Who was the very first therapist you ever saw on TV? The most memorable? If you’re anywhere close to being from the same era as me, maybe it’s Dr. Hartley (Bob Newhart) of The Bob Newhart Show.
Mindy Peterman, Digital Journal, describes the series:
Newhart’s first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, aired from 1972 to 1978, and cast Newhart as Dr. Robert Hartley, a Chicago psychologist, whose job it was to treat a group of oddball, neurotic patients. Although Hartley was good at what he did, his charges tried his patience at times. But with the support of his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), he always muddled through. With his deadpan delivery and everyman appeal, the former standup comedian became a hugely popular television star.
Now that The Bob Newhart Show is out as a full box DVD set (142 episodes plus special features), some clips have finally been made available. For example, the opening sequence, including the iconic answering of the phone, symbolic of Dr. Bob’s career:
Interestingly, Newhart wasn’t so sure about the proposed sitcom’s premise. Bill Newcott, AARP, quotes him: “I didn’t know if people would accept me as a psychologist.” The stigma attached to therapy was, of course, even more prevalent back then than it is now.
Below, a video clip regarding this issue taken from a recent round-table discussion among cast members Newhart, Peter Bonerz (the orthodontist in Hartley’s building), Bill Daly (goofy neighbor to the Hartleys), Jack Riley (neurotic patient Elliot Carlin), and Michael Zinberg, a series director:
BOB HARTLEY AS SHRINK
Justin Remer, DVD Talk introduces Hartley and many of his patients:
Dr. Bob, much like his real-life namesake, is mild-mannered and well-equipped for listening…Though we see Bob help a number of wacky visitors over the course of six seasons, including a depressed clown and a ventriloquist whose dummy wants to leave the act, he has a core of patients who meet for group therapy and provide many of the best quips and storylines. These include stone-faced grouch Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley), bespectacled wimp Mr. Peterson (John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet), nasal-voiced overeater Michelle (Renee Lippin), and the ever-knitting Mrs. Bakerman (Florida Friebus). Early seasons also included tough-guy fruitman Mr. Gianelli (Noam Pitlik, replaced by Daniel J. Travanti for one episode), who didn’t continue with the group after the episode ‘Death of a Fruitman’ for obvious reasons. Later, the group would cycle in new neurotics like sloppy dresser Mr. Herd (Oliver Clark) and Mr. Plager (WKRP‘s Howard Hesseman), one of TV’s first explicitly gay characters.
Todd VanDerWerff, AV Club, calls Carlin “the show’s best character” and “an almost perfect foil for Dr. Hartley, his dark, dour demeanor acting like a funhouse-mirror version of his therapist.”
The scenes between the two can feel like minimalist one-act plays at times, with Newhart and Riley bouncing off of each other in barely varying monotones that take on the vibe of complex business negotiations disguised as therapy sessions. In Carlin and Hartley, the show found two very similar men who looked at the dehumanizing state of American society of the ’70s and chose wildly different reactions. Hartley, an optimist, chose to believe people could improve themselves; Carlin, a pessimist, was pretty sure they never would.
Miriam Di Nunzio, Chicago Sun-Times, recently asked Newhart about The Bob Newhart Show episodes he liked the best. Turns out there’s a theme in his answer that involves the minority status of certain patients:
Some of my favorite episodes include one from [1973, titled ‘Sit, Whitey!’]. We did a show with a black guy who came to see me; he was an insurance salesman. He wore African dress and had this black great dane with him named Whitey. I think it was a very important episode because it really helped diffuse some of the racial tensions of the day because America could still laugh at itself. Another favorite episode [1976, ‘Some of My Best Friends Are…’] featured Howard Hesseman [as Craig Plager] as a member of my therapy group who finally came out to the group. We were one of the first shows to have characters talk about being gay.
BOB AND EMILY
Bill Newcott, AARP: “…Pleshette…became so indelible as Newhart’s wife that, in the final episode of Newhart’s second series 12 years later, she returned to the role in perhaps the most famous closing sitcom scene in history.”
Todd VanDerWerff, AV Club, chooses the couple’s dynamics as the best part of The Bob Newhart Show:
…(T)he relationship between the two is the thing about the show that most feels like something no network executive would ever greenlight today. The two are deeply in love, and reading between the lines of their dialogue also reveals they’re having lots of sex…There’s nothing they love so much as ribbing each other with jokes that would be acidic in lesser hands but feel affectionate coming from the mouths of Newhart and Pleshette. What’s more, the two don’t have children and rarely discuss having them…The Hartleys are eternally childless, finding their fulfillment in their professional lives and each other, building a marriage that’s more about finding a solid partner to navigate life with than anything else.
Kyle Anderson, Nerdist: “The series has an edge to it that a lot of ’70s sitcoms didn’t, despite its overall good nature, and the writing, while very of its time, does produce a lot of really great bits. Newhart is a comic genius and watching this series, the first of his three primetime shows, is testament to that.”
Justin Remer, DVD Talk: “Though the series was clearly at its peak from season 3 to season 5 — with the actors, writers, and directors all comfortably playing into each other’s strengths — it’s hard to pinpoint a particularly weak stretch anywhere in the series.”
Rick Bentley, The Fresno Bee: “The show remains one of the smartest TV comedies of all time. It was a gamble setting the show in a psychologist’s office, but the series worked because of the dry and witty brand of comedy Newhart brought to the title role.”