Sunday, May 06, 2007

TV: Mid-wifing the rebirth of the yuppy

Our big question all last week was "You didn't cancel it, did you?" We peppered various friends at ABC with that and first they'd want to know which show? That was a problem because the title's even less impressive than the show itself.

It's not yet cancelled. It is titled Notes from the Underbelly and it got on the schedule because "women will watch." Women will watch was the thinking and that was the same thinking that landed the bomb Big Wedding on ABC as well. While we're glad that at least one network hasn't written off women, we'd strongly urge them to get know to some.

Notes from the Underbelly isn't The Vagina Monologues Grabs a Pen. Though that would have been more interesting, this show builds around a sure ratings booster, pregnancy. Pregnancy and weddings pump up any ratings. At least for the short term. People tune in for the big events of Little Ricky's birth or Rhoda and Joe's marriage. Why that is may be worth pondering.

We'd argue that since many people have experienced it directly or indirectly, they enjoy seeing how characters they like will react to the same big events. Therefore, as a sweeps stunt, it can be effective.

We just don't think you can build a show around it. Or at least not the way Big Wedding tried and Notes from the Underbelly (for now) still tries. In both cases, there seems to be some sort of consensus that weddings and birth are for female viewers what car chases are for male viewers. Putting aside the issue that many women enjoy watching car chases, we think there's another problem with that thinking. A car chase gets your spirits racing but labor wipes most women out.

Watching a car chase may leave many viewers (of both genders) (and we said "chase," not "race") excited and eager to hop in the car. Watching a woman push a child out of a tiny opening in the body doesn't result in cries of, "I must do that!" Not unless your name's Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ivan Reitman.

There's also the fact that a car chase equates freedom (even when it ends as Thelma & Louise's did) while birth and marriage equate something completely different.

Two supporting characters on the show have, at least, grasped that. And they get in their jabs and funnies. The two would be Michael Weaver as Danny and Rachael Harris as Cooper.
Weaver's got no character so anytime he makes you laugh, credit the actor and not the lousy writing. Cooper's not really a character either but Harris has decided to play in her a "pinched" manner similar to Lily Tomlin's Ernestine. Were today still dominated by the big three and cable not even on the horizon, Cooper would be the break out character given the catch phrase.
But there are (many) other options these days and there's no reason to continue airing Notes from the Underbelly so it will likely be nothing but a footnote in Harris' career that reads: "The best thing about the brief ABC sitcom."

The ratings stunts work because you give a damn how Rachel's going to handle the pregnancy or whether or not Sinclair and Overton will say "I do." You're already invested in the characters, you like them and it's a nice way to boost interest (though the come down can be hell). But what if a show takes a stunt and makes that the premise?

Notes from the Underbelly has been a thirty-minute whine. It's the sort of thing that would have you replying to a friend "Oh, I'm busy" just to avoid another installment of "My life is changing and let me share." We have a friend, Rebecca, who just gave birth. We did not avoid her but her every remark wasn't, "Let's talk about my pregnancy." The two pregnant characters in this show (and their spouses) seem to believe they invented pregnancy. You know the types. They're the ones who think, "Why show off one picture of my kid when I can show fifty?"

Until a kid invents the cure for cancer, we'll hold that precious though they may be, no small child is the center of anyone's universe other than its parents. But there are many parents who operate as though their children are as lively and interesting as what happens in the Middle East or at least the latest tabloid scandal from Britty.

Melanie Paxson's Julie and Sunkrish Bala's Eric are supposed to be the extreme version of this.
But we'd argue that the leads, Jennifer Westfeldt's Lauren and Peter Cambor's Andrew, aren't headed down the same road, they're already there.

Wesfeld co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred in Kissing Jessica Stein so she at least should know that even comedy needs conflict. Writers of Undernotes from the Belly have no such knowledge.

What they've birthed is actually a tribute to the 80s yuppie. It's Hope and Michael Steadman (thirtysomething) playing for laughs. That's not the Stedmans being laughed at -- though, goodness knows, they were in real time. Instead, they're presented as ideals to strive for. And we're supposed to enjoy the yuppie conflicts that pregnancy brings. Andrew's worried about money, wants to buy a mini-van (because they increase each year in value?) and speaks of his 'primitive' desires raging within where Lauren quits her job and has to depend on him. We're supposed to find it entertaining.

It doesn't even qualify for a good sex fantasy. While Andrew thinks insular 'big' picture (you never believe for an instant that these characters live in 2007, let alone in a real world), Lauren's obsessed with her body. It's supposed to be comical when she's going on and on about how big her breasts have gotten (for the third time that episode) to her sex starved husband who just keeps staring at them and pushing for sex. It should also be noted that for many women, pregnancy raises concerns about the larger world around them -- issues of peace weigh on many women's minds -- not on bad characters' minds, but on many real life women's minds.

Peter Cambor has no character. In the pilot he wore a Longhorns shirt (Univeristy of Texas) and the only real reason for that appears to be that the actor was born in Texas. (Water Cooler Critics, we warned you years ago there was a topic ripe for the taking.) Along with no character, he has no appeal unless someone's been in search of a low rent Ben Affleck. He is to Affleck what some of those clones are to Ripley in Alien: Resurrection.

As though the show were taking place a century before it was filmed, the women and the men break up, at every gathering, into groupings based on gender. The boys are bores but not boorish enough to provide the audience a good laugh at them. They're little boys trying to act out their ideas of manhood and about as convincing as little boys are when they play cowboys.
The girls' group should be no better based on the writing but, thanks to Harris' Cooper, it's often funny. As Lauren and Julie drone on non-stop about their pregnancies (no matter how big the party, the group going off to the side always seems to be just Lauren, Julie and Cooper), you watch Cooper tense up and explode in little bits and pieces.

This pregnancy terrain actually can be handled quite well in a sitcom and has been on Roseanne. But, if you'll remember, Jackie and Roseanne didn't talk non-stop about pregnancy (nor did Dan and Fred). After awhile, you start to realize that Lauren and Julie (as well as Andrew and Eric) can't shut up about pregnancy because their actual lives are so void of anything else. They start to remind you of a girl you knew in high school who decided to have a baby because she wanted something to love.

Roseanne succeeded on this landscape because the show had actual characters and because the real show runner (Roseanne) knew a thing or two about the subject and brought it to life in a realistic way. There's no realism in Notes from the Underbelly, just tired characters with trite lives hoping that a birth will provide them with some excitement and the scariest thing is that there's no indication anyone involved with the show grasps that.

Had it been a hit, the headlines would read "Yuppies Reborn!" Instead, it's just one more superficial show (in a season of little else) that hopes a ratings stunt can take the place of actual characterization and plot development.
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