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Canned TV Show #7: Stacked

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

Pamela Anderson is very attractive.  Yes, legion of followers, it’s true.  She’s a pretty woman and she has large breasts.  One might even say she’s…stacked?  Oh ho ho I crack myself up.  But I can’t take credit for that one unfortunately; the creators of Stacked already beat me to it.  In fact, that crappy joke pretty much sums up any reason anyone would want to watch this “Pamela Anderson in a bookstore sitcom” (wow, I never thought I’d say that phrase), since its worth otherwise is pretty limited.  It’s all standard sitcom silliness, but hampered by a lead actress who possesses very little in the way of comedic talent.

Ok, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Created by Stephen Levitan (who co-created this year’s hilarious Modern Family, quite the jump in quality there), Stacked is a standard fish-out-of-water, workplace situation comedy that happens to take place in a bookstore.  The fish in this case is Skylar (Anderson), fresh out of the sex and booze fueled waters of dating rock stars and partying every night.  She comes into a bookstore conveniently called Stacked, looking for a book on relationships in order to dump her cheating rock star boyfriend.  The store is run by brothers Gavin (Elon Gold) and Stuart (Brian Scolaro), two hopeless dorks who’ve never even been near a woman of Skylar’s staggering beauty.  Gavin’s a failed writer stuck selling other people’s books, after a divorce from his she-devil of an ex (Paget Brewster).  Stuart’s a tad less well rounded (if you can consider Gavin well rounded), and is mostly just a stereotypical nerd who can’t find a girl.  Also populating the bookstore is barista Katrina (Marissa Jaret Winokur), a frumpy tomboy who also can’t find a mate, and Stuart (Christopher Lloyd, yes it’s the one you’re thinking of), a retired professor who apparently has nothing better to do than hang out there spouting one-liners all day.  Together, they get into all sorts of generic sitcom mishaps, but somehow everything works out in the end

And there you have it, that’s the general outline of the show, and you can insert your own lame plotlines and chances are the show will use them at least once.  I really don’t blame the cast for this (except Anderson), they’re all pretty solid comedic actors (except Anderson), it’s just that their characters are all pretty lame and don’t have much to make them interesting.  Lloyd is as funny as the show gets; his delivery is worth a chuckle here and there, but it’s not enough to salvage it.  Since I can’t seem to figure out how to embed clips from hulu, here’s a link to one that pretty much sums up the humor.

So as you can see, it’s all pretty lame banter, and considering they run a bookstore it certainly seems like an easy job, given the amount of time they have to deal with personal stuff.  In fact, the fact that the show is set in a bookstore doesn’t amount to much; they could pretty much set it anywhere and it’d be about the same.  I’m not asking for literary humor, God forbid, but it just seems like a lame excuse to have that silly play on words in the title.  Anderson would pretty much be out of place anywhere that wasn’t a rock star’s bedroom, so the setting is pretty irrelevant.

Despite it’s brief run time, the show managed to rope in some pretty funny actors for guest appearances here and there, including Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale, Reno 911‘s Thomas Lennon, and Freaks and Geeks‘ John Francis Daley, who can’t seem to find steady work these days.  There’s also appearances from Jenny McCarthy, Carmen Electra, and Anderson’s real-life ex-hubby Kid Rock, who’s actually kind of funny as a creepy UPS guy.  What was it that drew them to this show?  Hale was still on Development at the time, and I’m sure many of the others had careers of their own they could’ve been focusing on.  Maybe it was the chance to work with Pamela Anderson?  I guess that must be it.

That could be one of my biggest issues with Stacked, it feels like it exists solely as a showcase for Anderson’s non-existent talent.  We know she can’t carry a movie, Barb Wire proved that, so what made them think she could carry a whole TV series?  Admittedly, she’s not as terrible here as she was in the aforementioned film, but she doesn’t have the timing to headline a series.  A lot of comedians work for years to have the chance to star in a series, and the fact that Anderson produced a show that she could star in rings pretty hollow.  Also, maybe it’s the fact that laugh tracks usually have an opposite effect on me, but the one for this show feels copious even for a series with real laughs.  And do laugh tracks really make home viewers laugh more?  To me they’re just distracting; I find myself thinking: why are they laughing so hard at this?  At most it gets a chuckle, that’s about it.  The funniest ones are ones where Anderson, surprisingly, takes a backseat to a story about one of the other characters, or offers some input in a plot that does not belong to her.  If the series was more willing to do that more often, it might not have been so bad.  But then again, Anderson is really the only reason anyone watched the show in the first place.  It certainly wasn’t Elon Gold, who looks like a geekier version of Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Though he’s not a bad comedic actor.

One of the other sad aspects of the show is that no one, not even the funnier actors, has done much after the show ended.  Winokur was on Dancing with the Stars one time, but didn’t win.  Gold and Scolaro have had guest appearances in stuff, but nothing too solid.  The fact that Scolaro went on to play a bit part in The Brothers Solomon is beyond depressing.  Lloyd was recently in a video on funny or die that was pretty hilarious, but something tells me Stacked was his last real meaty live-action role.  It’s a real shame, given that Lloyd is a legend for playing Doc Brown and Uncle Fester, but at least he has those to add to his legacy, hopefully to blot out this, Fly me to the Moon, Flakes, and a handful of other bad late career decisions.

So, should it be back on the air? Heavens no.  I think nineteen episodes was plenty long for this vanity project to go on.  The series ends on a really sour note that I won’t go into (if, for some strange reason you feel possessed to watch it), but it’s certainly not closure, especially considering the show introduced a couple possible romances for the future.  Honestly though, I could care less.

If you feel compelled to see it, you can watch the whole thing, courtesy of our friends at hulu here:  http://www.hulu.com/stacked

Come back next time, when I’ll be reviewing the recent canned series Aliens in America!  I’ve heard good things, but we’ll see if it holds up to my scrutiny.

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Canned TV Show #6: Firefly

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Well fans, the hour is upon us.  Possibly the most beloved cancelled show of all time is here, and after five long entries, it is surely the moment you’ve all been waiting for.  For today, I will be reviewing the show most often mentioned when it comes to the idea of shows cancelled before their time: Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Joss Whedon could have one of the most substantial pedigrees of anybody working in the TV medium.  He’s created numerous shows which have developed massive cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel.  His most recent show, Dollhouse, was recently cancelled by FOX before airing the rest of its second season, but will surely develop its own cult, most likely made up of the people who comprise the cults for his other shows.  Instead of it being his shows that have fan bases, Whedon himself commands a very large group of followers who will love and support pretty much anything he does, which is something very few TV show creators can say.  In fact, the work done by said fan base even lead to a comeback of sorts for this series, but more on that later.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of hype circulating Firefly, and so I had high expectations of the show.  I mean, an intensely loyal fan base, which included several of my close friends, must see something, right?  I entered my viewing experience expecting nothing less than literal TV gold, something that would change my life and the way I thought about it for eons to come.  Ok, so maybe that was a little high, but I certainly didn’t leave the show feeling disappointed.  I admit, it isn’t a perfect show, but it isn’t hard to see why so many people rallied so hard to keep it afloat, to see it return in some way.

The plot is really nothing too radical; but the characters, like any good series, are where the real reward of the show lies.  It’s centuries in the future, after the human population has grown to large for earth to sustain it, humanity leaves to terraform new planets and spread out over the galaxy.  There’s a central governing body called The Alliance, which is similar to your totalitarian governments of most future-set sci-fi, who represent a shadowy antagonist to our heroes, a ragtag group of outlaws who fly through the galaxy in a “firefly-class” spaceship looking for jobs of varying legality to sustain them.  They live outside of alliance rule, and frequently come into opposition with them.  Onboard the ship, the motley crew consists of captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the stubborn but intensely loyal leader; his first mate Zoe Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres), who in turn is extremely loyal to him; her husband Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot; Kaywinnit Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s bubbly mechanic; and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), the hired muscle of the crew.  Also on board is Inara Serra (the gorgeous Morena Baccarin), a registered “companion,” basically a high class prostitute who is afforded almost royalty status, who rents out one of the smaller shuttles attached to the ship.  In the pilot episode, they also pick up holy man Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), who ends up serving as Mal’s conscience many a time, and Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who is carrying cargo which contains his sister River (Summer Glau), whom he rescued from The Alliance, which was performing experiments on her.

So if you managed to make it through that lengthy description of the crew, it’s not hard to see that the ensemble is really the heart of the show, and the characters’ conflicts with one another and with themselves is what keeps the show interesting from week to week.  Really, it’s one of the most interesting and entertaining ensembles ever assembled; everyone gets something interesting to do, and were all on their way to being very fleshed out, well-rounded characters before the show was cancelled.  The fact that even our heroes’ heroism is continually called into question offers a thought-provoking moral paradox to the series.  Each episode pretty much serves as its own adventure, and you don’t necessarily have to watch it from the beginning to get what’s going on at any given moment.  There is a larger storyline and some unanswered questions that carry over, but unfortunately the show didn’t get around to answering them before the ax fell.  What exactly were they doing to River?  Why does Shepherd Book seem to have such intimate knowledge of guns and combat?  Will Simon ever kiss Kaylee (there was a romance developing between them)?  Some things we’ll never know, and some things were cleared up a couple years later, in the form of a feature film called Serenity which gives some closure to the series.  I won’t really go into it, other than the fact that it has the awesome Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villain is reason enough to see it, but fans of the show can’t have a complete experience unless they watch it, and I’m sure pretty much all of them have by now.

One of the show’s central conceits is that the future is basically the same as the present; we’ll be dealing with the same problems we do now, just maybe on a different scale.  The sort of “future meets old west” look the show has going reflects this idea of the past and the future colliding, and it gives the show a unique and creative style.  Occasionally it doesn’t work quite as well, and the deliberate “blue collar” sound to the dialog occasionally sounds clunky coming out of the actors’ mouths.  Some can pull it off, but some sound a little awkward with the phrasing.  Also, the fact that the characters will occasionally slip into Chinese when they want to curse, because evidently the only two superpowers left are the U.S. (woot woot) and China (well of course), can be a little distracting.  I love the colorful ways sci-fi shows and movies get around not being able to swear, like the Chinese phrases here or the use of the word “frak” on Battlestar Galactica, with the excuse that “in the future there’ll be new swear words!”  But these are by and large nitpicky details to an otherwise massively entertaining series.

It’s hard to pick out which episodes are the best, since they all have great moments of their own.  If I had to choose, I’d say one of the standouts is the pilot, which introduces us to our crew and sets up the conflicts that will continue throughout.  The episode “Out of Gas,” in which a wounded Mal stumbles towards the back of an empty Serenity to replace a part which has caused her to break down, which is intercut with flashbacks explaining the origin of the crew and how Mal came to possess the ship we know and love, is another one.  The finale is also great, in which Richard Brooks (who would later reteam with Fillion on FOX’s Drive, which I covered a few weeks ago) plays a philosophical bounty hunter who subdues the crew and then tries to find River, not realizing she’s better at mind games than he is.  These are only a few, but really any given episode warrants a recommendation for some reason or another.  I enjoyed when the show was able to balance a scrappy comic tone and a heavier, more dramatic one, with Wash and Jayne providing a large amount of the comedy.  The closest the show comes to straight comedy would probably be “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” in which sexpot Christina Hendricks plays a con artist who tries to subdue the crew and take their ship, and it’s pretty hilarious.  Shepard Book warns Mal, who believes he accidentally married the girl during a recent celebration on an outer planet, “if you take sexual advantage of her, you’ll go to a special place in hell usually reserved for child molesters, or people who talk at the theater,” and later reiterates, “you were kissing, eh?  That sounds…special.”

So what caused such a beloved show to die an early death?  Probably the most obvious answer would be that FOX seriously mishandled the show.  They ended up not airing the pilot first, and instead aired the second episode, apparently concerned the pilot didn’t bring viewers into the action fast enough, which ultimately made the overall plot more difficult to follow.  More episodes were aired out of order as well, and FOX apparently didn’t believe keeping Whedon’s vision alive was a risk worth taking.  They also stuck the series in a bad time slot, and didn’t advertise it the way they should have.  While the series had a devoted following while it was on, it wasn’t enough to keep it on the air, even though said following sent in postcards and tried to get other networks to pick it up.  While they weren’t successful in keeping it on the air, their vigilance inspired Whedon to bring it back in some way.  I was probably still a tad too young to get into it while it was on, I’m sure had I been older I would have done my part to bring it back.  However, it makes me wonder if it’s better to be a short lived much much beloved show that will live a second life on DVD, to be continually rediscovered and relived, or to be on for several seasons and go without much fanfare.  If I made a TV series, I think I’d prefer the former.

For those who haven’t seen it, you can watch it all on hulu, though I’d recommend giving the DVD a look as well, as there’s some interesting bonus material on there.

So, should it be back in the air? I’m afraid I’m not going to break the trend here: yes, it most certainly should.  I think the thing I would’ve most liked to have found out about is Shepherd Book’s past; he obviously has some experience with fighting and possibly even killing, and it would’ve been cool to see where that came from.  Perhaps a prequel series could be arranged?

To send us out, here’s the kick ass opening title sequence with a kick ass theme song written by Whedon himself, and performed by Sonny Rhodes:

Come back next time when I’ll be reviewing the Pamela Anderson bookstore comedy Stacked!  Is Anderson’s ample cleavage enough to salvage the show?  Based on her acting skills in the past, I’m certain it might have to be.

Canned TV Show #5: The Middleman

December 2, 2009 1 comment

Hello legion of followers, sorry for my lateness in posting once again, I was forced to take some time off when my wicked oppressors (or rather professors) decided to pile on the work and distract me from my civic duties.  I also took some time over my Thanksgiving weekend to watch my dad’s copy of Firefly: The Complete Series.  Expect a post on that shortly; I still have to watch a few episodes.  In any case, I’m back in full swing, and with a great show to talk about, one that I believe will make its way to a cult status of its own, amassing a legion of followers not quite the size of mine, but still large, demanding its return in some form.   I am of course talking about The Middleman, a smart, quirky, endlessly watchable nugget of sci-fi comedy goodness brought to you by, oddly enough, ABC Family.

You wouldn’t expect a clever homage/spoof of 60s spy-fi and “monster of the week” specials to be broadcast on the same network that brings the world The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but sure enough, there it was.  And after watching it, it certainly seems a tad on the “too smart for the room” side, and an odd fit for such a wholesome and, well, bland network like ABC Family.  In fact, some of the humor on the show is downright inappropriate for young children who watch Secret Life and think that’s what high school’s really like.  The show’s constant barrage of pop culture references and general quirkiness would feel more at home on Syfy or something like that.  But alas, ABC Family bought the property, and ABC Family is where the show was made.

So where did this show come from, you might ask?  The brainchild of TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, The Middleman was initially planned as a tribute and send up of the aforementioned “monster of the week” genre, and was written to be a TV series.  On its way, it ended up becoming a comic book, and story arcs were published as mini series and then collected in anthologies.  Eventually, Grillo-Marxuach turned it back into a TV script, and managed to sell it to ABC Family, adapting certain plotlines from the comic into whole episodes, and some that were completely new.  It was an odd path for a show to take from conception to birth, but let me tell you, it was worth it.

So what’s the plot, you might ask?   You ask a lot of questions, you know that?  Well anyway, the plot concerns Wendy Watson (played by babeorino Natalie Morales), a snarky artist type who is attacked by some sort of crazy monster at one of her many short-lived temp jobs, and is rescued by a mysterious figure in a green Eisenhower jacket who calls himself The Middleman (played by hunkorino Matt Keeslar).  Later, at her “illegal sublet she shares with another young, photogenic artist” named Lacey (Brit Morgan, also quite lovely), she gets a call from a mysterious temp agency with the comically suspicious name Jolly Fats Weehaukin, only to find out it’s a cover for The Middleman’s super secret crime fighting organization.  There, she becomes The Middleman’s sidekick, who along with the help of sassy android assistant Ida (the not so babeorino but very funny Mary Pat Gleason), fight comic book style evil and save humanity.  It’s a fun premise from the get-go, and the show has fun with it, putting its characters in all sorts of ridiculous situations.

Here’s a quick clip of an ad for the show featuring The Middleman giving some helpful advice:

But a fun premise wouldn’t be enough if it weren’t for how much else the show has to offer.  Morales and Keeslar are both great, and share a chemistry that keeps evolving and getting more interesting.  Gleason is hilarious as the cranky Ida, who always has some snappy comeback and frequently banters with Wendy, calling her a pothead at practically every turn.  The supporting characters are great as well, and the show seems to have a really strong desire to develop them and make them interesting.  Wendy, of course, gets the most development, but The Middleman and Lacey both get a fair amount themselves, including a turbulent romance between them.  Even Noser, a friend of Wendy and Lacey who sits outside holding a guitar and quoting song lyrics, is more than just a one-note character, especially in the second half of the series where he leaves the building and gets more to do.  It’s kind of a funny running joke that we never see him do the stuff he’s supposedly good at, like knowing every possible song to play in “stump the band” or being an ace ventriloquist.  Wendy eventually gets an almost too perfect boyfriend named Tyler Ford (played by Brendan Hines), with whom she shares plenty of witty exchanges.  Also, Kevin Sorbo of Hercules fame shows up as a middleman from the sixties, awoken from cryogenic slumber, and he’s pretty gosh darn funny in it.  Kind of makes me wish he still had a career.

Another important part of what makes The Middleman so enjoyable are the little details each episode contains, making the whole series feel very lovingly and carefully crafted.  There’s sly pop culture gags, intentionally cheesy effects, and all sorts of phrases repeated like mantras.   For example, every villain believes their plan is “sheer elegance in its simplicity,” the fictional restaurant The Booty Chest is almost always referred to as “the pirate-themed sports bar with the scantily clad waitresses,” or Lacey calling The Middleman “sexy boss man” or “pillow lips.”  The show also has some fun with meta-humor throughout each episode.  Wendy asks of a conveniently crawlable vent system: “were these designed by TV writers or something?” and the omnipresent subtitles that state the time and setting often display something humorous (a personal favorite of the setting/time displays: “the underworld–time has no meaning or relevance”).  Overall, it seems like a lot of careful crafting went into the show, and that the creators really loved the things they were spoofing.  It’s entertaining, quirky fare you just don’t find on TV very often anymore.

If it’s so great, why did it get cancelled, you might ask?  Seriously, what’s with the questions?  You freak me out.  If I had to guess, I’d have to say, as usual, ratings did it in.  While the show developed a devoted fan base, it was still a small one, and their love and support wasn’t enough to keep it on the air.  ABC Family cut down the season from thirteen episodes to twelve, and took some funds from the unfilmed final episode and put it towards making the twelfth, a fun story involving a dystopian parallel universe, even bigger budget (the episodes didn’t have a very big budget to begin with, which is all well and good considering the show is kind of supposed to be lovingly low budget).  A comic book was later released, based off the plot of the final episode, to kind of wrap up the series and reveal some important facts.  The cast and creators also came to Comic Con this year to do a table read of the script for the final episode, which is probably as close to seeing it filmed as we’ll ever get.   You can watch the reading on youtube (the real-life equivalent of the show’s own version, My Face in a Tube, presumably a combination of Myspace, Facebook, and Youtube) in seven parts if you so choose; it would’ve been fun to see in episode form, that’s for gosh darn sure.

To close out, here’s a funny compilation of some of The Middleman’s colorful yet mostly G-rated sayings (he is an overgrown boy scout, after all):

So, should it be back on the air? you bet your sweet patootie.  While I wouldn’t call it the heaviest show ever made, it was consistently entertaining and winningly quirky.  Plus, any time I can gaze at Morales’ hotness is a plus for me.  Grillo-Marxuach said he still hasn’t given up hope for the future of the series, and hopes that DVD sales will be strong enough to warrant some kind of return.  So I urge all of you to watch it, and buy the DVD set if you like the show.  You won’t be disappointed, and if you are, well, clearly you’re no follower of mine.  You can watch it all on various websites including megavideo (though they’re lame and make you pay after you watch a certain amount of stuff, unless you wait a while to watch more.  It’s a tricky system).

Come back next time when I’ll be looking at the Holy Grail of cancelled TV shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly!  Does it live up to the massive hype?  Find out next time.