THERE’S A LOT of pure pleasure to be gleaned from NEWSRADIO (NBC, Sundays, 8:30-9 p.m.). This sitcom set at a New York City radio station has been around only since last March, but its fine cast has already jelled as an ensemble — in fact, right now, only The Simpsons can boast a better one.
The series features Dave Foley as Dave Nelson, the news director of all-news radio WNYX; Dave is the head of a workplace that functions like the type of surrogate family first exemplified by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Among NewsRadio’s dysfunctional brood is a pompous anchorman (Phil Hartman), a dignified anchorwoman (Khandi Alexander), a nervous Nellie of a reporter (Andy Dick), an intelligent, neurotic newswriter (Maura Tierney), a wacky yet prickly secretary (Vicki Lewis), the grim eccentric who owns the station (Stephen Root), and some technician guy who seems to be there just to remind us of Tony Danza (Joe Rogan).
One reason the NewsRadio cast so quickly established itself as a distinctively idiosyncratic crew is that three of its crucial members come from not-sedated-for-prime-time, kamikaze comedy troupes: Foley (a once-and-future Kid in the Hall), Dick (you may not remember The Ben Stiller Show from a few years back on Fox, but it won an Emmy, and Dick and Janeane Garofalo were both on it), and Hartman (Saturday Night Live, which since his departure has gone from kamikaze to merely suicidal). Each of these performers has been able to integrate his uniquely quirky style into the context of NewsRadio.
Foley’s character is the most interesting. His Dave Nelson is fresh from Wisconsin, and frequent jokes have been made about his bright-eyed, 12-year-old-boyish look. Any other fish-out-of-water show would have made Dave an instantly recognizable TV type: a lovable hick, or an amiable doofus. Instead, Dave is complicated. Yes, he’s enthusiastic and idealistic, but he’s no naif; he’s fully aware of how he’s perceived, and uses that knowledge to his advantage.
As a result, Dave is an uncommonly good manager who ends up running WNYX in a way that even his self-absorbed, bottom line-minded boss, Jimmy James (the frequently brilliant Root), appreciates. Dave is also appreciated by newswriter Lisa (Tierney), and it’s one of the smarter twists in NewsRadio that this couple’s romance isn’t presented as a furtive tryst — everyone in the office knows about it and has to deal with it, which adds layers of comic tension.
Among the key players, Hartman’s Bill McNeal and Dick’s Matthew have carried the most weight. Hartman’s interpretation of Bill’s vanity is subtle, from the buttoned-up, English-tweed cut of his clothes to the flashing, vapid grin that Bill thinks fools everyone into believing he’s sincere. If Hartman steals the show with leers and asides, Dick has handled some of the season’s best plots: Matthew gets a new desk, which makes everyone jealous; Matthew gets a promotion but doesn’t realize that it’s just a meaningless lateral move. The character is a compendium of insecurities. The way Bill, Matthew, and Jimmy (the deceptively complex boss) have been shaped by the writers and producers, it’s impossible to say which way they’ll go from one week to the next.
Which brings us to the final reason why NewsRadio is so good: creator/executive producer Paul Simms. Simms, a former writer for both The Larry Sanders Show and Late Night With David Letterman, is one of the few young satirists to have found an equally creative home in network prime time without compromising his sharp-edged attitude. This is a clear reason why prime time need not be a place for us to surrender our standards for both strong irony and strong belly laughs. NewsRadio: A