"Newsradio" stands out, in my opinion, as one of the most underappreciated sitcoms of the 90's, and maybe ever. The series took a little while to get going, but once it did, the show's incredible ensemble, which featured a set of comedians with their own styles, really became remarkably funny. The series ran from 1995-1999, but suffered a loss with the tragic death of Phil Hartman.
The pilot episode has Dave coming to New York from Wisconsin to take over the position of news manager at WNYX. He faces some problems, though: billionaire owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root, in a classic performance as a boss who does whatever he wants because he has so much money he doesn't know what to do with it) has not told the staff that Dave is coming to work there as their boss. He also expects Dave to fire the man that he's going to be replacing.
The pilot episode of the series has a few laughs, but the show still seems to be finding its way in these early moments. The other issue with the early moments is how Dave quickly falls for Lisa (Maura Tierny), the woman who thought that she would be getting the news manager position. The early episodes use the romance between Dave and Lisa for a fair amount of humor, and not enough of it works. "Newsradio" started in 1995 as a mid-season replacement, with a total season of only 7 episodes. By the time the opening run had wrapped up, the series had begun to come together, with the cast getting into their roles and the writing getting sharper and funnier.
The second season had the sitcom running in high gear, and was able to come up with more to do for its cast, including slick news anchor Bill (Phil Hartman, displaying masterful comedic timing in one of his finest roles), secretary Beth (Vicki Lewis, who was apparently taken over at some point by Kathy Griffin), reporter Matthew (Andy Dick, actually funny), Bill's co-anchor, Katherine (Khandi Alexander) and electrician Joe ("Fear Factor"'s Joe Rogan).
This set, which includes both the short first season and regular second season, includes several highlights: "The Crisis", where the station tries to cover an accident in the subway system; "No, This is Not Based Entirely On Julie's Life", where Joe sets-up the station refrigerator to catch a food thief; "Goofy Ball", where Beth and Matthew are distracted by a new product Jimmy is testing; "Biography", where Bill tries to write his autobiography; "Xmas Story", where Bill finds himself stalked by a local santa and everyone except for Matthew gets a sports car for Christmas from Jimmy; "In Through the Out Door", where Dave gets public speaking lessons from Bill before he's to introdce him at a broadcaster's convention and "Presence", where Jimmy loses Bill in a poker game.
While I thought the show's first and second seasons started to get rolling as they went on, it's the third season where "Newsradio" makes the jump from wonderful to brilliant. Despite never gaining the ratings that it deserved, the show was somehow able to keep going under-the-radar for the few years it was on (probably one of the last shows to be able to do so - today it wouldn't get a chance), which appears to have resulted in more creative freedom than the average sitcom.
The biggest example of this would be the masterpiece "Space" episode, which starts off with an introduction from Phil Hartman wondering what the series would be like had the setting been space. The result is a sitcom classic, centered around repairman Joe (Joe Rogan) refusing to call in a specialist and trying to figure out how to fix the ship's core with his now-primitive tools. With a series of brilliant throwaway bits (the events of "Star Wars" are discussed in the day's news), this is one of a number of great episodes this season.
Another highlight is the season opener, "President", which has billionaire owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root, in a classic performance as a boss who does whatever he wants because he has so much money he doesn't know what to do with it) deciding that, seemingly for the hell of it, he'll ruin for president. He'll stop if the staff figures out any dark secrets of his. When one of them finally does, it's a moment handled so well - it's sad and yet the timing is so brilliant you can't help but laugh.
There's so many other great moments here, including: "Arcade", which has Dave hooked on an arcade game from his childhood brought in to make money in the breakroom; "Office Feud", where the staff is irritated by the noise made by a non-profit just moving in upstairs; "Our Fiftieth Episode", where Bill gets thrown into a mental hospital and Jon Lovitz guest stars; "Stocks", where Beth turns to Jimmy for investing advice; "Airport", where Bill and Dave get stuck in St. Louis while traveling; "Complaint Box", where Jimmy's new policy covering harassment backfires; "The Trainer", where Bill thinks he's been cheated by his new health club and "Movie Star", where James Caan visits.
"Newsradio"'s fourth season not only kept up the kind of comedic excellence seen in the third season, it actually managed to build upon it at times. As superb as the "Space" (same show situation, only set in space) episode was in the third season, the show tops that with "Sinking Ship", an episode that moves the "Newsradio" workplace to the Titanic.
Some of the best episodes of this season continue the show's streak of creating situations that are a bit off-beat, quite inspired and build off the well-defined characters superbly. The best example of this is "Balloon", where Dave uncovers the truth behind Jimmy's round-the-world balloon flight. The episode was another in a long line of episodes (Season 3's "President" being another good example) that had the writers getting huge laughs from Root's mogul character putting his money to hilarious and rather creative use.
There's certainly other highlights throughout the season as well, including: "Jumper" (Bill tries to make himself look like a hero by stopping a man - played by Jon Lovitz - from jumping off the ledge outside Dave's office), "Super Monkey Karate Death Car" (Jimmy's book starts to seem a little odd when it's translated from English to Japanese and back again), "Look Who's Talking" (Bill suddenly wants to adopt a child and Jimmy turns to Beth for help with a charity auction), "Chock" (Dave's old singing partners suddenly arrive looking to reunite their old acapella singing group 'Chock Full o' Notes'), "Security Door" (Dave tries to get the staff to properly use the new security door), "Pure Evil" (Dave attempts to get his old position back by unleashing a campaign of "pure evil" that includes allowing Bill to have fake presidential interviews), "Who's The Boss?" (With neither Dave or Lisa wanting to be director, they make Bill the boss, with unexpected results) and "Big Brother" (Matthew joins the "Big Brother" program and ends up becoming a "Little Brother" instead.)
Sadly, this was also the final season with Phil Hartman, who was tragically killed by his wife in 1998. This was also the final season for co-star Khandi Alexander, who left about midway through the season ("Catherine's Last Day"). Hartman was replaced briefly by Jon Lovitz for the show's fifth season, but the series was cancelled after that season ended.
The fifth season opens with "Bill Moves On", which is a very touching episode that takes place after the characters have returned from Bill's funeral. The episode is a terrific mix of emotional moments and bittersweet laughs, and the end is a quiet, simple and yet heartbreaking goodbye. The next episode, "Meet the Max Louis", finds the characters searching for a replacement for Bill and finding one in Max Louis (Jon Lovitz), one of Bill's old friends. Lovitz has funny moments throughout the season doing his classic Lovitz delivery, but he really never fits in with the cast.
The middle of the season is taken up with a 3-part episode involves the legendary hijacker DB Cooper, who turns out to be none other than Jimmy himself. While Jimmy James is off in jail, his evil replacement Johnny Johnson (Patrick Warburton, who would have worked better as than Lovitz with this cast), who has his sights set on Jimmy's empire and Lisa's heart. Warburton's character returns later in the season, looking quite different, in order to make a second attempt at Lisa. The character was amusing in the earlier 3-parter, but his return just doesn't work, as Tierny and Warburton just don't have any chemistry with one another, and the romantic plot between the two isn't believable in either the 3-parter or the later 2-parter.
Still, there are definitely some highlights throughout, such as "Freaky Friday" (Matthew doesn't think Jimmy does anything all day; when the two switch jobs for a day, Matthew accidentally loses all of Jimmy's billions); "Noise" (Joe builds a white noise machine to lower Dave's blood pressure); "Flowers for Matthew" (Joe's new "smart drink" appears to have a big effect on Matthew's IQ); "Boston" (Dave puts together a video for his old teacher's class) and "Spooky Rapping Crypt" (Jimmy and Beth battle over a profit-sharing plan).
VIDEO: "Newsradio" is presented by Sony Pictures Home Video in 1.33:1 full-frame. Sharpness and detail were above average throughout the episodes, with only slight occasional softness. Some minor shimmering and a few traces of pixelation are apparent briefly on a few occasions, but the picture is generally up to broadcast quality, if not slightly better at times. Colors remained bright and vivid, with nice saturation and no smearing.
SOUND: The stereo soundtrack was perfectly fine, with crisp dialogue.
EXTRAS: Season 1/2 - Commentaries are included on 20 of the 27 episodes from: Actor Dave Foley, actor Khandi Alexander, actor Andy Dick, actor Joe Rogan, actor Maura Tierny, producer/creator/writer Paul Simms, producer Josh Lieb, producer Joe Furey, former NBC head Warren Littlefield, producer Julie Bean, writer/producer Brad Issacs, actor Vicki Lewis, writer Lewis Morton, writer Brian Kelley and director Tom Cherones. All of the participants are broken into small groups of about four to comment on each of the 20 episodes. The commentaries have some dry spells, but they are mostly funny and insightful looks back at the making of the series.
The first disc also has a production featurette taken from footage during the time of production, filmographies and a 10-minute gag reel.
Season 3: Commentaries from the most of the main cast and crew are included on ten episodes in the set. As with the first set, the commentaries are a great deal of fun, as the cast members joke about behind-the-scenes stories and working on the episodes. Everyone shares favorite lines and moments, and has a great deal of fun looking back on the episodes after several years.
The season three gag reel is a great deal of fun and runs for several minutes. Additionally, we also get a series of featurettes: "Space: From Table Read to Film", "Filming Episode 323: Mistake", "A Visit to Andy's Trailer" and "Joe Furey's One Man Newsradio". All include optional commentary from the cast and crew. The two "making of" featurettes are great, as they provide a good look backstage - especially in the "Space" featurette, where we start off viewing moments from the table read with cast and crew.
Season 4: Commentaries from members of the main cast and crew are included on: "Jumper", "Planbee", "The Public Domain", "Super Monkey Karate Death Car", "Catherine Moves On", "Chock", "Who's the Boss? Pt 2", "Copy Machine" and "Sinking Ship" in the set. As with the first set, the commentaries are a great deal of fun, as the cast members joke about behind-the-scenes stories and working on the episodes. Everyone shares favorite lines and moments, and has a great deal of fun looking back on the episodes after several years. Additionally, one of the commentaries announces the email "email@example.com" as an address to send questions to that will potentially be answered on season 5. No idea of that email is working or official, but just passing the information along.
Also included are a gag reel for the season and the season 4 version of "One Man Newsradio", as well as previews for other titles from the studio.
Season 5: "The Lost Episode" one-man "Newsradio" short film starring writer/producer Joe Furey, a hilarious 22-minute gag reel. We also get commentaries for "Wedding", "Padded Suit", "New Hampshire", "Lucky Burger", "Flowers for Matthew", "Jail", "Spooky Rapping Crypt", "Stinkbutt" and "Towers" with creator/exec producer Paul Simms, actor Stephen Root, actor Andy Dick and various members of the writing staff and crew. As with the tracks on the prior sets, the commentaries are a great deal of fun, as the cast members joke about behind-the-scenes stories and working on the episodes. Everyone shares favorite lines and moments, and has a great deal of fun looking back on the episodes after several years.
Final Thoughts: While I can thankfully enjoy the episodes on DVD, I think one of the best compliments I can give to "Newsradio" is that I still miss it being on the air. The series was one of the best shows of the '90's and has only gotten better with age, thanks to an absolutely fantastic ensemble cast and marvelous writing (and as consistently terrific as the writing was, there were moments, such as the special episodes, that reached sheer brilliance.) While those who have the previous sets do not need to upgrade here, for those who don't have the prior season sets, this set offers the complete "Newsradio" series for a very reasonable (considering 5 seasons) $49.99. Highly recommended.