Canned TV Show #16: Do Not Disturb

September 11, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

featuring the other actor who was replaced by Dave Franco

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.


Canned TV Show #15: Testees

September 8, 2010 2 comments

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.

Canned TV Show #14: Invasion

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

“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.

Canned TV Show #13: Better Off Ted

June 25, 2010 3 comments

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.

Canned TV Show #12: Aliens in America

April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Canned TV Show #11: Earth 2

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Hello loyal readers.  It’s been a while.  How’s the wife?  Really?  You’re kidding!  Well, I wish her a full recovery.

But in all seriousness, I’m sorry it’s been so long since I did one of these.  It’s been a busy couple of months, and it’s been tough to find much time to sit and watch old TV shows of late.  But hopefully such a long and unfortunate break between posts won’t happen again.  Today, we’re going to go back in time, to a magical, far off world called the Clinton administration.  It’s hard to believe that 1990 was twenty years ago, but there it is.  The 90s will no doubt soon become the 80s, where a nostalgia boom will undoubtedly happen, more so than has already occurred.  I grew up watching 90s TV shows, primarily of the animated variety, but any 90s show, cartoon or not, has an undeniable sensibility that makes it instantly recognizable.  Often, it’s a winningly cheesy sensibility, but one that we have to forgive.  I did not watch the show I’m covering today in the 90s.  In fact, I hadn’t heard of it until my good pal Michael offered to let me borrow the DVDs for this blog (thanks for the loan Michael, by the way).  Despite not hearing about it until late last year, while watching it I felt completely at home in its 90s-ness.  The show I refer to is the forgotten (by most) sci-fi series Earth 2, which crashed and burned after one twenty-two episode season.  Did it deserve such a fate?  Is more like Lost in Space, or is it more like Lost, in space?  More on that soon enough.

Given that this show is from 15 years ago, I think it’s a little pointless to say whether or not it should be back on the air, because it’s undoubtedly a product of its time.  So, instead of my usual final statement, I will change it to “should it have stayed on the air?”  Just so y’all don’t think I’m being inconsistent.

Now, onto the show itself.  Earth 2 tells the story of a ragtag group of pioneers who are on a mission to set up a colony on a planet similar to Earth.  The reason they need to do this is because the original Earth has become an almost uninhabitable place, and most of humanity has moved to orbiting space stations.  However, this doesn’t seem to solve all their problems, as some kids born on the stations are afflicted with a disease called The Syndrome, which causes them to die by the age of eight.  This is due to the fact that apparently spending every waking and sleeping hour cooped up in a space station really isn’t so good for developing bodies.  Not content to sit idly by and watch her son, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), perish of this disease, rich lady Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino) leads and expedition to a planet known as G889, in the hopes of building a new colony where all the sick children can run and play and hopefully not be sick anymore.  With her on this expedition is Yale (Sullivan Walker), a reformed criminal whose brain has been wiped and is now a tutor; John Danziger (Clancy Brown), a gruff but kind blue-collar worker and his daughter True (J. Madison Wright); Morgan Martin (John Gegenhuber), a snivelly government guy and his wife Bess (Rebecca Gayheart); Julia Heller (Jessica Steen), who was genetically programmed to be the group’s doctor, and Alonzo Solace (Antonio Sabato Jr.), the ship’s pilot, who is a lot older than he looks, due to all the time spent in cold sleep.  On the way to the planet, the ship is sabotaged and crash-lands on the other side from where the colony was supposed to be set up.  So this group of reluctant pilgrims must traverse a harsh landscape that looks suspiciously like New Mexico, to get to where they need to set up the colony.  Along the way, they discover that the planet is basically one living organism, and that a group of creatures called the Terrians have a special connection with the planet’s resources.  When they take Ulysses and cure him of his illness, they give him certain Terrian abilities, making him a link between their world and the humans.  This makes a secret government group called the council, run by a man named Reilly (Terry O’Quinn in an excellent recurring role), interested in harvesting this link for future use in controlling the planet.

Here’s the opening credits that give you a nice feel of the series:

That’s the basic premise, without getting too detailed or spoiler-y on you.  A reliably good, campy Tim Curry shows up early on as a mysterious stranger who claims to be a marooned astronaut, but is actually hiding some dark secrets.  There’s also some creatures called Grendlers that play a part in some episodes, either causing trouble or actually helping the crew in some way.  Every episode has the same basic premise: something is putting the crew in danger and they have to stop it.  It gets a little repetitive, but for the most part it works.  The overlying message has an environmental vibe, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it too much.  The idea is that in order to live on the planet, or our planet, for that matter, we have to coexist with our surroundings and not just barge in and take over.  It’s hard not to see the Terrians as sort of a stand-in for Native Americans who were forced off their land as we settled the frontier, but none of the environmental stuff really distracts too much from the story and characters.

One of Earth 2‘s strengths is that it seems most concerned with developing its characters, and seeing how each one of them grows in this new, unpredictable world.  Pretty much all the characters get their own storylines, and most of them are pretty interesting.  Like any series, it’s the characters that keep us coming back week after week, and it’s nice to see that underneath all the weird sciencey mumbo-jumbo talk and the constant peril, the show is really invested in letting its characters grow and change in their new environment.  Most of the acting is pretty solid, though I have to say sometime Sabato’s acting is a little questionable.  I know he was on General Hospital before this, but still.  I especially liked Brown and Farentino, who both very well play the sort of put-upon leader roles and complement each other while also being complete opposites.  They’re often at odds but have a very clear sexual tension between them that I’m sure would’ve been more deeply explored if the show had more time.  There’s one time where this tension really comes to a head, when Devon has to grab Danziger’s canteen with her mouth, given that they’re both tied up.  She has to bend down basically to his crotch and grab it with her teeth, it what can only be described as a mildly disturbing pantomime of oral sex.  I don’t think that’s my dirty mind making that up; I really think that’s what they were planning.  I wish I could find a clip to show you.

I should tell you though, weird oral sex thing aside, not everything in Earth 2 works.  It does fall victim to a lot of 90s cheesiness, even if it is endearing cheesiness.  Also, some of the plotlines are just plain ridiculous, and some of the science involved just seems like complete bullshit.  I know it’s in the future and all, but some of it sounds like total bologna, especially if, like me, you’re not one of those science loving folk.  There’s one really odd one where the crew finds an ancient Terrian body frozen in ice, and somehow its spirit, which is evil for some reason, manages to possess Danziger, at which point Alonzo has to enter the dream plain (which, I realize now, I neglected to mention.  Basically, Alonzo can communicate with the Terrians through his dreams, on what is known as the dream plain.  There.) and fight the evil Terrian to save Danziger.  It’s not a terrible episode, but it feels kind of out of place with the rest of them, especially since it does nothing to advance the story.  Think of it like the diamond thieves episode of Lost, only a little less stupid and not featuring Billy Dee Williams.

A few highlights, of many solid episodes, would have to be some of the final ones of the season.  I really liked one where 25 year-old Ulysses communicates with his mother via the dream scape, telling her she has to send his younger self into a cave with the secrets that could save the syndrome kids in the future.  We also get a glimpse at what the colony will look like, and it really doesn’t look too much better than the stations.  Sometimes these future episodes just seem like a filler when a show has no more new ideas, but I have to say it worked this time.  It was a legitimately interesting look at the future, and what would happen with Devon and Ulysses.  I also liked a two-parter where Yale starts to think his mind wash is going to malfunction and he’ll revert back to his criminal ways, but later he finds out the truth about what he did in the past, and it’s different than he thinks.  I like how the show wasn’t afraid to let a story play out over a couple episodes, instead of wrapping it up neatly at the end every time, like some shows do.

But alas, the show was unable to flesh out its characters too much, as it was cancelled after the first season, despite an extensive campaign by fans to keep it on TV, due to dropping ratings.  Evidently there was more at work than just your average ratings drop, however.  According to one site, NBC fired the producers of the show and made a promo video showing the direction they wanted to take the series.  When people finally saw this promo, including the cast and crew, they decided it was better off cancelled.  Apparently the network wanted to dumb the show down and make it more appealing to mass audience.  I get the sneaking feeling maybe sci-fi shows don’t really belong on major networks, especially the smart ones.  Luckily, what was made has been preserved on DVD, though unfortunately it is in broadcast order, which puts two unaired episodes at the very end, even though they belong earlier in the season.  Why they didn’t just put them in the right order, I have no idea.

So, should it have stayed on the air? I think so.  It may not have worked all of the time, but it had an intriguing premise, interesting characters, a constantly changing world, some compelling drama and some decent for the time special effects.  Sure, it appeals more to the sci-fi crowd than anybody else, but it’s still a reasonably compelling series.  It would’ve also given its actors more work, as not many of them have really had very illustrious careers after this show.  Clancy Brown went on to appear in numerous movies and shows, including memorable stints on Carnivale and in The Shawshank Redemption.  Also, my brain literally almost exploded when I found out he voiced Mr. Crabs.  All this time, and I never realized it was him!  Crazy.  He’s probably the most successful post-series; Farentino’s appeared in some stuff, as have Steen and Gayheart.  Antonio Sabato Jr. attempted a movie career, and largely failed.  Gegenhuber and Walker didn’t fare much better; his last notable film role was in the largely worthless 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich or Die Tryin’.  What a shame.  What’s also a shame, and a tragedy, is that J. Madison Wright, who played True Danziger, died of a heart attack at age 22.  That’s insanely young to have a heart attack.

Overall, while not spectacular, I’d recommend giving it a watch.  If for nothing else, than simply to bask in it’s wonderful 90sness.

Come back next time (though let’s be honest, who knows when that’ll be?  Hopefully soon) when I’ll be watching the recently cancelled Aliens in America!  I’ve heard good things.

Bonus Edition of Canned: Two Worthwhile TV Pilots That Didn’t Become Full-fledged Series

January 16, 2010 1 comment

Greetings all, as a little bonus for your weekend I thought I’d share with you a couple more one-and-done series.  However, unlike the last batch, these two pilots have the distinction of, for one reason or another, not making it on the air.  This is pretty unfortunate, as they both happen to be pretty good pilots.  But I know what you’re thinking, if they’re so good, why didn’t they make it to TV?  It’s hard to say really; it seems the networks were about to take a chance and decided to change their minds at the last minute.  So all we’re left with are the introductions to worlds we would never come to know, and questions we would never have answered, even if only a very small percentage of the population is really wondering all that much.

The first of these is a 2006 animated series called The Amazing Screw-On Head, based on the one-shot comic book by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who was brilliant at combining dark humor and occult intrigue in those comics.  Screw-On Head is certainly more of a straight comedy than the Hellboy series, and is just as fun in its own way.  The plot concerns a strange superhero-type figure called Screw-On Head, whose name describes his principal ability; namely, that he is essentially a head that can screw on to various robotic bodies for different purposes.  He works for none other than Abraham Lincoln (it takes place in the 19th century), solving supernatural cases and protecting America.  The idea is that there are two versions of our country’s history: one that everyone knows and one that involves the occult and the supernatural, which is kept secret.  I think that’s a pretty neat idea, and the way it ties in with the real history is pretty cool too.

Paul Giamatti voices our hero, who along with his trusty manservant Mr. Groin (Patton Oswalt) and dog Mr. Dog, has to stop an evil plot by the villainous Emperor Zombie (a hilarious David Hyde Pierce), an undead nemesis and former manservant of Screw-On Head.  His plan is to resurrect a demigod used to almost take over the world eons ago, and use him for that purpose once again.  He is aided by “two horrible old women and a monkey,” along with Patience, Screw-On Head’s former lover who was kidnapped by Zombie and turned into a vampire.  It all sounds pretty ridiculous, but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s all handled in a very tongue-in-cheek way.  Apparently the show was going to be on the Sci-Fi channel, and they put the pilot up online with a survey asking whether or not the pilot should be made into a series.  I’m not sure if response was too negative or what, but for whatever reason Sci-Fi decided not to produce the series.  It was also executive produced by Bryan Fuller, who is no stranger to short-lived but high quality TV series (his shows Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, and Pushing Daisies all got cancelled before their time).  Luckily, what was made is available on DVD and on google video, but it really only wets your whistle with the promise of what could have been a great series.

The next of these unfortunate cases came a year later, in the form of a pilot called Babylon Fields.  This show has the curious distinction of having been greenlit by CBS, and then randomly cancelled before airing its pilot.  On paper, the premise might sound kind of silly: the dead rise from the grave, but instead of wanting to eat brains and tear people limb from limb, these zombies simply want to go back to their former lives.  It could’ve been played for laughs, as in “oh jeez, my dead nagging wife is back to bug me again!  What a ridiculous happenstance!”  But instead, the show actually attempted to examine what it would really be like to have dead loved ones and acquaintances back in your life, for good or bad, and how people deal with that.  One woman is overjoyed to have her husband back, another woman and her daughter (Kathy Baker and Amber Tamblyn, respectively) are terrified that their abusive husband/father is back in their lives.  A cop (Ray Stevenson) is both excited and scared to see his dead wife again.  While there were elements of dark humor in it, it actually deals with it in a believable, emotional way that is really interesting.  Some people are outright outraged by the undead uprising, beating and shooting the zombies, which is all the more disturbing since they act like regular people.  It examines the conflicting emotions that would most likely occur if something like that would happen, and does so in an interesting way.  There’s also a French zombie flick called They Came Back from 2004 that has a similar premise, which could’ve been an influence on the show.  It’s an interesting concept, and one that could’ve been mined for some pretty effective pathos.

It’s really a shame this didn’t get made; the pilot sets up the premise and introduces us to the major characters and conflicts well, and ends with a cliffhanger in which one zombie discovers he was murdered and wants to find out who did it.  There was a lot of potential there, but unfortunately CBS was more interested in giving the awful Viva Laughlin a chance to grow (they both came out in the same year, for the same network). CBS dangled the promise of a mid-season pickup of the show, but opted not to do it.  Maybe if Babylon Fields were on a cable network, it could’ve lasted longer.  Luckily the pilot is available to watch on google video as well, and I’d recommend it.

So there’s a couple bonus shows to check out for the weekend, and I hope you stay tuned for our regularly scheduled programming, which will next be an examination of the 90s sci-fi series Earth 2!  I know a while ago I said I’d look at Aliens in America, and I will soon, but the Earth 2 DVDs are borrowed from a friend, so I must watch them and give them back posthaste.