Sunday, January 28, 2007

TV: No Class in The Class

CBS's new Monday nights, Out of Practice was pulled and The Class was put on instead. What do the two shows have in common? Strong casts, lousy writing.

The sitcom is the co-brain child of David Crane and you knew the Friends gravy train had to end some time. Publicity material for the show before it aired couldn't stop citing Friends. Ourselves, we were remembering Veronica's Closet, Jesse and Joey. That's not why we waited to review it. A friend with the show begged us to give it time.

If you've got time to waste, The Class is the perfect show for you. If you're only to willing to allow for growing pains and not stink-o-rama, you'll probably take a pass on The Class.

What's right? A strong cast. Strong creative team on the set.

What's wrong? Writing, casting and just about every obstacle that a performer needs a miracle to overcome.

Lucy Punch is already out of the cast. She played Holly. Who was Holly? Don't ask the writers.
Punch struggled against huge odds (including the wrong type to play annoying -- everyone but Jason Ritter has been cast against type). She was supposed to be irritating. Not in a Louie (Taxi) kind of way. She was supposed to be irritating and endearing. Holly is/was married to a man with whom she had a daughter (named Oprah) and the 'gag' there was that he's probably gay. He certainly is mincing.

She was supposed to be enough of an idiot not to notice when everyone around her did. She was also supposed to be a TV journalist so maybe the not noticing what everyone else did wasn't so unbelievable? Her school boyfriend turned out to be gay, by the way (Kyle played by Sean Maguire). So what she wanted was for her daughter to get into a good school, to get her career going and that was pretty much it. The writers thought ha-ha was having her report on a hurricane and have a sign hit her in the face. In fact, they thought that was so ha-ha funny, not only did they show that once, they had Kyle and his boyfriend watch it repeatedly (while laughing) on Tivo. And, here's the thing, viewers are supposed to like Kyle.

Do the writers? Who knows?

One thing we do know is that it's always an all White world in The Land of David Crane. No leads are persons of color and Kyle's boyfriend Aaron is someone Holly (and her husband) repeatedly state they can't understand due to his Hispanic accent. Just one more trait that was supposed to irritate and endear Holly to viewers.

Punch wasn't the problem. Holly could have been fixed. The problem wasn't with the actress, it was with the writing. In another story involving suicidal Richie (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Holly was actually funny in a scene in the car where she was supposed to be uncaring much to the amazement of Nicole (Andrea Anders) and Duncan (Jon Bernthal). Not only was that a strong scene for Punch, it was also one of the better scenes for Bernthal.

His character, Duncan (it's a big cast, we'll go slowly) lives at home with his mother and appears to have trouble with work (he's in construction). The show kicked off with Ethan (Jason Ritter) wanting to surprise the woman he was engaged to with a party featuring everyone they went to third grade with as well as some school employees. At the party, Duncan met Nicole (Andrea Anders) again. He always loved her. She was there with her husband Yonk (played by David Keith who's the only cast member that has managed to deliver consistently despite the writing). After the party. Yonk is asked what he values most as he and his wife drive home. He can mention his Superbowl moments and other things. He doesn't mention her. As a result, when he then leaves on a business trip, she calls Duncan. They end up sleeping together.

She stays with Yonk. Wait, we're not to the groaner yet. Duncan visits Nicole who passes himself off as a guy giving an estimate on house repairs when Yonk suddenly returns home. Yonk decides they need to fix the place up and that Duncan's the guy to do that. Duncan accepts. Now Duncan works on the house, makes goo-goo eyes at Nicole, buddies around with Yonk and the whole thing could hold your attention for about 90 minutes in a film but it just too hard to believe (especially when Duncan's giving Yonk's tips on how to please his wife) week after week.

It's that sort of overkill that destoys the show.

Need another example? Remember suicidal Richie (Jess Tyler Ferguson)? He falls for Lina (Heather Goldenhersh) and it's not enough that on their first date he has to run her over, helping her leave the hospital he also loses her at the entrance when a gust blows through. Now Richie loves Lina and Lina loves Richie. There's none of the dance Nicole and Duncan are doing. But the writers keep piling it on. They can't help it. They think if they keep throwing something on the screen, it's bound to land funny. (Keep hoping.)

So Richie isn't just in love with Lina, he also has a wife. Not an ex-wife, a wife. As Lina manuevers around in her wheelchair (due to her casts, she'll be out of it when the casts come off), you start wondering when the writers will feel that they've done more than enough plot-wise and start providing scenes that pay off.

Jason Ritter's easy going in the role and it works. Ethan was dumped at the party in the first episode. He's dumped at another party. The bad-things-happen-at-parties was funny . . . on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Yes, we have another series that has little to do with the real world and a lot to do with every other sitcom you've ever seen. But Jason Ritter makes it work. He's very natural on camera (even more so than his father John Ritter).

The most effective scenes on the show have been between Ritter and and Lizzy Caplan (Kat). Not the 'big plot' scenes that advance about four different story strands at once. The effective scenes have involved self-contained moments -- such as when Ethan and Kat pretend to be other people's blind dates.

Caplan? She's trying very hard. She's undermined by things that would never had happened ten years ago on an NBC sitcom. What's the deal with the hair? What's the deal with the clothes? None of which suit her character. (Duncan, by contrast, in t-shirts or dressed up, comes off like a little boy -- very in character.) They've worked some with the hair but when we were asked to wait on reviewing this show, we did ask if hair and wardrobe would be addressed in the 'changes' that were coming? Apparently not really.

Those aren't superficial issues especially when you're talking about the character (Kat) who is supposed to be the bad ass of the show. With a hairstyle like Leather Tuscadero, maybe someone weaned on Happy Days has never met a real bad ass?

While Duncan has his own visual scheme, the rest of the characters are lost. There's nothing they wear that says a thing about the characters. When you've got actors working their asses off to bring weakly written characters to life, they need some assistance.

Off screen, Caplan (Kat) has been given some and it's paid off. The character was one (sour) note in the first episode. The director (James Burrows) has worked hard to assist Caplan. Not because she's not a fine actress (she's a fine actress) but because there's so damn little on the page. It's the same sort of work that Megan Mullally had to do with Karen Walker on Will & Grace. If the show lasts, expect the viewers tuning into later seasons to experience shock when the first episodes go into syndication -- to be as shocked as the ones asking "What's happened to Karen's voice?" when Will & Grace first started airing in syndication.

The actors (and the director) are pulling it together in rehearsals, reinventing the script as much as they can.

Don't expect much help from David Crane. The co-creator of Friends found another partner for this show and what's on screen demonstrates that CBS got Crane post-Joey not after Friends first reached their giddy highs. He's on fumes which is why it's only near the mid-season that characters (and actors) are starting to connect with each other -- characters who aren't lovers or would be lovers. Duncan and Richie have a nice chemistry. Kyle and Ethan have a nice character. Kyle and Kat have a nice chemistry.

The only chemistry that's worked from the start is Kat and Lina who are supposed to be two sisters who are complete opposites ("as different as night and day" as The Patty Duke Show once said of the identical cousins). That's the one area where Caplan's full on force has always worked. Lina's too trusting (not just in Kat's eyes, too trusting period). When Kat lets loose on Richie, you buy her as a bad ass (regardless of hair and wardrobe) because you've seen Kat and Lina together.

That's probably one of the biggest problems. Kat and Lina? That could be the basis for the a sitcom. Any combination could. But everything is like a force feeding of sitcom cliches. If the show lasts a few seasons, expect Caplan to get attention outside of it. She's really good and she's working hard to get a handle on a character the writer's really don't know. Heather Goldenhersh (Lina)? You are seeing a Dianne Wiest on your TV screens. An actress who is making her own rules as she goes along and making it work. So it's really sad that such a powerhouse talent is (a) stuck with bad writing and (b) sidelined on the show.

Though even a "Hello" from Lina's lips comes off zany, the writers are too busy making her the "love interest" (for Richie) and saddling her with bad drama when her humor is the one thing that should be writer-proof. But as good as Goldenhersh is, she can't overcome writers who want to pile on the drama and turn each episode into: "Ooooh. Lina." Heavy sigh.

It's as though someone had Lucille Ball and decided to cast her in a sitcom as the straight man. It makes no sense and, in the end, that's largely true of the show. We've mainly stayed with the lead characters. We didn't bore you with details about Richie's wife (Sarah Gilbert of Roseanne and Twins) or tell you about Yonk's daughters (including a grossly obese one) or Duncan's mother (who he lives with) or Holly's parents or . . . You get the idea?

The show's only been on since September and it already seems bound and determined to beat The Simpsons for most recurring characters. It's too much.

Anyone paying attention could see that everything is piled on too much, that about four sitcoms are going on at once, and that Ritter and Caplan's scenes that really don't add to long running storyline are the only ones where the laughs are unforced and the viewers can actually sit back and enjoy. Someone needs to explain to David Crane that Ross and Rachel's break ups and get back togethers were good for season cliffhangers but viewers of a sitcom do not need multiple cliffhangers each episode. Especially with a new show, they need to get to know the characters -- something the writers really need to do as well. Stop forcing the actors and the director (James Burrows, very gifted) to fix things in rehearsals and start working on writing useable scripts.

And has anyone noticed the obvious and wondered if that's why the women are especially badly written? Where are the women writers? Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Friends, wrote more episodes of that show than did David Crane. Is he now afraid to work women? He needs to get over it and quick because in his mind that may be how women play out (yo-yos back and forth like Nicole, "I want Yonk! I want Duncan!"; pathetically limp the way Lina is written; and a female bad ass with buns of steel if not strongly written characterization). If CBS wants to know why Holly couldn't be redeamed, it goes straight to the fact that the writers telling the story appear to know nothing about women. (Who make up approximately 1/2 the leads in the cast.)
CBS should explain to Crane and his new (male) partner, that it's time to cut the dead weight on writer department.

CBS needs to tell Crane? Well they wouldn't have to if the show had a real producer/show runner (it doesn't, that role is filled by Burrows as well) -- someone who could throw some weight around with bad writers. But that doesn't happen when you hand out co-producer credits to writers like Halloween candy. Everyone thinks they're an expert. Watching any one episode of The Class will prove how false that belief is.
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