Sunday, May 01, 2011

TV: You can learn a lot from the screen

Last week, what was revealed was telling in numerous ways. We learned that Barack's own celebrity fan base doesn't trust him, for instance and we learned how much a live studio audience can add to a show.


Thursday night bitchy Tina Fey had her revenge on 30 Rock. Or thought she did. You may recall Tina's whining to the media that they had a perfect spot planned for Bill Clinton but couldn't get him. Wah, wah, she whined in public.

Even though they'd already 'fixed' it by adding a 'joke' to the John Riggi scripted episode. Avery was sent to various locales by the network. In North Korea, she discovered her stay was 'extended' by Kim Jong-Il. Avery was a political prisoner. Who could save her?

Tina's Liz suggested to Jack (Alec Baldwin) that he ask Bill Clinton, who'd helped with Laura Ling's release, to get Avery out of North Korea but Jack explained Avery had never forgiven Bill for not making a pass at her in 1996. Screwing up her sad little face, Fey nodded and said Avery was too skinny (to interest Bill). Oh, that was funny (not).

Since Bill was out of the picture, who could they call? Condi Rice showed up playing herself. Jack asked Condi (whom he broke up with early in the series) to help.

And Tina was so proud of the episode.


Not only did she attack Bill Clinton with a tired and stale joke, but was her message supposed to be: Barack Obama is weak, ineffectual and not to be trusted?

That's what the episode broadcast. Avery was a hostage in North Korea. Liz and Jack brainstormed on who could help. Neither thought to contact the current administration. Says a great deal, doesn't it? Dropping back to the guy who was president from 1993 to 2000 for help or the woman who served in the Bush administration.

But Barack? The sitting president? No one thought to reach out to the Christ-child.

The real problem here is that pathetics like Tina Fey have been happy to make every politician a joke except Barack. And they've sheltered and protected the little fellow to the point that he's about as strong as a penned in veal.

There were moments early on when ABC's Wednesday night fare Better With You was just as weak. But it had a number of things going for it including James Burrows, a solid cast and a live studio audience.

Rough spots will emerge in any show. The first 13 or so episodes of Roseanne, for example, are not the show's finest. Many members of The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast (especially Ted Knight) took a few episodes to really get a handle on their characters.

A show like Mr. Sunshine is never going to get better than its first (awful) episode. It's not playing to an audience. It's a bunch fo tired actors filming bits and pieces throughout the week and it's just never going to be better or any different. By contrast, a show filmed before a studio audience is going to give immediate response and feedback. The behind the camera team can shape a role to include an unexpected and unplanned bit so that it becomes part of the character. An actor or actress can learn quickly what's working and what's not.

That's taken place as the season's moved along.

Better With You, for those who've missed it, tracks three couples: newly in love Mia and Casey (Joanna Garcia and Jake Lacey), Mia's sister Maddie and her live-in boyfriend Ben (Jennifer Finnigan and Josh Cooke) and Mia and Maddie's parents Vicky and Joel (Debra Jo Rupp and Kurt Fuller).

Most TV viewers know Debra Jo Rupp as Kitty on That 70s Show. They saw glimmers of Kitty at the start of the show. But as the series has moved along, Debra Jo's performance became stronger and stronger. There's a chilling quality to Vicky that's really not in the early scripts but that Debra Jo provided, audiences responded and it quickly became part of the character with the scripts tailored to include it.

After Debra Jo, the most well known cast member was probably Joanna Garcia who starred as Reba's oldest (and blond) daughter on Reba and she's brought Mia down, scaled her back as the season went along. (We're not picking apart any of the cast, we think they all do a great job, and Joanna's Mia had every reason to be exhuberent -- she was in love and pregnant at the start of the show -- but she was a little too happy about everything.) The entire cast has shaded their performances as the season went along.

And the writers were able to use the audience feedback provided during tapings. It's why Jake Lacy character is not the big problem it was at the start.

When you do any TV show, people will relate and that's especially true when there are recongizable situations. Better With You provides many opportunities for the viewer to cast her or himself as a character while watching.

And Jake's Casey was the show's biggest problem. Casey is beloved by Mia and Maddie's parents while Ben, on a good day, is beliked by them.

If you've cast yourself as Ben or Maddie, that's not funny.

It's not funny to see Ben bust his ass to try to please them or reach them or do for them and to repeatedly see him treated like a guest and not part of the family. (Ben and Maddie have lived together for nearly a decade. Maddie doesn't belive in marriage.)

Casey has many good qualities and those could have been embraced for the start but instead audiences were tabulating what Ben was doing for Vicky and Joel and how Casey was the epitome of irresponsibility (where's the job, Dad-to-be?) and really starting to dislike Casey.

This was not Jake Lacy's performance, this was about the way the storyline was plotted.

And in a single camera, no audience show, that storyline would have stated exactly the same. Better With You, by contrast, was able to tinker with it to get to the point where audiences could enjoy Casey.

Cooke was the best thing about Four Kings so his strong work here was not unexpected. Jennifer Finnigan is miles beyond her performance in Close To Home and that was a surprise from the very first episode of Better With You. But the real satisfication for those vierwers who stayed with the show has to be just how strong everyone is. That includes Kurt Fuller who is a constant surprise.

The biggest problem Better With You has currently is finding viewers. Airing after Dancing With The Stars last Monday, the show pulled in over 11 million viewers -- which was better than many other sitcoms ABC has placed there did. It usually airs on Wednesday nights and, for much of the season, only on Wednesday nights.


ABC better get its act together this fall. It cannot air TV shows anymore that cannot also be streamed online. It's not 1979, Barney Miller does not rule the airwaves. The inability to stream V online hurt that show. There was tremendous interest in the show's second season until it started. Viewers waited and waited to stream it and quickly realized that they couldn't. That created a huge backlash for the show that not even bringing on cast members from the first V series could diminish. Better With You is now streamable at Hulu and at ABC. So it works both ways, viewers can learn from networks and networks can learn from viewers.

If ABC were smart, it would renew the show and air it every week over the summer to help further build its audience. Will they renew it? ABC suits tell us they'll be closer to that decision May 12th when they see the overnights for the episode Mia gives birth in.
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