8. The Family that plays together stays together
Amongst narrative films, some films are plot-driven and some are character-driven. NewsRadio belongs in the latter group, but it separates itself from most other character-driven art in that it communicates not through the characters per se but through the relationships between the characters.
Jimmys role as the father figure in the WNYX hierarchy is clear, but the sense of family goes beyond that. As the usually callous Bill McNeal revealed in "Rat Funeral" [2-3], "You have to understand. Youve got a group of people here who work sixteen hours a day. Theyre far from their families. The women are childless, and the men are, to put it delicately, lonely." Consequently, the staff of WNYX treated each other like family, something that first became obvious in "Rat Funeral," where they mourn the passing of the office mascot (a rat). A casual viewer may see the staffs behavior towards each other as bitchy or mean, but their relationships are like siblings who fight but still love each other. In "Bitch Session" [2-12] Joe defends their antics thusly, "Look, so people fight all the time. It doesnt mean anything. One Christmas my brother hit me over the head with a frying pan to see if it changed shape the way they do in the cartoons. It doesnt mean he didnt love me."
These people owe more to each other than they do to anyone outside the office. In "Led Zeppelin II" [2-21] Jimmy thinks he has found the perfect wife-to-be (Ruth), until she discloses that she would prefer not spending so much time with the WNYX staff, saying, "You must admit it. Theyre an incredibly weird bunch." In the background, off-screen to the right, we hear the voices of the staff behaving weirdly. In that moment they are unified by Ruths rejection of them, and the moment bears a subtle poignancy due to our appreciation of and caring for the relationships between these characters. Jimmy does not hesitate. He dumps Ruth for his WNYX family.
Similarly, when the staff of WNYX succeeded, they succeeded as a family. Such was the case in "Award Show" [3-6], when the staff, who had previously never won anything, achieve a clean sweep at a broadcasting industry award show. The more you watch the show, the more you realize how strong are the ties that bind. There is a sense of unity to their endeavors that is more remarkable than first appears. On any other TV show an episode like "Daydream" [3-7] would be nothing more than a charmingly surreal episode. For NewsRadio, "Daydream" succeeds on a much deeper level as a collective expression of human desires through the strength of the moral relationships amongst the cast. In this episode, where malfunctioning air conditioning drives the staff into having vivid daydreams, each characters individual daydreams are reflective of their personality. But taken as a whole, there is something intoxicatingly haunting about the web of collective dreams and desires in this episode. The whole episode seems to thrive on the relationships already extent and weave them into something more the collective delirium seems to unify the characters even if their individual desires are disparate.
One of the shows inherent tensions came from Dave constantly and instinctively resisting being a part of the group. In "Rat Funeral" [2-3] he learns belatedly how alienated he has made himself. At the bar, Dave asks when was the last time they all got together after work, and Catherine answers that they do it all the time. Lisa adds they always invite him, and Dave reveals that his reason for declining is that after work he usually has "more work." Later, in "Negotiation" [2-8] when the staff agree to go out for drinks, Dave again declines in order to attend to work. In "French Diplomacy" [4-5], when Dave breaks up with Lisa over the excuse that their romance could impair job performance, Lisa delivers the following confused outburst, "You know what your problem is Dave. You are like one of those diseased fish at the pet store that has to be kept in its own little separate tank all by itself. The only problem is you're still with the other fish." Nevertheless, there is a strong element of truth to this tirade. Dave cares so much about work that it is limiting if not detrimental to the rest of his life, and his priorities in life allow him to sacrifice social responsibilities for work.
The fact that NewsRadio truly possessed an ensemble cast and thus a multitude of relationships allowed for some unusual or rare variations of these relationships. In "Rap" [3-12], one of the plot lines starts with Lisa being voted "Cutest Reporter in New York" by New York Magazine, an award she is embarrassed about. Beth objects to the award because, according to her, Lisa is "pretty" whereas "cute" should be reserved for those who are "pretty and short and/or hyperactive" like Beth. (For those who are interested, the other definitions are: "beautiful" = "pretty and tall"; "gorgeous" = "pretty with great hair"; "sexy" = "pretty and easy" (the term is used on Catherine for devastating comic effect); "striking" = "pretty with a big nose"; and "exotic" = "ugly.") Catherines objection is that every time she got a promotion people said behind her back that it was because of "these and those" (her figure), and if ever she deserved an award it was this one. This subplot is played out mostly by the three women of WNYX. There is even a scene where the three of them are sitting around the table sharing a snack in the break room.
In the end, the three of them do the photo shoot together, and during the shoot we are made aware of an unspoken, previously unexplored, camaraderie between the three women quite separate from that of the male staff. We see the photo shoot as a montage of photo stills, each one successfully crazier as the subjects become less inhibited. The poignancy of the moment is enhanced by a quietly driving soundtrack that reminds us of a ticking clock and makes us aware of the fragile mortality of the moment. In these brief moments we are privilege to something rare and precious (true female camaraderie) and at the same time sense its death. Early in the fourth season Khandi Alexander would leave the show and at the end of the fifth season the entire show would be no more.