|WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season (1985)
Starring: Gary Sandy, Richard Sanders, Howard Hesseman, Gordon Jump, Loni Anderson, Tim Reid, Frank Bonner, Jan Smithers
Damn, damn, damn. I can’t tell you how much I wanted this to be a five-star review.
I mean, seriously, it breaks my heart to only give “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season” a mere three and a half stars. But the truth of the matter is that despite remaining one of the funniest sitcoms of its time (not to mention being the only real competition against “NewsRadio” in the field of Best Sitcom Set In A Radio Station), this ain’t the show you remember. Still, it would be unfair to begin by shredding this set to bits before indicating what’s praiseworthy about it.
WKRP is an easy-listening station in Cincinnati, Ohio, owned by “Mama” Carlson (her first name is never given) and run by her big-hearted but bumbling sun, Arthur (Gordon Jump). In an attempt to increase the station’s ratings, which can’t get much lower than they already are, Mr. Carlson hires a new program director: a cowboy-hat-wearing good ol’ boy named Andy Travis (Gary Sandy). His first move is to change the station’s format to rock ‘n’ roll, with everyone more or less willing to try -- except for Mama, who’s ready to fire Travis. Fortunately, he charms his way out of losing his job with promises of increased revenue, and, thus, the story of “WKRP in Cincinnati” is on the air.
The show’s characters proved to be among the most nuanced on television at the time. Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), the station’s gorgeous secretary, neither takes dictation nor gets coffee, but she does look pretty and answers the phones, and, frankly, that’s enough. She’s notorious for dating rich, elderly men while fending off the advances of the station’s ad man, Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner). Herb wears some of the most outrageous suits in TV history, but despite his fashion sense, you’d still think that his schmoozing, back-stabbing methods would make him a better salesman than he is. (Herb’s occasionally-seen wife on the show, Lucille, is played by Edie McClurg, in one of her earlier roles, back before she became so ubiquitous on the airwaves.) Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) is the station’s newsman. He’s so convinced that he’s a big fish in a small pond that he can’t be bothered to figure out the proper pronunciation of “Chi Chi Rodriguez.” There’s also the ever-shy Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), who’s kind of a jack of all trades on the staff, though her possession of an actual degree in journalism finds her working alongside Les as often as not (much to Les’s disapproval). As to the DJs, we only really spend time with two. Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), has been through so many on-air names that he needs to have them added to the side of his coffee cup to remember which one he’s currently using. Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), is a friend of Andy who joins the staff in order to bring the funk (and in no way add san African-American presence to the show, you cynical bastard, you).
While I can’t speak to the accuracy of its depiction of life at a rock and roll radio station, I feel certain that “WKRP in Cincinnati” inspired many a young person to want to be a DJ when they grew up (though my suspicion is that many of those people are now bitter, angry individuals who feel like they were lied to about how much fun the job was going to be). The camaraderie between the actors made for palpable chemistry, such as the Herb/Jennifer nonrelationship, the banter between Johnny and Venus, and the father-son relationship between Andy and Mr. Carlson. Les serves as the little brother to the bunch. Sometimes, he’s the naïve innocent, other times he’s an angry brat, but you love him all the same. The more personal episodes work better than they would on many shows, thanks to the development of the characters’ personalities, but there were occasional plots which seem a little heavy-handed now, as when Venus revealed that he’s wanted by the government for being a deserter from the U.S. Army. The station-related premises tended to make for the best plots, such as the desire to do promotional stunts, live broadcasts, and concert sponsorships. There are classic examples of all three within this first season, including the broadcast from a stereo store where the only customer is an armed gunman, a concert by a band called Scum of the Earth, and, of course, the all-time classic Thanksgiving episode. (“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”)
Okay, so if we’ve got great characters, great actors, and great scripts, then what’s the problem?
Well, for one thing, Fox opted to use the chopped-up syndicated versions of the episodes, which means that their length has been cut down by a few seconds here and there from what originally aired in prime-time. But the biggest problem, of course, is the music. It’s been a major topic of discussion in entertainment publications ever since the word got out that Fox was finally planning to release “WKRP” on DVD with changes to the music. You had some fans saying, “Well, okay, the music was important, but it’s just nice to be able to see the show again,” but they tended to be countered by the louder and more belligerent crowd who were screaming, “This sucks, Fox sucks, I’m not buying this crap, and screw you for trying to peddle something as ‘The Complete First Season’ when it’s nothing of the kind!” (If you want more proof than you’ll ever have time to read, all you have to do is just click on that Amazon link up there and check out the comments and reviews.) Unfortunately, if you have fond memories of the original versions of these episodes, you’ll be tempted to agree with the loudmouths.
In some instances, entire chunks of the show have been removed because Fox wasn’t willing to license certain songs that were crucial to the dialogue. The most notable of these is probably the discussion between Johnny and Mr. Carlson about Pink Floyd. (“Do I hear dogs barking on that thing?” “I do.”) Meanwhile, other scenes don’t play nearly as well with the musical revisions, such as Les Nessman putting on his new toupee (it just ain’t the same without hearing Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”). Or when Johnny Fever offers the answer to what his listeners can take for their troubles and we no longer cut to Bob Seger singing, “Just take those old records off the shelf.” For me, however, the most depressing change is probably in “The Contest Nobody Could Win.” The plot revolved around Johnny accidentally misquoting the prize amount for the station’s new contest, resulting in the staff trying to avoid having to give it to anyone by creating an incredibly short medley of songs for people to guess. Every songbite in the medley, save “The Star Spangled Banner,” has been replaced with a generic snippet of music, and the voiceovers of the callers who try to guess the songs have been re-recorded to have them guess fake artists and song titles. You can find a detailed listing of every single music change at this site, but fair warning: it’ll really, really depress you.
So is “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season” worth buying? If you’re a fan of the show’s comedy over its music, then, yes, it is. But if you’re of a mind to take a stand and refuse to buy it because the version of the show that Fox has provided has been highly bastardized -- well, more power to you, because you’ve certainly got a valid point.
Special Features: Given that the studio knew full well that the rabid “WKRP” fans would get royally pissed off about all the music changes, it’s all the more disappointing that this set’s special features are so limited. The best of the bunch are definitely the pair of audio commentaries where Anderson, Bonner, and creator Hugh Wilson team up to discuss the first part of the pilot episode as well as the famous Thanksgiving episode. (“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”) Otherwise, we get two short featurettes: one about the character of Jennifer Marlowe (6 minutes), the other about “Fish Story,” an episode which Wilson intended as a parody of slapstick sitcoms that turned into the highest-rated episode of the first season (3 minutes). They’re both interesting and include new interviews with Anderson, Bonner, Wilson and Reid, but they’re so short that one wonders why someone didn’t just do one big documentary about the first season. The mystery continues when you look at the Amazon entry for this set, which references three completely different featurettes: “Don’t Touch That Dial: The Making of ‘WKRP,’” “Turning A ‘Turkey’ Into A TV Classic,” and “‘Dr. Johnny Fever, And I Am Burning Up In Here!’”In all seriousness, it would’ve been really funny if someone had the good humor to put together a brief featurette focused specifically on the music changes, offer the pros and cons, explain why they opted to make the changes and still release the set. Instead, however, they simply put the understatement of the year in small yellow letters on the back of the box: “Some of the original musical content has been edited for this DVD release.”