NewsRadio: The Complete First and Second Seasons
(Sony Entertainment)

Though he lives on in the infinite rerun universe of The Simpsons, and the home video demimonde of Saturday Night Live best-of collections, it's easy to forget that Phil Hartman was one of the greatest comic actors of the last century. When Hartman was murdered by his wife at the age of 49, he left behind a scattered body of work-like many great comedians (especially those who appear on SNL), he was often trapped in the status of Best Thing About a Terrible Project. Simpsons, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and a few other appearances notwithstanding, the shows in which Hartman performed were usually fantastic when he was onscreen and lousy at all other times. For most of his career, he was a world-class performer trapped in the sorry-ass ghetto of American comedy. The chief exception to this rule was the only sitcom in which he ever starred.

NewsRadio ran four seasons on NBC, from 1995 to 1999 (Jon Lovitz took over for the deceased star in the final year). The first two seasons were recently released on DVD, in a two-disc set that includes a bunch of less-than-stellar commentary from the creators and actors and no other bonus features to speak of. I'll be the first to admit that NewsRadio's reputation as a glittering diamond in the drab sea of must-see TV has been a little overstated. As demonstrated by the DVD issue, the writing runs out of gas near the end of season two, and several episodes play like extended rehearsals with the character breaks edited out. However, at its best, the show was masterful, far better and smarter than any other TV show of its vintage-a master class in comedic ensemble acting, anchored by the blinding brilliance of Hartman.

The character of news anchor Bill McNeal-self-absorbed, cruel, dimwitted, hilarious-was obviously modeled on Ted Knight's Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (another comedy master class, only one season of which is out on DVD). In Hartman's hands, however, McNeal has more layers of narcissism than a Freud case study. A quivering coward one moment, a bellicose bully the next, Bill extends the Baxter archetype into an undiscovered realm of comedic hyperbole- whether exploding with outrage or tossing off an aside, Hartman's every gesture is impeccable. Of course, he's aided by some very talented foils: Dave Foley, at his all-time best as the station's Jack Benny-dry news director, who regards Bill as a nuisance; the great Stephen Root as Jimmy James, the eccentric megamillionaire station owner, who treats him like a star attraction; and Andy Dick as cub reporter Matthew, who thinks the anchor is a god among men (and barely notices Bill's constant abuse). The characters are in various stages of connection and competition, but the actors all seem to take a half-step backward when sharing the screen with Hartman, the better not to crowd his spotlight. Damn right. ■