WKRP in Cincinnati: Season 1
May 1, 2007
WKRP in Cincinnati was hardly a groundbreaking sitcom when it debuted on television in the fall of 1978 but it was very funny, thanks in large part to good writing and a talented ensemble cast. The show featured the perfect combination of the right material with the right actors delivering it. One of the most integral components of WKRP was the music. The show was set in a struggling rock ‘n’ roll station which gave the producers the chance to play a diverse selection of music, from Bob Seger to Pink Floyd to the Steve Miller Band. And for that very reason is why WKRP has taken so long to find its way onto DVD. The licensing rights for all of the music would be insanely costly. However, to not include all of the original songs that played either prominently or in the background of scenes would effectively gut the show of a lot of its charm and ambiance. This is exactly what has happened to the new DVD set of Season One. Many of the classic rock songs have either been replaced with generic music or, in some cases, edited out completely including the footage it accompanied.
Andy Travis (Sandy) arrives at a struggling radio station as its new programming director with the intention of changing the format from coma-inducing easy listening music to classic rock ‘n’ roll. Arthur Carlson (Jump), the station’s bumbling yet lovable general manager is apprehensive about Andy’s methods but ultimately has faith in him. We soon realize that Andy is the straight man in a place filled with eccentric characters. There’s Herb Tarlek (Bonner), an incompetent advertising account executive; Les Nessman (Sanders), a terminally clueless news reporter; Jennifer Marlowe (Anderson), the busty receptionist; Bailey Quarters (Smithers), a cute, young woman who works in promotions; Dr. Johnny Fever (Hessman), a veteran maverick disc jockey; and Venus Flytrap (Reid), a recent transplant from New Orleans and a recent hire as the night-time D.J.
WKRP has a wonderfully dated look with Herb’s loud and tacky polyester suits (where his belt always matches his shoes), Andy’s way too-tight blue jeans and Jennifer’s blown-dried helmet hair-do. Also indicative of the era is the show’s catchy and distinctive theme song composed by Tom Wells, with lyrics by series creator Hugh Wilson, and performed by Steve Carlisle. It sets just the right tone for the show and compliments the frenetic end credits song rather nicely.
The best parts of the show invariably involved the DJs. Howard Hessman plays Johnny to burnt-out perfection. He always looks hung-over and is often seen looking for a place to sleep the previous night off. He tends to alternate between laid-back charm and manic energy as evident in an episode like “Hold-Up” where Johnny broadcasts from a stereo shop that is subsequently held up a disgruntled D.J. Tim Reid is a nice contrast as the soulful Venus. He brings a funky vibe and hip, street slang of the day. “Who is Gordon Sims?” shines the spotlight on Venus and provides insight into his past.
This season features some classic episodes; most famously “Turkeys Away” which sees Carlson devising a promotional gimmick that involves dropping live turkeys from a helicopter. The horrific blunder gives Les the episode’s funniest line (words that clearly are meant to evoke Herbert Morrison’s famous reporting of the Hindenburg disaster) as he reacts to the promo stunt gone wrong, but this is almost equaled by Carlson’s stunned claim, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
“Fish Story” is another memorable episode that features a decidedly goofier, more slapstick side of the show as Herb dresses up as a huge fish in a promo stunt and ends up in a public washroom brawl with a rival station’s mascot – a guy in a pig costume – while Les tries to intervene. However, the best bits are Johnny and Venus’ on-air drinking experiment with a cop that tests their reflexes the more alcohol that they consume. Of course, Johnny’s response time only gets better while Venus predictably gets more sloshed, much to the cop’s chagrin.
Among fans of WKRP, there was always the debate of who was sexier, Jennifer or Bailey? While Loni Anderson was the obvious sex symbol with her voluptuous body and having every male character on the show lust after her, Jan Smithers had the adorable girl-next-door look down cold. Bailey had a youthful idealism that was charming as was her unrequited crush on Johnny and desire to get more on-air experience. She was the underdog character that fans always ended up rooting for.
The bottom line on getting this DVD is how badly do you want to see these episodes again? Sure, the soundtrack being butchered is a major, major hit but then again, a lot of the show’s humour has been preserved pretty much intact.
If you can get past the lack of original rock ‘n’ roll music on this set, which, admittedly, will be the deal breaker for a lot of fans, there are very few extras available.
On the first disc is an audio commentary on “The Pilot” by series creator Hugh Wilson and cast members Frank Bonner and Loni Anderson. Wilson points out that when they shot this episode Jerry Springer was the mayor of Cincinnati and they were unable to meet with him because he had been busted for giving a credit card to a prostitute! Originally, Hessman was only supposed to appear in the pilot as he wasn’t interested in a long-term deal. Wilson talks about the inspiration behind many of the characters in this informative track.
Everyone returns for a commentary on “Turkeys Away” and they marvel at Bonner’s outrageous attire. To his credit, he displays a funny, dry wit, poking fun at his character. Wilson talks about how the story of this particular episode was based on an actual incident. They also comment on the various examples where music was replaced. This is a spirited track as everyone laughs and enjoys themselves.
The third disc features the retrospective featurette, “Do My Eyes Say Yes?” which takes a look at the appeal of Loni Anderson and her character Jennifer Marlowe. The actress talks about how Jennifer interacted with other characters, most notably Herb who hit on her in nearly every episode. Anderson likes how her character was not the stereotypical dumb blonde.
“A ‘Fish Story’ Story” examines how the network wanted more broad slapstick and less serious stuff. Wilson was furious and thought up a completely ridiculous scenario that involved Herb dressing up in a large fishsuit. The network and audiences loved it much to Wilson’s chagrin.