The SmarK DVD Rant for WKRP in Cincinnati – The Complete First Season

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(Note: Some of the original joke content has been edited for this DVD review)

So if you thought it was confusing and irritating trying to keep track of which musical content is owned by WWE these days, that’s nothing compared to the headaches caused by the licensing agreements surrounding WKRP. In order to get the rights to hit songs at the time like “Hot Blooded”, the producers first had to circumvent the legal red tape by shooting on videotape rather than film, and then navigate another bunch of legal trouble when it came time to syndicate the shows. The result, sadly, is that the DVDs would have to be priced in their weight in gold in order to afford the true music for almost any of the episodes. While many hardcore fans of the show have said that they’d be willing to go that route, most of us would be hard-pressed to tell the difference anyway, unless it was obvious what song was supposed to be playing in a given scene.

So yeah, it sucks that it’s no longer Ted Nugent playing during the pilot episode, but given that it’s this or nothing, I’ll get over it.

But let’s set aside all the legalities for a moment: This show was friggin’ HILARIOUS. Whereas most sitcoms from that era needed two or three seasons to really get revved up and find the characters (and most still do), WKRP was a case of a show that was firing on all cylinders from day one. Aside from very minor changes to the characters, like Johnny Fever going from burned-out space case to cynical “been there, done that” morning man, everyone is pretty much intact from the pilot episode onwards.

The premise is, of course, well known and has since been ripped off numerous other times. WKRP is a struggling elevator-music station run by a tyrannical owner and her weak-willed son Arthur Carlson, which suddenly becomes a rock station with the addition of programming director Andy Travis. Travis acts as the straight man for a variety of bizarre employees, like Johnny “Fever / Sunshine / Cool” Caravello, who keeps track of his DJ name by using his coffee cup. Or blond receptionist Jennifer, who doesn’t actually do anything but still makes more money than anyone else at the station. Or Les Nessman, the well-meaning but incompetent news director (and five-time winner of the Newshawk Buckeye Award) who works in a bandage somewhere on his body in every episode.

The great thing about the series is that the humor flows more from the viewer knowing all the personality quirks of the characters and how they’ll react to a given situation, rather than the situation itself being that funny. When Herb Tarlek is kicked out of his house by his wife, you know that the first thing he’s going to do is go after Jennifer, and you know how she’s going to react to it. In fact, some of the most famous episodes from the show’s run came in this first season, showing how well the characters were formed by creator Hugh Wilson.

This is the season that gave us the drinking contest in the booth between Venus and Johnny (“It’s not supposed to make him FASTER!”); the British punk band Scum of the Earth (“We’re not punk rock, we prefer to think of ourselves as hoodlum rock…we’re a few notches BELOW punk.”); the impossible song-mashup contest that someone actually wins; and most famously the Turkey Drop promotion (“As God is my witness, I thought that turkeys could fly.”) It also has some less-famous moments that are nonetheless still as funny today, like Jennifer going for a drink with Herb’s wife and finding her table covered by a variety of drinks from admirers in the bar.

It does need to be said, however, that even if you don’t know what changes were made, it’s obvious at times that changes WERE made, and it’s very distracting. Johnny “singing” along with a generic instrumental track that sounds vaguely like “LA Woman”, for instance, or bits of dialogue that don’t make sense or just disappear altogether. These days, it wouldn’t be an issue because no one outside of The Simpsons would dare to put that much licensed music into the show in the first place and digital editing means that you can practically replace the actors instead of just overdubbing new words. However, a show from the 70s is obviously more limited in what they can do with music-heavy episodes, and it makes for a distracting experience at times. 90% of the time, you won’t notice, but when you do, it’s really irritating.

The “Complete” First season of WKRP is presented on three discs, with the following episodes included, in broadcast order instead of the usual production order:

Disc One: Pilot (Part 1), Pilot (Part 2), Les On A Ledge, Hoodlum Rock, Hold-Up, Bailey’s Show, Turkeys Away, Love Returns

Disc Two: Mama’s Review (a clip show early in the season because of a long hiatus after the first 8 episodes in 1978), A Date With Jennifer, The Contest Nobody Could Win, Tornado, Goodbye Johnny, Johnny Comes Back, Never Leave Me Lucille, I Want To Keep My Baby

Disc Three: A Commercial Break, Who Is Gordon Sims?, I Do I Do…For Now, Young Master Carlson, Fish Story, Preacher

The Video

Well, as noted they shot it on videotape instead of film to get around legalities, and the results aren’t pretty. The quality here is frankly not much better than VHS at times, with a muddy picture and muted colors most of the way. It’s certainly watchable, but doesn’t exactly give off the air of a show treated with care by the distributor.

The Audio

Well, we’ve already discussed the music cuts, and as for the rest, it’s Dolby Mono, which is true to the source material. Besides, the whole show is just talking outside of the music anyway.

The Extras

Pretty slight material here. You get commentaries on the pilot and Turkeys Away from series creator Hugh Wilson along with Loni Anderson and Frank Bonner, and while it’s interesting to hear them reminisce, there’s not much of note here. They pretty much skip over the music issues, in fact, which is pretty disappointing.

On the third disc, there’s also a pair of featurettes, running about ten minutes total. One of them focuses on Jennifer’s relationship with Herb (likely because Bonner and Anderson were the only ones they could get for the release) and the other is a quick look at the Fish Story episode, which Wilson created as a slap in the face to the network for daring to suggest that the show should be funnier and less somber like the “Who Is Gordon Sims?” episode. So Wilson created what he called the stupidest episode possible, with dueling station mascots, Herb trying to sneak into a pay toilet while wearing a fish costume, and Johnny Fever having a drinking contest with Venus Flytrap while on the air. The problem, of course, is that even the CONCEPT is impossible not to laugh at, and the actual episode is even funnier, probably the best of the season as far as sheer wackiness goes. Even Wilson admits that it did great ratings and became an instant classic, thus proving the network right.

The Ratings

The Show: ****
The Video: *1/2
The Audio: **
The Extras: *1/2

The Inside Pulse
Although the presentation might seemingly drag down the score, the content is more than worth it. If you’re an old-school fan of the show who is going to be too bummed by the music changes to get over it, then I definitely recommend staying away from this set and sticking with your bootleg VHS copies instead. For newer fans who may have only caught reruns on Nick At Nite, or older fans who can’t remember every piece of music that was supposed to be in the show, this set is wonderful and shows exactly why the show became the phenomenon in syndication that it did.