7. Morally expressive art
NewsRadio thrives on being morally expressive. However, moral expressiveness is a very difficult concept to grasp. The only film critics and theorists who have ever understood it have been some of the great Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the 1950s (mainly Rivette, Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, and Doniol-Valcroze) and a select few people who were influenced by them and actually understood what they were writing about. The very definition of morally expressive art is Howard Hawks, and to truly understand the art of Hawks is to truly understand moral expressiveness. Even today, Jacques Rivettes proclamation that "[Hawks] is the only American director who knows how to draw a moral" ("Génie de Howard Hawks," Cahiers du Cinéma 23, May 1953) is ignored for its apparent obtuseness.
Briefly, moral expressiveness is one of the three forms of expressiveness by which film art can be moving: emotional, psychological and moral expressiveness. Each of these moves us by communicating with different parts of our psyche. Freudian terms are actually most descriptive here, and emotional, psychological and moral expressiveness communicate with the id, ego and superego respectively. Most of us understand what emotional expressiveness is, and some of us understand what psychological expressiveness is (a Hitchcock film for example). However, our reactions to Hawks films are less obviously explained: we enjoy them immensely, we find them strangely satisfying in a way emotionally and psychologically expressive films are not, and when they are great we are profoundly affected by them (in other words, moved). What is difficult to understand but is really going on is that Hawks communicates with the superego that provides order and structure to our psychic universe. Cinema being an art of desires, morally expressive art expresses mans desires to order the universe in a way that concurs with his psyche.
Most critics have commented on the inherent professionalism of Hawksian characters. The Hawksian hero is skillful at what he does, for the cinematic universe is ordered to express inner desires in terms of outer behaviors and relationships. Anti-moral characters betray this order of professionalism and skill; when they are successful in their professional endeavors in spite of their incompetence they become destructively anti-moral characters they are anathema to the order of the moral universe. To oversimplify the point: the more heroic the character, the more proficient he is at what he does.
In similar fashion, NewsRadio was quintessentially morally expressive art. All of the characters were morally expressive, because their skill and proficiency was an expression of the superegos of these characters. Some may be tempted to make too much of the fact that Joe was supposed to be an electrician who cannot "rig" things properly. What they would overlook is that what we really saw on the screen was a character who had the proficiencies, intelligence and self-assurance to at least attempt any electrical fix-it he wanted, and he actually often succeeded. The man who built a stun gun out of a garage door opener and a battery as well as a compact megaphone in "Goofy Ball" [2-1] was not an incompetent. Nor was he incompetent when he devised elaborate electronic surveillance and booby traps to find out who was stealing his gelato in "No, This is Not Based Entirely on Julies Life" [2-1]. Who else could devise the spy cam in the Boba Fett doll in "Presence" [2-19]? The examples go on and on.
What applied to Joe applies to virtually the entire cast. Dave was a great boss, and for all the aggravation he was the only one who could even begin to control Bill. (There is a great scene in "Whos the Boss (Part 1)" [4-12] where a frustrated Lisa, as boss, talks with Dave about how she did not realize the job would be so "Bill-intensive," "Bill-centric," "Bill-alicious," "Bill-lesque," or "Bill-bastic.") Lisa herself was a very intelligent and talented reporter who would also make a good boss (and actually does in season four). Lisa could also do complex mathematical problems instantaneously in her head, a morally expressive skill if ever there was one. Jimmy James may have said things that were illogical or bizarre, but he was very good at what he did: he was a great and caring owner, he was remarkably self-assured, he was a businessman and deal-maker extraordinaire, and he could flat out make money. Bill McNeal may have been childishly egocentric, but he was a man of commanding stature due to his authoritative articulateness. Moreover, with his radio voice he was simply a great newsreader. Catherine Duke exuded sassy style and let no man take advantage of her. She had the power to put any misbehaving male in his place. Beths character was purposely impoverished: she earned next to nothing and ate snacks from the break room because she could not afford lunch, but she was also not at all hard working and so short of professional skills that she could not really type. Beths position lower down the moral order was used to great effect in broadening the expression of human conditions in the WYNX office. Matthew was the most professionally impoverished character of all. He was totally useless (his work skills did not go much beyond playing computer solitaire), and he was essentially a character designed for comic relief a clumsy office weirdo, or as Bill liked to call him, a Spaz. The fact that he earned a lot more than Beth made him a slightly anti-moral character, but other than this, his position at the bottom of the NewsRadio moral order was well defined.
The only character who was out of place was Jon Lovitzs Max Louis. His was a very anti-moral character, a person who got by quite well in life by being a pathetic and whining loser. While he himself could be funny at times, his presence fractured and disrupted the dynamics of the morally expressive relationships that had been established between the other characters. Until they found a way to use him more like Matthew (for example, "Padded Suit" [5-19], where he and Matthew try to improve upon their ridiculously girlish fighting styles by studying the martial arts with Master Joe) his presence was much more bane than boon.
The shows best example of an appropriately anti-moral character was season fours Andrea the efficiency expert (wonderfully played by Lauren Graham). Andrea was given complete power to fire whomever she chose despite the fact that she was portrayed as a rather clueless bimbo. Her presence sent the moral order of the whole office into disarray and was especially disturbing to Dave because he was the one who worked the hardest to maintain the status quo. Appropriately, Andrea was the one who subverted the moral order by eventually elevating Lisa to the job of News Director at Daves expense (Dave would be reinstated later on in the season).
The NewsRadio cast actually provided a complex breadth of morally expressive characters in different positions in the moral order. It was this complex morally expressive structure that would provide the means by which NewsRadio made its most moving statements about life, living, desires and the human condition. Exactly what those profundities were and how NewsRadio expressed them will be revealed in the following chapters.
One other aspect of the shows morally expressive art deserves mention, and this is what I call the moral turn. A moral turn occurs when a morally powerful character is put in a situation of (moral) compromise. The joke is at their expense, and the absurdity of the moment is the source of the comedy. The main proponent of this was Tierneys Lisa Miller, Tierney being the most morally expressive of all modern actors. Classic examples are all the drunk Lisa gags from season five, Lisa getting fired from Lucky Burger in "Lucky Burger" [5-3], her negative rapport with children in "Look Whos Talking" [4-10], the revelation about her criminal past in "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" [4-4], her various escapades in "Pure Evil" [4-6], the staff making fun of her Boston accent in "Boston" [5-9], Matthews tormenting of her in "Spooky Rapping Crypt" [5-10], Matthew wearing the same outfit as her in "Stinkbutt" [5-11], and finally, every single sexual innuendo at her expense. This is the secret of most of Lisas comedic moments. That scene where Beth laughs at Lisa and says, "Oh my god! Fired from Lucky Burger. How humiliating!" while Lisa can only give a non-plussed look is, to use a McNealism, simply delicious. There is a scene in "French Diplomacy" [4-5] that subtly points out the difference between the comedic styles of Maura Tierney and Dave Foley, who uses psychologically expressive comedy. Andrea the efficiency expert is upset about finding out that Dave and Lisa have been hiding their affair from her. Lisa, trying to assuage her concerns, claims "We werent trying to exclude you from anything. Nobody knows about me and Dave." Just as she says this, Bill bursts into the break room and, on seeing Dave and Lisa, says, "Oh good, you two are dressed." The shot is essentially a two-shot of Dave and Lisa with Bill in the background, and both Tierney and Foley provide their own reaction shots with their facial expressions. But our eyes gravitate towards Tierneys face. This is a moral turn, and it is a consummate moment for Tierneys comedic style.
The only other character who frequently had moral turns, albeit more sporadically, was Joe Garelli. This usually occurred when his masculinity was questioned, such as when he is mistaken for Beths "homosexual bachelor-friend" in "Look Whos Talking" [4-10] or when he loses an ultimate fighting match to Matthew in "4:20" [4-20].