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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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