12. Changes: Season Five
The death of Phil Hartman was perhaps the most tragic and traumatic event any television series has had to deal with. The first episode of the fifth season, "Bill Moves On" [5-1] was a moving but, in keeping with NewsRadios style, relatively and gracefully unsentimental episode. Some may regard it as a hard episode to watch due to the intensity of the emotions associated with the Hartman tragedy, but artistically it is, along with Chaplins Modern Times and Lubitschs The Shop Around the Corner, the most moving piece of tragicomedy the cinema has ever seen.
The plot explains the death of Bill McNeal as being due to a heart attack, and the episode takes place immediately after the memorial service. We are given gags such as Matthew not believing that Bill is really dead, complaints about Daves prolonged and boring eulogy, and Bills posthumous in case of death letters to each of the staff (Catherine Duke makes a brief return as well). In interviews the cast admitted that the magnitude of the loss was felt most acutely when they were actually shooting the episode and during the letter-reading scene real tears were obviously being shed. In typical NewsRadio fashion, the scene was shot in a long mid-shot so that we never lose track of the dialog that is the primary part of the scene, and it allowed the actors to recover and deliver the next line without seeming to miss a beat. The comedy in this episode is wry but moving, heartfelt but never sentimental. From the tearful letter-reading scene we break out with the graceful turn of a fire and a marshmallow. Similarly, what other work of art would have the daring and proficiency to break out of deeply emotional moments with a drunk Lisa gag? "Bill Moves On" succeeds in making us cry and laugh at the same time without ever losing its balance.
The most amazing accomplishment of "Bill Moves On" was how the episode was such a complete but concise synopsis of everything Bill did and meant on the show. The style of the posthumous letters was very much as he would have written them, even to the inclusion of McNealisms like "Anywho." Moreover, the episode dealt with each characters relationships with Bill, both in the staffs reactions to his death and his letters to them, in ways that were wholly consistent with those relationships in the past. We are given Matthews continued worship of Bill and his supposed infallibility, Beths now-expressed fondness for his unique rudeness, Joes encounter with Bills sense of mischief, Jimmys peer-level camaraderie (he and Bill were the closest in age), Bills irrepressibly saucy obsession with what Lisa looks like naked, Bills fond remembrances of his one fling with Catherine, and the adversarial but friendly game he played with Dave. The perfection of this episode was that it managed to maintain all the definitions of character and relationships on which the show depended. Bill McNeal may not have been there in person, but he was certainly there in spirit.
"Bill Moves On" ends with each person taking home a memento to remember him by. These moments are filmed as a procession for they are private moments revelatory of each persons private devotion to the man. Beth takes his stapler, Joe takes his in/out tray, Matthew takes his coffee cup, Lisa takes his Rolodex, Dave takes his blotter, and Jimmy makes off with his desk. We are then left with the quiet grace of a darkened room an empty office a silent pause over an empty chair.
Despite the loss of one of the casts four pillars, the show pressed on for another season, but already depleted by the departure of Khandi Alexander, it never regained the balance it had before. The fifth season is unanimously regarded as by far the weakest, but it is a special type of relative weakness that needs special consideration. Part of this is perception. By the end of the fourth season the series was on such a roll in terms of timing and comedic efficiency that it looked unstoppable, and by comparison the forthcoming decline would appear especially precipitous.
Moreover, a close look at each episode of season five yields some interesting observations. Instead of being a poor season marked with only intermittent inspirations, season five actually possesses a large number of successful episodes and only intermittent duds. The relative weakness of season five does not lie in any simple technical flaw with the show (and some of the shows most developed and complete comedy came in season five) but with long term problems that created a constant imbalance that permeated everything on the show. Firstly, there was a subtly perceptible tone of tragedy that underlay everything in season five that was never present in the first four seasons. Previously, NewsRadio never had to resort to tragicomedy to be moving, but one could sense a certain tragicomedy to certain episodes, especially the finale, "New Hampshire" [5-22]. In addition, the pace of the comedy slowed down, sometimes even to the point of matching other network television comedies. Rarely, the timing was even a little bit off, something that had never happened before. The clearest example of this is "Ploy" [5-18], which, despite the occasional good moments that are inevitable in any NewsRadio episode, lacks the lustrous timing that we normally associate with the show.
The tragic tone and slower pace were in one way or another a result of the loss of Phil Hartman. One of the words critics frequently used to describe NewsRadios comedy was "sharp." Some compared its sharp comedy to that of The Bob Newhart Show. However, one thing that was noticeable about many of season fives episodes was that the comedic style had become a little bit softer. Phil Hartmans sympathetic malcontent and miscreant, Bill McNeal, allowed the show to constantly ride its acerbic edge without the comedy becoming too dry. This was the edge that was lost with the loss of Hartman.
However, even without one of the four pillars of its cast, artistically-speaking the show was surviving quite well (although not thriving as much as it had before). The shows ratings even improved in season five. The show would still have flown admirably on three engines if not for the additional insults to the artistic dynamic of the show. In essence, the most grievous problems in season five were self-inflicted wounds.
Firstly, a lot of screen time had to be given to Max Louis, and the anti-moral nature of his character and the slowness of his verbal comedy style introduced problems of both content and form. Secondly and more importantly, there was a distinct lack of sexual energy to much of the comedy, a serious flaw for a screwball comedy. The inventive gags were still there, but without the sexual energy the overall expressiveness of the mise en scène was gravely weakened. Ideas such as largely divorcing Dave and Lisa in separate story lines were outright mistakes (not only were Dave and Lisa not romantically involved throughout the entire season but there was no attempt to create any sexual tension between them). An attempt at a Max-Beth relationship did not even come close to providing enough sexual charge to power the shows screwball comedy.
The most grievous self-inflicted blunder of all occurred in "Wino" [5-16] and "Wedding" [5-17]. What happens in these episodes may sound like an acceptable plot device on paper, as I am sure it did to the writers, but it was actually a monumental artistic mistake. Not only did this remove all sexual tension between Lisa and the rest of the male staff, but four seasons of a morally expressive relationship between Dave and Lisa are not so quickly betrayed without paying a steep price. The show could survive the loss of one of its pillars (Bill) with some difficulty, but the nullification of the second pillar (Lisa) was artistically untenable. While the shows creative forces may have thought that the wedding was in keeping with the Lisa Miller character, and ostensibly it was, they failed to understand that it was almost toxic to all of that characters relationships. Some semblance of balance would not be restored until Lisa started playing with the other characters again in "Padded Suit" [5-19] (while Lisa tries to save everyones jobs we see a flicker of the Dave-Lisa relationship, and Lisa even beats up Matthew when he is wearing the padded suit), "Freaky Friday" [5-20] (Lisas "psyche" game with Max and being a co-conspirator with Beth) and "Retirement" [5-21] (Lisa tries desperately and futilely to dissuade Jimmy from retiring).
As mentioned previously, there were three cardinal relationships on the show: Dave-Lisa, Dave-Bill, and Dave-Jimmy. In season five, the loss of the Dave-Bill relationship was uncontrollable, but the removal of the Dave-Lisa relationship in essence left only the Dave-Jimmy relationship as Daves predominant means of artistic communication. In this respect, the Dave Nelson character suffered the most artistically in season five through a combination of tragic misfortune and iatrogenic misjudgment. On the other hand, the other characters increased their roles on the show. While Dave was dependent on the writers and directors for the signification of his relationships, Maura Tierneys powers of mise en scène allowed her to signify her own relationships as needed. Thus in season five we have even more of a sense of Lisa-Jimmy, Lisa-Matthew, Lisa-Joe and Lisa-Beth relationships than we ever had in the past. The remaining cast members also benefited from an increase in their roles. Jimmys and Matthews escapades took more prominent roles, and noticeably, we saw a lot of Joe-Beth scenes, which rarely happened in the past. There is no question that the dynamics of the show changed in season five, some for the better and some for the worse.
Rebalancing the cast proved to be an extremely difficult problem one that was never solved because what was needed was another pillar to replace Bill McNeal. It was just not that easy to find another great comedic actor who was capable of creating a morally powerful character the likes of a Lisa Miller, Dave Nelson, Jimmy James, or the late Bill McNeal. The moral expressiveness of NewsRadio really was the secret x-factor that made it such deeply satisfying art, and the loss of one of its four most morally expressive characters brought the show part of the way back down towards the level of other network comedies. Nevertheless, towards the end of season five, the show started to find a new balance. It was never possible for Max Louis to replace what Bill McNeal provided, but he started finding his own niche as a more Matthew-type character a verbal counterpart to Andy Dicks physical clown. (In "Padded Suit" Max and Matthew are even matched up as potential sparring partners under Joes tutelage.) In particular, there were two remarkable late season episodes, "Padded Suit" and "Retirement." By this time Maura Tierney had revealed herself to be such a supremely dominating actress that in these episodes she fulfilled the role of both Lisa and Dave (as set-up man). This freed up Dave Foley to extend himself and explore new areas of psychological comedy. A new rhythm was being established, but unfortunately NewsRadio would never be given an opportunity to develop this any further.
While season five was a relative failure, it was still mise en scène and not mere technique. A subtle distinction needs to be made here. I refer to these artistic choices of season five as "mistakes." But artistic mistakes come in at least two forms: (a) you make dishonest art (with manipulative forms); or (b) you make flawed but honest art because you honestly commit to the wrong things in your art. Type (b) is a far more forgivable mistake than (a). Mise en scène requires the unification of form and content; artistic dishonesty disassociates form from content, resulting in nothing more than technique. At the end, the creators of NewsRadio were still being artistically honest, even though they were making artistic commitments to the wrong things in their art, and there was still a profound significance to even their relative failures. This is something akin to watching a cinematic giant dying before our eyes. It may no longer have been quite as articulate or proficient as it had been in the past, but there was still no denying that what was dying was nothing less than a giant of cinematic art. Ultimately, how much we enjoy season five depends upon how much we can look through its flaws to the greatness underneath, for, even when marred, mise en scène of this magnitude is still far greater than anything else television has to offer.
In this regard, the shows final episode "New Hampshire" [5-22] represented the polar opposite of "Pilot" [1-1]. In "Pilot" we witnessed the birth of the WNYX office as we knew it, and the frenzied comedy established the shows relationships and dynamics as Dave came into contact with each staff member. In "New Hampshire" the frenzied comedy destroys everything before it as each staff member deserts Dave for some outrageous reason, and we witness the death of WNYX as we know it. The tracking shot of an empty WNYX office is a moment that reprises the tragic intensity of the dark and empty office in "Bill Moves On." Whether we like it or not, there is no denying the power of this moment. Even in its last breath, the show was capable of profound significance.