Bob Newhart Show says Goodbye in Style
by Kristin Battestella
Bob Newhart's Doctor Robert Hartley, Susanne Pleshette as his wife Emily, Bob Daily as navigator neighbor Howard Borden, Peter Bonerz as orthodontist Jerry Robinson, and Marcia Wallace as receptionist Carol Kester return for The Bob Newhart Show's final twenty-two episode 1977-78 season full of change, goodbyes, and memories.
Everyone's already telling Bob to get with the times in the “Bob's Change of Life” premiere as The Hartleys move to the top floor of their apartment building. He's more interested in finishing his book, but has second thoughts about how that will impact his life before his parents moving from his childhood home puts things in perspective. The Bob Newhart Show opens its final season with a forward change that takes a sentimental look back while balancing the humor with the sight gags we know and love. Early in the year, some half hours tend to try hard with the laughter rather than let the beloved cast roll, but a call from the Peeper in “A Day in the Life” inviting The Hartleys to New Orleans raises the stakes. Bob doesn't like travel and Emily bets him he can't see to all his patients and the trip planning on such short notice. Onscreen time stamps chronicle the rushed day, and the pot boiler humor, calendar switches, airline mix ups, and drunk barbers provide wit before “You're Fired, Mr. Chips” and several bizarre applicants for Bob's new assistant position. Bob finally hires his old professor – who was recently forced to retire from teaching. He treats group therapy like lessons in the classroom, and Bob has too much respect to tell him different. Generational clashes and ageism accent the lecturing versus listening tactics, knowing when to put the patients before the textbook, and letting one past it down gently. Work problems put Bob and Emily's tenth anniversary off on the wrong foot in “Grand Delusion,” and young waitress Morgan Fairchild (Falcon Crest) leads The Hartleys to imagine what their lives would have been like without each other. Chauffeur Jerry and wealthy husband Howard don't do it for blinged out Emily when navigator neighbor Bob scandalously steals her heart – and race car driver and big game hunter on the cover of Time Bob falls for sexy hostess Emily when not helping patients the likes of Frank Sinatra or the President. Here near the end, The Bob Newhart Show uses a little fantasy time to solidify the series' core chemistry.
The Hartleys invite their lonely friends and depressed patients over in “Twas the Pie Before Christmas,” but their tree is a runt and another rate increase has Bob's patients in an uproar – especially when the printing company mixes up the fee notice with Bob's Christmas cards. Angry Mr. Carlin hires the titular pie in the face to get Dr. Hartley, with messy pastry mistakes and canceled party invitations sending The Bob Newhart Show off with some all out hysterics. Of course, in “Freudian Ship” Bob can't relax on a ten day cruise. He wants to take his files along despite the shark repellent gag gifts, bad champagne, and zany ship's activities which Emily always wins. Loony fellow passengers and a meek wife who isn't going to take it anymore thanks to Bob's advice almost ruin the winks and privacy– boilermakers and scavenger hunts notwithstanding – and it's delightful to see the same troubles in getting involved where one shouldn't even at sea. The ensemble also rises to the occasion for several episodes only featuring Newhart for call in bookends, making the best use of his telephone routine while everyone talks about how much they miss Bob. Despite technically doing so, nobody's 'phoning it in,' and reminiscing, goodbye undercurrents lead up to the series finale “Happy Trails to You.” Although The Bob Newhart Show has flirted with Bob going on professorship interviews in the past, this time we know it's permanent when Bob accepts a teaching post in Oregon. He regrets giving up his practice and can't break the news to his patients, saying that the group will do fine without him, but their therapy tears and Mr. Carlin's desperate posturing double the emotions. The crying is played for laughs over everything from canceling the newspaper to Howard's fainting upon hearing the news and one outlandish landlord. A year after The Mary Tyler Moore Show's quintessential finale, the self-aware pranks, sing a longs, and serious sentiments here go out on an over the top high note with onscreen toasts and an almost meta goodbye to us, too. They just don't end shows like they used to – Newhart being the exception, of course.
He's a fuddy duddy who never does anything crazy and doesn't like change – Bob Newhart's Robert Hartley must have everything the same, planned, and organized. Understandably he flips when the local pizza place changes the menu, but Bob takes a long look at himself in the changing times, and it's refreshing to have a lead character who is able to have self inspection and reflection even if he makes bad jokes when he's nervous and can't keep a straight face when a ventriloquist patient thinks his lookalike dummy is going to leave him. Of course, Bob can't get over his mom Martha Scott ditching the Hopalong Cassidy bedspread in his old bedroom, and he keeps a little bitty trophy from his brief high school basketball tenure. He's reluctant to send a cold steak back because he doesn't want to be left behind while everyone else is eating and calls himself to test his newfangled beeper, but Bob can admit it hurts a little when Mr. Carlin tells him he's short, talks in cliches, and has a beeper that doesn't beep. Though mostly absent in five episodes, Newhart's tried and true phone gags are put to good use as Hartley is said to be traveling on a book tour. The good doctor can't help helping people on vacation either, insisting everyone should be treated with kindness and understanding – which isn't always an easy thing to do thanks to the zany folk in his line of work. When he sees a clown who takes himself too seriously and doesn't want people to laugh at him, Bob can't help but laugh, too. However, he assures his patient that making people smile is actually a mighty fine, dignified job. Then again, when a new patient in “Shallow Throat” won't say anything to Bob, he's at his wits end until the patient finally does talk – and confesses to embezzling from his company. Certainly The Bob Newhart Show usually plays fast and loose with doctor and patient confidentiality with one and all often in on the psychological dilemmas. Here, however, Bob is torn by the serious crime revealed within his medical trust. It's unethical if he tells what's told in confidence and unethical if he doesn't contact police, and it's terribly amusing to see Bob dealing with his guilt while the criminal in question makes plans for Brazil and the police play guessing games with Bob's pathetic clues.
Stylish and always in vogue, Suzanne Pleshette's Emily Hartley adores their new apartment but writes a letter to complain about a faulty toaster! She gets take out if she's home late from school, but makes sure there is enough for Howard and puts Bob in his place a time or two. Emily finally gets some attention again in several of those episodes without Newhart this season, beginning with “A Girl in Her Twenties” when she meets their stuck in the past vaudeville neighbor Mildred Natwick (The Quiet Man). Emily debates if there is any harm in living alone with charming mementos while her family says it is time for a medical move. Even if a psychological evaluation is clearly in Bob's vein and the story wraps up easily, humor softens the dilemma alongside the nostalgia of being neighborly versus minding your own business. Emily's looking forward to fishing with Bob's dad Barnard Hughes in “Grizzly Emily,” but she has to put her foot down when told to cook and clean for the boys. Her younger successful woman clashes with the elderly, set in his ways attitudes, for Herb thinks women's lib works in the city but not in the wild – until a bear's outside the window, that is. An old college beau visits while Bob's away in “It Didn't Happen One Night,” but their friends don't think a newly divorced man and the married Emily can be just friends. She resents their suspicions, but when her guest does come on to Emily, she calls Bob. She loves his sensitivity, how he holds her, listens, and has cute ears that make her more in love with him everyday. The ensemble, however, still has a few dancing disguises and disastrous pranks to rescue her. Emily wears a Tracy Grammar School t-shirt and complains over cheer leading tryouts and her loosing softball team, yet we don't see her at work as a vice principal until the principal leaves her to blame after the school's terrible test scores in “Crisis in Education.” For this penultimate episode sans Bob, it's Emily on the phone battling parents concerned about their children's decline in reading, and rigid old teaching versus newfangled learning techniques lace the comedic moments with a layered debate still relevant today.
Peter Bonerz' Jerry Robinson wants patients to wear headphones so they won't hear the dentist drill and often appears in one scene just for a dental joke when not hitting up the ladies with 'What's your sign?' or flexing when no one's impressed. He doesn't want a collar on his hummingbird, but Carol says you can put a muzzle on this jackass. Jerry makes her type a nasty letter about his unpaid parking tickets before spending the night in jail and paying his fine in pennies. He's reluctant to take Howard to a game when he has an extra ticket but brings a giant little portable television when they're supposed to rough it at the cabin. Bob tells Jerry he comes on terribly strong and should change his approach in “A Jackie Story,” and Jerry's put in his place when fearing the great titular gal will dump him first. While a fun episode, it's another retread on his avoiding commitment – setting the character back when I almost wish they would have written Jerry off when he traveled the world so director Bonerz could move totally behind the screen. The late Bill Daily as Howard Borden helps The Hartleys move but has memories of their apartment they don't when Bob asks him about all their good times. He sleeps on their couch, gasps at the nerve of somebody else who comes for dinner with no notice, and puts his feet up when Bob's gone. If he's there, the knock at the door can't be him, for he never knocks anyway. He somehow passes a driving test despite thinking inkblots are French when he sees something risque in them, and Howard tries his hand at magic tricks – ending up locked in a trunk and the episode leaves him there. He doesn't want his son Howie to drop out of school and go on the road with a comedy act complete with corny punchlines, hand buzzers, and squirting flowers in “My Son the Comedian.” However, Howard's life isn't exactly grounded in reality either. He's only seen in uniform a few times and the character is so dumbed down it's tough to believe he's a navigator, but Jerry finally asks how he can possibly fly an airplane. Howard tells him he'll just have to take lessons like he did to know. She can handle seven phone calls despite wet nail polish, likes listening to the dirty prank calls, and practices holding her breath for scuba diving, but Marcia Wallace's Carol Kester Bondurant is also treated as a superb receptionist or incompetent as needed. So long as it is humorous or sassy, viewers aren't supposed to notice The Bob Newhart Show often only shows Carol in one or two scenes at her backwards desk – beating Jerry at arm wrestling while wearing some seriously bright eye shadow, big bell bottoms, and pinafore meets muumuu yellow dresses. Although she introduces herself with just her married name, Carol's travel agent husband Larry is only mentioned twice, and the late in the season “Carol Ankles for Indie-Prod” spends more time talking about Carol than featuring her. Bob says she deserves to win a Secretary of the Year contest, but she's leaving the office again to be Mr. Carlin's assistant. This is a nice episode – Carol quits by saying it hasn't been easy laughing at all Bob's bad jokes – and the goodbyes within the goodbye are touching. Of course, we've seen this plot so, so many times on The Bob Newhart Show, and fluffing Mr. Carlin's spare toupee is not what Carol has in mind when she wants to learn about real estate. For once, however, she sticks with it and gets her realty license.
Jack Riley as Eliot Carlin, John Fiedler as Mr. Peterson, and Florida Friebus as Mrs. Bakerman return often this season, and “Who Was That Masked Man?” has a reluctant Zorro Bob called from a costume party when Mr. Peterson's out on a ledge over his domineering wife. A comical battle of the sexes, Bob's straight man advice, and a giant mural of Mr. Carlin combine for one of the season's most on form episodes before Mr. Carlin's caught in a paternity claim for “Carlin's New Suit.” He uses Bob as his witness versus lawyer Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and single mother Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati), for the kid can't possibly be his. However, Mr. Carlin likes having someone to wear matching suits and impart his shrewd business ways. The visual gags, incidental quips, and humorously wrapped issues continue in “Emily Carlin, Emily Carlin” when Mr. Carlin asks Emily to be his impressive reunion date. Except, unlike Bob, she won't put up with his insults. Fortunately, Mr. Carlin can lie for two, and the 'Duchess of Carlin' need only curtsy. A kids radio show announcer with a stutter in “Easy for You to Say” asks Bob to help him prepare for a television opportunity, and although there are a few moments making fun of the condition, Bob assures everyone remains respectful. He helps his patient stand up, admit his problem, and inspire his youthful audience to do the same thanks to more touching statements amid the comedy. In “Group on a Hot Tin Roof,” Howard Hesseman's TV writer Mr. Plager tries his hand at theatre, and a local playhouse takes on his World War I re-imagining of the group itself. Mr. Carlin wants a percent of the profits while the rest feel violated over the breach of group confidentiality. This interesting debate on therapy in art and life as fiction provides plenty of meta – a sitcom about therapy doing a play about therapy in a serious setting that turns out to be funny. When Bob helps prisoners re-enter society in “Ex-Con Job,” unfortunately, the humor falls flat with Hispanic tropes and stereotypical African-American jive contributing to the already uncooperative attitudes. We've seen un-hip Bob nervous around criminals before, and this entry tries to do too much when the dilemma of a black man with a record trying to get a job is a topical situation The Bob Newhart Show usually does so well. Although “Son of Ex-Con Job” reminds everyone these are the same convicts when they're shocked Bob has a jailbird group, the stronger cell block hopes and dreams here actually don't need the first episode. Realistic therapy conversations reveal difficult family adjustments and doubts about going straight when crime is more successful. Only the fellow cons can understand each other – going into business together even when Bob says their reliance on each other won't make their barber shop boom and each needs their own goals to thrive.
While the funky theme remains, early in Season Six The Bob Newhart Show occasionally cuts the credits before going with longer titles featuring The Hartleys swanky new apartment complete with an obviously seventies fake city skyline, faux brick wallpaper, and heaps of orange. Rust couch, pumpkin chairs, some giant tangerine feather fern thing in the corner – it reminds me of the huge orange velvet couch my parents had when I was a child. There are paisley suits, wide lapels, men with sweaters tied over their shoulders, women wearing off the shoulder sundresses, and more plaid upon plaid to match the orange pants, gold lame, sequins, and curly perms. The Bob Newhart Show looks both so old and of its time yet changed so much from when the show began. We do however see Bob in his fedora one last time amid the Charlie's Angels references and Star Wars hype. Giant headphones, huge flashlights that barely shine any light, and rotary payphones begat ridiculous beepers, massive speakers, and pencil sharpeners. Never forget, these people had to lick their stamps! Fortunately, the The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series Bonus Disc has several features including a drastically different Original Pilot before the 1991 Anniversary Special. Here the cast picks up right where they left off with fresh eighties oranges and faithfully recreated sets framing a memory lane clip show tying directly into that Newhart topper. It's actually a good little episode, and if that had been today, you know there would be a revival season! A Group Therapy forty-five minute 2013 round table follows with Newhart, Daily, Bonerz, Jack Riley, and director Michael Zinberg recalling the show's origins, Pleshette and Wallace's casting, comedic pacing and timely editing, and how Pleshette was worthy of a spin off series. The boys also mention the wardrobe man was colorblind, which God bless him, that explains a lot!
The Bob Newhart Show had already grown repetitive before this season, and the early part of this final year is somewhat aimless before the phone set ups, humorous gags, and wit in wild settings provide more memorable episodes. Characters we know and love take a final bow with sentimental laughs and comforting but no less sophisticated banter. Fortunately, we don't really have to say adieu and can rewind the witty nostalgia with The Bob Newhart Show Season Six.