Sunday, December 03, 2006

TV: Big Rip Off

The chief requirement to be a critic of the Water Cooler Set is either to be born brainless or to be willing to perform a self-lobotomy upon being hired. Never was that more clear than when some of the Water Cooler Set rushed to weigh in and prop up Big Day aka Big Rip Off.

Like the writers of the shows they praise, the Water Cooler Set has a highly limited frame of reference. Anything more than five years in the past, they have trouble remembering. Which must be why they rush to push the lie that Big Rip Off is a 'real time' 'sitcom' along the lines of 24 with 'laughs.'

We don't think the Water Cooler Set is lying, we just think they're stupid.

And, boy, did they choose the perfect time to flaunt their stupidity.

Big Rip Off rips off a film and there's nothing 'real time' about the film or the 'sitcom.' The film came out in the 70s so chances are In Style hasn't written of it; therefore, their editors might be willing to excuse the huge gap in knowledge. However, the director just passed away and got some front page headlines as a result.

So even the Water Cooler Critics (light readers all) don't have an excuse for missing the obvious. Big Rip Off rips off Robert Altman's A Wedding. Now there's no reason an Altman film can't become a TV show, in fact, M*A*S*H dominated 70s TV. But M*A*S*H didn't try to sell itself as part of a (bad) trend. Nor did the TV show deny its roots.

But Big Rip Off wants you to swallow the myth that it's 'real time' (and Water Cooler Critics know how to swallow). It's not flying. (Nor is the show going to be around for long.) Like most Altman films, it has a large cast and the setting is as much a character as any breathing object. Since Altman's not helming this, however, viewers just watch as the camera hop-scotches around in Big Rip Off with bad cross cutting which is one reason the show was a bomb long before it aired.

The high point is Wendie Malick who, once again, gives a strong performance that no one will ever see. She's, mother of the bride, Jane. Josh Cooke, who like Malick seems to be on a really bad career streak of late, finds some spots in the quirk he's playing. There are no "characters" only "quirks." Malick, flooding the one-note role with all her nervous energy, manages to fool for a bit; however, even she can't overcome the bad writing. Cooke's flooding his "quirk" (Danny, the groom) as well and provides a contrast to Malick.

That's really the only way to portray the "quirks," flood them with high energy or low key energy. Just don't attempt to make sense of what got scribbled on paper. Marla Sokoloff tries to make sense of Alice, the bride, and she embarrasses herself repeatedly. It's not Sokoloff's fault, there's no character on paper, there's no 'tone' to the show, it doesn't know from one moment to the next what it is, and by trying to be true to the script, Sokoloff ends up looking like one of the worst actresses on TV (she's not).

Stephanie Weir (Mad TV fame) shows up playing the Lauren Hutton character in A Wedding. The creators have dubbed the character Lorna which must have taxed them heavily. Five seconds of watching Weir try to keep the wedding on track and you grasp why the show goes off the rails immediately, there are no laughs. There's a moment where Weir should have a laugh but, pay attention Water Cooler Critics, it's stomped on as Alice storms off to her bedroom.

See 'real time' doesn't work in comedy. Comedy is, by its very nature, its own time. It can't be 'real-timed.' It needs to flow and it needs to flow around laughs. Many a film that bombed in the theaters has found a happy home on network TV where commercial breaks gave it the pacing that directors couldn't. Pacing is one of the biggest fatalities of sitcoms this year. 'Til Death Do Us Part (Water Cooler Critic, it's not a funny show) suffers from slow pacing because the male lead seems to think Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle are still around to milk the laughs. They aren't. So there's just slow death in scene after scene. Another sitcom (which we haven't reviewed yet -- a character is based upon a friend and the friend is offended) tries to throw every laugh they can think of onscreen and it doesn't work, even the few times when a joke is funny, because the viewer is left feeling as though they've been pelted.

It's timing. And without it, you're not a successful sitcom. Comedy needs to breathe. Not all that long ago, writers (and 'writers') thought they'd stumbled upon the 'fix' (a sort of Syd Field version for sitcom writers): triplets!

Triplets would save everything! The Haiku of comedy flopped repeatedly when utilized on Suddenly Susan, The Single Guy, Union Square and assorted other non-funny sitcoms. So the bad writers are in search of some new quick fix (apparently honing your craft is of little interest to them) and the 'brains' behind Big Rip Off think they've found it, cover the fact that they can't write funny by claiming it's 'real time.'

That's the excuse for dumping the laugh track. It's not innovative. (And wasn't in the sixties or when Barbara Eden starred in Harper Valley PTA.) But when you can't write funny, you need a lie to cover up that flaw.

Big Rip Off is not funny. Malick and Cooke bring their own sense of timing to their 'quirks' and you wait for them to grab onto a moment but they never do. None have been created by the writers because, not only do they not know funny, they don't know people.

Talk to anyone who's been married and chances are they have a wedding story. With a little work, most of those stories could play funny. A little shaping, a little creative rewrite, a wedding day can be hilarious (as an observer).

There's nothing on screen that's relatable. The 'quirks' ensure that.

Danny has a 'theme song.' The other characters all note (repeatedly) that most people don't have a 'theme song' and, apparently, that's supposed to have viewers at home nodding even though they know no one like Danny. Danny's theme song is the theme song to What's Happening!! and he needs it performed at the wedding.

See, someone thought that was, in and of itself, brilliant, hilarious. It's not. And 'quirks' don't make characters. We're also, apparently, supposed to roll on the floor that Jane only becomes merry when she's getting stoned. (Get it? Mary Jane?) When that's the level of thought that goes into the writing it's probably no surprise that a Hispanic with a thick accent (and very little English in her vocabulary) wonders around talking about 'plucking' the bride. We're all supposed to be rolling at that -- let's all laugh at the woman who can't speak English.

At the heart, the viewers should give a damn whether or not Danny and Alice will get married. They can want it to happen or they can pray that it doesn't, but they have to feel something.
No one will.

Cooke's low key energy makes Danny likeable but there's no avoiding that Alice and Danny do not know a damn thing about each other. For some reason (possibly because the writers saw Shirley MacLaine do it in Terms of Endearment?), father of the bride Steve (Kurt Fuller) decides to unload on Alice how wrong Danny is for. (Aurora did it the night before, Steve does it the day of.) If Steve feels that strongly (and Fuller appears to think he's performing in a drama), it's highly likely that he would have said something a lot sooner. What is known is that in the real world either Alice or Danny would have noticed that Steve hated the groom long before the wedding day. They don't. Even Steve's wife Jane appears unaware of how her husband felt.

That makes no sense in the real world but someone thought "We need a plot point!" and suddenly it was on the page. When not ripping off Terms of Endearment and A Wedding, they steal from Say Anything. As this sort of thing happens repeatedly, you realize the 'quirks' were never rooted in reality, they were created around characters in films the writers saw.

There's a lot of crap trying to pass for the 'new' sitcom that's neither funny nor new. But the fact that they've pulled the wool over many eyes allows others to feel emboldened and is why the sitcom genre continues to struggle.

When sitcoms 'died' before, Kate & Allie and The Cosby Show came along to breathe life into the format. What's not often remembered is that even while supposedly 'dead,' Nell Carter was still able to bring in an audience with Gimmie' A Break! That tired show managed to provide laughs because Nell Carter was funny. The lines were dead about ten years before they were filmed, but Carter had timing. What's most disturbing about the current 'death' is that you quickly realize even a Nell Carter couldn't breathe any life into today's tired proceedings because there's no room for timing into today's 'one camera' sitcoms.

That's obvious with Malick and Cooke but even more so with Weir who has stronger timing than either and is completely lost onscreen (even the camera seems to have trouble finding her). See, in the earlier 'death,' a Weir could have driving a sub-standard vehicle and brought in some laughs. Nell Carter did and that allowed the creeky show to last six seasons. Big Rip Off will be lucky to air six episodes (based on scuttle butt at ABC).

Writers and Water Cooler Set critics seem to believe the problem is you for not showing interest in an unfunny show. It's 'trendy,' it's 'real time,' what do viewers want!!!!

Viewers want to laugh. They want to recognize their own lives on screen. That's what the best sitcoms did. They gave them situations they could relate to. Big Rip Off seems to have fogotten that 'sitcom' stands for situational comedy. They think that grabbing this and that from a film is somehow going to provide laughs. Take Steve's Aurora moment.

In Terms of Enderment, that bit was funny. For a number of reasons including the fact that Aurora was a control freak, including the fact that before she gave her speech to Emma (Debra Winger), you saw Aurora outside the door debating whether or not to knock. This was all part of the set up. Big Rip Off wants to dispense with set up, they want to use the laughable lie that they're 'real time' as their excuse (and Water Cooler Critics bought that crap -- we're seriously considering naming this set in future reviews because we're sick of the damage they're doing).

Shirley MacLaine is a gifted comedy performer. But even she can't make a scene funny all by herself. If there's no room for her to breathe, if there's no room for her to draw the audience in, there aren't going to be any laughs. The funniest joke in the world (which the writers of Big Rip Off wouldn't know if it kicked them in the groin) is only funny if it's given the time to be funny. You can't rush a punch line, you can't skip the set up and go immediately to the laugh. It doesn't work that way.

And though that's not a new lesson, it is one that many writers and Water Cooler Critics might try learning. They might also try grasping that if they're looking for a 'real time' sitcom, they don't need to wax it on about Jake In Progress (aka No Sex in the City), they only need cite the first ten episode of Watching Ellie. Julia Louis-Dreyfus Lousie couldn't save that dog. Returning to true sitcom form in The New Adventures of Old Christine, she's got an audience and an Emmy. There's a lesson there though don't expect TV to grasp it when the Water Cooler Set provides excuses to prop up the likes of Big Rip Off.

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