Sunday, March 11, 2007

TV: The In Between

Fox Sundays nights added a new show last week, added it twice with two airings which will continue tonight and next week. The title proclaims it's The Winner. We think it's more like The In Between. That describes both what is currently airing and where the show is on the network. The show is, in part, from Seth MacFarlane (The Family Guy, American Dad) and if you haven't seen his previous work, you're aware he honed his talents in animation in a matter of minutes.

This is most obvious in the assanine decision to dump Julie Hagerty at the last minute and replace her in the role of 'the mom' with Linda Hart. 'The mom'? It's not a role. It's not even a bit. It's nonsense and the only thing that could give it any zip is an actress who can do zany like Hagerty or Carol Kane. With New Christy Minstrel Hart, it lies as flat as any badly drawn character -- or any female character on any of MacFarlane's animated shows which are all badly drawn. Lenny Clarke is supposed to be 'the dad.' Like Hart, he's got nothing to do, like Hart, there's no character written. Watching him be stone faced may remind some viewers of Lois' father on Family Guy but we can't imagine most people finding that to be a good thing.

We're told that's their some sort of rule that if you write about the show you have to work in a mention of Chris Elliott's Get A Life which also aired on Fox. We don't see why. In terms of the way the adults are portrayed (the lead is a manchild), the show has much more in common with another Fox failure, Pauly. Pauly aired five episodes and The Winner will air at least six (whether it's renewed for the fall season or not) so they do have a great deal in common.

If you've already given up on the show from the above, there are promising aspects to it. The manchild, Glenn Abbott, is played by Rob Corddry. Corddry has acting talent. Glen has a built in ick factor and it's only Corddry's talents that keep you from gagging. Here he looks a lot like Dave Matthews who, strangely enough, also debuted on Fox last week (House). While Corddry managed to work a miracle, Matthews seems destined to next star in a remake of Buster.

Glen might very well listen to the Dave Matthews Band. The show is set in the mid-90s and he's sporting the near pajama casual wear that DMB used to favor. Glen is over thirty, a virgin, has no job and still lives at home with his parents. (Again, for those seeing Get A Life, check out Pauly -- if you can stomach it.) Like our review, the first minutes of the show opened in such a way that no one would want to give The Winner a second look. The first scene played far too long, featured Glenn and his wooden parents, who looked like cartoon drawings, and, if the pranksters in charge of the laugh track hadn't kept punching in it, we could have fallen asleep.

In the next scenes, the parents were thankfully in short supply and Errin Hayes, playing Alison Mckeller, was the focus. From the second the camera found her, Hayes brought you into sitcom heaven. Corddry, who was struggling (painfully) in the scenes with his parents, got his comic footing. The show wants to mock The Wonder Years (no complaint from us on that) and does so by utilizing the voice over. (Big complaint from us there.) If you're using a voice over, you have no excuse for scenes that go nowhere. The set up factor is not at play when you have a voice over. The opening scene with the parents should have been cut. Barring that, all dialogue should have been cut and we should have heard Corddry narrating the set up.

If the show gets a renewal, recast the parents or send the characters packing. Alison has moved back to town to take care of her ill mother -- who the viewers have never seen despite the fact that Glen is over at her mother's house more than he is at his own home. Getting rid of Glen's parents should be at least as manageable.

Glen's done nothing since graduation but obsess over pop culture (he loves the show Wings) and think about Alison. Now Alison's a doctor and living next door. Don't look at that too closely because their history (told in dialogue on the first episode) doesn't match up with the current story. By the second episode, you're willing to overlook that and a lot of other things because of the chemistry and timing between Corddry and Hayes. In Fox terms, this is Ned and Stacy. Ned and Stacy was the show they really wanted to stick with because it gave them a chance to be something other than a sitcom sewer. Debra Massing would go onto stardom as Grace in Will & Grace but Ned and Stacy is where she first registered (as Stacy) for some viewers.

Maybe Hayes has a breakout role in her future if the show gets pulled? We're more doubtful about Corddry because Billy Boy Thornton already played the lead in Sling Blade.

Here's where we get to the real problem with the show. Corddry is a strong enough actor to sell you into believing (briefly) in what makes it onscreen. He's got enough likeability that you want to root for him. But the situations are all animated situations. Ha-Ha-Ha, for some, on Family Guy when one of the characters is a sex maniac who kidnaps Asian women for sex slavery and locks them in his car trunk. It's funny! Because it's a cartoon! Ha-Ha-Ha, for some, that an old man regularly comes on to various young boys. It's funny! Because it's a cartoon! We could go on with many more examples but the same minds that think they can make pedophiles funny in cartoon form want to use similar situations with live actors.

We think it's an understatement to say Seth MacFarlane has sex on the brain. We also think there's more than enough chastity belted TV programs -- so we're not offended by that. But, here's the thing, Alison has a fourteen-year-old son Josh. Glen and Josh hit it off. So much so that Josh goes to a massage parlor/brothel with him and helps him pick out a prostitute with which Glen hopes to lose his virginity. (Josh never steps inside. Apparently his peering in was someone's idea of restraint.) Glen's fond of saying things to Josh (and meaning them) like, "I'm going to nail your mother." And Josh is all high fives, dude!

It gets ugly. Corddry has the talent and charm to pull you through those scenes but the writers are really pushing it. Not pushing the envelope. There's nothing daring here. They're just pushing the audience to see how much smut they'll take.

Somehow, in cartoon form, smut's the be-all-end-all these days. Homer Simpson can (and did) make a joke about getting oral sex in a public toilet. (Glory hole.) And if MacFarlane was stripped of his ability to write about sex, he couldn't fill out an episode of either Family Guy or American Dad. For whatever reasons, kinky animated cartoons are no longer seen as Fritz The Cat but as 'family entertainment.' Most think it's because the characters are animated.

The characters on The Winner are played by live actors (plus Hart and Clarke) and somewhere in the mix, maybe when Josh and Glen are discussing touching a girl's 'boobie' -- a fourteen-year-old boy and an over thirty-year-old man both equally immature -- the creep factor may be too much for many to stomach.

The writing is frequently beyond bad. The situations are completely unreal -- again, for animation that may be wonderful, for live action shows, it's not. That's most obvious by the fact that the show is set in the summer of 1994 but the references and items appearing in scenes are frequently things that weren't around by the summer of 1994. For instance, Party of Five is a show that both Josh and Glen know. Glen steal's advice from it and offers it to Josh. That's a neat little trick considering the show didn't start airing until the fall of 1994. It's the sort of 'rule breaking' that MacFarlane regularly gets away with in animated form but really indicates someone's been sloppy and lazy.

That's obvious in the dialogue as well and, if you examine it, you'll really appreciate the acting talents of Corddry and Hayes. Notice the scene where, in all seriousness, Glen tells her that her son Josh must have been sexually molested. That line comes out of the blue and has nothing to do with anything. Considering that Glen has just met Josh and that Glen is considerably older and bonding with him, it's just really creepy. There's an eye movement and an expression Hayes uses that wrings some of the creep out of the line. She and Corddry regularly do that for each other, make the lines work. The real winner is what the two of them are doing onscreen.

If Fox wanted to stand by this show (it's got more going for it -- just from Hayes and Corddry -- than any sitcom they've tried out since the start of fall 2006), the problems are fixable. Tone down the creep factor, get rid of or recast Glen's parents, and you've got a show that could work and bring in the viewers. But the problem, explained to us on Thursday, is that Fox is a little worried about alienating MacFarlane. They'd rather cancel it than risk tampering with his (and his friend Ricky Blitt) 'vision.' The reality is that, like the show, MacFarlane is The In Between. He's fully aware that some believe the animated sitcoms have finally peaked and he's eager to demonstrate that he's got more to offer. With a better known cast, he'd already seen The Winner be passed over years ago. A friend swears MacFarlane is 'workable' and eager to see the show succeed.

So what it may actually come down to is not the ratings for tonight's episodes but whether or not Fox has the guts to have a serious talk with MacFarlane. If they don't, if they're still in fear of alienating him, The Winner will disappear after the sixth episode and some will be left with fond memories of sitcom chemistry that rarely comes along. Union Square and assorted others couldn't produce it. That's because chemistry doesn't come off an assembly line, it just happens or it just doesn't.

Another thing that just happens or just doesn't is good ratings. Since we (Ava and C.I.) reviewed Rules of Engagement, a guy (you knew it was a guy) has been e-mailing every week to disagree with our prediction that the show would regularly drop in viewers. Ty has told us about these e-mails and we assumed the guy was either a put on or seriously deranged.
We asked Ty to pass on the next one. The guy may not be a put on. He may also not be seriously deranged. He's citing a figure that he believes proves Rules of Engagement, last Monday, had an outstanding performance. He's citing the overnights and thinking those are the ratings. The Nielsen ratings are a based on a sample. The overnights are a sample of the sample. The reality is that in the ratings, the full sample (not the overnights), Rules of Engagement has tanked repeatedly. We're aware that some papers, such as The New York Times, run with the overnights. We have no idea why except possibly they think it makes them look up to date. But the reality is that they are confusing a number of people. For the record, each week, Rules of Engagement has lost the Two and A Half Men viewers. Last Monday, which the overnights made look so pretty, was really ugly. In the full sample, Rules of Engagement had its worst showing (it's "season low" as many put it). The drop off of from the lead in was all the more shocking because Two and A Half Men was a repeat. Fans of that show willing to laugh a second time at the same episode still weren't in the mood to put up with Rules of Engagement.

Strong ratings do not make a show "good." Low ratings do not make a show "bad." (Exception being if the show is pimped like crazy and still gets low ratings.) We mentioned the issue of ratings because Rules of Engagement's debut led CBS suits to start talking about moving The New Adventures of Old Christine (a proven hit) to another time slot on Monday or another night. That is a pattern with CBS which has repeatedly and historically undercut it's successful shows starring women by repeatedly moving them around the programming schedule. (The latest scheduling thought on that is: "We cancel Class and we can move Christine there.") Our point with the ratings was to note that on its first airing, when viewers would the most curious about the show, Rules of Engagment couldn't retain the lead in. We stated that would be the reality for it's entire run this spring and that has been the reality.

In case the guy who has written each week is not a put on, we'll speak slowly. Overnights are a SMALL SAMPLE of a few markets. Rules of Engagement has consistently tanked. And if "tanked" seems harsh, we'll note it's the term CBS used to describe The Ellen Show's high ratings when it was moved (briefly) from the hell that was CBS Fridays to Monday nights. The Ellen Show was said to have "tanked" when it's ratings were actually higher than Rules of Engagement.
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