The awkward charm of NBC's NewsRadio.

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Dec. 23 2008 6:56 AM

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.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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.

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.