Arguably one of the best comedies ever on TV (arguable because some critics only like comedies that address issues, as if they weren't addressed enough in serious shows--even 1960s westerns addressed modern issues in parable form; but for those who think the first job of comedies should be to create laughs, "Newhart" ranks in the top few).
By the 1980s I had seen lots of television, and I was sick of it. When I learned to drive in the late seventies, I was no longer house- and TV-bound. I tuned into "Newhart" in the fifth season to watch a guest appearance by one of my then-heroes, Edwin Newman, and I found a very funny show and--which was unusual for an 80s comedy--NO KIDS! By its fifth season "Newhart" was funny and surreal. But when I started watching reruns syndicated by a local station, I found a different story early on.
The first season was awful. "Newhart" would never have survived in today's climate. Even so, it had a share of laughs, in a "typical sitcom" way, and delightful one-shot (Stephanie) or two-shot (Larry & Darryls) appearances by characters who would resonate through the series.
Television veteran Bob Newhart plays Dick Loudon, how-to book writer, New Yorker transplanted to small-town Vermont (they didn't have the guts to go as far into "flyover country" neverland as "Green Acres"). they had to keep it within NY distance (i.e., close to sanity . . . no doubt the creators and the TV executives had never been to a small town unless they took a wrong turn at Albuquerque, as at first the show is about intelligent and cultivated New Yorkers stranded in a nowhere land of less-educated people who need to be brought up a peg. This would change, as the town showed its own logic is as valid, perhaps more valid, than the--television executives'--logic of New York or Newport).
The Loudons take over an inn with a small staff. A handyman (perennial second banana Tom Poston, in a role he played in one note for eight years, and always delightfully); and a maid, Leslie, a rich girl trying to learn how poor people lived. Unfortunately, Leslie was perfect, and perfection is not funny. Nor was Dick's neighbor, the owner of the Minuteman Cafe, Kirk, who like Leslie disappeared without being mentioned again.
In the second season perfect Leslie was replaced by her cousin Stephanie, who THOUGHT she was perfect, and what a difference it made. Stephanie was spoiled, self-absorbed, shallow, and invariably funny. Perhaps its because lovely Julia Duffy who took the role was ten years older than the character, and had learned her craft kicking around in soaps and lesser shows for a decade before landing this part. Duffy always played Stephanie to perfection. And her reason for being there made more sense. In her first season shot, Stephanie was forced into a marriage by her rich parents. In the second season she divorced her husband (after a weekend of marriage) and was cut off from her fortune. The Loudon's inn was the only place she thought she could get a job, and it was a place where she easily shirked work.
A growing presence in season two was Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) a small-station television producer who was shallow and self-centered and perfect match for Stephanie, giving her another reason for her to hang around Vermont. Scolari is hilarious and winning despite his faults, though he can be a trifle grating on repeated viewings.
This is not the case with Larry and the brothers Darryl, whose increasingly bizarre behavior (even their wildest stories are usually backed up by fact) is odd even by the standards of small-town Vermont. Larry and the Darryls raise "Newhart" to rarefied levels of surreal comedy. And while in "Green Acres" you knew what Messers Haney, Kimball or Ziffel were going to do, you never knew how. You can never predict what Larry and the Darryls will do. They are simply wonderful.
By the third season, all the wheels were in place: Dick and Joanna (who was not as funny as she might have been--check out the "stunt casting" of a Gabor in "Green Acres" who became a positive boon for that show when her Hungarian weirdness actually suited Hooterville). Michael and Stephanie. Larry and the Darrys. George. And Jim and Chester, the show's Tweedledum and Tweedledumber, one of whom became mayor and the other being inveterately--and often insidiously--cheerful. Other glorious characters came and went over the course of the series, as people do in dreams, but this was the core.
By the fourth season, the show became increasingly surreal, always a big aid to a comedy that means to be funny. "Newhart" occasionally borrowed elements from "Green Acres" plots; and Alvy Moore, Mr. Kimble from "GA", made a brief appearance in one seventh season show. But "Newhart" was its own bird, and from the fourth season on, it flew.
It was sad when they decided to let "Newhart" go (they say it was because they wanted to go out on top, but the ratings actually slid dramatically). However, the last show became one of the classic moments in television history, raising "Newhart" from a great comedy to a TV landmark.
If you like your comedy wacky, with colorful characters, with its own logic (a la "Green Acres"), "Newhart" is worth watching.
Oh--some people complain that as the series progresses the inn has fewer, if any, guests. But it is a bed-and-breakfast, a place travelers stop at briefly before moving on. I've been stranded at B-and-Bs for more than one day and I can promise you that from breakfast until evening, when people begin checking in again, you might never see a soul. So that part, at least, is realistic. And that's all the realism it requires.