The Sophisticated Comedy continues for The Bob Newhart Show Season Three
by Kristin Battestella
The Bob Newhart Show rolls into its 1974-75 Third Year with more sophisticated wit, progressive topics, and at home or at work humor for Dr. Robert Hartley and his wife Emily, navigator neighbor – and potential brother-in-law – Howard Borden, receptionist Carol Kester, and orthodontist Jerry Robinson.
Family, work, patients, and sisters collide to start the season as ensemble episodes and the notion of unmarried couples moving in together provide innovative head spinning. The Bob Newhart Show even tackles healthcare in “The Great Rimpau Medical Arts Co-op Experiment” when Bob objects to being charged for a wart removal after counseling another doctor. Who's services are more valuable than others are? Jerry decides the building needs a plan to treat each other for free, but it only takes a week for the gynecology double entendres, group sessions, and taking advantage grandmothers to clash amid bantering oomph, crisp writing, and natural, every man conversations. Bob's busy with patients in “The Separation Story,” but it's Emily's taking courses for her master's degree that puts the dent into their home schedule. It won't be easy and Emily debates quitting, but the couple agrees to make sacrifices. Bob insists she stay in the dorm for a full time push while he's at a hotel for work – a great compromise decided on together with respect for what each needs. This is another ahead of its time episode of The Bob Newhart Show giving the pair time to miss each other while everyone else ironically takes the separation for marital trouble. Likewise, “The Grey Flannel Shrink” has Bob reluctant to use a collection agency for his unpaid patients so he becomes the staff psychologist at an insurance company. The money is too much to pass up – not to mention a luxury office and Mercedes with a driver. Unfortunately, Bob helps the employees too much, and happy, well-adjusted salespeople don't worry about their quotas. Visual jokes accent another progressive half hour, and considering the welfare of one's workers is something we still don't quite have a handle on yet. Poor Bob struggles with kitchen simplicities and girdle free, au natural “sisters” in “We Love You... Good-bye” when Emily takes over his women's therapy group. The ladies are tired of being unappreciated and want a break from their household grind, but can The Hartley's perfect marriage stand up to the test? A wife not meant to serve her husband? What a provocative notion! Bob thinks he views women as equals with a couple's duties shared, however a little women's lib flummoxes his set in his ways nitpicking. Fortunately, Emily's glad their marriage averages out – she is able to do her own things while Bob gets the ladies their coffee.
The annual Rimpau Urology charity tennis tournament comes around again in “Serve for Daylight.” Carol was Bob's bad partner last year, but this time he's stuck with twelve lessons and she still can't serve Emily. Superstitious Bob wants to win, polishes the waiting trophy, and goes all out with sweatbands and a yellow blazer. Look at those old rackets! Thirty-four double faults for Emily, but nooo, competitive Bob wasn't keeping track. His hypocritical calls for sportsmanship when he was not playing just for fun lead to a right proper little marital rift, but Emily supports Bob in running for the school board elections in “Think Smartly – Vote Hartley.” Can Bob a smart psychologist with no political experience run for school office? He hopes to do some good, but his unqualified run gets out of hand thanks to humorous advice, put on personalities, rhetoric speeches missing details on the issues, terrible debates with screeching microphones, and woefully premature bumper stickers. The Bob Newhart Show shrewdly puts the politics in the safety of the classroom while winking at then silly political ads – and it's all the more hysterical now in light of our recent elections. After all, who knew Bob was such a smooth operator and romanced another woman up until the week before he married Emily? “The Way We Weren't” spills the beans on Bob's past, leaving him pointing fingers at Emily's past to cover his tracks. Howard's happy to know there is something to be had on Bob for a change, but our usually so put together doctor flubs left, right, and center in another wonderfully ahead of its time episode. Does dishonesty then or how serious previous relationships were matter in a five years strong marriage now? Naturally, the men and women have different perspectives on the answer. It all comes crashing down – literally – in the Season Three finale “The Ceiling Hits Bob” when the ceiling caves in on Bob's office. After trying his sessions in Jerry's dental chair, Bob tries appointments at home, leaving everything happening at once on top of multiple storylines coming to a head. Chicken Little Bob, thankfully, is able to put his foot down so he and his patients can play Monopoly.
Our titular The Bob Newhart Show straight man gets tossed in the den when his sister comes to stay, leaving him not entirely objective about her relationship with Howard. Between his cranky Over Sixty therapy group, trouble hiring a temp receptionist, and new $390 curtains cut too short – the messes are too much in “Dr. Ryan's Express.” Bob is supposed to be the decision maker who fixes everything but he's had it with people who won't do anything for themselves. If a smooth psychologist can snap over so many mundane things, what hope is there for the rest of us? He gets obsessed with a giant new camera in “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley” – taking inopportune snaps with obnoxious flashes much to Emily's dismay. Bob has no problem intruding with his gadget, however his patients' call for total honesty makes the try hard, new in town school teacher couple over for dinner too much to bare. People trying to be polite then with hypocritical fakery or two faced with the best intentions makes for an interesting perspective on today's social media – where virtual presentations don't always reflect reality. Bob take the upfront too far, but gets it on the chin when his twenty page chapter in a newly published psychology collection is cut in “Ship of Shrinks.” Emily wanting a shocking new bikini for the celebratory conference in Hawaii can't even lift Bob over his now two page “The Importance of Office Furniture in Psychology.” Psychological needs never stop but Bob's business lulls in “My Business Is Shrinking.” He doesn't have an appointment until “Day after tomorrow, at three,” and debates on whether the seventies were crazier than the fifties and times being too tight for patients to pursue therapy make for intriguing new retrospectives. Bob, meanwhile, is home reading cereal box labels, watching game shows, and oh my word calling the operator for the correct time. Though a slight retread on earlier workforce episodes, Bob humorously addresses his professional ability to communicate with people in need – a provocative angle leading the shrink to get shrunk. Today we have numerous shows centered on quirky neuroses, but The Bob Newhart Show allows its male star to doubt, get depressed, and admit it. Of course, Bob's advice to Emily's friend in “Bob Hits the Ceiling” leads to her leaving her husband before Novocaine lisps, hunky gym teachers, mistaken identity, and macho I love yous cure all.
Suzanne Pleshette's Emily often sides with Bob's sister Ellen this season, taking her in and mothering her by trying to make her life nice and perfect. Emily also tries to make Bob's office more homey by replacing his diplomas on the wall with a picture of him fishing. While her hair seems to change from her shorter pixie to a growing out fullness from episode to episode – probably due to shows airing out of production order – Emily remains business stylish with sophisticated pantsuits and still in vogue coats. Although her Hartley chemistry anchors many episodes of The Bob Newhart Show and there are several more Bob and Emily two-handers, sadly, it seems like Emily doesn't really have a solo spotlight episode in this year of martial ebb and flow. Fortunately, another one of my favorite episodes “The New Look” has Emily's redecorating efforts compromising Bob's comforts. He says he doesn't want to see samples and leaves it to her to design as she wants – but Bob gets stuck lugging a clunking grandfather clock and isn't exactly happy with the resulting furniture. It definitely puts a halt in his “Honey, I'm home!” Is the house the wife's domain and the man an uncomfortable guest rather than king of the castle? Or should the husband put his foot down and demand his cozy chair? Pizzazz and physical comedy add to the debate – good thing all their stuff is merely a step away in Howard's apartment! Emily doesn't want to be separated from Bob for summer vacation in “Emily Hits the Ceiling,” but her summer camp job conflicts with his busy July season. Bob tries to reschedule his calendar so he can also be a camp counselor, however the planning for the camp goes overboard and into the mud. Emily's good intentions can't overcome the lack of finances much less the pathetic, humorous absurdities.
The charming Pat Finely joins The Bob Newhart Show on a recurring basis as Bob's sister Ellen in a season long arc romancing Bill Daily's golly gee navigator Howard Borden. Another young, educated female pushing the workplace or relationship envelope and Howard having more to do seems like a fine storyline. However, I'm not sure where the series intended to go with this back and forth pairing – what seems like it should be resolved in several episodes limps through the year and lingers into next season. Ellen asks Bob's permission to move in with Howard in the “Big Brother Is Watching” premiere, leaving him caught in the middle with the taboo idea before Ellen finds her own place. Howard continues to have his bungling individual moments, and he's still seen mooching of the Hartleys, dining alone, or flirting with no mention of Ellen during the Christmas episode. He has mice and a bare tree as if her character is already written off yet Howard also becomes stifling and desperate not to make the same mistakes of his first marriage in “Sorry, Wrong Mother.” Little Howie meets Ellen, but they don't really like each other and a wild ice cream shop adds to awkward situation – using quality comedy and serious interference to create more cracks for the are they/aren't they betrothed. Although previous antique businesses and newspaper work are tossed in for Ellen, she never seems like a fully developed character, relying rather on Howard connections and childhood references with Bob. This uneven treatment makes her potentially likable plot seem worse than it is, noticeably not as on the ball as the rest of The Bob Newhart Show. With dark hair and a similar name, at times Ellen feel like an unnecessary Emily clone. It's odd to have her conflicted over two men when her ruggedly suave ex-fiance Fred Willard (Best in Show) tries to win Ellen again in “Tobin's Back in Town” when the season finale leaves them right back where they started. Thankfully, a little competition makes room for Howard's sophisticated aviation hysterics.
Co-star and director Peter Bonerz's orthodontist Jerry Robinson isn't going to sit on his laurels – he wants to write a kids' dental book called Tooth or Consequences. He also dates a Swedish girl who doesn't speak English before his world traveling ex Gail Strickland (Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman) makes him question his dull, comfortable life in “Jerry Robinson Crusoe.” She's taken ten years to see the world in alphabetical order and invites Jerry along to Tahiti, but also insists he does important work that helps people when he doubts his plastic bubble. It's an interesting episode addressing a contented working life versus adventurous, free spirited risks, and Jerry chooses to sell everything and take to the traveling whim. Sure, mentions of it being a month later have him returned by the next episode, but it's neat to see a character really go somewhere, do something, and take a chance on a dream rather than remain stagnant or in the background where he is most of the season. Of course, Jerry has a selfish reset when he loses stock money in “A Pound of Flesh” and wants Bob to loan him a hefty $1500 for a motorcycle. He suspects Bob must ask Emily if it is okay, an intriguing equality instead of breadwinner macho – and Bob does indeed ask her opinion on declining Jerry rather than putting a price on their friendship. Besides, Howard loaning the money to Jerry costs him $1600. Marcia Wallace's receptionist Carol Kester has one zany apartment, too – complete with a barking dog doorbell and bean bag chairs. She takes a cooking class and ponders another job offer until she gets a proper raise, but Carol also seems to wear the same clothes several episodes in a row. Fortunately, she does get some sparkling denim “boss threads” and considers a marriage proposal from her on/off selfish writer boyfriend in “Life Is a Hamburger.” Nobody else, however, is all that thrilled, but a saloon themed restaurant and some really bad poetry add to the awkward conversation and the potential romantic conflict between Jerry and Carol. Instead of romantic retreads, Carol dreads her plane ticket home to family in Iowa for “Home Is Where the Hurt Is” and on Christmas Eve unloads some relatable complaints about her family's back-handed ways.
In addition to familiar guest star faces such as John Ritter, Squiggy David Lander, and Mr. Rhoda Richard Schaal, Larry Gelman returns as Dr. Tupperman alongside Howard Platt as Dr. Phil Newman, Shirley O'Hara as flaky temp Debbie, and Bob Newhart's own father-in-law Bill Quinn as Eddie the Mailman. The timeless, totally accurate Thanksgiving episode “An American Family” also puts Bob's dinner perfectionist mother Martha Scott up against Emily's intruding fun loving dad John Randolph – leaving Emily's quiet mom Ann Rutherford and Bob's no nonsense father Barnard Hughes caught between the obsessive cleaning, tight scheduling, and petty food insults. No, this isn't a good holiday for Howard to meet his future in-laws! Likewise, regular patients Jack Riley as Elliot Carlin, Renee Lippin as Michelle, John Fiedler as Mr. Peterson, and Rhoda Gemignani as Mrs. Rossi have it out with Lucien Scott's Mr. Vickers and Oliver Clark's Mr. Herd for “The Battle of the Groups.” Despite Bob's fear of rushing into an explosive confrontation, his rival therapy groups go on a weekend marathon session together – and then Emily wants to go, too. The bickering starts before the teams even get to the cabin, and the crabbiness spreads to the couple as Mr. Carlin gets naked and in touch with nature. It's a wild episode matched only by Merie Earle as feisty old Mrs. Loomis and Howard Hesseman's struggling television writer Craig Plager's bad ideas. Reality show producers today would totally love his game show where celebrities play tug of war across state lines!
Of course, The Bob Newhart Show has so much yellow or orange and patterns upon plaid – when everyone stands next to each other in their finest patchwork rainbow, it makes my eyes go wonky! Styles have progressed to wide shirt collars and flared suits with longer skirt hems, bigger bell bottoms, high-waisted pants, neckerchiefs, and bow ties yet all of it is plaid. Fortunately, the women have curves, hips rather than plastic stick figures, with realistic looks to hit home the funny realism. There's microfilm projectors, too, and an entire plot on what kind of clock to get for the office, you know, so everyone can look up and know what time it is. Linebacker therapy patients make a mere $100,000 a year, a tuxedo costs $26 to rent, and five people can go to the ice cream parlor for $20. Thankfully, The Hartleys have finally realized their wallpaper is ugly and upgrade with a different ugly wallpaper and new décor late in the season. I dare say I like the original, seemingly more recognizable as The Bob Newhart Show style better. I miss their bookshelves and the door railing seems in the way, but the blue stained cabinets and not one but two bright blue couches are, well, brighter. Removing the door to the bedroom hall is an improvement, but why do they need to get all new artwork? Wouldn't one, you know, keep your favorite paintings? There are episode commentaries and a ten minute chat with Bob Newhart amid the 3 discs of Season Three as part of the Complete Series box set, however the sound is once again poorly mixed. Future Cheers alum James Burrows joins The Bob Newhart Show this season alongside frequent directors Jay Sandrich, Alan Rafkin, and Michael Zinberg, and some of the production changes are apparent with varying credits. At times, shorter opening titles and a different “Home to Emily” theme is used – the phone gag is gone, and for three odd episodes, completely new credits featuring Emily on the go are used. Who knew?
The Bob Newhart Show shrewdly uses humor to address the ups and downs and every day struggles of its ensemble, tugging and pulling without earlier mid-century television restraint to test its stars with sophisticated, timely guffaws. The progressive wit of The Bob Newhart Show remains groundbreaking for adults today while Season Three continues to provide laughter for the whole family.