John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Pilot Season – Sitcoms

by on Jul.27, 2007, under Television

Oh deary me – it’s not a good time for the hagged old sitcom. With Scrubs entering what must be its final season, soon there will only be How I Met Your Mother representing a genre that was once ruling the world. It turns out that churning out derivative copycat crapola year after year isn’t the perfect recipe for success, and this September’s batch of new shows will be doing nothing to help.

Cavemen – ABC

Gathering itself a great deal of attention for being based on a series of commercials for US insurers, Geiko, this is the face of corporate arrogance. “These 30 second adverts are popular with the viewers – this means a 21 minute sitcom can only work.” Yup Mr Executive, turns out what’s funny for half a minute can somewhat lose its charm when made 42 times longer. Per episode. In fact, it can become downright offensive.

The schtick is such: cavemen still exist today, and are treated as second class citizens by a prejudiced public. The commercials were based on the stereotypes others had for cavemen, and the presumptions they would make about them. This new TV show is apparently based on the stereotypes others have for black people, and the presumptions they would make about them.

It’s quite foul from the very start. We’re first treated to a laugh free opener seeing the three starring cavemen (all white) complaining about their representation on television. Well, two of them are, the other one enjoying seeing the stereotyped wacky weatherman. He’s the stupid one, see. It’s established immediately that there’s literally nothing differentiating cavemen from the rest of white middle-class society, but for their buldged foreheads and hirsute bodies. Why? Because they’re white guys with some make-up on, in a show written by white guys, in what they appear to think is a cutting commentary on our still-segregated society. This episode, due to be shown about five episodes in when they’re broadcast (please, don’t let it last that long) tells of how one of the cavemen, engaged to a pretty white girl, is trying to seek the approval of her father. This involves the three of them attending an upper-class barbeque held by the girl’s family, with hilarious consequences.

They are not welcome, refused entry by the guard on the gate, ignored by most, talked to like scum, and seen as the object of a sexual thrill by a girl who has heard rumours about their sexual abilities. The bbq is at a golf club. DO YOU SEE? DO YOU? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Except, this heavy-handed attempt at a racial analogy is somehow too much for its caucasian writing team. One of the cavemen can dance really well, and credits this to his appearing on Soul Train. Another drinks too much and demonstrates his prowess at sports. The third, through a series of farcial accidents, finds himself stood in a fire, holding a burning stick, shirt torn, and roaring at the crowd. They all, unwittingly, live up to their stereotypes, as if it’s just impossible for them to avoid them. It is, in fact, about the most disgustingly racist concept imaginable. And impressively, at two extremes. It begins so desperately trying to show that ‘cavemen’ are so regular and just like, um, white middle-class people, that they live exactly as white middle-class people live. See – no prejudice here! And then it swoops wildly to the other end, announcing that despite everything, in the end they just can’t help but be the savages they truly are.

Oh, and the only black person who appears in the episode is working behind the bar at the golf club. Smooth.

That, and it’s miserably unfunny.

Aliens In America – the CW

Thank goodness the CW have Reaper, because this isn’t going to pull them out their scripted mire. I should probably say I only got about halfway into this, and couldn’t carry on. It begins explaining how the show’s central star sometimes feels a bit like an alien in school, outcast and getting in trouble, blah blah blah. If only all the outcast kids from American TV shows got together, they’d have a gang that could take on the jocks.

But, twist time! The family decide to take on a foreign exchange student, recommended it by a school counsellor as a means for straightening out their son. The mother fantasises of having a young, tall blonde Swede (presumably this is her desire to perform statuatory rapes), while the father likes the amount of money they’ll receive for this. And then they went to the airport to pick up their new family member, but SHOCK! He’s Pakistani! GASP! The family splutter in horror, and the Pakistani guy smiles and tips his head and then fixes some wires in Johnny 5.

And that was enough. Because this was going to go in two directions. Either it was going to be about the wacky differences between the two cultures, or it was going to be teaching us all valuable life lessons that not everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist. Or most likely, a sickening, patronising combination of the two. Not being someone predisposed to hate Pakistanis, the programme’s faux shock at such a human didn’t really click with me. I’ll finish it at some point. And I’ll be right.

The Bill Engvall Show – TBS

Another pilot I couldn’t complete (along with the Sarah Connor Chronicles, for a future post), I couldn’t work out what this was meant to be. Starting last week on TBS, I didn’t know what to expect. They are the channel that offers the completely adorable My Boys (due to start season 2 on Monday!), but also the hateful 10 Items Or Less (FEWER, YOU DIPSHITS, FEWER). This falls into neither category, but instead manages to be the distillation of every mediocre sitcom, refined into purest mediocrity. It was apparently about nothing. A family, with two parents, three kids, a sitcom house with a breakfast bar dividing the kitchen from the living room (what ever happened to two-way hinged swinging doors, sitcom designers?) and a story about the kids Just Being Kids! The older daughter wants her belly button pierced – uh-oh! This prompts Engvall to go off into some half-arsed stand up material about Kids These Days, awkwardly delivered sat at the dining table. And there I gave up. Maybe in the second half something interesting happened, like he slaughtered all his family with a lathe and then painted the stairs with their blood. Somehow, instead I think some life lessons we’re probably learned, and father and daughter got that little bit closer.

The Big Bang Theory – CBS

James Burrows’ latest work is a difficult one to pin down. In some ways it’s very traditional, open sets, attrocious canned laughter (although this is hopefully because it’s the pilot), and lit by floodlights. In other ways it’s going to some new places, putting two uber-geeks in the lead roles, and opening with masturbation jokes. Not subtle ones like How I Met Your Mother would do now, or Seinfeld once did, but the two guys in a sperm clinic, discussing the cups they ejaculated into.

They come home to find a pretty girl has moved into the apartment across the hall, and wouldn’t you know it, they just don’t know how to talk to girls. So yes – geeks and girls. Not original. The material – more so. I laughed a few times, surprising myself. This is mostly thanks to the stregnths of the two main stars, sitcom stalwart Johnny Galecki (David from Roseanne) and some guy who’s not done much called Jim Parsons. They play off each other well (this is the second attempt filming this pilot, so presumably they’ve had some practise), and that chemistry works. It’s not helped by the peculiar decision to throw in two more scientist geeks halfway through for seemingly no reason, especially when one of them’s Simon Helberg – Studio 60’s weakest link, sporting the same infuriating haircut. I think what makes it work is the lack of fanfare over visual gags – something sitcom genius Burrows had forgotten how to do for the last few years, not least with last year’s awful The Class. Here, when the pair come back from visiting their new neighbour’s bully ex-boyfriend with no trousers on, rather than everyone shrieking in horror (please try not to remember Friends’ worst episode, when Ross can’t get his leather trousers back on in his date’s bathroom – one of the all-time least funny scenes in anything ever, including The Sorrow And The Pity) everyone immediately understands what happened – because it’s obvious – and carries on.

It’s the most hopeful, but that’s not the highest accolade from this collection. “Funnier than Cavemen!” – there’s a quote for the DVD release.

7 Comments for this entry

  • Tom

    Thank you for watching lots of stuff so I don’t have to, BUT JOHN: there are more important issues here, such as Pushing Daisies and Damages.

    My opinions are ‘awesome’ and ‘good’ respectively.

  • John

    They’re to come.

  • Steve W

    Isn’t Cavemen undergoing a second retooling right now? There’s no telling what the final version will look like. In this case, I’m undecided whether to watch the episode I have or wait for the reworked version (if the information is correct and there will indeed be one).

    But never mind all that; how many of these “How I Met Your Mother”s do I have to sit through before it gets good?

  • bob_arctor

    I didn’t think there were any good US sitcoms barring Scrubs and Arrested Development, and they stray from the traditional format. I thought it was all Friends and Everyone loves Raymond. Probably most of it is.

  • The_B

    Well, that’s the thing John’s getting at isn’t it? If Braff is to be believed, the upcoming season of Scrubs is to be it’s last, and AD finished a while ago.

    And it’s just my luck that this year I now have a connection capable of being able to watch this stuff, I get a bit of a rubbish selection.

    Although I suppose Heroes season two might be worth a watch.

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