Sunday, November 14, 2010

TV: Comedy dos and don'ts

This week, Meryl Streep continued her performance as Camilla Bowner. At the 2004 AFI Tribute to Meryl, Goldie Hawn likened the sixteen times Academy Award nominated actress to a Stradivarius, Shirley MacLaine hailed her as "other worldly," Diane Keaton used the term genius -- and those were just some of the sung praises. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Cher takes her turn praising Meryl. Meryl's considered one of the finest actresses of all time and we're rather surprised that when she wades into new waters, the press shows so little interest.


Camilla Bowner is Meryl's first online role, therapist to Fiona Wallace's politician husband whose in the midst of a sexual scandal being the latest in a long line of conservatives outed as gay. Camilla is practicing "aversion therapy" to "cure" Kip Wallace -- in part by having sex with him.

Camilla: If I can reveal myself to you, I can tell you that God touches me -- down there, I feel a little tingling. And he taps me for this work he says, "Get in there and do what you can, Camilla."

Fiona: How interesting that he taps you there when a shoulder is so available.

Meryl's done a three-episode appearance on Web Therapy -- Lisa Kudrow and Don Roos' online situation comedy. The Emmy winning Kudrow (for her performance as Phoebe on Friends) plays the vain and shallow Dr. Fiona who, after some Wall Street 'indiscretions' in her previous career, has now recast herself as a therapist, specifically as an online therapist. Kudrow's been consistently touching and hilarious and her guest stars -- Rashida Jones, Molly Shannon, Courtney Cox, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Alan Cummings, Selma Blair, Julie Claire, Dan Bucatinsky, Jane Lynch and more -- have done the same. Kudrow's breathed life in Fiona from the start and long before her sister Shevaun (Louis-Dreyfus) recounted some of Fiona's issues.

Shevaun: Our childhood was the -- polar opposites. I was adored. You were detested. I was beautiful. You were hideous. I was thin. You were obsese. I was intelligent. You were possibly mentally challenged. I was elegant. You were -- what is the opposite of elegant?

Fiona: Coarse? Unrefined?

Shevaun: Thank you, perfect

Fiona: Well frankly all I can remember from my childhood is sun dappled meadows and lollipops dispensed and -- and rainbows. I don't know -- gambling lambs.

Shevaun: I-I'm not surprised you remember lollipops dispensed. They weren't really dispensed. They were stolen. Do you remember that you stole those lollipops? Don't you remember that you were beaten? Do you not remember our father hitting you with his shoe? You don't remember this? Remember, it was right after they shaved your head for lice?

Fiona: Yes.

Shevaun: Remember they had that big thing of lollipops?

Fiona: Yes.

Shevaun: And they would give one to the child when they left because they were sick and they had their prescription filled and blah blah blah blah blah.

Fiona: Right.

Shevaun: And you took the entire container. Do you not remember this?

Fiona: Yes -- oh, yes. That's right. Because I felt like I deserved something. They'd never given me one before.

Shevaun: And then Daddy took his shoe --

Fiona: Yes.

Shevaun: -- and remember he hit you in the head. Don't you remember?

Fiona: Oh, yes. Like a tap in the head.

Shevaun: It was a tap shoe. It wasn't a tap in the head. It was a tap shoe, remember? Because he was dancing.

Fiona is screwed up. But Fiona doesn't think she's screwed up. And whether it's Kudrow or any of her guest stars, all the characters have their own humanity. The jokes spring from the characters, the characters are not the joke.

And all of the above is not just our effort to encourage you to check out Web Therapy if you haven't already, it's also our way of noting how you do comedy as opposed to how you don't.

For examples of how you don't, you can generally check out the career of Greg Garcia. And you don't have to stop with Mayberry on Crack (My Name Is Earl). It also includes Yes, Dear and Family Matters. None of the three had a thing to do with life. None of the three -- despite major efforts on the part of Jaime Pressly -- dealt in characterization. It was all sketch, it was all thinly drawn characters and the entire point was to feel superior to them. You could watch every episode of all three shows and never, ever recognize humanity in any of it.

Greg Garcia is a hack. While he did shows like Family Matters and Yes, Dear, he was to be avoided and easily so. But doing the same bad show but without a studio audience gave the hideous My Name Is Earl 'depth' to the Water Cooler Set. The show was a huge bomb -- Union Square did better on NBC Thursday nights than did My Name Is Earl -- and drove off viewers each season. Alyssa Milano was added at one point with the network hoping that she could provide "heat" but she couldn't. No one could have, not with those scripts.

Earl's biggest problem was not just the thinly written characters, it was also the fact that these characters were mocked and ridiculed. It made for bad TV but, as one multiple Emmy winning sitcom producer pointed out, "Who would have thought that someone responsible for Yes, Dear would have the audacity to look down on anyone?"

Indeed. And it was this sneering, snotty point-of-view that doomed Earl. The show was like the first episodes of Roseanne, before Roseanne staged her walk out and made clear that as long as the scripts were ha-ha-look-at-the-fat-woman and ha-ha-poor-people-are-so-stupid-and-crass, she wasn't doing the show. That took real strength, it took an artist.

Greg Garcia has/is neither.

Which is why it's so surprising that Raising Hope is the rare Fox live action sitcom (second hour of prime time Tuesday nights) which actually works -- so far.

Give credit to Martha Plimpton first and foremost. The always amazing Plimpton can't be praised enough. And it's good to see her for more than a single episode. If you write mere sketches, you need an actress who can flood your thinly drawn role. Martha doesn't find the humanity in the role, she creates it, she births it.

Martha's playing Virginia Chance, mother of Jimmy (Lucas Neff), wife of Burt (Garret Dilahunt), granddaughter of Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) and grandmother to the infant Hope that they're "raising." We can't think of another woman who could play Virginia and make this show work. Martha's bringing so much more than the scripts to each performance and taking the on-the-page ridiculed Virginia and turning her into a relatable and recognizable woman. We're not sure how long Martha can pull that feat off because we've read the scripts and still marvel at all that she's managed so far.

The show was sold as a look-at-these-idiots series. The premise is that Martha and Burt move in with Maw Maw and never leave. Maw Maw suffers from a highly fluid memory which is constantly in flux. Martha and Burt's young son Jimmy works with Burt in the landscape business while Martha cleans homes. On a really bad day, Jimmy hooks up with a gorgeous woman (Lucy played by Bijou Phillips) in what appears to be a life-changer for Jimmy. It does turn out to be such an event, but in a different way. Lucy's killed several men and ends up on death row and pregnant. Shortly after she gives birth, Lucy visits the "electric bye-bye chair" and Jimmy is left to raise their daughter (Princess Beyonce until Jimmy changes his daughter's name to Hope).

A gifted talent could take that premise and turn it into a screwball comedy. Greg Garcia's not gifted. And the scripts never fail to demonstrate that. For example, who has a problem with words? This can be a character trait. Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker was infamous for his malapropisms, for example. But what might be a trait for Virginia gets shifted to Burt, gets shifted to . . .

Are their characters being written here because, on the page, there's no evidence that they are. Character traits shift from episode to episode. Garcia's very lucky to have a talented cast who can make this believable and flesh out stick figures.

And if it were a single-season show, we'd be less concerned about how all this turns out. But Garcia's record demonstrates that he gets worse with each season. If that turns out to still be the case, not only will the cast be unable to save him but some of the Water Cooler Set might have to notice what they've ignored: Just how hateful this show is written.

Do you see the working poor as idiots? That's how Greg saw them in My Name Is Earl and how he sees them in Raising Hope. The pilot is the worst episode of the series thus far because the actors were still feeling their way around and were too dependent upon the script which really drove home the ha-ha-these-people-are-stupid-and-poor.

It's rather amazing that no one wants to notice that aspect of the show and how Garcia's stil sneering and looking down at the characters. Not only does spoofing really not work for a longtime audience, there's also the reality that if Garcia finds these characters something to sneer at, he might try remembering that he's the one who created them.

Fox might try remembering Garcia's record and, at the first sign of a significant drop in viewers, muscle Garcia out of the way and bring on a real writer. Right now the actors are able to rise above the 'jokes' about how lazy the poor are but, as far as we can tell, the most indolent person -- and the real unskilled worker -- is Greg Garcia.
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