Posts in: April 13th, 2008

The Beginning of the End (of the Season)

Last week, My Name Is Earl returned to Thursdays with an hourlong episode that, despite a few flaws, was actually pretty good. This week, NBC’s full Thursday-night line-up trickled back onto television with post-strike episodes and/or episodes stockpiled in case the strike lasted so long they ran out of programming. How did these shows fare against Earl‘s triumphant return; how did Earl itself do in its second week back? (The answer is below, but here’s a hint: not well.)

I thought I’d take this opportunity to address the sporadic complaint that I cover all the NBC Thursday comedies except 30 Rock. Here’s the thing about 30 Rock: I didn’t jump on the initial bandwagon because I don’t find Tina Fey funny as a comedienne. Maybe she’s some kind of genius writer, but it never came across on Saturday Night Live (her reign as head writer didn’t exactly impress me) and the first few episodes received harsh reviews. Why would I check out a show made by and starring somebody I don’t find funny when even people who like her didn’t enjoy it?

As the season rolled along, the buzz for the show increased. Comparisons to Arrested Development and The Office flew around. Finally, this season, I read a description of an episode that made me laugh out loud. I decided to break down and check the show out and, if I found it funny, I’d be sure to keep watching. The episode in question had an A story that guest-starred Carrie Fisher as a grizzled, former-hippie sketch writer that inspired Fey’s character to break into the business; its B story had Alec Baldwin trying to psychoanalyze Tracy Morgan’s rebellion against authority, culminating in an offensive/hilarious one-man show as Baldwin impersonates ’70s sitcom stars while role-playing as Morgan’s family members; and its C story stranded all the other characters in a comedy wasteland involving a “page-off.”

I’ll admit upfront that I love Alec Baldwin, I loved Tracy Morgan on Saturday Night Live (and, at the very least, give Fey credit for initially building this show around him), I’m a big fan of Carrie Fisher, but…something felt off about this show. Something about the way it was paced, the way the jokes built, the way the story flowed…despite hearing laugh-out-loud descriptions of this episode, I found myself not enjoying it much. Even the infamous Baldwin-impersonating-black-sitcom-stars scene went by too quickly to be enjoyable. It’s too bad, because by this time I’d heard so many good things that I wanted to like the show; I was even willing to put up with Tina Fey to enjoy the supposed comedy gold, but I just don’t see the comparisons to other great recent sitcoms. I hope that clears up why I don’t watch the show.

Canterbury’s Law (Fox)—This show has been all-but-officially announced as canceled, and who could blame it? It’s getting CW-caliber ratings. While I like the show, I elected to stop watching it this week, to avoid getting hooked and then enraged by its inevitable cancellation.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—It strikes me as unusual that the show keeps on trying to pair up Chris and Mr. Omar (earlier this season, Chris was stuck staying in his bachelor pad while his family was sick). Nonetheless, this episode managed to find some solid (but not preachy) moral ground as Chris realized it was more important to comfort a widow than it was to go to a Run DMC concert.

One weird nitpick: at the end of the episode, after Greg goes to the concert alone, he’s wearing a shirt that clearly said RUN DNC. Maybe they couldn’t clear the rights to a real Run DMC t-shirt and assumed we wouldn’t notice, but I’m surprised they didn’t toss in a joke about Greg not actually knowing a thing about Run DMC and accidentally attending a Democratic National Committee rally.

King of the Hill (Fox)—Late in its run, The King of Queens did an episode with a similar premise when Carrie (Leah Remini) discovered a nice way of making money as an actor in an open house. Watch this episode back to back with this week’s King of the Hill makes for an interesting study of how writers can approach a similar situation in totally different ways; on The King of Queens, the actors start to act like a real family, and Carrie is baffled and horrified when the house is sold and the actors drop the act.

Here, Peggy (who became a realtor this season) needs to sell a house in the drying-up market. When she discovers the uncouth residents of the home won’t leave, she decides to cast actors to play the family. The actors aren’t comfortable with improv, so Peggy writes an epic script that illustrates how important the house is to the “family.” Things get weird when they do a dress rehearsal at the Hill residence, somebody offers to buy the house…and Peggy accepts without talking to Hank.

The differences in stories have so much to do with the characters’ natural reactions to a similar situation. In Carrie’s case, she’s needy and desperate for the “perfect family” she’ll never get with Doug and Arthur; with Peggy, her misguided, duplicitous nature forces her to take charge of the situation with a series of elaborate—and escalating—lies. Both episodes were fantastic, but I have to give King of the Hill the edge for tying it to a subplot reenforcing Hank’s character. (The King of Queens had an entertaining but unrelated subplot in which Doug spends their tax refund on an ice cream truck.)

Medium (NBC)—This week, Rosanna Arquette helped to make a pretty twisted episode into an effective mystery. Allison has dreams of her seducing men who turn up dead in disgusting ways, described by the woman as she breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly into the camera, like she’s giving advice. In the waking world, Allison has a chance meeting with the woman—an author—who, not surprisingly, denies responsibility for the crimes. (In fact, logic dictates she could not have committed these crimes against men twice her size and half her age—it’s physically impossible.) It would have been pretty difficult to top last week’s two-parter, and I’m not saying they did, but it was a worthy follow-up.

The only lingering disappointment is that they made no mention of Joe’s new patent plans, leading to my continued belief that the past two weeks’ episodes were shuffled out of order. If I’m wrong about that and they dropped references to it in order to give Devalos some much-needed screen time, I can forgive it.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—I don’t know what to say. All season, I begged for them to release Earl from prison; they finally do, and now I think the prison storyline would be an improvement. I guess the writers are trying to shake things up by keeping Earl in a coma and forcing his family/friends to continue the list without his confused-but-firm moral guidance. If it will lead to episodes like last week’s, I’d be okay with this; unfortunately, it led to an episode that rivals “Our Other COPS Is On” for worst episode of the series.

The coma-sitcom fantasies do nothing for me, and there were more of them this week. Maybe if they switched it up each week with different old-TV genre parodies, but they’re sticking with a sitcom that, I guess, is supposed to parody how unfunny many multi-camera sitcoms are, or perhaps point out how weird and repugnant Earl‘s characters are compared to ’50s and ’60s archetypes. It falls flat, but then again, so did the rest of the episode.

Here’s the basic timeline issue: Randy is trying to uncover what occurred on one drunken night that he doesn’t remember. We’re well into the third season of the show, meaning that this drunken night must have occurred at least three years ago (probably more). So why is it that everyone’s acting like the whole thing happened yesterday, up to and including throwaway visual jokes like Earl’s tarred-up feet scuffing a dance floor? I hate applying logic to sitcoms, especially one as cartoonish as My Name Is Earl, but that’s what I’m stuck doing when the jokes aren’t even funny. Bad jokes easier to swallow when something about it makes sense or has entertainment value.

The Office (NBC)—My annoyance with My Name Is Earl was short-lived, however, because 30 minutes later The Office aired an absolute masterpiece, shattering the genius record of last season’s “The Negotiation” with an episode that did a great job of reintroducing the characters and story threads left behind with the strike, while firmly reestablishing its dark, drab worldview and awkward humor. I could list the great little touches in the episode, but if you’re watching this, chances are you’ve seen it and understand.

One thing I really loved was the attempt by the writers to show the functionality of the Jim-Pam relationship in comparison to the Michael-Jan trainwreck. I have a bad feeling that this positive portrayal of them will, at some point, end in disaster. For now, though, I can relax and enjoy it. This is a rare “will they or won’t they?” couple whose show wasn’t ruined by bringing them together.

The Riches (FX)—Booger! The Riches keeps upping the ante on the exposure of the Malloys’ fraud. This week, we had tag-team storylines in which Dahlia has to find a legitimate job and a place to live to appease a parole officer, while Wayne has to contend with a fellow lawyer (played by Revenge of the Nerds‘ aforementioned Booger, Curtis Armstrong) who happened to go to law school with Doug Rich. Fortunately, Booger’s clueless; unfortunately, his terrifying Russian boss isn’t. Shit is hitting the fan, and I’m not even sure I want to know what Dale has planned with the creepy old Irish guy hanging around the Traveller hovel.

Scrubs (NBC)—Maybe it’s the time apart, but I felt in this episode—more than any before—that the increasingly wacky, cartoonish moments of Scrubs don’t exactly jibe with the attempts at drama and pathos. I don’t know if it’s because what formerly occurred as weird fantasy sequences are now supposed to be believed as reality, or if they aren’t doing as good a job of switching gears. Maybe it was just an off episode in that sense. I laughed a lot, but at the end of the episode I felt a little empty, like I do at the end of a Family Guy episode: lots of laughs that amount to nothing.

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In my quest to perfect an homage to Steven Seagal, I have to consider the importance of the opening. In his earlier, better movies, he always had something resembling a prologue to establish his character and, often, establish the story. In Hard to Kill, there’s a pre-coma sequence in 1983 showing him as (a) a bad-ass, (b) a cop/surveillance expert, (c) a loving family man, all prior to getting shot and ending up in a seven-year coma. In Out for Justice, there’s a shorter, better sequence where he asks his partner if everything’s all right (this foreshadows a plot point—seriously!), then throws a pimp through a car windshield.

I knew I’d need a similar opening, but I couldn’t figure out how to work it in. As the story stood yesterday, it started with the main character arriving in Nigeria, but he doesn’t want to announce his bad-assiness right away. He has to build up to it. At first, I thought, What if he foils a terrorist attack on the airplane? Almost immediately, I thought, Too soon! So then I started thinking that something has to happen at the U.S. airport. It reminded me of Marked for Death, which hilariously implies not only that Seagal and Keith David sneak duffel bags loaded with handguns, shotguns, and high-powered assault rifles into Jamaica…they come back to Chicago with said bags of guns plus a decapitated head.

So yeah, that’ll be it: he gets into it with a security person over the massive quantity of weapons he’s trying to carry on to the plane. That seemed lame, though. My annoying penchant for satire reminded me of the often-reported incompetent TSA workers, leading me to consider opening with a style-establishing joke—building suspense as we think he’ll get busted, but then the glazed-eyed TSA worker doesn’t even care. And he goes and kicks some ass in a Chili’s Too (fulfilling the barfight quota). I’m still mulling it over, but I think some variation on this will end up opening the script.

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