Monday, October 3, 2016

"They're a little tight in the crotch, but nice."

We're six episodes into WKRP's third season, and we're still not quite fully situated back at the station. The first of our two episodes for this Wednesday, "Hotel Oceanview," finds the Big Guy, Andy, and Herb having traveled all the way to Dayton, Ohio, where they're trying to land the crucial Vicky von Vickey designer jeans account. And even a good part of "A Mile In My Shoes," our second episode, takes place in a jury room where Herb is foreman.

Much like most of the third season so far, this week's pair of episodes is a decidedly mixed bag. "Hotel Oceanview" is rightfully considered a classic, if a bit of a weird and surreal one. And while the premise of "A Mile In My Shoes" seems like a classic sitcom plot – everyone at the station has to shift responsibilities in order to cover for Herb on jury duty – maybe the episode ends up a bit too much of a timeworn sitcom premise for the sophistication level we've come to expect from WKRP.

The theme of the third season so far seems to be "taking our beloved cast out of their comfort zones and seeing what happens." ("Hotel Oceanview" even takes this quite literally and squeezes the Big Guy, Herb, and Andy into tight designer jeans.) As we discussed in our Season 3 premiere, the sense one gets from a series that does this sort of thing is that the original premise for the series has gotten tired, and the writers are scrambling to find new and interesting things to make the characters do.

But this really isn't new to WKRP. In Season 2, we encountered a lot of these type of plots. But there, these plots were largely directed at giving individual members of the cast weird situations to overcome, which would allow us to see them under pressure and thus explore their interior lives in more detail. Take Bailey's rejection in "For Love or Money," Les's flashbacks to the traumas of youth in "Baseball," Jennifer's basic loneliness in "Jennifer's Home for Christmas," Johnny's dual existential crises in "Mike Fright" and "God Talks to Johnny," or Herb's fragile sense of masculinity being exposed in "Herb's Dad" and "Put Up Or Shut Up." You can tell a lot about a character by putting them under pressure, and this is one of the reasons why Season 2 of WKRP is so successful and well-loved.

In Season 3, though, that formula of "taking people out of their comfort zones" is frequently not individuated. It's also often made overly literal, and then subsequently applied to the whole cast. One of the reasons why an episode like "Real Families" works so well is that, even while the entire station has to cover for Herb and deal with the Real Families crew, the focus is still largely on Herb and the Tarleks. But in "The Airplane Show," "Jennifer Moves," and "A Mile In My Shoes," that element of dislocation or conflict is spread out over the entire cast and so the impact of the classic sitcom "situation" on the characters-as-characters is diffused.

This isn't to say that in order to have a classic WKRP episode, you need to have a single-character-centric plot; I can think of several episodes with no particular character focus ("Fish Story" for one) that are classics. But when you combine a plot setup that takes us out of our comfort zone along with a messy and indistinct character focus, I think you end up with a tricky-to-love episode of WKRP.

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