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WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season

All right, fellow babies. One of the 1970s' best and most durable sitcoms is finally getting a boost into the DVD generation. We're talking the mighty 'KRP in Cincinnati, and it's so good to see this sharply written, exquisitely cast, abnormally smart comedy on our 21st-century big screens. However, in the words of Dr. Johnny Fever, we seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties in the studio.

It's no secret that WKRP's DVD treatment has been long delayed because of issues over music rights. Set at a struggling rock-format radio station, pretty much every episode featured at least one authentic rock hit playing on the DJs' turntable or used in a bit of comedy business. Ted Nugent, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Foreigner, Eddie Money, and more were originally heard on these Season One episodes from 1978-79, but they've since been replaced with generic-sounding, royalties-free faux-rock. The changes blunt the show's (and its DJs') coolness quotient by a factor of 10. At least as bad, some episodes have been re-edited to accommodate the substitutions or outright cuts. So some scenes are shortened and some laugh-lines gone. Even Jennifer Marlowe's doorbell, which had played "Fly Me to the Moon," has been replaced with a public-domain melody.

Now, those of us who followed the show from its original airing, then into years of syndication reruns (crushing on Jan Smithers' character Bailey Quarters the whole time), shouldn't be yelling at Fox over this. The blame points to the collision between basic business economics and the current self-defeating state of music licensing. To renew the song rights for a release — for a medium — that nobody in the '70s could have predicted and prepared for, it would cost a prohibitive amount for a DVD set that, let's face it, probably won't be generating through-the-roof sales. That means the choice came down to our getting the show (a) in a compromised version, (b) in a set priced too high for any reasonable business model, or (c) not at all. For years the "not at all" option reigned, but the fan clamor was loud and persistent enough that something had to be done. So here we have a three-disc set that even before it hit the streets caused a furor in the blogosphere, and for good, if not always well tempered, reasons. (Among the fan blogs, the most comprehensive breakdown of this set's alterations is here.)

Nonetheless, despite all the compromises and alterations forced onto the final product, we can't say that finally having WKRP in Cincinnati on our DVD shelves is anything less than a welcome rush of nostalgia, not to mention a reminder of the staying power we see in its consistently pleasurable performances, writing, and style. Here's a show created around one of the great ensemble casts (long before such ensemble favorites as Friends or Scrubs) and that defied studio urgings to be just another giggles-and-jiggles sitcom.

Of course, WKRP gently pushed enough envelopes to receive dubious treatment ever since its earliest years in syndication. In Disc One's commentary track for the two-part pilot, Loni Anderson (who played the radio station's brainy, take-no-guff, stereotype-demolishing blonde bombshell receptionist Jennifer Marlowe), recalls that the episode "Les on a Ledge" included a running-gag plotline that referred to Jennifer as the most successful sex change operation in history. In at least one broadcast market, that gag's setup had been censored out, making every subsequent reference to it in the episode at best confusing. Fortunately, it's intact here, as is that episode's Les Nessman flub of golf pro Chi Chi Rodriguez's name.

The rest of the 22 Season One episodes on these discs include several of the series' most memorable highlights. "Who is Gordon Sims?" reveals the past hidden by the hip black nighttime DJ, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid). "Goodbye Johnny" and "Johnny Comes Back" bring the show's breakout character, Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) to the front with a storyline about his leaving for a better gig at a station in California. "A Date with Jennifer" is the first of several episodes written by Richard "Les Nessman" Sanders. It represents one of the show's hallmarks — its warm and affectionate treatment of its well-written characters.

Series creator Hugh Wilson scripted the riotous "Fish Story" as an in-your-face, over-the-top response to the studio's demands for less "serious" humor and more "Laverne & Shirley"-style yuks and sight gags. Wilson was so put off by the assignment that a pseudonym takes his slot in the episode's end credits. The plan backfired and "Fish Story" got huge ratings and remains one of the funniest of the bunch.

Throughout WKRP's four seasons, no single episode sticks in the zeitgeist as firmly as Season One's classic "Turkeys Away," a.k.a. the one where Les' remote broadcast of a station-sponsored Thanksgiving PR stunt goes tragically awry to oh-the-humanity proportions. TV Guide readers voted "Turkeys Away" one of television's funniest-ever episodes. "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

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With all the livid online chatter about this release, Fox Home Entertainment (owner of the MTM properties) is surely aware that titling this 2007 set WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season sticks in the craw of the show's purist fans. If the studio had at least licensed the few songs essential for now-cut or crippled punch lines ("Heartbreak Hotel," Foreigner's "Hot Blooded," "Pink Floyd's "Dogs"), the fan furor's volume knob wouldn't have dialed itself to 11. Whether or not the official press explanations are accurate or merely cover for overzealous cost-cutting, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a complete complete Season One box of WKRP. And whether this pattern will carry forward with the next three season sets remains to be seen. The box does state that some of the original music content has been edited for this DVD release, so all informed-buyer caveats are duly noted.

Still, alongside the strengths of the episodes themselves, there's still plenty that's to like here. For a videotaped TV series that's nearly thirty years old, the prints are in fine shape and each ep's image clarity and color look as good as its original airing. The DD 1.0 audio also is as good as we could ask for considering the source material. Optional English and Spanish subtitles have been added. Extras start with lively, enjoyable commentary tracks by Loni Anderson, Frank ("Herb Tarlek") Bonner, and series creator Hugh Wilson for the pilot and "Turkeys Away." In the pilot commentary, Wilson acknowledges that music was replaced because it cost so much. Wilson later says in "Turkeys Away" that he finds the substitutions "pretty good. I don't mind those music replacements."

Two new featurettes give us brief backstage reminiscences: Jennifer Marlowe is profiled in Do My Eyes Say Yes? (6½ minutes) with Anderson, Bonner, Tim Reid, and Wilson. A "Fish Story" Story (4 mins.) features Wilson giving the background behind his backfired studio revenge comedy.

The three discs arrive in two slimline cases within a paperboard box.

—Mark Bourne

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