Sunday, November 11, 2007

TV: The drip-drip of Carpoolers

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda was in a carpool and kicked out when those in her carpool realized she didn't own a car. It was a funny bit, a throw away laugh. What were comedy scraps in the seventies becomes a "premise" thirty years later and take it as a sign of why TV sucks so bad.

Carpoolers or Carpiddles or maybe just Oil Stains, airs each Wednesday on ABC's first hour of primetime following the wretched Cavemen and deciding which one is worse is a bit like trying to pick out the pretty daughter in the White House during the Johnson Administration. If forced to choose, we'd assume George Hamilton would escort Carpoolers which would it make it the Lynda Bird Johnson and not the Luci Baines Johnson of the pair. Hamilton once famously declared he would love Lynda even if she weren't the president's daughter which only makes us wonder how embarrassing the Water Cooler Set's love affair with Carpoolers will be when ABC yanks it?

The show follows four who carpool and, wouldn't you know it, they are all men. Jerry O'Connell is only the name among the four actors and he plays Laird, Fred Goss is the only one with a handle on his character (Gracen), Tim Peper recites the lines of newlywed Dougie and Jerry Minor is the only non-White adult in the show. All four are married and apparently, in an attempt to combat the vast number of African-American women starring in so many TV shows today, the ha-ha decision was made to only show his wife's feet.

The vast number of African-American women? No, we really don't see them on our TV set either but apparently as impressionable children the men behind the show -- Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, David Miner, Marsh McCall, Jose Russo, Anthony Russo and Kids in the Hall's Bruce McCulloch -- were all forced to watch Gimme a Break! and vowed that one day they would have their revenge. Nell Harper be damned, they'd populate a show with clones of Ralph Simpson!

From Rhoda's Carlton the Doorman on through Vera on Cheers, TV sitcoms have a long history of characters who are never fully seen but are the butt of the jokes. Apparently in 2007, 'progress' is that a basically all White show can get a ton of jokes out of an African-American woman while never putting her fully on camera. Just as, apparently, Aubrey being the driver, the driver of three White men, is never supposed to call to mind any thoughts of Driving Miss Daisy.

The White woman don't fair any better in the writing. Faith Ford steals every scene she's in because she's Faith Ford. That's not an insult to Ford. We're not suggesting she's not playing a character (Leila, married to Gracen), we're just noting she's the only one with a sitcom history, she long ago learned how to get laughs when she put her days of Another World's Julia far behind her and stole the show early on during a funeral on Murphy Brown not just with lines (such as noting Murphy would be dead long before she would) and with physical comedy. There's not a lot of "physical" about the show to begin with but Ford provides comedic tension even in a scene where Leila's just staring at a toaster. Ford reminds you repeatedly that this is supposed to be a sitcom and supposed to be funny and, she's so good, that when she's onscreen, she can almost trick you into believing it lives up to those two things.

Carpoolers is another sitcom that thinks it is edgy and daring because it eschews studio audiences. It's so revolutionary! It's a one camera show! Without an audience! Without an audience refers not just to the fact that it has no studio audience, it also refers to the fact that the show really doesn't have that many tuning in. In fact the ratings have so cratered that it reached a new low last Tuesday when it finally had something to offer. But we'll get to that.

The reality is that outside of some middle-aged pathetics playing Halo and locked into stunted lives, no one really 'loves' the non-soundstage bound sitcoms. They really didn't care for them -- no, they are not new -- back in the day. The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Julia, Gilligan's Island, hate to break it to you, were also one-camera, no-studio-audiences show. If you're wondering, for instance, why you or your friends can remember lines from Friends or Seinfeld or any number of shows but largely don't remember them from the earlier run of the non-funny sitcoms, the reason is because they weren't funny. They were sometimes whimsical. But since they didn't require making an actually present at filming audience laugh, there was no need to provide laugh getting lines. It's the difference between an I Love Lucy and a The Bill Cosby Show. You've seen it all before, folks, even if the Water Cooler Set wants to impose a cultural amnesia.

And you've seen the show before. It's nothing but backlash nonsense, from episode to episode. It's as though Gloria Steinem were still streaking her hair, Cher was still part of Sonny & Cher and the feminist movement was still being billed as a "fad." That's obvious in the first episode when Gracen's pissed, miffed and mopey because wife Leila bought a toaster without asking him. "What was wrong with the old one?" he wants to know. It's not funny, it's not 'of the moment' and it's not interesting.

If you were expecting that throughout the first episode and later ones, Leila would be off buying kitchen gadgets, you were disappointed. That might have said something about her character and would certainly be cause for concern.

Instead, the concern comes in over the money (though the household is not hurting for money). The toaster cost $200! Only in a show created by seven White men could that be a plot point for a comedy. Reality check, you're paying a minimum of fifty to sixty bucks for a toaster these days that won't either die after two years of regular use or burn your house down. Yes, you can purchase one of those drug store toasters for ten or so dollars and you can repurchase it and repurchase it over and over if you are a heavy toaster user. One hundred dollars is not uncommon for toasters on a registry list (four slice). Is two hundred dollars a lot of money for a toaster?

If you're struggling to make ends meet, it is. The family is not struggling and, as the plot point leads to the main point of episode, Leila's not just earning a sizeable income, she's earning a great deal more than her husband. How much is she earning?

That's what Gracen wants to know! And Laird will find out for him! Gracen fears she makes more than him and also complains that the money set-up in the household is what he earns is their money but what she earns is her money and it's not fair, it's not fair, it's just not fair!

You're getting a nasty little peak at the insides of the men behind the camera and how much they fear women and how much they hate themselves. They don't intend to provide that but, as Freud so famously noted, the criminal has a compulsion to confess.

Were any women involved behind the camera (or any men whose soft knuckles didn't drag against the plush-carpeted floors), it's doubtful any of this nonsense would have aired (including the 'happy ending' where Leila restores Gracen's potency -- not his maturity which does not exist -- by insisting he does make more than she does -- a clear lie).

Gracen can't ask his wife how much she makes because he is obviously uncomfortable. The "their" and "her" money stems from the same thing. Leila, the same Leila who has to lie at the end just so her husband can get it up, is fully aware of that. It's obvious that "her" money was something imposed by Gracen, not insisted upon by Leila. He may not have said it in so many words but to soothe his ego the whole real esate profession was billed as a way to get some "mad money," some money to blow. Nothing that would provide -- "Infringement! Will Robinson, Infringement!" -- just something to get the hair and nail done and maybe pick up a spiffy new outfit.

Leila's talented at what she does and it pays. So she has to hide that from the already fragile ego of her husband. Of course she's buying a two hundred dollar toaster. Of course she's spending big on little items (for the house). If she did anything else, if she allowed her success to be visible in any other manner, he'd have a nervous breakdown.

A woman or a man not just emerging from the 'sixties' would have grasped that. And the show could have had a funny first episode. But no one did and the debut was lousy. The males behind the show are too busy summing up their arguments ("Men under attack!") to deal with reality and when a sitcom's not commenting on reality it's not grabbing viewers.

Had a thinking person (of either gender) been involved, the 'happy' ending could have led to some real laugh-fests in later episodes regarding Leila's attempts to continue to soothe and feed Gracen's ego or, novel concept, both characters could have been a little more honest with one another. But the men don't grasp that, they don't grasp anything, they don't grasp the times they live in.

Here's how it works. Men go off to war, and women shop.

So pompously declares Laird in the first episode which aired October 2nd. It wasn't true. It wasn't even funny. And comedy is timing. To provide the perspective the men behind the show never could, "The Department of Defense announced today the death of a sailor who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Seaman Apprentice Shayna Ann Schnell, 19, of Tell City, Ind., died as a result of injuries suffered from a vehicle accident. Schnell was serving as a master-at-arms assigned to Naval Security Force Bahrain, Jebel Ali Detachment, United Arab Emirates." Shanyna Ann Schnell died the day before that dopey and insulting line was broadcast on network TV. Had the US military been doing their job (their job is not to hide the deaths of US service members), that would have been news. But it was the start of the month and MNF was trying to sell the 'good' news of "lowered deaths" which is why DoD made the announcement instead (MNF is supposed to announce the deaths, DoD is only supposed to provide the names after the families have been informed of the deaths). Currently 99 women in the military have died in the illegal war. Not only is the line not funny, it's not true.

Which is the problem with the bulk of the show. It's a problem with the character of Laird as well. O'Connell had a weight problem, he famously had a weight problem, as a child. The result is a picky eater (we're being kind) who frets over his weight constantly. Well, no big deal in and of itself. But the male created, male dominated show, is convinced Laird's God, or at least TV's, physical gift to women. O'Connell's got nice hair and a nice face. But only straight and out of it men could have thought they could provide a lengthy shirtless scene of Laird (with all women going into convulsions) and have built up a joke about how he was left with only the "absercisor" (and the home) in his divorce settlement with that body. O'Connell is thin which is what he wants to be. That's not a problem. But a thin body is not in and of itself a sexy body.

Jerry O'Connell can be funny and recently was on the shpw. Sadly, the highest rated show of the series was the debut -- which wasn't that highly rated to begin with but a sure sign of a series with a problem is week after week of declining ratings. It hit an all time low last Tuesday getting the kind of ratings that even a low rated daytime drama look at in derision. That's really a shame because it was the best episode of the series and it was really the direction the series needed to go if it was ever going to be worth watching.

Joannifer appeared for one episode. That would be Laird's ex-wife and she was played by Rebecca Romijn whose work on Just Shoot Me necessitated that she be billed as "supermodel Rebecca Romijin." That was some time ago. By the time she starred in her own short-lived Fox show (Pepper Dennis, which we reviewed in the print edition and also ran the review in the gina & krista round-robin), Romijin was an actress, a very talented one as viewers of Ugly Betty can see each week.

Just having someone talented and gifted at comedy on the show was an improvement, no question. But Romijin already has regular employment. A guest spot is not the answer to how to fix Carpoolers. The answer was provided in what the show did with the guest spot. Dishrag Cindy (Dougie's wife played by Allison Munn) finally had a purpose on the show. All the characters had a purpose. And it underscored that the show could exist not as a workplace comedy (it's not one) but as a comic take on a neighborhood (think of it as Knots Landing with the giggles). The show moved along at a fast pace, all the characters were involved and there were actual laughs. Laird came off far less glossy more flawed and more human.

That wasn't from Joannifer stomping on his dignity (which took place repeatedly) but from, in front of everyone, repeating a tidbit of advice that Gracen gave him, a tidbit that angered Leila and served to knock the shine off both Laird and Gracen in front of others.

Others? A concept that the creators never seem to have considered. Characters need to exist within a recognizable space. They need to interact. Comedy is conflict so their interacting (as Carpooler does too often with the four male leads) only with similar characters is neither funny nor interesting. Nor are stand up routines sitcoms. We're not suggesting that any of the lines the four male leads swap is up to the level of good standup (it's not even up to the level of bad standup) but we are saying viewers expect to be shown not told. That hasn't happened on the show very often until last week's episode.

Instead, audiences hear about funny things (told in non-humorous lines) while the four men ride to work. It plays out like a class reunion you've tagged along to. Sure others may be laughing and enjoying themselves, but you didn't see it, you didn't live through it and it's just empty chatter to you. That's not how a sitcom should play out.

But no sitcom should be confined to a car. That a single camera sitcom offers so little visual proves just how hollow all the gas bagging over the "miracle" and "reinvention" of sitcoms via a tired device from an earlier age really is. No one wants to watch four people (regardless of gender) sitting in a car. In an earlier time, a better time for sitcoms, creative geniuses (real ones, not press created ones) grasped that. A sure sign of the sad state of sitcoms is that something that rated as nothing but a throw-away one liner for Valerie Harper's Rhoda is now the premise for a TV sitcom.
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