Wednesday, May 9, 2007

WKRP On The Air Once Again

Nostalgia is a tricky thing and as of late it has been overwhelming me. It seems like every month or so is bringing another much anticipated reminder of my childhood that inevitably always has me wondering whether or not my good memories will prove accurate.
A couple of weeks ago saw the long awaited release of the first season of the late seventies sitcom WKRP IN CINCINNATI. When this was first announced last year I couldn't help but be excited about the prospect of seeing this show again as I remembered it being among the funniest sitcoms ever. I have wondered though since the announcement whether I would be disappointed re-watching it now as an adult, wondering if my memories would be better than the actual product.
WKRP premiered in 1978 to fairly low ratings but strong critical acclaim. In its four season run it gained a larger following but was never a break out hit. It started to become a real popular item when it hit syndication in the 1980s before being withdrawn due to the numerous music rights issues.
The show, for anyone who might not know, tells the story of a down and out oldies station that is run by the lovably clueless Arthur Carlson Jr. The first episode finds him hiring hot shot Santa Fe programmer Andy Travis to change the stations format and fortunes. Travis quickly introduces the station to rock and roll and the legend that is WKRP IN CINCINNATI is born. The show consists of some of the most defined and memorable characters of any television sitcom of the seventies including receptionist Jennifer Marlowe, salesman Herb Tarlek, newsman Les Nesmann, nighttime DJ Venus Flytrap, program assistant Bailey Quarters and daytime DJ Dr. Johnny Fever.
As I sat down to watch the pilot episode I was immediately struck by how well I remembered the show, how the theme song and many lines seemed like second nature to me. So, does the show live up to my memories of it? To paraphrase Dr. Johnny Fever, fellow babies you better believe it.
Watching WKRP In Cincinnati now is really eye opening in just how fresh, intelligent and absolutely hilarious the show actually remains after all these years. Creator Hugh Wilson's sharp dialogue is timeless as are the characters he and the actors created. Impressively the show was off and running from the pilot on and it, in the first season at least, never faltered.
Each episode zips along at a frantic pace and they are never less than funny and sometime surprisingly moving. The cast has to be credited with much of the shows timelessness. Howard Hesseman's burned out Fever is one of the great seventies sitcom characters but the whole crew really shines. Gary Sandy as the smooth Andy Travis is a great straight man to the hilarious Frank Bonner's Tarlek and Richard Sander's Nessman. Tim Reid's incredibly cool and fashionable Venus Flytrap is featured more and more as the season progresses and his interactions with Fever are always great. Loni Anderson is fine as Jennifer Marlowe but it is Jan Smither's Bailey Quarters who set my heart on fire as a youth and I must say she is still is undeniably lovely and charismatic. It is hard to believe that bigger things didn't await her after WKRP.
The three dvd set includes two short featurettes including interviews with Wilson, Anderson, Bonner and Tim Reid (who still looks as cool as ever by the way). Two entertaining audio commentaries are also included with Wilson, Anderson and Bonner for the 1st episode and the legendary TURKEY'S AWAY.
The shot on video episodes look as good as they ever have, althought these were never going to look spectacular.
The bad news though and the thing that I am afraid is keeping many fans away is that nearly all of the music has been changed for this set. The theme and closing credits tune have thankfully been left alone but all of the music that gave the show it's anarchic and radical feel in the 70s, including everyone from Pink Floyd to Elvis, has been replaced by generic cues. It's hard to come down too hard on the company for this as the cost of getting the songs would have been astronomical which is why this show was considered unreleasable for so long. It is a shame that they couldn't have least kept a handful of songs that played directly into the plots, like Pink Floyd's DOGS and Foreigner's HOT BLOODED. Honestly though the fact that the show still survives and plays as well as it does even without the music is an amazing testament to the incredibly sharp writing and acting.

Looking back on WKRP the thing that I like most about the show is the sense of love that everyone has for each other. Each character, for all their eccentricities and personal failings, care about the people around them. Watching this show all these years later I am struck by the same thought I had so long ago, that even if most of us will never get to work in a place with people this cool...what a gift it is to be able to spend some time there with them. It's great to have them back.

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