Medium Cool

Newhart & Rockford

People tend to think of the pop culture of the 1970s as loud, frantic, and anxiety-prone: Iggy Pop cutting himself with Skippy jars; Robert De Niro trash-talking his reflection in the mirror; Clint Eastwood registering his objections to the Miranda decision with a .44 Magnum and a throbbing forehead vein; Frampton coming horribly, unforgivably, alive. But in the unlikeliest of media — network TV — there could still be found corners of quiet cool and Zen contemplation: entertainment that served as a balm against the pressures of a world gone mad.

There were, for instance, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978), my choice for best American network TV comedy ever, and the James Garner vehicle The Rockford Files (1974-1980), the best private eye TV series bar none. Both shows were the best showcases ever contrived for their respective stars, two seemingly dissimilar talents who share a very special, hard-to-define and impossible-to-fake quality of vital importance to anyone at the center of a weekly TV show: they were — are — good company, durable performers who wear easily over time, men you look forward to catching up with week after week. In the three decades since they rode the Nielsen charts, their work has gone into syndication, disappeared, reappeared on cable nostalgia channels such as Nick at Nite and A & E, and disappeared again. Now they’ve finally started appearing on DVD: the first three seasons of Newhart and the first two of Rockford, as smart and pleasurable as ever, can now be had for home viewing at popular prices. The world having gotten no saner or less grating in the meantime, it’s a terrific convenience and may save some lives.

The Bob Newhart Show in particular is a superbly crafted setting for a master of Sahara-dry delivery and nearly immobile acting. The program was created around its star by David Davis, a past producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the late Lorenzo Music — who later went on to an enduring career as a voice actor, lending his distinctive, fuzz-covered tones to the spin-off series Rhoda (“This is Carlton, your doorman”) and the feline antihero Garfield in a long string of animated specials. Newhart plays a psychologist, an occupation designed to give him plenty of opportunities to listen — something that Newhart had polished to a fine sheen in his stand-up act, where he specialized in routines that cast him as the overheard half of a head-scratching conversation. When Newhart wasn’t at work listening to his patients (a star roster of dysfunctional types that included the slyly hostile Jack Riley and the mouse-like John Fiedler), he got to listen to his friends, notably the expansive Peter Bonerz as Bob’s best work-friend, a passive-aggressive dentist, and the affably befuddled Bill Daily as Bob’s best home-friend, an airline navigator. It says volumes about Newhart that the umbrella bearing his name could comfortably house someone like Bonerz (a veteran of the West Coast improv troupe the Committee, who had come up through the ranks of the counterculture comedy movement of the sixties) and Daily (a sitcom veteran who spent the Woodstock era working for the Man at NASA playing Larry Hagman’s sidekick on I Dream of Jeannie). Newhart’s eerily tolerant, and sometimes covertly horrified, reaction shots created a unifying atmosphere that kept many different levels of nonsense on the same steady keel.

Still, the most valuable of the show’s supporting players was without a doubt Suzanne Pleshette as Bob’s wife, Emily. A stunning beauty with a smile that could light up a coal mine and a level, wordless, pissed-off glare that could remind Godzilla that he has a train to catch, Pleshette brought the series a level of style largely unknown to commercial television at the time, sort of like Maria Callas crashing open-mike night at Big Sal’s Surf ’n’ Turf Buffet. But she managed to class up the joint without ever letting any light show between herself and the potato-like fellow playing her husband. Their scenes together are a reminder that chemistry is most satisfying when most unpredictable, and a testament to Pleshette’s membership in that most noble of communities: that of actors whose primary concern is doing all they can to make their on-screen partners look good. She actually made Newhart seem plausible as a domesticated romantic figure and sexual being, which is the kind of feat for which there ought to be a Nobel Prize in TV acting.

In the ’70s, there were two inescapable assembly-line producers of TV sitcoms: Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, which specialized in “relevant” (i.e., editorializing) comedies such as All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times, and MTM (as in Mary Tyler Moore) Productions, whose stable included (of course) The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its various spin-offs as well as Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, and The Bob Newhart Show. All in all, the best products of MTM have held up a damn sight better than the once-critically-garlanded gasbag Norman Lear shows. The MTM comedies were mostly devoted to timeless comic situations and the interplay of a lovingly chosen group of actors; “relevance” in the MTM universe tended to be relegated to the company’s drama shows, such as Lou Grant and The White Shadow. Still, most of the MTM shows were not above jerking audiences around by exploiting the soft feelings regular viewers came to develop for a TV show’s characters. So, one blighted week out of twenty, poor Murray develops a crush on Mary, or Venus on WKRP gets to do an off-Broadway monologue about his experiences in Vietnam. This is the sort of thing that gets you Emmy nominations, and is much easier than making people laugh. Even Taxi, which in general is the sharpest, most comically sophisticated of the MTM hits, had a pronounced weakness for damp-eyed confessional moments and climactic group hugs.

Newhart would have none of this. Apparently this is largely because, well, Newhart would have none of this. In the context of American TV, The Bob Newhart Show is heroically, single-mindedly devoted to staying on track to the funny. Even when Bob and Emily experience a temporary physical separation or Daily’s divorced character is having trouble connecting to his kid, dryness reigns supreme; this was the original ’no hugging, no learning’ show. By most accounts, thanks can duly be given to Bob Newhart, who never took a writing credit on the show but who was a hands-on presence when it came to shaping the scripts with very firm ideas about what was right. Above all, he had decided that having children or a baby on the set would be anathema to his style of comedy, and was determined not to have Bob and Emily procreate. The writers found the idea tempting anyway and decided to see if they could win him over by writing a script in which Emily announced that she was pregnant. After throwing the script into the pipeline and hearing no response from their star, one of the writers finally broke and called Newhart to ask if he’d read it. Newhart mildly replied that he had. And did he like it? Newhart replied that he liked it very much; he thought it was very funny. And did he have any ... questions?, asked the puzzled scribe. Yes, Newhart replied; he did have one. “Who are you going to get to play Bob?”

The Bob Newhart Show is set in Chicago, a fact that is repeated in the scripts like a mantra, but the show was shot on a soundstage, and its setting is actually Big City, USA; the Chicago connection mainly makes itself felt when an actor enters brushing white stuff off his coat and informs us that it’s cold out there. The Rockford Files is set in southern California, and here we have a character, as much as any show until Twin Peaks really used a place as a character. Like The Long Goodbye and the novels of Ross MacDonald, the series is full of self-made freaks, ambitious flakes, sun-baked eccentrics of every stripe. The detective hero, Jim Rockford, is himself white trash; no other term really captures it. He’s intelligent and personable, and hip enough to keep up a stream of snappy patter, but he’s also a retired truck driver’s son who lives and works out of a trailer parked on the beach. He’s also an ex-con. Not a criminal — God forbid, though several episodes depend on his being mysteriously well-informed in the art of the short con; it’s firmly established that whatever he was convicted of, he was innocent and had won a full pardon from the governor. (By my calculations, the governor in question would almost certainly have been Ronald Reagan, so he must have been one incredibly wrongly-convicted son of a bitch.) Yet it’s an unforced (but steadily reinforced) theme of the show that Rockford’s time in the jug had a lasting effect on him; not only does he have an unconcealed contempt for and suspicion of authority, but all his deepest relationships seem to be with people he’s encountered in the course of his prison term. That includes his indispensable buddy on the police force, Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) and Angel (Stuart Margolin), the fast-talking petty grifter who helps get him in trouble when no other way can be found. Rockford is too sane to want anything to do with this weasel on any basis, but he doesn’t have much choice in the matter; the two men were cons together, and that’s that. Rockford is comfortable with Angel and the other people with who he once shared maximum security confinement in a way that he isn’t, quite, with the other people he meets, and the way Garner plays this quirk, it rings horribly true. He knows where he stands with these characters; whatever happens, they won’t likely disappoint any high expectations he forms for them.

Garner had become a star on the western Maverick, in which he appeared from 1957 through 1960 and which established him as a sort of spoof action star — handsome and virile enough to pass for the real thing, but playing the genre conventions for laughs. His roving gambler Bret Maverick was keen to avoid violence and tried to talk his way out of fights when he couldn’t just flee; in the Eisenhower/Marshall Dillon era of which the show was a part, the concept must have seemed outrageous indeed. By the time The Rockford Files premiered as a regular series (a month after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency), the country had been through Vietnam, Watergate and the emergence of the feminist movement; Woody Allen and The Graduate had made their marks on the culture; and the macho foursquare values of John Wayne had collapsed into the clumsy unintentional burlesque of The Green Berets. The Rockford Files subverts the same clichés that Maverick parodied, and maintains the basic elements of what, by then, had become Garner’s TV image. Rockford disdains violence and keeps his gun in a cookie jar — a detail of which we are occasionally reminded, because, unlike the TV heroes who seem to be strapped even when they go to bed or hit the showers, it’s presented as something of an event when Rockford decides that things have gotten bad enough that he’d better step into the kitchen and fish out that gun.

Rockford’s unmistakably a man outside polite society. In that trailer, he’s in no position to think about starting a family, and the series is sly and dodgy about its sexy lead’s romantic life in a way that invites speculation that said life is probably too careless and disreputable to depict on network TV. The show has a few recurring female characters who seem to be involved with the hero on some level, but they’re kept at a distance. In the early seasons contained on these discs, it’s mostly Beth Davenport, his regular attorney, played by Gretchen Corbett. The two are never seen out together socially, let alone in bed together, but she’s always ready to attend to his professional needs at the drop of a hat, despite the fact that he’s obviously incapable of paying her much; he’s revealed at one point to have a key to her apartment, and on more than one occasion, she anxiously demands to know who the hell this latest guest floozy is that he’s running around protecting. The most recurrent vibe provided by the character is one of throbbing frustration. Rockford also has a plentiful supply of troubled ex-girlfriends who would never have come to him for help if it weren’t a matter of life and death, which is a handy thing to have on tap in a show of this kind but also serves as a strong clue that our hero has always had, at a minimum, commitment issues. The big difference between Maverick and Rockford is that Rockford — the nonviolent, non-aggressive dropout from society — is clearly intended as a real hero. Garner was forty-six when the show began, and he began to demonstrate a new weight of experience and some force as an actor; being easy-going always had been and would continue to be his thing, but he was no longer twinkle-toeing his way through, as he sometimes had in Maverick and in some of his movie roles, where his lightness kept him from registering as strongly as he did on the small screen. Rockford isn’t looking for trouble, but he’s capable of outrage over injustice, and at institutional cruelty and stupidity, too. He’s the missing link between the detached, disillusioned ’60s heroes (who’d discovered that society was crap and wanted a medal for their decision to stop caring) and the vigilante killers with badges represented in the movies by Clint Eastwood and who were about to start popping up on TV. With help from the many talented writers who churned out scripts for the show including Stephen J. Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and David Chase, Garner got the mixture just right.

The Rockford Files was plagued by network interference and took a few episodes to really find itself and hit its full stride. (So did The Bob Newhart Show, though when it got its ducks in a row, it just kept getting better and better.) A key episode in Rockford’s development is the sixth episode, “Tall Woman in Red Wagon,” which details an increasingly confusing case involving a hunt for a missing woman and a parcel of loot, and ends in a tailspin of missed connections and possible solutions. Its throwaway absurdity does wonders for establishing the world in which Rockford functions as a voice of sanity. It’s also very funny, which is something the series often was — nearly as funny as Newhart in fact. Comic highlights of the second season include “Chicken Little is a Little Chicken,” which despite its unfortunate title is perhaps the apotheosis of Angel Martin, and “The No-Cut Contract,” which features Rob Reiner as a hapless lout of a pro football player. More sobering is the first-season episode “Caledonia — It’s Worth a Fortune,” which reworks “Tall Woman” into a fable about a vexed romantic triangle mixed with a hunt for a MacGuffin. Not atypically of the series, it reaches a sad climax without a shot being fired and then manages to end with a restorative blast of nasty humor.

It must be said that all the digital remastering in the world isn’t going to make these shows look like anything but what they are: shows made for American TV in the ’70s, a time of bluntly lit stage sets and stock shots of cars barreling down the road while actors who are reputed to be in those cars recite exposition on the soundtrack. Those of you in search of eye candy and wholly indifferent to good writing and acting are advised to hold off and keep waiting for that DVD box set of VR.5.