The Complete First Season
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
ob Newhart’s first sitcom (1972 to ‘78’s aptly named “The Bob Newhart Show”) tends to get the lion’s share of the love reserved for Newhart’s various television series. But for a not-inconsiderable number of people, his second show, 1982 to ‘90’s just-as-aptly named “Newhart,” makes an equally powerful argument for the comedic genius of the man behind the title. After patiently waiting through Fox’s slow leak of “The Bob Newhart Show” onto DVD – a leak that sadly seems destined to end without the final two seasons making it to disc – these folks have finally gotten their due with the release of “Newhart: The Complete First Season.”
“The Bob Newhart Show” took place in Chicago, and “Newhart” took place in Vermont, but locations notwithstanding, the shows were fairly similar. They both relied on laughs generated by taking Newhart – one of the greatest straight men in the history of comedy – and dropping him in the middle of a cast full of oddballs. For a generation weaned on progressively higher-concept sitcoms, this may sound strange, but it’s true: There are few comedic pleasures purer than watching Newhart, uncomfortably anchored in an ocean of lunacy, confronting a non sequitur with a raised eyebrow or well-timed stutter. Anyone who ever woke up unsure of what day it was after playing “Hi, Bob” might disagree, but Newhart was never funnier than during his years as author/innkeeper/television host Dick Loudon.
Of course, long-running shows’ first seasons are rarely their best, and “Newhart” is no exception. Shot on videotape, the first episodes of “Newhart” have a flimsy feel that subsequent seasons, printed to film, don’t suffer. The cast was also in a state of flux: Jennifer Holmes, as maid Leslie Vanderkellen, and Steven Kampmann, as café owner Kirk Devane, only lasted through the first two seasons before being replaced by Julia Duffy (as Leslie’s shallow cousin Stephanie, seen here in the episode “What Is This Thing Called Lust?”) and Peter Scolari (as Newhart’s boss at the local-access station where he’d eventually host a show). Still, even if the show didn’t fully hit its stride right away, these episodes do a fine job of setting up a number of the gags and supporting characters who would stick around through the final season; not the least of which are the iconic backwoods siblings Larry, Darryl and Darryl (greeted by Newhart in the show’s second episode with a typically low-key “Oh, boy”).
Thanks to the magic of syndication, plenty of sitcoms never really go off the air (ask Jerry Seinfeld’s accountant about it the next time you see him), but “Newhart” has been seen only sporadically since ending its original run 18 years ago. That makes the show’s arrival on DVD doubly sweet for fans – the only possible cause for concern is Fox’s disappointingly lackadaisical treatment of “The Bob Newhart Show.” Newhart deserves better.
Unlike many season sitcom sets, “Newhart: The Complete First Season” comes with a few bonus features. Some of the new stuff – such as a featurette on the fashions worn by Duffy and Mary Frann that sounds like it was soundtracked with music left over from a temp agency training video – is pretty flimsy, but when the surviving cast reminisces about Frann and Tom Poston, who have passed on since the show went off the air, there are some genuinely moving moments. It’s puzzling as to why only Newhart, Duffy, William “Larry” Sanderson, and John “Other Darryl” Voldstad are interviewed, particularly since the last three barely appeared in the first season, but that’s a minor concern. What really matters is what’s in the episodes themselves, and for fans of “Newhart” – or classic situation comedy in general – this will be $40 very well spent.