Thursday, November 24, 2005

Still Not On DVD, Sorry

Thanksgiving (the American version, I mean) is never complete without the "Turkeys Away" episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati." But due to music rights issues, that show will probably never be on DVD -- as I've lamented many times before -- and it isn't in syndication anywhere as far as I know, so if you want to see that episode, you're kind of out of luck.

"Turkeys Away" was only the seventh episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati," and while it's the most famous episode of that show, it's not necessarily one of the very best. Hugh Wilson (the creator of the show) had the idea for the turkey drop from the beginning. The story of a radio station that dropped turkeys out of a helicopter was a radio-industry urban legend; it's likely that it never actually happened, but instead was a composite of a number of disastrous promotional stunts at various U.S. stations. Wilson presumably assigned the writer of the episode, Bill Dial, the task of writing up an episode based on this idea.

Because main idea of the episode doesn't kick in until the last three or four minutes, the episode consists almost entirely of buildup to that big scene, and for that reason it can feel a little slow in spots, especially if you know what's coming and are waiting for them to get on with it. So it's not one of my upper-echelon WKRP episodes, but that's only because when the show was at its very best -- in episodes like "God Talks to Johnny," "Real Families," "Frog Story" and "Changes," to name only a few -- it was as good as any situation comedy ever made, a rich mixture of smart stories, perfectly in-character lines that never sounded like jokes, and great characters who interacted beautifully and really grew and developed.

The characters were in their TV infancy in "Turkeys Away," so when you watch the episode you can get a sense of where they started as opposed to what they finally became. The premise of "WKRP" as Wilson pitched it to the network was "The suits vs. the dungarees" (he actually incorporated the line into an episode). The fault lines at the station would be between the older employees left over from WKRP's first incarnation as an easy-listening station (Mr. Carlson, Herb Tarlek and Les Nessman) and the hipper employees who turn the station into a rock station (Andy, Venus, Dr. Johnny Fever). The central relationship on the show was supposed to be between the head of the Suits, Mr. Carlson, and the head of the Dungarees, tight-pants-wearing Andy; they would learn how to bridge the generation gap.

"Turkeys Away" is one of the few episodes of the show that actually used this formula: Mr. Carlson is feeling left out at the station, so he decides to take charge, and with Herb and Les (who also feel left out because they have had less power at the station since Andy showed up), undertakes a disastrous promotion without consulting anybody who could warn him what a disaster it will be. The generation-gap stuff doesn't really work, especially since Andy never was able to establish himself as the central character of the show (his role would soon be very effectively switched from the hero to the once-normal guy being driven slowly insane by his employees). But the episode is very effective at establishing Carlson as something other than a fuddy-duddy buffoon, which he might have been on any other show: he is a nice guy who wants to run a successful station and give the staff the freedom they need to make the new format work, but feels genuinely hurt at the fact that no one seems to think he's useful. That's why the episode isn't just a crazy farce.

Several characters, at this point in the series, had really not come into being at all except in name. That's especially the case with Venus (Tim Reid), who essentially had no character for most of the first season. As Reid said, "my character would come in, flash his clothes, and leave." It wasn't until the last produced episode of the first season, "Who is Gordon Sims?" (in which Venus turns out to be a fugitive who, strangely, deserted from the army after coming back from combat in Vietnam) that Wilson and co. hit on the idea of making Venus a serious-minded guy who is the exact opposite of the "hip" wardrobe he adopts as a gimmick. By that time, all the characters had been pretty much fleshed out, so that by the end of the second season, Jennifer (Loni Anderson) could concisely sum up each member of the workplace "family":

There's Mr Carlson, the occasionally confused but always concerned father; Andy, the success-oriented, competent, tight-panted son; Les, the consistently strange bookish brother; Herb, the semi-loveable troublemaker and general jackass; Johnny, the weather-beaten uncle who always wanted to be a sailor - no, that's not right, I never could nail you down... Venus, the spiritual, loving brother; and Bailey, the beautiful shy sister with the brains.

Also by that time, "WKRP" had established its greatest strength, which is that as a true ensemble show, all the characters could interact with each other in different ways. The producers of "NewsRadio" have pointed out that "every character had different chemistry with every other character," and that's true of "WKRP" too: you could put any two characters together in a scene and they'd be funny together in a unique way, because not only were the characters well-defined, but their relationships were well-defined too. (So you not only know that Andy is annoyed by Les, Herb, Mr. Carlson, Johnny: you also know that each one annoys him for a different reason, and those reasons play out in any scene between them.) Instead of a show about a down-the-middle split between two groups of characters, it became a show about the diverse and funny interactions between individual characters.

Some quotes from the Thanksgiving episode, to bring this back on topic (mostly taken from the WKRP Quotes Page:

Mr. Carlson: Young lady, I've done thousands of promotions in my time. Now tell me, what's the problem?
Bailey: We don't know whether to give away Boston T-shirts or Foreigner T-shirts.
Mr. Carlson: Boston. Foreign stuff shrinks.

Johnny: Look, man, I took this job because I thought Carlson was like me. A guy who doesn't quite know what's going on around him, and he likes it that way.

Herb: Andy, I've got to complain to you about Mr. Carlson.
Andy: Well, get in line.
Herb: Okay.
(Herb gets in line behind Johnny and Venus)
Andy: Herb, I was kidding.
Herb: I knew that.

Herb: When that farmer asked me what I wanted with twenty live turkeys, I had to do some pretty fast talking, let me tell you.
Les: What did you tell him?
Herb: I told him it was a secret.
Andy: That's pretty fast, Herb.

Venus: Les! Are you okay?
Les: I don't know. A man and his two children tried to kill me. After the turkeys hit the pavement, the crowd kind of scattered, but some of them tried to attack me! I had to jam myself into a phone booth! Then Mr Carlson had the helicopter land in the middle of the parking lot. I guess he thought he could save the day by turning the rest of the turkeys loose. It gets pretty strange after that.
Andy: Les, c'mon now, tell us the rest.
Les: I really don't know how to describe it. It was like the turkeys mounted a counterattack! It was almost as if they were ... organized!!

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