Monday, August 18, 2014

"A Tale Of Two Sitcoms"

I know things have changed and noteworthy series now debut year-round rather than just during the “Premier Season” glut of mid-September and “Midseason Replacement” early January.  (Says the man who has a collection of TV Guide Preview Editions going back to 1956.  Except for four.)

Still, at least with the two shows I am highlighting today, there is an insinuating sense that the network (NBC in this case) does not have enormous faith in these shows and has deliberately dumped them onto the schedule at a time when a substantial cohort of the audience is not watching TV, their concern being that during the more competitive portions of the year, that audience would never choose watch these shows.  These are the pants you wear only when everything else is at the cleaners.

The two series in question, Welcome To Sweden and Working the Engels are not exactly terrible.  (Note:  I am not at all comfortable engaging in such categorizations.  My “terrible” could be somebody else’s “You gotta see this show!”  And, more personally painfully, vice versa.  Imagine hating something I think is great!)

Whatever the season, the networks generally air comedies in hour blocks, matching two half-hour series for compatibility, hoping that with the ideal pairing the audience will see them as one show that simply changes actors half way through.  And maybe moves to Chicago.

Considering format compatibility, networks do not air a raucous “Filmed before a live studio audience” show back-to-back with a less punchline-driven, single-camera comedy.  (Evidence:  CBS’s airing hour blocks of the former, NBC, ditto with the latter, and ABC, which offers examples of both formats but never within the same scheduling hour.  He claimed, without thorough research.)

Underlying Rationale:  “Studio audience” series (The Big Bang Theory, Last Man Standing) and single-camera series (Modern Family, The Middle) both fall under the overarching umbrella of comedy, but it’s like a ballgame where they pitch overhand and a ballgame where they pitch underhand.  Both are fundamentally the same game, but it is an entirely different “feel.”

“Series Compatibility”, however, proceeds considerably beyond production format.  There are also the issues of sensibility, rhythm and style.  It is in this regard that Welcome To Sweden and Playing the Engels are jarringly incompatible.  It’s like caging a sheep and a tiger together based on the understanding that they are both animals.

I will target a single incompatibility issue – pace.   Compactly contrasted, Welcome To Sweden’s pace is languidly hypoglycemic, while Working The Engels’s is aggressively “A.D.D.”

In Welcome To Sweden, an American male abandons the rat race of “Accountant To The Stars” to relocate to Sweden to be with his homegrown Swedish girlfriend.  It’s a “fish out of water” idea, except that the “fish” playing the part is no high strung Ben Stiller type, but rather a laid back kind of “fish”, suggesting that America was actually the “out of water” locale and that moving to Sweden has returned him to the water he should have been swimming in in the first place.

This seemingly miscast star’s selection is understandable because the lead actor is also the show’s creator Greg Poehler, who is Amy Poehler’s brother – enough said, I have already written “It’s Who You Know.”  (“I want my brother!”  “You got him!”)

The show’s relaxed ambiance appears compatible with at least our stereotyped understanding of Sweden as enjoying a less intensely driven lifestyle than America.  Welcome To Sweden’s stories – though “rom-com familiar” – the young couple, bivouacking with the girl’s parents is continually interrupted during moments of physical intimacy – play out at a comfortable, recognizable – from life, not for sitcoms – rhythm.  This naturalistic pace makes the show, for me, difficult to resist.  Though I admit sometimes shouting at the screen,

“Come… ON!!!  

You will never hear “Come… ON!!!” shouted at a Working The Engels screen.  (About a family named Engel working together.  Get it?  This show is energetically “working the angles” before they even get started.) 

Working The Engels is a “reviving the late family patriarch’s law firm” premise, penned by the apparently resuscitated writers from Laverne and Shirley.  Working The Engels’ relentless effort to elicit laughter borders on the embarrassing.  By the third episode, the lead character is amasquerading as a stripper and dangling from a pole.

And she’s the shy one! 

(By contrast, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Mary” did not “break character” until “Season Five.”)

Understating things for mildly comedic effect, these shows do not blend together too well.  Nor, individually, I believe, does either of them successfully “hit the spot.”  One is too slow; the other, too fast.  NBC should at least run the faster one first, allowing us to catch our breath during the slower one.

Ah, well, it’s summer.  Nobody’s watching.

Except me. 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

You've convinced me to try WELCOME TO SWEDEN. :)


cadavra said...

Well, as it turned out, NBC has renewed SWEDEN and yanked ENGELS, so the republic still stands.