It’s the second-hottest parlor game in Hollywood circles and almost as unpredictable as gauging the final theatrical tally for “Titanic”: What will NBC choose to fill the shoes of “Seinfeld” at 9 p.m. (“ ‘Seinfeld’ Splits,” Calendar, Jan. 28). A less urgent question, but with repercussions all its own: What should the network do with the 9:30 p.m. slot?
Let me propose the decent thing, the honorable thing, if not the most obvious thing: Move “NewsRadio,” once and for all, into the most coveted of prime-time hammocks.
You remember “NewsRadio,” the working-place sitcom set at fictitious WNYX, with the most accomplished station ensemble since Mary Richards turned out the lights at WJM 21 years ago. Whereas Mary, Lou, Ted, et al., could always be found on CBS Saturday nights, however, “NewsRadio” has taken numerous twists and turns on the TV dial in its four seasons, airing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at various times. As such, it’s been branded with the most scarlet of network labels: The Show That Has Never Quite Found Its Audience.
With NBC’s recent announcement that “NewsRadio” will move to 8 p.m. Wednesdays in March--not exactly a “Must-See” time slot--the worries begin anew.
Since its surprise renewal last spring, after creator Paul Simms savaged the NBC brass in Rolling Stone for their purported lack of commitment to his series, “NewsRadio” has hit its creative stride, with a continuing story arc that rivals “Seinfeld’s” breakthrough fourth season.
(Serendipitously enough, “NewsRadio’s” primary director, Tom Cherones, helmed most of the episodes for “Seinfeld’s” first five seasons.)
The result, I would argue, is the funniest show on the Peacock network.
Ever since an efficiency expert came in to shake up the station’s operations, things have been topsy-turvy at WNYX. Dave (Dave Foley, a Kids in the Hall comedy troupe alumnus and deadpan heir apparent to Jack Benny and Bob Newhart--albeit a cross-dressing, knife-throwing, a capella-singing heir) was demoted from station manager to news writer, while his ex-girlfriend, Lisa (Maura Tierney), assumed his mantle and his office (love the sorority photo that graces the wall behind her desk).
Station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root) has evolved from a wife-hunting multimillionaire flake to an unlikely voice of reason amid his unstable stable of workers, including secretary Beth (the underutilized Vicki Lewis) and handyman Joe (the underappreciated Joe Rogan).
Anchor Bill McNeil (Phil Hartman) is as unfailingly nasty as ever, even in a episode in which he sought to instantly adopt a baby; while accident-prone desk jockey Matthew (Andy Dick, who brings to mind another Andy--namely, Kaufman), fired by the efficiency expert for his ineptitude, goes so far as to pretend to be a waiter just to be near his beloved co-workers. Even sassy co-anchor Catherine (Khandi Alexander, who left the show in November) went out in hilarious fashion, with a “Rashomon"-style plot that included incoherent babble and coffeepot-breaking gremlins (in Matthew’s version).
There are many other worthy moments from seasons past, including Bill’s addiction to stale vending-machine sandwiches; Dave’s battle of wits with a video game from his past; and Matthew’s obsession with “Dilbert,” long after everyone else had gotten the joke. (“Dilbert” creator Scott Adams made a cameo in that very episode, while another telling guest shot late last season was made by Jerry Seinfeld, bestowing an almost Carson-like blessing on the show with his presence.)
Though “NewsRadio” has had its ups and downs in its current Tuesday-at-8:30 post after the incompatible “Mad About You,” a one-time Thursday airing in that same time slot Jan. 1 retained 100% of “Friends’ ” 18-to-49-year-old audience, the demographic that NBC craves so much. The same could not be said of such “Must-See” un-worthies as “The Single Guy” and “Union Square.”
When I was growing up in front of the television, I dreamed of being a network programmer--the next Fred Silverman or Brandon Tartikoff. So for what it’s worth, NBC, here’s my two cents regarding Thursday nights this fall: 8 p.m.: “Friends.” 8:30: “Veronica’s Closet.” 9: “Just Shoot Me.” 9:30: “NewsRadio.”
And by the way, I think “Titanic” is going to cruise past $1 billion.