Monday, October 7, 2013

"The New TV Comedies - A Preliminary Report (If I Can Tolerate Going Back)"

Conceptually, recent situation comedies have trended herdily towards quirky females in their early thirties – The New Girl, The Mindy Project, Two Broke Girls (in the latter case, quirky and insistently vagino-centric.) 

Changing strategies this season, a multiplicity of debuting series showcasing really, really dysfunctional families.  I have, to date, sampled parts of several new shows featuring dufus Dads, an alcoholic daughter with an alcoholic Mom whose family history reveals three consecutive generations of teenage pregnancy, and a Trophy Wife, whose sitcomical burdens involve resistant step-children and her husband’s meddling ex-wives. 

And there is the promise of more to come.  Crazy, crazy families, making Modern Family’s families appear mainstream, when at first they didn’t.  Suggesting that these freshly minted TV families – which, had they been lab experiments, would have been compassionately euthanized in their cages – may be the “mainstream” families of the distant future.  (In which case, Canada’s looking better and better.)

I reveal that I have only seen parts of these aforementioned series, because I was unable to sit through the entirety of any of them, partly due to the never-to-be-underestimated “Sour Grapes” Factor – these shows are on the air, and I’m writing for free in my house – and partly because I find them demonstrably unwatchable.  (Another show I could only survive ten minutes of was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, about a smart-ass shmeckdreidel (Read: screw-up) police officer who has the best arrest record in the precinct.  This one strays from the “Dysfunctional Family” template, but rates inclusion for, for me at least, being equally unwatchable.)

Which brings me to a show I liked.  Particularly the pilot, although, for me, the second episode aired after it tumbled significantly in quality.  (Can I dispense with “for me” disclaimers and simply have that “understood?”  Thank you.)

The show I enjoyed was The Michael Fox Show.  (Which, according to the post-broadcast ratings reports, attracted half the audience of its opposition, an inflated puffball manipulation/slash/half-hour “product placement” promotion for McDonald’s – Robin Williams’ The Crazy Ones – indicating either that America and I continue to be congenitally out of sync with each other, or that The Crazy Ones benefitted from a much stronger “lead-in” – the show broadcast immediately before it.  I am hoping it was the latter, though I must say it amazes me that in this day and age, viewers remain inertially passive about changing the channel.)

I am not being “fake humble” in this regard.  At its core, I have no idea why one show feels generically better than another one.  Maybe it’s simply a matter of an identifiably superior “sum of its parts.”  (No, it’s more than that.  Sometimes, inexplicably – and extremely rarely – a show’s totality will, almost alchemically, be greater than the sum of its individual parts.)

The Michael J. Fox Show sparkles with fortuitous casting.  (Uncharacteristically in such exercises, the daughter in this show actually looks like her mother.)  But it goes significantly beyond that.  The performers are unilaterally adept players of comedy, and the actresses are naturally beautiful, rather than expatriate runway models.

Michael J. Fox is, in my view, simply the best light comedian of our age.  Rather than a liability, Fox’s “Parkinson’s”, played, though not overplayed, for laughs, palpably enriches the characterization.

(One joke, as example):  A guy asks for his autograph, explaining, “My Dad has Alzheimer’s.”  Correcting him, Fox says, “Parkinson’s.”  To which the guy breezily replies, “Either way.”) 

This brings me to the writing, which, including the above example, made me laugh more frequently than any sitcom I have recently subjected myself to.  Even the second episode, though riddled with formulaic misunderstandings, included this nugget.

Fox’s wife is dismayed by her husband’s crush on a newly installed tenant in their apartment building.  Her sister-in-law suggests she might want to “step up her game”, starting with jettisoning the ratty old t-shirt she’s been wearing, an item of clothing already disparaged earlier in the episode.  When the wife asks, “What does everybody have against this shirt?” the sister-in-law explains,

“I’ve seen you polish silver with that t-shirt.”

A joke with that level of observationaless will keep me watching a show for weeks, waiting for another one of rivaling originality.  (An equally admirable “high road” offering:  The daughter announces she’s bringing over a classmate who’s a lesbian.  “So no ‘lesbian jokes’”, she warns her parents.  Her Dad says, “I don’t even know a lesbian joke.”  To which her Mom deliciously chimes in, “I know one.  But I don’t get it.”)

Thinking it over, maybe this is the traditional average – one new show I like out of…all the other ones.  Actually, that’s above the traditional average.  Usually, I dislike everything.

I shall endeavor to sample more of the debuting comedies in the future.  But I am not making any promises.  I am old, and can no longer waste precious time engaged in activities that impel me to bang my head against the wall.  Sometimes, literally. 

A “throw-in” observation.  This post was augmented by the use of my new technological best friend, On Demand – You do not have to do anything; it’s just there.   What I discovered in the process, however, is that on NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show, you were prevented from “fast-forwarding” through the commercials, while on CBS’s The Crazy Ones, you still could.  (As you could before with everything on On Demand.)  This reminded me of my recent post, in which a neophyte engineer was assigned the task of producing a shampoo bottle that makes too much shampoo come out with every squeeze.  In this case, it’s,

“I want you to come up with a technology that prevents On Demand viewers from ‘fast-forwarding’ through the commercials!”

And they did it. 

At least one network’s “R and D Department” did it.  And given Internet blabbiness, the secret impediment to “fast-forwarding” is certain to leak out. 

I don’t get it. 

Don’t engineering schools teach “Ethics?”


JED said...

"...the never-to-be-underestimated “Sour Grapes” Factor – these shows are on the air, and I’m writing for free in my house"

I have an idea to get you "out of the house", so to speak. I find your reviews of sitcoms very insightful and entertaining. Often more entertaining than the sitcoms themselves. Why couldn't there be a TV show reviewing TV shows? There have been movie review shows on TV (pioneered by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) for years. I know the major TV networks would never allow such a thing. But perhaps you could have a show on PBS (that's where Siskel and Ebert got their start).

I could imagine an entertaining half hour with you and, perhaps, Ken Levine arguing over the pluses and minuses of new shows or even reviewing existing shows that don't have an audience but deserve better. You could even have a segment looking at old shows that you think are worthy. This would not only highlight shows that could be found on DVD (or some cable channels) but could also act as a clinic on how to improve today's horrible situation. Comedies, that is.

You could give 0 to 4 pens for the writing, 0 to 4 actor's masks for the acting and 0 to 4 cameras for the production quality. What do you say? I wouldn't even ask for anything coming from this idea. I'd be happy to just have something worth watching on TV again.

Jim Dodd

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm afraid THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW did nothing for me, even though I agree with you about his superb qualities as a light comedy actor.

The only show of the new season that I've liked enough to stay with so far is THE BLACKLIST, though I'm willing to give Margo Martindale a chance on THE MILLERS. I may also be curious enough to see how they can possibly develop MOM as a comedy given the utterly depressing realities those characters are living with.

It says something about current comedies that, aside from THE BIG BANG THEORY (which last week to my taste really *was* funny), the show on the air with the biggest laughs and best jokes is often THE GOOD WIFE.


Andrew Orenstein said...

I tried watching the Michael J. Fox show but could not understand a word of the plot. I will go back and try harder since you liked it.

Check out The Goldbergs, which I liked. Not sure if anyone who isn't Jewish will even get it, but it made me smile. That said, it is not without its challenges, mostly the casting.

Still, would be interested to know what you think.


Canda said...

I like Jim Dodd's idea for you and Ken Levine to review TV on-air.

The Crazy Ones, with Robin Williams, doesn't work on several levels, and also because Williams isn't performing in front of a live audience.

Sean Hayes, in my view, is made for half-hour. He's likable, has great delivery, and can do physical comedy. His show, while not groundbreaking, is enjoyable.

Super Fun Night, about the world of a heavy girl and all the complications, is well-played by lead Rebel Wilson. They're not afraid of emotion, which many shows desperately avoid.

Agree with Wendy that "The Millers" will be challenged to have with fun with the depressing reality of a retro Mom moving in with her son. Well-crafted pilot may not mean a strong enough premise to last 5 years.

Hope that Michael Fox's physical condition, and the obvious way they edit around it doesn't become too noticeable for the audience to enjoy. He also, isn't filming in front of a live audience, which always energized his performance and the shows he was in.

Frank said...

I couldn't watch more than half of any of the new sitcoms except for 'Super Fun Night' which was surprisingly good. That Rebel Wilson has got some comedy chops.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Canda: Actually, it was MOM I thought would have difficulty dealing with its depressing realities. The son on THE MILLERS has choices: he's a grown-up with a job. A 16yo determined to keep her baby, who is pregnant by a guy who makes house plants look like abstract number theorists, with a mother and grandmother who are both alcoholics and who have undoubtedly made her life to date hell...sure, spin light comedy around that. Maybe that will distract the characters long enough for someone to rescue the baby.