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"NewsRadio:" One For The Road

There's a scene in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" -- the 1930s motion picture with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur and not the 1980s sitcom with Leonard Frey and a talking orangutan -- where our Jimmy appears to be on the ropes. Framed for a crime he didn't commit, on the verge of getting expelled from the Senate, Jimmy takes his chances on one last roll of the dice -- a last-ditch filibuster in the hopes that The People will hear his rousing defense and rally on his behalf. And even that play comes up bust-o, thanks to the cruel machinations of Edward Arnold and Claude Raines.

Truth be told, most of us would pack it in, right then and there. But not Jimbo -- in a voice hoarse from talking all day and all night, he vows to keep standing on the Senate floor until just one person believes he's innocent.

"The lost causes," Jimmy croaks, "are the ones worth fighting for."

It's easy to dismiss that sentiment as so much Capra-esque cornball. But when you think about it, that line rings true again and again. Anyone can back a sure thing. But to rally behind the longshot, the also-ran, the runt of the litter... there's something inherently noble about that. You're casting your lot with the underdog not because it's what other people are doing or because you're expecting a victory, moral or otherwise. You do it because deep within your bones you know it's the right thing to do. And nothing -- not widespread indifference or insurmountable obstacles or certain doom -- is going to convince you to feel any other way.

So it is with me and NewsRadio.

"Oh, wonderful," one or two of you might be groaning just about now. "TeeVee's writing about NewsRadio again. How new and original! Will you be telling us again how great the writing is and how top-notch the actors are and how we're all bunch of noodle-brained jackballs for not having the good sense to dial in the show by now?"

Pretty much. And you're perfectly free to surf on over to Salon about now, you know.

Perhaps you're one of the dozens of readers out there who have scanned with glazed eyes TeeVee's now voluminous testimonials on behalf of NewsRadio. Maybe you've even tuned in to the show, though judging by the ratings this season, you most likely haven't. Your loss. And if you've ever pissed and moaned about the dearth of watchable sitcoms after failing time and again to take a chance on NewsRadio, then, frankly, you've earned every hackneyed premise, every warmed-over joke, every last bit of sitcom slop that TV networks hurl at you each fall. You deserve no better.

Not that imploring you to watch NewsRadio would do much good at this point. All indications out of Burbank is that this season is the show's last. Between the end of February sweeps and last week, NewsRadio disappeared from NBC's schedule, replaced by repeats of Frasier or 3rd Rock on the Sun or some other tired Must-See offering. Short of getting a dead fish wrapped in newspaper delivered to your door, this is a pretty definite sign you don't figure in the network's long-term plans.

And that's ironic, given it's NBC we're talking about here. On a schedule strewn with the misbegotten progeny of the Bright-Kaufman-Crane troika and where one Suddenly Susan (just renewed through the year 2000!) morphs into the next Caroline in the City with frightening ease, NewsRadio may be the only Must See program in the bunch. The writers and producers have created an offbeat, quirky world populated with distinct, memorable characters. The ensemble cast feeds off each other -- there's really no weak link. And even if every episode doesn't soar, I'm guaranteed to laugh out loud at least twice each week.

Put simply, NewsRadio is a well-crafted show that delivers the goods on a continual basis. In a world dominated by swill, it's one of the few programs out there that makes me think I'm not wasting my time by turning on the TV with the expectation of being entertained.

NewsRadio's continued excellence is all the more impressive when you consider the nearly superhuman level of professionalism cast and crew had to muster just to put the show on the air this year. It takes a lot to carry on after the death of a key cast member. That Phil Hartman died in a singularly awful and incomprehensible way made the old bromide "The show must go on" ring particularly hollow.

It's been said here before, but it bears repeating -- Phil Hartman handled comedy the way Bobby Orr handled a hockey puck. Make the outstanding seem effortless. Don't believe me? Check out the NewsRadio episodes now in syndication and no doubt wedged between reruns of Barnaby Jones and Hanging With Mr. Cooper. Hartman wrings a laugh out of standing still.

You don't replace a guy like that. You don't recover from his loss, either. All you can do is keep putting out a show that reflects the high quality and effort he brought to the table. And more often than not this season, that's exactly what NewsRadio's done.

Take the first episode -- a tribute to Hartman. Often, these kinds of episodes are TV's equivalent of being roasted over hot coals. Loaded down with maudlin sentiment and contrived histrionics, sitcoms that go serious tend to sink like stones before the first commercial break.

Not NewsRadio. The Hartman episode was properly reverent, even touching, but not so caught up in the moment that it forgot why viewers tune into comedies in the first place: for a couple of grins. That particular NewsRadio installment walked a fine line between laughter and tears and served as a fitting tribute to a skilled comedian.

Then, there was the addition of Jon Lovitz. That he, like Hartman, was an alum of Saturday Night Live seemed to only invite unfavorable comparisons between the two. There was also the little problem of Lovitz's on-screen persona, that it often can be described by the name of one of his SNL characters: Annoying Man.

Well, surprise -- Lovitz has blended well with the rest of the cast. He and the writers have created a bizarre, troubled character that fits in perfectly with NewsRadio's oddball universe. Lovitz was thrust into an unenviable position, but he's been more than up to the call. For that, he deserves all the credit in the world.

There have been other nice touches as well: Patrick Warburton's recurring character of evil nemesis Johnny Johnson, the continually fine work turned in by Stephen Root and Dave Foley. In a season where nobody would have blamed NewsRadio for throwing up its arms and packing it in, the show still delivered.

Should my gut feeling turn out to be correct and this is the final year for NewsRadio, it'll be a shame. If this dead-on-arrival turkey of a TV season has proven one thing, it's that first-rate sitcoms have become rarer than a video on MTV. Good TV needs to be supported, not left to wither by a network too dense to notice quality or too obsessed with demographics to care.

Still, it's been a hell of a run. With little fanfare and less appreciation, NewsRadio has produced one quality episode after another for five years running. It took the staid concept of a workplace comedy and turned it into something unique and fresh. And it refused to ever dumb down its writing, asking viewers to either keep up with the jokes or flip over to The Nanny.

And these days, that kind of pursuit of excellence may be the best lost cause of them all.


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