The Bob Newhart Show Season 1 Remains Delightful
by Kristin Battestella
Despite debuting over forty years ago, the 1972 First Season of The Bob Newhart Show remains packed full of twenty four humorous half hour episodes still fresh, strong, and sly.
“Fly the Unfriendly Skies” starts off the DVD edition of The Bob Newhart Show with Newhart's famed phone shtick and gets right to introducing the series' core neighbors and coworkers – psychologist Robert Hartley (Bob Newhart), his school teacher wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), their aviator neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily), secretary Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace), and orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz). The set design and a few little kinks may need straightening out – those airplane fears might seem like old hat humor to contemporary viewers, too. However, witty interplay and sharp dialogue make the audience pay attention as the titular flying frights layer the irony. It's neat to see such situations handled then compared to now, and some superb toppers alleviate the tension as good comedy should. “Tracy Grammar School, I'll Lick You Yet” pokes fun at psychology itself – making The Bob Newhart Show feel not like a sitcom where the situation is the source of the humor, but rather a premise springboard where the joy is in seeing our characters handle Career Day. Telling third graders what a psychologist is sums up the entire show in many ways while small sight gags such as a newspaper blowing away or an empty tissue box accent the punchline. The audience seeks these silent puns amid the clever retorts, but wisdom given here isn't always followed and advice doesn't always work. This series sets its stride early thanks to a lighthearted but progressive touch on sensitive topics and addressing the changing decade without underestimating viewers. The Bob Newhart Show develops its nucleus and balances the home and workplace fun by expressly not treating its audience as simple the way prior television shows stayed inexplicably naive, innocent, and tidy.
A well rounded variety of character spotlights, group scenes, two-hander acts, and solo phone gags also keep The Bob Newhart Show engaging alongside plenty of dialogue and commentary. We don't see the other cast members without Bob and Emily alone until late in the season, however work and home collide in “Bob & Emily & Howard & Carol & Jerry” – and in a tiny bathroom no less! Again unlike today's easily resolved half hour nuggets, “I Want to be Alone” and “Let's Get Away from it Almost” allow our titular star to be unhappy and cranky over an escalating combination of everyday problems, attempted road trip planning, and the hilarious results. Sure, some of the then topical references or quips may be missed today, but needing peace of mind and quiet time is still a relatable message – and hey, if people wanted solitude then, what does that say about our increasing technological interconnectivity now? Patients and Christmas coming together on Disc Two for “His Busiest Season” may seem too soon in tackling such bitter and now cliché holiday hi jinks, but The Bob Newhart Show pulls off the carols turned therapy session and seasonal depression delightfully – proving how out the gate ready the series was. $3, $7, or $10 baskets of fruit for Christmas? I'll take them all for that price! It's also amazing to hear folks complaining about crowded stores and late gift problems forty years ago! Likewise, “The Man with the Golden Wrist” tackles birthday gifts when an expensive watch is simply too much for Bob to wear. We don't wear such $1300 in 1972 dollars on our arm these days, but we have no problem carrying devices just as costly – adding new irony to Bob's discomfort over treating something of value as everyday or common. Famous athletes as patients malign Bob further in “You Can't Win 'em All.” However, helping others is more important than winning, right?
Poor Bob. Our straight man psychologist balances kooks, work, his wife, and some zany friends on the clock and off whether he wants to or not. Adding hobby reversals, male inferiority, and seventies good looking sportsmen create fun antagonism in “Tennis, Emily?” but the ability to laugh at such insecurities is shrewdly tackled alongside passive aggressive mothering in “Mom, I L-L-Love You.” Newhart (also appearing in Elf and The Big Bang Theory) does his practiced phone deadpan to punchline perfection with a one-sided stammer and zinger timing. The Bob Newhart Show has an upscale, successful protagonist with highbrow subtly and wit, yet Dr. Hartley remains an everyman frankly approaching life with a healthy dose of irony. Not to mention pushing the envelope with a couple not in separate beds and a three years young marriage that crosses old girlfriends in “Goodnight, Nancy.” Often frustrated, Bob nonetheless helps people with their problems – sometimes that's just by listening, other times it is daring to voice what his friends or patients or wife don't want to hear. That kind of contrast doesn't work without great chemistry, and Dr. Hartley certainly has that with his Emily. Be it insults, surviving transference and jealousy in “The Two Loves of Dr. Hartley,” or the pressure and house hunting disagreements in “A Home is Not Necessarily a House,” the pair remains able to bicker, get angry, cry, hug, or laugh.
The Bob Newhart Show doesn't have its couple lovey dovey and making out all the time, but allows them to be an honest, tender, and perfectly matched team with a healthy give and take relationship. With her unconventional style and up with the times household, Suzanne Pleshette (The Birds) is lovely as the pants wearing and jobbing Emily Hartley. Her trim pixie cut or growing out shag changes through the season, but the crop is unexpected, as is the Hartleys' not having kids, a seemingly essential sitcom staple. Sure, there are times where Emily wears prairie girl meets muumuu dresses like the same old happy housewife and pouts when the newfangled Monday Night Football interferes with a sit down dinner in “Don't Go to Bed Mad.” Guilt tripping and who lets whom do what repartee is cemented, too. The Hartleys watch baseball together and immediately establish their happiness despite what may have been anti-traditional ways and quick, rushed mornings lacking the mid century Cleaver family at the table. When aired as the ninth episode, the original “P-I-L-O-T,” and its apartment design are noticeably different compared to the rest of the season. However, The Bob Newhart Show swiftly addresses adoption, not wanting children, and how parenting isn't going to be a situational safety net here. Instead, the pressure to have kids and awkwardness in socializing with those that do and insist you must is approached with a refreshing frankness. Emily is educated and doesn't have to be at home all the time, balancing being there for Bob and being her own working woman. “Emily, I'm Home...Emily?” discusses when work schedules conflict with basketball, using television commentary to accent the simple struggle of opening a beer and finding a place to watch the game. As a courtesy, Emily asks Bob before taking a full time job, but she won't quit whether her husband is content with TV dinners or not – an unusual if not unheard of concept in sitcoms prior. The wife works and doesn't need kids for fulfillment? Flabbergasting!
We don't really see orthodontist Jerry Robinson work very much, but the comedy of his big tooth display or the mumblings of his doctor's chair ease our dental fears. Amusingly, people sit in Jerry's chair and pack into his tiny office for advice almost as much as they do Bob's. Although selfish at times, Jerry is good with kids and his being adopted is mentioned early – a plotline that would become important later on The Bob Newhart Show. He may think he's funny and suave with the ladies, however most of that is hot air, and Jerry becomes engaged quickly in “Anything Happen While I was Gone?”. While it may be too soon to have too many relationship troubles amid the supporting cast, Jerry's failed ladies man pattern comes to a head when he can't get over another girl and takes advantage of the Hartleys in the “Who's Been Sleeping on My Couch?” Season One finale. Women come between men and sports for shrewd humor and social commentary with Jerry seeking Bob's therapy in “I Owe it All to You – but Not that Much.” What's bills and doctoring among friends, right? Jerry and Carol's friendship and awkward potential for more comes late in the season, too, but hair-brained receptionist Carol Kester is into plants, astrology, and wears short skirts – adding a touch of lingering sixties to The Bob Newhart Show. She's not stick thin and is still loving the single life, making for some delightful quips in the drive by comings and goings at the front desk. Still a then saucy topic, Carol weighs the morals of moving in with her new boyfriend in “Come Live with Me” while “The Crash of 29 Years Old” is also ahead of its time in addressing the changing roles for women. This quarter life crisis has Carol questioning her place as a mere secretary and whether she is due for something better in the workplace – not to mention that her replacement secretary is a young man! By using the quirky support about its titular star, The Bob Newhart Show is able to objectively step back and observe the times without judgment as good humor does best.
Bill Daily (I Dream of Jeannie) is actually not so bumbling, goofy, and intrusive as neighbor Howard Borden in the first episode of The Bob Newhart Show, but the seemingly sophisticated navigator is delightfully aloof and lovable nonetheless. Howard does his own ironing and speaks Spanish but keeps mini bottles on the liquor cart and tries to keep his water bed and high flying visits with stewardesses on the down low. “Father Knows Worst,” however, tenderly introduces his ex-wife, son, and Howard's neurosis over paternal inferiority. Likewise, his over-protective nature regarding his free spirited sister in “Not with My Sister You Don't” has the right amount of sentiment meets quirky, and the audience enjoys when the Hartley's include Howard at their table. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Patricia Smith (Save the Tiger) as grouchy neighbor Margaret Hoover. We have hi jinks at home already and don't need her housewife sucks and motherhood complaints. Thankfully, Margaret is gone after the first thirteen episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, and Jack Riley (Rugrats) as patient Elliot Carlin is much more cranky and hostile fun in eight episodes including the show's original pilot. Fellow group therapy stalwarts Florida Friebus (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) as old lady Mrs. Bakerman, John Fiedler (Winnie the Pooh) as mousy Emile Peterson, Renee Lippin (Mariah) as self-conscious Michelle, and Noam Pitlik (Sanford and Son) as macho Mr. Gianelli immediately solidify their collective dynamics with recurring tug and pull as needed. All appear in the penultimate “Bum Voyage,” adding to the difficulty of saying goodbye and packing of as many people as possible into one tiny stateroom. Bob's onscreen mother Martha Scott – also mom to The Six Million Dollar Man, Who Shot Jr, and Moses! – appears alongside Larry Gelman (Maude) as urologist Dr. Tupperman, and other familiar guests on The Bob Newhart Show include Penny Marshall, Pat Morita, and Joyce Van Patten.
Sure, Bob's route home in the opening credits of The Bob Newhart Show doesn't make a lot of directional sense but the big brass start and swanky mellow end of the “Home to Emily” theme remains sweet. Some scene changes or cues are similar to incidental The Mary Tyler Moore Show music, however that's an understandable production similarity considering co-creaters Lorenzo Music and David Davis also wrote for Mary, alongside producer Martin Cohan and frequent directors Jay Sandrich and Alan Rifkin. The layout of the Hartley's living room changes – and wow, that big ole boob tube television is on cart to move from room to room – but from that ugly kitchen wallpaper to couches, carpet, ties, sport coats, and high-waisted plaid pants, my word there are patterns, patterns everywhere! I like most of the ladies fashions, ruffled trims, and empire waistlines, but Emily does get her head stuck in a tight turtleneck and woof some of these seventies sweaters. Yellow, orange, green, brown – it's all so garish yet anyone of a certain age will feel nostalgic at the clashing colors and chuckle at the big phones, giant stereos, and vacation slides. There's an entire plot dedicated to how the office acquires a newfangled coffee machine! Unfortunately, Carol's circular desk with her back to the elevators annoys the heck out of me. Why not an L shaped design to the left of the screen so she can see the arrivals and the audience? The sometimes loud music and uneven soft voices on The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series Season One DVDS is likewise irksome. There are no subtitles either, but the handy play all option makes it easy to marathon the eight episodes per three discs over the weekend.
The Bob Newhart Show is immediately family friendly and safe for all audiences while remaining subtle, high brow humor for adults. When I was younger I preferred the wackiness of the subsequent Newhart, however now I feel much more sentimental about the past charm and witty entertainment of this eponymous series. The fine comedy ensemble of The Bob Newhart Show need not resort to gross gags or saucy behaviors like today's common denominator crass. It's harmless good fun to come home and unwind with the Hartleys, and be it the shrewd comedy or the nostalgic pastiche, Season One of The Bob Newhart Show puts a smile on your face.