Sunday, March 29, 2009

The "Other" WKRP in Cincinnati

I've done so many posts about WKRP but I've never highlighted and clips from "The New WKRP in Cincinnati," the 1991 syndicated revival that I wrote about several years ago. One thing that post didn't mention about "The New WKRP" was that it did get a bit better in its second season, at least in terms of casting. The weak cast members were all fired and they started almost from scratch; the only cast members who made it into the second season, apart from the three stragglers from the original cast, were Mykelti Williamson as the program director, Tawny Kitaen as the late-night DJ, and semi-regular John Chappell as the lazy station engineer. The show still had a basically weak cast (Williamson, a good actor, was not a good sitcom straight man, and Herb and Les weren't very good characters without the original cast around them), but while it still was pretty sad compared with the original, it was at least not embarrassing. The new regulars were:

- Marla Rubinoff as a ditzy blonde who appeared in one first-season episode as a woman with an unrequited crush on Herb; the audience liked her, so she was written into the show as WKRP's new receptionist. (Thereby creating the new twist on the original: the receptionist was constantly after Herb, but he didn't want her.)

- French Stewart as "Razor D," the new morning man and a former monk. (Really, that was his backstory. A monk.) He was an obvious knockoff of the Johnny Fever character, so much so that they even did an episode where Johnny "passes the torch" to the younger DJ, as if trying to convince the audience to love the new guy the way we loved Johnny. But we didn't. Stewart was all right, but the problem with the character was that the late Bill Dial, who developed and ran "The New WKRP," tried to convince us that this character was cool because he did wacky things on the air and shocked the conservative audience. Not only did this seem dated for 1991, but it was part of the general problem the writing had: most of the episodes and the new characters were centered around the idea that this was a wacky radio station where strange things happened, whereas the original burned through most of its radio-centred plots pretty early and proceeded to concentrate on building up the character interactions. On this show, as on most mediocre sitcoms, no character seemed to have a funny relationship to any other character.

This episode, from the second season, makes a better case for the show than most episodes. (A more typical second-season episode was the one where the entire cast pretends to be an evangelical choir group and spends the last five minutes singing "Saved!" in one of the stupidest musical numbers I've ever seen on television.) Written by Dial, it has a decent idea: Moss Steiger, the never-seen late night man, dies in a Chuckles the Clown-ish accident. Johnny took over Moss's graveyard shift with this episode so that Howard Hesseman could do a few more episodes after this, though he was never a regular on this show.

It's not terrible, it just feels recycled out of other, better sitcoms of the past (like the original and Mary Tyler Moore), and gives the impression that the writers didn't really understand what made the show work.


Geoff said...

Well, it was a funny gag at the end. And it was nice that they remembered Moss.

I don't suppose Sam Anderson ever appeared as Rex Erhardt, did he?

Yowp said...

The motto of this series should have been "As God is my witness, this turkey didn't fly." With viewers, that is.