Sunday, August 29, 2010

TV: The Comedy Killers

Trade journals usually have to really screw up to do poorly, even in a bad economy. So the problems The Hollywood Reporter currently faces are surprising unless you read it or unless you caught the journal's Stacey Wilson on NPR Friday.


As an alleged expert, Wilson was showing just how much ignorance can be packed into a four-and-half-minute segment via her exchange with Robert Siegel. For example, she began insisting that certain 'sitcoms' are "single-camera-filmic" and not like the "laugh track sitcom that we all grew up watching" -- which raises two questions. The first would be "filmic"? Well if you can't major the English language, create your own terms, we guess. Then there's that no laugh track, single-camera shows being nothing like what people grew up watching. Gomer Pyle? The Andy Griffith Show? The Courtship Of Eddie's Father? The Beverly Hillibies? Green Acres? Bewitched? My Three Sons?

We could go on and on. Those are single camera shows. Stacey's an uninformed, uneducated idiot. That was most obvious when she was trashing sitcoms and pimping 'sitcoms' like Glee. She believes, as do many others, that Glee will clean up at the Emmys tonight. That may very well be the case. It will not, however, make the show watchable. How little talent is on display was most obvious when the show decided to salute Madonna's songbook. Are her hits songs?

If they were, you wouldn't know it from the show. This supposedly artistic breakthrough did little but recreate Madonna's videos. And this from an allegedly 'artistic' cast that's allegedly skilled in song and dance? Glee's a commodity -- a popular one -- it's just nothing lasting. There will be no syndication life for Glee.

The Death of the Sitcom is a topic we've covered since we first started reviewing TV for Third and one point we've repeatedly attempted to get across to you is that these people repeatedly writing the obituary for the sitcom don't like funny. They never did, they never will. We've explained it until we're blue in the face but, hearing Stacy Wilson lie through her teeth on NPR, we realizied it was time to explain it again.

These bad 'sitcoms' today with their single camera and no laugh track? They're not funny. At best they're whimsical. They have no life in them. Many a show (think Kath & Kim) could have been saved if it had been done before a live audience. A live audience would have given the performers uplift and something to play to. These shows drive audiences away which is why NBC Thursday nights has been a ratings loser for some time. The shows really aren't funny and the audience really doesn't like them. They get chatted up by the ignorant Water Cooler Set. It creates the illusion of heat and keeps that crap on the air.

The New Adventures of Old Christine was a sitcom filmed before a live audience that was hilarious and brought in an audience, it was a hit show and it was cancelled last spring. And, to his credit, right before the cancellation, Ken Tucker suddenly remembered the show at Entertainment Weekly:

It’s hard to believe that a sitcom as funny as The New Adventures of Old Christine doesn't get more notice. Yes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won a 2006 Emmy for her work on the show, which last night had an episode that somehow managed to wring fresh laughs out of familiar sitcoms subjects such as child-birth (New Christine’s a mom: it's a girl, Dakota) and the old male-stripper-dressed-as-a-cop bit (except he wasn't a stripper, he was actually a policeman looking for a neighborhood intruder).

If you missed that episode, Betty provided a recap of it here (and covered the show each week last season -- something the Water Cooler Set avoided doing). It's a funny show and, if you loved to laugh, you would have enjoyed it. But it didn't have a champion at The New York Times or The Washington Post or on NPR's Fresh Air (Ken Tucker did not mention the show once this year nor did any other critic who does commentaries on Fresh Air) or anywhere. They wasted your time with these idiotic single-camera shows that are just not funny. (Parks & Recreation is an exception to that but, please note, it doesn't get praised by the Water Cooler Set nor does Cougar Town.) These losers told you for years that The Office and My Name Is Earl were the funniest things on TV. They weren't. We told you they weren't and we pointed out their low ratings and we predicted they'd have no syndication life. Currently The Office struggles in syndication and My Name Is Earl? Those still airing that bad show tend to bury it. It ran off viewers -- as does The Office in syndication. We're not psychics but we are educated. And we know that a half-hour show that's supposed to be funny? It needs to be funny.

To hear the Water Cooler Set sneer at the sitcom form is to realize just how ignorant and insular they are. There is no appreciation for the multi-camera, before a live audience method that Desi Arnaz pioneered. There's no appreciation for Desi's huge contribution to television. And there's no appreciation for what that provides actors.

ABC Family is airing a new sitcom, Melissa & Joey. It's multi-camera, it's filmed before a live audience. The first two minutes of the pilot were wobbly. Melissa Joan Hart, playing Mel, was saddeled with set-up, backstory and way too much more in what was a static scene with little going for it visually. That's too much to put on one actor but Hart stayed steady and when the laughs were found, she grew stronger and did so quickly. She accomplished more in the first five minutes of the pilot than Selma Blair and Molly Shannon managed in 17 epsiodes of Kath & Kim.

Hart had found the groove -- and taken the audience into it -- by the time Joey Lawrence showed up at her front door* and he was able to slide into that groove and the show was off and running. (Lawrence first shows up as Joe when he's shown on Mel's TV screen and we're not counting that.) Add to the mix Elizabeth Ho as Mel's assistant Rhonda and the show's amusing and worth watching. There are two actors under the age of 18 who play Mel's niece and nephew -- as always we refrain from offering critiques (negative or positive) of child actors. The basic premise is that Mel's sister's married to a crook who's in hiding and her sister is in prison for the financial crimes he committed. The couple's two children are being raised by Mel who also serves on the City Council. Joe was screwed over by Mel's brother-in-law and has lost everything. Unable to get a job for the city, he barges into Mel's life as her nanny.

The live audience is something that sparks the entire cast and each episode finds the cast stronger and stronger. That's what happens with a sitcom, a real one. And ABC Family offers the real deal on Tuesday nights currently (at the show's official website, you can stream some of the episodes). You won't hear the stuffed shirts raving over Mad Men give a kind word to Melissa & Joey but, reality, Mad Men's overwrought, stuffy and cereberal.

The Water Cooler Set is about trends, it is not about entertainment. Once upon time, TV critics saw their role as to champion excellence. Those days are gone as they rush to insist that TV is amazing. Stacy Wilson was claiming on NPR Friday that today's "shows feel like movies each week" -- and what she really means is that they have continuing elements (soap operas) and that's what she and others are responding to. Looking back, it was Hill Street Blues (more so than Dallas) which sold the critics on primetime soaps masquerading as dramas. Glee's not a comedy. It's glib and glib is the common theme for the Water Cooler Set. That's why they praised Studio 60 which was dead on arrival. It was preachy, it was talky and it was dull as hell so, to them, it was 'excellent.' The Water Cooler Set doesn't know from excellence.

TV critics, in attention to using their forums to champion those few bits of excellence to be found each year on TV, also saw their role as alerting viewers to shows that would entertain them. By contrast, today's Water Cooler Set comes across like Bill Hader's Stefon (Saturday Night Live). Poor things, they've mistaken 'exotic' (to put it kindly) for entertaining.

Not surprising when you realize that for all the trend chasing they do, the Water Cooler Set are basically shut-ins. Or as Stacy Wilson put it, "I personally spend most of my weekend catching up on all the shows that I record." Oh, it's so cute, it's like baby's first VCR!

How would they ever recognize life when they don't even live one? And how would they ever know from funny when their own existence is so pathetic?
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