Fall 2000: "Welcome to New York"
Early on, in the episode I watched, naïve, transplanted Midwesterner Jim Gaffigan wonders if people celebrate birthdays in New York. His arch, testy boss, played by Christine Baranski, talks constantly about what is palatable to sophisticated New Yorkers. And his arch, testy colleague, played by Rocky Carroll, marvels about what a fish out of water Gaffigan is, as the poor, dumb rube tries to adjust to his new life in The City That Never Sleeps.
There's also the title -- Welcome to New York. That was a tip-off for me, too.
The fact that Welcome to New York does, in fact, take place in Gotham is of critical importance to the show's central thesis -- that New Yorkers, while arch and testy, are no match for the give-'em-heck optimism of naïve, transplanted Midwesterners. Imagine how hard that concept would have been to pull off if Welcome to New York were set in, say, Fresno. Or Fort Lauderdale. Or Davenport, Iowa.
Davenport, Iowa would have made no sense.
But producers wisely picked New York as the setting, main character and raison d'être of their show. Why wisely? Because we're three episodes into Welcome to New York's run, and so far, the point of each installment seems to be that New York is unlike any city in the world. New York, New York -- It's a hell of a town. They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. But if you make it there, you'll make it anywhere.
If we're suddenly dealing with Welcome to Roanoke, that shit doesn't fly.
Take last week's episode, in which Gaffigan -- a TV weatherman from fly-over country who's taken a new job in Manhattan -- celebrates his birthday (Turns out they do celebrate birthdays in New York!). Among the gifts Gaffigan receives is a present from Carroll, the arch, testy anchorman on the Today-like show that employs them both. Carroll gives Gaffigan a toupee, telling him that bald and dowdy is not a look that plays well in a city where you can get Chinese takeout 24 hours a day. The rest of the episode centers around how ridiculous Gaffigan looks, how he's too much of a hayseed to notice and how Baranski has to trick the gullible Midwesterner into ditching the rug, lest appalled New Yorkers change the channel en masse to something not featuring a gangly yokel in a fright wig.
This is pretty pedestrian stuff, neither good nor bad, neither knee-slapping hilarious nor thuddingly unfunny. There's some chuckles to be had here, but nothing you'll recount to friends and co-workers the next morning. Indeed, if you're like me, you'll have trouble recounting even the most minimal details about the show fifteen minutes after it fades from the cerebrum.
Except the bit about it being set in New York.
Your appreciation for the comedic stylings of Welcome to New York will depend largely on your tolerance for Christine Baranski. I can barely stand the sight of her, even with a stiff drink and a damp rag, so you can guess how many return visits I'll be making to the show.
You may remember Baranski as the arch, testy actress who spirited the sitcom Cybill away from the gaping maw of its titular star, Cybill Shepherd. History has repeated itself with Welcome to New York, which originally was developed as a vehicle for Jim Gaffigan. But into the breach stepped Baranski, her face drawn tighter than the Yankee Stadium tarpaulin during a rain delay, to selflessly throw herself in front of all those intrusive cameras.
If only Baranski looked like she was having any fun. Maybe the nips and tucks have left her face incapable of registering emotion, but Baranski spent most of the episode I watched looking like she was awaiting the rescue airlift. And she's not the only one. With the exception of Gaffigan -- who, we must remember, is playing a sunny Midwestern -- the cast of Welcome to New York just comes off as... well... arch and testy. Rocky Carroll is arch and testy. Sara Gilbert, I believe, is the cover girl for the latest issue of Arch & Testy Monthly. Even B.D. Wong -- B.D. Wong! -- comes across as arch and testy and otherwise too cool for school. For anyone who ever saw "Father of the Bride II," the vision of a sedate and understated B.D. Wong is as haunting as the closing strains of "Gotterdammerung."
Welcome to New York is produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants outfit, a fact not lost on people desperate to create parallel worlds. Jim Gaffigan is from the Midwest, these people point out. So is David Letterman. Gaffigan plays a weatherman. Letterman used to be a weatherman.
Alas, that's where the happy coincidences end. Letterman, of course, left his weatherman days behind when he high-tailed it out of Indianapolis. He never worked for a Today-like morning show, and, to the best of my knowledge, none of his bosses ever bore an eerie resemblance to Skeletor. I'm guessing his day-to-day dealings with friends and co-workers are not nearly so joyless and prickly as Welcome to New York might suggest.
Oh, and one other big difference -- Letterman left the cozy confines of the Midwest, heading for Los Angeles to seek his fame and fortune. Welcome to New York is, of course, set in New York.
The show is very explicit about that.
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