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.