For the uninitiated, the series is set in Chicago, where psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart) lives with working wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette). Bob's is a universe populated by eccentrics: besides his oddball roster of patients - mild-mannered Mr. Peterson (John Fiedler), grandmotherly Mrs. Bakerman (Floria Friebus), petulant deadpan Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley), and combative, emotional Mr. Gianelli (Noam Pitlik) - Bob must also contend with self-absorbed ladies man Jerry (Peter Bonerz), a dentist that works down the hall; man-hungry secretary Carol (Marcia Wallace); and Bob and Emily's neighbor, affable but child-like airline pilot Howard (Bill Daily).
Like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show doesn't quite have the enduring following other '70s shows like M*A*S*H seem to enjoy - it's just an extremely well-written, funny show. Its very '70s fashions have dated a whole lot faster than M*A*S*H's timeless khaki wardrobe (check out Bob's plaid slacks and giant gold bracelet!), but at its best no sitcom was funnier.
In the tradition of The Jack Benny Show, much of the program's humor is derived from the star's reactions to the wild characters and situations swirling around him. Newhart's halting, stammering delivery and knack for hilarious understatement is a perfect contrast to Bob's needy, illogical, demanding, and petulant patients, who provide the show's writers with a steady source of prime material. As a stand-up comic and on his best-selling comedy albums, Newhart's telephone monologues became his signature, and in these second season shows at least, the writers look for any excuse to get Bob on the phone.
Highlights include "Last Show," where Bob's group therapy session is disastrously coaxed into recreating their sessions on a public television program; "Motel," in which Bob is subtly propositioned by a hooker at a hotel; "Mr. Emily Hartley," in which Bob is humiliated after learning that his I.Q. is substantially lower than his wife's; and "Blues for Mr. Borden," which features a great gag involving guest star Julius Harris. Most of the shows were written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Jerry Mayer, and Charlotte Brown. Guests this season include Michael Conrad, Mariette Hartley, Jeff Corey, Bill Quinn (Newhart's real-life father-in-law), Henry Corden, Katherine Helmond, John Randolph, Raul Julia, Sharon Gless, Henry Winkler, Ron Rifkin, and Teri Garr.
Video & Audio
The Bob Newhart Show is presented in its original full-frame format, but the image is disappointing. Though the shows are unedited and not time-compressed, they are frequently grainy and washed-out, with weak audio requiring higher-than-average amplification to be understood much of the time. It's not clear why these shows look as blah as they do (the Mary Tyler Moore shows look just fine), but they cry out for remastering. Episodes are spread across three double-sided discs, with four episodes per side. Menu screens, with caricatures of the cast, are notably ugly. An alternate Spanish audio track is available, along with Spanish and English subtitles.
Fans will enjoy the set's five audio commentary tracks, featuring Newhart and, at various times, co-creator David Davis, Marcia Wallace, and Jack Riley. These are both informative and funny in and of themselves, with a lot of background on the show (there were no extras on the Season 1 set), appreciation for the writers and cast members, and some fine humor from Newhart. A short and much less well-done documentary featuring Newhart and Davis covers much the same territory.
Those too young to remember The Bob Newhart Show when it was new would do well to catch a few episodes on DVD, and chances are you'll want to catch the entire run of this series, one of the best comedies of the 1970s.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.