Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bob Has a Button-Down Mind...

Would you believe that as I write this, the first season of The Bob Newhart Show is # 9 on Amazon's list of top-selling DVDs? Way to go, Bob.

The quality of the set isn't anything special. The prints in the DVD set of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked significantly better than I'd ever seen most of these episodes before; by contrast, the print quality of the Bob Newhart episodes vary heavily from episode to episode: some look very good, others not. It's all right, and the episodes are all uncut, but you're not likely to be blown away by it; it's a shame that better prints aren't available, because there are a few Bob Newhart episodes that still exist in first-class prints (the fourth-season episode "Death of a Fruit Man" was one of them, as I recall), and they give an idea of how good the show would look and sound with restored picture and sound. Oh, well.

The first season is a bit bland at times, I think -- it's very heavily dependent on the same kind of low-key, polite humor that characterized the first few seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show really hit its stride around the fourth season, when the creators, David Davis and Lorenzo Music, left the show and were replaced as showrunners by the young team of Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett: they started to go for less polite humor, wackier plots, more cartoonish characterization -- Howard Borden was somewhat normal in the first season; by the end of the series he was of sub-Homer-Simpson intelligence -- and a somewhat darker tone. (The above-mentioned "Death of a Fruit Man," where one of Bob's patients dies a bizarre death, is a funnier and darker examination of death and our reactions to it than Mary Tyler Moore's "Chuckles Bites the Dust.")

The darker humor came from Tarses, one of the most iconoclastic people ever to work in the TV writing business (Lynne Farr, one of the writers on Bob Newhart, recalls working with him here), but it also brought the show closer to Newhart's strengths, as a lot of his standup is pretty dark if you examine it closely: it's full of driving instructors who literally fear for their lives, miserable accountants who spent 50 years coming to work drunk, kiddie-show hosts who encourage kids to put sponsors on a blacklist... as Newhart himself has said, he tends to do routines where he plays people he doesn't like very much.

The weakest character on the show, I think, was Jerry, played by Peter Bonerz; in the original pilot (which was supposed to be included with this DVD set, but wasn't), he was a psychiatrist, and they made him a dentist in the series proper -- obviously inspired by that other sitcom Jerry, Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show -- but they never gave him much of a characterization, and his episodes are often the weakest. Peter Bonerz had an improv comedy background, but on Bob Newhart he didn't get all that much to do that was funny, and as the show went on he started to concentrate more on directing, as his character was de-emphasized in favor of Bob's patients. There's an article that discusses the show with Bonerz, though the article is more about the current state of the sitcom than it is about the show itself.

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