That Championship Season — WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One

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In the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) arrives for his first day of work as program director for a Midwestern AM radio station with a poster tube in hand. The station plays musty, middle of the road music recorded decades earlier, but that’s about to change. As he’s setting up his office, Andy unfurls a big glossy picture of the band Kiss, in full, resplendent makeup, tacking it up in his otherwise staid workplace. With a simple visual gag, the animating premise of the sitcom is solidly established. Like a lot of the comedy of the nineteen-seventies (WKRP in Cincinnati premiered in CBS in the fall of 1978) and -eighties, this show was going to be about a culture clash between the culturally stagnant ruling class and the brash, youthful upstarts, rattling windows and sensibilities with music that’s just so darn loud.

WKRP in Cincinnati is the quintessential example of a workplace sitcom, developing its stories entirely from the interpersonal entanglements and quirky skirmishes between people who punch in at the same place every day. Unlike many of the examples of the form, where the work being done in largely incidental, WKRP in Cincinnati had an uncommon devotion to mining stories from the travails that naturally came with operating a scrappy broadcast outlet in a modestly sized media market. Within the first few episodes, the series built episodes around a punk band showing up for an in-studio interview, a live promotional remote gone awry, and the launch of a public affairs show that turns disastrous when the guest proves to be unhinged (he’s a child psychologist who maintains that children are, judged by adult standards, all clinically insane). While certain element and side stories were familiar, these largely weren’t plots that could be repurposed for other shows. A radio transmitter was required, even as an unseen prop.

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Created by Hugh Wilson, the series displayed a clear devotion on the creative end with getting the details right. (Well, except for the persistent absence of headphones while character were on the air, but some concessions to the preferred visuals for television are forgivable.) That dedication manifested in showing — and exploiting — the broad range of professions contained within a radio station, from DJs to news readers, sales people to general office personnel. Wilson could rely on almost stereotypical archetypes to develop an easy versatility in the array of characters: burned out DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), smooth-talking overnight jock Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), unctuous, loudly dressed salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), nerdy, intense newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), and eager, sincere new hire Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), largely charged with handling station paperwork, but aspiring to put her journalism degree to use. The divergent personalities made complete sense given the positional roles the filled in the station, allowing suitable dramatic clashes without straining contrivances.

The strength of the ensemble was so formidable that when Wilson actively tried to write a bad episode, it boomeranged on him, becoming one of the funniest half-hours the show delivered. The network, perpetually underwhelmed with the simple verisimilitude Wilson preferred in constructing the show, badgered the producer to come up with wackier high jinks and insert more physical comedy in the show. Late in the first season, Wilson resentfully relented, writing a deliberately frantic episode he detested (and opting for a pseudonym in the credits to further signal to executives his disgruntlement over the whole affair). Entitled “Fish Story,” the episode includes characters deliberately acting in opposition to their usual personalities (in context to dupe a newspaper reporter, but partially for Wilson to mock network notes), a feud between foolishly costumed station mascots, and Johnny and Venus having very different reactions to an on-air demonstration of diminished capabilities when consuming alcohol. Wilson’s attempt to mock cheap sitcom conventions instead escalates to wondrous farce, mostly because the preceding twenty episodes had established such a firm foundation that spinning wildly away from the series norm held a giddy fun. The yo-yo’s plummet is satisfying because of the assurance that it will snap back to its proper place.

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The episode most emblematic of the program’s strengths — and, by conventional wisdom, that all by itself designates the first season of WKRP as its strongest — hinges on a publicity stunt. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the station’s general manager, Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), decides he will take the lead on a promotional event meant to giveaway free turkeys to the citizens of Cincinnati. The gruesome turn of events that follows, all off-camera and reported with breathless horror by on-the-scene reporter Nessman (in a truly magnificent comic performance by Sanders), is truly inspired comedy, further underlined by the lovely understatement of Mr. Carlson’s shell-shocked confession “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

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On a more personal level, WKRP in Cincinnati taught this impressionable kid that a radio station was a cool place to hang out, full of infinite possibilities and people who were devilishly delightful to spend time around. I’m grateful that, many years later, I was able to prove that theory true (as long as the station sat on the noncommercial end of the dial, in my experience). WKRP in Cincinnati can’t be held wholly responsible for all the time I’ve spent in broadcast studios over the years, nor are its hands completely clean. And any time I and my shifting band of cohorts scrambled to solve a problem created by an on-air slip-up, I thought of Johnny, Venus, and Bailey editing together a set of cruelly brief music snippets in the episode “The Contest Nobody Could Win.” Through all my ins and outs in radio, WKRP in Cincinnati was always a touchstone.

The original entry for WKRP in Cincinnati in the fall preview issue of TV Guide listed off the characters and added “all of whom are on the flip side.” As any music fan knows, sometimes the flip side is where the real treasure lies.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica Jones, Season One

The Art of the Sell — Hulk Sells Honeycomb

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Sometimes I’m prepared to expound at length about the nuances and intricacies I think I spy in an ad campaign. Sometimes I’m just amused that, incredibly, the Hulk was employed to see Honeycomb cereal in the nineteen-seventies, and I want to share it.

Laughing Matters — Documentary Now!, “Cocaine Tonight”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I am a latecomer to Documentary Now!, and for that I feel shame. Well, that might be too strong. I do admit it sheepishly, though. The co-creation of a cluster of Saturday Night Live pals, the series spoofs classic nonfiction films with an astounding level of specificity. And that precision leads to individual episodes simultaneously standing as expert comic explications of individual documentaries and the broader styles they represent. The series is unabashedly esoteric, funny enough without a working knowledge of the contextual references, I suppose, but also clearly comfortable with leaving huge portions of its potential audience blinking in uncomprehending silence.

The promised episode that caused me to break the seal on Documentary Now was “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a loving tweak of a similarly titled 1970 D. A. Pennebaker documentary about the in-studio efforts to capture the Stephen Sondheim songs featured in the Broadway production Company. I will admit to only the barest knowledge of Sondheim’s work, but even I recognized the absolute brilliance in rendering his hyperverbal approach to lyrics as a racing admission of ingesting a heavy duty stimulant. “Cocaine Tonight,” written by Eli Bolin, John Mulaney, and Seth Meyers is a wonderful piece of apery, reasserting what’s deeply special about a work of art by embracing it with cheerful, brattish exaggeration.

And Alex Brightman and Renée Elise Goldsberry deserve some sort of gleaming award for their performances on the song. It’s one thing to write a song like this, it’s a whole other dizzying pirouette to sing it.

 

Top Ten Television, 2018-2019 season

As per tradition in this humble digital outpost, the day before the annual announcement of the Emmy nominations brings one of my compulsive attempts to condense my time wallowing in pop culture into a ranked list. And so I present my thoughts on the finest achievements in the exceedingly broad range of distribution methods that get corralled together and referred to, somewhat quaintly, as “television.”

Also following established patterns, I must note that there exists an insurmountable mountain of programs that remain outside my personal viewing experiences. I can’t claim my television consumption is comprehensive, but I’ve done my level best to make a respectable list. And there are just enough excellent shows missing the cut (if I could carve off the portion of Better Call Saul focused on Jimmy, Kim, and the characters in their direct orbit, the series might be in the upper half of this list) that I feel satisfied that the batch I’ve settled on are worth celebrating, even if some eventual catch-up viewing may leave me regretting an omission or two.

I’ve adhered to the calendar of Emmy eligibility. For ongoing series, the relevant season is noted for clarity.

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#1 — Fleabag, season 2 (Amazon). Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creation glows with genius in its second season, lit up by the emotional exactitude of the writing and the delightfully playful deconstruction of the breaking-the-fourth-wall conceit employed regularly by the lead character. Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, and Andrew Scott give sharp supporting performances (and Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw are grand in quick, pointed guest star turns), but it’s Waller-Bridge who carries the whole show, making miracles with the fiendishly tricky lead role she’s written for herself. The second season of Fleabag is a wondrous achievement.

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#2 — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix). In basic presentation, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is a simple stand-up act, but her edgy exploitation of the conventions of the form to deliver emotional haymakers and scathing, little-spoken truths of societal malfeasance puts her in the company of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and very few others. With expert craft and devastating vulnerability, she upends her own comedic mastery.

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#3 — Russian Doll, season 1 (Netflix). A delirious puzzle, a caustic comedy, and an existential treatise all at once, the co-creation of Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler dealt surprises freely from the bottom of the deck. Stylish in look and wry in outlook, Russian Doll was another instance of a television series drawing boundaries mostly for the joy that comes in excitedly smearing them away.

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#4 — Sharp Objects (HBO). This miniseries (and let’s hope lessons have been learned and there’s no attempt to wrench a needless continuation out of it) is an ideal realization of Gillian Flynn‘s novel: heavy with portent, swirling with anguished confusion, and often bleakly funny. Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, and newcomer Eliza Scanlen are all downright heroic in their bruised and bruising portrayals.

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#5 — Better Things, season 3 (FX). Better Things is all Pamela Adlon’s now, and it is the better for it. Slump shouldered and dogged in its pinpoint precise storytelling — about Hollywood, about motherhood, about existing as a woman in middle age — the series finds unexpected complexity everywhere it looks. Adlon directed every episode, and her endlessly inventive visual sense has becomes the show’s most formidable attribute.

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#6 — Glow, season 2 (Netflix). The second season of Glow wisely compensated for the diminished novelty is building drama out the nineteen-eighties upstart entertainment of all-women professional wrestling by deepening the characters and the relationships. Alison Brie continues to shine as Ruth Wilder (and maybe even more as Zoya the Destroya), but it was the potent acting of Betty Gilpin that gave the season its heft.

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#7 — Broad City, season 5 (Comedy Central). Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson brought Broad City to a close with enviable timing, whether prefaced by the term comic or narrative. Their namesake characters fitfully begin to grow up and move on just as the shenanigans of youth are wearing thin. Jacobson was especially strong in a season that found Abbi belatedly developing a stronger sense of self.

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#8 — Barry, season 2 (HBO). The co-creation of Bill Hader and Alec Berg grew darker and more experimental in its sophomore season. The animating gimmick of the overarching plot started to feel — intentionally, I believe — like a joke turned grim, the high concept drifting lower and lower as the vessel took on more bloodshed.

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#9 — Homecoming, season 1 (Amazon). Based on a podcast, Homecoming has a slender premise and few real surprises in its plot. It is, however, awash in visual creativity, thanks to the restless, relentless showmanship of director Sam Esmail. Sterling performances by Julia Roberts, Stephan James, and Shea Whigham add substance to the style.

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#10 — The Little Drummer Girl (AMC). Immediately earning a place among the best John le Carré adaptations, The Little Drummer Girl features acting by Florence Pugh, in the lead role, that is honed to the sharpness of a brand new diamond needle. That would be enough, but her accomplishment is surrounded by exemplary work by every last collaborator, especially director Park Chan-wook.

Previously…

2017-2018 season
— 2016-2017 season
— 2015-2016 season
— 2014-2015 season
— 2013-2014 season
— 2012-2013 season
— 2011-2012 season

Outside Reading — The Right Thing edition

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(Image via The New York Times)

Megan Rapinoe Cannot Make This Any Clearer by Barry Petchesky

This piece was written and published before Megan Rapinoe scored two goals to lift the U.S. women’s national team past their French rivals in the World Cup quarterfinals, cementing her status as a hero of her sport. With a blessed directness common at Deadspin, Barry Petchesky gets into the mini-feud between the skilled forward representing the nation admirably on the biggest sports stage of the moment and the petulant slug who smugly signs off on policies that diminish protections for her and those she cares for then brutishly demands fealty anyway. Unlike other stories on the same topic, Petchesky goes past the personality clash to examine — citing Rapinoe’s clear understanding of this situation — why the second-place-finisher occupying the White House is so fixated on athletes.

 

The Enduring Urgency of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” at Thirty by Richard Brody

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The more prolific and esoteric of the two film critics toiling under the New Yorker banner, Richard Brody is usually relegated to capsule reviews in print, proving to be a highly adept communicator in the form. (Whenever I write a movie preview for Tone Madison, it’s Brody’s bar I’m leaping to clear.) Online, he can stretch out a little more, and the thirtieth anniversary of Do the Right Thing, accompanied by a revival house booking in New York City, provides the perfect prompt. Brody offers a fresh assessment of the movie that still stands as Spike Lee’s finest, efficiently touching on all the components that ensure its cinematic legacy, regardless of the swirling social context around it, then and now. But then, the social context is important, too. Three decades later, the film’s depiction of the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers has, alarmingly, become even more pertinent. That’s part of Brody’s article. I’ve taken my own cracks at writing about Do the Right Thing over the years. I wish I’d done it as well as this.

 

The Meaning Changed, But DiGiorno’s Slogan Stays the Same by Jaya Saxena

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This essay, published at Eater, is absolutely inspired. Beginning from the oddity that the DiGiorno frozen pizza brand has clung to the same slogan for an unusually long time, Jaya Saxena traces the way the message of that registered phrase has completely transformed over time. With inventiveness and insight, Saxena then illustrates how that transformation reflects a broader shift in the cultural relationship with delivered meals. Saxena wrote the following on Twitter: “A lot of people have already had to sit through my rant about how weird it is that DiGiorno’s slogan is the same but means something totally different than it did in the 90s, but now I work at a food website so you ALL have to sit through it.” And, my sweet Rowdy Roddy, isn’t that what topically hyper-focused news and opinion websites are for? Make no mistake, these are the days of miracle and wonder, and the marketplace of ideas is bustling like never before.

 

Golden Words — The Office, “Gay Witch Hunt”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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Despite its current elevated status in the annals of television comedy, The Office was neither a rating juggernaut nor an awards magnet for much of its run. In the full-season Nielsen ratings series rankings, The Office never cracked the the Top 50. It claimed the Emmy for outstanding comedy series in its second season, but none of its performers ever won an acting trophy. Across nine seasons, The Office won only four other competitive Emmys: two for editing, one for directing, and one for writing.

The writing Emmy was awarded to Greg Daniels, who took the BBC version of The Office, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and developed it for U.S. television. The episode that won was “Gay Witch Hunt,” the third season premiere. In addition to placing a trophy in the hand of the person who was arguably most responsible for the overarching creative decisions that shaped this workplace comedy into a surprisingly enduring product, “Gay Witch Hunt” is a suitable choice as a singular representation of the series. The episode has all of the touchstones of the program’s most successful stretch. It even includes a “That’s what she said.”

The script by Daniels begins with a classic blunder by Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the regional manager for the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Michael used the word “faggy” when referring to Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez). The normal problem with that offensive language in compounded by Oscar’s identity as a gay male, a detail previously unknown to Michael or anyone else in the workplace. With characteristic hustle-bustle, the office goes through a rolling meltdown. Multiple characters chime in with their idiosyncratic views, and Michael keeps pushing to rectify the situation, even as he struggles to push past his own clumsy ignorance to find the language to express conciliatory acceptance of Oscar.

Several characters get strong, funny lines, but, as with all the best episodes of The Office, the core of the comedy is Michael’s struggle against himself. What set The Office apart from its British predecessor — and what famously took Daniels and his cohorts a few episodes to figure out — is the manager’s fundamental morality. In the original, Ricky Gervais’s David Brent is a narcissist and a dolt. Michael Scott carries mild versions of those qualities, but mostly he genuinely wants to do well in his position. It’s not malice that trips him up, but his own ineptitude. That he lacks the skills of introspection to help him identify the self-sabotage is the foundational ingredient of the long narrative’s comedic success.

I noted the episode included all of the flashing lights cast by The Office disco ball, and that of course includes the lovelorn saga of Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). As the season premiere, “Gay Witch Hunt” had some heavy lifting to do. The finale of the previous season ended with Jim and Pam tilting the will-they-or-won’t-they question by kissing in the office, but the Moonlighting Dictum insists that it can’t be that easy. Pam, still engaged to another man at the time of the kiss, insisted she couldn’t pursue anything with Jim, leading Jim to transfer to a different branch, where, as it turns out, his usual prank shenanigans and mugging-to-the-camera aren’t appreciated. Except for the subversive mockery of the Jim Halpert tropes that were already becoming a little tiresome, the thread isn’t that interesting (and it includes the introduction of Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms, which stands as the first droplets against the windowpane that signal the thunderstorm of ill-conceived creative decisions on the horizon for the office). But the soap opera needed to be served, and so there it was.

There’s one more reason “Gay Witch Hunt” is an exemplary selection for the sole instance of The Office winning a writing Emmy. The episode’s signature moment, which likely contributed mightily to its victory in the category, is Michael going too far in his fervor to signal appreciation of Oscar’s homosexuality. Michael stiffly, awkwardly gives Oscar a kiss as the capper to an impromptu all-call meeting of office personnel. Reportedly, that action wasn’t in the script and was instead improvised by Carell. It’s entirely in keeping with the tone of The Office that the series won a rare trophy because of an act of almost accidental excellence.

Outside Reading — Ever So Curious edition

The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George by Rivka Galchen

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I’m always going to susceptible to a smart story involving Curious George, and this piece is smarter than most. For The New Yorker, Rivka Galchen explores how well the adventures about the inquisitive little monkey have aged and digs into the shared biography of the two authors, married couple Margret and Hans Rey, in an effort to consider how their experience as refugees shaped the storytelling. Galchen makes interesting connections that further illuminate the deep resonance to be found in the Curious George books. In particular, the specific details Galchen excavates from the various books are always well chosen and amusing. There’s a loving admiration of even the most daffy components of the books, those authored by Rey and a few other choice examples. What I now need — and I do mean need — is for Galchen to expand the thesis to deliver a deep reading of Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant.

 

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How to Draw a Horse by Emma Hunsinger

Also from The New Yorker, Emma Hunsinger is given a sizable chunk of digital real estate for an autobiographical comic about, to put it most simply, the time in her adolescence when she strained to add horses to her artistic repertoire. It is, of course, about much more than that. Hunsinger’s sharing is heartfelt and poignant. What really impresses is the way she takes full advantage of the form in which she’s working. There are single images that carry the weight of full confessional monologues and others that achieve added power through imaginative desconstruction. Basically, How To Draw a Horse succeeds so completely because it’s a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.

 

A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Now that “Outside Reading” is the thing we do ’round these here digital parts every Saturday, I suspect I’ll be typing out Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s name a lot. She’s delivered winner after winner for The New York Times in recent years, whether celebrity profiles, long-form investigative pieces, or withering take-downs of cultural nonsense. This week, she published an article that uses a semi-nostalgic, mostly curious rewatch of the late-eighties/early-nineties drama Thirtysomething. Brodesser-Akner lands on a piece that is properly amused by the decidedly of-the-moment trappings of the original series, but it also slides into melancholy — sometimes even bruising — memoir. In doing so, the article offers the reminder that for all the attempts to consider pop culture through a critical framework, it’s almost inevitable that these TV shows (and movies, and books, and albums, and, and, and) strike us as viewers in a way that deeply personal. I had my own dalliance with Thirtysomething back when it first aired. Since I was watching while in college, I’ve long thought I was seeing it as a sort of instructional manual for the looming adulthood that secretly petrified me. After reading Brodesser-Akner’s piece, I wonder if there were some other wounds that were being bandaged up. Maybe the strongest testimonial to the pleasures of the article is this: After finishing it, I immediately put in my preorder for Brodesser-Akner’s forthcoming novel.

 

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Watching Elizabeth Warren Come Alive by Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick has long been my favorite writer at Slate, and her new piece drawn from following Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail is the first that makes me believe the Senator from Massachusetts could very well succeed in her run for the U.S. Presidency. That’s not exactly the argument that Lithwick is presenting, but her clear-eyed reportage on Warren’s approach is telling. “Warren shines in her unscripted Q&As precisely because she isn’t trying to please the Unknowable American Electorate of 2020,” writes Lithwick. “She is just trying to answer whatever the questioner is asking in the moment.” I could go on at tedious length about why that simple approach is precisely what any politician needs to do in this fraught national moment, and I likely will indulge in some expounding too many times between today and November 2020. For now, I’ll refrain and let Lithwick’s article carry the weight.