Sunday, February 12, 2006

TV Review: On the lack of layers

NBC's The Office has a dedicated following. A small following, but a dedicated one. It's not ready for a larger audience (though it may find one). In discussing the show, one of us (Ava) mentioned an American Masters special PBS had aired. The hour was late, but the other did manage to locate a tape of the show.

Bob Newhart was the topic of the special and Bob Newhart's sitcoms and The Office have a lot in common. Let's start with the special because who knew PBS played as fast and loose with the facts as a VH1 Behind the Music special? Though you might get the impression that Newhart recorded the first successful comedy album, we have two words for you: Redd Foxx. How about five words? Elaine May and Mike Nichols. But somehow using "experts" (stand up comics -- all male, all White) to tell the tale, PBS stands a good chance of leaving viewers with the impression that Bob Newhart blazed the way for everyone that followed. They might also wrongly assume, because it was stated by Newhart in the special, that the Buttoned-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the first comedy album where groups of people listened together to recreate the nightclub feel. (Try Redd Fox's Laff of the Party or any other release from the Dootone record label --predating Newhart's comedy album debut by roughly a decade.)

Slices of credit were grabbed for the television sitcom The Bob Newhart Show. Now that show is a funny show. We won't dispute that. We will note how some slices grabbed contradicted other slices. (Were they all from the same loaf?) For instance, the poor cast of TBNS didn't get the Emmy recognition they deserved and that was due to the 'fact' that they were simply telling small stories (unlike, apparently, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family). We could go along with that, the show had a small frame to it and a small mentality. We'll also note that it would have to be pretty slim pickens at Emmy time for some of the broad portrayals to get Emmy nods in any year. (Or maybe Marcia Wallace thinks Jo Anne Worley won Emmys with work that Wallace's own most closely resembles?) But having made that claim, they then go on to get their cheap laugh (and a pat on the back) for Howard Hessman playing a gay character and how 'big' that moment was.

For the record, that 'moment' aired in 1974. For the record, in January, 1973, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had already done an episode featuring a gay character. The difference between the two is that on MTM, the character being gay wasn't the butt of the joke. (The joke, in fact, was Phyllis' relief that her brother was gay because she had been afraid he was falling for her nemesis Rhoda.) On TBNS? Bob gets nervous as the man steps behind him. (Both are fully clothed and Bob is seated.) It's 'funny' -- we're told. But, we're told, they didn't do 'issues.'

They're forgetting Emily's subplots. They're forgetting her friend, the women's rights advocate, they're forgetting a large number of topics. But in a blink of the eye, we're on to the next TV sitcom, Newhart. (The film First Family doesn't rate a mention.) Even more curious is the self-congrats from various people involved with that show. Or the notion that Mary Frann had chemistry with Newhart. What the "documentary" doesn't tell you is that Newhart was in danger at CBS throughout its first season. That's why they brought in new lighting, switched recording formats, axed a supporting character, and turned guest-star Julia Duffy into a regular character at the start of the second season. It wasn't testing well with young people or women. That might have had something to do with corn-pone plots or Mary Frann's hommage to Harriet Nelson. Whatever it was, it wasn't working with the audience. There's a reason the first person Robert Hartley mentions from his dream, at the end of the final episode of Newhart, is the heiress maid. It's the same reason Julia Duffy (playing the heiress maid Stephanie) garnered multiple Emmy nominations for the role. (*For semi-Newhart fans, at the end of the final episode of Newhart, the character becomes Robert Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show, waking up in the bed he shares with Emily Hartley played by Suzanne Pleshette.)

Duffy wasn't in the original cast. Stephanie was the cousin of a regular cast member, a woman trapped doing the "Oh, Bob" and other "straight" bits while madness was supposed to ensue all around her. (But rarely did.) The women were written bland. The show was stuck with Mary Frann, but they got rid of Jennifer Holmes to keep CBS interested in the second season. Duffy (and later Peter Scolari) woke viewers up.

We're not told any of that. We're led to believe the show was big from the start and firing on all cylinders. That's not the case. And when you're discussing Newhart's sitcoms, it's an important part of the story. Later, when he attempted Bob in 1992, women were once again sidelined as patient little things who let the fellows do all the funny work. In the main cast, the cast credited at the start of the episode, there was no females playing anything but throwbacks to another time (and that time wasn't the seventies). Halfway into the first season, they tried the band-aid of adding Betty White but CBS wasn't willing to wait this go round.

The lesson here is that the "creative geniuses" behind Bob Newhart's shows are hardly inclusive minds. The lesson here is that freaky men (who were in abundance on Newhart and more so on Bob) don't pull in the ratings. There's something sad about a comic who's praised for never forgetting the audience forgetting to tell the creators that women can provide laughs as well.

It was a nice little bit of myth making, it just wasn't reality. Fortunately while scenes revolved around Howard, Jerry, Mr. Carlin and all the other men on The Bob Newhart Show, there was the fact that even when written badly (and the role was often written badly), Suzanne Pleshette had enough substance and gravity to make Emily more than the standard issue TV wife. (Mary Frann didn't.)

The Bob Newhart Show was frequently funny. Sometimes laugh out loud funny. Sometimes, often times, the writers seemed to think they were writing a review for an all male prep school. But most of the time the show offered a little more than that.

What does any of that have to do with The Office? Well Steve Carell would like to be Bob Newhart. He does the stammer, he does the long pauses, the nervous tics. And The Office would probably love to reach the audience that The Bob Newhart Show did. Possibly they believe that in Jenna Fischer they have their Marcia Wallace?

Who knows. But right off the bat, what you will notice is that women aren't really part of the story. When they're shown they're the sort of characters that showed up as one of Emily's "emotional" friends. (Fischer's the only billed female.) They're there simply to be ridiculed. The absence of leading females (plural) goes beyond The Office to all of NBC's current Thursday laugh-line up. No one noticed that after Will & Grace's lead in you're left with three shows revolving around males (Four Kings, The Office and My Name Is Earl)? Is there no Abigail Adams at the network to remind everyone "Don't forget the ladies?"

Apparently so. Apparently they've forgotten Elaine's contributions on Seinfeld or the fact that three of the six Friends were female characters. Or maybe they've forgotten that for all their failed attempts to follow Friends with a hit, the only Thursday show airing with it and Seinfeld that came close to being a hit was Caroline in the City. Stephen Weber's show, Jonathan Silverman's show, go down the list, they tanked.* Even the rarely-amusing Suddenly Susan and Veronica's Closet did better than those variations on the same (male) theme. So it's a little strange that at this late, they can't grasp that fact. But then networks heads are never fond of female portrayals. (CBS is only the worst offender, not an exception to the rule.) Apparently Jerry Lewis isn't the only one who thinks women aren't funny. At this late date, and after Lucille Ball taught America what a sitcom was, that's rather sad.

Sad is Steve Carell. In the British version NBC's show is based upon, the boss has bite. He's downright nasty. Carell's just a sad sack. If someone thinks it's a variation of the tramp role Chaplin played, they're grossly mistaken. Where Carell should have some confidence in his schemes, he's riddled with doubt. The laugh of his falling on his face repeatedly only comes if he's expecting a different outcome. Instead, Carell's always telegraphing through speech patterns and facial expressions that he's nervous. You get nervous watching him.

Lead characters shouldn't give you the heebies-jeebies in a sitcom. You should be able to root for their success or downfall. As performed, that doesn't happen on NBC's The Office. Another problem is B.J. Novak who is just creepy. If Carell doesn't send you reaching for the remote, Novak will. Looking like a grossly deformed Tim Robbins, Novak plays the role with overbite.
There's nothing else there as he chews through every line, every bit of scenery in his creepy manner.

We've seen this show before. Multiple times. Best in Martin Scorsce's After Hours where that setting is a backdrop and launching pad for something better. But if you're going to stay in that setting, you have to offer something (as Billy Wilder did in The Apartment) that people can root for.

The only thing remotely worth rooting for is John Krasinski's Jim. He's the only character remotely human and possibly Krasinski isn't as good an actor as he seems -- he may just get points on the by-comparison scale. Any life in the show comes via Krasinski. But we're too busy following Carell to New York to focus on anything the audience might actually respond to. Carell's trip to New York is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the show. In New York, he will make a complete ass out of himself while meeting with higher ups in the company. For the joke to be funny, Carell doesn't need to be playing the doubtful sad sack. But that's the delivery he gives to his lines. The failures isn't unexpected and there's nothing to laugh at because he's been a nervous wreck before the presentation and then after the presentation . . . he's a nervous wreck. There's a term someone on the show needs to learn "modulate" as in "modulate the performance."

Possibly Krasinski succeeds because his character's not written that deep? The furitive glances that are ingrained in his performance (watch any scene) add to the character. If there's a Bob Newhart in this cast, it's him, not Carell. For all the faults with his shows, and there are many, Bob Newhart could usually be counted on to provide the laughs. When one of his characters was nervous, you were amused. Newhart didn't bury the moment with pathos. With the exception of Krasinski, all the males on screen in The Office bathe, drink and feed on pathos. It's as though they studied bad acting with Seth Green. Where a light touch might draw you in, their heavy touch results in rejection.

This is the kind of show that, when cancelled, finds the creative geniuses claiming their product was just "too real" for Americans "to handle." But there's nothing real about Carell's cartoonish performance. He's doing the same bits he grew famous for on The Daily Show -- where Jon Stewart provided the reality.

Let's return to Krasinski because the first episode we watched of this show actually gave us some hope. It's the one where the company puts the workers on a boat for a team bonding workshop. Carell floundered there as well. (Funny would have been him thinking he was in charge -- instead Carell played it so that he was scrambling to be in charge while in full doubt mode.) In that episode Krasinski was given a great deal to do, so much in fact, that it appeared he was a co-lead. Episodes since have demonstrated that's not the case. But on that episode, the show had moments that were identifiable. Viewers could relate.

Between Carell and Novak, it's as though the writers have studied the quirky character that added flavor to a hit show and decided to do an entire show with nuts and fools. Who's supposed to laugh at this? Corporate bosses? An Urkel or a Mimi stand out because they're so different from the characters that surround them. When you start trying to populate a show with nothing but Urkels or Mimis, you end up with Taxi, which, for the record, was cancelled by not one network but two and also managed to exist in the pre-cable explosion when viewer choices were much more limited.

Trend topic. So no one accuses of us doing all the heavy lifting and failing to live up to the "standards" of so much of today's TV "criticism." Krasinski's hair. What's going on there? On Four Kings, Josh Cooke's wearing a similar style. Are the sixites back? There's a lot of combing forward as though the hair were cut around the face and layers are suddenly out?

A lack of layers? That's what Newhart lacked until a nervous CBS forced changes. That's what Bob lacked and led to its quick cancellation. That's what The Office lacks and will lead to
. . .

(*We're speaking not of chart positions. Thursday nights were a "hit" night for NBC. We're speaking of the loss figures, the drop off in audience from the lead in to Weber and Silverman's shows. Study those figures.)
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