Sunday, April 10, 2005

TV Review: What I Like About You

The WB's What I Like About You is a show that thinks it's a lot cuter than it actually is. At best, it's a wasteful half-hour that grossly insults your intelligence. That's about all we can say for it. "That's about all we can say for it." Say that really slow, letting your voice wrap around the words a la Winona Ryder or Jack Nicholson. If you can do that, you're almost half-way to Amanda Bynes' "acting style." You'll need to add not just delivery, but also the most annoying voice on a teenager since Brooke Shields was a "child" actress.

At 19 (we only strongly criticize adults here), Bynes is more than a bit too old to sound like she's on helium. Brooke Shields, as she grew older, began to find an adult voice. Who knows if or when Bynes will? Maybe if that day comes, she'll also learn to stop mugging like she's in the midst of a Bob Hope TV sketch? (Shields did.)

Possibly because she also does the little-girl voice, Jennie Garth has been cast as "Valerie 'Val' Kelly Tyler." Get it? No? She played "Kelly Taylor" on 90210. Are you sides splitting yet?
Well then they probably won't be because that's the level of whimsy/humor you get from What I Like About You.

The supporting cast? Leslie Erin Grossman who got a lot of attention as Mary Cherry on Popular is hilarious by making goofy faces and taking the lines God knows where. She's a scene stealer and provides the only laugh-out-loud moments. As for the three men, other than the accent, it's hard to tell the two white guys apart. As for Wesley Jonathan (Gary), he's not doing anything Tim Reid didn't do years ago on WKRP in Cincinnati -- meaning he's the standard issue character of color who hangs around to make the others feel better about themselves.

Amanda Bynes started out as a Nick star who achieved "fame" as the host and performer on
The Amanda Show. What I Like About You airs on the WB, so why does it feel like we're so firmly in the land of Nick at Night?

Though she's in the final year of her "teendom," Bynes has yet to do anything that suggests she can leave those years behind, this despite the fact that her character, Holly, has a career. Get this, she manages a would be rocker! Has an aspiring rock artist ever had a manager so noted for her "cuteness?" Gidget Books Beck would be the title if this were a film instead of a TV show.

Does anyone believe for a moment that Bynes' Hope can somehow navigate the club terrain of NYC as a hopper, let alone as a manager? Isn't it all just a bit too hard to swallow?

It's even harder to swallow Jennie Garth as the Suzanne Sommers of this century but check out the opening of the show and damned if Garth's not doing the "mammary acting" that first brought Sommers to fame on Three's Company. Look, there's the jiggle and wait for the big breast heave that she does against the car in the final moments. Bynes is all dressed up to shake her stuff as well. But in the opening credits (which actually occur after the first scene) she just doesn't have the shakeables. Which leaves you with the impression that Garth might actually be an integral part of the show.

She's not. She's just there for "T" of T&A. (The lack of "A" may be why she's Kelly Tyler and not Taylor?) Here's the basic set up, Kelly wants a date real bad, but she's like . . . old and stuff. Always count on Lauren (Grossman) to egg her on and goodness if Kelly doesn't end up going on a date. Oh sure, she'll protest. She can't talk to that guy. She can't be seen with this guy. What would her little sister Holly think? But each and every time, she ends up doing exactly what she starts off saying (in each and every episode) that she wouldn't do. The "twist" this episode was that Grossman encouraged her this episode to let her "breasts speak." As if Garth or the producers had any plans of silencing them! The date doesn't go well. They never do. Poor spinister Kelly.

And between the sad sack love life of Kelly, we get Bynes' Hope eternally torn between two lovers and forever looking like a fool. Who do the fans of the show like this year? That seems to be how the writers determine which guy Hope's on the ins with and which guy she's on the outs with. Pre-teens everywhere rejoice! Looks like she's getting back with Vince! And we're really glad she says "Vince" (or "VINNNNssss") so often because, again, it can be hard to tell the two white guys apart. On this episode the gang (the young gang) jets off to Mexico on the spur of the moment. NYC to Mexico with Holly covering the expenses for all four. This show is so realistic!
(Vince, the fifth member of the party, pays his own way.)

Packing everything but their characterizations, Stephen Dunham (Peter) and Nick Zano (Vince) blend into the background in a way that reminds you of Paul Wilson's fifty-six guest appearences on Cheers. Who? Exactly. (Or as Bynes would say "EXXXuuhToLLLEEE.")

While this episode Holly went to Mexico (via a soundstage), sometimes she's just off in this floating zone that passes for NYC (also a soundstage). You don't believe for a minute that if she was really in NYC saying, "Out of my way" in that annoying squeak, someone wouldn't deck her. In the "Out of my way" episode, she also played hardball with a club. That too was beyond belief.

Periodically sisters Hope and Kelly check in with one another in what can only be a homage to Apartment 3G. This usually entails both speaking in rapid rates, in high decibels, before the "you go first" bit. Somehow, this never fails to tickle the studio audience (or maybe someone just can't keep their fingers off the canned laughter button). Think of it as homage to Nick's famous sliming bit that never ceased to make the kiddies chuckle. Maybe the What I Like About You audience waits on pins and needles (or pimple cream and pore strips) each episode to see if Garth and Bynes will get all excited and go for the shattering glass bit with their voices again? If so, the writers and the two actresses rarely disappoint! It's a set piece for the show. What I Like About You without the high pitched screeching scene is like an episode of Diff'rent Strokes without Gary Coleman saying, "What you talking 'bout, Willis?"

But even in this fantasy world, ugly reality can sometimes intrude. Like the episode where Peter tells Holly that writing a song about their breakup was cathartic for him. Though you didn't doubt for a moment that squeaky voiced Bynes would have to look up the word, you started to grasp why Peter's career was going nowhere even in this land of fantasy (we like to think of it as Larry Clark's Kids all Disney-fied) when his manager didn't know the term "cathartic." Exactly how does Holly talk Peter up to the clubs that book him? "He's really good. Really, really good. Did I mention he was good?"

When not grabbing time with sis to fill her in on the latest crisis of the heart, Holly goes back and forth between Vince and Peter like a tennis ball. What a wonderful message for young girls! And not only can they pattern their own lives after Holly but they can also picture themselves hitting the thirties with lots of dates (provided a friend eggs them on) that never go anywhere while they whine about how much they need a man.

On it's surface, What I Like About You is all shiny and new, like any half-top Bynes wear, but there are things going on underneath that are old and retro: Holly's inability to resist a cat fight, Kelly's lamented spinster-hood, etc. It's as though That Girl never aired, as though Sheila James Kuehl and Rose Marie got a pair of hot bods and tiny little outfits to show them off in.

In the nineties, Do Me Feminism provided a range (a small range) of female characters for sitcoms. This decade, we've apparently dropped the "Feminism" and are back to "Do Me" and "Please Do Me." Bynes and Garth are quite adept at getting this old messages across.

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