Remember the dream sequence with which CBS ended the "Newhart" series in 1990?
It involved the inspired idea of Bob Newhart awaking in bed to find himself with Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife in an earlier series, "The Bob Newhart Show," which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978. Newhart tells Pleshette that he just had this terrible "dream," and goes on to give a synopsis of the then-current "Newhart" series.
"That does it," she says. "No more Japanese food before you go to bed."
Well, that bedroom scene is back as the launching pad for "The Bob Newhart 19th Anniversary Special," airing Saturday night at 8 on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).
The show is the first leg of the nostalgia-rama called "CBS Classic Weekend II." The network's "Classic Weekend I" -- with Ed Sullivan, Mary Tyler Moore and Archie Bunker retrospectives -- was such a ratings smash last spring that it spawned this sequel. Following Newhart at 9 Saturday will be "A Party for Richard Pryor," which looks back at Pryor's very short TV career in the 1970s. On Sunday night, "The Very Best of The Ed Sullivan Show II" airs followed by "Memories of M*A*S*H" on Monday night.
The network's attraction to the concept is easy to understand. It's cheap: Most of the money is spent on editing. It gets huge ratings: Sullivan's reprise was the second highest rated show of last season. And it has the potential to make viewers feel good: like leafing through a family photo album, some of us see our own pasts in the old shows and stars' former incarnations.
But it's also surreal post-modern network TV, where the past is the present is the future. With reruns and VCRs, characters now live in an endless kind of mythical time.
Take the notion of time in the Newhart show's title, for example. CBS began promoting the program as a 20th anniversary, then "found out" the show debuted only 19 years ago. Instead of waiting a year, the network simply made a joke out of being off by a year.
The show itself is not that funny. It's not that good at firing up
the warm glow of nostalgia either.
Some effort did go into the production. A story line of sorts was crafted to get Newhart, Pleshette and the other cast members of the first series back onto the set of the psychologist's office where Dr. Bob Hartley treated Chicago's middle-class neurotics for six TV seasons.
The hour features the cast in character, sitting around dismissing Bob's "dream" (the later "Newhart" series). The discussion triggers flashbacks to one memory after another, which are visualized in clips from "The Bob Newhart Show," which ended in 1978.
See what I mean about surreal?
It's a clever hour, but an emotionally barren one. It captures none of the burgeoning sensibility of young, urban, professionals, which these shows articulated before the term yuppie was invented. It doesn't transport you back to Bob and Emily's world. It lets you look, but it fails to touch in a meaningful way.