It Was 30 Rock Meets WKRP in Cincinnati
The awkward charm of NBC's NewsRadio.
In the annals of critically adored TV comedies that never quite found the audience they deserved—an intergenerational club that includes Buffalo Bill, Sports Night, and Arrested Development—one of the most perplexing near misses was NewsRadio, a look inside a chaotic New York City radio station that ran on NBC from 1995 to 1999. It shared a network and (presumably) a young-ish, upwardly mobile demographic with hits such as Seinfeld, Friends, and Will & Grace. Yet NewsRadio, spottily promoted and endlessly shuffled around the schedule, struggled to gain a foothold in NBC's comedy lineup. Even the final tally of episodes—97, just three short of syndication's magic 100—pointed to a case of the shoulda-beens that the program couldn't shake.
With hindsight and a tour through the new box set NewsRadio: The Complete Series, the show comes into focus as a misunderstood amphibious creature of the airwaves. It was caught between the graying era of the classical, even stately, situation comedy (multicamera setup, live studio audience) and the later wave of faster-paced, more densely scripted shows (Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The Office) that placed the sitcom format inside quotation marks. A running gag on NewsRadio was that fresh-faced WNYX station manager (Dave Foley) looked like "a 14-year-old in a business suit"; NewsRadio, too, carried an air of benign inappropriateness, and that was part of its charm. It sometimes played as if a brave delegation of Tina Fey's writers had traveled back in time to join the staff of WKRP in Cincinnati.
Ostensibly, NewsRadio was a jigsaw of wacky-comedy archetypes. Dave Nelson (Foley, of the Canadian sketch troupe the Kids in the Hall) was the wide-eyed Midwesterner new to the city; as the almost-wholesome straight man, he evoked Bob Newhart with a side of Richie Cunningham. Dizzy redhead receptionist Beth (Vicki Lewis) was a compulsively sarcastic hybrid of Lucy Ricardo and Eve Arden. Earnest dimwit reporter Matthew Brock (Andy Dick, an alumnus of the short-lived Ben Stiller Show) was a little bit Gilligan. And anchor Bill McNeal (the unsurpassed Phil Hartman) was The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ted Baxter all the way: brashly incompetent, operatically pompous, missing a superego and slightly befuddled for the lack of it. (Bill's stentorian cluelessness reached an apex of sorts when he became a pitchman for Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor.)
Yet NewsRadio felt coolly detached from its stock setups, partly because of its revolving door of indie-comedy guest stars, including the pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart (as Matthew's unlikely twin brother) and Stiller cast members Janeane Garofalo (as Dave's unhinged ex-girlfriend), David Cross, and Bob Odenkirk (as members of Dave's college a cappella group, Chock Full o' Notes)—and Stiller himself, as a shark-eyed fitness-club manager who won't let Bill out of his membership contract.
More problematically, NewsRadio wouldn't, or couldn't, play ball with well-worn network standards. Creator Paul Simms was a veteran of the hyperdeadpan, NBC-bashing Late Night With David Letterman and the acrid satire The Larry Sanders Show; NewsRadio, too, had a mild allergy to TV clichés and a (mostly gentle) penchant for biting the hand that feeds. Instead of maintaining the will-they-or-won't-they sexual tension dragged out by every show from Cheers to The X-Files (and, later, The Office), Dave and Type A news producer Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney) sleep together in the second episode. When NBC pushed for Dave and Lisa to get married as a ratings booster, NewsRadio thumbed its nose with a story line in which Lisa resists pressure from station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root) to stage an on-air stunt wedding. Likewise, when NBC wanted to coordinate its programs around a "Four Weddings and a Funeral" theme, NewsRadio, assigned a "funeral" episode, answered the call with a show about the death of Mike the office rat.
That NewsRadio spent much of its life on the brink of cancellation added a stratum of 30 Rock-ish metanarrative to WNYX's travails with low ratings and lower budgets. (The season finales cheerfully portended death, disaster, extinction: The second season ended on a shot of a lit cigar carelessly dropped on a newspaper, while the finales of Seasons 3 and 4 were set in a doomed space station and on the Titanic, respectively.) As NewsRadio floundered in the ratings, it became weirder and more insular, which indicated not shark-jumping desperation but the giddy freedom of no expectations. In the episode "Daydream," wherein a heat wave sends staffers into various vivid stupors, Beth is beset by horror-film hallucinations of Matthew—fleeting vignettes that exploited Dick's insuperable creepiness long before he became a C-list tabloid curiosity. The main plot of "Movie Star" was boldly minimalist: Guest star James Caan, as himself, is mesmerized by Matthew's pure being.