NewsRadio: “Catherine Moves On” (1997)

newsradio

Trifling News Radio

Since at least the Gilligan’s Island episode, “Diogenes, Won’t You Please Come Home?” (1965), the American sitcom has been using the framework of Akira Kurosawa’s modernist masterpiece, Rashomon (1950) to explore how various members of an ensemble cast respond selfishly to the same event. In an informatively complex example of this, a November 25, 1997 episode of NewsRadio (NBC, 1995-1999) uses the format to say goodbye to one of the principal members of its ensemble. In “Catherine Moves On,” a fourth season episode, on-air newscaster Catherine Duke leaves the station to take a job in overseas.

At the beginning of the episode, Catherine comes into the office, announces that she’s quitting, and leaves without further comment. The rest of the ensemble—news director Dave Nelson (Dave Foley), station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root), researcher Matthew Brock (Andy Dick), journalist Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney), administrative assistant Beth (Vicki Lewis), electrician Joe Garrelli (Joe Rogan), and fellow on-air newscaster Phil Hartman (Bill McNeal)—reel from this unexpected news. As the owner of the station, Jimmy James begins interviewing the rest of his workers to try to understand why Catherine left.

As each character enters the break room, we come to understand that everyone has a completely different, comic recollection of the events that morning. First, Dave remembers Bill chewing his Cap’n Crunch cereal too loudly for him to hear anything Catherine was saying to him. Joe believes Catherine’s departure was related to her accusing him of sexual harassment.

Hilariously, Bill and Matthew recall events in absurdist ways that shed no light on the mystery of Catherine’s sudden departure. Bill remembers everyone but himself talking like adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, squeaking but not speaking. Matthew only remembers a masked character who resembles the Hamburgler running into the office and knocking the coffee pot out of his hands. Matthew then proceeds to recite a tale of a rafting trip down the Mississippi with Bill, playing the parts of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Jim.

Finally, Jimmy gets to speak to Catherine herself, who has returned to the office to clear out her desk. He declares, “I’m a very confused man.” Catherine explains quite simply that first thing in the morning, she received a job offer on the phone to be the new London correspondent for a new satellite news service.

Catherine inquires of Jimmy what he thought happened. A flashback indicates to us how Jimmy has cognitively combined all of his workers’ odd stories into a surrealist montage. Matthew has a “homoerotic adventure on the Big Muddy,” the Hamburgler runs into the office and smashes coffee pots together right in front of the camera, and other such shenanigans.

The episode concludes with most of the ensemble taking Catherine out to a farewell dinner. However, she has set up Bill and Joe in a scene that reconstructs a Lois Weber first wave feminist silent film, How Men Propose (1913), in which a fellow female journalist leads three men to believe they are going to marry her. In the last scene of Weber’s film, all three men converge on the woman’s apartment, with flowers in hand, to celebrate their upcoming nuptials. She instead leaves a note for the three of them, explaining that she was merely studying mating rituals for an article she’s preparing.

For her part, Catherine has had enough of Bill and Joe hitting on her. She uses the excuse that she’s leaving to lead both men to believe she wants to have sex with them. In the final scene, while Catherine is at the farewell dinner, Joe stands naked among Catherine’s moving boxes in her apartment when Bill enters with flowers, expecting sex with Catherine. At that precise moment, Catherine phones the apartment. When the answering machine picks up, she tells Bill and Joe that if they are both listening to her voice, “I am one happy woman.”

The reconstruction of How Men Propose is not the only feminist intervention that this episode makes. While by no means a feminist sitcom generally, this particular episode of NewsRadio effectively grapples with the theatrical representation of gender difference. In the early moments of the episode, as Jimmy is listening to the various stories of the morning’s events, the cast separates into its male and female characters. A drama about unearthing a mystery seen from completely different gender positions, of course, recalls a canonical play with this very plot: Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916), in which a sheriff, district attorney, and their wives are called to a country farmhouse in the middle of the night. A man has been found dead in his bed, and his wife has been arrested.

Glaspell’s Trifles is a terrific first wave feminist one-act play in which men’s arrogant behaviors at the crime scene are juxtaposed against the women, who gradually come to read the domestic clues (a dead bird, rushed stitching on some sewing, and broken jars of peaches) that point directly to the wife’s guilt in the murder of her husband. However, the men are so rude to them, repeatedly coming downstairs to dismiss their interest in “trifles,” that their wives eventually come to cover up the evidence that will indict their fellow victim of patriarchy.

For its part, NewsRadio‘s quest after the mystery of Catherine’s departure is not about gender oppression or murder. However, it uses the gender division of the cast to explore differing responses to everyday life that are just as significant. At the end of the first flashback, when Dave’s obsession with Bill’s crunching results in him not paying any attention to Catherine whatsoever, the show next focuses on news director Lisa’s office, where she and Beth explore Joe’s cluelessness at wooing a woman. Joe enters Lisa’s office convinced that Catherine left because of her sexual harassment accusation. When Lisa dismisses the idea as absurd, Joe offensively responds, “Sexual harassment is no joke, sweet cheeks.” Joe reveals that over the past weeks, he has secretly been recording all of his conversations with Catherine. In each snippet, he says something horridly sexist to her, and she responds by slapping him. Beth declares that Catherine must really like Joe. Both Lisa and Beth teach Joe how to read the “trifles,” the clues that Catherine has purportedly been sending his way. “How could you miss a hint like that?” Lisa queries about Catherine’s comment to Joe about a pitchfork in his pants. After this interlude, the show focuses again on Jimmy’s interrogation of the men, whose stories universally ignore Catherine and instead focus on their own ridiculous obsessions: Bill drives Dave crazy, Matthew has a boy crush on Bill, and the like.

By no means is the “Catherine Moves On” episode a feminist masterpiece as was Trifles. However, this particular episode of NewsRadio nonetheless engages in comic representation where gender matters far more than the characters are willing to admit. When Aristophanes in Lysistrata (411 B.C.E.) split his chorus into men and women so that they comically enact the battle of the sexes during the horrors of the Peloponnesian War, he invents a mode of thinking about the battle of the sexes that would become central to the American sitcom, from I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners onward. NewsRadio continues that tradition with its x-axis set: on the left, in the break room, men pose questions about events that are being interrogated by women on the right half of the set, in the news director’s office.

As I have tried to demonstrate, the most innocuous forms of American popular culture can now and again engage the aesthetic, narrative and thematic practices of the most sophisticated forms of culture. The “Catherine Moves On” episode of NewsRadio uses the Rashomon plot structure to frame a series of encounters that grapple with the history of the representation of women. In forms that range from Aristophanic Old Comedy to the importation of modernism to the American stage, to silent feminist cinema, NewsRadio concisely indicts the sex-gender system that pretends the issues that men care about are automatically more important and dramatic than the “trifles” of everyday life.

– Walter Metz