Sunday, September 17, 2006

TV: Call the coroner

After a few efforts of aspiration, Fox is back to rolling around the sitcom sewer. 'Til Death's the name of the infected swine and, as the puss pours out, you must relinquish all notions of an anti-biotic arriving in time to save anyone.

'Til Death rips from the pages of Married With Children. Only it leaves out the kids and anything comical. It lacks Katey Sagal's spark and Ed O'Neill's timing. It just lies there waiting to be put ouf of misery.

Here's the set up. Young couple (think Steve & Marci) live next to older couple (Peg & Al). The young couple (as on Married With Children) is full of hopes and dreams and love. The older couple is, as the title tells you, just waiting for that marital vow to kick in.

It's a tired premise but if Fox couldn't love even its ugly children, who would they have to love?

Here's another clue about Fox's typical sitcoms, they don't feature attractive men. The women are thin (though they complain about their weight) and, as one failed show last year titled itself, Stacked, but the men are at best plain. Which is why in this sitcom, they pluck the guy who had the runs in American Pie as opposed to a Chris Klein or a Jason Biggs.

It's easy to forget now, having seen what the years did, but when Friends first debuted, one of the criticisms was that the cast was 'too pretty' and don't pretend that they were talking about the women. (From Loni Anderson to Courtney Thorne-Smith, it's rare that a sitcom is judged 'too pretty' due to the women.) CBS has a problem with men as well. There they cast "Dads" -- regardless of age, they all seem like some boxy (stocky, or overweight) guy either in the supermarket with the kids or waiting out in the parking lot in the car for the wife and kids to return. Somehow those men always end up with drop-dead gorgeous women (on TV anyway). Higher up on the beauty train is ABC (Jim Belushi not withstanding) who always hopes a 'hottie' can generate buzz. (NBC appears to now compete with Fox on who can cast the most plain, if not ugly, men.)

It's worth noting because the wives are, as usual, so much more attractive than the men. Physically.

Emotionally, they're all on the same page of the DSM.

Let's address the two leads. Brad Garrett is praying to God, Budda, Mohammad and Nielsen that America so desperately misses Raymond that they'll lap up 'Til Death which is to Raymond what thunderbird is to Johnny Walker Red. If you are, in fact, having sitcom DTs so severe that you're ready for the equivalent of sucking on anti-persperant for the alcohol buzz, 'Til Death may give you a tiny dollop of relief. It won't stop the tremors, but it may make them less intense.

Brad Garrett spent some time as an actor embarrassing himself (see Into The Night -- warning, he wears blue briefs and you may never recover) and decided he'd get in on the joke by portraying characters who were meant to be embarrassing. Which is why he's still using the exaggerated Robert Barone voice for each and every line in this show. Besides the tonalities, there's also the issue of the slow, slow delivery.

What no one seems to grasp is that, minus the comic timing of Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle, Raymond was very little. Roberts and Boyle were the true stars of the show and when they were on, they filled the screen with tension and promise. So much so that in the last seasons, the show played like one long reaction shot. But Ray Romano looking nervous (Romano is a far better actor than Garrett) didn't get as big a laugh without Roberts or Boyle adding something -- a squint, a raised eyebrow, a blank stare. They were the ones your eyes went to in every scene because they were the true stars of the show.

Garrett? He was the Potsie of the bunch. Pull him out, no one even notices. Which is why Garrett won a battle but CBS won the war. The battle? The infamous sick-out to raise his salary. With Raymond going off the air, CBS was in panic mode and thinking maybe a series about Robert Barone (Everyone's Even More Bored With Robert?) might pull in viewers. He won the battle, he leveraged a higher salary. But you'll note that his follow-up sitcom airs on Fox and not CBS. There's a reason for that: even in panic mode, CBS could smell After M*A*S*H a mile away.

There's a stench coming off Joley Fisher as well, one so strong it may be the thing that finally kills the sitcom career, and it's name is Patricia Heaton. In what should have been a promising small screen career, Fisher has floundered about post-Ellen. She's been bland but she's never been bad. As Garett's onscreen wife, she's flat out awful.

If you're looking for anything resembling Joley Fisher in the show, don't bother. Every quirk has been sanded down so that she can be as monotone and expressionless as Patricia Heaton. Her
delivery, her voice, it all sounds like Heaton.

If the world even needs one Patricia Heaton, it's only as a cautionary note. Why Fisher's dropped her own comic stylings to ape Heaton is anyone's guess. Common sense would tell Fisher that Garrett got the post-Raymond show, not Heaton. Maybe Fisher was hoping for that post-sitcom path where you wait around for a role every few years when a corporation decides they need to schill for the GOP and, to really underscore that the production is elephant through and through, they need to cast the GOP pin-down gal.

It makes no sense at all. You don't follow the path of the woman Pantene backed off of when the ratings blockbuster sitcom was still on air. You don't follow the path of the woman Patene got more complaints on than any other person ever featured in their ads. Our personal favorite complaint, sent into Patene and then circulated out by a company prankster, was the one that made the point, this is a paraphrase: "If Nicole Kidman was endorsing Pantene, I'd use it. But why on earth would I want to have the life of Patricia Heaton?" Take heart, dear, no one does. Probably not even Heaton.

As those complaints piled up, Heaton suddenly found herself just schilling on TV for a grocery store. Apparently, though unbelievable pushing a product that's supposed to make you look good, people could buy her as an eater.

Actually, in fairness to Heaton, it's not a monotone. It's a dual-tone. There is the normal nag and then there is the screeching nag. Fisher, being a real actress, was able to nail down both in the first episode and now just looks bored (and not in character) between lines.

So what have we got? They've stolen the premise from Married With Children, the characters from Raymond, so who do they get the plots from? Would you believe I Love Lucy?

We watched two in full and five minutes of the next one -- though no medical expert has confirmed it, we think the sickness that plauged one of us throughout last week came not from spinach but the show. All the plotlines were Lucy-esque. Not in the highs that everyone talks of (they can't even rip off right) but in those mundane little episode when "the girls" decide to show "the boys" what's what. Which is why the second episode was a battle over who would decorate the house (younger couple) and who would decorate the patio (Garret and Fisher)?

Naturally, the women won both times. But if Fox couldn't soothe the increasingly fragile male ego of the viewers they seek, what would they be left to do? Revive Models, Inc?

A detail overlooked, Lucy can't be Fox-i-fied. The plots revolve around the premise that Lucy is likeable. It's that Ricky's likeable and Ethel and Fred. And they didn't get to be likeable, take note Garrett, by making castration jokes when ever the proceedings came to a pronounced lull. In fact, that kind of venum and hate coming off of Desi Arnaz would have killed the show before America fell in love with it.

Possibly Fisher apes Heaton so because she's playing the dullest ball buster since Deborah Barone. Only on Fox could a ball buster stick with a ball-less man. The women are ugly, the men are ugly. On the inside, where it counts.

Now we can just imagine a Brad Garrett fanatic writing in to say he (we're sure it will be a he) knows lots of people like Eddie and Joy (the couple Garrett and Fisher play). We don't doubt it. We don't doubt that some people know serial killers. We wouldn't want to see a sitcom about them either.

Or to put it another way, Seinfeld was a sitcom about nothing but it didn't star nothing, it didn't force you to watch nothing mouth lines oh-so-slowly.

We bumped into a friend who wrote for Raymond last week. He wanted to try a theory on us: Raymond reflected America post-9/11 (when it enjoyed its greatest ratings) because it was a show about people who couldn't stand each other but had to get along.

That, he told us, was the message of the show and the message for America.

We were glad to note that toiling for Raymond hadn't destroyed all his creative fantasies; however, by that 'logic,' we could suggest that 'Til Death is like Laura Bush: America is stuck with Bully Boy and, like Laura, we have to work real hard to try not to outshine him.

The reality is that Fox has always been a one trick pony. Whenever in doubt, it goes back to clone another Married With Children, could Bill Frist take a moment to address that genetic mutation? Sometimes an Ally McBeal will hit and they'll try to upgrade a little or a Melrose will take off and they'll try to do cellular division. 'Til Death results from the fact that Fox's current 'hit' sells fear as a drama with quick cuts and sudden jumps. 'Til Death tries to market it via a comedy with slow reaction shots to a flat line. It can't be revived and Garrett's lousy performance at the convention should have clued them in quick that the last minute retooling couldn't save the dying.
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