TV Flashback: WKRP in Cincinnati

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982) will always have place in my heart. I was never a huge fan of sitcoms growing up, but WKRP was a major exception, standing out in my memory as the last great ensemble comedy of my youth. I’d heard bad press about the recent DVD release, so made a point of avoiding it. But when I saw the first season available on Hulu, I was happy to take the free nostalgia trip.

WKRP is a workplace comedy about a bottom-feeding AM radio station in Cincinnati that gets a shot in the arm from new young programming director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy). Despite the reservations of bumbling station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), Travis converts WKRP to a rock-and-roll format, bringing a welcome new energy to the station, whose misfit staffers clumsily work together to rehabilitate its ratings.

Much of the first season’s conflict stems from this format shift. On one side is the old guard: kindly, incompetent Carlson, slimy sales manager Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), and out-of-touch, nerdy news director Les Nessman (Richard Sanders). On the other side, embracing the change, are the charming, open-minded Travis, burnout DJ Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), smooth-talking night man Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), and shy young journalism school graduate Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers). Waltzing elegantly somewhere between these sets is wealthy bombshell receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson).

I want to say that season one lives up to my fond memory of the show, but it only sort of does. It’s a pretty uneven season, the first half of which is spent trying to figure itself out, combining everything from ridiculous slapstick to social-issue driven dramedy. It’s generally better at the former than the latter, although often they combine interestingly. (Like when Johnny, in a ham-fisted “perils of drugs and payola” episode, convinces Mr. Carlson that a baggie full of cocaine is foot powder.) In general, though, the “serious” stuff falls flat, while the zany flourishes. The performers are consistently good either way, frequently rescuing the show from its clumsier plots.

Early attempts to center the show around Andy and Mr. Carlson are abandoned; Sandy’s affable straight-man and Jump’s kooky Henry Blake leadership quickly reveal themselves to be ingredients in the stew, rather than the stew itself. In episode 9, “Mama’s Review,” the show addresses its identity crisis directly with the earliest “clip show” ever, recapping the series’ short history in a flashback manner that puts Jennifer and Johnny — clearly the walkaway stars of the cast — front and center.

It’s easy to see why. Early on, Anderson effortlessly establishes herself as a charismatic, scene-stealing presence, and she takes a thinly conceived sexpot role and injects it with a clever, subversive intelligence. Hesseman, meanwhile, is a riot as Johnny, the aging burnout stumbling into middle age with a delightfully relaxed, been-there-done-that apathy. (Looking back, the Doctor’s witty, disaffected exhaustion may well have provided me with the behavior model that got me through middle school.) Without overdoing it, the show gets great mileage out of these two, often in incongruous combination.

That said, the series’ chief strength is ensemble chemistry, and everyone contributes. Initially the most effective performers are Frank Bonner and Richard Sanders, who hit the ground running as Herb and Les, the station’s squeakiest wheels. Bonner’s crass, fast-talking salesman easily provides the most office tension, while Sanders creates a unique balance of pompous self-importance and gleefully innocent geekery.

More likable, but with far weaker material to work with, are Tim Reid and Jan Smithers, whose Venus and Bailey are two characters the show doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with in the early stages. Smithers gets by almost entirely on likability, bringing an adorable soft-spokenness to her underwritten character, who — like Jennifer — seems to possess a lot more sense than her male colleagues. (How everyone in the station falls for Jennifer, without even noticing Bailey, is just as mystifying now as it was then.) Reid’s genial Venus Flytrap, meanwhile, is rarely given punchlines that don’t draw attention to his race; sadly he is handled very much like the token Black cast member. Reid’s handling of the material is winning, with some great line deliveries. (“You’re black!” Carlson’s bratty son accuses. Venus recoils in horror: “I am?”) But it’s an interesting observation I wouldn’t have made as a kid: beneath the show’s attempts to address some social issues, other, broader issues like racism, sexism, and homosexuality are awkwardly mishandled. Interestingly, the characters seem untainted by these occasional lapses of clumsy prejudice, with the exception of Herb, of course, who is kind of designed as a voice for them. And in general, the performers deftly sidestep the worst of it, especially Anderson, who handles drooling male attention with effortless dismissiveness.  I recall the show improving as it goes along on all these points, particularly in its handling of these underworked supporting players, and in the general effectiveness of its comedy. But looking back on this early media-conditioning is rather eye-opening.

As for the bad press: as a DVD set, this is a pretty bad product. Central to WKRP’s world is the music Johnny and Venus spin from the sound booth, but due to licensing issues, much of it has been replaced or edited out entirely. Mysteriously, chunks of dialogue seem to have been haphazardly excised or even censored outright, leading to choppy cuts throughout. And visually…well, the transfers look pretty crappy.  All in all it’s kind of a slapdash hatchet job, an unfortunate treatment of a show that deserves better.

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