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In celebration of the genre-bending NewsRadio

By Courtney Enlow

To be a beloved but little-watched television show is a gift and a curse. The curse lies in the constant sense of uncertainty, in just waiting for the day the network pulls the plug.

On the other hand, there is freedom in giving no f*cks. And no show gave fewer f*cks than NewsRadio.

From 1995 to 1999, with just shy of 100 episodes, NewsRadio was ostensibly a workplace multi-cam sitcom, the kind that proliferated network television in the mid-'90s. But despite heaps of critical praise, and no thanks to its 11 time slot changes, the show garnered middling ratings at best, never quite connecting with the broader demographics of NBC's other sitcoms. 

Some shows see the writing on the wall and craft an exit strategy, tell the story they want to tell and hope for the best as long as they can. And some shows just want to watch the world burn. NewsRadio was that second thing. That is never clearer than in two particular episodes where they wholly abandoned the pretense of "normal" and dove headfirst into the genre-sphere.

Let it be known, this sitcom was never typical. Even in its early days, the series dipped into the absurd, particularly thanks to Phil Hartman's Bill McNeal and Stephen Root's Jimmy James, who was owner of the WNYX news radio station that served as the setting, but also at times confirmed to be D.B. Cooper and Deep Throat. However, as the seasons went by and ratings dwindled, NewsRadio leaned all the way in to weird. Joe Rogan's handyman character went full-tinfoil hat conspiracy nut. Dave Foley's station manager became a paranoid monster. Andy Dick's Matthew... well he just pretty much turned into Andy Dick. 

But two standout episodes depict the series' endless amounts of moxie and total lack of f*cks: Season 3's "Space," and Season 4's "Sinking Ship."

The Season 3 finale opens with Phil Hartman as himself introducing the episode's concept with a question no one could possibly be asking: What if NewsRadio took place in space? "Space" spends the subsequent 22 minutes deeply committed to answering that question in the most genius way possible — by barely bothering. The set is the same, only outside the station windows is space. Dave's office is the same except for a Starfleet-esque captain's chair, because space. He and Lisa (Maura Tierney) are still figuring out their gloriously meta will-they-or-won't-they relationship, but in space though. And in the end, pretty much everyone dies. That's it. The series returned for Season 4, no mention of "Space" and everyone alive and well and terra-bound.

In the mid-'90s pantheon of workplace sitcoms, this was not merely strange, but a sign of all the strange we accept now as normal on sitcoms thanks to shows like Community

And then? They did it again.

The Season 4 finale abandoned ship, as it were, and traded space for, I am not joking, the Titanic. See, 1998 was a big year for that big boat, and NewsRadio climbed aboard with an entire episode set aboard the "sinking ship," a self-effacing commentary on the show's continued placement in the cancellation bubble. Like "Space," the set is pretty much the same, but it's the Titanic. Dave's office is the same but with one of those wooden steering wheel things because... the Titanic. He and Lisa are still at it, but Titanic though. And in the end, pretty much everyone dies. Again. 

But when the show returned for an, again, unexpected Season 5, not everyone made it back. "Sinking Ship" was the last episode for Phil Hartman, who was murdered by his wife just two weeks after it aired. With the loss of Hartman, the show changed. It had to. It had lost one of its key components, part of its heart. But it remained odd. At this point, they all but knew they weren't going to survive the season. And at that point? Might as well die as they lived: f*cks to the wind, as weird as they wanted to be.

Twenty years ago, on May 4, 1999, NewsRadio ended. But the strange and beautiful show remains in our hearts. And we will go down with that ship any day.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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