Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In Defense of Four New Prime Time Comedies of the 2010 Season

Six new comedies came out on prime time this fall season and I've watched four of them: $#)%* my Dad Says, Outsourced, Raising Hope, and Running Wilde. I like them all and think that the kinks that came with the pilots can be eventually worked out.

The critical consensus is that of disappointment with some, if not, all of these shows. Since I've been liking everything I saw on the comedy front this season, it might look like I'm soft but it's more of an issue of me tuning out the crap. A good amount of TV is derivative and uninspired and I knew fairly early on that "Mike and Molly" and "Better than You" fit that category. The former (premise: fat schlub finds a woman willing to marry him) was also identical in premise to "King of Queens," "According to Jim," or "Still Standing"; the latter (some variation of newlyweds awkwardly adjust to larger social circle) looks indistinguishable from "Worst Week", "Til Death", "For Your Love" or "Everybody Loves Raymond." I was bored before I even tuned in and I'm thankful that only two shows on that level of blandness exist this season.

The other four new comedies each offer something original and for that they deserve our attention and the benefit of the doubt that given time they can grow. This is dually important because unoriginal and uninspired TV still populates the airwaves.

Here are those four shows:
1. Running Wilde on Fox
The Hook (What drew me into thinking that this would more than an ordinary show): Creator Mitch Hurwitz practically reinvented comedy with Arrested Development and Will Arnett and David Cross both excelled under his tutelage. The premise of a rich man who is absurdly out of touch with reality being brought down to Earth by the only woman he's ever had any contact with is certainly unique. On top of that, add in the two obstacles that she's: 1) Already engaged to someone and 2) Is voluntarily on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum than him

How the show delivers: The pilot was sluggish but by just the second episode we saw the kind of intricately absurd plotting that made Arrested Development so great. We also saw the complexities of the love triangle once David Cross entered the picture. Also, this show has the same chemistry between Cross and Arnett with a much better framework that pits the two against each other in a way that Arrested Development never did: Cross's character was an asexual outsider without any business accumen, so he never competed with Arnett's the way Arnett and Bateman would compete over girls and status.

What the detractors say: The pilot felt a little sluggish to the reviewers as well but there were other complaints.

Every character on AD was strong but the butler and the secretary characters don't really seem to add anything. Already, added Mr. Luntz (the secretary) to their list of least likable characters writing that, "He seems to be half-British and also weirdly half-effeminate, but he also has no real point of view."

Three reviews I've come across don't like Will Arnett as a lead character for a sitcom. Ken Levine "does not find him funny for a second", TV Guide says the show delivers "more smarm than charm" (an implication to Arnett who's comic persona is all about smarm) and Time Magazine's James Poniewozik makes the unfavorable comparison of Will Arnett as the lead to Jason Bateman in AD.

My defense: Even though the reviewers only have the pilot to work with, they should be ashamed of themselves for writing off Hurwitz so quickly. Poniewozik is already proclaiming that Hurwitz's talent will shine through eventually but probably not in this series which sounds like he's writing his epitaph. The massive improvement between the pilot and the second episode shows how promising this show can be. Will Arnett was deservedly nominated for a supporting Emmy as Gob and regularly stole the show from an incredibly talented cast. He is more of an extreme than Bateman's Michael Bluth but he's counterbalanced by greater extremes as well and there do exist relatively normal characters in the form of Migo and Puddle.

2. Raising Hope on Fox
The Hook: Just like Running Wilde, my interest in the show comes from the past work of it's creator Greg Garcia who was behind "My Name is Earl."

How the Show Delivers: I'll concede that the show's premise isn't as novel as "My Name is Earl." One show was about a lowlife crook whose winning of the lottery inspires him to make entirely unique life changes for the better and "Raising Hope" is just about a lowlife teenager who knocked up a girl. However, many of the same elements of "My Name is Earl"- characters driven toward unexpected self-improvement; exploring people on the socio-economic fringes of Americana; characters who are endearing in spite of their stupidity; moments that are genuinely touching- are here as well and that's a good reason to invest yourself in this show.

What the detractors say: Of the four TV shows, Raising Hope is getting the most positive reviews even those reviews are pretty cautious. Most have said that the pilot isn't that great but that it shows promise. Looking at a couple of those reviews at Time Magazine and AV Club), there seems to be some criticism of the show treating their characters with contempt as well as the gags being lazy. Former TV scribe Ken Levine, who blogs here wrote "this show felt like all the white trash jokes they couldn’t get to on MY NAME IS EARL they jammed in here."

My response: I am in agreement here that the show's humor is unimpressive early on and coming from desperate places. At the same time, I would expect a low laughs-per-minute ratio on a show like this in comparison to a better sitcom. The humor doesn't come from one-liners but rather our relationships to the characters and those will grow over time. Early on, the change in pace and the general weirdness of "My Name is Earl" meant it took a little while to grow on you as well.

3. #@)$*() My Dad Says on CBS:
Hook: #@$*( My Dad Says comes from a unique source in the form of a guy on Twitter who started blogging funny things his old-fashioned dad was saying. That doesn't necessarily mean the show will be good, but it gets my attention because if the show is created by an outsider, I'll probably get a fresh perspective. Also, it is a perspective that is pretty relatable: Most of us have at least one elderly relative who casually says things in the privacy of their own home that would get us in a lot of trouble if those words came out of our mouths.

How it delivers: William Shatner, who can be easily pigeonholed in our heads as that caricature of his Captain Kirk character he's been doing for years, is delightfully fresh here. Thanks to the writing, his character is a relatively unique comic creation. The show has heart as well. When the father and son are dancing at the end of the pilot, it's an earned moment. The best indication, however, that I wanted to see more is simply that the show made me laugh. Numerous times.

What the detractors say: One reviewer (TV Guide) sees Shatner's character more as a "shallowly conceived grouch belching trite punch lines." Alan Speinwall and Joel Keller of AOL's TV Squad both think Shatner's character is too crude to solicit empathy although Keller thinks Shatner showed potential in one scene. There was also some criticism that the rest of the cast is somewhat weak in comparison to Shatner.

My defense: First off, the cast includes Will Sasso and Nicole Sullivan who might be taking a while to find their chemistry but they certainly have the talent as evidenced by their work on "Mad TV." Jonathan Sadowski was a last-minute replacement and he's the straight man to Shatner's funny man so he doesn't have to be the show's strongest link. The major question here is whether Shatner is convincing and it's just a matter of me buying it whereas others didn't.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this show is on CBS. The network's bread and butter is mediocre middle-of-the-road comedies like "Everybody Loves Raymond" "Yes Dear" and "Two and a Half Men." Admittedly, "Raymond" has more pathos, but none of those shows were innovative in anyway, whatsoever. At best, they were good for a few laughs in a familiar setting. If it can get past the initial torrent of negative reviews and survive its first season, there's no question "#@$* My Dad Says" could at least deliver at the bar set by the other shows on the network.

4. Outsourced on NBC:

The Hook: Outsourcing is interesting. An article on what life is like for an American middle manager transplanted to India would be intriguing so a TV show set in that world would naturally be intriguing as well. It’s not just because I was a geography major in college but because it’s relevant and has affected people I know.

How it delivers: Outsourcing has a natural go-to place for its humor in the form of culture clash jokes and the writing seems competent enough that they know how to mine it. Culture clash humor is going to rely more on the relationships between the characters than the "Hey, you guys are wearing funny hats" type of observational shtick. In that category, potential is developing in the network of relationships that’s being established. The protagonist has an American colleague (Diedrich Baker) who’s kind of boorish, a passive-aggressive assistant manager and a team of subordinates with whom he’s having several awkward Michael-Scott-like moments. There’s also an flirty Australian love interest but she’s been kept in the background so far.

Criticism: Todd van der Werff of the A.V. Club declares this is the end of NBC Thursday night's glory days. According to him, the show's scenes between Americans feel like they're on a different show than the ones portraying American-Indian culture clash and neither are executed particularly well. Some critics found the characters boring like the blogger from Film School Rejects who named this show the failure of the season. James Poniewozik acknowledges "satire is a dangerous zone" but says the show is a disappointment with cheap jokes that insult the audience.

My response: Again, it's a matter of placing too much emphasis on the pilot. Characters might be one-dimensional in the pilot because there's not enough screen time to develop everybody and give exposition in 22 minutes. The show's breakout characters in Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson and Tom Haverford, seemed like dumb one-note characters in the pilot too. Swanson gave a speech about he preferred Chuck-E-Cheese to government and it seemed like the writers were trying too hard to inject the characters with quirks. Over times, his quirks formed part of a fully-fleshed personality that strengthened because it stayed consistent over several episodes. I could see three or four of these characters as pop culture stalwarts like Ron Swanson or Dwight from "The Office." In addition, there were only a few one-line gags in the pilot which is an indication that the show is going to be going for broader situational laughs.

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