Before I began my binge watch of Newhart – which I have successfully mined multiple pieces from like a true pro – I knew how it ended. As a lover of television it was basically impossible not to. Newhart has one of the most-iconic series finales ever. It’s all a dream. Specifically, Bob Newhart, the star of Newhart, wakes up as Bob Hartley, his character from his previous sitcom The Bob Newhart Show. He’s on the bedroom set of The Bob Newhart Show. He wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette as Emily Hartley, his wife on that show. Yes, all of Newhart is written off as Bob Hartley’s dream.
Is this clever? Sure, and it makes an impact. It’s a series finale that stands out at the very least. I knew it was coming, but then something happened. It’s one thing to know that Newhart is all a dream in a vacuum. It’s another thing when you are actually watching the show.
Look, I know Newhart is a sitcom. I know they are all actors on sets. I’ve seen Newhart and Peter Scolari and Tom Poston in other things. Any time a not-yet famous actor like Jason Alexander or Bill Maher (yes, Bill Maher) shows up I’m amused by it. Still, when you are watching a show, especially one you are really enjoying, it feels weird knowing all of this is basically going to be written off. All scripted shows are fake, but a show that’s a dream is doubly fake.
A few seasons into the run of Newhart I started to feel like the ending was pulling the rug out from under me in a way. You have an emotional reaction to some moment then you have to say to yourself, “Yeah, but this is just a dream.” What does that mean for your reaction? Sometimes the events of Newhart don’t make sense in a way sitcoms get a little sweaty. Does the fact it’s all a dream paper over that? Does Newhart earn dream logic?
I realized I could not view the show as a bunch of characters in a dream. This was not the original intent of the show. It’s an idea for the finale they put together years into the run. I wanted to view the sitcom like I would any other sitcom. I wanted that level of investment in Dick, Joanna, Stephanie, Michael, Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl. And yet, the dream thing lingered.
Finally, I got to the series finale. I had watched 183 episodes of television. I had spent literally days worth of time with these characters. Then, I got to the ending of the finale…and I had a massive smile on my face. In the moment, even knowing what is happening, it just really pops as a finale. It feels alive and dynamic. It feels clever and fun. Watching it in action, I enjoyed the twist. It didn’t matter that it wrote off the arcs, the interiority, and the emotions of all these characters. It didn’t matter that Bob Hartley had a suuuuper long and surprisingly coherent dream. I liked it.
Clearly, the Newhart folks weren’t concerned about our investment in the characters. They had a fun idea and ran with it. That’s complicated to unpack as a TV fan. Imagine watching Newhart from 1982 through 1990 and then it ending like this. How would you feel? Maybe it’s all about the execution. Had the ending fallen flat I may have been annoyed. Instead, it felt like it served the spirit of Newhart even if it undid everything that happened in Newhart.