Friday, 3 October 2014

Tim Watches a Lot of Television - Part One: New Comedy

Everyone knows that October is the best month. If the confirmed onset of autumn and presence of Hallowe'en, the Official Best Adult Holiday weren't enough, it's time for a new season of American television. This year, I thought I'd try to dive into as many shows as I could fit into my busy schedule of sleeping, eating and scratching myself, and write up my thoughts on my web log, or "blog", as I understand the kids are calling them.

Television pilot episodes are hard, and they're doubly hard for half hour comedy shows, especially given that half hour actually means about 21 and a half minutes. When you're trying to juggle establishing an ensemble cast, setting, plot and Unique Selling Point in less time than it takes to do a large load of washing up, jokes can easily get pushed out. But fail to make enough people laugh, and they won't come back for a second episode.

Pilots are also distinguished by the fact that they are usually written months, if not years ahead of time, and workshopped to within an inch of their life before they even come within a whiff of casting. To my mind, this is to their detriment - there's a lot to be said for the high intensity environment of the writers' room once the cast and crew have an idea of each others strengths. Chemistry and desperation can kick out a lot of good ideas when deadlines loom - diamonds only form when there's a lot of pressure, after all.

All this combines to make judging a show based entirely on its pilot episode a monumentally unfair premise. It's rare for a show (especially a half hour comedy) to have to do the same kind of storytelling work as it does in the pilot ever again, and the unique alchemy of writing, direction and cast that elevates shows to greatness often hasn't formed. That said, let's judge away!

Selfie weighs itself down with a lot of problems. Based around My Fair Lady (which itself was based on Pygmalion), it's the kind of premise that, when examined with the lens of modern gender politics, is more than a little problematic. Are you sure you want to base your show around a man telling a woman that she's not behaving in a proper manner, explaining how she needs to change her life and then the two of them inevitably falling in love?

The show also carries a wealth of pop culture references that can potentially irritate in the short term, and are destined to make the show seem hilariously dated in about six years time. Eliza, the main character (played by Doctor Who alum Karen Gillan) is a social networking-obsessed narcissist, peppering her speech with hashtags and hyper-current slang in the way that 50-something men imagine teens speak.

The show seems to go out of its way to make her noxious, portraying her as a friendless, self-centred airhead whose only ambition is to be validated by her digital followers. We're given very little reason to care for her, beyond a token lonely childhood and her realisation that "being friended isn't the same as having friends"; we're told she's the top salesperson in her pharmaceutical firm, but she isn't given the opportunity to display intelligence, charm or determination of any real sort.

This all sounds like I'm building up to a big thumbs down and accompanying fart noise, but in truth Selfie actually manages to be fairly charming. It's key strengths by far are Gillan and co-star John Cho, who plays the Henry Higgins to her Eliza. They're both extremely charismatic actors with gifted comic timing, and they ain't exactly hard on the eye. We aren't given a huge sense of the show's supporting cast, but it's clear that a lot of the work is going to fall on their shoulders, and I'm certain they're up to the task.

As for actual jokes, there's a slight reliance on Eliza's high-speed chatter (which Gillan pulls off with aplomb, albeit with a couple of accent wobbles) and some broad physical comedy, but there were some genuine laughs to be had, especially with the escalating strangeness of some alternative wedding vows/poetry and a goof about a sleep apnoea mask looking like Bane.

Of all the new shows, Selfie will benefit the most from the space to grow past its concept, but with its more-than-capable leads and a vein of weirdness running beneath it for the writers to exploit, it could well grow into a Cougar Town-esque unlikely success.

Manhattan Love Story

First of all, let me don my Social Justice Warrior cape and mask and get my first complaint out of the way. Manhattan Love Story producers - have we learnt nothing from Girls? I'm sure this show won't get the same level of criticism, because Girls was held up as more progressive, on cable and, most importantly, produced by and largely about women, but the same problem applies. It is simply not alright to be in 2014 and make a show about New York, one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet, with a main cast made up solely of white people, especially if you're going to play the whole "the city is practically a character" card. If you put Manhattan in the title, we should expect to see some relatively authentic facsimile of it in your show.

Okay, that little rant aside, what's the show actually about? Dana, played by Analeigh Tipton, is freshly moved to New York to work in publishing. Through a friend, she is introduced to Peter, played by Jake McDorman, and we follow their relationship. The high concept is that we hear both of the central pair's inner monologue throughout the show, giving us the rich insight into their true thoughts that would otherwise have to be delivered through, you know, good writing and acting.

That was cruel, but the inner monologue does seem like both a crutch and a potentially annoying affectation. Much like a three camera sitcom that has to pause for audience laughter, the gimmick requires the two leads to spend much of their time looking like they're thinkin' real hard while their voiceover goes to town, and were the narration to be edited out, it would probably result in some very stilted-looking conversations.

It would be easier to forgive the running commentary if the show had more of a personality to prop itself up with, or the jokes the inner monologue allowed for were better, but when the show starts by demonstrating that the male lead is looking at women and deciding if he'd sleep with them, while the female lead is lusting after purses, you know you're not breaking any formulas here.

A lot of the show's premises are awfully hackneyed - Dana's coworkers are mean and send her on a pointless errand! Peter spots her blowing her nose before that date! People give out trophies for everything nowadays! Men and women are different! A great cast might be able to elevate the material, but while Analeigh Tipton has shown a lot of promise in films like Crazy, Stupid, Love and Damsels in Distress, she's not strong enough to save the creaky dialogue here, and Jake McDorman seems to lean into the slightly skeevy vibes his character gives off, rather than transform them into charm or even bad boy smoulder. Comedy veteran Kurt Fuller (of Wayne's World and Ghostbusters II fame, amongst many other things) is unfortunately wasted as Peter's father and boss, and the rest of the supporting cast are bland non-entities.

Aside from its whitewashed version of New York, there's nothing especially wrong with Manhattan Love Story, but it certainly doesn't do anything to distinguish itself, and the one unique arrow it does have in its quiver it doesn't deploy nearly well enough to make it worth sticking with.

A to Z

A to Z feels a lot like a chimera, a hybrid of other beasts that have come before. The premise (following a relationship from first meeting to end, around nine months later) conjures spectres of (500) Days of Summer. The presence of Cristin Milioti in another romantic lead role will draw inevitable comparisons to How I Met Your Mother. And the knowing voice-over provided by Katey Sagal brings to mind everything from The Wonder Years to Arrested Development. However, if you're looking for the most direct progenitor, it's Celeste and Jesse Forever, the romantic dramedy written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, who serve as executive producers for the show.

Katey Sagal's voice-over might well be the show's secret weapon when it comes to avoiding the usual perils of pilotdom I addressed above. With someone to talk directly to the audience (and not in the inner-monologue style of Manhattan Love Story) the show deftly skips through its high concept and even deploys some basic characterisation for the two leads in swift fashion, establishing them in the first few minutes and clearing out space to let the plot and humour develop more organically.

The two lead characters, Andrew and Zelda (see what they did there?) are played by Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti respectively. Feldman is best known for Mad Men (although I sadly haven't reached the seasons he's in) while, as I mentioned above, Milioti starred in How I Met Your Mother's final season as the eponymous Mother. Both have a lot of charm and decent comic chops, and as with Selfie and Manhattan Love Story, the heavy lifting falls on the central couple, and these two handle it with grace and skill.

A to Z doesn't land a lot of big laughs - I watched it the most recently of the three shows I'm looking at here, but can't remember a single well-landed joke (but equally can't remember any stinkers) - but what it does do very well is the romance angle. The two leads have good chemistry, and the direction and cinematography gives everything a crisp, crystallised quality that is both grounded and slightly hyper-real.

The show actually feels more like a romantic dramedy than a true sitcom, with the pre-ordained end date hanging over the relationship like a roadsign marked "Turning for Heartache in 21 Episodes", but if this clutch of shows proves anything, its that American TV audiences are apparently in the mood for love this season (or at least that's what network executives have decided).

It's certainly the show that made the best impression within its pilot (and it even manages a comic book joke with a specificity that puts The Big Bang Theory to shame). While I'd been looking forward to Selfie based on the appeal of its two stars, A to Z came in under the radar and won me over. Whether it can transform its polished pilot into a decent series is another matter, but I'll certainly be turning up for episode two.

Next time on Tim Watches a Lot of Television 2014 - I turn my increasingly square eyes towards returning comedies and look at what they need to do to keep the wheels turning...

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