By Rob Blackwelder
One of the most consistently sharp, cleverly written, perfectly cast and creatively focused sitcoms in TV history, "NewsRadio" featured an unbeatable ensemble that worked in any combination and a tangy wit that was never dulled by "very special" episodes or the conceit of social conscience. No wonder it struggled to find an audience during its five years on the air in the late 1990s -- NBC just didn't know what to do with it.
But the show finally gets its due in this simple (no fancy menus) but generous (20 commentary tracks!) DVD box set of seasons 1 and 2.
Set at a New York AM news station (where little actual broadcasting went on), the show always had a fresh bent, even for its more familiar plot lines, like the office romance between the ingenuous, small-town-transplant news director Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) and the brainy-cute city-gal star reporter Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney). Rivals for Dave's job, they bicker their way into bed in only the second episode (no foot-dragging "will they or won't they" contrivance on this half-hour comedy), then have to hide their relationship from the staff.
The screwball melody of "NewsRadio's" workplace discord has an updated 1930s-'40s flavor that keeps the laughs crisp, even after multiple viewings and even though some current-events gags (made necessary by the setting) do date the comedy here and there. And the entire cast of characters is well-developed, three-dimensional and in sync from the pilot on forward, with the actors playing off each other so perfectly it seems unfair to name any one or two of them as examples.
Getting roughly equal screen time to Foley ("The Kids In the Hall") and Tierney (now on "E.R."), are the late Phil Hartman, who plays the egocentric anchor with disturbingly odd childhood psychological baggage, and Andy Dick as Hartman's obsequious office-geek punching bag. Joe Rogan (now the host of "Fear Factor") plays a conspiracy-obsessed guy's-guy maintenance man. Vicki Lewis is a gum-popping, neurotic secretary with a quirky dress sense (a role soon emulated by Kathy Griffin on "Suddenly Susan"). Khandi Alexander is Hartman's sexy, snappy, no-nonsense co-anchor. Popping in several times an episode is the great Stephen Root, who feasts with absurdist delight on his role as the eccentric-billionaire station owner.
Because it has the familiar trappings of a traditional sitcom (three cameras, three-act structure, studio audience, laugh track), "NewsRadio's" unique brand of droll raillery may not pop off the screen the way an innovative show like "Scrubs" does today. But watch these 29 episodes (the abbreviated first season was only 7 shows), and you'll see that this show measures up to "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Frasier" as one of the great sitcoms of the '90s.
(For an amazingly in-depth -- if overly worshipful -- examination of the show, visit NewsRadio and the Comedic Art.)
For fans, the biggest delight of this three-disc set will come from the entertaining, revealing and even self-critical commentary tracks -- most with creator Paul Simms, a couple cast members (they're all on at least one or two), and a producer or writer. Each includes lots of fantastic background gossip (several episodes are based on true stories), hilarious memories and many juicy stories (find out why the entire cast and crew were banned from the Screen Actors' Guild awards!), and insights into Simms' determination to eschew cliché and saccharine. One episode's track even has former NBC president Warren Littlefield being grilled by Simms about why the show was neglected and frequently punted around the network's prime-time schedule.
OTHER NOTABLE BONUS MATERIAL
A sidesplitting 12-minute blooper reel and a featurette created from early interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
SOUND & PICTURE
Transferred straight from video, the image quality could be sharper on these shows, but that's a quibble on a box set with such juicy goodies.
1.33:1 ratio (16x9 enhanced)
DVD RATING: ***1/2
THE SHOWS: ****