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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.

something_gene_wilder_cast_photo

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 #23: Andy Barker, P.I.

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Well hello there.

I’m not gonna dwell on the fact that it’s been a long time since I’ve been on here, because if you’re at all a fan of these, you’ve probably realized that already.  Not that I have much excuse; it was just something that got put on the back burner for a long time.  In fact, I actually considered ceasing altogether, particularly when the A.V. Club, the site whose “My Year of Flops” columns served as the inspiration for my own blog, started up a new column specifically examining one-season series.  Despite the fact that, yeah, I’ve been doing it a while, their far superior readership and credibility made this seem more like an amateur project than ever.  But then I decided, you know what?  There’s room enough for both of us on this rock to cover canceled TV shows, right?  Besides, where will people go to read about all the two season series that are out there?  I’m still covering those.

Andy Barker cast

But not today.  Today, our show sadly only lasted six episodes.  The show is of course Andy Barker, P.I., the unfortunately short-lived vehicle for funnyman and beloved Conan O’Brien sideman Andy Richter, co-created by O’Brien and Jonathan Groff (not the guy from Glee, at least I don’t think so.  That would be surprising!).  Apparently, with three canceled series to his name, Andy Richter is a hard sell for the American public to accept as a leading man, which is a real shame, because he deserves a vehicle for his particular brand of charm.  I had originally planned to do a whole sequence of posts about Richter’s past flops, but I’ve had a hard time locating Andy Richter Controls the Universe in any free capacity.  I haven’t much looked into his other show, Quintuplets, but maybe I will one of these days.

Barker follows Richter as the titular character, a milquetoast accountant who goes into business for himself, renting an office in a shopping plaza populated with colorful characters like Simon (the great Tony Hale), owner of a video store (so 2007!), and Wally (Marshall Manesh, one of those actors who gets cast as all the ethnic types, regardless of whether he is actually from the same country or even general region as his character, such as his recurring role as the cab driver Ranjit on How I Met Your Mother), an Afghani immigrant who runs a restaurant and “went a little overboard with the patriotic stuff after 9/11.”  Business isn’t really happening for Andy, until a mysterious Russian woman strolls in, hands him $4,000, and asks him to find her husband.  See, Andy’s office was previously occupied by private investigator Lew Staziak (the great Harve Presnell, from Fargo), and with rent due and an interest in the truth, Andy decides to take the case.  Turns out, he’s surprisingly good at the whole private investigator thing, and decides to balance his accounting career with his burgeoning one in this very different field.  With Simon as his bumbling sidekick and assists from Wally, Lew, and his wife (who starts out opposing his new career, but to the show’s credit, it ditches that rather tiring aspect quickly and just gets her in on the fun), Andy solves a new case each week, and of course can’t get a moment’s peace.

The pilot takes Andy from in over his head to competent P.I. maybe a little too quickly, but such is the requirement of a pilot: to get us into the main action of the show, especially in a case-a-week kind of format like this.  Andy seems to take the job for a number of reasons.  One, he needs the money, since things at his office aren’t exactly going great; two, he seems to enjoy the excitement of it to an extent–not that his life is crappy, just kind of boring and predictable; three, he just really seems to have a hard time saying no.  Other characters push him into service more often than he pushes himself.  Whether it’s Simon’s enthusiasm, Lew’s hard-headedness, or even his wife’s gentle nudging, Andy’s just too nice of a guy to not help people out.  Richter plays him pretty perfectly, almost like a husband out of a 50s movie. but with a more nerdy feel.  He can’t seem to bring himself to swear, and is certainly nowhere near as grizzled as other P.I.s in pop culture.  In the pilot, he hadn’t even seen Chinatown!  It’s a strange thing to build a show around a sort of passive character, but it works in this case because everything around him is so wacky.  The show takes place in one of those sitcom universes where even though people have businesses to run, they never seem to actually have to go to work, and instead can hang out and leave at a moment’s notice.  Seriously, does Simon have any other employees?  I don’t think so.  And since he’s gone so much, how does he stay in business?  I know video stores weren’t totally obsolete by 2007, but they were on their way.  Even if it seems a little bit of a stretch, you have to just accept it as a part of this show’s weird universe and go with it.

The best episodes of the show are ones that crank up the silliness and play like well-crafted farcical nuggets.  A particular standout for me is “Three Days of the Chicken,”  in which Andy and company try to figure out why Wally’s chicken supplier keeps giving him sub-par chicken, and get in way deeper than they bargained for.  The idea of a chicken-company mafia is funny enough on its own, but the show throws in a handful of other fun bits.  For one, Lew is deathly afraid of chickens, though he’d never admit it.  Presnell is always very funny as the aging Sam Spade type whose attitude and outlook hasn’t seemed to have changed since the 1950s.  But here, he gets to show a slightly different side, as his hyper-macho act crumbles in the face of his feathered nemesis.  The show never reveals why he is so afraid of them, only hints at some past trauma when Lew points a gun at one and says “Remember me?  I’m Lew Staziak, and I’m all grown up now.” Luckily, Andy pulls him away, pushing the chicken into an open door, saying “You’ll be safe here.”  As the doors close, the words “Slaughter Room 2” can be read.  That’s a well-crafted bit.  And the show has quite a few of those.  While not all the episodes are quite as finely tuned, there are more hits than misses, which is good, since there’s only six anyway.  Other highlights include “Fairway, My Lovely,” where Andy investigates the death of a very obese client, and continues to be baffled by how many people, including his wife, find the man irresistibly sexy.  Also the final episode, “The Lady Varnishes,” which features an appearance by the great Ed Asner as Lew’s crooked ex-partner.  That episode explores a bit more of Lew’s backstory, and gives him a nice showcase.  Basically, I would watch a whole spinoff of Lew Staziak, geriatric P.I.  That would be quite humorous.  I  may giggle or even guffaw at such a premise.  Overall, while it’s not the most innovative or spectacular TV comedy, there are enough funny bits to make it a worthwhile way to spend a few hours.

So what happened?  Hard to tell, most likely just low ratings.  Apparently America has a hard time finding it in their hearts to accept Richter as a leading man, which is a shame, because the dude is funny in a low-key, quiet kinda way.  Maybe someday he’ll get the sort of headlining gig that he can hold onto.

So, should it be back on the air? I’m gonna say sure, with the caveat that I don’t think it had a lot of time in it from the get-go.  The formula may have gotten a little tiring after too long, but who knows whether they would’ve switched it up over time?  I’d say maybe a couple seasons is the perfect length for a show like this; enough to make it a cult hit, but short enough that it wouldn’t get old.  If you want to watch it, it’s all on Hulu right now, so it’s easy enough to find (though you need a Hulu Plus account).  Put it on next time you’re home sick or stuck in by the sub-arctic temperatures (if you’re here in the midwest) and laugh for a couple hours!

Hopefully I’ll be able to do these more often, but who’s to say?  I also hope if I have any readers left, they haven’t abandoned me forever.  Also, I started another blog recently, unrelated to this one, but if you like what I do here and want to read a similar thing but about books, then hop on over to http://conorhastoomanybooks.wordpress.com/!  Catch ya next time.

Canned TV Shows #20 & 21: Allen Gregory and Napoleon Dynamite–Canned-imation Double Feature!

May 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Hey folks, leave it to me to kick off a month-long event a week into the actual month.  But that’s how I roll, not obeying those calendars and shit!  Today, we’re gonna look at two back-to-back animated series, one that died an ignoble death, and one whose fate is uncertain; and examine if they’re both wastes or if they deserved more time.

First up on the chopping block is Allen Gregory, co-created by Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill (God, that’s a sentence I never expected to write) with Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul.  The show premiered in October 2011, in that perilous timeslot on FOX’s Sunday night animation block that has claimed many a show, before being left off the midseason lineup and quickly vanishing after only seven episodes.  The show follows the titular protagonist (voiced by Hill), a sheltered, pretentious, unbelievably selfish and manipulative seven year old thrust from his comfortable homeschooled life into public school.  Predictably, things are not easy for Allen Gregory out in the real world; his upbringing has in no way prepared him for a world where maybe he’ll have to earn people’s trust and respect instead of immediately assuming it.  Over the course of the show’s seven episodes, he never even begins learning that lesson.

One of the biggest problems with Allen Gregory is that the characters are unbelievably obnoxious and completely unlikable and unsympathetic.  I have no problem with a show’s protagonists being self-centered and mostly unrelatable–both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Arrested Development spring to mind–but they at least have to be likable in a funny way.  One of the reasons Sunny works is that the characters bring out the worst and best within each other, and any normal character is steamrolled by the shear insanity of the central cast.  Arrested Development features a relatable everyman at its center in Michael Bluth, who grounds the show as its other characters exhibit absurd levels of narcissism.  Beyond that, both shows are insanely funny, which is not something you could burden Allen Gregory with.

It all wouldn’t be so bad if the show didn’t try to get us to like and sympathize with its horrible protagonist and his equally horrible father Richard (voiced by French Stewart), and actually root for them to succeed over the authority figures in their way.  Not to keep dredging up those two other shows, but they end up working because, at the end of the day, the characters almost never get what they want, and therefore order is restored to the world.  It’s damn near impossible to both laugh at the characters on this show and feel for them at the same time.

For example, When Allen Gregory tries to fire Guillermo, a student at his school, because he assumes he’s a janitor given his Latino heritage, he’s required to write an apology letter.  In his typical fashion, he turns it into a much longer stage play which makes Guillermo look like the villain and him the hero for demanding this janitor do his job or get out.  The crowd initially reacts with rightful vitriol towards the content of the play, and cheers when Guillermo gets up onstage and gives a speech about how racism is bad and we should respect working-class people.  We then find out that they thought Guillermo’s speech was part of the play, and his teacher (voiced by Leslie Mann), is admonished for trying to convince the crowd that it wasn’t.  And so, Allen Gregory walks away unscathed, free to go on being a racist, entitled douche.

On an unrelated note, the show does offer some reasonable voices in the form of Jeremy, Allen’s stepdad (voiced by Nat Faxon); and Julie, his Cambodian adopted sister (Joy Osmanski), and predictably, they’re the punching bags for Allen and his dad.  There’s really nothing to justify Jeremy taking so much abuse, other than the backstory that he was worn down by Richard’s advances until he left his own wife and kids to move in with him, which still doesn’t give him any reason to stay beyond the fact that Richard has money.  The show even brings this up when Jeremy temporarily leaves Richard and tells his troubles to a bartender, who can’t understand why he’s sad.  I couldn’t either, and I cringed at the inevitability that he would go back to that hellhole.  Maybe if the show had more episodes, they’d get to the heart of Jeremy’s feelings for Richard and Allen Gregory, but as it is, it offers no explanation why he should care about these people that treat him like crap.  This might be a weird complaint against a show that features seven-year-olds acting like adults, but since Jeremy’s supposed to be our Alice for this wonderland, it’s jarring to see him acting so pointlessly unreasonable.

Here’s a clip of the actors talking about this relationship, and it seems like even they don’t understand why they act like they do:

This might all seem like I’m being unnecessarily harsh on what amounts to a silly little comedy that stretches realism an absurd amount in the first place, but Allen Gregory just isn’t funny enough at the end of the day to make all its mean-spiritedness okay.  Allen Gregory isn’t a protagonist I can get behind, and nothing in the show even remotely convinces me to care.  I really do like Jonah Hill’s other work, and the voice cast contains some majorly funny people, including Will Forte and the great Keith David (who is criminally underutilized), but the whole thing is just a major misstep in my opinion, despite its promising pedigree.

So, should it be back on the airNope.  There are some interesting ideas at the core of the show, such as why Jeremy stays with Richard, and the fact that Richard was able to, in French Stewart’s words, browbeat a straight man into becoming his lover; and the fact that Richard seems to have adopted Julie out of his own desire to appear charitable.  If the show wanted to be a smart satire, maybe it would explore these things, but it doesn’t seem to have much desire to be like that.

Allen Gregory was replaced on the midseason calendar by Napoleon Dynamite, an animated version of  that seminal mid-00’s film that took the world by storm.  FOX executives were undoubtedly hoping the nation’s infatuation with Napoleon and his awkward pals would have reached a fever pitch by the year 2012, a whole eight years after the movie’s release, so they ordered a show to give us a glimpse into the continuing adventures of its titular geek god protagonist.  Pretty much everyone thought it was a horrible idea, and ratings and reactions declined as it went along.  While it hasn’t officially been cancelled, it also hasn’t been renewed, and the numbers wouldn’t seem to justify a second season from the notoriously cancellation-happy FOX network.  Is it unfair to post about a show that hasn’t officially been declared dead?  You bet!  If it does get renewed, I’ll print a redaction or something, but until that time, on we go!  So is it as bad as it seems like it was destined to be?

Let me start out by saying that after all this time, I am still a defender of the movie.  I think it got blown way out of proportion, but as a tiny oddity with its own sensibility and a poignant undercurrent of sadness, I think it’s pretty successful.  And I don’t buy the criticism that creators Jared and Jerusha Hess were asking the audience to laugh at the sad sacks on display.  Looking back, it’s funny to imagine how much of a pop cultural sensation this weird little movie really was.  I can’t imagine the creators ever expected it to take the world by storm, and it was probably never meant to.  I think a lot of the backlash towards the movie came from unnecessary over-hype, which is a shame.  That said, do I really think the world needed to see more of these characters?  Not really.  The spouses Hess had seen diminishing returns on their films after their initial success, so no doubt returning to their original property seemed like a surefire way to get back in the public eye.  After all, the world loved these characters once before, right?

That all said, I’m happy to report that the show was nowhere near as bad as I expected.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good, per se, but it was surprisingly funny at times, and showed a willingness to leave behind its origins and embrace its own style of comedy.  The Hesses developed the show with Mike Scully, a writer and showrunner who had success on Family GuyThe Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation, so I think he knows funny to a certain degree (though the consensus is that apparently his stint as showrunner on The Simpsons was the show at its worst).  It mostly leaves behind the quiet, uncomfortable humor of the original film and leans towards a broader, more absurdist form of comedy that mostly works.  It embraces non-realism, which allows Napoleon’s strange fantasies to come to life in a way that would’ve been jarring in the film.

One gripe I have against the show is, despite being able to rangle the entire original cast back into their roles, some characters aren’t really given much to do, and appear to be there simply because the fans expect them to be.  Though he is a relatively prominent character, I was disappointed with Uncle Rico’s characterization on the show.  He’s still an enterprising boob, but I miss his sleaziness and manipulation from the film.  Here, he’s just kind of an idiot who doesn’t really mean much harm.  Jon Gries was easily the funniest part of the film as Rico, acting as Napoleon’s main antagonist.  The creators appear to want to turn the town of Preston, Idaho into its own world, much like Springfield, Pawnee, or to a lesser extent, Quahog.  They bring back random recurring characters such as a gay Brazilian barber, a bizarre biology professor voiced by Jemaine Clement, along with more expected ones like Diedrich Bader’s martial arts guru Rex.  However, Preston doesn’t earn a place among those memorable television towns, mainly because the characters at its edges aren’t quite as memorable or distinct as the ones in Pawnee or Springfield.  But at the end of the day, I can’t totally fault a show that features moments like this:

Or this, for that matter:

So, take it with a grain of salt, but those who didn’t like the movie might be able to find something funny in the show.  Or maybe not.

So, should it be back on the air? You know, maybe it would’ve worn out its welcome before too long anyway, but I would watch  a short second season.  The show seemed to be settling into its own style by the end, and I think if it were allowed to continue, it may have come up with something unique.  Well, as unique as an animated show based on an eight-year-old pop cultural oddity can really be.

Tune in next time for more animated series!

UPDATE: Napoleon Dynamite has officially been cancelled by FOX.  That was close, i was worried there for minute that I’d be wrong!

Canned TV Show #19: Life on a Stick

Ahh the 90s.  When young people were content to have no ambition, hang out in malls, and wax philosophic in the food court.  It was a fun, freewheeling time when the economy was up and people weren’t in a hurry to grow up.

America's Sweethearts

But wait, today’s show was made in 2005…so why does it remind me so strongly of the 90s?  Probably because its style, aesthetic, and content feels about a decade behind.  Mall-loitering youngsters, goofy stoner-nerd pop culture conversations, even the pop-punk theme song and still-photos-that-sort-of-look-like-animation transitions exude another era.

Today’s show is Life on a Stick, the little-loved sitcom that aired for one season on Fox in 2005.  Created by Victor Fresco, the man responsible for several short-lived productions such as Andy Richter Controls the Universe (which I’ve yet to see but have heard good things about) and the top-to-bottom brilliant Better Off Ted (Which I reviewed earlier and you can read here: https://cannedtv.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/canned-tv-show-13-better-off-ted/), it’s a comedy that, like its characters, seems content to not have much ambition, unlike the whip-smart corporate satire of Ted.

The plot is as follows: perennial slackers Laz (Zachary Knighton) and Fred (Charlie Finn) are employed at Yippee Hot Dogs, a mall corndog establishment run by the hilariously abusive Mr. Hut (Maz Jobrani, who would later show up on Ted).  From the get-go, Laz is sweet on Lily (Rachelle Lefevre), and the show doesn’t waste much time with any will-they-won’t-they business.  They will.  Moving on. Laz graduated high school but doesn’t appear to have much drive to do anything with his life, and still lives at home with his dad Rick (Matthew Glave) and stepmom Michelle (Amy Yasbeck), who agree to let him keep living there as long as he remains a good influence on Michelle’s daughter Molly (Saige Thompson), a moody, rebellious tomboy.  There’s also his half-brother Gus (Frankie Ryan Manriquez), though honestly,  he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time and isn’t really relevant other than spouting out a few wise-beyond-his-years bon mots.  The show follows the trials and tribulations of this genial group of slackers, their love lives, and the things they do to maintain their relationships with one another.  And really, that’s about it.

Life on a Stick is proudly multi-camera in an era where that style had already become pretty passe.  It doesn’t have any real forward momentum, patching up pretty much every character relationship by the time the credits roll.  It, like its characters, is all about stasis.  While it makes sense on an analytical level, it doesn’t exactly make for exciting television.  By the time we leave our characters at the end of Stick‘s thirteen episodes, they’re in exactly the same place they started in, and don’t really have much drive to change that.  A lot of interesting potential themes exist at the heart of the show, such as the fear of growing up and gaining responsibility, the confusion of trying to piece together two halves of a family, or jealousy between siblings, but all of them are pretty much pushed to the side in order for the show to focus on the daily zaniness of its central characters.  It even teases certain deeper issues, like the fact that Lily is working two jobs in order to pay her way through college while also helping out her disabled brother and recently laid off father.  We hear about this, but we never see it.  It’s in the telling mode, which makes it feel like a last-ditch attempt to add some depth to the characters.  The same goes for Fred’s apparent lack of father and drug-addict mother.  It might be poignant or even darkly funny if we saw it happening, but just hearing about it in between zingers just doesn’t work.

That said, Life on a Stick is a pleasant-enough experience, with a handful of funny lines in every episode.  The laugh track, like always, is egregious, but there are enough funny moments to keep it moving along.  I admire that the show skips the usual romantic tension of sitcoms and just has its two leads get together.  The tension then lies in whether they want a relationship or just a casual thing, but that’s another issue.  I enjoy the weird specificity of the exchanges between Laz and Fred, with Fred in particular getting the series’ best lines.  Finn’s dry, slightly stoned delivery makes him the show’s comic MVP.  I also enjoy Rick’s irrational fear of his own stepdaughter, and in general Glave is also pretty funny.  The show doesn’t do much physical comedy, but there are some funny moments, like this one where Fred engages a jock in a fistfight impeded by extremely thick glasses (go about 40 seconds in):

It’s no Arrested Development,  but it’s enjoyable enough.  The show’s definitely surprising given Fresco’s other, much sharper work to come, but shades of it are visible.  Much like Ted‘s  Veridian Dynamics, this mall appears to have everything imaginable, and the scope of it is only hinted at.  It strains credibility when people can seemingly come and go from their jobs as they please, and nobody seems to concerned about it, but I can accept it as part of the mall’s weird code of conduct.

Fortunately for the cast of Life on a Stick, they’ve all worked pretty steadily since the show ended.  Knighton is on the current sitcom Happy Endings, which I haven’t seen but have heard good things about.  Lefevre (who I developed kind of a crush on despite the mediocre surroundings) went on to appear in the first two Twilight movies (good for her?).  Finn’s done some voice work, and Thompson’s been on a few other shows.  I have to give props to Amy Yasbeck, who took this role as her first after the death of her husband, John Ritter, in 2003.  It’s just a shame she couldn’t have been on something a bit more successful.

Ultimately, Life on a Stick lasted only a scant five episodes, with eight more completed and unaired.  Ratings were extremely low, despite being on after American Idol.  Hell, it even featured season 2’s winner Ruben Studdard and third-placer Kimberly Caldwell as singing fish restaurant employees.  Apparently all Idol fans remembered to turn off their TVs immediately after the show and go to bed.  Go to about three minutes in to see the once-relevant pop stars on a never-relevant TV show:

The rest of the episodes were aired in syndication, which I didn’t even know a short-lived show like this could get.  It doesn’t exist on DVD, but someone has helpfully posted the whole thing on youtube if you feel inclined to watch it.

So, should it be back on the air? shocking, but no.  Maybe if the show were on longer, it would be able to develop its characters more and expand their world.  But if they show no signs of that in the first season, then it’s doubtful they’d do it at any other point.

As a bonus for you fellow Parks and Rec fans, Mr. Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman, appears in the last episode.  Ah, before they were famous (again, skip to about 3:14) to see him:

Tune in next time when I review…I don’t know what the hell I’ll be reviewing!  Hope to see you all soon.

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 #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.