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.