Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Old Newhart

I've been watching reruns of Newhart on Antenna TV.  That's Newhart, a sitcom from the 1980s where he plays Dick, an innkeeper in Vermont, not to be confused with The Bob Newhart Show, a sitcom from the 1970s where he plays Bob, a psychologist in Chicago.  I like that earlier show, but think Newhart is better.

It's fascinating to watch it from the start, because very few shows have recognized their flaws and fixed them so well.  Take a look at the first season (like I just did).  It's shot on video.  Someone--creator Barry Kemp, developer Sheldon Bull (an acquaintance--I should ask him next time I see him) or Newhart himself--decided this didn't look good, and changed it to film.

But that's on the surface.  They made deeper changes that made the difference.  The show isn't bad at first, but it's sort of weak.  Bob is okay, but he doesn't have much to play off, which is his specialty.  Indeed, most of the supporting cast isn't especially funny.  Tom Poston as the inn's handyman is probably best, but the rest are pretty weak.

His wife, played by Mary Frann, never really got into a groove.  Admittedly, it's a thankless role, but perhaps someone else could have done better. Then there's Jennifer Holmes as the maid--she's actually wealthy and is slumming.  Perhaps this could work, but either the part or the actress or both just make her another straight, dull character.  Worst of all is Steven Kampmann as the owner of the café across from the inn. His quirk is he's a chronic liar. I think the hope was he'd be the breakout character, but the character is just annoying, not helped by Kampann's lackluster performance.

So what did the show do?  At the start of season two they replaced Jennifer Holmes with Julia Duffy, who plays another rich girl maid, except she's spoiled and has been cut off.  Duffy (who lost the role of Diane in Cheers to Shelley Long just before getting this part) is excellent, and was nominated for several Emmys in the role.

Also in season two they introduce Peter Scolari (fresh from Bosom Buddies with Tom Hanks).  Dick gets to host a local TV show--which adds a lot of new plots--and Scolari is his slick, fast-talking producer, a great foil to Newhart.  He also starts dating Julia Duffy's character.  He became a regular by season three, by which time Kampmann was off the show.

Then there are the townspeople, who get more eccentric as the show goes along.  There's Officer Shifflett, the too serious cop, Harley, the unemployed sadsack and town leaders Jim and Chester, who keep making odd demands of Dick.

Best of all by far are the actual breakout characters, Larry, his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl.  Introduced in season one, the audience loved them from the start.  You can plan all you want, but breakouts happen when they happen.  They play three brothers, though only Larry talks. (Though in a first season episode, the Darryls appear to talk to Dick over the phone.)  L, D and D are backwoodsmen whose ways are not like yours or mine.  To make them regulars, they took over the cafe when Kampmann left. Till the end, they added electricity to every scene they were in.

The show was actually a success from the start, but I'm glad the people behind it realized it needed improvement, or I wonder how long it would have been on the air.


Blogger New England Guy said...

Lots of favorites from that show. Dick asks the staff if they want him to bring them anything back for them from New York City. George asks for a hammer. Dick: "But you already have a hammer" George: "Not from New York City!"

4:09 AM, October 28, 2015  
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