2013’s New Comedies, Big, Funny, but Not Both

Having to dis a Marvel property has gotten me down. I need some cheering up. Let’s move on to the class clowns: the 2013 freshman class has introduced some big, star-laden, ratings-baiting comedies; some great, assured, confidently funny shows. If only I were describing the same shows on both sides of that semicolon, the comedy landscape would be much easier to process.

Let’s start with the big stars meant to pull in those mad ratings. For Robin Williams, it’s working. His CBS comedy The Crazy Ones is a massive hit out of the gate, which is too bad because I think it is deliriously unfunny. I have kept watching it out of some strange compulsion I do not understand that perhaps has to do with the charm of the dashingly handsome James Wolk in a role that plays off his ever-smiling Bob Benson without indulging in the creepy undertones. It just feels like everything else about this show is wrong: Williams is rarely given a chance to unleash, and when he does, it feels like he does it in all the wrong places, like the writers said “Well this is the least important scene in the episode that doesn’t convey any important information, so we’ll let Robin ad lib utter nonsense over this. But elsewhere, let’s stick to our horrible script” One of the writing’s great crimes: it has reigned in Sunnydale’s hippest vampire slayer, turning her into a straight-arrow shrew, the pouty straight-man at center of the Robin Williams creative storm. Watching the two deal with their father-daughter issues while co-running an ad agency is exactly the reason we don’t want to see what Don Draper will be doing when he’s 65 and cuddly and venerated.

Speaking of cuddly and venerated, let’s talk about Michael J. Fox, on whose return NBC has unwisely pegged all their hopes. Not unwisely because it’s bad. I think The Michael J. Fox show has an immense workmanlike charm and is divinely cast across the board, especially in it the kid department. NBC’s faith was unwise because it did not pay off even a little bit. NBC’s entireonce-venerated Thursday night line-up has floundered in the ratings. It is ratings poison, Must-Avoid TV. But this show was guaranteed, thanks to how much NBC was willing to give to have Fox back, a full season order from the outset, so regardless of its horrendous ratings, this show will go on, and I’m glad for this. I do believe that, given time, this cast can find consistent chemistry and a larger audience. Maybe not the audience NBC banked on getting (the “Radical, Michael J. Fox was the dude back in the ‘80s!” demographic), but an audience that likes the gently funny, occasionally clever rhythms of the similar Modern Family (which is not hurting for viewers).

I wish I could say that same audience will find Trophy Wife or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the fall’s most criminally underwatched comedies. If Robin Williams is the class clown who sits in the front row turning everything into an extended riff that only occasionally makes everyone in the class laugh, Malin Akerman and Andy Samberg are the two wits sitting in the back muttering bon mots under their breath so only the select few surrounding them can hear. But those blessed few are getting one heck of a show.

It’s surprising that Samberg’s comedy hasn’t found more traction since Samberg is such a Millennial property, but it is best to keep in mind that, like Ryan Gosling and Benedict Cumberbatch, Samberg is Internet famous first, actually famous a distant second. Also, no one ever said making music vidoes with T-Pain would translate into sitcom success. It’s not how Bill Cosby did it, that’s for sure. So I understand why the reservations might be there. But ignore them. Samberg is already comfortable as the cocky, goofy center of a fantastic ensemble, but it’s that ensemble, the other cops in the precinct played by such treasures as straight-faced Andre Braugher, sensitive slab-of-meat Terry Crewes, pathetically noble Joe Lo Truglio, and singularly cuckoo Chelsea Peretti, that sets Brooklyn Nine-Nine apart already, making it seem like a show that’s been churning out solid laughs for five years and not five episodes.

Trophy Wife still has some work to do in that department; it’s ensemble is large and unwieldy, it’s child actors not quite the equivalent of Michael J. Fox’s brood. Trophy Wife is a complex cocktail that needs a few more tries before the mix is right. Give it a season, and it could be a breakout darling like New Girl, which also struggled to find the right balance early on. The show is interspersed with remarkable talent, especially in the form of whip-smart Bradley Whitford and languidly dry Michaela Watkins, but, considering it follows three different iterations of Whitford wives in three separate households, the balance can be uneven.

Fortunately, one thing about the show is already perfectly calibrated, and that is the lead performance by Malin Akerman, a gifted comedienne who the majority of the American public likely remembers for getting laid to the strange dulcet tones of Leonard Cohen in Watchmen. Akerman is, as her role in that film can attest, a level-ten stunner, and if the show were interested in making her just a trophy for Whitford’s older attorney to possess, then she would be a stunning one. But the show is nowhere near as vapid or shallow as the name Trophy Wife might imply. (Like Cougar Town, the show will regret that name in three seasons, if it doesn’t already.) Akerman’s third wife can be ditzy, but the show has found purpose in following her quest to become more than a blond slice of heaven on an older man’s arm. She’s trying to be a good stepmother to these kids, a part of a large family unit that is, to be honest, just as much of a “modern family” as the one we see on that other ABC show. In the role, Akerman is the best new non-Ichabod thing on television, a slapstick goddess with pleasant traces of Lucy who draws laughs out of every situation without ever taking anything away from the potentially noble twenty-something quest to find direction and meaning while in an out-of-the-blue stable marriage that has given her a new set of stepkids so close to her own age it’s frightening.

S.H.I.E.L.D, Underperforming on the Biggest Stage Possible

If Sleepy Hollow is the kid in the 2013 Freshman Class you thought would drop out of college on Day 3 but has cleared that bar and then some, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is its exact inverse: the kid who by all accounts should be rocking this, what with that phenomenal movie pedigree and that name in the showrunner seat (Whedon, even if it’s not THAT Whedon, it’s his brother); but who, in spite of all that, is struggling immensely out of the gate.

Every professor’s coming up to you and telling you this kid is doing… okay, but it’s clear some coasting is going on. There is concern is what I’m saying. “It’s okay,” you say sheepishly in reply, “it’s early, and it can take a while to adjust with these things,” but you worry that, while Daddy (Disney) will keep the kid here and trying and chugging along as long as possible, it’s going to be more of a struggle than anyone expected.

The struggle: S.H.I.E.L.D is remarkably inconsistent considering all that ABC has riding on its success. If this show fails, the unstoppable force that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe can brush the misstep off like a flake of dead skin, but ABC the flailing television network wants desperately to make procedural shows set in all those shiny new Disney assets (especially the Star Wars universe) “a thing.” And right now, S.H.I.E.L.D, against every prediction I might have laid down a month ago, is most decidedly not “a thing.”

It is highly rated. It is competent. But for something set in the infinitely interesting world of Marvel superheroes, it is decidedly pedestrian, showing glimmers of extraordinary progress (especially in fourth installment “Eye Spy”) amidst an ocean of sub-NCIS spycraft and case-solving peppered with clichéd banter and dull, underserved characters.

To be clear, this can be fixed. A Whedon show can take a while to get off the ground if it is given the opportunity (Firefly, why?!?), and boy howdy will ABC give this show that opportunity. But after a paternalistic, hacker-bashing, superhero-naming dud like this past week’s outing, my optimism that this show will take advantage of that opportunity is waning. I like Skye’s style and think Fitz and Simmons are adorbs, but I have yet to think all but one of these episode’s is even half as inspired as episode’s written for brilliant Marvel animated series like Spectacular Spiderman, Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, or X-Men: Evolution. Considering the budgetary discrepancies (I’m certain the budget for one episode of S.H.I.E.L.D could have funded entire seasons of the brilliant shows I just mentioned), that should not be a promising sign for Disney. At this point, if you’re not already on board with this show due to a preexisting obsession with the Cult of Coulson, I’d recommend waiting this one out until it gets better, as one can only hope it will, or sit it out as it lets out a low, mournful seven-season death rattle of mediocrity.

Next Page: Dissing S.H.I.E.L.D bums me out, so let’s talk comedies

Sleepy Hollow, Fall’s Messy Miracle

Sleepy Hollow was, at the Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV panel I sat in on at DragonCon, easily singled out as the new show most likely to get the axe first.

It has already avoided that ignoble distinction thanks to the miserable Lucky 7 (and many other now cancelled shows) but, as it’s become by far the biggest breakout hit of the year and has already earned a second season, it’s fair to say we were off by quite a bit. And yeah, sometimes it’s hard to call these things from a trailer and synopsis alone, but everything, especially how little everyone was looking for a modern twist on Washington Irving’s story, seemed to indicate Sleepy Hollow would be a mess. And it is!

But it’s one of the most wonderful, focused, purely happy-making messes on the face of this Earth. As it approaches the halfway point in its 13 episode first season, Sleepy Hollow has proven itself to be the strange bastard child of National Treasure and Lovecraft we didn’t know we needed. This wonderful mutation has yet to meet a strange footnote in American history it couldn’t turn into an intriguing hour of high-adventure. (Roanoke?!? Already?!?) Right down to its uber-competent warrior/genius Ichabod Crane, played brilliantly by huge star-to-be-just-you-wait Tom Mison as what essentially amounts to the more cuddly twin brother of Jack Davenport’s befuddled, scruffy Commodore Norrington from the second Pirates film, Sleepy Hollow has next to nothing to do with anything Washington Irving wrote.

But fear not… this show lacks not for inspiration! I like to imagine in the writers’ room everyone sits next to a stack of books about American Legends and Folklore and, as they leaf through the books, they shout “That sounds cool, PUT IT IN THE SHOW!”

“All of it?”

“YES, ALL OF IT!”

If the 2013 freshman class of television shows were new students at a university, Sleepy Hollow would be that kid who seemed, from everything about them you could see (their transcripts, their essay), to be not so much cut out for this. And then they walk in the door and you can tell that nothing you knew ahead of time prepared you for what you see before you now: this kid clearly spent a great summer between high school and college reading Lovecraft and Stephen King, watching the best buddy cop movies, quoting important Bible verses, adopting a smooth British accent for no reason other than it sounds cool, and having an all-around ball. It should all be insufferable, but, as everyone watches the kid walk in the room and sighs contentedly, you realize that this kid is going to do just fine if he can iron out some of the wrinkles in that new image (like the way every episode ends with the demon handily defeated; at some point ONE of these demons has to be able to wreak some havoc for more than ten minutes). No show seemed less promising coming in, and no show seems more promising now that we’ve gotten a peak inside the strange minds that are putting this show, the one show I’d tell you you HAVE to jump on if you haven’t yet, together.

Next Page: Sleepy Hollow‘s Dreary Mirror Image

Notes on a Young Television Season

Let’s start with this: Breaking Bad is over. It was much watched and has been much discussed. I will not add to that discussion – not because I feel too much has been said, but because I have nothing to say. I didn’t watch it and have avoided everything that has been said about it like it bears a contagious and outrageously deadly disease. I plan on watching Breaking Bad one day, I swear! I just haven’t yet, and until I do, I want to know nothing more than what little I know right now. Which is something something cancer, something something crystal meth.

This makes me immensely unqualified to talk to you about television, in the sense that the most buzzed-about television event of 2013 (or maybe of ever), as well as the entire run of the consensus GOAT television show, are completely unknown to me. But what is qualified really?

Let’s get deep for a moment. I haven’t watched Breaking Bad in part because I’m an idiot, conceded; but also in part because the right time for me to watch Breaking Bad has not come yet. Now I could say I “haven’t had enough time” to watch Breaking Bad, which might be true; but anyone who observes my television watching habits could make any number of easy calls based on popular aesthetic taste and open up plenty of BB time: “Stop watching Glee you fool! You waste four hours a week on The Voice? You’re still watching Survivor? NO!

And there you go, plenty of time just opened up to follow Walt and Jesse on their magical adventure to methland, where they ultimately acquire inner peace and hard-won contentment. (This is what happens, right?)

But I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t give those shows up. Here’s why:

I long ago made the potentially unwise call to see Glee through to its probably-ignoble end because I still enjoy so many of the pieces of Glee that I can get past the oft-shoddiness of the whole. I can rant about Glee with the best of them: five seasons in, Glee has never improved even a smidge on its exposition delivery method, which still involves everyone sitting down in a room and listening as one person introduces the week’s theme or artist in the most trivial manner possible while everyone else chips in by spouting excited and completely worthless factoids about that week’s theme or artist, as if they’d all read the same “Did You Know? Pop Stars Edition” pamphlet as kids. (Representative exchange from the premiere: Schu – “This week is all about the early years of The Beatles, when all they had was a belief in eachother and a belief that together they could do anything!” Marley – “When George Harrison was a kid, he was made fun of because his dad was a bus driver…” Thanks Glee!) I worry that this is ashow, as it reaches its finale, that his no real questions left to answer now that Rachel and Kurt have found phenomenal New York success, Schue has become the most irrelevantly martyred adult teacher ever, and the show’s one remaing lost soul and question mark, Finn Huson, was neccesarily memorialized on a brilliant episode (the show’s last one?) after the sudden and shocking death of the man who played him with so much relateable befuddlement, Cory Monteith. With so many loose ends tied up, what does Glee have left to offer us? I still believe the answer is “a lot” because Glee has also, in five seasons, never lost its ability to deliver an emotional gut-punch. The show’s gift and its curse: it has never once during its run met a setpiece or plot point it couldn’t make less subtle. Glee is allergic to subtlety, and that means its emotions, delivered through glorious popular music (speak not of Glee’s attempts to pen original songs), can be like a shot of adrenaline to the heart no other show (preoccupied as other shows are with occasionally portraying human emotion in a subtle and restrained manner) could dream of offering.

Then there is The Voice, which is, like anything associated with one of the foulest phrases in all of television and also the world (“results show”), a massive time commitment. If I didn’t get invested in the show’s off-beat singers and bantering coaches and team-against-team narratives so much, it would be a time drain, a time suck. And though I don’t consider it that at all, I have to admit that, even if the best reason to watch is the coaches’ interactions with starry-eyed hopefuls and of course with each other (particularly when it comes to Blake Shelton and Adam Levine’s immensely ship-worthy bromance), even I sometimes fast-forward past the fluff, which is most often coach-related and of which there is an extensive, ungodly amount. (And we haven’t even gotten to the part of the season where the show punishes us for some unknown but obviously horrible crime with a social media correspondent, oh Lord above, why, please make it stop…) But the incredible thing about The Voice is that, encased in all the fluff is a reality competition which has transformed in two years from scrappy upstart to clear heir-apparent to the singing show throne, and in doing so, has vastly improved on its early but uneven success. The biggest improvement: in its first three seasons, The Voice felt like a fantasy football league in which only two of the four participants (Blake/Adam) had any idea what they were doing, a scenario so suffocatingly uneven that, as anyone who’s played in one these leagues knows, it becomes no fun for anyone. Cee-Lo, while always a dazzling presence, has always seemed largely to be promoting his own cat-and-cockatoo-filled version of reality, and Christina Aguilera was that guy who drafts only his hometown players (young, unpolished women who sing like Christina Aguilera!) regardless of their ability to actually win, forcing everyone else to go “Seriously?” But now Christina, who I have despised with a special and powerful passion in other seasons, is returning after a fun Shakira/Usher experiment that ended up being monopolized by Blake’s country music empire, and the show has become important enough/she is being paid enough that the queen diva has given up her aging Liz Taylor act (heavy mascara, catty glances, unnecessary feuding, skimpy clothing, excessive fanning, overwhelming disinterest) and has put together a diverse and dazzling assortment of talent while also being funny, invested and occasionally (I can’t believe I’m saying this) adorable. It’s heartening to see her care about winning this show with an artist who might not be her little clone. And Cee-Lo is deferring to neither a cat nor a bird, which is an improvement.

And then there’s Survivor, whose name at this point is as much a testament to its ability to persist unceasingly at an unbelievably advanced age as it is to any sort of “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” motto. Yes, Survivor has had more seasons than I have years of living, but it is, depending on its cast and premise, frequently brilliant, a fact that the non-Survivor watching populace (which grows larger every year and which at one point, yes, also included yours truly during a seven or eight year hiatus during which even I gave up on the show for not doing anything extraordinarily interesting) struggles mightily to grasp. This month, NPR blogger Linda Holmes, a longtime Survivor fan and advocate, thoughtfully voiced her displeasure with the growing sexism ingrained in the show’s bikini-clad, man-club-celebrating premise, a point I’m not sure I completely agreed with and which I also think deserves a big, important discussion. So imagine my distress when more comments looked like this (“Who still watches that show, you losers? Why would you talk about this show amidst these hallowed blogs of NPR?” which is rather uncivil considering these are the NPR comment boards) than this (“I intelligently disagree/agree with you because…”) So let’s tackle it from this angle: it is inarguable that Survivor broke ground by combining The Real World with Castaway. Its early seasons were a stop-the-presses event, its big names were reality rock stars, all of which makes it easy to overlook a blatant fact: the first season of Survivor is an adorably appealing mess. No one but Richard Hatch and his few alliance mates had any clue what they were doing, with many players actually spurning alliances. As a game of strategy, early Survivor is a desert with the occasional blessed oasis of smart gameplay. There is an argument to be made that Survivor’s currently favored combination of seasoned veterans and savvy fans far outpaces those early seasons’ pioneers both in gameplay acumen and in the “actually engrossing on television” department. Arguing the show never surpassed in overall quality its buzzy but messy first season is, from a competition perspective, like arguing football was never better than the days immediately after Knute Rockne popularized the forward pass. Yeah, late-season Survivor relies too much on gambits and rule-enforced twists (One World, Redemption Island) that erode the game’s inherent simplicity, but when those gambits work to manufacture drama in a way that doesn’t feel overly-controlled, the results can reclaim the “never-before-seen social experiment” spirit that so captivated America at the turn of the millennium. Such a season is picking up steam now; in a move that destroys all previous strategic certainties, the show has sent previous competitors to the island to compete against/with their loved ones. What started out contrived and confusing is turning into a masterful story engine/harsh competition the likes of which we’ve never seen before. I’ve watched many seasons of this show, and Linda Holmes has watched many more, and, totally-merited complaints about sexism aside, neither of us have any idea how family ties will affect this brilliant game.
Point being, if I didn’t want to be watching any of these admittedly uneven shows, well… I wouldn’t be watching them. I’m a grown-man who made evaluative grown-man decisions to watch sometimes qualitatively-challenged television which, in spite of my fandom, I have no problem admitting likely pales in comparison to Breaking Bad in the grand scheme of things. And I don’t regret it. I do this because, when the planets align (about two or three times a season) these shows hum on exactly the frequency I need them to and they do as much for me as, if not more than, Breaking Bad could do. I’m a guy that likes musicals, the singing of classic rock covers, the drama of competition shows. I adore Tribal Council. And Breaking Bad contains suspiciously few of these elements, whatever its other merits may be.

No television watcher’s DVR Season Pass should read like a sterile best-of list is what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a little room in my diet for some Breaking Bad… But keep this in mind: if every show on the air was as oppressively quality-conscious, heavily serialized, morally complex, and cloudy-day gray as Breaking Bad, the television landscape would depress us all. Fast.

With that in mind, it falls to us to decide every fall what new visions we might adopt into the strange little menagerie of television shows with which we choose to maintain an “involved” relationship. Because we can’t keep up with them all. It’s just not possible. There are too many. If I watched every show I’d ever heard was phenomenal, I’d be watching, in addition to Breaking Bad: Scandal, Rectify, Justified, The Good Wife, The Vampire Diaries, Arrested Development, and Pretty Little Liars. And so many other shows. I would also be really tired and a less productive human being. Maybe dead.

But staying within a box of previous tastes and favored creators and performers also reduces gratification. There was nothing about 2008 Charles (who, based on his Lost and Heroes obsessions, should be stuck in Syfy purgatory right now) that suggested my favorite shows of 2013 would count amongst their ranks Downton Abbey, Girls, Orange Is the New Black, and Bunheads. Bunheads is an especially obvious outlier to my typical T. I have never seen creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls, knew nothing about ballet, and thought of ABC Family as the television equivalent of a hormonal pre-teen writing a catty slam letter. My only entry point into the show was Sutton Foster, a Broadway entity of which I was only vaguely aware. Explain to me how Bunheads, in its sole season, became one of my most adored darlings of all time? You can’t. And yet, from the moment I laid eyes on it, I fell deeply, madly in love. I will light a candle mourning its passing every year.

So, in addition to approaching the fall with an understanding that we will end up buying little of what the networks are selling (the past two years, I’ve watched about 80% of pilots and, by the next fall, only one show has still been on my slate: New Girl and Elementary respectively), we must also cast a wide, adventurous net. We must put ourselves out there and be ready to embrace the unexpected. And nothing in 2013 was more unexpected than:

Next Page: Fall’s Most Unexpected Success

Marvel Now

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James discuss Marvel Now and the new TV show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. After talking comic books, they record parts of the episode during commercial breaks while watching the new spy thriller’s pilot.