John Walker's Electronic House

New Television Season: Sitcoms

by on Oct.03, 2009, under Television

Okay, it’s time. Enough new shows for a rundown. First up, sitcoms:

Community – NBC

I didn’t know what to expect from this. I love Joel McHale on The Soup, but he does seem to struggle with the autocue. It didn’t bode well for proper acting. The pilot was the funniest sitcom I’ve seen in years.

The premise: McHale is a lawyer who has been caught practising without a license. (“I thought you had a degree from Columbia?” “I do, and now I need one from America. And not as an email attachment.”) He’s forced to go to community college. Er, just go with it. Once there he employs his skills at lying and bullshitting people to attempt to breeze through the course, along the way accidentally creating a study group of mismatched students.

It works by a combination of a superb mix of people (including Chevy Chase, oddly), a potential romance, lots of fast-talking cleverness, and an awesome relationship with one of the members of staff played by John Oliver. This last part provides the very best jokes in the pilot episode, which makes it something of a shame he’s then gone from the show by episode two, and absent from the titles. The following episodes have still been funnier than anything else on TV at the moment – it’s testament to quite how stunning the pilot was that it can drop in quality and still be so damned strong. But the pilot – the moment it finished I started it again and laughed as hard the second time. Oh, and it gets even more kudos for having scored its first two episodes with Matt & Kim songs.

Cougar Town – ABC

When Bill Lawrence began season 8 of Scrubs on ABC last year he recruited Courtney Cox for the first few episodes. The two clicked, and he created a sitcom for her, presumably believing he wouldn’t be making any more Scrubs. Now Scrubs is renewed, but no one’s entirely sure in what form (Neil Flynn is now in The Middle, Christa Miller’s in Cougar Town, and others are popping up elsewhere), his attention is split across both shows, credited with writing and directing the first episode of each. And from Cougar Town it does appear he’s spreading himself thin. Courtney Cox is a single mother, recently divorced, raising a teenage son. She was pregnant at 20, and now feels that she missed out on having her wild times. Inspired by a new friend she attempts to hook up with a younger guy, and it’s from here that the show gets its title. Although Lawrence promises this won’t be a premise beyond the first few episodes, the title really justified by the local high school’s football team being called the Cougars. It’s a bright, breezy single camera sitcom where Lawrence has attempted his usual schtick of creating a collection of friendly and conflicting characters. Except they don’t have anywhere to be. The result is a lot of awkwardness as people are pushed into each other in the cul-de-sac in which Cox lives, then disjointed scenes at the school, night club, etc. It feels like the scenes that should surround the core of the programme. But it’s coreless, neither a workplace nor family home sitcom. It’s amusing enough – Lawrence is a reliably funny writer, and Cox is a very talented performer – but it feels hollow like someone cut out its reason to exist.

Modern Family – ABC

My primary response to Modern Family is: good grief, Al Bundy got old. This is a peculiar combination of an NBC-style mockumentary sitcom and more traditionally ABC cuddliness. The result is something that wants to be a lot more dark than it is. It’s shot in documentary style, but over-acted in a very unnaturalistic way. Yet it’s still funny. It’s creaking under the weight of its stereotypes. Older man with significantly younger immigrant wife. Gay couple adopting a baby. Terse and unhappily married parents. But they’re good stereotypes and they deliver. Often in clunky old jokes, but still entertaining. Because it wants to echo The Office, Parks & Recreation, etc, the characters all do interviews with the documentary crew, and the camera work is all hand-held and wobbly. Which is all fine, except there’s no clear reason why anyone is making a documentary about them. Muddled, often ludicrously over-acted, it still manages to be worth watching.

Hank – ABC

Not worth watching half a minute of is Hank, Kelsey Grammer’s latest attempt to prove there’s a reason for him to be on TV after Frasier. Unfortunately what last year’s horrendous Back To You and now Hank have shown is, Frasier is all Kelsey Grammer is capable of. So for 2008 there was Frasier on TV news. And for 2009 there’s Frasier trying to learn how to be a family man. Hank’s premise is so amazingly hackneyed that you pause for a moment to wonder if it’s some sort of meta-joke, an arch critique of tired sitcom tropes. Apparently a law was passed that every single TV show must find a way to work the economic downturn into its plot this season, but this takes it one step further and makes it the source of the story. Hank Pryor was once the boss of an enormous company he started from scratch, but has just been voted out of his job by the board of directors. Their fancy city house is lost, and guess what, the whole family (adoring but cynical wife, surly teenage daughter, sweet 10 year old son – could they have been anything else?) has to move back to the small town where Hank grew up! Can you imagine the antics! That anyone could even pitch a fish-out-of-water premise without immediately stabbing themselves on a pair of kitchen scissors is mysterious enough, let alone it get commissioned. So in the first episode we see Grammer struggling to sleep in a small bed, Grammer struggling to communicate with his kids, Grammer struggling to not speak to his family like his employees, Grammer being annoyed by his urban brother-in-law. Rather tragically this character is played by the excellent David Koechner who is horribly wasted in this mess. It’s stunningly awful, Grammer clearly incapable of anything other than playing ill-received pompous, blustery blowhards. James Burrows is attached to this, which only makes it more surprising how poor it is – his other current project, Gary Unmarried, still somehow managing to rise above its cliches to be dumb fun. This manages the dumb.

The Middle – ABC

ABC really have gone for sitcoms this season. It seems to be working for them. Hank and The Middle managed to score the highest ratings of the night, beating shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Gary Unmarried. I’m not convinced this will be a trend that lasts. While The Middle isn’t close to being as dreadful as Hank, if anything it’s far too damned strange to pick up a loyal following. Starring the other half of Back To You, Patricia Heaton, as the mother of a dysfunctional family, watching it is a bipolar experience.

On one side it’s as if the writers had never seen another family sitcom in their lives. It mysteriously wallows in the most trite cliches as if it’s the first programme to have thought to feature a lazy teenage boy. It’s like a stand up comedian declaring, “Ever noticed the difference between cats and dogs?!” and expecting the audience to fall over in surprise at his insightful wit. There’s the over-worked mother (Heaton), the overly relaxed but ultimately stable father, (Scrubs’ Janitor, Neil Flynn), the mentioned lazy teenage boy, the gormless middle teenage girl, and the nerdy to the point of retarded younger boy. It’s a cast the “cookie cutter” insult was made for.

But on the other side it’s a creepy, disturbed fantasy. The nerdy kid, for instance, his best friend is his school backpack, and he repeats the last word of every sentence in an unsettling drawn-out whisper. The mother works at a used car dealership that is cartoonish beyond belief, and features Chris Kattan as a Cheshire Cat-like lunatic almost without lines, grinning insanely, creepily, in the background. When the family visits the high school to see their daughter apparently perform in a dance event the sign outside reads, “COMPE TIT ION”. The word “TIT” (a word you’re not allowed to say on US TV) in giant capital letters for no reason, beyond adding to the unsettling air that permeates throughout.

It’s a mystery. The dialogue is abysmal. Just beyond belief lazy crap. The only laughs come from Neil Flynn’s complete nonchalance in his honesty. When his wife asks him if he’s upset she’s getting old he replies straight faced that yes, it bothers him. When his daughter asks if he’s disappointed in her for failing at everything he tells her that he is. It’s surprising, and funny. But again, against the tone of anything else in the episode. The situations are more entertaining. A sequence where their daughter’s inanity leads to a disaster on-stage is well timed and well delivered. Another extremely odd moment sees the mother dressed in a superhero costume, crawling on all fours in the middle of nowhere, eating a cake she finds on the road.

Of course the obvious comparison would be Malcolm In The Middle. They’ve not exactly been subtle, simply chopping the name in half and then attempting to repeat 90% of its ideas. But where MITM carved itself its own bizarre and unique space on television, The Middle feels like a floating jumble of oddness that doesn’t fit in anywhere. As such I found it absolutely fascinating. Not funny. The horrible dialogue made me squirm. But there’s something so damned wrong with it. It feel like it might suddenly break out into Lynchian nightmarish unreality at any point. Which is at the very least a novel approach to the hoariest sitcom setup.


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