Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 17, 2012)
In the 1970s, we got six seasons and 142 episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. In the 1980s, we found eight years and 184 programs of Newhart.
And in the 1990s, Bob lasted a couple of months into a second season before it wrapped with only 33 episodes under its belt.
What went wrong? Why wasn’t Newhart able to score the television hat trick? Good question, and one I hoped to try to answer as I worked through this four-DVD set. Honestly, I didn’t even remember this series’ existence until I heard about the package’s release. As a fan of Newhart’s prior series, I was curious to give this one a look.
As expected, “Bob: The Complete Series” provides all of its 33 shows on these four discs. Normally I like to offer episode-by-episode recaps and impressions, but doing this for 33 programs seems excessive, so instead I’ll go with more general thoughts.
In terms of story and characters, Bob focuses on Bob McKay (Newhart), a greeting card artist who once created a superhero comic called Mad Dog. This got canceled after only 12 issues but maintained a cult audience so a publisher decides to bring back the series.
Initially, Bob encounters difficulties with new editor Harlan Stone (John Cygan), as they clash over the direction the series will take. However, they agree to make a go of it and Mad Dog becomes reborn. We follow Bob’s work life as well as his home environment with wife Kaye (Carlene Watkins) and daughter Trisha (Cynthia Stevenson).
Note that the setting changes for the series’ final eight episodes from its second season. The comic book folds and Bob becomes president of a greeting card company. He works for owner Sylvia Schmidt (Betty White) and has to operate alongside her son, slick/sleazy Pete (Jere Burns).
Early in this set, I didn’t feel especially optimistic about Bob. I liked his 1970s and 1980s series, so I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the show just seemed a bit… forced. Bob McKay came across as a surlier character than the usual Newhart persona, and the series felt like it tried a little too hard to match the more aggressive tone of the early 1990s.
These misgivings disappeared pretty quickly, though, as by this package’s second disc – which starts with episode 9 - Bob really begins to hit its stride. Not that the first handful of episodes flop, as they’re reasonably amusing, but they don’t feel particularly natural. Clearly the series needed a little time to get find a groove and develop.
By the time it reaches that second DVD, though, Bob really does start to become pretty entertaining. Not that it doesn’t contain some problems. For the most part, the series’ regular secondary characters never gel. I like Stevenson’s take on Trisha quite a lot; she’s cute, funny and endearing as well as quite talented in terms of comedic skills.
As for the rest, they’re less interesting. The series tries hard to score “breakout” characters like Albie the neurotic gofer or Iris the crotchety old letterer, but none of these go much of anywhere. They’re never unlikable, but they’re not memorable ala roles like Larry and the Darryls from Newhart.
We do find some amusement from occasional guest stars, though. As Bob’s poker buddies, Tom Poston, Dick Martin, Steve Lawrence and Bill Daily add a chummy “old boy” charm, and we get a fun turn from a then-unknown Lisa Kudrow. Sure, she plays essentially the same character she always plays, but she fits within the quirky Newhart universe. I also like Christine Dunford’s abrasive Shayla, Harlan’s crass girlfriend.
While DVDs Two and Three – with episodes nine through 25 of Season One – entertain pretty well, Bob takes a dive when it gets to the abbreviated eight-program Season Two. It’s no wonder the show got canceled given the general crumminess of these eight shows. The new characters tend to be unlikable and charmless, and the series harms the two carry-over supporting roles.
Actually, I take that back - Kaye escapes unscathed, as she was a dud from the start. However, Trisha loses much of her luster, as the revamped series makes her stupid and blundering. For reasons unknown, it matches sweet, likable Trisha with cynical, shark-like Pete, and it’s a bad choice. The pairing makes no sense and creates no sparks or entertainment.
Even the now-much-loved Betty White fails to add zest to the proceedings. When the series shifts to the greeting card company, it loses all the momentum it developed at the comic book. A couple of minor chuckles emerge from the final eight episodes, but they definitely disappoint; they’re flat and forced.
Well, half of a good series is better than none, I guess. Bob doesn’t manage to live up to the heights of Newhart’s earlier shows, and it can be rather hit or miss. Still, it comes with enough charm to be worth a look for Newhart fans.