The Bob Newhart Show Peaks with Season Four
by Kristin Battestella
The 1975-76 twenty-four episode season of The Bob Newhart Show tosses new husbands, potential kids, and one zany Peeper at psychologist Robert Hartley, his schoolteacher wife Emily, their neighbor navigator Howard Borden, orthodontist Jerry Robinson, and receptionist Carol Kester. That's not to mention some wild patients and one drunken Thanksgiving...
Future Newhart costar and third Mr. Pleshette Tom Posner guest stars in the “The Longest Good-bye” season premiere when Bob's college roommate Cliff 'The Peeper' Murdock comes to Chicago – leading to a hokey, you had to be there trip down memory lane. The gags a minute provide our usual straight man psychologist the chance to have some fun, however The Peeper's colorful Vermont pranks and syrup on everything eating habits drive Emily crazy as his leeching stay grows to include their den, Bob's wardrobe, the car, and their credit cards. Fortunately, The Peeper finds a fellow spirit in Jerry for an impromptu sing a long and a fun start to the season complete with snakes in a can. Bob, meanwhile, gets dressed up in his 'bill paying ensemble' for “Change Is Gonna Do Me Good.” His fifteenth of the month ritual annoys Emily so they decide to switch his bills for her grocery shopping. Too bad Emily's checks bounce when she can't follow his payment categories – bodily maintenance, domicile, and communication for the phone and newspapers. Bob can't read her grocery list, either, but calculates the price per ounce at the store and alphabetizes the kitchen in descending order of spoilage. The battle of the sexes psychology spins continue in “Shrinks Across the Sea” as a visiting psychologist exchange has The Hartleys disagreeing on everything from dust to whether they should eat at an American restaurant or cook at home. The Bob Newhart Show has some unusually off handed French snides here, but their guest is fittingly snobby, claiming Paris is nothing to see and afraid Chicago wouldn't have toilet paper. Each psychologist can spot the opposite's stress but can't notice their own petty arguments. After all, Bob thinks their balcony is like Paris in Spring, but Emily says it is Chicago in winter. But hey, this is the seventies, there's no need for prudes to be so provincial. Yogi Bear is on at the same early bird time and everyone will miss it, but Bob intends to wax on the overall effectiveness of group therapy when a television host asks him to be on her talk show in “Who Is Mr. X?” Unfortunately, the barracuda host rips psychology as nothing more than a flimflam after Bob says there is no one cure and he cannot guarantee his work. He's back peddled into revealing that he's counseled an elected official, giving The Bob Newhart Show a humorous debate on how viable therapy may not be or whether it matters who has been treated or not. Bob sticks to his ethics while facing the social stigmas on mental health, but TV has no qualms when audience grabs are at stake. Everyone wants to know who the patient is, with even the newspaper proclaiming, 'Shrink refuses to Name Loony Legislator.' His progressive congressman patient, however, is willing to speak up unashamed after Bob helped him. Bravo!
The Bob Newhart Show peaks with the famous “Over the River and Through the Woods” episode. Emily braves flying to see her family in Seattle, leaving the boys alone for Thanksgiving football and one drunken tough time ordering their moo goo gai pan. Mr. Carlin wants $9.95 for the scotch he brought, Jerry's got a pigskin drinking game, Howard's depressed, and Bob didn't know it was going to be this bad this early in the day. After all, 'You know you're at a bad party when Elliot Carlin is the happiest person in the room.' The titular singing livens things, but four drunk men should not be in the kitchen – nor the turkey in the dishwasher. Bob is drunk but trying his best to remain the straight man on the phone while ordering $93 worth of Chinese food, and it is downright hysterical. Likewise “Bob Has to Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve in the Hospital” so our doctor overreacts at the open back of his paper gown and fears he won't make it home to see the Christmas tree. Mr. Carlin gives Bob back the small ugly sweater he gave him for Christmas last year – he expects to have his session post op, too – and Bob's worried, cranky behavior and lack of seasonal spirit spreads to one and all. With no cheery music nor festive decorations and a drab hospital night, this doesn't feel much like a holiday episode. However, it's amazing to see adults facing Christmas as just another crappy day in this non-traditional but realistic half hour. A basketball star with a similar attitude ordered to see Bob in “Duke of Dunk” is also unaware he's a hot dog – he may have sixty-three points in one game but the Sunspots have lost thirteen in a row. Good thing the entire team joins Bob for a 'Fear of Winning' group. In “Birth of a Salesman,” Bob tries to get a salesman patient to be more assertive and helps Emily contest an erroneous ticket, for he doesn't like the nation becoming a flock of sheep not standing up for what we believe. The judicial system needs wise judges to hear all the facts if it is to remain just, but Bob's advice backfires into lawsuits, who is parking in who's parking space, and finger pointing over who started it first semantics bullying another into relenting. The quality of The Bob Newhart Show dips somewhat this season, yet just when you think things feel stagnant late in the year, a still timely episode like this happens. Of course, no one but Bob is happy to see The Peeper and his sparklers in the season finale “Peeper Two.” He has more college glory stories to share, but his wife has left him for the milk man so he's going to stay with The Hartleys for an entire month. Fortunately, dribble glasses and gizzard gags break the serious moments with humorous wallowing. Bob takes The Peeper to the piano bar, refusing to let him sulk and putting him back on his feet – except all the girls in the bar want a married sugar daddy and keep hitting on Bob.
Bob 'The Mooner' Hartley Class of '52 had a brush haircut, a convertible in college, and in flagrante paperbacks under his mattress – but he isn't too proud of such youthful antics. Grown up, inflexible Bob chews his food exactly thirty-two times, always buys Emily the same perfume, and goes really bold by setting his electric blanket to four instead of three. Newhart still does phone skits, but Dr. Hartley questions how much he actually helps his patients in “What's It All About, Albert?” Everyone is successful and accomplished but him, putting Bob on the couch taking advice from others and seeking his college professor mentor. Unfortunately, Bob's not hip with the new go with how you feel hugging campus, W for Wonderful grades, and no need to whisper in the library philosophies. Are scream therapy, inkblots, and psychology really all a crock? The scatterbrained circumspection is able to laugh at the paid to do nothing appearances, allowing Bob to realize his dedication to his work is worthwhile – or at least more important than golf. He's willing to let his patients go to prove he isn't a fraud, but honestly, $35 an hour is a steal! Of course, “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” has Bob up at 7 am for Mr. Carlin and home after his 'Fear of Darkness' group at 10 pm, letting his patients dictate his life until another suave psychologist offers him a partnership. Onscreen time stamps and quirky scene transitions a la The Sting accentuate the zany, but poor Bob ends up working twice as hard – and stuck with an old lady patient who reads poetry and insists on a ninety degree office temperature – while his partner's off on a yacht with pineapples and champagne!
It's been a few years on The Bob Newhart Show and Suzanne Pleshette's hair has grown out – a fuller, mini fro cut to match Emily's long, swinging seventies dresses. I'm not sure about the dresses with hoods, super wide collars, and Little House on the Prairie denim pinafores; but the big shirts, wide belts, flared pants, and black velvet remain far out. Those capes and ponchos are back in vogue, too! Emily says there are still things she doesn't like about Bob, such as his rigid unchanging ways, and they argue in bed about their less than perfect anniversary gifts. She pushes him to update his routine but is not a morning person and dislikes when Bob's stressful hours interfere with their dinner. Emily still stinks at matchmaking, too – relying on if a man sounds gorgeous on the phone and tales from an old best friend who drove a pink t-bird. She doesn't always get Bob's analogies and can't understand basketball, but Emily can bluff through a hockey article when hogging the newspaper. She gets jealous when Bob talks about former school sweethearts – especially the young thin blonde ones – and yells at Howard yet always sets three dinner places to include him. It's nice to have a full plot focusing on Emily when she is promoted over a more experienced male colleague in “A Matter of Vice-Principal.” She's happy to have the unexpected job but is more concerned about telling the teaching couple who were set on the position. Rather then tell her what to do, supportive Bob says she needn't feel guilty over their resentment, but she does think it is her fault, making for a fine mix of professional versus friendship, female authority over males, and crisscrossed couples. Not to mention Emily ends up stuck behind a desk making tough phone calls and disciplining students while piles of paperwork and lack of funds tie her hands. A classroom snake is on the loose and Tracy Grammar School is out of hot dog buns! Fortunately, Emily gets a spiffy parking spot with her name on it – and a $10 parking ticket.
Director Peter Bonerz' onscreen orthodontist Jerry Robinson prefers to be a free cruiser – a debonair swinger with a devil may care vanity hiding his fears of being thirty-seven and alone. He's still very selfish, placing money above people, and wants everyone to overpay in his complicated football pool scheme. Jerry's annoyed Carol's wedding may interfere with his tennis time and takes odds that the groom won't show. He's mostly seen in the office lobby this season ordering her to do something menial, expecting donuts in the morning or complaining about his $200 hard contact lenses – a pricey luxury in the mid seventies – because he doesn't want to wear glasses. While apparently good at his job and seen mentioning his work or coming and going with young patients, Jerry isn't seen doing much and he doesn't know how many teeth people have. Fortunately, he says the pride and accomplishments of his work are better than money, and he does seem to care about events at his former orphanage. Jerry spends Christmas arguing with Howard, too – The Bob Newhart Show seems to forget whether Bob's best friends are currently friends or enemies themselves depending on the situation. Jerry strikes out a lot, and he's not as smooth as he plays it up since he's really only serious about Gail Strickland as the world traveling Courtney. She returns this year in “My Boy Guillermo” wishing to adopt and marry Jerry. She's ready to settle down, but they have very different views on how to raise a child, where to live, even what to name a son and whether he would also become an orthodontist. Naturally paperwork intervenes and Jerry loses the family he didn't have, but seeing him be serious instead of jerky is always a nice moment. Of course, by the next episode he's whining for Bob to get him free tickets and uses some orphan abandonment tears just to make Carol get him a cup of coffee.
He's obsessed with ironing and not interested if life is discovered on Jupiter because he can't fly his plane there, yet Bill Daily's Howard Borden passes his co-pilot test. He eats a piece of celery in the store – finishing it is snacking not stealing – but tomatoes give him hives and cucumbers make him itch. He lays tiles in his kitchen but they won't stay because he didn't peel off the sticky back, and Howard can't spell 'pride' as in 'he pried himself from the cockpit' for a book about himself – and it's not an autobiography because that's about cars. Howard worries about being cremated or frozen and wants to leave The Hartleys the key to his apartment when he dies so they can take back all that's theirs. Outside of such humorous excuses, slapstick magic tricks, or intrusions next door, Howard has very little plots of his own in Year Four. When he comes over at 1:30 am asking for cereal, the milk, a bowl and spoon, and his mail even Bob asks why he is always there. Young Howie visits late in the season for “The Boy Next Door,” and Howard wants his son to live with him. Unfortunately, his airline job makes the child more of a community responsibility – circumventing how despite his love and sincerity, Howard has been made so dumb that he can't be responsible enough to raise a child on his own. He gets his son a coffee maker for his birthday and says he will have to plug in his stove for Thanksgiving in typical bachelor scenes with no mention of Ellen Hartley even though Howard asks her to marry him in “Here's Looking at You, Kid.” Though humorous, the hot out of the street corner station wagon wedding ring, Harvey Wallbangers, and a bumbling proposal don't make us forget how The Bob Newhart Show spent half of Season Three doing the exact same maybe, maybe not marriage. Pat Finley's Ellen is now a legit newspaper reporter and interviewing sportsmen in the locker room, yet she remains wedding shy with cold feet in every one of her appearances – even referring to all the other times they didn't want to get married right now, because they weren't ready, again. Not only does the show not know what to do with the character, but at this point, why would a smart journalist want to date silly Howard at all? We actually see Ellen writing a brutal piece about the medical center in “The Article,” and I don't know why she couldn't just be a strong independent reporter stopping by to recount her latest literary misadventures. Instead, this episode spends more time on her photographer and the quirky doctors with Ellen's article never even going to print. And how about Howard, who walks in, eats toast, and leaves for a flight without ever acknowledging his supposed fiancee – although eleven people pile into Jerry's office for her attention and Bob defends her right to print the truth even when his colleagues humorously threaten him. Whether the visiting tomorrow seven episodes ago mention was a production order mistake or a throwaway line, Howard is surprised to see his brother in “Warden Gordon Borden” and Gordon uses the same family golly gee to also woo Ellen. Like Howard, he's in love and ready to marry her in one episode, and it would be funny if we hadn't seen this merry go round already in every Howard and Ellen episode. I love Pat Finley, but I'm glad Ellen doesn't want either Borden brother and moves to Cleveland, never to be heard of on The Bob Newhart Show again.
But whoa that tie dye denim! Marcia Wallace's Carol Kester is the highest paid receptionist in the building but wants a realistic raise and gets tired of the office routine. She's able to talk frankly to the overweight group about her past, but draws the line at dating a nasty patient who takes her to the Venus Theater for Lady in the Barracks. However, her parents won't visit in “Carol's Wedding” because they say she cried wolf too often, and her overnight husband Larry Bondurant (Later Newhart director Will Mackenzie) is somewhat dull. The series couldn't keep almosting Carol to the altar, but all the courthouse wedding planning happens offscreen in favor of other busy gags. She asks Bob to give her away, but it seems like Carol settled for less than a winner just for the humor. Larry's a travel agent with a discount honeymoon to Japan, but he's late to the wedding because he filled out his ticket wrong and ended up in Cincinnati. This is a significant but fast moving episode, and Carol ends up complaining to Bob about Larry. Perhaps if they hadn't rushed into it, the couple wouldn't have so many issues made humorous? Carol's on vacation for two episodes and only appears briefly in others before doing her nails at her desk and refusing to file when previously she was funny yet efficient. Her marriage isn't addressed again until “Carol at 6:01,” six months later when she should be used to Larry's overly attentive behavior. Marrying her off was supposed to solve her old maid fears, but now her problem is that the husband she barely knew is smothering her with affection, complimenting her cooking, taking her picture, and preparing coffee for his 'Big Red.' If he were charismatic, she'd love the attention, but Larry is played as a dry, annoying dork. Carol still has career woman troubles, too in “Guaranteed Not to Shrink,” but this time his doting inspires her to go back to school to be a psychologist. She only wants to be one because Bob is, and when she realizes psychology isn't for her, Carol switches to teaching like Emily. Bloop.
Kristina Holland's (The Courtship of Eddie's Father) two episode receptionist Gail Bronson is actually just as fun while Carol is on vacation, breaking her leg by falling off her shoes but taking no guff from the doctors. She tells Jerry to get his own coffee, and Carol says in twenty years coffee making will be fully automated anyway! More guests include the debonair cape wearing French psychologist Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine), Philip Allen (The Bad News Bears) as upscale psychologist Frank Wahlburn, and ruthless talk show host Jennifer Warren (Slap Shot). Mrs. Hartley Martha Scott visits in “Fathers and Sons and Mothers,” making her 'sonny' some lemonade when he asks for a drink. Emily calls her mom now but Mrs. Hartley insults her cooking and complains about a lack of grandchildren. Each of her visits has Bob disliking his mother's mothering, but its charming fun to see him squirm. Of course, Jack Riley's Elliot Carlin hates everybody, and Jerry bets he would have been the first of Bob's patients to die. Mr. Carlin says he was Bob's first patient and how Bob feels is irrelevant so long as he feels better. Mr. Carlin appears several episodes in a row, more than some of the regular cast, and has a few plots of his own, including “No Sale” when Mr. Carlin wants Bob to go in on a sweet real estate deal turning tenement buildings into townhouses. Bob's reluctant to go into business with a patient, especially for a seventies steep $5k a piece, and the building is an inner city slum with cast out elderly residents. Though a little heavy on the social commentary with some humor more flat than usual, this is an interesting ethical debate on several layers – forward cutthroat revitalization versus supporting the downtrodden needs – and we're still dealing with this kind of shady business, aren't we? Most of Bob's patients such as John Fiedler as Mr. Peterson, Florida Friebus as Mrs. Bakerman, Renee Lippin as Michelle, Lucien Scott as Mr. Vickers, Merie Earle as Mrs. Loomis, and Oliver Clark as Mr. Herd are seen individually instead of in group therapy, but the core group humorously goes from hating Mr. Gianelli to having awkward vigils after his zucchini related demise in “Death of a Fruitman.” Larry Gelman's Dr. Tupperman joins the 'Overweight Workshop' in “The Heavyweights,” and despite encouraging group openness, Bob uses every euphemism possible rather than say fat. It may not be a perfect episode, but it's interesting to see size debated on television when it wasn't as much of an issue compared to today's onscreen stick figures. The Bob Newhart Show uses humor to address negative personalities, people hiding behind their weight, and lingering appearance prejudices.
Frequent The Bob Newhart Show directors James Burrows and Michael Zinberg return alongside oft writing teams Gordon and Lynn Farr and Tom Prachett and Jay Tarses, however this season's onscreen and behind the scenes changes feel like a second half of the series changing the guard. A funk mix is added to the theme, and though I still like the original brassy 'Home to Emily' best, this update is indicative of the late sixties classy becoming down with the times seventies. The credits are also different, beginning with Bob and Emily at home before his commute and empty coffee cup at the office amid sliding orange screens. Some episodes have a shorter syndication sequence, yet others mistakenly preview a later opening sequence featuring their new apartment while another uses credits from the First Season. The sound is again uneven on the The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series Season Four discs, but the season is easy to marathon alongside commentaries on several episodes, a behind the season featurette, and a gag reel made funnier by its innate retro style. Of course, there's bandannas, big scarves, loud red blazers, wide paisley ties, polka dots, plaid jackets, brown, yellow, stripes, and gingham check. My poor television screen can't handle it! The apartment is still the same from last season's redo, with Howard still using the old brown curtains and orange couches. Actually, I suspect his apartment set is really on the other side of The Hartley's kitchen, as outside of the Chicago establishing shots, precious few sets are used on The Bob Newhart Show – the apartments, the doctors offices, and the occasional restaurant or old green hospital rooms. We see The Hartleys' den, too – with its yellow and orange pullout sofa – and the Rimpau lobby has its own plot when its drab blue walls are painted bright orange. But wow, look at that old blue vacuum, and those manager specials at the grocery store are stamped with one of those giant old price clickers. The cheap champagne price goes up from 89 cents to $1.09 and four donuts cost $1.17! Pencils break and they make Halloween masks out of paper bags when not staring at the test pattern bars on the television. It takes a moment for the boob tube to warm up, too. Remember that? I feel so old now!
Although the quality this season dips somewhat with similar stories standing pat and an uneven character focus on the ensemble, I feel like there's a lot of déjà vu Frasier imitation of The Bob Newhart Show here, too. Ironically, the series also peaks midway through Year Four, becoming a midpoint change with new patients and more gags alongside the still timely statements and downright hysterical, memorable episodes. Despite some hiccups, The Bob Newhart Show Season Four remains nostalgic comfort for the whole family.