|Newsradio: The Complete Fifth Season (1995)
Starring: Dave Foley, Stephen Root, Andy Dick, Maura Tierney, Joe Rogan, Vicki Lewis, Jon Lovitz
The fifth and final season of “NewsRadio” got a really bad rap, and here’s why: Phil Hartman had been murdered, was replaced by Jon Lovitz, and, long story short, Jon Lovitz ain’t no Phil Hartman. Don’t get me wrong, Lovitz is a funny guy. But it was just too damned hard to tune in, see him, and be constantly reminded that he wouldn’t even be on the series if Hartman hadn’t been struck down in the prime of his life.
Going back and examining the DVD release of “NewsRadio: The Complete Fifth Season,” however, one finds that with almost eight years having passed since Hartman’s death, it’s a lot easier now to laugh at Lovitz’s year on the show…mostly because it was funny. This was, after all, one of the strongest comedic ensembles on television during the late ‘90s. Hartman was unquestionably an integral part of what made them so funny, but he certainly wasn’t the only person who was able to get laughs, and we’re reminded of that constantly during season five.
Wisely, the cast and crew decided to tackle Hartman’s death in the season’s first episode, having the show open with the employees of WNYX returning from Bill McNeal’s (Hartman’s character) funeral. Not surprisingly, the episode proves to be a poignant tribute to both Bill and the man who played him. Many real tears were shed by the cast during the course of the half-hour (most notably those of Dave Foley during the reading of a final letter from Bill to the news team). Matthew (Andy Dick) assures Dave that Bill isn’t dead, that he had a plan to drop out of society, move to Afghanistan and start a boat-chartering company. He later assures other members of the staff that Bill is variously opening a scuba-diving school in Nepal and tooling around the Himalayas in his private sub. This eventually leads to a moment when Matthew reads aloud a letter written specifically to him by Bill that opens, “Dear Matthew: I am dead. No matter what I may have told you about my secret plan, do not get on an airplane and fly around the world searching for me.” It’s rough stuff. Of course, the show avoids getting too morose: the last line of the letter is, “P.S. The crows flies at midnight.”
Lovitz makes his debut in the second episode, playing Max Lewis, a broadcaster who has jumped around from station to station over the years, including a stint with Bill McNeal. Max and Matthew immediately clash, mostly because Matthew can’t stand to see anyone try to take Bill’s place. Lovitz’s comedic style doesn’t exactly mesh with the rest of the cast, but he still scores laughs in his own inimitable manner. As a character, however, Max doesn’t really come into his own until Jimmy James (Stephen Root) is arrested by the FBI on the suspicion that he’s actually D.B. Cooper. One of James’ associates, Johnny Johnson (Patrick Warburton), steps in to help run affairs.
There is great comedic rapport between Lovitz and Warburton, with Max immediately taking the role of bootlicking lackey to Johnny. Lovitz uses his ‘40s-movie-styled rapid patter while saying lines like, “C’mon, Johnny, say it ain’t so!” Warburton appears on several episodes during the season, and, as ever, his perfect voice allows him to get a laugh with virtually anything that comes out of his mouth.
There are plenty of classic episodes in season five. Lisa (Maura Tierney) goes undercover at a fast-food restaurant and ends up getting promoted to assistant manager. Beth (Vicki Lewis) and Joe (Joe Rogan) collaborate on a mural for the building lobby that prominently features the word “stinkbutt” in very large letters. But the best comes when Matthew turns 30 and, as an act of rebellion, becomes a punk rocker. As the season wrapped up, the producers knew the show might not be back, so the last episode ends with James buying a radio station and newspaper in New Hampshire, and everyone leaves to go with him except for Dave and Matthew. Had the series continued, it would indeed have taken place in New Hampshire, likely taking on a “Newhart”-esque feel, but alas, that was not to be.
So, in short, no, Jon Lovitz is no Phil Hartman, but he’s still funny, and so is the final season of “NewsRadio.”