Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 7, 2008)
Not too many actors can boast that they led two unique successful series, but Bob Newhart can. In the Seventies, he headed The Bob Newhart Show, and he returned in the Eighties with Newhart. Neither series connected to each other in any way other than their lead, so it’s not like Newhart spun off from its predecessor.
It’ll be up to personal taste to decide which series you prefer, but I think I like the Eighties show more. Or maybe I just think I enjoy it more. I’ve not seen it since it first aired, so I was curious to take a look at this Season One DVD. It includes all 22 episodes that aired during 1982-83. I’ll look at them in order. The plot synopses come straight from the DVD’s packaging.
In the Beginning: “Author Dick Loudon (Newhart) and his wife Joanna (Mary Frann) refurbish and operate the colonial-era Stratford Inn, where they meet an eclectic bunch of friends and neighbors.”
“Beginning” acts as a decent “origin episode” for Newhart, though some elements grate. In particular, the loud, over-emotive performances by all the actors not named Newhart or Poston tend to annoy. I hope the actors will modulate their performances as the series continues, though I seem to recall that Frann always maintained a very plastic air that creates an awkward contrast with Newhart’s naturalistic, stumbling manner. We’ll see.
I do like the twist the show takes when it looks at Dick’s speech to the Daughters of the War of Independence. This minor subplot looks like it’ll be of little consequence, but it goes down a clever and quirky path that amuses. I hope to see more strange and fun turns like that in the future.
Mrs. Newton’s Body Lies A’Mould’ring in the Grave: “The Loudons try to procure a proper burial site when they discover that a woman’s body is buried in the basement of the inn, only to find that the woman was tried and hung as a witch.”
One surprise came from this episode’s introduction of Larry, Darryl and Darryl. Yeah, it’s been 25 years since I would’ve seen this show, but I could’ve sworn that they were a later addition to the series; I didn’t think they’d have popped up in the second program. I can’t recall if Newhart ended up overusing the characters, but I can see why they were so popular, especially in the sanitized landscape of early Eighties sitcoms; they’re delightfully weird personalities, and somewhat perverse as well. I’ll be curious to see how quickly they return.
Even without them, “Body” becomes a pretty good show. It gets points for creative use of the word “ick”, and it presents a nice array of laughs. Frann even seems a little more restrained, though not by much. Hopefully that trend will consider and we’ll get more funny episodes like this.
Hail to the Councilman: “Dick is excited to run for a town council position but soon discovers that local politics aren’t quite what he expected.”
Unlike something such as Northern Exposure, Newhart didn’t poke too much fun at the vagaries of small town life. In “Hail”, we get a little of that, but the show keeps that side of things to a minimum and gets most of its laughs from Dick’s inflated sense of self-importance as he plots his political rise. The program excels when it digs into that side of things, especially as Dick becomes drunk with the power to which he aspires.
Shall We Gather At the River?: “It’s time for the annual River Party, but Dick is on thin ice with Joanna in spite of his best intentions.”
While we’re still early in the series, it’s nice to get an episode that doesn’t focus on Dick as the main element. Joanna gets more to do than just support her husband in this one, and that expansion helps make “River” something a little different. Throw in the description of Vermont residents as “sadistic syrup-slurping stump jumpers” and this one’s a winner.
This Probably Is Condemned: “When the Minuteman Café is shut down, the gang pitches in to help a neighbor. The problem is, that neighbor is Kirk (Steven Kampmann).”
I thought that Kirk was replaced after Season One, but a look online shows that he lasted longer than that. However, he’d eventually get the boot, and that departure won’t come a minute too soon. We’re only five episodes into the series and I’m already really sick of his shtick. As played by Kampmann, Kirk is annoyingly smarmy; he’s like a very irritating Bill Murray sort without the humor and charm.
Since “Condemned” puts Kirk at the center of the story, it automatically loses some points. Kirk is tough to take in small doses, so he’s even more unpleasant to watch when he goes to center stage. That’s too bad, as “Condemned” otherwise seems pretty good. At least Newhart gets to act as the viewer’s proxy; Dick appears to loathe Kirk as much as we do, so his attempts to get at his neighbor satisfy.
No Tigers At the Circus: “Depression sets in when Dick’s bid to have the Stratford declared a historical landmark is denied.”
After all that Kirk, it’s nice to get a program with a firm emphasis on Dick. Newhart makes the most of it, as the show’s ups and downs allow him to play many different – and very amusing – moods. Snippy, petulant Dick becomes particularly hilarious, and Newhart turns this into a very good episode.
The Perfect Match: “Leslie’s (Jennifer Holmes) dashing high school sweetheart arrives at the inn with hopes of winning her back, much to Kirk’s dismay.”
Like Kirk, Leslie wouldn’t last a very long time as part of Newhart. Actually, she got the boot earlier, as she was gone by the start of Season Two. I can’t say I’ll miss her, though I find her to be significantly less problematic than Kirk. While he actively annoys me, Leslie just seems dull. Holmes displays little personality as an actress, so I look forward to her sayonara from the series.
Until then, we’re stuck with her, and her dullness means that episodes with her at the center will falter – especially since the irritating Kirk plays a pretty large role as well. Man, Season Two can’t come soon enough! He may still be on the series, but at least half of the Terrible Twosome will be gone.
Leslie’s old boyfriend Blake proves rather annoying as well, so it becomes awfully tough to enjoy “Match”. The episode itself has potential, and even the worst Newhart boasts some good laughs, but the presence of so many unenjoyable characters undermines the program.
Some Are Born Writers, Others Have Writers Thrust Upon Them: “At Joanna’s urging, Dick agrees to help a struggling writer but his well-meaning words of encouragement are taken a bit too far.”
After so much Kirk and Leslie, I thought “Writers” would be a winner just because it concentrated on Dick. However, the episode ends up as a bit lackluster. Sure, it has its moments – many of which come from an amusingly enthusiastic turn by Earl Boen as the aspiring writer’s husband – but too much of it falls a bit flat. This isn’t a bad program, but it doesn’t excel.
No Room At the Inn: “It’s a snowed-in Christmas Eve, and with no vacancies available, Dick tries to accommodate a young man named Joseph and his very pregnant wife.”
Christmas episodes present a dicey proposition, as they tend toward the sentimental side of the street. “Inn” throws out some minor laughs at times but usually seems a bit goopy and bland. From the annoying skiing guests to too much Kirk, this is a decidedly forgettable program.
The Senator’s Wife Was Indiscreet: “Dick and Joanna are caught in the middle when a friend of Leslie’s arrives at the inn and announces that she’s divorcing her husband, a prominent US senator.”
Looks like Newhart is stuck in mid-season doldrums, as “Wife” provides the third straight lackluster show. Actually, “Writers” is looking good by comparison after “Inn” and “Wife”. This program just has too many soap opera elements in the way it depicts Mrs. Dannan’s plight. I found an occasional chuckle here but not much to sustain a full program.
Sprained Dreams: “Dick’s first ski trip ends disastrously when he accidentally falls on Leslie, injuring her knee and jeopardizing her Olympic dreams.”
When Newhart works best, it embraces an almost Seinfeld level of cynicism and deflated sentimentality. That’s how Season One started out, but as it’s progressed, the shows have become gooier and sappier. That notion negatively affects “Dreams”. It plays Dick’s guilt for a few laughs, but it’s too sentimental for my liking. It doesn’t help that we’re supposed to care about Leslie’s plight since her well being means nothing to us.
The Way We Thought We Were: “After a 30-year absence, George (Tom Poston) is reunited with an old flame, but the couple soon discovers that memories can be deceiving.”
It sure took the series a long time to develop an episode focused on its most interesting current supporting character, George. Actually, the character himself isn’t that special, but Poston is a radically more likable and engaging actor than Kampmann or Holmes, so a George-based show automatically has more going for it than those that focus on Kirk or Leslie. His good-natured, dim-witted charm carries “Were” pretty well despite some of the sappiness that’s marred recent episodes.
The Visitors: “The Loudons are disappointed when their fun-loving friends arrive for a stay and treat their gracious hosts more like innkeepers than friends.”
“Visitors” avoids much of the sentimentality of the last few shows and goes for a broader emphasis on comedy. That makes it funnier than the recent programs, though I must admit the premise pushed the boundaries of believability: would a low-key couple like Dick and Joanna be so fond of such a loud, crass, obnoxious pair? I find that tough to swallow. If I can get past that, the program throws out a lot of laughs, though it maintains a strange seriousness at times that doesn’t fit the subject matter.
What Is This Thing Called Lust?: “Kirk finds himself the object of wanton desire when Leslie’s pretty – and engaged – cousin comes to Vermont for some pre-wedding relaxation.”
Wow – Season One’s still going but Leslie’s replacement is already on deck! Actually, I’d guess that they didn’t intend to use Stephanie (Julia Duffy) as Leslie’s sub when this episode aired, but that’s what eventually would happen. And for good reason, as even in this one appearance, one senses much more personality from Duffy. She’d actually be more entertaining when she went for a cartoonier vibe in later seasons; that’s unusual, since most series work worse when they go for a broader vibe, but Newhart was funnier when less realistic. Anyway, this one benefits from the introduction of Stephanie and gives us one of the best episodes in a while.
Breakfast Theater: “Dick tries to repay an old debt to a washed-up comedian, but Joanna’s not laughing.”
Like many episodes in S1, “Theater” contains the root of a great show but doesn’t quite fulfill its potential. As with the Stephanie program, I think this one would work better when done in a broader manner. Nonetheless, “Theater” boasts more than a handful of funny bits, especially with the contrast between the obnoxious Manny and his deadpan assistant Corinne. The usual maudlin tendency mars things at times, but there’s still a lot to like here.
Ricky Nelson, Up Your Nose: “The Loudons’ plans to visit New York City are thwarted when Kirk checks into the hospital, leaving Larry (William Sanderson), Darryl (John Voldstad) and Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) in charge of the café.”
Earlier I speculated how long it’d take Newhart to make LD&D regular characters. I don’t know the answer yet, but “Nose” makes a move in that direction as they come back for the first time since the series’ second episode. And the make a successful return in this generally solid show.
“Generally solid” due to the too significant presence of Kirk. Why does a broad character like Kirk flop while even goofier personalities like LD&D succeed? Because Kampmann flails wildly for laughs while the trio play things straight. They enliven this episode, especially in the way they fluster Dick, and make this one of the season’s better shows.
A View from the Bench: “Left in charge of the inn, Joanna and Leslie prepare for a special guest while Dick, Kirk and George head to Boston for a Celtics game.”
I like “View”, but I gotta say that it features the least convincing basketball court set ever seen. It couldn’t possibly be more obvious that they’re in a small spot with about 20 people there. The extras who play Celtics don’t help matters, as they prove relentlessly unconvincing as basketball players.
Even with those flaws, “View” entertains. Dick’s travails in Boston amuse, and the secondary plot about the “special guest” allows Frann to offer more comedy than usual. Heck, even Holmes is less drab than usual. All these factors conspire to create a solid episode.
The Boy Who Cried Goat: “The café is robbed, and Kirk’s dishonest past comes back to haunt him as he learns the hard way about telling the truth.”
Earlier in this review, I opined that Kampmann plays Kirk like a two-cent Bill Murray impersonator. However, I’ve now realized I was wrong. Instead, I see Kampmann as a two-bit rip-off of Sylvester the Cat. His loud, forceful line readings, his wild facial gestures… it’s all straight out of Looney Tunes!
Any show with Kirk as a focal point automatically drops a tier in my opinion, and “Goat” can’t quite overcome the annoyances he presents. Kampmann may well be the worst comic actor I’ve ever seen – how did he get the part? At least it gets in a few funny moments, such as when Dick finds himself on a polygraph machine. Too much Kirk is a nearly fatal flaw, unfortunately.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Utley: “Although he’s somewhat skeptical, Dick comes to George’s defense when an out-of-this-world experience makes George the town laughingstock.”
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for George to become a laughingstock; he’s such a dopey guy that I’d think he’d already be viewed that way. Granted, with Larry, Darryl and Darryl, it also is tough to believe that he’d be viewed as the town’s biggest loon. Anyway, the show develops a number of good comedic trends and turns into a pretty amusing episode.
Your Homebody ‘Til Somebody Loves You: “When Dick refers to her as a ‘homebody’, Joanna takes some serious umbrage and applies foe a job at a local travel agency.”
Although “Homebody” works pretty well, I think it’d have been better if it actually showed Joanna on her new job. Jerry Van Dyke contributes a fun guest turn as her new boss, so I’d have liked more of him and her work challenges. Still, it’s a good episode.
Grandma, What a Big Mouth You Have: “Kirk’s grandmother arrives for a surprise visit just in time to accompany him on his long-awaited dream date with Leslie.”
Ugh – another episode that focuses on the series’ worst characters! Even worse, the irritating Ruth Gordon guests as Kirk’s grandmother. That’s a recipe for disaster that turns “Mouth” into a consistently weak and sappy episode.
I Enjoy Being a Guy: “Dick hits the links with the guys only to discover that golf and gambling don’t mix.”
Season One ends with a fine show. It takes some unexpected paths as it puts Dick in a variety of sticky situations. “Guy” explores these to good comic potential and finishes the year on a positive note.