For a stand-up comic who built his act on one bit of business—the one-sided phone conversation—Bob Newhart had a pretty stellar run as a television actor, first as the host of a Peabody Award-winning sketch-comedy show in the '60s, then as a stammering Chicago psychologist on The Bob Newhart Show in the '70s. Newhart returned to TV in 1982 with Newhart, playing a how-to book author who convinces his wife (Mary Frann) to help him run a small country inn in a Vermont town populated by guileless eccentrics. Like Green Acres without the postmodernism, Newhart derived its comedy from the way reasonable people struggle vainly to keep calm while surrounded by madness.
The main difference between Newhart's concept and, say, Fawlty Towers (or Lewis Carroll's Alice books) is that Newhart's crazies are more benign. In the 22 episodes in the Newhart: The Complete First Season box set, Newhart and Frann mainly deal with passive-aggressive guests, deceptively friendly townsfolk, a pathological-liar neighbor, and a handyman with the temperament of a pouting 10-year-old. Newhart's pilot is one of the best in TV history, establishing the characters and the situation while still finding time to tell an actual story, but after that, the show took some time to find its level. Though the first season is consistently entertaining, it rarely hits the farcical highs that came later. (In fact, Newhart's season two was a near-reboot, with two major characters replaced, and a switch from videotape to film.)
Still, even at the outset, Newhart was an object lesson in how the traditional three-camera, filmed-before-a-live-studio-audience sitcom is supposed to work. Each episode uses the setting of a quaint inn, steeped in American history, to generate jokes and plot, and as a veteran comic, Newhart knew how to play to the audience. (Only Newhart could get a laugh out of a line like, "Give me your John Hancock… Right there… under… uh… John Hancock.") Newhart helmed a show that felt warm and homey even at its weirdest. Anyone who's watched even a few episodes of Newhart can probably picture the Stratford Inn's dining room, its study, and that lobby staircase, leading up to a second story full of mostly empty rooms.
Key features: Three charming, short featurettes, covering Newhart's décor, fashions, and cast.