Sunday, April 09, 2006

TV Review: Mid-Sixties Men

There are a lot of ways to watch the WB's Modern Men. You can, for instance, wonder if Dawn Steel was the basis for Dr. Stangil (played by Jane Seymour)? You can wonder if looking like a more polished version (with better hair -- though that's not saying much) of the executive producer is why Max Greenfield got cast as Kyle? Or if Eric Lively was cast due to having a facial structure similar to Don Simpson? You can note Josh Braaten's strange similarities to Jeffrey Katzenberg and you can wonder if Marla Sokoloff's supposed to be playing Lynda Obst?

Or you can just sit back and watch the show. We wouldn't recommend that. It's not that funny and our calendars bear the date 2006. Point? There's nothing "modern" about Modern Men. What it appears to be is Jerry Bruckheimer attempting to recreate a high point of his career, when he and Don Simpson had yet to roll on down the Days of Thunder, when nightmares like Pearl Harbor could only come via dreams and not box office returns.

Now they weren't in their twenties then. You'd have to go back quite a bit for their twenties. Which is why we think Modern Men is more aptly entitled Mid-Sixties Men. That's what you've got onscreen in front of you if you make the mistake of watching.

The premise is that buddies Tim (Braaten), Kyle (Greenfield) and Doug (Lively) are so hopeless with women that a life coach is required. That would be Dawn Steel, er, Dr. Stangel played by Seymour. In a show that's one boneheaded move after another, hiring Seymour was an exception. She's actually quite good in the role and the big laughs come only from the scenes she's in.

The scenes with the least laughs revolve around George Wendt playing Tug -- father of Tim and Molly and, we're assuming, a stand in for Barry Diller. (Those were heady days, weren't they?) Here's the biggest problem with Wendt as an actor, he's not funny when trying to connect with other actors. He never has been. On Cheers he usually stared straight ahead and made commentary. On The Naked Truth, they tried to make him more "interactive" and it was difficult to watch. Wendt had one good moment in Friday's show. Lively comes in to moan about his ex-wife and Wendt doesn't listen to him or look at him. He reads his paper and makes generic responses. It was funny. The rest of the time, Wendt was attempting to interact with other characters (chiefly Braaten's character) and it didn't work. It wasn't funny. The lines weren't funny but Wednt's never needed funny lines to get a laugh when he's played the commentator. He can comment wonderfully and hilariously but he's never been an interactive actor. He tends to get a look of panic in his eyes when he's looking at another actor speaking and it's not pretty.

It's also not pretty when he spouts cliches about feminists -- cliches that may have seemed fresh to sexists back in the mid-sixties. The lines fall flat but, again, not because they're not funny -- though they aren't. They fall flat because Wednt's speaking to someone and not shooting out of the side of his mouth.

Most of what goes on isn't pretty and it isn't funny. The premise might have made for an interesting show (it's the topic of a number of movies due out shortly) but by setting this retro show in modern times, you just scratch your head and wonder how the three leading males could live more than a week in the real world present?

There's a moment where Kyle and Doug are speaking of a piece of fiction (story) that they read. In Maxim? Not likely. The bit makes no sense at all unless you transplant to the sixties and remember the boys who used to bond over the fiction Playboy ran (or possibly Esquire -- though these three are the Playboy magazine types). There's no present day equivalent for these three men. They aren't The New Yorker types. The only way they'd read is if they thought it made them look suave and those days are no longer upon us. Their references are also hopelessly outdated -- and what's a WB show without a plethora of pop cultural refs? "High def" is used at one point for high definition screen TV and that's really about all they can manage. A minor, one show character references a favorite film: Rio Bravo. Rio Bravo. Let's say that again, "Rio Bravo."

Only someone as out of touch as Bruckheimer could imagine the WB's intended teen audience (largely female) reacting with whoops of joy and "OH MY GOD!"s to that pop cultural ref. There's not even a tired joke about Lifetime, so stuck in the past are they. There's a visual joke (and some verbal ones) about a women's self-defense class which was a popular topic around the time Bruckheimer, Simpson, Steel, Katzenberg and Obst were making names for themselves but we'd argue Mary Jo's trip to a self-defense class on Designing Women was the last straw for that as humor. (Annie Potts didn't kill the humor, the writing of that episode did.)

So as you watch, you're in a constant state of flux -- time wise. The attitudes of the males are all mid-sixties (and those attitudes were carried by Simpson and Bruckheimer long past the eighties). The events going on around them (including hiring a life coach) are late seventies and early eighties. But you're supposed to see it all as the present day. It's just one more aspect of the show likely to induce nausea.

Lively's character tends to talk like a Goodfella ("frikin'" being only one example) and Greenfield's character comes off like a Goodfella. Then there's Braaten who doesn't appear to have anything in common with the other two except for the fact that fate has tossed the three of them together. (See it is, Simpson, Bruckheimer and Katzenberg!)

Mostly nothing happens. You can note that this is another show about men who want to have sex but can't. Think of it as Jake in Progress to the third.

Sokoloff's lost none of the appeal she demonstrated as the receptionist Lucy in The Practice and we were glad to see she'd graduated to the role of law student Molly. But her storyline, like the male characters' mid-sixties attitudes, defied disbelief. Short version, she's having money problems and her car is on its final legs. She doesn't want money from brother, Tim, she just wants him to listen. He wants to help. So he deposits nine hundred plus in her bank account without telling her. We could get lost in the fact that those sort of transactions are hard to secretly pull off in "Modern" times but, remember, we're dealing with Mid-Sixties Men. Tim's hoping that Molly will believe that the bank made an error. She does believe that. She states that the money isn't her money. We can go along with that. It's believable.

What's not believable is her then deciding that since the money doesn't belong to her, she'll donate it to charity. Someone must have thought it would be a yuck-fest (it wasn't) and believable (ditto). When the bank makes an error, that's not "free money." The bank usually catches its error and expects to get its money back. Today the only "bank error in your favor" that pays off is in a game of Monopoly. But everyone's so convinced the gag is a yuck-fest that they ignore reality. We had a difficult time believing that a law student would.

It's hard to believe this show ever made it on air. There's so little going for it. Outside of the home movie aspect, it has no appeal. Hopefully, it will remind everyone that Jane Seymour can do comedy and she'll have other offers.

Here's what we think we know, Seymour's doctor is written as Steel and, if Bruckheimer wants to base female characters on women he knows/knew, he could do a lot worse than Steel and Obst. But home movies, outside of sex tapes, have a highly limited audience. When you hire writers, they should be able to write without the constant imposition of "elements." We absolutely know that taking men in their thirties and forties and using their experiences from the sixties does not make for a template of "Modern Men." It does make for confusion and, quite frankly, boredom.

If we've offered less of a critique and more of a dissection of this non-laugh getting hole in the WB's schedule, consider it our homage to a TV franchise. And note that all the finger prints lifted from the crime scene bear out that the sole culprit was Bruckheimer.
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