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Old 11-08-2012, 04:04 AM   #1
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Default Anatomy of a Re-Tool: Newhart

I was talking with someone about shows that get re-tooled -- the characters get new jobs, many supporting characters are replaced, and so on -- and how this almost always wrecks the show. But I can think of one show that was improved by re-tooling in mid-run, possibly the only successful show that actually got better when it was re-tooled: Bob Newhart's second show, "Newhart."

Most of you will remember the premise of "Newhart": Bob Newhart plays Dick Loudon, a writer of how-to books who moves to Vermont with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). They buy an inn, the Stratford, which appeals to them for its historical value (though it turns out that the reason George Washington slept there was that it used to be a brothel). The first season found them dealing with the funny people in Vermont, funny guests at the inn, and the rest of the regular supporting cast: Leslie (Jennifer Holmes), a rich girl gaining some practical experience by working as a maid at the inn while attending Dartmouth; George (Tom Poston) the handyman; and Kirk (Steven Kampmann), a pathological liar who owns the cafe next door.

The first season was actually quite successful in the ratings, and the show was picked up for another season. But the network, the creator (Barry Kemp, who had been one of the best writers for "Taxi"), and Newhart were collectively not satisfied with the show. So over the course of the second season, various changes were made.

First, with the start of the second season, the production format of the show changed from videotape to film. (Newhart preferred working on film, which allowed for a softer kind of comedy than the hard lighting of tape: tape, he says, is more appropriate for broad sketch comedy.) Also at the start of the second season, Leslie was gone; she was too all-around nice a character to be funny. She was replaced by Julia Duffy, who had appeared in one first-season episode as Leslie's bitchy sister Stephanie. Stephanie was forced to work at the inn because her parents had cut her off from having any money. Suddenly there was a whole new source of comedy on the show: Stephanie, the spoiled rich girl, trying (not very hard) to work as a maid and live in a rural setting.

Near the end of the second season, further changes were introduced. In mid-season, the show had an episode where Dick fills in at the host of a show on a local TV station, where the producer, Michael (Peter Scolari) is an obnoxious phony. Inspired by the episode and Scolari's performance, the producers wrote an episode where Dick gets his own talk show, "Vermont Today," on that local station, with Michael as his producer. In that episode or the episode after, they introduced the idea that Michael would be Stephanie's boyfriend. These are three moves that are usually jump-the-shark moments: giving the lead character a new job, introducing a new regular, and giving another regular a steady boyfriend. But all these moves worked by expanding what the show could do.

The big problem with the show in its first season, and part of the second, was that the inn setting was very limited: there weren't a lot of people around the inn that Newhart could react to. The problem was solved by creating the TV station as a permanent location, and shuttling back and forth between Dick's home and workplace a la The Dick Van Dyke Show: now Newhart could react to the crazy guests on his TV show and to Michael, the ultimate caricature of the '80s yuppie (and a not-so-subtle parody of wonder-boy network executives like Brandon Tartikoff).

Finally, at the beginning of the third season, Kirk was dropped. The writers had spent the second season trying to find something to do with the character, even giving him a wife (Rebecca York), but the character was hard to like: his main character trait, being a pathological liar, was almost too realistic to be funny. Also, the first season had mostly shown him as Leslie's unrequited lover, and after she left, he had very little to do. Kampmann was an exceptionally talented comic -- he'd done some great work with Toronto Second City, and he'd been a writer producer on "WKRP In Cincinnati." But it was probably the right decision for "Newhart" to drop him.

With Kirk gone, his cafe was purchased by three characters, a bizarre trio of backwoodsmen whose introduction you all remember: "Hi, I'm Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl." They'd appeared in the first season as guest characters in the second episode, and had made enough of an impression that they were brought back for one more episode in the first season, and then several episodes in the second season. The third season took the logical step by making them regulars and giving them a reason to be near the inn (they now owned the place next door) so they could always drop by and annoy Newhart, thus giving him more stuff to react to. The audience applause when the characters entered could be annoying -- they were like the Fonzie of "Newhart" -- but their addition as regulars made the show funnier and stronger, and gave a sort of "Green Acres" vibe to the show, with Newhart as the sane man facing off against the insane locals.

The upshot of this was that by the beginning of the third season, "Newhart" had a largely different cast, a different production style, and a different job for the lead character than it had had in the first season. And everything worked better than it had in the first season. (Indeed, I'd actually argue that "Newhart" holds up better now than the original "Bob Newhart Show.") There must be other shows that undertook this kind of re-tooling and improved, but I can't think of any for the moment.
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Old 11-08-2012, 12:08 PM   #2
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I agree 100%!! I did check S1 of the show out of the library, and while the show did have some terrific moments that first year, it didn't really hit its stride until the revamp in the second season.

Leslie and Stephanie were cousins, not sisters.

Re: Kirk - his wedding episode where he kept fainting was beyond hilarious!!!
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Old 11-08-2012, 02:47 PM   #3
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I liked Kirk's relentless (and unrequited) pursuit of Leslie but once Leslie was gone the Kirk character had little purpose. I loved making Larry, Darryl, and Darryl regulars and placing them right next door at the Minuteman. And making the TV station a regular set expanded the scope of stories they could tell (I loved Stephenie's home shopping show!) and wasa very smart idea
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Old 12-28-2013, 01:14 AM   #4
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This is actually a cogent and well-thought out argument for the revamp of Newhart. As a viewer, I don't like most retools of sitcoms. They're usually done with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.

Examples of this include Happy Days, Charles in Charge, The Facts of Life, Family Matters, and Good Morning Miss Bliss. The old characters are suddenly gone, with some flimsy explanation of why they are gone (or sometimes no explanation at all), and then no one even remembers they ever existed. As a viewer, it takes me out of the show.

Newhart was a little better, since the changes that were made were more gradual. And the new characters meshed well with Dick and Joanna. So, while I don't in general approve of sitcom retoolings, I'll give Newhart a pass.
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Old 08-20-2016, 01:19 PM   #5
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I like the "live" look of season 1.
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Old 08-20-2016, 02:02 PM   #6
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I think that Michael was supposed to be Kirk. I loved Kirk and was very sad when they married him off.
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Old 08-20-2016, 02:21 PM   #7
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I liked the show both before and after the transition. No matter the premise or surroundings, what made this show great was the solid and smart writing.
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Old 08-20-2016, 02:51 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by phoenixAcres16
I liked the show both before and after the transition. No matter the premise or surroundings, what made this show great was the solid and smart writing.
I agree. Newhart is one of the absolute best sitcoms, ever.
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Old 08-21-2016, 08:47 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by tlc38tlc38
I like the "live" look of season 1.
I remember asking my mom, "Why does this look like a play?"
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Old 09-06-2018, 01:25 AM   #10
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How the second season of Newhart proves sitcoms need time to learn

The second season of Newhart, which ended up being Newhart’s longest-running series, is a must-watch for anyone interested in the art of the American sitcom and how it frequently needs time to evolve. The first season of the ’80s sitcom was highly rated but not very good. Before season two, the producers made two major changes in switching from shooting on tape to shooting on film and replacing Jennifer Holmes’ Leslie Vanderkellen with her cousin, Stephanie, played by Julia Duffy. But the show still didn’t have the oomph it needed. That arrived starting with its third season, when it became one of the best sitcoms of its era.

Thus, season two is a surprisingly thrilling high-wire act in which the show continuously retools itself, trying a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and stumbling upon other things that do work. It’s almost more interesting to watch it as the story of a bunch of TV writers trying to turn an expected success into the best show it could be than it is to watch it as a TV comedy. It’s particularly fascinating for anyone who’s seen Newhart before and might not be aware it used to be a much quieter, more low-key show than it was in its later seasons, when its weird small-town humor made for a live-action Simpsons precursor. To watch season two is to see the elements of the show that would be snap into place, sometimes as if by accident.

The first stroke of good fortune is Duffy. Newhart always had two surefire laugh-getters in Newhart himself, here playing Vermont innkeeper and how-to book author Dick Loudon, and Tom Poston, as dim-witted handyman George. But its female cast wasn’t as strong in the first season, with Holmes proving too anodyne to garner big laughs and Mary Frann (as Dick’s wife, Joanna) suffering in comparison to Newhart’s prior TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette. Duffy immediately brings new energy to the show as Stephanie, and it’s fun to watch the writers spark to her portrayal of the sheltered, ditzy blonde forced to work as a maid. By season’s end, she has most of the good lines, and Duffy, who could do this in her sleep, keeps pushing the character to new heights of lunacy.

With Duffy ensconced as a third reliable source of laughs, the show spends most of the rest of the season trying other things out. Could Dick’s writing career prove a bigger source of laughter? The two-part season premiere—which features not a laughing studio audience nor a sweetened laugh track, but the creepy, hollow laughter of one or two guys—sends him off to interview with a famous movie star about writing her memoir. It also proves there’s little humor for the show to glean from the publishing world. Maybe George could have a dog? That apparently doesn’t work, either, as the dog is quickly scuttled. Perhaps the weird townsfolk Dick and Joanna have to put up with could take more of the focus? This proves more successful, as tradition-bound mayor Chester (William Lanteau) and his friend Jim (Thomas Hill) become solid recurring players, and the season’s back half is dominated by Larry (William Sanderson) and his silent brothers Darryl and Darryl (Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad). Feeding off those audience cheers, the show tries to figure out how to save its own life.

The answer arrives almost by accident. Around midseason, Dick goes on a local TV talk show to discuss his books, where he meets a producer named Michael, played by Peter Scolari (then best known for Bosom Buddies). Viewers who are familiar with Scolari’s later role on the show will be forgiven confirmation bias, but it’s remarkable how quickly he simply fits in the ensemble. That goes double for a late-season episode—which serves as a second pilot for the show that would begin in season three—where he successfully persuades Dick to host a television show and becomes Stephanie’s boyfriend in short order. These are the sorts of things that killed lesser shows, but everyone here is so game and the tone is increasingly so bizarre that it all works. The inn had never been as rich a source of stories as it must have seemed to creator Barry Kemp at first; a TV show filled with local oddballs, presided over by a chuckling blowhard, made for a much stronger setting.

Stephanie and Michael eventually became one of TV’s best satires on ’80s excess, and while that aspect of the show isn’t yet developed, the last third of the second season presents a show that looks pretty similar to the series that went down in history (and looks remarkably different from the second season’s first third), with one major exception: Kirk Devane (Steven Kampmann), the owner of the neighboring Minuteman Cafť, whose pathological lying and incessant need to be liked dragged down much of the first season. At the time, his flirtation with Leslie was the only thing keeping him relatable, but with Holmes’ departure from the show, Kirk had less to do. A remarkable number of episodes in season two—particularly in the middle third—try to find something for Kirk, but the character rarely rises above an annoyance. The producers even go to the trouble of marrying him off to a clown, but his new wife doesn’t succeed at making him a vital character either.

Season three began with Scolari replacing Kampmann in the ensemble, and it was the right call for the show long-term. (Larry, Darryl, and Darryl join as regulars as well.) Because it turned out well for the show, watching the second season on DVD has a sense of the inevitable coming to be, but try to keep in mind the show’s staff frantically casting about for ways to make it work, a ticking clock over their heads all the while. Newhart is that rare beast in the TV world: a show where all of the retooling paid off because the producers were keenly attuned to what was and wasn’t working on their show.
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