Welcome back to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which I watch and review TV episodes of various series from the 1980s. Today’s entry is Newhart (1982-1990), in which an author and his wife set up an inn in a quirky Vermont town.
So here’s my Newhart story, such as it is. Several years ago, I bought the first couple of seasons after recalling that our family used to like watching it when I was a kid. I had just started to watch them when, one night, my wife, my six-month-old son, and myself all came down with absolutely nasty food poisoning. I didn’t sleep that night, but instead binged on the first season of Newhart while feeling my stomach in open rebellion against me. As a result, my mind associates “Newhart” with “projectile vomiting,” which is unfortunate for all the cast and crew involved. They didn’t know. It wasn’t their fault.
Anyway, Newhart is a weird classic of a show in that the main character is kind of a stuttering old man who is light-years from being cool. Yet the show was undeniably funny, mostly because Bob Newhart was such a perfect straight man against which an entire town of oddballs could play. His sarcastic quips and devotion to the bit paid off handsomely, and this ended up being his most successful sitcom out of a series of them he did.
Season 3 Episode 21: The Prodigal Darryl
Let’s get on to the episode. I’m going deep into the third season for the first one, just to see the show more firmly established. I have to say that I am deeply nostalgic for the schmaltzy theme music of Newhart, because in my mind, it makes me think of summer vacations and a long lost youth. This tale begins with normal goings-on at the inn: George is installing a shower massager, Joanna is getting ready to take Christmas photos (in May), and Dick (Newhart) is bringing home Stephanie’s bike because she didn’t want to ride it for a full round trip.
“Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.” The trio of brothers (of which only one spoke) were huge cult favorites of the show, requiring a good amount of applause time whenever they popped up for their first appearance in an episode. In this case, the brothers are flush with cash from a jingo-writing contest. The woodsmen vow that the $30,000 wouldn’t change them one bit.
Other than the general affability of the show and the deadpan zingers from Newhart, what really pops out at me here is how much sitcoms like this relied on actors to walk in and stand on their marks in formation and then talk the rest of the scene with little movement. It’s much more theater than TV, especially for anyone who has grown used to the movement and chaos of more modern shows. Here, George brings in a huge tree for the Christmas-in-May photo shoot. “If I see livestock or shepherds in the inn, we’re going to have words,” Dick says when he sees this.
Larry and just one Darryl come in to announce that their other brother Darryl left with his portion of the money after a fight about what to do with the winnings. Such drama, this show. It’s a good chance to give the Larry character a whole bunch of speaking lines as he pontificates upon the loss and talks with the constable about finding Darryl.
Back in the inn, guests are finding the seasonal decorations weird. “Don’t worry,” Dick says to them, “It’s not Christmas, it’s just an incredible simulation.” I want to adopt this guy as my uncle. I also want to give some props to the guy playing the constable — he injects a very weird vibe for such a small part, like nothing phases him.
The prodigal Darryl is living it up in some hotel room a couple of towns away. Larry is shocked at the waste all around him, and the brothers get into a tussle. My favorite part is when Dick goes to talk sense into Darryl and then gets adorably distracted by a Tesla ball. Look at that smile! He’s like a little kid at not-Christmas!
Speaking of, the Christmas spirit seems to be sweeping everyone into it, even as they’re sweating in the heavy clothes. Stephanie gets real presents, since she’s a spoiled heiress who deserves such things, and the constable Charlie Browns his way into getting invited to the fun. Larry isn’t having any, though: “I guess we’re going to have to go through the rest of our life a day late and a Darryl short.” That so bad that it makes my toes curl with pleasure. And yes, Darryl comes home for “Christmas,” which wraps everything up in a delicious bow.
Season 6 Episode 24: Courtin’ Disaster
Believe it or not, I really did just pick two random episodes this time around, although I also tried to space them out. So we’re jumping ahead to season 6 here, where to my eyes everything looks pretty much the same. Joanne enters the inn and announces that she found a lady to match up with George (the handyman), but Dick thinks it’s a bad idea on principle to get involved in matchmaking. Kind of wonder how he ever found a woman to begin with, but whatever. George agrees to meet with her.
Hey, it’s a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander as an obnoxious guest flashing cash! Not really sure what is deal is other than trying to stuff as much money in people’s hands as possible, but we shall see.
Another odd sitcom staple is how just nobody ever knocks or rings the door; they just launch themselves into the place as if it’s their bedroom. I guess since this is an inn foyer, it’s not as much a breach of decorum as a home, but still, it’s one of those tropes that never sat right with me. George’s date breezes in, and their introduction is as awkward as you might imagine from the picture above. The date itself is very tame and tepid, with few jokes and zero chemistry between the actors. I always expect some kind of craziness to occur in Newhart episodes, but this one takes a long time getting there.
George’s date is interrupted when a guy walks into the diner and gives Irma guff about being out with another guy. They aren’t going out any more, but that doesn’t stop the guy from threatening George. It’s first grade conflict storytelling! He challenges George to a fight and everyone acts as if this is the most serious thing in the world, even though George could just shrug, ignore the guy, and order more dessert.
Dick ends up going to the fight location to talk some sense into the guy. I suspect his primary goal, however, is to get a good swing in, because Dick apparently loves childlike activities. The bully hits Dick (offscreen) and George beats him up (offscreen) and I guess that’s a boring conflict resolved.
A tepid premise can be overcome by strong jokes and writing, but this episode lacks any of that. It’s just so aggressively mediocre that it made me deeply wish I had picked a different one for this viewing. I guess even good shows have their stinkers, and this is one of them.