Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall TV Preview Pt. I: Last Man Standing, 2 Broke Girls, Free Agents

Last Man Standing
My main preconception for this show was that its reason for existence was that TV executives feel the universe is severely misaligned if anyone who has ever helmed a successful TV show ever isn't currently on network television (see Bill Cosby, Jeff Tambour, Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, etc.) in some form or another.

I also felt that while Home Improvement entertained me as a 10-year old, it probably would not hold up to a grown-up audience which, for better or worse, I am now a part of.

However, ten minutes of this show changed my opinion pretty quickly. I now think that there's always room for a by-the-numbers family comedy in the prime time schedule (Modern Family is too clever and therefore disqualified form this category) and even if he's not treading in vastly dangerous waters with this familiar role, Tim Allen is giving me what I need.

It's odd that both this show and "Home Improvement" have Tim Allen playing roles of highly empowered middle men: They both have hiring and firing power but answer to a company owner. On "Home Improvement", Allen was the host of his own TV show but his boss was the head of the Binford Tool Company. Why a TV show would be owned by a single sponsor is beyond me. That would mean that every Tool Time commercial ad would be for Binford tools like the "George Burns and Grace Allen Show" had commercials and in-show promotions consist entirely of carnation milk.

The show is an interesting twist on "Home Improvement" in that Allen has three girls instead of boys. The dynamics are a little better this way with less of Allen's character revolving around his infections manliness and also has the benefit of positioning the mom (Nancy Travis) as less of a foil to be subverted (poor Patricia Richardson). The show has an even more interesting twist in that the oldest kid is a single mom. The show earns big points for downplaying this facet to her character rather than branding her as a Hester Prynne incarnate (Ellen Wernecke will be so proud of me for throwing in a literary reference!).

Lastly, the pilot episode seemed relevant to the economic climate of today with Tim Allen's job in danger. Here's hoping the show maintains that sense of instability. That would be an interesting ride.

[Update: Just have to mention that the show does not hold up after that many episodes. Quit watching this one about three weeks later]

Two Broke Girls:
My review for this show (after two episodes) will be short and simple, because there's not much to the show:
It really hearkens back to old-timey sitcoms which I would loosely translate as a TV show with little complexity in its humor.

Most good sitcoms today are loaded with multi-layered complexity with their jokes. Brick jokes, call backs, and running gags lead to punchlines that can take an entire episode to set up. In contrast, every laugh in a sitcom like "Two Broke Girls" never requires more than two lines of set up at the most (I didn't scientifically measure this, feel free to point out any counterexamples in the comments).

Still, while the jokes might not require me to focus on all 22 minutes but the story in the two episodes I watched were good enough to keep me glued.

I have to confess that because I didn't see the pilot, I'm not entirely sure why the rich heiress roommate is suddenly poor. No matter, the odd couple chemistry is sparking and the premise is a unique enough angle to induce my curiosity.

Besides anything with the wonderful Kat Dennings (from "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist") is worth a glance. The ensemble is pretty strong except for restaurant employee Oleg who's an all-purpose source of ethnic humor. [Update: What was I thinking when I wrote this and praised the backup ensemble? The entire ensemble is awful although it's hard to react that negatively to Garrett Morris (one of the seven original cast members of SNL). The show's Chinese restaurant owner character is equally as bland as Oleg, and while it's terrific that the show was able to snag someone from the Christopher Guest theater company in Jennifer Coolidge, I've never seen such a capable comic actor stripped of any of their potential]

Free Agents
I'm not familiar with what direction this show took after the pilot (yes, I know it was cancelled), but the first episode had a sort of artificial slickness to it that came off as schwarmy (fair warning: that might not be a real word. Perhaps, it could be?).

I can't think of a plausible reason why characters in Hank Azaria's office are talking about sex so much (including the board meeting) except that the company is a manufacturer of sexual innuendo. To the show's credit, a later scene in which a board meeting is called just to discuss Alex's (Azaria's) date is so ridiculous, you have to think that they're in on the joke (my third lampshading reference in a row!).

The show is also a little guilty of overly stylized dialogue reminiscent of "Studio 60." While the characters aren't nearly as homogeneous as that disaster of a TV show, they're all on the same page in trying to be as uber-hip as they can at all times of the day. Alex's secretary (Natasha Leggero) is too hip to actually act in any helpful capacity to him as it interferes with her lifestyle of being rude and snarky.

Hank Azaria is about as good of a choice for this role as you can get. His age and level of attractiveness are about right for the degree of self-doubt that the character is written with.

It was somewhat jarring that he'd elicit such curiosity about his sex life. As a character actor, Azaria is the definition of someone who's sex life you're supposed to be apathetic to because he's sharing screen time with a handsome leading man like Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom whom you're supposed to be thinking more of as a sexual being.

To further illustrate this point, let's try this hypothetical: Do you think when Paul Giamatti goes to a cocktail party, people want to hear all about his sexual escapades? Whether he's having sex or not, it's certainly not something that anyone would be interested in knowing, which is exactly why he gets cast in awkward dramedies or John Adams and other meaty character roles.

Kathryn Hahn (not really a well-known actress and liable to be confused with Catherine O'Hara) is just a tinge too witty (not as bad as the supporting players) as Helen, but she's not far from being a great lead. She pulls off some very honest and relatable moments and brings about the pilot's funniest moment when she vents out her frustration at a seemingly judgemental grocery store clerk.

Most importantly, the romance here makes sense for the characters. It was also a nice touch that the romance only started to feel genuine when Helen's independent woman persona crumbles in the third act.

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