Sunday, October 16, 2005

TV Review: CBS' Monday Night Line Up

The death of the sitcom? We've seen the headlines before. But CBS seems pretty keen to kill it.
You get that feeling watching Monday nights. No we're not referring to the dull attempts at "gross out" comedy provided by "I'm off the drugs!" & "I'm not gay!" We're not even ragging on King of Queens here. (Note to two friends, we watched Monday's show. Bryan Callen was wonderful. It was the best show the series has done; however, one guest spot does not save your show. There's a reason he worked so well. The fact that he did should have encouraged you to pull for him to be a regular or to create a regular character like Jared.)

No, we're talking about How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice, two shows that should be a breeze to watch but aren't.

How I Met Your Mother. Have you ever gone to a friend's house for dinner and then they pull out photos, slides, reels or other stuff? Okay, fine, we'll look or watch. Could be fun to discuss, right? Wrong. There's no conversation, you're just getting, "Uh-huh, now watch this."

That's How I Met Your Mother. The show has many things going for it. Alyson Hannigan and Josh Radnor are sitcom naturals -- networks should take note. The writers actually manage to write some funny scenes. (Amazing in this day and age.) But to enjoy those aspects, you have to suffer.

Radnor plays Ted. Ted hangs with Hannigan and two other friends. He's single. But here's the "twist," he will get married. This show is about how he will meet his wife. Okay, we can accept that premise. It gives the writers something to work toward, no problem.

Here's where the problem is, we don't get to enjoy the show. Future "Ted" keeps interrupting. Sometimes it's with a voice over to tell us what we just saw or are about to see, other times he's lecturing his two kids (apparently he will have two kids) in the future. The scenes fall flat and remove you from the action. They add nothing, they take away so much.

Apparently, Monday night, they existed to give us the "latest" in yucks -- Ted's son keeps repeating that Dad got beat up by a girl! Oh, that's so funny. To someone. (Probably the same someone who thought Future Ted's voice should be voiced by Bob Saget.)

To us, we would have preferred to have stayed with that date and seen it or the after effects.
Instead, just as the scene starts flowing, Future Ted's doing a voice over.

It's as though we were saying, "Wow, what an amazing chalet. Tell us, did you --" and the response was, "No, no, no! We've got to get to the next slide!"

It's a chore to watch this show. That's too bad. Hannigan and Radnor should have future sitcom successes ahead of them. (Hannigan proved her abilities in Buffy and the American Pie film series.) Two supporting players don't really register except as weak copies of Coupling (the British version, not NBC's). Someone who should have no future ahead of him is Neil Patrick Harris.

We missed the whole Doogie Houser "phenomonon." We're told it was quite popular for a second rated show, second rated for most of its life. We know Harris in the flesh but have fortunately been spared onscreen Harris until he popped up on Will & Grace. Here he does exactly what he did on Will & Grace . . . only louder. Watching him, you find yourself backing away from the TV and feeling as though you'd been seated at a table close to the stage for a really bad dinner theater revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

The show borrows a lot from a lot of places. Coupling, to be sure. But also Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors. Harris is trying to play the sleeze that Jason Patric did in that film. He's got the sleeze down, he just lacks a smolder. Without the sexual quality, you're left with a wet blanket geek carrying on about breasts and porn starts as you slowly realize that someone told Harris he was attractive. He has a face of many angles (the pointy chin, the sloped forehead, the nose) -- all of them wrong. But people who don't look like models can be sexy. They can tap into a quality. That quality eludes Harris repeatedly. He's as convincing in this role as Peter Bonerz would be as the lead in American Gigolo.

So you're left rolling your eyes as the guy who can't score even at "Last call!" acts as though he's getting some. The shouting ("This friendship is over!" or some such nonsense) would send the few who could ignore his actual looks running. Want to clear a room fast? Present Harris as sexy.

How I Met Your Mother is a perfect example of all that's wrong with sitcoms. Bad casting, bad concept and never letting the audience enjoy the moment. But watch for Hannigan and Radnor in other things. Both should have long careers. (Radnor needs to make sure he doesn't become addicted to his own "cuteness." That can kill a career -- check out Scrubs.)

While the writers at How I Met Your Mother can write scenes that are funny (provided you ignore the voice overs -- ignore them, you won't miss anything), Out of Practice is another story. The writing is hideous. The cast is incredible.

Stockard Channing can deliver a weak line and make it funny. As she demonstrated in First Wives' Club, she's not dependent upon what's on the written page. Already she's defined her character (while the writers continue to flail around). Henry Winkler is also amazing.

Now if you've watched the show, you may be screaming, "Ava and C.I., you two are insane!"

Read the scripts (we have). Winkler's got writers who don't know what they're writing. Some scripts he's supposed to be Fraiser Crane, some he's supposed to be Ray Barone. Never do you get the impression that the writers know what Winkler can do. Read a script and then watch the same episode and you'll realize how hard Winkler's working.

Paula Marshall and Ty Burrell largely ignore the text. That's working for them. They're adding physical bits that provide laughs. But they can only do that for so long. At some point, there has to be more to the characters than their movements. If the writers worked as hard (or were even half as inventive) as Marshall and Burrell, this would be the comedy everyone watches.

How do you get really bad writers at this show? CBS played it safe. They went with "proven." They never stopped to think that Fraiser, for instance, and Out of Practice have nothing in common. They never stopped to realize that Marshall and Burrell aren't playing Roz and Bull.

Out of Practice revolves around one family. The parents (Channing and Winkler) have split up. The youngest son has just gotten a divorce. Marshall and Burrell have no significant others. So this is a "get back into life" show. Considering that Fraiser dealt with that (for one episode -- usually an hour long one) every few years and not every episode, we're not seeing how Fraiser writers are fit for this show. Considering that Everybody Loves Raymond had nothing similar, we're lost there too. But both were hits and CBS thinks the writers can write anything. They can't.

The youngest son is played by Christopher Gorham who set a few hearts a flutter as the lead in the Six Million Dollar Man retread Jake 2.0. Gorham is attractive. But after casting him, no one seems to know what to do with him. Possibly, he's to be the cruise director of the show. "Crazies on the lido deck to your right. More yucks on the lower promenade." But the writers don't give him that, they don't give him anything.

As a young man recently divorced in a show called Out of Practice, he should have some storyline. This isn't trying to be a "family show" the way CBS thinks How I Met Your Mother is. (Note to CBS, talk of "nipples," dating porn stars, women spanking themselves, don't usually provide fodder for the family unless the target family audience is the Osbornes.) Gorham's not posing. He's acting and he's actually managed to create (with no help from the writers) a full blown character. If the writers could provide him with something to actually do (a storyline that doesn't provoke the light chuckles Fraiser tended to inspire), this show could be everything it should be.

With one show, How I Met Your Mother, CBS took a "premise" to be a show. The concept needs to be dropped. The writers of that show demonstrate enough talent that they might be able to write a laugh out loud episode if they weren't saddled with the "concept." With Out of Practice, the concept should have been riffed on but you've got bad writers. CBS is airing two hours of sitcoms on Monday and can't provide viewers with one solid show.

That's too bad because How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice are "fixable." You'd have to get rid of Bob Saget and trust the viewers to laugh at what's happening onscreen, but the scenes are funny without the voice overs. Eliminating the voice overs and the opening and closing shots of the future children might offend the "creators" but if they're married to those two concepts that are destroying the show, the show's never going to work. The "concept" of The Wonder Years sexed up belongs on the second tier networks they hail from.

With Out of Practice, there is a show. No one needs to be fired from the cast. And no major changes need to happen to the characters (which the actors have created and developed without any help from the writers). The show just needs better writers. When hiring, here's a hint, if the writer's claim to understanding female characters rests on Marie Barone, don't hire them. Stockard Channing isn't Doris Roberts. Here's another tip, if "whimsy" is what the writer's known for, wish them good luck with their novel and move on quickly to the next interview. CBS has two very physical comedians in Ty Burrell and Paula Marshall. Whimsy doesn't serve them.
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