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Canned TV Show #24: Something Wilder

August 30, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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 #3: The War at Home

November 6, 2009 4 comments

Hello legion of followers, sorry I’m so behind on my third post.  You’d be surprised how little time a college student can have to sit on his backside and watch TV on his laptop.  I thought I went to college for that sole reason!

Also, the show I reviewed for today is not exactly one that is easy to watch multiple episodes of.  When I started this blog, I had no idea it would be quite so hard to sit through bad TV, but it really is people, it really is.  Especially when it’s not so much bad as just bland and mediocre to below-average.  A terrible show might at least be a noble train wreck or entertainingly awful, but one like the one I reviewed tonight is none of these things.  I’m talking, of course, about The War at Home, the little-loved FOX sitcom that aired for two seasons between 2006 and 2007.

In doing the little research I do for this blog, I found that the show had a paltry 28 on metacritic, a site that ranks shows with a composite score out of 100.  The general consensus was that it just wasn’t as funny or edgy as it tried to be, which is mostly true, but that’s not my only problem with this show.  You’ll find out what those are later.

As for the plot, the show concerns the exploits of the Gold family, led by sarcastic, slightly bigoted father Larry (Michael Rapaport), equally sassy mother Vicki (Anita Barone), and their kids: attractive but snotty daughter Hilary (Kaylee DeFer), dorky, awkward son Larry (Kyle Sullivan), and smartass younger son Mike (Dean Collins).  Basically, it’s a typical family sitcom setup.  The only difference is, The War at Home tries to tackle hot-button issues like teen drinking, drug use, racism, homosexuality, masturbation, relationships, and a whole lot more, and handle them in a sensitive but funny way.  Only one problem with this noble goal, and one of my chief criticisms of the series (which are the only important criticisms you need note).  The War at Home is never subtle or sensitive, and it’s rarely that funny.  It got a chuckle out of me here and there, but nothing that would make an entire series worth watching (it should also be noted, I did not watch the whole series, call me a cheating lying poopface if you will, but I watched enough from both seasons to get a solid impression of it).  The setups seem edgy enough, but the show almost always ends it trying to step on as few toes as possible.  The copious amounts of laugh track where laugh track need not go doesn’t help the funniness either.  Instead, it reminds you that you could be getting actual laughs somewhere else.  For an example of this general lack of subtlety, check the following:

For something that tries to be “edgy,” The War at Home feels stale right out of the gate.  It feels like a retread of every other “edgy” family sitcom that came before it, especially the much better Married…with Children.  The difference between the two?  In this one, the actors break the fourth wall and spout their lame jokes at the audience directly!  That’s creative, right?  There are few things more infuriating in life than actors on a plain white background.  For a show that attempts to derive so much humor from its dialogue, so much of it feels forced and unnatural.  Maybe if it tried to derive more humor from its characters and situations instead of their inane banter, it would’ve been a lot funnier.

But what about the characters, you ask?  Well, they’re all pretty unlikeable, but not unlikeable enough to be endearing (for an example of this paradox, look at the Reynolds family from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).  Mainly, they’re all just really mean to each other.  Is that really how modern families are?  A bunch of arch rivals who are willing to extort each other and stab each other in the back for their own gain?  Maybe some households, but there are so few moments where the family actually feels like a family and not just a bunch of taglines sharing a house together for their dynamic to be believable.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Michael Rapaport’s a likable guy and a pretty solid comedic actor, and Barone’s pretty good also.  It’s just a shame that they had to have this sub-par fare as their showcase.  As for the kids, really only one of them is likable in any way for me, and that’d be Larry.  This is probably because I can relate to his awkwardness and cluelessness when it comes to girls.  Wow, I just realized how sad that is.  Mike and Hilary are both just obnoxious little jerks, and I really felt nothing for them but annoyance.  This might also have to do with the fact that Sullivan is the funniest of the three kid actors.  If anyone has a career after this, I hope it’s gonna be him.  This isn’t the best example, but it showcases his goofy comic presence:

The show also features a slew of other recurring characters, including Hilary’s boyfriend Taye (a black guy!  Hoo lordy!  This would be a shocker if the year was 1958!) and his family, who are so carefully crafted to not feel like stereotypes that they essentially feel so anti-stereotypical that they make new stereotypes in some way (the dad went to Yale and attends a country club, that doesn’t allow Jews!  What a twist of fate!).  The big problem is that nobody feels real, and these smaller characters feel as fleshed out as anyone in the family, despite their lack of screentime.  Seth McFarlane even shows up as a 30 year old dating Hilary!  He’s as funny as he can be with the material, but sadly it doesn’t amount to much:

The thing that amazes me about The War at Home is that apparently, somewhere out there, there’s a devoted and adamant following that laments its passing just like I lament the death of Clone High.  And really, when you look at it, there’s a fair amount of the show that actually got made.  Sure, it only had two seasons, but they were both 22 episodes apiece.  That’s some long seasons.  Networks don’t seem to do that very often unless they have tremendous faith in a show.  And when you look at The War at Home, you can see what potential FOX saw in it.  It was a way for the network to appear to be putting forth another edgy family show, a sort of live-action Family Guy, while not actually running the risk of offending anybody.  The show was even settled snugly in between two actually edgy (and actually funny) family shows, albeit animated ones: The Simpsons and Family Guy.  For me, this made it seem even more alien and unnecessary.  It was an unfunny oasis in the middle of a hilarious desert, an obstacle between the Family Guy fan who also loves The Simpsons and getting from one of their favorite shows to the other.  Maybe that’s why the show lasted as long as it did, that people were just too lazy to change the channel for a half hour, a spot now occupied by the somewhat better but still middling The Cleveland Show.  Can anybody lend credence to this?  Shoot me a comment.

So, Should it be back on the air? Definitely not.  While I admit it’s not the worst show I’ve ever seen, it’s pretty damn unremarkable.  It just feels like it’s trying too hard to be both edgy and sanitary,  and while this may be a good combination for a network to finance, it probably won’t feel quite that way with viewers, and even its apparently dedicated fanbase wasn’t big enough to keep it on the air.  If for some reason you feel compelled to watch the show anyway, some episodes are on youtube, but the whole series can be seen on youku or megavideo (go to surfthechannel.com to get to the links).

I’ve decided I should probably get on some sort of schedule with these posts, so I’ll try to do one once a week, probably on the weekend.  Because, you know, I have very little social life.

Come back next week, when I’ll be looking at the short-lived Nathan Fillion vehicle (oh God, what a terrible pun) Drive!  It’s my shortest one so far, which will be a nice break from the almost painfully long one I just reviewed.