And yet. And yet I’ve written about a slew of sitcoms on this site, and this is the only one I’ve visited more than once, let alone three times, as I am now doing. So what is it that keeps pulling me back to WKRP? What is it that keeps pulling so many people back? It’s not just the turkey drop. Dick Martin, the comedian who became a highly-regarded TV director, once observed, “With a sitcom, it is ninety-nine percent casting. The rest is the writing.“ I presume Martin meant it as hyperbole, but still, I can think of few sitcoms that better make his point. WKRP was undoubtedly one of the best matches of character and actor in the history of television (and for that, we have to acknowledge not just Wilson, but original casting director Bob Manahan). The characters felt novel on the page, but also comfortingly plausible on the stage; the actors knew exactly how to magnify both the uniqueness and the recognizability of the characters. We may not have seen a Herb Tarlek on TV before, but as Frank Bonner essayed him, we all knew someone like Herb Tarlek — or at the very least, believed every radio station had a Herb Tarlek. If drug-culture carryover Dr. Johnny Fever seemed one of the most unusual creatures to ever inhabit the small screen, Howard Hesseman fully convinced you that he was the sort of freak of nature — and force of nature — that had long weathered the world of AM radio. And Loni Anderson and Jan Smithers, so perfectly cast and played, invited the same “whom do you prefer” salivating from adolescent and post-pubescent boys previously reserved for Ginger and Mary Ann.
And of course, the series had a refreshingly subversive quality to it. Subversive in terms of how certain characters were conceived (Johnny Fever), subversive in terms of how others were developed (Venus Flytrap) — and subversive, too, in terms of subject matter. When he first pitched WKRP to the network, Hugh Wilson described the premise as “the suits vs. the dungarees”: the old guard vs. the new. It was a premise that was ultimately scrapped through the course of the first season, as the core characters became a friendlier and closer unit. But it’s not just a concept that infuses the early plots; it infuses the feel of the show itself. WKRP is the teenager we all remember being, in a house full of adults. Not the rebellious teenager who thought he knew more and didn’t, but rather the teenager who’d reached a certain level of maturity — who could emulate his elders, but didn’t care to. The kid who isn’t necessarily wiser than his parents, but shrewder, braver. Less tied to a sense of decorum, which makes him the envy and despair of his elders. There’s a tug-of-war at the heart of WKRP that makes it irresistible. It speaks to the kid who thinks he knows more than his parents (and often does), and to the parent who wishes they had the reckless freedom of their kid.
You never know quite what you’re going to get when you tune into a WKRP episode. You have the characters to ground you, but the subject matter and tone can go just about anywhere. One episode might be a farcical caper about retrieving dirty pictures; the next might tackle a topical issue, exposing one of its core characters as racist. The dialogue might be as deliciously dippy as Les, on air, warning of an impending “monster lizard” (because the “b” on the printer has gone out); at other times, the show might take to pondering “the philosophy of Camus.” (“Existentialism is perhaps the answer,” Jennifer informs Bailey, in the sort of reference almost demonically designed to go over viewers’ heads.) Throughout the series’ original run, you could see the writers testing the limits of what was acceptable for a sitcom, and an MTM sitcom in particular — testing limits in terms of being both crazier and more daring than its predecessors. WKRP was the MTM show that said, defiantly, “We can go much further than you did.” No wonder a lot of the MTM brass — and Bud Grant, head of CBS — hated the show. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem all that odd that Mary Tyler Moore herself, in what seemed like a spectacularly tone-deaf remark about an acclaimed show produced by her own company, once told a reporter, “Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t watch it.” A lot of animals are (comically) mistreated during the course of WKRP: turkeys dropped from helicopters, ducks made to dance on hot plates, frogs spray-painted till they croak. WKRP took that adorable MTM kitten and strung it up by its paws.
Below, my Top 10 episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati, plus (as you expect by now if you’ve visited this site before) another 10 that I particularly love. But first, a word of warning. When Friends debuted for streaming in the UK a few years back, first-time viewers were quick to label the show homophobic, for the occasional plot point or remark that was decidedly non-PC. I’ve never found anything about Friends homophobic, but WKRP: well, that’s another matter. WKRP consistently 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, and in many ways, because its aspirations were so much higher than those of Three’s Company, it’s worse. (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 Lillian Hellman's The 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.) WKRP goes for the cheap gay laugh every chance it gets — at one point in Season 4, three times in five episodes — and if it’s not a joke about someone being gay, it’s a joke about someone getting a sex change. Nowadays, as you watch, you do your best to excuse the homophobia and transphobia, which is incessant and uncomfortable — just as many of us did when the show originally aired. We focused on what was good, and lamented what was offensive, and thank goodness, there was a whole lot of the former. On to the countdown.
10. Patter of Little Feet: Two of the WKRP characters — Loni Anderson‘s Jennifer Marlowe and Tim Reid’s Venus Flytrap — countered expectations. The buxom blonde turned out to be intelligent and articulate; the Black DJ with the flamboyant attire was, in fact, soulful and soft-spoken. Critics couldn’t see it at first, but sometimes the writers themselves fell into old stereotypes — and as a result, Jennifer and Venus’s characterizations remained inconsistent throughout much of the first season. Other characters, like Herb and Les, went through growing pains of their own. “Patter of Little Feet,” the eighth episode of Season 2, pinpoints the moment when all the characters finally feel fully shaped and polished. You sense a newfound creative confidence — and the audience senses it, too. Good lines start getting huge laughs. It’s a kind of exhilaration peculiar to three-camera comedy, when you feel a show is hitting its stride, and then you hear in the laugh track that the audience realizes it too. “Patter of Little Feet” is buoyed by that sense of shared euphoria, but it’s also a dandy little episode in its own right. Carlson’s wife Carmen arrives at the station with news that she’s pregnant; it inspires some amusing responses among the staff, and a decidedly unamused response from Mother Carlson, who — with Carmen‘s age and health in mind — suggests an abortion. This was an amazing time in American television, when networks — less than a decade after Roe v. Wade, and before Reagan conservatism began to impact content — would still allow abortion to be presented as a reasonable response to an unwanted pregnancy (as opposed to, say, now, when even the word itself is taboo and coded in questions like “have you considered your options?" — and it's perfectly clear which option won't be considered). Blake Hunter turned out quite a few episodes centered around the Carlson family; this is the first to explore Arthur and Carmen’s relationship, and it presents them as dysfunctionally selfless, each willing to please the other at the expense of their own happiness. It’s a dynamic that doesn’t seem tacked on for the sake of conflict; it rings true to character and leads to a wonderful comic blowup near the end, as Arthur and Carmen grow progressively more heated about the other’s refusal to be selfish. In the best Mary Tyler Moore Show fashion, the issues at hand — the impending baby, and the notion of an older couple having an active sex life — are passed from character to character, as each weighs in with anecdotes and observations. (Herb: “Everybody knows that once you’ve been married a year or two, the heavy stuff is gone.” Bailey: “Not so. Research shows that the average married couple makes love 2.96 times a week.” Johnny: “I wonder how they get the .96 part. Somebody is not doing something right.”) And in a scene near the end that establishes that this is most assuredly not a traditional MTM show, there’s a great “mixed-signals” exchange where Venus is unclear if Mr. Carlson is cheating — or flirting — or admitting to a predilection for underage girls. (A gag in the tag makes marvelous misuse of a classic tune from Gigi.) Also worth a look: the following episode, “Baby, If You’ve Ever Wondered.” Bill Dial was a staff writer throughout Season 1; before he left, early in season 2, he had a chance to update us on how the station had fared since Andy Travis switched the format from easy listening to Top 40 — and the resulting episode manages to be both uplifting and downbeat. Most of the characters are delighted to see the ratings slowly rising (from #16 to #14 in the local market), but not Andy. He expected more. He had always achieved more. But he let himself get too friendly with the employees at the station, then didn’t have the guts to let them go. It’s the first glimpse of a darker Andy that won’t become his default characterization until Season 4 (and when it does, it’s a huge boost to the show). There’s something gratifyingly unsettling about the message of this episode. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had done a handful of episodes where the characters had to accept the mediocrity of the station where they worked. But those episodes (“WJM Tries Harder,” “The Outsider”) either had an upbeat denouement, where WJM managed to scoop their rival stations, or an underlying message about the value of personal connections. “Baby, If You’ve Ever Wondered” refuses to take the easy way out. It says that you and your work colleagues can build a wonderful community, one that’s even like a family — and still it’s not enough.
9. In Concert: Steven Kampmann and PJ Torokvei (then Peter Torokvei) came to WKRP in Season 2 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. 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 — but Wilson seemed to love them. I came to appreciate Torokvei’s skill, but I never took to Kampmann; his scripts mostly seem like rejects from a sketchcom. (One of his best-remembered episodes — 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 in fact taken from a Second City sketch he wrote.) But this episode is pretty magnificent. It’s inspired by The Who concert disaster that occurred on December 3, 1979, when the British rock band performed at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, and the stadium’s “festival seating” policy led to a rush of attendees outside the entry doors that resulted in 11 deaths. There’s no way, Wilson reasoned, that the show could ignore the event (the network disagreed), and he was right. The first half is all about a concert that night that several WKRP employees are attending. The design doesn’t reveal which concert; the deliberate lack of detail means the first half has to rely on skits and set pieces, so it’s tailor-made for Kampmann. (There’s a good running gag about Mr. Carlson wearing — and then forgetting he’s wearing — a relaxation mask.) The fact that The Who are headlining isn’t revealed till the final line of Act I — leaving the viewer to sit there stunned during the commercial break by the sudden knowledge of what's to come, and leaving the cast, in Act II, to respond to the events of the previous night, in shock and grief and anger. And guilt: WKRP had been doing a ticket giveaway. Halting monologues are interlaced with tender exchanges. (Les implores Bailey to help him cover the story, but she cautions him: “I don’t know, Les. I feel so angry and sad and confused...” But he reassures her: “I need you, Bailey. You were at the concert, and I wasn’t. Look, if we work at this thing together, we can handle it better than any other station, local or national.” It’s one of the few times that Les is willing to work with Bailey on a news story, but the way he pleads with her doesn’t feel hollow or inspirational; it feels like a request borne out of shared grief and responsibility.) And it all culminates in a lovely speech by Mr. Carlson. Gary Sandy once told a Cincinnati news reporter that Gordon Jump was “always pushing for the integrity of the city.” Jump’s emotions run deep as he expresses pride for Cincinnati and a belief that the town leaders will do the right thing, as it were, in concert: “You know, Venus, there’s been a lot of talk about setting up a commission to look into what happened. It’s not going to be just talk — this town’s gonna do it. Ah, it’s a good town, Venus. We’re responsible people.” As indeed they were: 24 days after the concert, the city of Cincinnati banned festival seating. “In Concert” manages to respond to current events without getting preachy or static. It feels not just like a suitable tribute to those who died that night, and to a city that responded swiftly and decisively, but like a damn good sitcom episode as well. Also worth a look: a fictional disaster, and a much smaller one, as the Flimm Building is engulfed in a “Fire.” It’s a fourth-season episode that seemingly unfolds in real time, when a fire on the fifth floor traps Jennifer and Herb in the elevator, and the others are left trying to rescue them. By this point in the series’ run, pretty much every scene between Frank Bonner and Loni Anderson is a gift. It’s staggering how far their characters have come since Herb was hitting on Jennifer in most every episode; their dynamic evolves and deepens through the course of four seasons, and the actors’ work together becomes increasingly fascinating to watch. Writer Dan Gunzelman hands them wonderfully revealing lines: Jennifer’s scared, unconvincing insistence “We’re gonna be just fine. Things always work out for me”; Herb’s surprisingly self-aware outburst “I don’t want to die in this suit”; and his paranoid realization “I know why this is happening. God wants me out of the way and he’s burning down a whole building to do it” — and to make his case, he recounts the litany of crises and indignities he’s endured since the pilot episode.
8. To Err Is Human: The final episode filmed (although not the final one aired), it speaks to a theme that distinguishes all of Season 4, as WKRP rises to #10 in the Cincinnati market: how do you maintain a successful radio station when half your staff is incompetent? Herb was supposed to hire a photographer to shoot Venus, for a series of shampoo ads; instead, he decided to pocket the money and shoot the ad himself — then accidentally substituted a shot of himself at a family BBQ. The result — a great sight gag — finds Herb’s face plastered on life-size cutouts all over town, modeling Soul Suds shampoo. “To Err is Human” asks “how much longer can you afford to hold on to screwups like Herb Tarlek?” Why would you hold onto him? Even Mr. Carlson is ready to let him go — and improbably, it’s Jennifer who comes to his rescue, by taking matters into her own hands. But when she pays a visit to the client whose ad Herb has botched, determined to use her allure in her favor, she’s startled to discover that the man is blind. Nonetheless, she makes her case: “WKRP is a very unusual radio station. We hire some people that otherwise couldn't get jobs at another radio station.” “Like that Tarlek fellow?” the client presumes. “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.” By Season 4, as the writing and characters deepen, things like old hostilities seem trivial. So even if someone has hounded you and harassed you and hit on you for four years, you work to save them because — well, because you’ve grown to like them. But the client remains unmoved: “I'm a perfectionist. When you're handicapped, you're always trying to show the world that you can be a little better.” And Jennifer finds common ground: “I know all about that. I'm a pretty blonde, so when people meet me, they naturally think I'm dumb.” (It’s a dressing down of all the critics who couldn’t see the Jennifer Marlowe character clearly when she was introduced — not to mention the all-male writing staff that couldn’t capture her properly either.) She ultimately switches tactics, baring her soul, and her candor prompts the client to change his mind. “To Err Is Human” has got great running gags: a pushy salesman who can’t get past Jennifer until it’s useful for her to let him, and in one of my favorites bits, Jennifer messing with Mr. Carlson‘s head, to keep him busy while she problem solves. (She hurries Les into Mr. Carlson’s office, telling him Mr. Carlson wants to discuss the metric system. A baffled Mr. Carlson emerges from his office — “Jennifer, do I have an appointment with Les Nessman?” — and Jennifer pretends to check her book: “Let me see… Les Nessman. Les — yes, yes: the metric system. 10:45 to 12:15.” And Mr. Carlson slinks back into his office.) Watching “To Err Is Human,” you feel you could pretty much watch an entire season of the cast screwing up royally and Jennifer setting things right; in some ways, it’s the strength of this (largely unheralded) episode that makes folks think that’s precisely the show they’ve been watching for four years. Also worth a look: “I’ll Take Romance,” another of Lissa Levin’s Season 4 entries, this one spotlighting Richard Sanders. In need of a date for an upcoming broadcast dinner, Les agrees to use the computer dating service that Herb has recently signed as a new account; unfortunately, it turns out to be a front for prostitution. It’s got some of my favorite jokes, all rooted in character: Andy’s prideful response to Herb’s new client (“I don’t need a computerized dating service to meet girls. I meet 'em the old-fashioned way: pick 'em up in bars“) and Les’s response to learning from Jennifer that his date Lorraine practices the world’s oldest profession: “Lorraine’s a farmer?” (Linda Bloodworth-Thomason liked that joke so much, she cribbed it for the first-season Designing Women episode “Monette.”) And if you watch the episode enough times, you’ll be hard-pressed to watch anyone jogging by without imagining them doing ”a bit of logging.”
7. Dear Liar: The great Bailey Quarters episode, drawn from a real-life incident the previous year, when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke wrote an account of an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, an article that won her the Pulitzer Prize; unfortunately, she had made up the story. (The Pulitzer was rescinded, and she was ultimately fired. The incident is referenced in this episode.) Because the show never figured out much of a way of making Bailey’s job interesting — traffic and continuity: really? — writer Steve Marshall once again channels her Season 2 desire to become a reporter, and the rivalry between her and Les. Mother Carlson wants Les to write a story about a children’s ward whose efforts she supports, but he’s too caught up in his efforts to win the coveted Buckeye Newshawk Award (by exposing the plight of “the lowly rutabaga,” which is facing extinction). He sends Bailey out on the story, then steals the copy she’s left typewritten on his desk. Jan Smithers is wonderful in this one; by making Bailey so energized by the opportunity and — befitting her character — so committed to a worthy cause, she ensures that her enthusiasm never seems naive (“You won’t be sorry,” she promises Les. “Just wait till you read it. You’re gonna love it”) and that her naivety never seems foolish. (“I would like to find out everything I can about your organization,” she informs the head of the children’s ward: “Then I can write my story and solve your problem.”) It’s one of those lovely moments that crop up throughout TV history where an actor’s delight in being given something decent to do is indistinguishable from their character’s. This could easily have turned into a “special episode” (it’s about sick children, after all, and the challenges of getting funding to help them), but it maintains a steady stream of jokes that keep it from descending into preachiness or mawkishness — particularly when Les goes on air with the story that Bailey wrote for herself (“Speaking as someone who someday hopes to bear children,” he reads, then desperately ad-libs, “to bear children on my shoulders — men do that, you know”), and later when, at Andy’s insistence, he looks up the word “plagiarism” in the dictionary without grasping its significance. Bailey’s fictionalized account of her visit to a children’s ward could cost the station its license, but it doesn’t; it could cost Bailey her job, but it doesn’t. But the resolutions don’t seem pat — as Andy puts it, convincingly, “You screwed up. Around here, that makes you normal.” Even the way Andy leaves things between them serves as a lovely character beat. (“If you ever do that again,” he warns her, “you’ll be the best-looking reporter on the unemployment line” — but all she hears is “best looking?”) It’s well-helmed by Frank Bonner, his sixth and final such WKRP credit (he’d go on to great directorial success after the show shuttered), and features a crackerjack guest turn by Barbara Cason. Also worth a look: “Mike Fright,” another episode about a major broadcasting faux pas, this time when Johnny, reporting on a garbage strike and disgusted by the lack of government action, instructs listeners to dump their trash on the steps of City Hall — and they do. Dan Gunzelman’s first script (a Cincinnati native, he’d go on to write more episodes than anyone) proves a great showcase for Howard Hesseman, and a nice exploration of the growing bond between Johnny and Bailey. And it’s held together by shrewd symmetry. At the top, Bailey is marveling at how Johnny can speak so easily to such a large (unseen) audience, and he advises her to imagine speaking to just one person. Near the end, when the City Hall debacle finds Johnny struck dumb by the power of his words, Bailey reminds him of his advice, and suggests he pretend he’s talking to one person: her — leading to his breakthrough: “Hello… and good afternoon, Cincinnati… I sure would like to take you home and kiss you all over in the dark.”
6. Real Families: As WKRP began its third season, a strange imbalance arose. Hugh Wilson has since made a distinction between the characters who were “funny” (Herb, Les, Mr. Carlson) and those who were “real” (Andy, Jennifer, Bailey), and admitted “it’s just easier to write for funny characters.” Torokvei has admitted a preference for “foible-laden characters” like Herb, and Kampmann has conceded that Herb was his kindred spirit. As Season 3 gets underway, their three aesthetics start to assert themselves; you feel an unnerving shift from an ensemble show to one dominated by Herb Tarlek. (At one point early in Season 3, he’s the lead player in five of nine consecutive episodes.) And because Frank Bonner was such a gifted comedian, and because the writers had such affection for him, those episodes tend to be good; they just steer the show away from what you want or expect. Torokvei’s “Real Families” is the first Season 3 episode to focus on Herb, and it’s easily the best: a skewering of the sort of reality-based programming that was then making a splash on the small screen. (Its obvious target was Real People, which had premiered the previous year, and which, in the kind of irony you can never see coming, would prove WKRP’s chief competition and ultimate undoing the following season.) Here, a (fictional) TV show entitled Real Families accepts an invitation from the Tarlek Family to profile them, and the entire episode is scripted and shot as if it were an episode of that series. (It was one of WKRP’s lowest-rated episodes; people actually tuned out, thinking it had been preempted that night in favor of some new reality show. Given that the Tarleks are referenced in the first thirty seconds, that pretty much gives lie to the notion that viewers had longer attention spans back then.) The camera crew fools the Tarleks by showing up a day early — to catch them off guard — then trails the family (who have claimed to be avid churchgoers) as they seek to find a church that’s open. It’s all great material, and Bonner and Edie McClurg (as his wife Lucille) make the most of it. We see the WKRP crew, the following day, give the prerehearsed speeches Herb has handed them (“Herb Tarlek is a hard worker, loyal husband and all-around fine person”) — each of them finding a different way of justifying lying on camera. By the end, because the crew has proven so insistent and intrusive, Herb’s blowup (“Nothing on the tube is real!”) feels earned, and because everything has been seen through the eyes of the faux-reality camera, a running joke about Herb’s embarrassment that his son wants to play with dolls is wrapped up in a sweet moment that manages to be blissfully understated. Marred only by a wink-wink ending in which the presenters announce that next week they’ll be going to New York City to visit “a Cuban bandleader” and his “red headed housewife.” It’s one thing when Lucille Tarlek references Little House on the Prairie, and the show gets in a jab at its chief competition during its first two seasons: “It’s about blind children out west, and every week they have a fire, or someone gets an incurable disease. We enjoy it very much.” (Hugh Wilson once joked that whenever Little House was lagging in the ratings, they’d blind another kid.) But the I Love Lucy gag is the only time you hear the voice of the writer — taking you out of the show (Real Families), out of the show within a show (WKRP in Cincinnati), and even out of the time period itself (1980) — and it’s a really poor judgment call. Also worth a look: the last of the series of Herb-centric episodes in Season 3, “Frog Story.” It’s a plot that became practically de rigueur once the Emmy went to The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles Bites the Dust”: the episode that finds the entire cast laughing at something inappropriate. Here the victim is the pet frog of Herb’s daughter Bonnie, which Herb — while spray painting cabinets — has accidentally painted pink. We never see the pink frog; we don’t need to. The characters’ reactions are specific and wonderful enough. (Herb: “His name’s Greenpeace, Les. And he’s pink. So don’t look at him and tell me he’s pink, ‘cause I already know that.” Les, looking: “Oooh!”— then back to Herb: “He’s pink.”) At the end, Herb tries to pass off a new frog as Greenpeace, but Bonnie sees through the ruse. “Hello, new frog,” she greets her replacement pet. “Welcome to my room. I think you’re gonna like it here. But stay away from my daddy.” In the Tarlek household, it’s clear, father knows least. A great episode, weakened only by a Johnny-Les subplot that doesn’t come off.
5. Jennifer’s Home for Christmas: If “Patter of Little Feet,” early in Season 2, marks the spot where all the characters — particularly Jennifer — feel fully formed, then “Jennifer’s Home for Christmas,” a few weeks later, is the first time they all have equal opportunities to be funny and vital and crucial. It’s perhaps the first WKRP episode that really reveals the richness of the design, in terms of the multiple ways these eight characters can play off each other, and be not only amusing and interesting in their own right, but in terms of how they’re paired. There are two big centerpieces that involve the entire cast — the office Christmas party, and an impromptu gathering at Jennifer’s apartment — and they’re both marvels of construction. Dan Gunzelman and Steve Marshall’s script provides a steady stream of laughs, and never more so than in the way it makes sport of the holiday itself. (The episode starts with Johnny promising to play a song that captures the true spirit of Christmas, and it turns out to be The Barking Dogs’ take on “Jingle Bells.” Later, when he and Venus show up at Jennifer’s apartment with a Yuletide offering, he announces, “In the spirit of Christmas, we killed a tree for you.”) The episode has Jennifer being evasive about her Christmas plans, leading the others to deduce that she has no plans at all. The solution, when it comes, turns out to be — as Bailey puts it — perfect, but the wonderful thing about the episode is that the real reason that Jennifer’s been evasive isn’t that much of a game changer. The whole episode has merely been a MacGuffin to put a new twist on a Christmas story, and to let the cast interact in surprising ways. There are unstressed character beats throughout that, to our delight and surprise, result in great payoffs — including Mr. Carlson’s lament that his mother always complains about the size of his tree; Bailey’s frustration at being unable to book a flight home; and Herb showing up at Jennifer’s to give her "her Christmas goose.” (Les, blithely: “Where’s the goose, Herb? I don’t see any goose.”) I remember so clearly watching this episode when it originally aired; I was directing a children’s theatre production of Mary Poppins at college, and was doing tech till way past midnight. Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, the lighting designer and I — too wired to sleep — made our way to my apartment; I had VCR’ed this episode earlier that evening, and we watched. We practically purred with delight. I remember thinking that WKRP had finally reached a level of quality and consistency that it was sure to maintain. The following week, I tuned into the next episode — Steven Kampmann and P.J. Torokvei’s first, it should be noted — and loathed it. WKRP could really break your heart. Also worth a look: “Ask Jennifer,” another good Jennifer Marlowe episode, this one a Season 3 effort from freelancers Joyce Armor and Judie Neer. (They had written one of the best early episodes, in which Bailey tries to produce a weekly 15-minute talk show. It contains one of my favorite exchanges — and one of the first to nail both Bailey and Jennifer’s characters — as Bailey, following the failure of the first broadcast, tells Jennifer that she’s going to go to her office and cry, and Jennifer insists: “Bailey, women who want to be broadcast producers do not cry in public.” Bailey takes heed: “Then I’ll cry in my car on the way home,” and Jennifer, satisfied, assures her, “That’s the way men do it.”) Here, Herb is charged with finding a host for a new Dear Abby-type show, but fails so miserably that Jennifer is forced to take the reins — and take the mike, becoming the station’s new advice lady. The episode is buoyed by two clever “passage of time” montages, one as Herb is searching for the advice lady, the other as he’s searching for Jennifer’s replacement. It’s a very good episode that, nonetheless, reveals the challenge in finding storylines for Jennifer, the woman who has it all and can do it all. The turning point — when a call comes in from a woman whose husband is beating her, and Jennifer feels responsible because of all the flip advice she’s been handing out — feels unconvincing. For three years, Jennifer has been putting out fires at the station; she’s also well read and well informed. Would she really have no idea what to do under the circumstances? So her meltdown and resulting proclamation — “I don’t want people to need me“ — don’t quite ring true. But it’s a delightful showcase anyway; Anderson changes outfits and hairstyles countless times, and sometimes, as a viewer, that’s all you need.
4. Baby, It’s Cold Inside: In a 1974 essay I’ve always admired, Carol Traynor Williams, professor of humanities at Roosevelt University, took a look at The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then early into its fourth season, and defined the MTM style as “a continuing comic-drama about a group of human beings who are connected to and care about each other, and with whom we are made to feel a connection and concern.” The best MTM scripts, she noted, “affirm the complexity of every human being; they parade their every butt and foil and insist (no less stubbornly for their subtlety) that we see their dignity." This essay anticipated two decades of programming, from Rhoda to Newhart, from The White Shadow to Hill Street Blues. And to my mind, there was no greater practitioner of the MTM "house style" than Blake Hunter. Hunter had written only one script, for the MTM-produced Tony Randall Show, before moving over to WKRP, so it doesn't seem so much about him learning the house style as simply intuiting it. During his years on WKRP, he imbued every character with dignity, defying all temptation to mock or ridicule for an easy laugh. (Hunter’s self-assessment, when we communicated briefly in 2019, was sweetly humble and self-deprecating: “I just bumbled along, and if I did the right thing now and then, well, I was lucky.”) Here, Mother Carlson, who up to this point had been a fairly one-dimensional antagonist, is fleshed out. She’s not merely made human; she’s made pretty wonderful. (Carol Bruce, who took over the role of Mother Carlson when Sylvia Sidney was unavailable after the pilot, proved to a godsend to the series. Although she wasn’t used prominently until Season 4, this Season 3 episode is not only her best offering, but one of the show’s as well.) Mother Carlson pays an unexpected visit to the station one morning when the heat has gone out. Johnny fears he’s going to be fired because he was drinking on the air, while Les views her presence as an opportunity to finally get some walls for his office. But mostly, as Mother Carlson and Jennifer bond over brandy, it’s an extended two-hander between two strong actresses playing two strong women (both of them wrapped in full-length furs). As Mother Carlson waits for her son, who’s running late, she opens up to Jennifer about how she became the woman she is today: from her youthful days on the Broadway stage (“I started in the chorus, but I had talent, and soon the parts got bigger“) to her future husband Hank's appearance backstage one night with a bouquet of violets (“He congratulated me on my magnificent performance, and I congratulated him on his magnificent shoulders”) to his inattention to the radio station, which led to her taking over day-to-day operations: “That hurt Hank — oh, but I was too busy to notice.” As you watch, the premise appears to be what I described above — "Mother Carlson pays an unexpected visit to the station one morning when the heat has gone out" — and that's enough: the scenes have been solid, the jokes have landed, the backstory has given you insight into an underdeveloped character. But then Hunter reveals the hidden design that explains everything — her appearance at the station, her sad reminiscences, her ultimately making (in her words) "a complete fool out of myself," even her son's tardiness — and you realize how exquisitely assembled the episode has been been, and how sweet: much like the bouquet of violets that haunts both the past and present. Also worth a look: “Love, Exciting and New” — another Bruce showcase, this one a Lissa Levin effort from Season 4, and part of a continuing subplot about Andy wooing Mother Carlson to get money for improvements. Andy is put on the defensive when news of their “arrangement” spreads throughout the station. (Venus: “Andy’s dating Mrs. Carlson.” Johnny: “Which one? His wife or his mother?” Andy: “His mother. What kind of guy do you think I am?” Johnny: “Gee, Travis, I don’t know.”) The episode takes a look at sexual harassment before anyone was talking about sexual harassment, and in its frankness about the pleasure Mother Carlson takes in having someone young and good-looking on her arm, it reinvents her as a cougar long before the term was in vogue.
3. Turkeys Away: The best remembered WKRP episode, and one of the best. It’s not just the turkey scene, as Les is stranded in a parking lot watching turkeys dropped from a helicopter “hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement.“ The rest of the episode is expertly developed, centering around Mr. Carlson‘s dissatisfaction that the new format change has left him feeling like an outsider. In one sense, Mr. Carlson‘s personality was inconsistent through the show’s four-year run. In an episode like this, he complains that he has nothing to do, but in countless other episodes, he shirks responsibility. In quite a few episodes, he appears so bungling that he’s incapable of completing the simplest task or understanding the most straightforward directive. (He’s more likely to become entangled in fishing line while trying out a new rod.) But when asked to rise, as in “To Err Is Human” and “Dear Liar,” he can be quick witted, sardonic, managerial and even ruthless. It’s a credit to Gordon Jump’s talents that although his is the only role that’s never fully ironed out, you never fret about the incongruity. He manages to make it seem seamless. The whole “Thanksgiving promotion” idea was lifted, as quite a few WKRP characters and stories were, from real-life goings on at WQXI, Atlanta’s top rock station in the 1970’s. Gerald Blum — the inspiration for the character of Mr. Carlson — ran WQXI from 1960 to 1989; one of his more colorful stories involved a promotion he spearheaded for a station in Dallas in the late ‘50s: dropping turkeys off a flatbed pickup truck in a shopping center. Wilson saw its story-line potential, and handed it off to staff writer Bill Dial, who, according to Wilson, “completely missed the boat” and “took it in a different direction ….. I stayed up the night before we shot it and rewrote the whole thing.” Famous TV episodes take on a life of their own in the years following their initial airing. For decades, Lucille Ball made much of the story that, when she was filming “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” the woman in the grape vat with her — whom her team had found stomping grapes up north — had no grasp of the English language and, given her limited understanding of the acting process, almost drowned her — when in point of fact, the woman, Teresa Tirelli D’Amico, was a professional actress (with a popular one-hour radio show) who had been knighted by the Italian government. But Lucy’s version, hurtful as it was, made for “a better story.” Similarly, Blum’s son — as “Turkeys Away” became legendary — started to embellish the story, to make it closer to its WKRP counterpart. (Ultimately, the pickup truck became a helicopter in his retelling, and by 1996, his father had even uttered something close to Carlson’s classic final line, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”) Similarly, Wilson — over the years, as WKRP thrived in syndication — announced that he “wrote every word, regardless of the [scripting] credit,” a dubious pronouncement that underplays the contributions of his colleagues, and the distinctive voices they brought to the series. (Wilson may have done significant revisions or final drafts — common practice at that time — but there’s no mistaking a Steve Marshall script for a Steven Kampmann script.) So was “Turkeys Away” really rewritten top to bottom by Wilson the night before it was shot? We’ll probably never know, but it’s pretty much a flawless script, and easily the best of the episodes the show did riffing on the premise that Wilson first pitched to the CBS brass, of a clash between “the suits“ and “the dungarees.” Also worth a look: another first season episode, Blake Hunter’s “Tornado.” If “Turkeys Away” was the episode that got everybody talking, then “Tornado” was the episode that established WKRP — oh, so briefly — as a runaway hit. The first season of WKRP ran through November, then it was benched till January, when it returned in its new timeslot after M*A*S*H. After M*A*S*H, it blossomed into a hit. But how big a hit didn’t really become clear until this episode reran during the summer and vaulted to #1 in the weekly ratings. A tornado hits the station, injuring Andy and forcing Mr. Carlson to take to the air to help a girl care for her injured mother. As originally conceived, WKRP was about Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump’s characters; everyone else was supporting and, to a point, dispensable. But because Andy Travis, with his coiffed hair and “aw shucks” manner, was the least interesting character, the limitations of that format soon became clear, and never more so than the last episode to air before the hiatus, when Andy’s old girlfriend (now a big recording star) comes to town, and he’s tempted to quit his job and go out on tour with her. (It’s such a “who cares?” plot, you’re almost relieved when the show is pulled from the schedule.) But if the series were going to feature Andy and Mr. Carlson, then the best episodes would probably look much like this one, with Mr. Carlson managing to be unexpectedly responsible, and Andy managing to be unexpectedly funny.
2. Jennifer and the Will: PJ Torokvei once expressed a fear that by delving too deeply into a “strong character” like Jennifer, you risked sacrificing the very elements that made her so admirable. So she shied away from Jennifer. Everyone shied away from Jennifer, it seemed. They couldn’t seem to figure out what issues would vex a woman so beautiful, so intelligent and so self-assured — or how to show her grappling with a problem without diminishing her. (Hugh Wilson’s one try, near the top of Season 3, had proven a disaster. Jennifer bought a house, and then was left reacting to all the crazies who emerged from the woodwork. It suggested that the only way to feature her was to turn her into a comic foil.) Ultimately, it took Blake Hunter to figure out how to give Jennifer a dilemma that truly challenged her. “Jennifer and the Will” is the rare episode that dares to ask: what can’t Jennifer handle? What’s too much? Jennifer’s elderly friend, the Colonel, has died and — because he doesn’t trust his greedy relatives — has appointed her executrix of his estate. (Les: “What is an executrix?” Herb: “I don’t know. High heels and a whole lot of leather.”) And from there, the plot follows two convergent paths. The first is the efforts of the WKRP staff to console Jennifer, something with which no one's had much experience. (Jennifer is always the one consoling others.) The bits are beautifully in character; Johnny proposes a diversion drawn from experience: “You ever been to night court? Last week they caught this guy with 106 television sets.” Running counter to that is what the Colonel's death — and her new responsibilities — are doing to Jennifer. The Colonel’s family, in order to contest the will, has been painting her as a gold digger, and the press has been stalking her; Jennifer’s response is a slow descent, from resolve to stoicism to (in the hours leading up to the funeral) despair and self-doubt. But of course, at the lawyer’s office the following day, when she sees the Colonel once again in his pre-recorded video will (a bravura performance by Pat O'Brien, and an insanely novel way to use a guest star, scoring most of his laughs after he's dead: "To my brother Cedric, I leave nothing — because he's always been an all-or-nothing type of fellow, and since he can't have it all, he gets — nothing"), when she realizes — with his hostile, useless relatives seated beside her — what's at stake and what she's fighting for, she rallies. The Colonel wants his fortune distributed among the veterans of his old unit, the Fighting 47th, including a parade in their honor. His sister objects: "A parade! I mean, really: it's insane, it's frivolous, it's — “ "Going to start around 2," Jennifer interrupts, already working out the details: "Probably last till around 7. I'm going to pick a nice summer's day when all the kids are out of school." The family warns her, "I can see we're going to have a fight on our hands," and recharged, she counters, calmly, "Just as big as you'd like to make it." And of course Jennifer will prevail, because that's what she does. It takes a great writer to take a strong character, one who prides themselves on being in control, plant them in a situation that saps their self-confidence, and not only find the humor, but find a way back. And that’s Hunter’s accomplishment here: Jennifer’s crisis doesn’t diminish her; it humanizes her. And, as with so many MTM series, she gets through it with a little help from her friends. Also worth a look: another Blake Hunter bit of brilliance from Season 4, “The Creation of Venus.” Hunter was the series’ self-proclaimed continuity guru. If a character made note of something — e.g., the make of the car they drove — he would make sure it was referenced accurately the next time it came up. So it’s only fitting that he would be the one to try to make some sense out of Venus’s twisted backstory. Venus had appeared in the first episode as exactly what TV critics and audiences expected: an outrageously attired Black man who seemed to be there mostly for shock value. (All he lacked was a catchphrase, although an early line — “Hey, little mama” — probably would have worked.) But as the show started to refine itself, and more of Tim Reid’s natural personality emerged, the show revealed (or perhaps “decided” is the better word) that the Venus Flytrap persona was just a gimmick, and that there was a sensitive and erudite man beneath it all. Near the end of the first season, he was revealed to be a draft dodger named Gordon Sims. Later on, it became clear that he gave a pretty mean physics lesson. So who was Venus Flytrap? Hunter tries to tie it all together, ironically removing from continuity only the episode entitled “Who Is Gordon Sims?” In doing so, he manages to reframe all of Venus's scenes from the pilot episode by showing what was going on between those scenes, as Venus struggles to sculpt his private persona into a suitable on-air personality.
1. The Consultant: It’s Hugh Wilson’s only writing credit in Season 4, and I’m not sure the show ever produced anything better. It manages to be specific to the radio business — and especially to the radio business of the early ‘80s — while also serving as a showcase for the entire cast. The timing of the episode is a bit suspect, since it comes near the climax of an ongoing subplot in which a smitten Mother Carlson has been dating Andy, and now she’s putting the screws to him by hiring a radio consultant to monitor the station. But no matter: Wilson had a good idea for an episode, and couldn’t wait any longer to unveil it. The consultant, one Norris Breeze, turns out to be an old friend of Andy’s — or perhaps “former friend“ would be more accurate, as he’s quite willing to turn in a sterling report to Mother Carlson, provided Andy subscribe to his programming service. The blackmail aspect of the plot is as shady and underhanded as it sounds, and it allows the episode to get dark for a bit, and the seriousness of the situation to sink in. “The Consultant” cuts to the heart of an issue that’s threaded through Season 4: the challenge of dealing with deadwood in a fast-growing station. How can Andy possibly make Mr. Carlson and Herb and Les looks like skilled professionals overnight? What kind of sleight-of-hand would that involve? When Mr. Carlson suggests the sort of caper most sitcoms would stoop to — “Don’t panic. I know what to do about this. I’ll just take a little vacation, take Herb and Les with me, maybe Johnny, too: you can never tell what he’s going to do” — we’re left presuming the show will find a more sensible solution. It’s Wilson’s most marvelous misdirect — leading to Andy’s solution: a whole series of misdirects, in which the competent staffers take on personas so incompetent, the station doctor barely has a chance to spend time with — or properly analyze — the others. It’s one of the funniest sequences the show ever turned out; Anderson, who reinvents Jennifer as a squeaky-voiced airhead (she keeps calling the consultant “Mr. Breezy” and can’t distinguish a chair from a clock) and Smithers, who reimagines Bailey as a stoned-out hippie chick (Breeze: “You ever do drugs?” Bailey, smiling eagerly: “When?”), are particularly good. (And of course, because everyone’s playing against character, it’s the sort of thing that can only be done — or is best done — a few years into a show’s run.) And the followup scene, in which the consultant gives a thoroughly misguided report to Mother Carlson, is no less satisfying; he’s so thrown off his game, he pegs his old pal Andy — who just made him look like a big fool — as “a little naive.” “You are a very, very bad boy,” Mother Carlson admonishes Andy, after seeing Norris to the door. He is indeed, and isn’t it lovely? It contains one of my favorite exchanges from the entire run, when Mother Carlson instructs her butler Hirsch to bring coffee; he takes a while to return, and when she demands, “Where have you been,” he’s quick to reply, in Ian Wolfe’s wry yet dry delivery, “Mardi Gras, Madam.“ The whoops from the audience turn into applause; it feels like one of those extended laughs that was trimmed in the editing room, lest it throw the whole show off balance. Also worth a look: “Who’s on First?”, another Season 4 installment where everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not. When Herb’s heart attack in the previous episode leaves the station without a sales director, Mr. Carlson decides to pretend to be Herb to close a deal. When the client then wants to meet Mr. Carlson, Les is forced to become “Mr. Carlson” — all the while Johnny, who’s incurred a sizable gambling debt, is trying to elude a thug by pretending not to be Johnny. It’s a well-written episode that should be funnier than it is — the timing occasionally seems off, and the audience response at times is strangely uncertain. Writer Dan Gunzelman took on the directing chores as well, and perhaps in the hands of someone more experienced, it would’ve been a blockbuster. But it makes smart use of the cast, builds to a good climax, and as the only character without an agenda (and thus the only one thoroughly baffled by the proceedings), Bailey scores the biggest laugh just by saying her own name.
Want more WKRP? If so, check out my write-up of WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 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.