Wednesday, May 09, 2007

WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD – The Verdict

Well it had to happen sooner or later, right? I had to weigh in, especially given my mildly schizophrenic attitude toward the DVD release, which is somewhat inaccurately labeled “The Complete First Season”. It is not, but it's more complete than the WKRP in Cincinnati I owned before, which was nothing.

The internet’s run rampant for weeks now with all the painful details of the many song cuts and in the weeks leading up to the release, a lot of people posted to Amazon about intentions of canceling preorders and so forth – which they were perfectly entitled to do. Since I never preordered the set I wasn’t one of them, but neither did I rush out on day one and pick up the set as planned. I wonder how many of those people still haven’t picked up the set, and if so, I also wonder if they’d react to it as I have?:

It’s a fantastic collection that comes very close to preserving the bulk of what made the series so special.

This whole music-tied-to-classic-moments stuff is rooted in either nostalgia or familiarity. It’s easy to say WKRP was/is as much about the music as everything else (I know because I’ve said it), but this DVD set for the most part proves that the songs were actually a pretty small part of a bigger, crazier and more rewarding picture. Admittedly, there are some exceptions – the biggest one being a scene between Carlson and Johnny in “Turkeys Away” in which Pink Floyd’s Dogs was originally used and Floyd was central to the dialogue. Not only is the song gone on the DVD, but so is most of the scene and what remains is mostly just a sight gag. It’s a huge shame that such a major cut was made to the episode that’s considered one the greatest half hours of TV ever created. (It's worth noting that my love of Floyd undoubtedly plays into my feelings about that particular cut.)

Fox, however, has done a bang up job of finding replacement material that mostly conveys the vibes of the original tunes for the majority of the DVD set and it seems there was more thought put into this release than many are saying. I can picture a release that would be both far less satisfying and far more offensive. (Indeed, I’d pictured it before viewing this set.)

Probably the most bemoaned replacement is the classic “Les puts on a wig to Foreigner” scene in “A Date with Jennifer”. Of course Foreigner is missed, and the tune taking its place desperately wants to be Hot Blooded -- yet the tone of the gag remains blissfully intact. (Has the omission of Foreigner from anything ever aroused this much contempt?) What used to be Johnny spinning James Taylor’s Your Smiling Face at the close of “I Want to Keep My Baby” plays similarly. My hat really goes off to Fox for doing their best with a bad situation and I’d be interested to find out how the replacement music came to be. Where did it come from? Who recorded it? Was it made especially for this set? It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before and yet it’s clearly inspired by the music it replaces.

A friend loaned me a set of WKRP bootlegs a few months ago. I watched a handful of those and was disheartened by the fact they were the syndicated versions with 22 minute running times, but even more so by the video and sound quality. Sure, the new set's never going to snag a THX seal of approval, but it's 25 years old and shot on video; all things considered, the sound and vid quality are perfectly acceptable. Despite Floyd, Foreigner and James Taylor all being intact, the problems with the bootlegs outweigh the few positives -- I can't imagine any fan finding them preferable, not to mention the difficulty most would have in obtaining them in the first place. Overall, the Fox set comes up far superior and certainly anyone previously unfamiliar with this material would be hard-pressed to notice anything’s “wrong” with the new DVD at all. Indeed, if certain fans already have their minds made up, then perhaps I'm speaking to the uninitiated.

WKRP is such landmark television that the DVD set’s problems can’t keep it from shining. I was reminded of its strengths when watching the infamous turkey drop. The sequence violates one of the cardinal rules of filmed drama: Don’t tell me, show me. All the scene does is tell. Amazing is that never do we once see a turkey onscreen. Or a helicopter…or a banner waving behind it reading WKRP…or a parking lot bombed by live turkeys. Regardless, those images are burned into our memories forever.

All we see is Les (Richard Sanders), standing outside a store with a microphone, looking past the invisible camera in front of him and up into the sky as some extras walk past him now and then. As the scene -- and Sanders' performance -- crescendos, the extras move a little bit faster. Back at the station, Johnny, Andy, Bailey and Venus add another layer by reacting to Les’ report. It’s a glorious example of the sitcom format at its finest – an ideal dance of acting, writing, editing, directing and above all else, perfect comedic timing from Sanders. Sans his inexplicably “believable” performance, the entire thing would’ve crashed like those imaginary turkeys.

One of Les’ great lines in that scene is “Oh the humanity!” which could be the tagline for WKRP itself. Probably the only other sitcom that ever managed to blend farce and drama as successfully as WKRP was Soap (another 4 season series), however the Soap dynamic crumbled beneath its own weight early in its third season. WKRP trumped it by delivering four full seasons of great television – it never ceased to amuse and/or move and never went bad.

WKRP’s First Season features many classic episodes. Aside from “Turkeys Away”, “Fish Story”, “Hoodlum Rock”, “Tornado”, and the season ender “The Preacher” all rank as highlights (other fans would no doubt pick other standouts). But this stuff was only the beginning of the ‘KRP line. A handful of samplings from the later seasons:

“Baseball” (2.3) -- Les’ childhood fears of inadequacy rear their ugly head at a softball game against WPIG. For a guy who hated team sports as a kid, this one always meant something to me.

“In Concert” (2.19) – A Who concert ticket giveaway by the station leaves the staff feeling guilty after the show’s general seating arrangement results in the trampling and death of 11 fans. This one was inspired by and centered around a true incident that occurred at a Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979.

“Real Families” (3.3) – A bizarre satire of reality TV long before it was central to our viewing habits. Herb and his family agree to have their lives documented by the series Real Families, hosted by Peter Marshall(!). The show was more interested in picking apart the Tarleks and exposing their weaknesses than showing anything positive or nice. Mostly shot in a documentary style and without a laugh track, this ranks amongst WKRP’s bravest -- and strangest -- installments.

“Bah Humbug” (3.7) – Carlson eats one of Johnny’s “special” brownies at a holiday Christmas party and has a Dickensian dream where three ghosts visit him. In the future, Herb Tarlek remains the sole employee of a cold, automated WKRP. (Again, automated radio wasn’t nearly as rampant in the early '80s as it is today.)

“The Consultant” (4.9) – Mama Carlson (Carol Bruce) hires a consultant for the station. The staff joins forces to pull a fast one on him to hilarious effect. This episode also features some priceless moments with Ian Wolfe, who played Mama Carlson’s aged butler Hirsch.

Mama: “Hirsch, where have you been?”
Hirsch: “Mardi Gras, Madam.”

“Fire” (4.17) – A fire in the building traps Herb and Jennifer in an elevator together in what was a defining episode for both characters.

There's almost no way to do justice to the series without running through nearly every installment and pointing out each priceless gem after another. It's one of the few sitcoms that warrants such a dissection and hopefully someday someone will do just that. (Hell, I should write the book about WKRP.)

I said before and I reiterate: Fans should pick up this set regardless of any misgivings. Fox needs to know there’s interest and that money will be spent on future seasons. Given the problematic nature of this material, they already put more care into rejiggering it into something much tighter than expected. I doubt Fox foresaw the blowup that would ensue over this release or exactly how outraged people would be over some of the changes – and many of the outraged have yet to even see the finished product.

My hope is that it sells well, and Fox puts even more care and thought into the following seasons. Even though it’d be far off, it’s also possible that if the series as a whole sells well, Fox might decide a “double-dip” is in order and re-release the First Season in something closer to its original form. This was a big test for a TV on DVD release and I applaud those involved for just getting the damn thing out there and letting people decide for themselves, which less than a year ago seemed an impossibility.