WKRP in Cincinnati: Season One

With little fanfare and a lot of controversy, the first season DVD box set of the 1970s show “WKRP in Cincinnati” finally arrives on DVD today. Much to the chagrin of fans of the show, much of the original music on the show, from popular artists of the day such as Foreigner and Blondie, has been replaced by generic music, which begs the question… was the music the only thing that made the show good?

Having watched all twenty-two episodes from the first season, the answer is no and yes, to a degree. Certain scenes during the run of the show were written specifically because a particular piece of music would be playing (a much-cited example is the replacement of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” during a scene in “A Date with Jennifer”), and it seems some people will completely boycott this DVD release because they feel the integrity of the show has been compromised. Which is all fine and dandy, and something I would normally agree with. I won’t purchase DVDs unless the title in question is available in an anamorphic widescreen transfer when appropriate (obviously, a 1970s show like “WKRP” would be exempt). And, whenever possible, I want the product I purchase to be the same as when I first experienced it, which is why I will not buy any “Star Wars” DVDs until Lucas puts the original, unaltered movies I grew up with on DVD with the proper transfer.

So why don’t I feel the same antipathy towards these DVDs that I would normally feel? Perhaps it’s because I would rather have this show available to myself and others in any decent form than unavailable at all. “WKRP” was one of those shows which just gelled perfectly, with a solid cast, strong writing and the proper touch of whimsy and social commentary, but for some reason never caught on with the general public. With the original music, the show worked wonderfully. With the replacement music, the show still works wonderfully, a fine testament to the camaraderie of the cast and the quality of the writing. When the show was at its peak, it cracked with an incendiary wit that was rarely matched in its day.

It was with a sad heart, however, I watched the shows again, for the first time in over a quarter century, wondering why none of the cast was ever able to parlay into bigger and better things. Howard Hesseman and Loni Anderson may be generally known quantities, but they would never see any success that equaled their work here, and Gary Sandy and Tim Reid certainly could have caught some traction after the show ended its four year run. Even show creator Hugh Wilson, who would go on to create “Police Academy” and direct “The First Wives Club,” has been pretty much discarded despite his relative success. What revisiting the series now does show with laser precision, is how Jan Smithers was totally underused and underappreciated, not only by the show but by the entertainment industry as a whole. Anderson’s sexpot Jennifer Marlowe may have been the girl you wanted on your arm if you needed to go to some important function, but it was Smithers’ spunky and resilient Bailey Quarters who you would want to spend the rest of your life with.

While the show may have never been the ratings powerhouse CBS hoped for, there were several episodes that stood out, none more so than this first season’s “Turkey Day,” which remains as gut-busting hilarious today as it was when it first aired nearly thirty years ago. “Turkey Day” is one of only two episodes which feature a commentary by Hugh Wilson, Frank Bonner and Loni Anderson, where the three spend as much time guffawing at their own antics (and who can blame them really?) as they do offering those little nuggets of insider information which make commentaries so wonderful. Hopefully, future seasons will include more commentaries from additional members of the cast.

The DVD also includes two new featurettes with on-camera interviews with Wilson, Anderson, Bonner and Tim Reid: “Do My Eyes Say Yes?” which explores the complexities of Anderson’s characters, and “A ‘Fish Story’ Story,” which profiles how one of the show’s silliest and most popular episodes was created out of Wilson’s spite for the network’s memos about the seriousness of the show. Like the commentaries, one wishes they featured more input from the other cast members.

Technically, the show looks and sounds about as good as any 1970s videotaped show could.

Whether you are new to the show or a fan from its first run, the first season of “WKRP in Cincinnati” would make a fine addition to the DVD library of anyone interested in quality situation comedies.

Rating: A-