‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“I’m sure you’ve wondered the same thing that I have: What if ‘NewsRadio’ took place in outer space? What if instead of a radio station, our characters worked on a space station? What if instead of reporting the news, we reported the space news? Well after tonight’s very special episode all of those questions will be answered – or at least raised and dismissed. Now some people might hear this idea and say, ‘Outer space? Why?’ I prefer to say, ‘Outer space? Why not?’ And so without further ado, we present to you: ‘NewsRadio’ in outer space!”
First thing’s first: We’re talking about NewsRadio this week, and if you’ve never seen the show before, do yourself a favor, stop reading this, and get the series in front of your eyes immediately.
NewsRadio is lightning-in-a-bottle television that makes for not only one of the most accomplished workplace sitcoms out there, but it also has one of the strongest ensemble casts in a comedy this side of Arrested Development. Airing for five seasons on NBC from 1995 to 1999, the series depicts the ins and outs of the co-workers at WNYX, the third best news-focused radio station in New York. Remarkably, Paul Simms’ comedy doesn’t resist the usual sitcom trappings, and yet in spite of jumping through many hoops the series is still capable of operating as such an efficient machine (I attest that seasons three and four of the show are two near-flawless seasons of comedy).
This precision largely has to do with not a member of this talented cast (which had the likes of Dave Foley, Any Dick, Stephen Root, Phil Hartman, and later Jon Lovitz) being wasted, as well as creator Paul Simms’ heavy involvement in most of the scripts. Simms and the show also faced an uphill battle against the network, constantly dealing with meddling, compromise, and a precarious airing schedule, which can sometimes be the sort of fuel that causes a show to work even harder and become especially incredible (see: Community). This was also a time on the network when NBC was pushing a mandate of having “nice” characters, whereas the people within NewsRadio skew much more towards the amoral heathens in something like It’s Always Sunny or Seinfeld. Regardless of the struggle that the series faced during its run, it’s continued to be seen as a standout sitcom from the ‘90s and something deserving of revisiting.
In spite of the acquiescing that the series would do to appease NBC, NewsRadio would still find ways to stray outside of the box and turn this simple workplace sitcom into something much more intricate. While admittedly a number of episodes would indulge in fantasy, it’s the season three and four finales, “Space” and “Sinking Ship,” that go the furthest with this, really hitting the gas on the “what if?” conceit. The pair of episodes both see introductions and conclusions featuring Phil Hartman as himself, addressing the audience, explaining the transformation that is about to take place. These introductions set the tone perfectly by it being clear that the show is not taking itself seriously as Hartman trashes the program and pokes fun at the outlandish new concepts in the first place.
What’s interesting here is that in spite of how much “Space” and “Sinking Ship” change NewsRadio’s DNA, the core holding it all together remains the same. These installments arguably might not change the structure of NewsRadio that drastically, but instead see their usual setup being taken to the extreme because of the filters that are being put on top of them. In the case of “Space” there is a new title sequence, a digital font adorning the credits, and countless little touches like coffee materializing out of thin air, a projection screen version of Beth, and Matthew dating an android. When it comes to the plot though, the episode is still dealing with relationship issues and budget cuts, only in the more extreme sense that it’s the oxygen budget seeing slashing and Dave and Lisa have been dating for 98 years now thanks to the tech. Even the episode’s conclusion – the staff (mostly) all dead – feels like a dramatic extension of the series perpetually being “on the bubble” and near cancellation.
There’s a somewhat unfocused approach to what “space” qualifies as, but honestly the hodge-podge universe they create is a weird, fun time. Star Trek’s “make it so,” has become a permanent part of the vernacular, Serling’s “To Serve Man” makes an appearance, while elsewhere Bill and Catherine do product placement for Soylent Green in between news reports on the destruction of the Death Star, not to mention the constant Alien references that the episode peppers throughout.
A lot of the fun to be had here is in “Space’s” very lazy approach to its space-iness. For instance, Jimmy wears his usual suit, only to insult the fashion of the dated time. The episode also adopts a growing tendency to just insert “space” in front of everything in order to give it the year 2150 update. We hear about “space news,” Jimmy complains about the station “hemorrhaging space dollars,” only to later indulge in “space porn.” Some reasonably clever humor even comes from this too, like Dave’s promise to Lisa that he’ll get a “space heater” to warm up his apartment.
When the series attempted this departure again the following year they managed to take all of this even further than what they did in “Space.” Even from the start Hartman is even more blasé about the series (he can’t even remember its name this time around) and doesn’t try to smooth over the concept. Later on, the episode even has the actors breaking character to address the lack of special effects and budget being blown as the entry nears its conclusion.
“Sinking Ship” feels like a much more complicated animal here, as “space” is a rather broad topic, but this is them riffing specifically on a popular movie which puts this entry much more in the Community concept episode camp. The design of this also reeks much more of network tampering and being the product of negotiation as the network tries to meld pop culture with the show’s ambition. “Space” at least feels in the realm of plausibility whereas “Sinking Ship” is such a ridiculous project with clear ulterior motives.
In spite of how the construct here might seem so inorganic, the episode really uses the cast perfectly to replicate the famous Titanic/iceberg incident. Joe’s sticktoitiveness innovation in repairs explains the Titanic’s weak construction, Dave’s whiny, worrisome demeanor has the iceberg warning come off as a day at the office as per usual, and putting the incompetent Matthew on iceberg watch duty is the perfect storm to lead to this tragic disaster. Even Jimmy James’ hair-brained schemes fit perfectly as the sort of eccentric that would build something like the Titanic in the first place. On top of all of that the episode wisely uses the Walt (Brad Rowe) tension from the season to create Titanic’s integral love triangle.
“Sinking Ship” is also just an exceptionally gorgeous episode of NewsRadio with chandeliers and random vacationing passengers filling out the station/cruise ship, lighting being on point, and impeccable costumes being on display (really amazing stuff, and it amounted to the only Emmy win that the show would receive). There are some pretty impressive setpieces here, too, like water spraying out of the elevator directly at the camera/audience as Joe tries to wrench it shut. Maura Tierney is also such a good Winslet proxy here that it’s crazy.
The episode still manages to be just as indulgent towards its topic as “Space” is. There’s plenty of “I’m king of the world!”s, diamond necklace birthday presents, and dueling naked sketches of Lisa (although who wasn’t aping on this gag during this time?), as well as the film’s famous conclusion, for the episode to use for reference points. While “Sinking Ship” also works as a solid hyperbolization of a standard NewsRadio episode, it differs from “Space” in the fact that the iceberg is hit about halfway through the outing with the rest of the time focusing on the sinking (versus how only the very end of “Space” deals with their doom). A different flavor is provided, but these still feel very much like two sides of the same coin. Both episodes pointedly end with Bill and Matthew being the lone survivors and discussing the idea of repopulating the world together. This is surely meant to act as a reflection on the idea that as much as you change NewsRadio, it is still inherently NewsRadio. As ambitious as these concept episodes might be, the show’s true nature ekes through and manages to take over. That’s how well defined it is. It’s why “Space” features a moment where Lisa says to Dave, “Here’s that Governor Space-taki interview…” and “Sinking Ship” has a companion piece where she tells him, “Here’s that Admiral Pataki interview…” They’re emblematic of the shifts that have taken place, and in spite of how much has changed, nothing has really changed.
Wherever you are, Matthew’s still going to fall over something.