So I was planning a month of all animation but that kind of didn’t pan out. But here’s another animated series anyway! This one’s a little different from what I’ve done before, since it’s geared toward a younger audience than the more adult-friendly animated shows I’ve covered so far. But make no mistake, it’s a mature, thoughtful show all the same.
Today’s show is Sym-Bionic Titan, co-created by the great Genndy Tartakovsky, who was also responsible for Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, two tentpoles of my childhood. I have great affection for this guy’s work, so I was excited to watch this to say the least. Credit where credit is due though: Bryan Andrews and Paul Rudish also share a creator credit, so it’s hard to know exactly who was responsible for what, though it certainly shares some important similarities to past Tartakovsky work. Much like Jack, this show features a more serialized plotline, and pays homage to a whole host of pop culture. Whereas Jack was an extended tribute to everything from samurai flicks (duh), spaghetti westerns, and dystopian sci-fi, Titan references nearly the whole of science fiction cinema, as well as some other, less expected elements. It’s slightly less serialized than Jack, which was, to my memory at least, one of Cartoon Network’s first attempts and doing more long-form storytelling, more like an anime (another important influence on both Jack and Titan), and that continues here.
So what is the story, you might ask? It concerns three individuals: Ilana (voiced by Tara Strong), the princess of a planet called Galaluna, a sort of quasi-Victorian world with futuristic technology; Lance (voiced by Kevin Thoms), a military prodigy; and Octus (voiced by Brian Posehn, who is just great), a super-intelligent robot who can change form. Lance is charged with protecting Ilana, who is hiding out on Earth while fleeing her home planet due to a military coup in progress. The man responsible for the coup is General Modula, who used to be the king’s right-hand man. He’s enlisted the help of the Mutraddi, a race of horrifying aliens, in order to sieze power (listen, I don’t wanna be “that guy,” but is it a coincidence that the ugly, violent “other” in this scenario has a name that sounds vaguely Arab, or is there some secret anti-Islamicism at work here? It’s probably just me. God, I never wanna be “that guy” again). Modula is holding the king hostage, and sends a range of giant beasts to Earth to kill Ilana, beasts which are continually defeated by the titular Titan.
About that Titan: it’s essentially a giant robot formed from three smaller robots, two commandeered by Lance and Ilana, and the third is just Octus. They work in tandem to control it and harness it’s power, hence the sym part of the title. It’s a pretty neat example of “work together and you can do anything!” kind of thinking.
The show balances a number of plotlines, including the trio’s attempts to assimilate into high-school culture and keep a low profile while also protecting Earth from the monsters sent to destroy them. Ilana and Octus (as a nerdy student named Newton) are ostracized, but Lance becomes surprisingly popular in a dark and mysterious kind of way. In addition, the military views Titan as a threat, and they’re also being monitored by G3, a sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Men in Black-esque group that monitors alien activities. There’s sort of a romance teased between Ilana and Lance, though each of them also has their own separate beau at one point. In one of the show’s stranger (but pretty charming) subplots, Newton begins dating Kimmy, the most popular girl at school, after he helps her with her math test and actually treats her like a person, which causes him to begin questioning his newly emerging feelings. It’s pretty unlikely that the most popular girl would ever date an oddly shaped nerd in the real world, ever, but it’s affecting, and prompts one of the show’s most stylish sequences:
As you can imagine, Sym-Bionic Titan is composed of some pretty unexpected influences. Tartakovsky said he was equally influenced by giant robot anime as he was by John Hughes movies, and it’s surprisingly effective. It’s enjoyable to pick out the different sci-fi genres on display, from the obvious giant robot and monster of the week shows to movies like Robocop, Blade Runner, and The Thing. The show feels like an affectionate love letter to sci-fi as a genre.
Titan does follow a formula in its early going, where some dispute divides the group, then a monster comes, and the group must get past their differences to defeat it. Happily, the show demonstrates a willingness to play with or even abandon the monster of the week formula, which does get a little tedious after a while. Some of the series’ best episodes are devoted to showing us what happened before our heroes ended up on Earth, or are more character-based. Sometimes, weirdly enough, a giant monster appears just to be easily dispatched, almost as a matter of course. Unfortunately, the Galaluna subplot is abandoned for several episodes at a time, our only information being that yep, General Modula’s still in power and yep, he still wants Ilana dead. There’s a little bit of time devoted to showing Galalunians fighting in resistance to the Mutraddi takeover, but it doesn’t get developed very much, at least in the episodes we get. Perhaps had the show been able to continue, it would have explored these plotlines in more depth.
There are plenty of things to like though; the show is really beautifully designed and realized, featuring a combo of Jack’s stylish, outline-free animation style, and the more traditional feel of Dexter’s Lab. Different episodes do have a slightly different feel, no doubt the product of different directors. But it’s always wonderfully animated and dynamically constructed. Even at their most tedious and generic, the monster battles are always well staged and exciting to look at. The show balances its darker, graver moments with some very funny ones, such as Octus’ (who also poses as Lance and Ilana’s father) attempts to use a little kid’s cartoon to help him better understand how to communicate with humans (or humanoids):
Though the show is geared towards a younger set, it’s also surprisingly dark and even sexual at times, like when Kimmy does a sort of stiptease for Newton (minus any clothing removal) in an attempt to get him to give her the test answers:
That wouldn’t have flown when I was a kid, by golly! (this sentence brought to you by your grandfather)
So what happened to Sym-Bionic Titan? Was it low ratings or network disinterest? Surprisingly, it may be neither of those things. Some unnamed industry insider said that, while ratings were decent, Cartoon Network opted not to renew the show because it didn’t have enough toys connected to it. Seriously. Only in the world of animation is that a concern. Though it’s basically the same as any other show’s need for merchandising capability, I can’t help but picture a hyper nine-year-old in a business suit surrounded by action figures shouting “I demand more toys!” Clearly, my mind is a strange place. I suppose it makes sense that toys would be a concern, but the show isn’t really geared towards the age of kid who would really play with toys, anyway. That is, unless you’re weird and still collect action figures at 14 or 15 (though to be fair, that’s probably the same group that would also watch cartoons at 14 or 15…unlike myself, who is an adult and hasn’t just spent over 1,000 words writing about a cartoon). The other sad thing is the toys for this show would probably be pretty badass. I mean, who doesn’t love giant robots and monsters? Built in money right there.
So, should it be back on the air? absolutely. It’s an engrossing, well-made piece of storytelling, despite a few flaws. Unfortunately, though fans rallied in support, Cartoon Network has shown no interest in reviving the show, and Tartakovsky moved onto Sony Pictures Animation to direct the upcoming CGI film Hotel Transylvania. Here’s hoping it ends up being good, though with him involved, chances are high.
Join us next time!
Hey folks, leave it to me to kick off a month-long event a week into the actual month. But that’s how I roll, not obeying those calendars and shit! Today, we’re gonna look at two back-to-back animated series, one that died an ignoble death, and one whose fate is uncertain; and examine if they’re both wastes or if they deserved more time.
First up on the chopping block is Allen Gregory, co-created by Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill (God, that’s a sentence I never expected to write) with Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul. The show premiered in October 2011, in that perilous timeslot on FOX’s Sunday night animation block that has claimed many a show, before being left off the midseason lineup and quickly vanishing after only seven episodes. The show follows the titular protagonist (voiced by Hill), a sheltered, pretentious, unbelievably selfish and manipulative seven year old thrust from his comfortable homeschooled life into public school. Predictably, things are not easy for Allen Gregory out in the real world; his upbringing has in no way prepared him for a world where maybe he’ll have to earn people’s trust and respect instead of immediately assuming it. Over the course of the show’s seven episodes, he never even begins learning that lesson.
One of the biggest problems with Allen Gregory is that the characters are unbelievably obnoxious and completely unlikable and unsympathetic. I have no problem with a show’s protagonists being self-centered and mostly unrelatable–both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Arrested Development spring to mind–but they at least have to be likable in a funny way. One of the reasons Sunny works is that the characters bring out the worst and best within each other, and any normal character is steamrolled by the shear insanity of the central cast. Arrested Development features a relatable everyman at its center in Michael Bluth, who grounds the show as its other characters exhibit absurd levels of narcissism. Beyond that, both shows are insanely funny, which is not something you could burden Allen Gregory with.
It all wouldn’t be so bad if the show didn’t try to get us to like and sympathize with its horrible protagonist and his equally horrible father Richard (voiced by French Stewart), and actually root for them to succeed over the authority figures in their way. Not to keep dredging up those two other shows, but they end up working because, at the end of the day, the characters almost never get what they want, and therefore order is restored to the world. It’s damn near impossible to both laugh at the characters on this show and feel for them at the same time.
For example, When Allen Gregory tries to fire Guillermo, a student at his school, because he assumes he’s a janitor given his Latino heritage, he’s required to write an apology letter. In his typical fashion, he turns it into a much longer stage play which makes Guillermo look like the villain and him the hero for demanding this janitor do his job or get out. The crowd initially reacts with rightful vitriol towards the content of the play, and cheers when Guillermo gets up onstage and gives a speech about how racism is bad and we should respect working-class people. We then find out that they thought Guillermo’s speech was part of the play, and his teacher (voiced by Leslie Mann), is admonished for trying to convince the crowd that it wasn’t. And so, Allen Gregory walks away unscathed, free to go on being a racist, entitled douche.
On an unrelated note, the show does offer some reasonable voices in the form of Jeremy, Allen’s stepdad (voiced by Nat Faxon); and Julie, his Cambodian adopted sister (Joy Osmanski), and predictably, they’re the punching bags for Allen and his dad. There’s really nothing to justify Jeremy taking so much abuse, other than the backstory that he was worn down by Richard’s advances until he left his own wife and kids to move in with him, which still doesn’t give him any reason to stay beyond the fact that Richard has money. The show even brings this up when Jeremy temporarily leaves Richard and tells his troubles to a bartender, who can’t understand why he’s sad. I couldn’t either, and I cringed at the inevitability that he would go back to that hellhole. Maybe if the show had more episodes, they’d get to the heart of Jeremy’s feelings for Richard and Allen Gregory, but as it is, it offers no explanation why he should care about these people that treat him like crap. This might be a weird complaint against a show that features seven-year-olds acting like adults, but since Jeremy’s supposed to be our Alice for this wonderland, it’s jarring to see him acting so pointlessly unreasonable.
Here’s a clip of the actors talking about this relationship, and it seems like even they don’t understand why they act like they do:
This might all seem like I’m being unnecessarily harsh on what amounts to a silly little comedy that stretches realism an absurd amount in the first place, but Allen Gregory just isn’t funny enough at the end of the day to make all its mean-spiritedness okay. Allen Gregory isn’t a protagonist I can get behind, and nothing in the show even remotely convinces me to care. I really do like Jonah Hill’s other work, and the voice cast contains some majorly funny people, including Will Forte and the great Keith David (who is criminally underutilized), but the whole thing is just a major misstep in my opinion, despite its promising pedigree.
So, should it be back on the air? Nope. There are some interesting ideas at the core of the show, such as why Jeremy stays with Richard, and the fact that Richard was able to, in French Stewart’s words, browbeat a straight man into becoming his lover; and the fact that Richard seems to have adopted Julie out of his own desire to appear charitable. If the show wanted to be a smart satire, maybe it would explore these things, but it doesn’t seem to have much desire to be like that.
Allen Gregory was replaced on the midseason calendar by Napoleon Dynamite, an animated version of that seminal mid-00′s film that took the world by storm. FOX executives were undoubtedly hoping the nation’s infatuation with Napoleon and his awkward pals would have reached a fever pitch by the year 2012, a whole eight years after the movie’s release, so they ordered a show to give us a glimpse into the continuing adventures of its titular geek god protagonist. Pretty much everyone thought it was a horrible idea, and ratings and reactions declined as it went along. While it hasn’t officially been cancelled, it also hasn’t been renewed, and the numbers wouldn’t seem to justify a second season from the notoriously cancellation-happy FOX network. Is it unfair to post about a show that hasn’t officially been declared dead? You bet! If it does get renewed, I’ll print a redaction or something, but until that time, on we go! So is it as bad as it seems like it was destined to be?
Let me start out by saying that after all this time, I am still a defender of the movie. I think it got blown way out of proportion, but as a tiny oddity with its own sensibility and a poignant undercurrent of sadness, I think it’s pretty successful. And I don’t buy the criticism that creators Jared and Jerusha Hess were asking the audience to laugh at the sad sacks on display. Looking back, it’s funny to imagine how much of a pop cultural sensation this weird little movie really was. I can’t imagine the creators ever expected it to take the world by storm, and it was probably never meant to. I think a lot of the backlash towards the movie came from unnecessary over-hype, which is a shame. That said, do I really think the world needed to see more of these characters? Not really. The spouses Hess had seen diminishing returns on their films after their initial success, so no doubt returning to their original property seemed like a surefire way to get back in the public eye. After all, the world loved these characters once before, right?
That all said, I’m happy to report that the show was nowhere near as bad as I expected. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good, per se, but it was surprisingly funny at times, and showed a willingness to leave behind its origins and embrace its own style of comedy. The Hesses developed the show with Mike Scully, a writer and showrunner who had success on Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation, so I think he knows funny to a certain degree (though the consensus is that apparently his stint as showrunner on The Simpsons was the show at its worst). It mostly leaves behind the quiet, uncomfortable humor of the original film and leans towards a broader, more absurdist form of comedy that mostly works. It embraces non-realism, which allows Napoleon’s strange fantasies to come to life in a way that would’ve been jarring in the film.
One gripe I have against the show is, despite being able to rangle the entire original cast back into their roles, some characters aren’t really given much to do, and appear to be there simply because the fans expect them to be. Though he is a relatively prominent character, I was disappointed with Uncle Rico’s characterization on the show. He’s still an enterprising boob, but I miss his sleaziness and manipulation from the film. Here, he’s just kind of an idiot who doesn’t really mean much harm. Jon Gries was easily the funniest part of the film as Rico, acting as Napoleon’s main antagonist. The creators appear to want to turn the town of Preston, Idaho into its own world, much like Springfield, Pawnee, or to a lesser extent, Quahog. They bring back random recurring characters such as a gay Brazilian barber, a bizarre biology professor voiced by Jemaine Clement, along with more expected ones like Diedrich Bader’s martial arts guru Rex. However, Preston doesn’t earn a place among those memorable television towns, mainly because the characters at its edges aren’t quite as memorable or distinct as the ones in Pawnee or Springfield. But at the end of the day, I can’t totally fault a show that features moments like this:
Or this, for that matter:
So, take it with a grain of salt, but those who didn’t like the movie might be able to find something funny in the show. Or maybe not.
So, should it be back on the air? You know, maybe it would’ve worn out its welcome before too long anyway, but I would watch a short second season. The show seemed to be settling into its own style by the end, and I think if it were allowed to continue, it may have come up with something unique. Well, as unique as an animated show based on an eight-year-old pop cultural oddity can really be.
Tune in next time for more animated series!
UPDATE: Napoleon Dynamite has officially been cancelled by FOX. That was close, i was worried there for minute that I’d be wrong!
Ahh the 90s. When young people were content to have no ambition, hang out in malls, and wax philosophic in the food court. It was a fun, freewheeling time when the economy was up and people weren’t in a hurry to grow up.
But wait, today’s show was made in 2005…so why does it remind me so strongly of the 90s? Probably because its style, aesthetic, and content feels about a decade behind. Mall-loitering youngsters, goofy stoner-nerd pop culture conversations, even the pop-punk theme song and still-photos-that-sort-of-look-like-animation transitions exude another era.
Today’s show is Life on a Stick, the little-loved sitcom that aired for one season on Fox in 2005. Created by Victor Fresco, the man responsible for several short-lived productions such as Andy Richter Controls the Universe (which I’ve yet to see but have heard good things about) and the top-to-bottom brilliant Better Off Ted (Which I reviewed earlier and you can read here: http://cannedtv.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/canned-tv-show-13-better-off-ted/), it’s a comedy that, like its characters, seems content to not have much ambition, unlike the whip-smart corporate satire of Ted.
The plot is as follows: perennial slackers Laz (Zachary Knighton) and Fred (Charlie Finn) are employed at Yippee Hot Dogs, a mall corndog establishment run by the hilariously abusive Mr. Hut (Maz Jobrani, who would later show up on Ted). From the get-go, Laz is sweet on Lily (Rachelle Lefevre), and the show doesn’t waste much time with any will-they-won’t-they business. They will. Moving on. Laz graduated high school but doesn’t appear to have much drive to do anything with his life, and still lives at home with his dad Rick (Matthew Glave) and stepmom Michelle (Amy Yasbeck), who agree to let him keep living there as long as he remains a good influence on Michelle’s daughter Molly (Saige Thompson), a moody, rebellious tomboy. There’s also his half-brother Gus (Frankie Ryan Manriquez), though honestly, he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time and isn’t really relevant other than spouting out a few wise-beyond-his-years bon mots. The show follows the trials and tribulations of this genial group of slackers, their love lives, and the things they do to maintain their relationships with one another. And really, that’s about it.
Life on a Stick is proudly multi-camera in an era where that style had already become pretty passe. It doesn’t have any real forward momentum, patching up pretty much every character relationship by the time the credits roll. It, like its characters, is all about stasis. While it makes sense on an analytical level, it doesn’t exactly make for exciting television. By the time we leave our characters at the end of Stick‘s thirteen episodes, they’re in exactly the same place they started in, and don’t really have much drive to change that. A lot of interesting potential themes exist at the heart of the show, such as the fear of growing up and gaining responsibility, the confusion of trying to piece together two halves of a family, or jealousy between siblings, but all of them are pretty much pushed to the side in order for the show to focus on the daily zaniness of its central characters. It even teases certain deeper issues, like the fact that Lily is working two jobs in order to pay her way through college while also helping out her disabled brother and recently laid off father. We hear about this, but we never see it. It’s in the telling mode, which makes it feel like a last-ditch attempt to add some depth to the characters. The same goes for Fred’s apparent lack of father and drug-addict mother. It might be poignant or even darkly funny if we saw it happening, but just hearing about it in between zingers just doesn’t work.
That said, Life on a Stick is a pleasant-enough experience, with a handful of funny lines in every episode. The laugh track, like always, is egregious, but there are enough funny moments to keep it moving along. I admire that the show skips the usual romantic tension of sitcoms and just has its two leads get together. The tension then lies in whether they want a relationship or just a casual thing, but that’s another issue. I enjoy the weird specificity of the exchanges between Laz and Fred, with Fred in particular getting the series’ best lines. Finn’s dry, slightly stoned delivery makes him the show’s comic MVP. I also enjoy Rick’s irrational fear of his own stepdaughter, and in general Glave is also pretty funny. The show doesn’t do much physical comedy, but there are some funny moments, like this one where Fred engages a jock in a fistfight impeded by extremely thick glasses (go about 40 seconds in):
It’s no Arrested Development, but it’s enjoyable enough. The show’s definitely surprising given Fresco’s other, much sharper work to come, but shades of it are visible. Much like Ted‘s Veridian Dynamics, this mall appears to have everything imaginable, and the scope of it is only hinted at. It strains credibility when people can seemingly come and go from their jobs as they please, and nobody seems to concerned about it, but I can accept it as part of the mall’s weird code of conduct.
Fortunately for the cast of Life on a Stick, they’ve all worked pretty steadily since the show ended. Knighton is on the current sitcom Happy Endings, which I haven’t seen but have heard good things about. Lefevre (who I developed kind of a crush on despite the mediocre surroundings) went on to appear in the first two Twilight movies (good for her?). Finn’s done some voice work, and Thompson’s been on a few other shows. I have to give props to Amy Yasbeck, who took this role as her first after the death of her husband, John Ritter, in 2003. It’s just a shame she couldn’t have been on something a bit more successful.
Ultimately, Life on a Stick lasted only a scant five episodes, with eight more completed and unaired. Ratings were extremely low, despite being on after American Idol. Hell, it even featured season 2′s winner Ruben Studdard and third-placer Kimberly Caldwell as singing fish restaurant employees. Apparently all Idol fans remembered to turn off their TVs immediately after the show and go to bed. Go to about three minutes in to see the once-relevant pop stars on a never-relevant TV show:
The rest of the episodes were aired in syndication, which I didn’t even know a short-lived show like this could get. It doesn’t exist on DVD, but someone has helpfully posted the whole thing on youtube if you feel inclined to watch it.
So, should it be back on the air? shocking, but no. Maybe if the show were on longer, it would be able to develop its characters more and expand their world. But if they show no signs of that in the first season, then it’s doubtful they’d do it at any other point.
As a bonus for you fellow Parks and Rec fans, Mr. Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman, appears in the last episode. Ah, before they were famous (again, skip to about 3:14) to see him:
Tune in next time when I review…I don’t know what the hell I’ll be reviewing! Hope to see you all soon.
One of my favorite parts of the fall TV season is predicting which TV shows will be cancelled first, and which will make it to at least a season. It’s a little depressing, I know, to be preemptively dooming shows to failure, but hey, when you spend enough time watching cancelled shows, you get better at calling them as you see them, deserved or otherwise.
Initially, I had some hopes for The Playboy Club, the first cancellation of the season and today’s Canned subject. When I first heard about it, I thought maybe we’d be in for some early-60s cool, a sort-of network-TV Mad Men, or at the very least something with high camp (read: entertainment) factor that grabbed you by the neck and forced you to watch. I mean, a TV show set in the infamous Playboy gentlemen’s club couldn’t be all bad, right? I mean, look at this trailer. Seems enticing enough:
Then, I watched a clip. Specifically, this clip:
I was…well, I was unimpressed. It looked too earnest to be silly and campy, but just a little too silly to be taken seriously. But hey, no need to damn the show based on one clip, I’d have to wait and see how it all panned out. Then the reviews started coming in, and they weren’t too great. I decided not to watch (though a large portion of my decision was based on the fact that I don’t have cable. I mean, c’mon, what am I gonna do, have a Playboy Club watching party at someone else’s house? Like any of my friends would let me host one of those. Like I would even want to host one of those), and a scant three episodes later, the show was off the air. Seven episodes were filmed, but who knows if those final four will ever see the light of day?
To the show’s credit, it doesn’t waste a whole lot of time on exposition before getting to the main action. The general plot is as follows: Bunny Maurine (Amber Heard) is new at Chicago’s own legendary Playboy Club. Hugh Hefner himself provides some voiceover narration, in which he makes himself sound like history’s greatest saint because he opened a place where men could wear suits and hit on hot women wearing creepy, infantile bunny costumes. She’s preyed upon by a licentious businessman, who attempts to force himself on her in the back room. She manages to defend herself, stabbing him in the neck with her stiletto (which either must have been whittled down to a sharp point or she has the kicking power of a goddamn kangaroo), killing him. She’s helped out by handsome lawyer Nick Dalton (Canned alum Eddie Cibrian, fresh off another win at the Jon Hamm look-alike contest), who helps her dispose of the body, hopefully sweeping it under the rug. That is, until that businessman’s (who actually turned out to be the head of the Mob) son comes snooping around trying to find out what happened. There’s also some other subplots, including Nick’s girlfriend Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), an older bunny (meaning like mid 30s, in bunny talk, that’s like 80) who’s none too pleased with Nick’s seemingly new attention to Maureen. There’s also Brenda (Naturi Naughton), a black bunny who dreams of being the first African-American centerfold, along with Alice (Leah Renee), a closeted lesbian in a marriage of convenience with Sean (fellow Canned alum Sean Maher), who are part of the burgeoning gay rights movement in the city. So as you can see, the show deals with a time of tumultuous political upheaval, and seems to set its titular club as the vanguard of social change in America.
That, in fact, could be one of the most obnoxious parts of the show. It’s so intent on proving to us that The Playboy Club is the Place that Dreams are Made Of ™ via ultra-corny monologues and wide-eyed bunnies sharing how working there has made their lives sooooo much better. Now, look, I’m not gonna say that Playboy is some sort of horrible organization that objectifies women and should be destroyed, but I’m also not gonna say that women dressing up in skimpy bunny suits is somehow empowering them. While, yes, Playboy probably was influential in changing sexual politics in America and breaking down taboos, the idea that the Playboy Club was at the forefront of feminism is downright laughable.
Probably my biggest problem, however, is with the characters. I know this show only got three episodes, and hopefully would have fleshed out its characters further as it went along, but in those three episodes we’re really not given anything to make them compelling and interesting and more than just stock characters. As I mentioned before, Cibrian does a passable Jon Hamm imitation, but his character has none of the mystery or complexity that makes Don Draper interesting. Most of the social issues brought up on the show such as racial politics or gay rights, seem there simply because the creators want us to know they’re aware they exist, and none of these marginalized characters are rounded out at all. So many conflicts repeat ad infinitum without any variation, and it just gets plain boring after a while. Some actors try to give it their all, but are often stuck playing out the same scenarios and not given anything new to do. Again, there were only three episodes, but even by then a show needs to give us something beyond just rehashing the same beats over and over.
On an unrelated note, I do kind of enjoy the whole concept of bringing contemporary artists on to play recognizable 60s acts, which this show was planning to make a regular thing. This isn’t exactly novel–shows like American Dreams made it a gimmick–but it’s always kind of fun. Unfortunately, the only one we really got was Colbie Caillat as Leslie Gore, sounding about as far from that singer as possible. This kind of rankled me, but then clearly this show isn’t too concerned with verisimilitude. I would’ve liked to see Raphael Saadiq play Sam Cooke, which apparently was supposed to happen in episode 4, though.
So why did The Playboy Club tank so quickly? I mean, it had a cool 60s aesthetic, lots of T&A, some mafia-related intrigue, and dudes in nice suits: seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, apparently the public just didn’t latch onto the series, and the network didn’t seem to have too high of hopes for it, either. Both this show and Pan Am attempt to catch that Mad Men magic, making it serviceable to a network TV audience. Many of the show’s creators expressed desire for the show to be picked up by a cable network, which may have allowed the writers to be a tad less inhibited. But then, a lot of the problems with the show have nothing to do with its inherent raciness and more to do with weak writing, something that really isn’t dependent on one network or another. There’s still the off-chance that a fan campaign could bring it back, but I’m not optimistic. If that petition comes around, let’s just say I won’t be signing it.
So, should it be back on the air? ehhhhh, nahhhh. Maybe if the show decided on a consistent tone and ironed out the kinks, it could be an entertaining-enough time waster, but as is, it doesn’t have what it takes to be a long-running series. Besides, who knows how much longer the whole nostalgia for the casual sexism and functioning alcoholism of the 60s bit is gonna last? Sorry, Hef, you’ll have to console yourself on a bed made of gorgeous naked women.
So this is the part where I’d apologize for taking so long between posts and promise to be more prompt, but honestly, who the hell knows when I’ll write next? Hopefully soon, but if not, don’t be surprised. I blew my chance to finish Kings on Hulu, so I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be covering next, but you’ll be the first to know!
So…yeah. It’s been like 9 months since my last post. No doubt many of you conceived and subsequently gave birth to children in that time, most likely riled up to the point of copulation by my delicate prose detailing the sexual exploits of the employees of the fictional hotel on Do Not Disturb. Or you were thinking that something, anything, including intercourse, was better than watching that show. Actually, intercourse is better than almost anything, but we won’t go there.
Today’s canned subject comes from across the pond. It lasted for only one six episode season (or “series” for all you silly Brits out there), before being cancelled and gaining a cult following via the internet and stateside reruns on Adult Swim. The show is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and it’s arguably one of the funniest British TV shows of all time.
The premise is as follows: fictional horror author Garth Marenghi (a character of Matthew Holness) presents, nay, graces the viewer with an episode of a show he wrote, directed, and starred in back in the 1980s which went tragically unaired and unappreciated in its time. Only now “in the greatest creative drought in television history” is he able to finally give the world this gift. Each episode is framed by an introduction from Marenghi, and are also intercut with brief commentary from him, his publisher Dean Learner (played by Richard Ayoade, more on him later), and occasionally the actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry). The series takes place in Darkplace hospital, which was relatively normal until its protagonist, Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D. (played by Marenghi played by Holness), opened the gates of hell and unleashed a host of supernatural terrors onto the ward. Each episode then deals with another supernatural problem that the effortlessly heroic Dagless must solve, with the help of his best buddy Dr. Lucien Sanchez (played by Rivers played by Berry), hospital administrator Thornton Reed (played by Learner played by Ayoade), and occasionally psychic new doctor Liz Asher (played by Madeline Wool played by Alice Lowe).
So what is it that makes this show so hilarious? The show’s creators (Holness and Ayoade) and production crew take the greatest care and detail into making it seem like they took no care or detail. The sets, the costumes, the effects, the acting, and the dialogue are all hilariously awful, and you can tell the whole crew pulled out all the stops to make it as laughably terrible as possible. Even things other spoofs don’t always think about, like weird sound problems and inexplicable editing, are on display here. Only the most competent of filmmakers could pull off something so purposefully incompetent. Other, more subtle elements of the writing add to the hilarity, such as how Marenghi’s unrelenting egotism filters into his writing, in that he has to make his character the most amazing doctor in the history of medicine. As he tells a little boy who inquires about the state of his father, “we’re doing all we can, but I’m not Jesus Christ. I’ve come to accept that now.” Also, casual misogyny abounds, as Liz is painted as materialistic and overly sensitive, crying and ruining her makeup at the slightest outburst. Marenghi’s assurance that his show was too radical for the world at the time emphasizes his delusion and inflated ego in hilarious ways.
One of the chief sources of funny on the show are the performances. Holness plays Marenghi playing Dagless with a modicum of acting skill but absolutely no directing talent (you know what? it’s gonna get too confusing writing about an actor playing an actor playing a character, so from now on I’ll just refer to them using their fictional actor names…God, even clarifying makes it confusing). Rivers plays Sanchez with a bizarre, barely recognizable accent delivered in a smooth baritone. He also has a habit of having overdubs that don’t quite match his lips. Wool delivers most of her lines really quickly and softly, that is unless her PMS causes her psychic powers to take over the hospital, as it does in the episode “Hell Hath Fury.” Easily the funniest performance belongs to Dean Learner as hardened hospital administrator Thornton Reed. Dean has no acting experience whatsoever, and therefore delivers a stiff, completely unnatural performance that is mesmerizing in its awfulness. It has to be hard for an actor to essentially ignore all acting rules for a role like that, but Ayoade does is wonderfully. Dean’s commentary segments are dryly hilarious, and he gets in some of the best lines of the show. Several guest actors also turn in funny performances, such as Julian Barratt as the hospital vicar, and Stephen Merchant as a surly cook.
Most of what I’m talking about is on display here, especially Liz’s whole breaking down crying bit:
There are honestly too many small things to recount in detail, but in my mind that is one of the show’s greatest strengths. It rewards repeat views, as there’s always something else you didn’t catch the first time that ends up being hilarious. Every episode is a gem, but I think the first one, titled “Once Upon a Beginning,” is probably the funniest. It sets up the series’ tone brilliantly right off the bat, and features an unending string of brilliant comic moments. From an arm visibly dropping a cat into frame to hilariously redundant lines like “if that’s how you treat your friends, imagine how you treat your enemies! Worse, I expect!,” it’s wall-to-wall funny.
That line pops up here, in fact, along with all of the other hallmarks of the series:
So if it’s soooo funny, how come it didn’t last? Well apparently it was aired on England’s Channel 4 in a late time slot with little advertising, and thus had low enough ratings that the network decided not to continue it despite strong critical reaction and a budding cult fanbase. I’m not sure how much a show like this would cost to make (looking at it you’d think they spent a couple hundred bucks, exchange rate included), but perhaps the costs were too high to take the risk. The channel did approach Ayoade and Holness about writing a script for a movie version, though there hasn’t been any word on that for some time, so it’s doubtful that it’ll happen. Perhaps the creators will one day bring the show back to its stage roots (two stage specials, Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight and Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead, were performed in the early 2000s at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. These specials acted as the inspiration for the series) instead. Hopefully one day the cast will reunite for one last hoorah, despite them all moving onto new and most likely bigger projects.
So, should it be back on the air? I’m gonna say yes, of course, but honestly I’m a little torn. I feel like something like this isn’t designed to continue for very long, and the show actually ends on a note that could be final but is flexible enough to possibly continue. I’d say maybe one more series would’ve done it, but much beyond that and it might’ve gotten a bit tiring, sad to say. I’m sure the crew would’ve made it worth watching for as long as they could, but that exhausting attention to detail would probably start to lag after a while. Luckily, we have this brief but fantastic series to keep coming back to.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t exist on region 1 DVD, so youtube is the only place for us yanks to get our fix. Here’s a link to the first part of the first episode:
to send us out, here’s a clip from the final episode of the cast performing an awesome original song:
Join me next time (which hopefully won’t be nine months from now) when I finally review Kings! Gotta do it soon, it won’t be on Hulu forever.
Hello again readers. I know what you’re thinking: “so soon, after he just wrote a post? How is this possible?” Well, it’s pretty easy to finish up a TV show when there are only three 20 minute episodes to have to watch. Barring the one-or-two episode extravaganza, today’s subject has the shortest run of any show we’ve covered. It even edges out Kitchen Confidential by a whole episode. What show could be so undeserving of a full season? Why that would be 2008′s Do Not Disturb, a hijinks-filled comedy set in a posh hotel, featuring everyone’s comedic dream team, Jerry O’Connell and Niecy Nash. Also, Jason Bateman apparently directed the pilot, so there’s that.
Reading reviews for this show, I must say, made me even more curious and wanting to see it. It has a metacritic score of 22/100. It inspired so much vitriol from TV critics that they were forced to reach deep into their vaults for the most scathing of hotel-related puns. Some critics, such as Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, called it “A program so bad that it’s not only unpleasant to watch, but it makes you fear for the future of network television.” Wow. I don’t even have to tell you that sounds like some bad stuff. I had to see for myself just how bad it was, to see if it deserved the intense hatred which it received from pretty much everybody.
Here’s a quick promo. Notice how there’s no critic testimonials in it.
So just how bad was it? Well, I gotta say, I think Ms. Ryan and others were just a smidge too harsh. I mean, sure, it’s pretty awful, but is it so bad that it could signal the end of quality network TV as we know it? Not really. The show suffers from a debilitating problem that I like to call “the unfunny sitcom syndrome.” Now stay with me, because this is pretty complicated. This is when a sitcom aims to be funny, but is in fact…not funny. Are you still with me? To make up for this, laugh tracks are put in, to try and guilt you into laughing, sort of by saying, “look this studio audience is laughing, why aren’t you?” It’s a very common thing we’ve seen in more than one show on this blog.
The premise is as follows: it takes place at The Inn, a popular hotel in New York City, and documents all the “hilarity” going on behind the scenes. O’Connell plays Neal, the manager of the hotel, who has a reputation as a horndog who tries to screw every hot employee working there. Nash is his foil, Rhonda, the human resources director. There’s also Larry (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, so funny on Modern Family, and who actually manages to get a few laughs here and there), the head of housekeeping, Nicole (Molly Stanton), the pretty, bitchy receptionist, Gus (Dave Franco, James’ tooly younger brother), a horny bellman, and Molly (Jolene Purdy), who books reservations. They make up the main cast of stock characters who add to the standard lame sitcom wackiness.
With its disastrous reception and minuscule ratings, it was almost certain that Do Not Disturb would be cancelled before too long. But one thing sets it apart from other short-lived series: the creators actually took a gambit and sent out a letter to various critics which essentially said, “we’re sorry we put out such a shitty product.” Well, it wasn’t exactly that, it was more that they thought by airing an episode about work sex first instead of the actual pilot, which is, you know, supposed to go first, it didn’t accurately represent the show’s potential. They also enclosed a DVD of another episode which they felt was better. I’m not sure which one it was, but all three that actually aired (out of five total) none seemed to be one you’d want to show critics to make them change their minds. Despite this bold move, Do Not Disturb was the first cancellation of the 2008 season, and has not been released on DVD. At this point, I think it’s safe to say no one really wants it to be either. The show has some good actors on it; like I said, Ferguson manages to be funny despite the weak writing, and Franco gets in a giggle here and there, but it’s just not fresh of funny enough to make it worth watching week after week. At least Niecy Nash still gets to scold messy people on Clean House. O’Connell unfortunately will probably always be remembered as the fat kid from Stand By Me who’s not fat anymore.
So, should it be back on the air? not so much. Somehow, I don’t think airing the pilot first would’ve done anything for this show, even if it were the most hilarious pilot ever made (I haven’t seen it, so I really don’t know, but somehow I doubt it).
Come back next time, when I’ll be watching a show that actually was a critical success, NBC’s Kings! Is it as missed as everyone says it is? We’ll see.
Greetings readers, today on Canned, we’re going on a little journey. A journey to a distant, strange, and faraway place, with strange people, strange customs, and even stranger sense of humor. This is the land which was given the name “Canada” by the ancients, and so it remains today.
Yes dear readers, Canada, our neighbors to the north, produced today’s Canned subject, the short-lived sitcom Testees. Created by Kenny Hotz, who is also behind the popular (I guess) series Kenny vs. Spenny, in which him and some other dude do competitions or something. I don’t know, I’ve never really watched it, but apparently it’s a pretty popular show. Here, he moves into a more traditional half-hour sitcom format, with decidedly mixed results. In Canada, Testees aired on Showcase, but here in America, where it matters, it aired on FX for a single season in 2008, following a show with a similar tone, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. So why is it, then, that Sunny is entering its sixth season of following around a bunch of petulant, moronic Philadelphians, whereas this show only had one season of following around a bunch of petulant, moronic Canadians? Is it that we hate Canada? Maybe. But I think there’s one principal reason: Sunny is consistently funny, whereas Testees is most assuredly not.
The show follows two slackers, Ron (Jeff Kassel) and Peter (Steve Markle), who live together in a slobbish apartment and earn money by testing various products for a company called Testico (get it? It sounds like testicle! And the title of the show is Testees, which is similar to testes which is short for testicle! Are you laughing yet?) The show always opens with them testing a new product, and then follows them as they deal with the side effects, which are never good. They also occasionally hang with their even slobbier neighbor Nugget (Joe Pingue), and go to the bar downstairs run by cutie pie Kate (Kim Schraner). There’s also an older testee named Larry (played by Hotz himself), who’s a wannabe ladies-man, and an attractive receptionist named Amy (Shauna MacDonald), who Ron seems to harbor feelings for, though she has some kind of handicapped fetish (weird, I know).
Testees for the most part goes for the easy jokes involving whatever symptoms the duo start to show. There’s a lot of gross-out humor, and offensive jokes that aren’t really funny so much as, well, offensive. The show really makes no real effort to get to know these guys, beyond just using them as a canvas for all sorts of humiliation. To bring it back to Sunny, while the characters on that program are, when you get down to it, pretty unlovable, they’re still fun to watch every week, and are almost likable in just how unlikable they are. The main characters on Testees are, however, just plain unlikable. This isn’t to say that the actors are that bad, because they’re really not, the characters just aren’t interesting enough to want to spend time with. Also, (spoiler I guess?) they kill off the most attractive actor on the show, so there isn’t even that to distract you. What you’re left with, then, is a mostly unfunny comedy that leans too heavily on gross-out gags and offers little to no character development. The premise isn’t bad, but it does get a little repetitive after a while, in that it’s basically the same structure for every episode.
Though despite this, I have to admit there were some gags that did make me laugh. One episode involves the duo taking a drug that erases their memories, and then searching their apartment for clues to their identity. They then conclude that since there’s no girl hair in the shower and nothing even resembling something a woman would use, that they must be gay. Nugget, who wants to get back at them for getting him to unwittingly receive a lap dance from a male stripper, confirms that they’re gay, and tells them that they loved to make out in front of everybody. The episode actually manages some pretty funny moments. When Ron pulls a clod of hair out of the drain and points out that it’s all guy’s hair, Pete retorts, “that’s a ball of pubes, not proof!” I don’t know why this line makes me laugh, but it does. There are a handful of giggle-worthy bits scattered here and there, but unfortunately, the unfunny moments outweigh the funny. But hey, if you’re thirteen and love jokes about dicks and farts and handicapped people, you might laugh more than I did.
Here’s an interview where Markle and Kassel explain who would enjoy this show, and while they might be kidding, they’re also probably right:
In truth, apart from low ratings, I’m not really sure what tanked Testees. Maybe it’s one of those rare cases where the public decided it wasn’t really funny enough to keep watching. Though I wonder if maybe it had something to do with the fact that it followed Sunny. Since Sunny manages to stay on the air thanks to its devoted cult following, it’s possible that those people that stuck around to watch Testees afterwards just weren’t big enough numbers to keep it going. Whatever the case, I can’t say I miss its presence on my TV screen very much.
So, should it be back on the air? if you couldn’t tell from the above, no. It’s just not funny enough to warrant another season, and I really don’t think the show’s premise is enough to support it forever either. I haven’t seen much of Canadian comedy, but I know it produced some really hilarious comic actors (John Candy and Rick Moranis spring to mind). I’m not sure if Testees is indicative of the kind of sitcoms on TV in Canada these days, but if it is, I will not be tuning into those channels next time I visit Niagra Falls.
Come back next time, when I’ll be covering the super short-lived show Do Not Disturb! Hey, at least the misery will be brief.
“People have been acting weird since the hurricane.”
That simple line just may be the most important phrase uttered in the ABC sci fi drama Invasion, cancelled after one season and today’s Canned subject. It just about pares down the plot of the whole series to its essence.
But you probably want more detail, don’t you? Very well, you’ll get it, but be warned; it’s hard to talk too in-depth about this show without getting too spoiler-y, but I will try my best.
Invasion tells the story of the residents of Homestead, Florida, a small town in the Everglades, which is hit by a hurricane in the very first episode. Only something is strange about this hurricane: people have reported seeing strange orange lights in the water, and an Air Force helicopter is knocked out of the sky by a cascade of orange globs. But I’m getting ahead of myself, more on that in a moment.
The story revolves mostly around a particular group of interconnected Homestead residents. There’s hunky park ranger/Jon Hamm look-alike contestant Russell (Eddie Cibiran), who lives with his pregnant wife Larkin (Lisa Sheridan), who is also a local news anchor, and her brother Dave (Tyler Labine). Russell also shares custody of his kids Jesse (Evan Peters) and Rose (Ariel Gade) with his ex-wife Mariel (Kari Matchett), a local doctor. Mariel is married to sheriff Tom Underlay (the great character actor William Fitchner), who has a daughter of his own named Kira (Alexis Dziena), and enjoys playing the “you’re a worse parent than I am” game with her ex-husband. Other various residents of the town factor into the plot over the course of the season, but they comprise the main group with whom we spend most of our time.
So anyway, there’s this hurricane, right? And it ravages the town, knocking out phones, electricity, running water, and causing mass destruction. One other curious after effect: some people who survived the hurricane are now not acting quite like themselves. Certain folks who spent the night of the hurricane exposed to the elements seem somehow different–including Mariel (gasp!)–though at first nobody can put their finger on it. That is, except Dave, the resident crazy of the town, who is convinced after finding the skeleton of a man with strange things surrounding it, that the strangeness can be attributed to the work of EBEs, or extraterrestrial biological entities. Initially Russell doesn’t agree with Dave’s theories, which he documents in a blog (ah the blogoshpere, where all the crazies come to share their views), but even he can’t shake the feeling that what’s going on is outside the realm of logic.
So that’s the initial setup, and it only gets crazier from there. For one, Tom seems to know more about what’s going on than he initially lets on, which is made all the more mysterious by the fact that he himself was the sole survivor of a plane crash from which he emerged without a scrape. Could he be “changed” in a similar way to the hurricane surivors? As Russell and Dave try to uncover the truth, they uncover more and more mystery. Has this sort of phenomenon happened before? Does the military know, and is trying to cover it up? Just what is Tom’s role in all this, anyway? All questions that you should watch the show to uncover (trust me, it’s well worth it).
For a show about an alien invasion, Invasion definitely takes its time parceling out information. While the audience is pretty much certain that the “lights” in the water are actually weird orange fish-aliens that are the cause of all the changes, it isn’t until almost halfway through the season that we really know all that much about what’s really going on. It’s kind of like a long-form mystery, getting twistier and more dense as it goes. Some people might find it frustrating, but I think it’s an effective way to tell a story over the course of a season. This is a difficult type of show for a studio to get behind, given that it requires that its viewers will tune in week after week to find out what’s going on, and will have to have seen all the previous episodes to know exactly what’s happening. Sometimes, as in this case or the case of another ABC show that seemed to work pretty well, Lost, it can be worth it. Other times, it can be too much of a pain to keep up.
Speaking of Lost, ABC has really tried their darndest to find a replacement series that shares that same sort of storytelling; namely one filled with dense mythology and twisty plots that often don’t resolve itself for a long time. So far, they haven’t had much luck (see Flashforward for proof). But Invasion feels as close to a worthy Lost successor as ABC has been able to greenlight. This is somewhat ironic, given that Invasion premiered as Lost started its second season. Hardly time to worry about a replacement already, right? It makes me wonder if Invasion would have done better if it came out closer to Lost’s conclusion. To me, it seems like a dead ringer to take up the Lost mantle. Its plot requires careful, repeated viewing, and it expects that its audience hasn’t missed an episode. However, I think Invasion’s plot is more linear; almost like a really long movie.
But don’t get me wrong, the show’s not without its problems. Some of the acting is pretty hokey, and it’s clear that the writers don’t really know how to write dialogue for anyone under the age of 25 that sounds very natural. Some of the young actors, particularly Peters, give it their all, but others are just distracting. Also, some of the episode’s payoffs aren’t as exciting or revealing as they should be. But for the most part, it’s a well-conceived, well-written show with some good performances, particularly from Fitchner, who rarely gets a lead role like this to flex his acting muscles. There’s also some memorable guest spots, including a creepy turn from Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss as the psycho half-alien bitch from hell, and from Rocky Carroll as a mysterious man named Healy who has information about this alien epidemic, as he lived through one already.
Here’s some clips of Moss’ character being creepy:
So what stopped Invasion from becoming another hit for ABC? Besides the usual culprit of poor ratings, Invasion had the misfortune to come out around the time that an acutal, non alien-containing hurricane called Katrina ravaged the New Orleans region. This made some of the show’s marketing material very touchy, as it showed the aftermath of a hurricane. To compensate, ABC shifted its advertising completely to the invasion aspect of the show, which may have been a little misleading, given how slowly the show gets into its main conflict. ABC put the show on hiatus twice without airing repeats, which may have caused viewers to lose interest, and caused new viewers to be more confused than riveted. I admit, it’s not a show you can jump into halfway through, but it’s definitely worth taking the time to watch.
A good chunk of this cast I had never seen before or since, but some have gone on to future success post-Invasion. Labine appeared in the possible future Canned subject Reaper, also killed after two seasons, and starred alongside fellow Canned alum Alan Tudyk (from Firefly) in the upcoming hillbilly slasher parody Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, which looks pretty hilarious. Dziena has been in a bunch of stuff, including Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and the recent crappy rom-com When in Rome. Fitchner continues working, as he should, because he’s awesome. Peters played one of Dave Lizewski’s dumb buddies in Kick-Ass recently. I haven’t seen much of Matchett, Sheridan, or some of the others, but then again I haven’t really been looking. I hope they all get plenty of work though; they all deserve it.
So, should it be back on the air? definitely. It’s the kind of show that isn’t on TV much these days, namely one that challenges the viewer and is intriguing enough to keep coming back. Perhaps a TV movie could be made to tie up the loose ends, though it’s unlikely, given that she show’s been off the air for five years and everyone’s pretty much moved on. But hey, stranger things have happened right? Get on it, Shawn Cassidy.
Tune in next time when I’ll be reviewing the short-lived comedy Testees! Oh boy, this is gonna be rough.
So I know last time I said I was going to do a post on the 2005 ABC drama Invasion, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Weird Orange Fish Alien, and trust me, it’s coming soon. In the meantime, however, I thought I’d write up another show I recently fell in love with, only to watch it die a largely unmourned death and slide into the annals of canned TV history. I’m referring to ABC’s genius sitcom Better Off Ted, one of the sharpest and most entertaining shows of recent years. My friend and I had an inside joke in which any time he would say the kind of dumb title of the show, I would start a burst of mock uncontrollable laughter. Stupidly for me, I never actually watched the show to find out that there were plenty of genuine laughs to be had. Then I signed up for Netflix, and found myself watching four or five high-quality, gloriously legal episodes through their watch instantly feature. Why do I always get into these things too late?
Ted takes place at Veridian Dynamics, a technology company with no clear focus, that instead just makes all sorts of weird stuff for the government and for consumers. Examples range from a flesh-stripping remote device designed to peel an orange from another room, but is instead used “to peel enemy soldiers from the comfort of the Pentagon,” to lab-grown beef. At the center of all the silliness is Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), a seemingly perfect executive who is largely the shows mostly sane center. Around him are a lovable bunch of workplace compatriots, from his boss, the intimidating, driven Veronica (Portia de Rossi), to product tester/romantic interest Linda (Andrea Anders), to socially-inept scientists Lem and Phil (Malcolm Barrett and Jonathan Slaivin). While they make up the core group, there are also a bunch of goofy extra characters to fill in the background (one particularly funny example is a very incompetent scientist named Dr. Bhamba, played by Maz Jobrani). It’s these characters, and the performers that play them, that make the show so darn enjoyable. While Ted is a handsome, well-groomed, confident guy who’s good at almost everything (plus he wears impeccably tailored suits), the show does a nice job of exploring some of the neuroses and insecurities behind his veneer. The same goes for the other characters, who are all varying levels of flawed. Flawed as they are, they’re all pretty lovable. My favorite, and probably everyone’s favorite, are Lem and Phil (you really can’t have one without the other), who almost always have some of the funniest lines and moments in a given episode. Plus, their bickering is priceless.
Pretty much every episode yields at least some good laughs, but I’d have to say there are a few that really stand out as being among some of the funniest half hours or television I’ve seen. Season one’s “Racial Sensitivity” is one of these, where Veridian installs new motion-sensors throughout the building that use light reflected off the body to detect people, which, as it happens, don’t detect black people. Lem, of course, suffers from this, and eventually joins forces with some other black employees to go to Veronica and demand a solution. They also use Phil as the requisite door-opener. In typical BoT style, the solutions the company comes up with get more and more ridiculous, including hiring minimum-wage white guys to follow around the black employees turning things on for them. This in turn proves more costly than just putting in the old system, given that in order to avoid discrimination, they need to continue to hire people to follow around those people, and so on and so forth.
Ted doesn’t always attempt corporate satire, but when it does, it’s pretty damn funny. Probably the episode with the sharpest corporate satire is “Jabberwocky,” in which Ted is forced to come up with a fake project called the Jabberwocky project to cover up for some money he took for Linda’s secret rooftop garden. Since none of the execs, including Veronica, want to admit they’ve never heard of that project, it spreads like wildfire throughout the company, and soon Ted and Veronica are presenting a project that doesn’t exist to a room full of excited people, which mostly features empty buzzwords and flash. But don’t take my word for it, watch it!
Plus, most episodes feature a fake Veridian commercial with some theme related to the episode. For example:
Luckily, ABC was gracious enough to put a bunch of clips of the show up on youtube, so many of these funny little nuggets can be viewed over and over.
So what sank Better Off Ted? Well, despite having solid critical reception, the show suffered low ratings during its whole run. So much so that ABC started burning off season 2 episodes pretty quickly, and didn’t even air the final two. Ted went off the air in January, and was officially cancelled in May. Recently, ABC tantalized fans with the possibility that they might air the final two episodes if the NBA playoffs didn’t need to go to a seventh game. Unfortunately for those fans, it did go to a seventh game, and ABC so far has not announced when they’ll air the last two. My guess? They’ll wait for season 2 to come out on DVD, and make a big schpiel about “two never-before-seen episodes!” or something like that. Its cancellation was recent enough that maybe a strong enough fan response could get it back on, but somehow I doubt it. Add it to the list of great shows cancelled too soon.
So, should it be back on the air? duh, generic question I ask at the end of every post. Ted is the kind of fast-moving, heavily quotable and silly sitcom we don’t see very much anymore. Sure, it had shades of The Office and Arrested Development, but it was original enough to stand on its own. While it may not be the most organic type of comedy, it was usually pretty sidesplitting and definitely worth watching on a weekly basis.
To send us out, here’s some more Lem and Phil hilarity for you:
So tune in next time when I promise I’ll be doing Invasion! Thanks for putting up with my tardiness.
Greetings loyal readers, and welcome to yet another look at a cancelled TV series. This time, we’ll be examining a more recent casualty of low ratings and poor promotion, 2007-2008′s Aliens in America. It’s a time-tested fish-out-of-water tale with a much more topical spin: namely, the paranoia that surrounds American’s perceptions of Muslims in the post-911 world. It sounds like a real drag, right? Well, the show looks at this hot-button issue from the slightly odd perspective of a single-camera sitcom. It seems like such a difficult issue wouldn’t really be ripe for laughs, but surprisingly, the show is damn funny.
The story revolves around the Tolchuck family, a typical midwestern family in small town Wisconsin, who decide to get an exchange student who they think is from London. Well, get ready…he’s not! He’s actually Raja Musharaff, a Pakistani boy. The show then goes on to explore the ignorance of Americans to Muslim culture, and the stereotypes which have emerged since 9-11. It also explores the relationship between Raja and Justin, his unpopular host-brother, who feels like an alien in his own right. Predictably, due to their outsider status, the two become close friends.
The show is not exactly groundbreaking on the sitcom front, but it’s funny, well-written, and occasionally thought-provoking. However, one of the things I liked about it is that the culture differences and American ignorance aren’t all the show focuses on, and it takes time to examine how much high school sucks for anyone, foreign or not. Sometimes, Raja takes a backseat to action that focuses on Justin or other members of the Tolchuck family. There is a strong family dynamic in the Tolchucks, who are all very likable even when they say very stupid things. The only one that’s not as likable for me is Claire, Justin’s sister, who never really moves much past her role as status-obsessed harpie, though even she has her moments.
Even outside the Tolchuck clan, the world of the show is populated with some very funny supporting characters. There’s Mr. Matthews, the high school principal/local car salesman, who often tries using his salesman tactics in his role as authority figure. There’s also Justin’s friends Dooley and Brad, who may be more of hopeless dorks than Justin himself. Then there’s the Palladino brothers, two dim-witted bullies who end up doing more harm to themselves than others. Here’s a quick clip that nicely showcases their idiocy and ignorance:
And so on and so forth. Each episode follows a similar pattern: Justin does something to piss somebody off, then through mounting ridiculousness manages to make it alright in the end. There are also plenty of B stories involving the other family members, in typical sitcom fashion. But a familiar technique isn’t so bad when it’s done well, and Aliens is done quite well. Some of the humor is surprisingly risque for a show on the CW network, who have never exactly been known for their envelope-pushing. For example, one episode includes a really dumb B-story in which Franny (aka mama Tolchuck) gets a gift bag from a bachelorette party containing a vibrator, and then becomes engaged in a battle of wills with Claire when she finds it, telling her “it’s my new potato masher from Williams-Sonoma.” It continues to escalate, neither one wanting to back down, until Claire buys one of her own to give to a retiring teacher, hoping that Franny will back down. It’s not exactly a plot you can get a lot of mileage out of, and it’s probably one of the weaker B-stories in the show. However, some of the bawdy humor is right on the mark, such as the following:
Justin and Raja walking up to a group of cheerleaders, Justin says to Raja, “I feel like I’m in a tampon commercial.” Then, Justin’s voice-over comes on and tells us, “for those who don’t know, tampon commercials are awesome.”
Or how about this one: Justin and his buddies are discussing what Justin could do with Anita, a popular girl with whom he and Raja are doing a science project. They postulate that Justin could give Anita a “Roman helmet,” to which Raja protests, “So, draping your genitals across someone’s forehead is not degrading?” “Not when two people love each other!” Dooley rebuttles. It captures perfectly the mindset of sex-crazed virgin nerds (trust me, I was one of them in high school too).
If I have one complaint with the show, it’s that it sometimes furthers a stereotype of midwesterners and ignorant, racist, hopelessly out-of-step people, which is such an easy stereotype to fall back on. Being from the midwest, I get slightly offended by this generalization. While I’m not denying that there are some of those people around here (quite a few, unfortunately), there are just as many smart, well-educated, forward-thinking individuals such as myself. Also, I haven’t spent much time in small-town Wisconsin, but do they really sound so much like they’re from Minnesota? Any Wisconsinites that read this, please clue me in. I know they say “bubbler” for drinking fountain though, buncha weirdos.
So what was it that sank Aliens in America after all? Well, like everything else, it was ratings. It failed to find an audience in its Monday time slot, and was then moved to Sunday nights, where it also failed to find an audience. They managed to film most of their episodes before the infamous writer’s strike (a reason for the cancellation of more than one show), so it probably didn’t effect them that much, as compared to other shows. So, it enters the canon of critically praised but viewer-ignored shows, which is a real shame. Honestly though, I’m not sure how long the show would’ve gone on anyway, or how they would’ve continued it after Raja’s time in the U.S. was over. It would’ve been interesting to see how they handled that, though.
Luckily, most of the cast’s careers have continued since it’s cancellation, for better or for worse. Adhir Kalyan, who played Raja, has gone on to appear in films such as Youth in Revolt, Paul Blart: Mall Cop (unfortunately), and the TV show Nip/Tuck. Dan Byrd, who played Justin, has a role on the most likely soon-to-be-canned subject Cougar Town. Lindsey Shaw, aka Claire, is on the TV version of 10 Things I Hate About You. Amy Pietz, who played Frannie, has appeared on some random things since the cancellation, including The Office and Nip/Tuck. And, last but not least, Scott Patterson, who played the Tolchuck patriarch Gary, has appeared in the last three Saw movies (unfortunately? You be the judge).
So, should it be back on the air? definitely. It’s a funny, often touching,well-made show with a likable cast of characters, what more could you want? I’m sure the idea of watching a show that makes light of cultural tensions that still rage all over the country might not be the most alluring for some people, but if we can’t laugh about it, I don’t think we’ll ever be okay to move forward. Unfortunately, the show is currently not available on DVD, which leaves low-quality copies online the only option, but I urge you to seek it out.
Finally, we’ll leave you with a clip that I enjoy, mainly because I don’t like RENT, and I find it hilarious how intentionally bad Byrd is playing the part here:
Come back next time, when I’ll be watching another alien-related show, this time of the extraterrestrial varitey: ABC’s Invasion! Is this early attempt at a replacement for LOST good enough to stand on its own? We’ll find out.