Saturday, June 22, 2013

WKRP in Cincinnati season 4

We remember WKRP in Cincinnati, the sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982, as being better than it was. We remember "Turkeys Away," the ultimate in promotional-stunts-gone-wrong, as live turkeys are dropped from a helicopter, "hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement"; we remember the show that (rightly) made stars of supporting players Howard Hesseman and Loni Anderson; we remember its subversive tone and its striking characters -- we remember all that, and we think of it as an instant classic. But from the start, it was an erratic show, and among its 90 episodes are nearly as many misfires as triumphs. It was a show CBS desperately needed, but never knew what to do with. It was a show designed for two actors that ended up being about two others. It had a control freak at the helm who, judging from the evidence, did his best work when he let others do their jobs. If it holds up after 35 years (and it does), it starts with the original casting director Bob Manahan: the characters themselves were well-conceived (and if they weren't, they grew into characters who were well-developed), but the actors made them memorable. It's one of the best matches of character and casting we've had on American television.

As a reminder, or a précis for the uninitiated: WKRP is a struggling 5000-watt radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio (1530 on the AM dial); they've engaged a new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) to shore up the ratings, and he's decided to change the format from Easy Listening to Rock and Roll -- much to the chagrin of the station's bumbling but well-meaning general manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), who'd rather be fishing; sales director Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), with the plaid, polyester suits and disregard for his marital vows; and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), the nerd-of-a-news-director with a talent for mangling his on-air copy:

Les [on air, reading]: Monster lizard ravages East Coast. Mayors in five New England cities have issued emergency requests for federal disaster relief as a result of a giant lizard that descended on the East Coast last night. Officials say that this lizard, the worst since ’78, has devastated transportation, disrupted communication, and left many hundreds homeless.
Johnny: Monster lizard?
Les: The wire service never lies.
Johnny: Les, the “b” is out on the printer. It’s monster blizzard.

Embracing the format change are the early-morning DJ, drug-culture carryover Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman in an inspired bit of counterculture casting: Hesseman had worked as a DJ before he became an actor, and had been part of the San Francisco-based improv group The Committee in the '60s and '70s), and the nighttime DJ, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), one of creator Hugh Wilson's two attempts at countering stereotypes. Venus, as first seen, has the flamboyant attire and manner that marked so many depictions of African-American men in the late '70s. (WKRP premiered in 1978, the same year Esther Rolle returned to Good Times to save it from Jimmie "Dy-no-mite" Walker.) But it turned out Venus's clothes and demeanor were part of his on-air act, and beneath lay someone ruminative, well-read, soulful and conservative.

The other character designed to upend expectations: the station's receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), WKRP's answer to all the dumb blondes clogging the airwaves. Jennifer was as blonde and as beautiful as any of her TV sisters, but she was also bright, articulate, perceptive, and occasionally seemed to be running the station single-handedly. (President Reagan, she tells us in a 1982 episode, offered her Secretary of the Treasury, but she declined; she may have been kidding.) Completing the ensemble was the retiring but determined and ambitious Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), who handled traffic and continuity. The characters of Andy, Johnny and Bailey are pretty much established at the start (although Andy doesn't really become interesting until Season 4, when he acquires a more ruthless side); Carlson, Herb and Les evolve through the course of the first season; and Jennifer and Venus take even a bit longer than that. (Critics initially tore into Anderson and Reid for how they looked, not how they acted; they presumed the roles were designed to reinforce stereotypes, not counter them -- so the writers had to work a little harder with those two.) Arguably, it's not until a third of the way into the second season that the characters all settle into the ones we remember today.

I was trying to figure out, if I had to recommend one season of WKRP, which season that would be, and oh Lord, it's tough. The first season is full of issues. Hugh Wilson wanted to do character-based comedy (it was, after all, an MTM production, where he had cut his teeth), while CBS wanted more light-hearted "radio station" episodes, particularly ones that targeted younger audiences. (This was just a few years after CBS had been supplanted in the ratings by ABC's aggressively kid-friendly programming.) And the show was ostensibly about Andy Travis (only Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump received top billing in the first season; everyone else was consigned to the closing credits), but Travis -- with his aw-shucks demeanor, his too-tight jeans and coiffed hair -- was arguably the least interesting character of the bunch. CBS premiered it in a kiss-of-death time-slot, Mondays at 8, opposite ABC's Welcome Back, Kotter and NBC's still formidable Little House on the Prairie, and it tanked. The network pulled it from the schedule in November, and "relaunched" it in January behind one of their top shows, M*A*S*H, where it soared. Airing after M*A*S*H allowed Wilson to complement that show's tone with lower-key ensemble comedy, which is what he'd wanted all along. But of the fourteen episodes completed before the show was yanked from the schedule, only eight had aired, which meant of the remaining fourteen episodes to air, six were pre-hiatus and eight post-. They were scattered seemingly randomly through the remainder of the season -- sometimes one old, one new -- and the result is distressingly schizophrenic: a season that keeps lurching between MTM character comedy and Garry Marshall screwball. There are some great episodes -- aside from the aforementioned "Turkeys Away," there's "I Want to Keep My Baby," "Tornado" and "Who Is Gordon Sims?" -- but ultimately, Season 1 is a show still finding itself.

Season 2 sees a host of new writers join the staff: some I took to instantly (Steve Marshall, Dan Gunzelman), some I grew to like (Peter Torokvei), others never won me over (Steve Kampmann). Torokvei and Kampmann came via Second City and SCTV; they pitched some story ideas to Wilson, and he bit. They were sketch-comedy writers, which is exactly where WKRP wasn't heading. (The quintessential Kampmann episode -- Season 3's "Hotel Oceanview," in which Herb, away on a business trip, carries on with a woman who turns out to be transgender -- is actually taken from a Second City sketch he wrote.) Torokvei and Kampmann's first script, "Sparky," guest-starring real-life baseball manager Sparky Anderson, was written because they wanted to meet Sparky Anderson; that was the episode's justification, the furthest thing from character comedy, and you can practically hear the MTM kitten purring in its grave. One of my favorite episodes comes from Season 2 -- "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" -- as do many of the episodes I hate most: "Baseball," "Bad Risk," "Sparky," "Les's Groupie," "The Doctor's Daughter." The cast gets more assured in Season 2 -- by midseason, they have their acts down pat -- but WKRP still seems like a show in search of direction: the sophisticated wit of "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" immediately followed by the juvenile antics of "Sparky" pretty much epitomizes the work-still-in-progress feel that plagues Season 2.

In Season 3, the writers seem to pull together, but Wilson starts to crumble. The season starts with "The Airplane Show," with Les doing traffic reports from a World War I biplane piloted by a crazy war veteran; it's a fitting start for a season that never quite feels grounded. You know you're not in good shape early in Season 3 when the series' creator pens an episode called "Jennifer Moves" (the season's second episode) and then can't figure out how to make that scenario interesting. (And it's not like the "lead character moves" scenario can't be an entertaining one. When "Charlene Buys a House" on Designing Women, it's such a triumph of smart silliness that EP Pam Norris rightly chooses it as one of that season's Emmy submissions; when "Mary Moves Out" on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, David Lloyd gently mocks the repetitive nature of TV sitcoms, where conventions and catch-phrases are like comfort food, and turns it into a sad classic.) The first third of Season 3 seems aimless, the middle third gets back on track, and then, as the season end approaches, it becomes some other series altogether: a string of "special episodes." Wilson admits that, by that time, he was burned out, and drama simply came easier than laughs, so we get episodes about alcoholism and censorship and long-lost parents and domestic abuse. Some of it is well-done, but it makes for what WKRP fan and expert Jaime Weinman accurately called "a rather weird season (where the show's tone changed radically with every episode, and [much] of the humor became a little offbeat at times)." At its worst, Season 3 is off-putting; you watch and go, "Shouldn't they have ironed out the kinks by now?"

Wilson claims that up to that point, no matter whose name was on a given script, he himself had pretty much penned every word. That's what he says, but it's hard to imagine, since the credited writer's voice always seems to come through. (There's no mistaking a Steve Marshall script for a Steven Kampmann script.) But Wilson also notes that he was less hands-on in Season 4, and it shows -- for the better. Kampmann is gone by Season 4, but Torokvei, Marshall and Gunzelman remain -- as does Blake Hunter, the best of the bunch, and the only writer (aside from Wilson) who was on the show all four seasons. And Lissa Levin is there too, Hugh's former production secretary, who joined as a staff writer in Season 3. It's a good, solid team, who all seem to be writing the same show. It arguably takes WKRP three years to find its footing (not that unusual, especially for an MTM show: it took The Mary Tyler Moore Show two years and an overhaul; it took Newhart two years and two overhauls). And here's the caveat: I didn't enjoy the fourth season of WKRP originally nearly as much as I do now. But then I didn't enjoy Season 3 of Knots Landing nearly so much at the time either -- and they both aired during the 1981-82 season, so I have to imagine I was just having a bad year. (I was fresh out of college, and jobless.) Season 4 is rarely as funny as it thinks it is, but it's rarely less than entertaining. There are only two or three truly bad episodes, and for WKRP, that's sort of a miracle. Season 1 has a spotty premise, some undeveloped characters, and a tear in its fabric about halfway through; Season 2 has some new writers still getting a feel for the show; Season 3 is unfocused, with an uncomfortable shift towards the (melo)dramatic near the end. Season 4 has none of these problems. It's the most rewatchable season largely because it's issue-free. And being issue-free lets it soar.

So after eight paragraphs of preamble, let's discuss what's right about Season 4. It starts with a bang, a two-parter called "An Explosive Affair," that manages to be both funny and timely (and sadly, timeless), as a terrorist group called Black Monday calls in a bomb threat at the station. And from there, except for a midseason lull, you're never more than a couple weeks from a great episode: if it's not the next one, it's the one after that. (That's not damning with faint praise, either; I'd say much the same thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 6, which I like quite a lot.) But it's not just episode quality that defines Season 4. The characters grow fuller, richer, more rounded, without resorting to the "special episode" solution that marred Season 3. Each one gets, as with most ensemble shows, at least one spotlight episode, and those episodes manage to be among the series' funniest, but also among the character's most challenging, or revealing: whether it's Jennifer serving as the executrix for a departed gentleman friend ("Jennifer and the Will"); or Bailey committing an on-air breach of ethics while reporting on her experiences at a children's ward ("Dear Liar"); or Andy paying a price for the money he's secured from Carlson's mother for station improvements ("Love, Exciting and New"). Whether it's Herb facing his own mortality during a building "Fire," or Johnny pondering the ravages of time in a business dominated by youth ("Rumors"). Whether it's Mr. Carlson wrestling with how to respond to an upcoming "Union" vote; or the inflexible Les giving in to new experiences when Herb signs him up for the "I'll Take Romance" dating service (which, of course, turns out to be a front for prostitution); or Venus fretting that he's lost sight of his heritage when an urban magazine requests an interview ("Changes"). Splendid episodes, all.

That said, if you watch Season 4, you can skip "You Can't Go Out of Town Again" and "The Impossible Dream," and your life will be better for it. And you'll watch the severely undernourished "Circumstantial Evidence" with the knowledge that it was supposed to be a two-parter, but CBS got cold feet, and you'll forgive it. And you'll wonder why the season's one episode to feature both Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman (arguably the series' only episode to wed them in an A-plot), "Jennifer and Johnny's Charity," never reaches the heights it should, particularly since it's written by the series' best writer -- but you'll enjoy watching them share screen time so much that you'll let it pass. And mostly, you'll do your best to excuse the rampant homophobia, which is incessant and uncomfortable. WKRP had always mined people's discomfort with homosexuality for easy laughs; this was the era of Three's Company, after all: that's what shows did. You expect WKRP to be better, but it's not. (Its third episode aired, "Les on a Ledge," is all about Les's suicidal response to rumors that he's gay. I remember when it first aired, TV Guide extolled that it wasn't really about homosexuality, but more about the damage caused by rumor and innuendo, like Hellman's Children's Hour. No, it's really about homosexuality: to be specific, how being seen as gay would be the worst thing in the world.) Season 4 goes for the cheap gay laugh every chance it gets: at one point, three times in five episodes. The message is: we've restored the black man's dignity, and detonated the "dumb blonde" myth, but fags are still fair game. (Staff writer Peter Torokvei transitioned into PJ Torokvei in the 1990's; I do wonder if she ever looked back on her years on WKRP and regretted the steady stream of gay jokes -- but then, when WKRP aired, and for years after, there was no such thing as an LGBT community.)

But as you watch Season 4, you'll put up with -- and maybe forgive -- all that, as you revel in the barrage of memorable lines:

Johnny [on air, from "The Union"]: WKRP, with your generous help and support, has now climbed to 10th place in the Cincinnati market. If I sound emotional about this, it's because I can still hear my father saying: "Son, no matter what you decide to do in this life, always try to come in 10th."

Bailey [to Herb, from "Rumors"]: Continuity is so important. Thank you for always being a jerk.

Les [from "Jennifer and the Will"]: What is an executrix?
Herb: I don't know. High heels and a whole lot of leather, something like that.

Bailey [from "Changes"]: Have you noticed that you can't tell what color someone is over the phone?
Venus: I guess not.
Bailey: I mean, when I heard Black Life Magazine, I was expecting him to be like "Hey, little mama, you tell the dude I'll be here at fo'." But he didn't. He sounded just like you!
Venus: What does she mean "just like me?" I'm black, I'm from the street, I can say "fo'!"
Johnny: That's right, Kingfish. You is, and you does. But the problem is, you sound neutral.
Venus: Neutral. You mean "white."
Johnny: Well, don't worry, pal. I've heard you say "upside your head," things like that. You can pass for black.
Venus: I don't want to "pass for black," I want to be black! What the hell am I saying?

Jennifer [from "I'll Take Romance"]: Les, relationships don't happen every day. You have to wait for them. But just because you think you have a relationship that you really don't have, doesn't mean you're not worthy of having one -- if it's real.
Les: Are you trying to tell me that I'm not worthy of Lorraine?
Jennifer: No... I'm trying to tell you that Lorraine is not worthy of you.
Les: She cost $200.
Jennifer: No, she charges $200. [a pause] Les, I'm talking about the oldest profession.
Les: Lorraine's a farmer?

And one sturdy season arc holds it all together. Andy was hired in the pilot to save the station, which was languishing in last place. At the start of Season 4, they've shot up to tenth place in the Cincinnati market, and by the season's end, they're sixth. The station gets more successful, and it's a recurring motif that grounds the season. At the heart of Season 4 is the question of how these eight people deal with unexpected success: through talks of unions, through increased workloads and added pressures, through rumors of re-staffing and reshuffling. And even when it's not the station's status at the heart of an episode, there's often the broader theme of people finding themselves charged with responsibility they're simply not prepared for. The question that underlies the first three seasons is: how do you raise the ratings at a radio station? It's a nice idea, but aside from countless promotions and Andy poking his head in the DJ booth from time to time and yelling "Johnny, play the hits," there's no easy way to dramatize it. But the question underlying the fourth (and final season) is: how do you maintain a successful radio station, particularly when half the staff is incompetent? How do you embrace success without letting it change you, or worse, corrupt you? And that is something that can be dramatized, and is, over and over again, perhaps never more persuasively than in one of the series' most unassuming episodes, Season 4's "To Err Is Human." It's a Lissa Levin script, and the premise is simple: Herb was supposed to hire a photographer to shoot Venus, for a series of shampoo ads; instead, Herb decides to pocket the money and shoot the ad himself -- and accidentally substitutes a shot of himself at a family BBQ:

Mr. Carlson: Well, Herb, what do you think? What we have here is an ad for Soul Suds Shampoo, a shampoo that's exclusively marketed to the hip black customer. Am I right?
Herb: Yes, sir.
Mr. Carlson: Then why are we looking at a picture of this really idiotic-looking white man?

It's as standard a sitcom premise as you'll find -- the screw-up that must be made right. But underneath, there are complex (often unspoken) workplace issues. Because, you see, Mr. Carlson wants to fire Herb for his mistake, except that Mr. Carlson is frankly no better at his job than Herb. And ultimately the ones who have to make it right are Andy and Jennifer, simply because they can -- except because neither has the authority to do so, they end up working at cross-purposes and making it worse. The whole episode is ultimately about trying to save the job of a man who deserves to be fired, simply because -- in work language -- he's "family." And why not? Because just as Mr. Carlson shows, by his willingness to step it up and terminate Herb, that he himself can be responsible and even formidable when it's called for, the possibility exists that perhaps Herb can, too -- unless, of course, he can't. But you save someone because that possibility exists, and because they're "family" -- oh, and because of one more thing:

Jennifer: Mr. Sherman, WKRP is a very unusual radio station. We hire some people that otherwise couldn't get jobs at another radio station.
The Clientt: Like that Tarlek fellow, right?
Jennifer: Exactly like that Tarlek fellow. I don't think I would be spreading tales if I were to tell you that he probably couldn't get another job in the city, let alone the state. And, well... I like him. It's crazy, but I like him.

You save someone because you like them. You like them even if they've hounded you and harassed you and hit on you for four years. You like them because, in Season 4, as the writing get deeper, things like old hostilities seem trivial somehow.

But there's more to that scene; it continues:

Jennifer: I'm the one who sent him over here, and I don't want him to get fired.
The Client: So you took it upon yourself to come down here and change my mind?
Jennifer: Yes.
The Client: I can't help you.
Jennifer: You're very self-assured -- I like that.
The Client: Thank you.
Jennifer: I also like a little compassion.
The Client: I'm a perfectionist. When you're handicapped, you're always trying to show the world that you can be a little better.
Jennifer: I know all about that.
The Client: You do?
Jennifer: Mm-hmm. I'm a pretty blonde, so when people meet me, they naturally think I'm dumb.
The Client: Oh, I didn't think so.
Jennifer: Well, that's because you can see through all that. And I'm sure you can see through me. I came down here because I thought a pretty face could help you change your mind.

And of course, her candor does prompt the client to change his mind. And suddenly a screwball situation involving two characters (Herb and Venus) turns into a character study for another (Jennifer), which offhand I can't think of a precedent for in sitcom history. But more than that, the episode illustrates -- as so much of Season 4 does, confidently -- the growing pains of a newly successful radio station: where the strong have to look after the weak; where the weak will vow to change, and probably can't; where change is inevitable and gratifying and terrifying, and rumors rampant and indistinguishable from fact. Where everyone is suddenly in new, uncharted territory where even the best will fail -- but they'll fail together, and with any luck, they might just fail up. WKRP Season 4 is a lovely season, and well worth the three years it took the writers to get there. I recommend it highly.

Want more WKRP? If so, check out my 10 Best WKRP in Cincinnati Episodes and my close-up on Blake Hunter, which includes a more detailed look at "Jennifer and the Will." And if you enjoy in-depth looks at hit sitcoms, I serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes, my 10 Best Designing Women episodes and my 10 Best Kate & Allie episodes; delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7 and Bewitched Season 2; pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the ill-judged Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and fourteen essays devoted to each season of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.


  1. You hit the nails on their heads in your analysis of the multi-faceted characters and characterizations of WKRP. I shouldn't be surprised to read in Hugh Wilson's obit that he also helmed a couple of my favorite movies that also seem to have more depth on repeated viewings - Guarding Tess and First Wives Club. And as a young gay man watching WKRP in the day, I couldn't help but fantasize that Andy Travis with his tight pants and luscious hair was a closeted gay guy off-screen, outside of the show plots, as he didn't seem to have a love life on the show.

    1. So glad you enjoyed. So weird to think it's been nearly five years since I posted that essay -- back when I wasn't on social media, and had no idea how to publicize this blog! (It's amazing anyone found it.) I confess, this is an essay that I had mixed feelings about after I posted it -- I feared it was too mean, or at least, too critical. I loved WKRP, but as I note, it was so uneven, and I think because it could soar to such heights, that made it all the more upsetting when -- the week after a great episode -- you'll tune in and the next episode would be a dud. I'm sure you were not the only one with a crush on Andy Travis, with his wavy hair and his tight jeans -- I was somehow immune, but I guarantee you were not alone. I always felt a little bad for Gary Sandy, as the show was devised as a star vehicle, and then, of course, it turned into an ensemble comedy where almost everyone got more attention than he did. But at least in Season 4, they figure out a way to expand his character into deeper, darker territory, and he's terrific.

  2. I am often amazed at how much I used to watch in terms of reruns rather frequently as a kid that I barely even remember many of the details about anymore.

    WKRP was one of those shows. I used to make weird video skits back then and I even remember basing one of them on WKRP as if it was like my new favorite old show. But I have not seen an episode in probably 25 years lol

    I do remember loving the ensemble. Howard Hesseman is a favorite because he was one of the lesser known great hosts of SNL back around the era when WKRP would've just went off the air. His monologues were basically frothing at the mouth attacks on Reagan at a time where the show was not really being political. Those SNL moments I saw on Comedy Central are what drove me to try WKRP when it began airing on Nick-at-Nite.

    Still though, there wasn't a true weak link in that cast. Even Gary Sandy was charming for the type of role that it was.