"Newhart" Still Resonates 20 Years Later

Karen Herman is Director, Archive of American Television, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation

It's the 20th anniversary of "The Last Newhart." You know, the episode where the entire Newhart series turns out to be (SPOILER ALERT) Bob Hartley's surreal Japanese-food-induced dream.

It was brilliant and truly set the bar for finales. But why did the twist in this finale work so well? 

When St. Elsewhere surprised its audience by revealing that the series was the product of an autistic boy's imagination, it got mixed reviews. And the Dallas "it-was-all-a-dream" twist is barely worth a mention - it "only" invalidated a season.

My theory is simple: the Bob Newhart brand. Bob, who is celebrating his 50th year in show business (the Television Academy is hosting an event on June 1 to commemorate the occasion), played essentially the same character in both shows. His stock-in-trade has been to function as the centered everyman, a master of understatement, responding to the insanity around him. Bob Hartley and Dick Loudon were soul mates in that department and it wasn't a great leap to see one character waking up in the other's bed.

Unlike today's media-saturated landscape, when The Bob Newhart Show originally aired on CBS, there were just three networks in the game and the show aired in arguably the best Saturday night lineup ever. There's a good chance that most of America had some familiarity with Bob and Emily - at least enough to be in on the joke. The collective gasp in the studio as the scene opened onto that 1970s Chicago bedroom set, spread to home audiences and instantly became a pop culture touchstone.

In her Archive of American Television interview, Suzanne Pleshette detailed the cloak-and-dagger secrecy involved in reprising her role as Emily Hartley. "We had a code name when I would call them back so it wouldn't be me. They wrote a fake ending where Bob goes up to heaven... They built a set in secret. They did not tell the cast until 20 minutes before we did it and they hid me in a trailer for 6 hours. With no phone. You don't do that to a woman like me. No shopping, no phone. What are you, kidding?"

Interestingly, the episode didn't win the Emmy that year, and I have a theory about that, too. Do you remember what happened before Bob flipped the light on in that final scene? Didn't think so. That scene, with some tweaking, could have capped almost any episode, and we'd still be celebrating it today.

Happy 50th in showbiz, Bob! You're truly a TV Legend.