'NewsRadio' copies old 'WKRP' and it just might become a hit

March 21, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

From news radio station WYNX in New York to Frasier Crane's all-talk KACL in Seattle. That's the audience flow that sitcom-hot NBC is hoping for with the premiere of "NewsRadio," starring Dave Foley and Phil Hartman, at 8:30 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

"NewsRadio," which gets the showcase time slot between "Wings" and "Frasier," wants to be "WKRP in Cincinnati" so badly that it borrows virtually everything except the call letters.

Tonight's pilot uses the same narrative that the "WKRP" pilot used: the arrival of a new and decent news director who tries to bring some sanity to the nutsiness of the beleaguered radio station.

Fresh-faced Dave Foley ("Kids In The Hall") plays WYNX news director Dave Nelson. He could be the younger brother of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), the news director who tried to make "WKRP" shape up. The boyish Nelson is fresh out of Wisconsin, full up with energy and in for one shock after another as he arrives late for his first day on the job.

The first shock is his new boss, played by Steven Root as an eccentric of few words but lots of weird ideas. The boss, known only as Jimmy, has yet to fire the current news director. That's Nelson's first assignment: Fire the news director so he can get in his office.

But Nelson is too nice a guy to just fire anyone; he has to find the right way to do it. So, he spends most of his first day telling people he's been hired to do sports, which results in him being treated with all the respect you'd expect "a new sports guy from Wisconsin" to get at a New York City radio station.

Most condescending of all is anchorman Bill McIntyre (Hartman), an insecure, self-absorbed, pompous phony.

"New sports guy, right? Hey, I hear you're the best, buddy," McIntyre says to Nelson on their first meeting.

"Where did you hear that?" Nelson asks.

"I heard your audition tape. Good stuff, good pipes, clean delivery."

"I didn't send in a tape," Nelson says.

"You're from Canada, hey?"

"No, Wisconsin actually."

"Wis-con-sin! The Badger state, the nation's dairyland. Hey, great country out dere. . . I love cheese."

The roughest meeting, though, is with Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney), a talented and no-nonsense reporter who thought she was going to be the next news director. She's crushed to find she's been passed over.

Nelson's reaction to Miller's very public humiliation in the newsroom is one of the nicest sitcom moments of the second season. He lies to the staff, telling them Miller had been offered the job first, but that she turned it down to continue as a top reporter. It is such a nice moment -- skillfully switching the tone in a matter of seconds from big laughs to quiet compassion and decency -- that I'd like to proclaim "NewsRadio" a hit right here and now.

I can't do that, though, on the basis of this pilot alone. What I can say is that, despite being so derivative, it is brimming with promise. Foley, Hartman and Tierney make for a lot of comedy talent. Maybe as much as Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman and Loni Anderson once upon a time at a radio station in Ohio.

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