Monday, December 19, 2005

Anatomy of a Re-Tool: Newhart

I was talking with someone about shows that get re-tooled -- the characters get new jobs, many supporting characters are replaced, and so on -- and how this almost always wrecks the show. But I can think of one show that was improved by re-tooling in mid-run, possibly the only successful show that actually got better when it was re-tooled: Bob Newhart's second show, "Newhart."

Most of you will remember the premise of "Newhart": Bob Newhart plays Dick Loudon, a writer of how-to books who moves to Vermont with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). They buy an inn, the Stratford, which appeals to them for its historical value (though it turns out that the reason George Washington slept there was that it used to be a brothel). The first season found them dealing with the funny people in Vermont, funny guests at the inn, and the rest of the regular supporting cast: Leslie (Jennifer Holmes), a rich girl gaining some practical experience by working as a maid at the inn while attending Dartmouth; George (Tom Poston) the handyman; and Kirk (Steven Kampmann), a pathological liar who owns the cafe next door.

The first season was actually quite successful in the ratings, and the show was picked up for another season. But the network, the creator (Barry Kemp, who had been one of the best writers for "Taxi"), and Newhart were collectively not satisfied with the show. So over the course of the second season, various changes were made.

First, with the start of the second season, the production format of the show changed from videotape to film. (Newhart preferred working on film, which allowed for a softer kind of comedy than the hard lighting of tape: tape, he says, is more appropriate for broad sketch comedy.) Also at the start of the second season, Leslie was gone; she was too all-around nice a character to be funny. She was replaced by Julia Duffy, who had appeared in one first-season episode as Leslie's bitchy sister Stephanie. Stephanie was forced to work at the inn because her parents had cut her off from having any money. Suddenly there was a whole new source of comedy on the show: Stephanie, the spoiled rich girl, trying (not very hard) to work as a maid and live in a rural setting.

Near the end of the second season, further changes were introduced. In mid-season, the show had an episode where Dick fills in at the host of a show on a local TV station, where the producer, Michael (Peter Scolari) is an obnoxious phony. Inspired by the episode and Scolari's performance, the producers wrote an episode where Dick gets his own talk show, "Vermont Today," on that local station, with Michael as his producer. In that episode or the episode after, they introduced the idea that Michael would be Stephanie's boyfriend. These are three moves that are usually jump-the-shark moments: giving the lead character a new job, introducing a new regular, and giving another regular a steady boyfriend. But all these moves worked by expanding what the show could do.

The big problem with the show in its first season, and part of the second, was that the inn setting was very limited: there weren't a lot of people around the inn that Newhart could react to. The problem was solved by creating the TV station as a permanent location, and shuttling back and forth between Dick's home and workplace a la The Dick Van Dyke Show: now Newhart could react to the crazy guests on his TV show and to Michael, the ultimate caricature of the '80s yuppie (and a not-so-subtle parody of wonder-boy network executives like Brandon Tartikoff).

Finally, at the beginning of the third season, Kirk was dropped. The writers had spent the second season trying to find something to do with the character, even giving him a wife (Rebecca York), but the character was hard to like: his main character trait, being a pathological liar, was almost too realistic to be funny. Also, the first season had mostly shown him as Leslie's unrequited lover, and after she left, he had very little to do. Kampmann was an exceptionally talented comic -- he'd done some great work with Toronto Second City, and he'd been a writer producer on "WKRP In Cincinnati." But it was probably the right decision for "Newhart" to drop him.

With Kirk gone, his cafe was purchased by three characters, a bizarre trio of backwoodsmen whose introduction you all remember: "Hi, I'm Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl." They'd appeared in the first season as guest characters in the second episode, and had made enough of an impression that they were brought back for one more episode in the first season, and then several episodes in the second season. The third season took the logical step by making them regulars and giving them a reason to be near the inn (they now owned the place next door) so they could always drop by and annoy Newhart, thus giving him more stuff to react to. The audience applause when the characters entered could be annoying -- they were like the Fonzie of "Newhart" -- but their addition as regulars made the show funnier and stronger, and gave a sort of "Green Acres" vibe to the show, with Newhart as the sane man facing off against the insane locals.

The upshot of this was that by the beginning of the third season, "Newhart" had a largely different cast, a different production style, and a different job for the lead character than it had had in the first season. And everything worked better than it had in the first season. (Indeed, I'd actually argue that "Newhart" holds up better now than the original "Bob Newhart Show.") There must be other shows that undertook this kind of re-tooling and improved, but I can't think of any for the moment.

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