It Was 30 Rock Meets WKRP in Cincinnati
The awkward charm of NBC's NewsRadio.
The hazy dorm-room aura of pop-culture referencing (Beth was named for the Kiss song, Jimmy James for the Beastie Boys song, and a string of episodes for various Led Zeppelin albums) also intensified over time. NewsRadio casually assumed its audience's working knowledge of, say, Howard Stern, Parliament Funkadelic, Patton, and the '70s kids' show Zoom. Many sitcoms get around to doing a Rashomon episode, but only NewsRadio's featured a pivotal cameo by the Hamburglar. When Jimmy James stripped the station bare—right down to the pane glass in Dave's office window—to accommodate Bill's budget-busting raise, it occasioned a sublime little gift for fans of the Looney Tunes short "A Sheep in the Deep."
NewsRadio's increasingly surreal overtones also extended to its grasp of the paranoia and petty grievances that flourish in the workplace hothouse. A particular strength was its meticulous attentions to ongoing staff concerns about the quality, availability, and distribution of office snacks. In "Massage Chair," Bill attempts to whip his colleagues into a frenzy about budget cuts that abolish free snacks for the break room. In "Presence," Bill bemoans the indignity of "going without snacks like a wild animal in a police state." Bill spends much of "Arcade" rescuing packaged sandwiches from a retired vending machine—musty madeleines that unlock a chapter of his Gothic, loveless childhood.
Bill McNeal was one of television's all-time great lovable blowhards, and Hartman's murder in 1998 was a tragedy that NewsRadio could never recover from; the fifth and final season, in which Jon Lovitz replaced his friend and former Saturday Night Live cast mate, is best ignored. The exception is the lovely season premiere, "Bill Moves On," in which the WNYX staff tries to regroup after Bill suffers a fatal heart attack.
Creating a memorial service out of a sitcom episode, and vice versa, is a strange and potentially saccharine brew, but this one succeeds because the WNYXers remember Bill with a wry candor that real-world mourners rarely allow themselves. Written by Simms, "Bill Moves On" was a cathartic tonic of mixed emotions: an imaginary memorial service with real tears, a dirge with punch lines. In its exquisitely bittersweet way, it made an apt valedictory for a show that always thrived—creatively, at least—on being an awkward fit.