initially.
This box includes the bonus features from the original Fox season sets, plus a bonus disc with three new, exclusive bonuses.
- Group Therapy (Box-set exclusive, 46:12) - A roundtable discussion recorded in December 2013 between actors Bob Newhart, Peter Bonerz, Bill Daily, and Jack Riley, plus one of the series directors, Michael Zinberg. Newhart dominates and unfortunately he reruns a number of anecdotes that pop up in other featurettes and commentaries scattered throughout these discs. Bonerz and Zinberg manage to get in some interesting tidbits about the show's production company MTM, the shooting process, and even how the show managed to nudge psychology into the American mainstream. Sadly, the wheelchair-bound Riley says only about two sentences during the entire featurette.
- 19th Anniversary Special (Box-set exclusive, 46:32) - A reunion clip show, structured as a modern-day ("modern" being 1991, when the special aired) episode of the show playing out on recreations of the original office sets. It begins with the infamous ending scene of Newhart, where Bob wakes up in bed with Emily and the whole 1980s series is revealed to be a dream. Suzanne Pleshette, Marcia Wallace, Peter Bonerz, Bill Daily, and Jack Riley all appear in character, trying to help Bob deal with his weird dream about running an inn in Vermont. A funny gag has Bill Daily's character Howard sharing his own weird dreams about being an astronaut, accompanied by clips of Daily on I Dream of Jeannie. Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl make a cameo appearance, because of course they do.
- Unaired Pilot (Box-set exclusive, 28:13) - The original version of the pilot, featuring many differences from the version that eventually aired as "P-I-L-O-T," the ninth episode of the first season. It begins with a slightly different version of the opening credits with a unique version of the theme song, but all the differences are not so minute. Jerry's character appears here not as an orthodontist but as a hippier-dippier psychologist who shares a practice with Bob. No Howard. No Carol. It's an interesting look at how the show developed and it contains some pretty funny material that never made it to air.
- 15 Episode Audio Commentaries - Five episodes each from seasons 2-4 get commentary, with Newhart joined in different configurations by the likes of series co-creator David Davis, director James Burrows, director/costar Peter Bonerz, fellow cast members Jack Riley and Marcia Wallace, and even guest star Fred Willard. Suzanne Pleshette and Tom Poston make a one-off appearance on the commentary for the season four episode "The Longest Goodbye." These are all worth a listen, although Newhart has a tendency to repeat anecdotes from commentary to commentary whenever he has a different friend on the track to reminisce with.
- Making Of Season 2 (13:42) - Despite the title, this featurette is more about the origins of the show, with series co-creator David Davis and Newhart talking separately about how they started working together.
- Making Of Season 3 (8:56) - A solo interview with Newhart, where he talks about the show hitting its stride in the third season, with the ace writing team of Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses taking over as showrunners.
- A Second Family (11:44) - Essentially "Making of Season 4," this is another Newhart interview. Topics include the camraderie of the cast, the handful of appearances by Tom Poston who later appeared on Newhart, plus two of the all-time fan favorite episodes from the season, the Thanksgiving episode "Over the River and Through the Woods" and "Who is Mr. X?," where Bob is invited on a TV show to talk about psychology not realizing he is going to be ambushed by the interviewer.
- Season 4 Gag Reel (4:50) - A fun batch of flubbed lines and inappropriate laughter.
The only thing keeping this hilarious set from joining the DVD Talk Collector Series is the inconsistent A/V quality. Otherwise, the astonishingly consistent performances, writing, and direction make this is a must-own for comedy fans. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his random movie thoughts on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bottomofqueue