The TV Series
Hey kids, remember Newhart? Not brown-suited Chicago psychologist Newhart; we're talking bifocals-bedecked Vermont innkeeper Newhart here. Newhart enjoyed a good eight-season run on CBS in the '80s, yet it's not so easy to recall that the show underwent some rough spots early on in its lifespan - shooting on videotape? Not such a great idea. With this 1984-85 parcel of 22 episodes, now released as a three-DVD set from Shout Factory, it becomes obvious that the kinks were ironed out in Year Three as the sitcom solidified into a critical and popular success.
This season of Newhart may come as an unexpectedly well-made treat for those who recall it as the softer, more formulaic cousin to the urban, wisecracking The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78). Sure, the writing and direction on this show seems a little more workmanlike than in the earlier venture, but this pleasantly daft vehicle continued Bob Newhart's priceless deadpan while generously allowing the supporting players to shine. This season, Newhart's producers reacted to the show's second-year ratings dip by honing the formula a bit while maintaining the basic straight-guy-surrounded-by-nuts concept. Newhart's mild do-it-yourself book writer Dick Loudon still runs rural Vermont's Stratford Inn with the help of his beautiful, sweater-attired wife Joanna (Mary Frann). The Loudons also continue to have under their employ the inn's slow-witted handyman George Utley (Tom Poston), and spoiled rich-girl maid Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy). Stephanie's smarmy yuppie boyfriend Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) has a slightly bigger role as producer of Dick's local talk show. Kirk and Cindy, married proprietors of the café next door to the inn, get unceremoniously booted in this season's first episode (the characters are mentioned, yet never seen). That leaves room for breakout hicks Larry (William Sanderson), Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) and Darryl (John Voldstad) to emerge as regulars and eventually take over running the eatery (yuck). Interacting with this array of quirky locals (like Jeff Douchette's eager-to-please salesman, Harley Estin) and inn guests, Dick handles it all with precise, unflappable dryness.
Since this particular reviewer hasn't seen a Newhart episode in at least twenty years, I can confirm that - based on year three, anyhow - it compares (slightly) less favorably against the peak period of The Bob Newhart Show (he doesn't seem to speak on the phone as much, for one). Newhart's knack for getting intelligent writing and an excellent ensemble cast carries through here, however. We get a sense that Newhart and his audience was aging, and it's reflected in this season's familiar, gently ribbing humor. I always thought of Mary Frann as a distinct comedown from Suzanne Pleshette, yet Joanna actually has some saucy zingers to say in this particular season. She's also got excellent chemistry with Newhart, who wisely continued the idea from his earlier show to realistically portray a happily married couple with no kids - nor any desire to have them.
Bob Newhart's willingness to step aside and lets his supporting cast strut their stuff is another pleasure of this Newhart season. Several episodes have Dick and Joanna relegated to what amounted to bit parts, while the plot was dominated by normally supporting characters. The "Miss Stephanie" episode, a highlight, has a smitten Larry resolving to have Stephanie be his bride with predictably funny results. Tom Poston's George has a few great, hilarious episodes, including "Georgie's Girl" - in which he faces the quandary of how to tell his new girlfriend (played by pre-L.A. Law Susan Ruttan) that he wants to break up with her. Julia Duffy's prissy Stephanie is pretty much a laugh riot in every scene she's in (fun fact: Duffy was the only cast member to receive Emmy award nominations throughout her entire run as a series regular). Duffy's comic timing is especially strong in the "Look Homeward, Stephanie" episode, where she brings Michael to the luxurious home of her millionaire parents (Jose Ferrer and Priscilla Morrill). That particular episode also stands out for being a rare (for its time) sitcom installment entirely written and directed by women.
Shout Factory's DVD edition of Newhart: Season Three consists of the following episodes, spread over three discs:
3-01 ____ 15/Oct/84 ____ Tell a Lie, Get a Check
3-02 ____ 22/Oct/84 ____ Twenty Year Itch
3-03 ____ 29/Oct/84 ____ A Hunting We Will Go
3-04 ____ 05/Nov/84 ____ Miss Stephanie
3-05 ____ 12/Nov/84 ____ But Seriously, Beavers
3-06 ____ 19/Nov/84 ____ Tickets, Please
3-07 ____ 26/Nov/84 ____ Poor Reception
3-08 ____ 03/Dec/84 ____ The Fan
3-09 ____ 10/Dec/84 ____ Happy Trails to You
3-10 ____ 31/Dec/84 ____ Georgie's Girl
3-11 ____ 07/Jan/85 ____ Pillow Fight
3-12 ____ 14/Jan/85 ____ Local Hero
3-13 ____ 04/Feb/85 ____ Dick Gets Larry's Goat
3-14 ____ 11/Feb/85 ____ Once I Had a Secret Love
3-15 ____ 18/Feb/85 ____ Lady in Wading
3-16 ____ 25/Feb/85 ____ Look Homeward, Stephanie
3-17 ____ 04/Mar/85 ____ My Fair Larry
3-18 ____ 11/Mar/85 ____ You're Nobody 'til Somebody Hires You
3-19 ____ 18/Mar/85 ____ Out With the New, Inn With the Old
3-20 ____ 08/Apr/85 ____ R.I.P. Off
3-21 ____ 06/May/85 ____ The Prodigal Darryl
3-22 ____ 27/May/85 ____ What Makes Dick Run
Shout Factory's release of Newhart: The Complete Third Season falls in line with their other TV season sets (one notable difference: the Shout Factory "TV static" logo has been updated). The set's three discs are packaged in a clear standard-width keep case with episode titles, plot descriptions and original airdates printed on the inside.
This season of Newhart sports a softened, artifact and dust-flecked but decent appearing picture. The 4:3 image winds up looking similar to other filmed early '80s shows transferred to disc; the picture quality improving somewhat in the season's later episodes. Joanie Loves Chachi is another example, although this set looks considerably better with more vivid color and not as much murk. The mastering isn't as clean as it ought to be with so many episodes packed on each disc, but for most intents and purposes it's fine.
Just the shallow original mono soundtracks are included here, a little muddled during louder passages but generally all right. No subtitle options are provided.
You were expecting a few audio commentaries from Darryl and Darryl? Nope, no extras.
Newhart's cozy laughs and fine ensemble acting made it one of the iconic '80s sitcoms - a formula perfected with the contents of this Third Season DVD collection. The Bob-Newhart-in-Vermont comedy settled into a nice groove with dry Newhart contrasting against a bunch of screwy New Englanders, plenty of which is on display in these 22 episodes. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.