If you were a child in the last 50 years, odds are good that you love Gene Wilder, either from his untouchable turn as Willy Wonka or, if you had weird parents like I did, you may have seen some of his Mel Brooks collaborations a few years before you should’ve. We all have a soft spot in our hearts for the man and his particular brand of genius, and that’s why the news of his passing yesterday hit home for so many, myself included.
Wilder was a unique talent whose approach to comedy performance has been imitated by countless actors in his wake. He didn’t view himself as a comedian, and approached acting in comedies with the same level of commitment that other actors would approach a serious drama. He understood that the best comedies are ones that aren’t played for laughs, but rather take their situations seriously and allow the laughs to happen as a result. While he was a master of frantic mugging, as evidenced by his work with Brooks, it was always rooted in the character he was playing. He possessed a subtle but powerful intellect, which only made the silliness even more effective (it takes really smart people to pull off that kind of silliness, I’ve found). I could go on and on about those films and how important they are, both personally and to comedy in general, but other people have said it a lot better than I could, so I’ll spare you my retread.
So it seems sort of strange to try to cram Wilder’s genius into the confines of a 90s multi-camera family sitcom, but that’s just what Something Wilder attempted to do. Due to Mr. Wilder’s heartbreaking passing, I figured it was the perfect time to come out of semi-retirement from this blog (by that I mean doing other things) to write about this short-lived blip in the man’s career.
I’d like to say up front that I only watched four episodes of the show, so this is by no means not meant to be a comprehensive view of the series. Shows from the pre-digital age are hard to track down if they haven’t been released on any sort of home media which, to my knowledge at least, Something Wilder has not. So I had to settle for a handful of episodes uploaded to Youtube, ripped from a copy (of a copy of a copy, if the quality is any indication) of a VHS that someone taped onto. Not the ideal medium to experience anything, but desperate times…
Something Wilder premiered on NBC on October 1st, 1994, where it lasted one season before being dropped in June of 1995, having aired 15 of its 18 total episodes. It seems that, despite his fame, audiences weren’t up for watching Wilder in a run-of-the-mill family sitcom.
The series finds Wilder playing Gene Bergman, a 50-something ad man married to a younger woman, struggling to raise two curly-haired toddler twins, with all of the foibles that entails. What follows (at least in the episodes I saw) is a lot of typical family sitcom wackiness, following the usual setup/complication/resolution structure that pretty much every comedy of the era followed. The plots of the episodes I viewed centered around 1.) Gene’s ex-wife coming back to make trouble; 2.) an annoying mother of the boys’ best friend annoying Gene and his wife, Annie; 3.) Gene misplacing a tie that his son Sam gave him, leading to all sorts of hijinks; 4.) a romantic night without the kids for Gene and Annie doesn’t go as planned. If this sounds at least similar to plots you’ve experienced on other sitcoms, that’s not surprising.
It’s actually fairly surreal to see Wilder, a comedic innovator and singular performer, in the clearly artificial world of a “live before a studio audience” style sitcom. The phoniness of the sets and the lighting, along with the uninspired writing, combine to create a sense of cognitive dissonance when compared to the star performer’s most beloved projects. It’s sort of difficult to fathom why this sort of thing would appeal to an artist of Wilder’s caliber, though its proximity to live theatre may have been part of it, since he began his career there. The ability to feed off the energy of the audience is a crucial component of live comedy, and to his credit, Wilder is still a terrific performer in this setting. Gene is a nervous, neurotic character, and Wilder gives it his all, bringing the same tightly coiled mania he brought to Leo Bloom and Fredrick (or Froedrick?) Frankenstein. In fact, my experience of the show was made much more enjoyable imagining that Gene actually was Leo Bloom, having gotten out of jail, cutting his ties with Max Bialystock, and reinventing himself as a suburban dad. Maybe someday I’ll work out an elaborate fan theory about how that works, but the performances themselves provide all the link you need.
The rest of the cast, what I saw of them anyway, do a nice job with their stock roles (that sounds like a backhanded compliment but I don’t really mean it as such, I promise!). Hillary B. Smith invests Annie with strength and a willingness to go broad when necessary. Gregory Itzin, as Gene’s business partner Jack, gets some laughs for his more level-headed reactions. The two boys, Ian Bottiglieri and Carl Michael Lindner, are kid actors, but they do fine (the rips that I watched had such muddled sound that their kid-banter was almost unintelligible, but I’m sure it was adorable). Wilder obviously steals the show, but since it’s his vehicle, that’s to be expected.
The bummer of it is that the premise of the show–a 50-something new father struggling to co-parent two young kids–could actually be mined for some interesting pathos that hasn’t been explored all that often in TV shows even now. One episode I watched, the tie one, did find Gene fretting over the fear that he won’t live to see some of his son’s big milestones, like driving a car or dating, but it was mostly played for laughs about what a worrywart Gene is. This setup, on a different show in a different era, may have made for a winning dramedy, and I have no doubt Wilder could have pulled off that more melancholy material with ease.
All in all, Something Wilder, while certainly not insufferable, is just not a project that’s at the level of its star. It’s sort of hard to pin down just what made Wilder such an effective comic actor, but for me, it lies in his intelligence and warmth. Both of these are probably most obviously on display in Willy Wonka, where his eccentric candy maker is always ready with an erudite quip or an esoteric reference, but also exhibits genuine affection for Charlie at the end of the film. Wilder could be deadpan, he could be wacky, he could be neurotic or the coolest guy in the room. He’ll always be the One True Wonka. For comedy fans, his Frankenstein will always be more iconic than even its source material. He was the rare performer who elevated anything he was in. His brilliance and grace are on display even in a tacky 90s sitcom. Even though he’d retreated from the public eye for well over a decade at the time of his death, his presence was always felt, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing he’d make one final film, if the right project came along (he said himself he’d be up for it for the right script). While that isn’t going to happen now, he’ll never be far from our minds.
So, should it have stayed on the air? Eh, not really. There were plenty of sitcoms on the air that were basically this same show, so we didn’t really need this one, even with such a great performer at the center.
Well hello there.
I’m not gonna dwell on the fact that it’s been a long time since I’ve been on here, because if you’re at all a fan of these, you’ve probably realized that already. Not that I have much excuse; it was just something that got put on the back burner for a long time. In fact, I actually considered ceasing altogether, particularly when the A.V. Club, the site whose “My Year of Flops” columns served as the inspiration for my own blog, started up a new column specifically examining one-season series. Despite the fact that, yeah, I’ve been doing it a while, their far superior readership and credibility made this seem more like an amateur project than ever. But then I decided, you know what? There’s room enough for both of us on this rock to cover canceled TV shows, right? Besides, where will people go to read about all the two season series that are out there? I’m still covering those.
But not today. Today, our show sadly only lasted six episodes. The show is of course Andy Barker, P.I., the unfortunately short-lived vehicle for funnyman and beloved Conan O’Brien sideman Andy Richter, co-created by O’Brien and Jonathan Groff (not the guy from Glee, at least I don’t think so. That would be surprising!). Apparently, with three canceled series to his name, Andy Richter is a hard sell for the American public to accept as a leading man, which is a real shame, because he deserves a vehicle for his particular brand of charm. I had originally planned to do a whole sequence of posts about Richter’s past flops, but I’ve had a hard time locating Andy Richter Controls the Universe in any free capacity. I haven’t much looked into his other show, Quintuplets, but maybe I will one of these days.
Barker follows Richter as the titular character, a milquetoast accountant who goes into business for himself, renting an office in a shopping plaza populated with colorful characters like Simon (the great Tony Hale), owner of a video store (so 2007!), and Wally (Marshall Manesh, one of those actors who gets cast as all the ethnic types, regardless of whether he is actually from the same country or even general region as his character, such as his recurring role as the cab driver Ranjit on How I Met Your Mother), an Afghani immigrant who runs a restaurant and “went a little overboard with the patriotic stuff after 9/11.” Business isn’t really happening for Andy, until a mysterious Russian woman strolls in, hands him $4,000, and asks him to find her husband. See, Andy’s office was previously occupied by private investigator Lew Staziak (the great Harve Presnell, from Fargo), and with rent due and an interest in the truth, Andy decides to take the case. Turns out, he’s surprisingly good at the whole private investigator thing, and decides to balance his accounting career with his burgeoning one in this very different field. With Simon as his bumbling sidekick and assists from Wally, Lew, and his wife (who starts out opposing his new career, but to the show’s credit, it ditches that rather tiring aspect quickly and just gets her in on the fun), Andy solves a new case each week, and of course can’t get a moment’s peace.
The pilot takes Andy from in over his head to competent P.I. maybe a little too quickly, but such is the requirement of a pilot: to get us into the main action of the show, especially in a case-a-week kind of format like this. Andy seems to take the job for a number of reasons. One, he needs the money, since things at his office aren’t exactly going great; two, he seems to enjoy the excitement of it to an extent–not that his life is crappy, just kind of boring and predictable; three, he just really seems to have a hard time saying no. Other characters push him into service more often than he pushes himself. Whether it’s Simon’s enthusiasm, Lew’s hard-headedness, or even his wife’s gentle nudging, Andy’s just too nice of a guy to not help people out. Richter plays him pretty perfectly, almost like a husband out of a 50s movie. but with a more nerdy feel. He can’t seem to bring himself to swear, and is certainly nowhere near as grizzled as other P.I.s in pop culture. In the pilot, he hadn’t even seen Chinatown! It’s a strange thing to build a show around a sort of passive character, but it works in this case because everything around him is so wacky. The show takes place in one of those sitcom universes where even though people have businesses to run, they never seem to actually have to go to work, and instead can hang out and leave at a moment’s notice. Seriously, does Simon have any other employees? I don’t think so. And since he’s gone so much, how does he stay in business? I know video stores weren’t totally obsolete by 2007, but they were on their way. Even if it seems a little bit of a stretch, you have to just accept it as a part of this show’s weird universe and go with it.
The best episodes of the show are ones that crank up the silliness and play like well-crafted farcical nuggets. A particular standout for me is “Three Days of the Chicken,” in which Andy and company try to figure out why Wally’s chicken supplier keeps giving him sub-par chicken, and get in way deeper than they bargained for. The idea of a chicken-company mafia is funny enough on its own, but the show throws in a handful of other fun bits. For one, Lew is deathly afraid of chickens, though he’d never admit it. Presnell is always very funny as the aging Sam Spade type whose attitude and outlook hasn’t seemed to have changed since the 1950s. But here, he gets to show a slightly different side, as his hyper-macho act crumbles in the face of his feathered nemesis. The show never reveals why he is so afraid of them, only hints at some past trauma when Lew points a gun at one and says “Remember me? I’m Lew Staziak, and I’m all grown up now.” Luckily, Andy pulls him away, pushing the chicken into an open door, saying “You’ll be safe here.” As the doors close, the words “Slaughter Room 2” can be read. That’s a well-crafted bit. And the show has quite a few of those. While not all the episodes are quite as finely tuned, there are more hits than misses, which is good, since there’s only six anyway. Other highlights include “Fairway, My Lovely,” where Andy investigates the death of a very obese client, and continues to be baffled by how many people, including his wife, find the man irresistibly sexy. Also the final episode, “The Lady Varnishes,” which features an appearance by the great Ed Asner as Lew’s crooked ex-partner. That episode explores a bit more of Lew’s backstory, and gives him a nice showcase. Basically, I would watch a whole spinoff of Lew Staziak, geriatric P.I. That would be quite humorous. I may giggle or even guffaw at such a premise. Overall, while it’s not the most innovative or spectacular TV comedy, there are enough funny bits to make it a worthwhile way to spend a few hours.
So what happened? Hard to tell, most likely just low ratings. Apparently America has a hard time finding it in their hearts to accept Richter as a leading man, which is a shame, because the dude is funny in a low-key, quiet kinda way. Maybe someday he’ll get the sort of headlining gig that he can hold onto.
So, should it be back on the air? I’m gonna say sure, with the caveat that I don’t think it had a lot of time in it from the get-go. The formula may have gotten a little tiring after too long, but who knows whether they would’ve switched it up over time? I’d say maybe a couple seasons is the perfect length for a show like this; enough to make it a cult hit, but short enough that it wouldn’t get old. If you want to watch it, it’s all on Hulu right now, so it’s easy enough to find (though you need a Hulu Plus account). Put it on next time you’re home sick or stuck in by the sub-arctic temperatures (if you’re here in the midwest) and laugh for a couple hours!
Hopefully I’ll be able to do these more often, but who’s to say? I also hope if I have any readers left, they haven’t abandoned me forever. Also, I started another blog recently, unrelated to this one, but if you like what I do here and want to read a similar thing but about books, then hop on over to http://conorhastoomanybooks.wordpress.com/! Catch ya next time.
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: https://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.