Friday, March 03, 2006

Stephen Root is God

Another thing that comes back to me when watching the third season of "Newsradio" is that Jimmy James, as played by Stephen Root, is on my list of the top ten TV performances of all time. As creator Paul Simms originally conceived him, the character of Jimmy wasn't much -- a tough-but-fair, always-busy businessman whose eccentricities may be real or just a way of testing his young station manager, Dave. But Root, who didn't want to do a traditional sitcom boss (Lou Grant, say), took it in a quirkier direction, with weird line readings and unexpected inflections, and brilliant timing. (Root has the gift of knowing when not to pause after a joke: he'll often deliver a punchline and then start the next line without a break, and the lack of a pause actually makes the punchline funnier.) The writers soon followed suit, so by the second there was no longer any doubt of whether Jimmy was truly eccentric: he was a lovable nut, a benevolent tyrant who, in Root's own words on one of the DVD commentaries, kept his employees "as pets."

Some of Root's best performances in season 3 include:

- The season opener, "President," where Jimmy runs for President but hints that he has a strange secret motive for doing so: the climactic press conference, where Jimmy happily confesses to all his past indiscretions ("I was Deep Throat") and finally admits the real reason he's running for President (he just wants to meet women) is a tour de force for Root, with a great moment where he turns the whole press conference into an infomercial to get dates, and his mood suddenly changes from mock-remorse to happy hucksterism.

- The opening scene of "Rose Bowl": Jimmy unveils a bunch of movie memorabilia he bought, all of which turns out to be not only fake, but unconnected to the movies they're supposedly from. Classic moment: "The sword from The Sound of Music." Upon being told that there was no sword in The Sound of Music, Jimmy acts out what he thinks is a scene from the movie, swinging the sword and singing "Sound of Music" to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, and hearing Root singing in a gravelly, excited voice is absolutely hilarious. (Root is a master at funny-bad singing; the funniest scene ever on "King of the Hill" is in an episode where Root's character, Bill, sings along to "Takin' Care of Business.")

- A scene in the episode "Rap" where Jimmy, a businessman to the core, is offended to hear Lisa say that advertising is "inherently deceptive." Jimmy goes off on a long, long rant about the glories of advertising, getting more and more emotional until he's almost crying at Lisa's failure to grasp that greed is good. The speech , drawing heavily on "Sesame Street" characters, is funny, but Root's over-the-top emotionalism in the service of the subject makes it still funnier.

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