TV shows have developed three ways of dealing with a cast member's death. Thankfully, tonight's season premiere of "NewsRadio" chooses the most appropriate -- and most difficult to pull off.
The cast member is Phil Hartman, who earlier this year was apparently slain by his wife, who then killed herself. As the hopelessly vain Bill McNeal, Hartman was the show's cutting edge; without him, the show's writers have no ego to lampoon, no one to be this station's Ted Baxter. (That problem will be tackled Oct. 7, with the introduction of new cast member Jon Lovitz.)
The writers could have simply pretended nothing happened; when Bea Benaderet died, poor old Kate Bradley simply disappeared from "Petticoat Junction," with nary a word of goodbye. Or they could have had all the actors break character and pay tribute to Hartman with a clip-filled retrospective, in the same way "Barney Miller" dealt with the death of Jack Soo, who played sad-sack Det. Nick Yemana.
Instead, "NewsRadio" says farewell with an episode that's true to the show, true to Hartman's character and truly funny.
As the episode opens, the staff of WNYX are just getting back from Bill's funeral (he died of a heart attack while watching television, we're later told). The dialogue starts off quietly enough, with Beth (Vicki Lewis) remarking that, "As far as memorial services go, I thought that was very nice."
But it takes only a few moments to be reassured that's about as somber and dirge-like as the evening is going to get: When Matthew (Andy Dick) wonders if a flower arrangement shaped like a broken heart was meant as a reminder of how Bill died, station owner Jimmy (Stephen Root) explains that, no, he'd sat on the flowers and broken them himself.
And there you have it: Yes, someone has died. But this is a comedy, after all. No sense in being morose.
Which is far from saying tonight's "NewsRadio" is irreverent to Hartman's memory. In fact, Bill McNeal is kept at stage center, even though his face is never seen. In the best "NewsRadio" tradition, tonight's comedy is twisted, but not vicious.
Much of it centers around Matthew's conviction that Bill is not dead, but pulling an Elvis and hiding, as well as letters Bill left behind for the station staff (which provide an excuse to bring back former cast member Khandi Alexander for a quick visit).
And it ends in a final scene that shows how big a void Lovitz will be asked to fill. For the sake of TV's most gently subversive comedy, let's hope he's up to it.
What: season premiere
When: 9: 30-10 tonight
Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)
Pub Date: 9/23/98