Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Bob Newhart Show 1-17: The Man with the Golden Wrist

Misanthropy is a fine line.  Everybody likes the witty cynic, the one who hates the world in pithy one-liners (as evidence, consider House, which is on like its eighth season or something).  But there's a difference between hating people and acting hatefully towards people.  Or maybe that difference is just panache -- it's the difference between the lovable rogue and the teenager with the gothy T-shirt sneering at you.  Maybe only handsome, clever people are allowe the luxury of being antisocial.  But I think there's a question of technique as well.

This is a line that The Bob Newhart Show has to walk without really letting on that it's doing it.  Newhart is an atypical sitcom protagonist, at least by the standards of his era -- he's quiet, introverted, reasonable, and a good deal older than the rest of the cast (with the exception of Bill Daily, who still looks younger).  Even his acting technique is dramatically different, much more naturalistic than the cartoony, almost hammy approach the others take[1].  He's a man at odds with the world around him, and he acts like one actually would -- surly, good-natured but only to a point, and getting pretty tired of dealing with all these people.  This isn't the cartoonish misanthropy you see in your Houses and Dr. Coxes.  It's more of a real world-weariness.

This dynamic can be used very well to act against the sitcom's social norms, as in the previous episode I looked at.  But at times it can also come to make Bob seem simply mean-spirited.  Sometimes it becomes difficult not to identify with the brightly-coloured world he lives in, cartoony or not, and wonder why he can't just sit back and enjoy it.  "The Man with the Golden Arm" is one of those episodes where he just seems like a grump rejecting the kindness of everyone around him.  Unsympathetic protagonists can certainly work (which is why It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is one of my favourite shows) but Bob's unlikeability makes the episode hard to sit through -- the format isn't suited for it, and while I hate talking about intentionality, it's hard to imagine that the writers were consciously making their star unbearable.

The plot of the episode revolves around Bob's birthday, and in particular the watch Emily gets him as a present.  Bob likes the gift, but is aghast when he discovers how much it costs.  It's the type of mundane, eveyday plot the series uses to counterbalance its extreme personalities.  It would be easy to go all-out with the watch -- make it absurdly expensive and equipped with futuristic doo-dads -- but it remains a mundane problem.  Later in "The Man with the Golden Arm" we find out that the watch is $1300, which was certainly a lot of money, allegedly a third or so of Emily's salary as a substitute teacher, but not so much as to seem completely unrealistic.  (When was the last time you saw someone's salary stated in exact numbers on TV?  And someone who wasn't ludicrously rich?)

It's perhaps the mundanity of the event that makes Bob's sourness stick out to me.  In the first place, modern gift etiquette frowns on even knowing, much less trying to learn, how expensive a gift you received is[2].  On top of that, it's established early on that the watch isn't returnable -- it's custom-engraved -- so no matter how much Bob makes Emily regret it, the couple isn't going to get their money back.  When Bob keeps going on about how he doesn't need a fancy watch, it seems less like the typical sitcom lead affronted by the irrational world around him and more an asshole chewing someone out for the gift they got him.  Maybe this is simply a gap in cultural mores, but the show's writers are usually deftly able to strike a balance between kindness and sarcasm, so the failure here seems odd.

This prickliness extends to his interactions with the rest of the cast.  Bob is established early in the episode as one of those guys who doesn't want you to acknowledge his birthday, much less make a big deal out of it.  As a "it's-just-Tuesday" type myself, I can relate.  Still, there's a kind of inverted narcissism in the way he goes about it, informing everyone that they know it's his birthday but they shouldn't do anything.  The other characters point this out, so to some degrees it's intentional, but it does make Bob a more obviously flawed protagonist than he's been in the past.  Later in the episode, at a surprise party, he comes off as an utter grouch, attacking everyone around him for the effort they've put into being kind to him, or at least trying to be.

(The one thing I like (perhaps even love) about this scene is how Howard keeps explaining on gag gifts to his date, usually working Bob's profession in for no reason.  "You see, psychologists are not supposed to be afraid of the dark, and a nightlight, that's very funny.")

That this episode works at all is a credit to the talent of the actors involved.  The party guests do their best lame-uncle acts, and it succeeds at conjuring up one of those nightmarish social gatherings that you're obligated to attend but don't enjoy in any way, suffering through the lame jokes of people like Jerry.  This is, of course, old-school talent that's very broad and straightforward, and that can seem hackish next to the seemingly more sophisticated comedy on television today.  (Once again, this may  just be a difference in era, or the fact that dynamite punchlines in the 70s seem tired now.)  But there is an art to that, and that art can be seen in how the cast alchemizes a misjudged script into a fairly acceptable episode.

Even here, however, "The Man with the Golden Wrist" descends a bit too far into cruelty.  Characters like Jerry are meant to be buffoons, but they're buffoons we find funny and want to spend time around.  If we start viewing his jokes and gaffes as unfunny and tiresome -- as Bob does in this
 episode -- then The Bob Newhart Show ceases to be enjoyable.  Sitcoms can be uncomfortabe (contemporary "cringe comedy" being the best example), but at the very least they have to be entertaining.  Peter Bonerz (tee hee hee) does a great job portraying a guy Bob wouldn't want to be around, but in doing so he creates a character that we as viewers don't really want to be around.

So, in the end, Emily agrees to exchange the watch (although the issue of the inscription is seemingly dropped), martial harmony is restored to the Hartley household, and there's a brief allusion to sex and a lot of hooting from the studio audience -- the classic sitcom ending.  The threat to the family unit, even a family unit of two as in Bob Newhart, is resolved, and this reconnection is represented through physical contact both on-screen and off-screen (or so it is implied).  But all of this feels a bit hollow, because the conflict, instead of being a genuine threat to the family unit, is just kind of pointless.

(Throughout this scene I'm distracted by the raw shininess of Emily's shirt.  Man, 70s fashion was the best.)

Part of what made this hard for me as a viewer is that this storyline takes up the entirety of the episode.  Contemporary comedies will frequently seperate the cast into two or three storylines that have nothing to do with each other, just so that everyone gets their time to shine.  This can lead to episodes seeming crowded and rushed, but this episode makes clear why it became standard -- twenty-four straight minutes of the same story starts to feel oppressive, especially when it's a story that is pretty thin to begin with.  I certainly wouldn't mind if a couple of Bob and Emily's arguments had been cut in favour of Howard and his date doing something wacky.

This leads me once again to the feeling that my objections may stem from generation gap moreso than from actual merit.  But I've enjoyed most of the other episodes of the show I've watched, albeit not in the same way as I would enjoy Community and It's Always Sunny.  Besides which, I don't think (or perhaps I just hope) the unavoidable fact that I have a 2012 perspective on a 1973 show means that my perspective is flawed.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that it isn't any less legitimate than the 1973 perspective.  In the end, there's no such thing as objective taste that you can set aside from the critical biases of the culture we grow up in, and that's what makes criticism a worthwhile endeavour.  In other words, my distaste for the episode may say more about me than it does about the episode itself, but even so I think it's worth saying.

Next Week: "You will not be destroyed.  It would not be... civilized."

[1]This isn't meant as a slight against the rest of the cast -- sometimes you need hammy.

[2]The Office did a similar joke, where Michael got an iPod for the office's $15-maxium Secret Santa, so it's not a completely foreign idea for contemporary times.  It's worth noting, however, that on The Office the inappropriate value of the gift was immediately apparent, whereas Bob actively investigates the watch's true cost, and that in The Office it was a much smaller element of the plot.

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