Sunday, February 11, 2007

TV: All just a bit of (CBS) history repeating

Last week, we (Ava and C.I.) reviewed a really bad nit-yawn and noted: "It's one of the two worst sitcoms the big three has shoved off on audiences." What was the other worst? CBS' Rules of Engagement -- a show that's insulting, not funny and has the Water Cooler Set (again) proving that they don't have a clue.

Quick, of the five leads, who is the oldest cast member? Some might offer Patrick Warburton who appears to be playing the oldest character but the reality is it's David Spade. Both were born in 1964 but Spade was born months ahead of Warburton.

Why does that matter? In a broadcast world that has only recently learned that Seth Green couldn't pull in viewers, some lessons are never learned. In Rules of Engagement, there are two couples and Spade. The man who looks like Ellen DeGeneres' ugly sister has been cast as catnip to the women, a ladies' man. More than that, there's a belief that this can be sold to and accepted by viewers.

Now when Spade popped up on the other two networks (NBC's Just Shoot Me, ABC's 8 Simple Rules), there was no attempt to defy reality, and laws of attraction, by passing Spade off as anything other than a loser who, every now and then, when the fates were really kind, might overcome his shortcomings. To most TV audiences, he is forever Dennis Finch (Just Shoot Me) but somehow Rules of Engagement thinks he can pass as some sort of Love God of today.

He can't. He can't even pass for funny. The latter's not all Spade's fault. Whether on Saturday Night Live or any other show, his humor depends on everything moving quickly. He's gotten many a laugh off a really bad line just because he delivered it fast and the proceedings moved so quickly that there wasn't time to absorb the line, just react to the speed of the delivery. Rules of Engagement plays out very s-l-o-w-l-y.

So there's plenty of time to notice how unfunny it is. Warburton, who shot to fame as Puddy on Seinfeld and then went nowhere (despite repeated chances), moves about as fast as Shelly Winters in the last legs of 10k charity race. He is so slow that you keep expecting to see a rescue crew rush out with an oxygen tank and administer to him between line readings. As an actor, he may as well be speaking into his lapel for all the interacting he does with others in the cast. As a viewer, you may make the mistake of assuming he's the lead characters. He's not, nor does he have the most lines, it just feels that way because he delivers them all oh-so-slowly.

In the debut episode, Spade gets off his only laugh getter of the first four shows when, speaking to Oliver Hudson's Adam about Waburton's Jeff, he mocks with, "Mongo like art." It doesn't get nearly as many laughs as it would have on Just Shoot Me if he'd been mocking one of Nina's dates, but, again, Spade's bitchy brand of comedy plays less funny at a standstill.

The whole series plays sad and unfunny but some females in the Water Cooler Set want to prove they're "good sports" (or avoid being identified by their own gender) so they refuse to tell you how ugly the show is. It's pretty ugly and that's to be expected when a mini-star's career hits the skids and he tries to score big bucks by turning to TV. We're referring to Adam Sandler who was briefly a mini-star in the movie world. Those days are over and it didn't take the box office on Spanglish to see that coming. This is the man who was most effective onscreen as Stick Pin Quinn on MTV's Remote Control (he wasn't the host of the game show, nor was he a vee jay -- just to correct the record). On Saturday Night Live, he was sometimes funny but got by mainly on being thin. That not-ready-for-prime-time-because-it's-not-really-humor shtick doesn't play well as the years pile on and the waist line thickens. Those who doubt how much his appearance played into the laughs should try listening to the non-laugh getter that was the alleged comedy CD What's Your Name?

Sandler's comedy 'style' (when not cross-dressing) was largely that of early Beastie Boys: "Girls Weird." At a certain age, it's no longer funny. (Which is why the Beasties retired it long ago.) When you're over forty (and stocky), playing the little boy no longer works. And when you've decided to slice yourself off some of the Serious Acting Pie, but lack Jim Carrey's chops, that drives away your audience even quicker. By the time Sandler showed up with Mr. Deeds, the career was over. (It takes the entertainment industry time to catch on and word to get out.) Deleted scenes (some of which are included on the DVD) seemed to be deleted for the sole reason that Winona Ryder was actually funnier than Sandler. Ryder's a talented actress in a dramatic role. She can also handle light comedy but, when she's stealing scenes in a broad comedy tailored to Sandler, that demonstrates how tired his mugging and shouting is and how little else he has to offer.

Mr. Deeds originally starred Gary Cooper and wasn't about a little boy lost. But that's really all Sandler ever had to offer and now he's carried it over to TV with Rules of Engagement. Women are insulted repeatedly but the sexism frequently hides behind the Good Women Are Smarter motif so some slow members of the Water Cooler Set fail to catch on.

It's the sort of sexism on display in every Adam Sandler film. Women are dumb, women are stupid, women are controlling . . . except you, Drew, or you, Winona, or you, Joey Lauren Adams. There's the token good girl in a land of bitches and shrews and fools. The token in each film was actually more insulting than the landscape of more overt sexist stereotypes because the tokens all come off stupid -- you may fuck a man-child, but you have to be a real idiot to think you can build a life with one.

Rules of Engagement builds a show around three. Oliver Hudson (the only male looker in the cast) may seem the least man-childish but then you get the scenes involving "cake." Someone's encouraged him to deliver "cake" the way Deborah Messing did "leather pants" but there was a point to Messing's "leather pants" and "cake" comes out of nowhere.

Adam, his character, just got engaged (and moved in with) Jennifer (played by Bianca Kajlich) who has, on a wedding registry, signed up for a cake plate. On a sitcom, as opposed to a nityawn, there would have been some attempt to shape a joke out of it. Instead, "cake" gets repeated over and over and it's never funny.

Waterburn goes on forever (and it feels that way) about how he's never had cake his entire marriage. For reasons you have to supply (because no writer does), Adam becomes obsessed with cake and sees it as some loss of self-hood. At one point, he returns from the grocery store with flour, eggs, et al and sets them on a table besides a large bowl and spoon before finally stating that Jennifer should make a cake, for him, to get ready for their married life where she'll be in the kitchen baking cakes and he'll be watching sports and drinking beer. Kajlich bungles a line about whether she'll still have the right to vote in his fantasy and that's because it's hard to play a wet dream and detonate a comedic zinger.

But the scene points to all that little boys, man-children over forty, never grasp. We could go off on a thousand directions but we'll keep it basic. For the icing of the cake he's dreaming of, Adam provides a can of frosting. Where's the cake mix?

There are ingredients to make a cake, there's no cake mix. Proving that someone watched some really tired 50s sitcoms when they were little boys, and that they now want to write about that as opposed to real life, the show wants you to believe that Adam not only believes all cakes are made at home from scratch (most aren't) but also, to pull off that nonsense, has to allow (if not admit) that Adam knows a great deal more about cooking than he lets on -- how else would he know the ingredients needed to make a cake from scratch?

Oliver Hudson has an appealing presence onscreen but this isn't the nityawn that's going to elevate him to stardom. (It actually plays like 'Til Death Do Us Part with Spade added in as the Love God for a twist. Which is like trying to turn Potsie into Fonzie on Happy Days.) Megyn Price, as Audrey, is actually funny and she's the only one. She has the sort of smart delivery that Helen Hunt sported in Mad About You so don't expect her to get much to do onscreen but enjoy it when she manages to carve out a moment.

Audrey's with Jeff, Jennifer's with Adam but the real comparison you're supposed to be making is the two male characters to Spade's single one. If it feels like a really dumbed down Woody Allen joke that you've seen a hundred times before, it's because it is one. But note that not only is it smarter in Allen's work, it's never the premise. It's a toss away bit.

That the 'creative geniuses' of Happy Madison couldn't grasp that is only shocking to those who haven't paid attention to their increasingly desperate output. That it airs on CBS (and that The New Adventures of Old Christine has been benched for this crap) is only surprising to those who haven't noticed how CBS has actively worked to destroy their own hit shows starring women (Cagney & Lacy, Designing Women, Murder She Wrote, Murphy Brown, The Nanny, Cybil, Touched By An Angel, and that's only a partial listing of shows they screwed around with behind the scenes and on the schedule). That friends at CBS insist the show is a hit was the only real surprise for us. It wasn't.

The overnights put CBS in first place. That was largely fueled by Brooke Shields' guest spot on Two and a Half Men. That they never once mentioned Shields' heavily promoted guest spot when they couldn't shut up about the 'season high' for Two and a Half Men goes a long way to explaining how CBS really feels about women. That the approximately three million viewers who chose to go elsewhere in the middle of the hour, when Rules of Engagement began, not only wasn't remarked upon, but didn't scare the hell out of them (it had offended or bored viewers who had never seen it!) goes a long way to explaining why the network Lucille Ball made still has issues with women. It should be noted, as well, that after the show went off, CBS suddenly had approximately three million more viewers (when CSI Miami began airing).

Ratings don't determine the quality of a show. But when Two and a Half Men and CSI Miami both score approximately 18 million viewers and the show sandwiched between them, Rules of Engagement, has approximately three million less viewers on its debut, when most will be willing to give it a chance, a message is being sent by viewers. That message will get louder Monday night and the weeks to follow but, right now, it's all head butts and high fives in the offices of CBS as they talk about moving The New Old Christine to another night come fall of 2007. Now maybe that's just the sort of hype that networks result to when they know have a disaster on their hands but, to quote from a song being used as a jingle these days, it strikes us
"all just a bit of history repeating." Those who've paid attention to CBS treatment of their hit shows with women in the lead will understand why.
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