Fall '01: Terrible WB Sitcoms
What the WB hasn't done in all its time on the air is develop a halfway decent sitcom.
Mull that over for a moment. In that same time, we've elected two presidents, had a pair of Summer Olympics, watched the New York Yankees play in four World Series in five years and watched the longest peace-time economic boom in history sputter into a recession. And yet, six falls have come and gone without the Singing Frog network producing one comedy that doesn't stink.
Oh, a few shows have managed to eke out a meager existence on the WB. The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show lingered on the prime-time schedule for years, thanks to a combination of inertia and fear of Kweisi Mfume pulling up in front of network headquarters with a megaphone and a busload of picketers. And Unhappily Ever After had a nice, little run between 1995 and 1999, most likely on the strength of male viewers tuning in week after week to see if Nikki Cox would forget to wear her top that episode. While the show never managed to generate much of a following, passionate or otherwise, it still stands as the WB's most successful comedic outing to date. That its most successful show was highlighted by Geoffrey Pierson trading witticisms with a sock puppet does not make the WB's accomplishment any less sad.
The network's string of uninterrupted failure would be impressive enough on its own, but when you consider the multiple ways in which they've failed down at the ol' Duba-Duba-Dubaya-Bee -- well, it's simply staggering. The WB has blundered with shows about mismatched buddies (Simon), crashed and burned with programs about hip singles (Zoe, Duncan, Jake & Jane), and tanked it with one show after another featuring precocious kids (Smart Guy, Sister, Sister). The network has pinned its hopes on stars that were past their freshness date (Shelley Long in Kelly Kelly, Kirk Cameron in Kirk), funny comediennes (Carol Leifer in Alright Already), not-so-funny comediennes (Ellen Cleghorne in Cleghorne!), a trio of brothers (Joey, Matthew and Andrew Lawerence in Brotherly Love), a pair of brothers (Shawn and Marlon Wayans in The Wayans Brothers) and, inexplicably, the heretofore untapped comedic skills of Harry Hamlin (Movie Stars) and come up snakes-eyes every time. The WB's losing streak has stretched across multiple genres -- sketch comedy (Hype), parodies (Grosse Point) and animation (The Oblongs, Mission Hill). It bombed with other people's leavings (The PJs) as well as with its own feeble efforts (Brutally Normal). It attempted to foist Mike O'Malley on society (Life With Roger) long before we realized we despised him and tried the same thing with Tom Arnold (The Tom Show) long after we had made the same determination.
Put it all together, and you wind up with six years of abject failure -- a collection of two-seasons-and-out bottom-feeders, six-episode wonders and blink-and-you-missed-'em disasters so deservedly obscure that you probably harbor suspicions that I made half of them up. And all that without having to disinter the musty corpse of Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher.
I know what you're thinking -- Nick Who? Licensed what? Yes, children, it happened in our lifetimes.
Let's put this another way. TeeVee debuted as a Web site in the fall of 1996, and in the ensuing five years and change, we must have elicited four, perhaps as many as five, chuckles -- at least four or five more laughs than any WB-backed half hour of comedy can claim. So where's our sitcom deal? It's not like we could be any worse than The Army Show.
Most people who try their hand at a task only to fail spectacularly and repeatedly might eventually conclude they were cut out for other things, that their strengths lay elsewhere. Every project you oversee at work results disgrace, lawsuits and stern talkings-to from the boss? Probably time to start checking the want ads. The shrimp and salmon mousseline with tomato cream sauce that you're so fond of making for get-togethers usually winds up sending your dinner guests to the emergency room with food poisoning? You might want to look into a less lethal hobby. Your efforts at fielding a major league baseball team have led to a string of last-place finishes with your players fleeing to better-playing jobs with more successful franchises? Well, that'd make you the Montreal Expos, but the point remains the same... you suck at what you do. And it's time to consider doing something else.
Ah, but not our game-if-overmatched friends at the WB. Undaunted by past failures, the network began the 2001-02 TV season by heading back to the same sitcom well that's yielded nothing but skunky water from the get-go. The WB introduced five new comedies this past fall, a triumph of hope over experience if there ever was one. They join the WB's three returning prime-time programs -- the indestructible Steve Harvey Show, the stolen-from-our-betters Sabrina, the No-Longer Teenage Witch and Nikki, which hung on for two seasons most likely because its predominantly male viewers figure the Cox-Bobcat Goldthwait union won't last forever and should it go busto, Nikki's going to seek comfort from the loyal fans who stood by her, crummy sitcom or no.
That's my rationale for watching, anyhow.
That brings us to the five newcomers. First up is Maybe It's Me, which is actually fairly decent, if not necessarily my bag -- making it the greatest comedy to ever air on the WB. Whether it survives for a second season remains to be seen. Reba, on the other hand, will be back next season, though not because of anything approaching creative achievement -- it's a terrible show, probably the worst to debut in the past year. But Reba has managed to con enough yokels into wasting a half-hour of their lives every Friday, boosting the WB's rating from its usual level of "abysmal" up to "minuscule."
Which leaves us with three other shows, none of which are worthy of your time or effort. Why do you think it's taken until mid-February for one of us to muster up the energy to write about any of them?
But, alas, duty calls. And if taking a look at a trio of shows you probably decided not to watch months ago -- assuming you even entertained the notion at all -- doesn't seem like the most life-affirming thing we've ever done, perhaps we can treat this as an experiment, an empirical look into the wine-dark mind of the WB and its joyless comedies. And maybe, just maybe, reviewing 90 minutes of laugh-free programming will help us understand how, with seven fall seasons in the rear-view mirror, WB sitcoms have been unable to generate so much as a polite chuckle.
No -- I don't buy it either. But it sounds more noble than the other reason -- that it's been a few months since TeeVee has re-acquainted Bob Saget with the business end of the Rod of Ridicule, and we'd hate for him to think that we've gone soft.
First up is Men, Women & Dogs, which the WB actually canceled in November and kept on the air just long enough to burn off the remaining episodes. If you want to see it, you'll have to wait for the next "Ill-Conceived Sitcoms" Marathon over on Nick at Night. Then again, if you're kicking yourself for having missed the triumphant six-week run of Men, Women & Dogs, remember that the WB pulled the plug on this stiff. On a network that allowed shows featuring the likes of Steve Harvey, Jamie Foxx, and a Bobcat Goldthwait-voiced puppet to enjoy lengthy runs, that's a resounding condemnation, indeed.
And for good reason -- Men, Women & Dogs was a simply horrible show, leaden and unfunny and marked by an undercurrent of nastiness. The show revolved around four stereotypical young men -- an awkward geek, a leering sex maniac, a smooth lothario and a laid-back surfer boy dofus -- who would talk about their troubles with the women-folk while walking their dogs.
>From that slight premise came even more slender comedy. In the episode I watched, the geeky guy was attempting to bed down a beautiful co-worker, while the leering sex maniac was successfully bedding down a nubile dog walker. Meanwhile, the laid-back surfer boy doofus was concerned that his live-in girlfriend and his dog weren't getting along -- a pedestrian plotline apparently tacked on to the episode so that the wits who wrote "Men, Women & Dogs" could have a scene in which the laid-back surfer boy doofus refers to "my two bitches."
I'll pause for a moment to allow you to double over in hilarity.
In the episode's main plotline, the smooth lothario -- played by Bill Bellamy in order to meet federal mandates that require at least one bad sitcom per season to feature a former MTV personality -- was having himself a crisis of confidence. It seems the lothario would make a special dessert for his special ladies that was so delectable they would instantly consent to go to bed with him. But after running into an ex-special lady who became -- horror of horrors! -- fat, the lothario was convinced that his high-calorie dessert was responsible for turning a once-comely sexpot into a gruesome fatso. So appalled was our hero at the knowledge that he was filling the world with overweight women, the lothario vowed to never make his special dessert again -- at least until his former paramour convinced him that she was perfect happily with her plus-sized physique. In the tiny brains of the Men, Women & Dogs producers, this 30-second free-to-be-you-and-me homily excuses the previous 25 minutes of suggesting that any woman who wears anything above a size two is an undesirable tub of goo who should be hunted for sport.
The tubby have already been driven off the face of the earth in Off Centre, which apparently is set in the same "Beautiful People Only" section of Manhattan where Friends takes place. Off Centre concerns the exploits of two former Oxford College buddies who now share a New York apartment roughly the size of Madison Square Garden. That's Oxford College in England, by the way, and not, as you might imagine after spending half-an-hour with these nitwits, clown college in Oxford, Mississippi.
The first nitwit is an Englishman named Ewan or Yuen or Ewing or some other name I can't be bothered to look up on the Internet Movie Database. He sports an English accent so patently fake that it would make a local community theater production of a Harold Pinter play look like something out of the Actors' Studio -- which is weird, since the guy who plays Eun or Ooohn or Uno or whatever the hell he calls himself actually is English. The other nitwit is an American, played by Eddie Kaye Thomas, who you may remember from such films as "American Pie" and "American Pie 2: Even More Pie Still" and who does a much better job with the wafer-thin material here than Off Centre could ever deserve.
Like when the American nitwit and the British nitwit go to buy beds for their palatial apartment. "I plan to have a lot of sex in this bed," the British nitwit says to the comely mattress saleswoman in his I-Can't-Believe-It's-English English accent.
Or later when the British nitwit revels in the fact that he's a swinging bachelor with a charming-if-possibly-fake accent while his American counterpart is saddled with a shrill harpy for a girlfriend. "You have a steady girlfriend, which I understand brings regular if monotonous intercourse," he says.
With snappy patter like this, you can probably guess the subject matter of most of the conversations in Off Centre. That's right -- economic conditions for working-class families during the post-Thatcher years.
Excuse me. Watching all these WB comedies has apparently made me light-headed and delusional. As it turns out, the focal point for most episodes of Off Centre appears to be the sex lives of nitwits. Or, as the TiVo programming guide described the episode I watched: "Former Oxford roommates move to New York and use different tactics to woo women." Just a guess, but I'm pretty sure that TiVo doesn't have to update that show description all that often.
Think of Off Centre as WB's answer to Sex in the City, only with two men instead of four women. Another key difference -- occasionally, they say funny things on Sex and the City.
Incidentally, Off Centre derives its name from the location of the stately pleasure dome where our two heroic nitwits look to sow their wild oats -- a luxury apartment building off Centre Street in Manhattan. I mention this only to allay any concerns that the people responsible for selecting the program's name were either Canadians or illiterates. I don't know about any Canadian influence, but it's clear from the sample dialogue up above that if there are any illiterates on the Off Centre payroll, they're likely employed on the writing staff.
Perhaps the most daunting of the WB's new offerings is Raising Dad. That's because it stars Bob Saget, who, in case you hadn't gathered, is not particularly popular 'round these parts. Whether he's trading barbs with a pair of creepy twins or hosting footage of people suffering catastrophic groin injuries, we've never really embraced the Saget oeuvre.
Of course, that could be grossly unfair, both to Bob Saget and to the makers of Raising Dad. After all, no one would ever confuse us for card-carrying members of the John Stamos Fan Club. And yet Stamos, Saget's one-time co-star on the execrable Full House, produced and starred in one of the better new shows of the year, Thieves. Maybe Bob Saget and Raising Dad deserve the same benefit of the doubt. After all, it's possible that it's a very good show, and that Saget turns a wonderful performance that makes us rethink our sniveling disdain for him and he's done.
Possible, yes -- but it isn't, and he doesn't.
In truth, Raising Dad is basically Full House II: Return to Banality. Saget is back again as a widower (wives seem to have a funny habit of winding up dead around you, Mr. Saget). Instead of three daughters, this time he has two -- a pouty teenager, who mewls all of her lines in a piercing whine, and a snot-nosed pre-adolescent. The parts of Uncles Jesse and Joey have been merged into one -- Grandpa, who's a little bit wacky. They all live together, in one big house. A full house, if you will.
Or, as the tender love theme from Raising Dad:
Professionalism requires me to point out that these are the actual theme song lyrics and not something I just made up to heap more shame and derision upon the show.
On the episode I watched, the pouty teenager was upset because she had to share a room with the snot-nosed pre-adolescent. She wanted to move into the basement, but that's the place where Dad goes to do all his writing. The pouty teenager whines. The snot-nosed pre-adolescent sulks. Dad is at his wit's end and Grandpa is as wacky as ever. How will they solve this thorny problem which threatens to tear asunder the fragile bonds of their family unit? Why, with a double dose of love and laughter, of course!
Me, I would have sold the pouty teenager to a roving motorcycle gang for cash and/or a case of imported beer. Though admittedly, I haven't read too much Dr. Spock.
So, after 90 minutes of what WB sitcoms, what can we conclude about the Singing Frog Network's ideas of what makes for a successful comedy? Let's review:
* Horny guys are funny.
And that's all nonsense, of course. The first two premises are only oc casionally true, the third one is not, as Benny Hill proved time and again, and the fourth is simply cruel and hateful. Premise five will get you slapped, if you're lucky. And that last one is an out-and-out falsehood, a filthy lie that festers in the mouths of jackals, deceivers and Hollywood publicists.
So maybe it's not that the WB is incapable of or unwilling to make funny comedies. Maybe no one at the WB actually knows what is funny. That would explain a lot of things, actually -- the bad premises and the warmed-over jokes and the shows featuring sock puppets. Suddenly, it's no longer inconceivable how The Army Show ever made it to the airwaves. Intolerable, perhaps, but not inconceivable.
If that's truly the case, then we owe it to ourselves to help the WB find the funny -- not just for the selfish reason of being able to flip past your local WB affiliate without having to catch sight of dreck, but because this is the sort of thing that good, kind-hearted people do for one another. When a man asks you for a fish, you drive him down the sporting goods store and buy him a reasonably priced fishing pole. When someone needs a tire changed, you get him a AAA membership. If a child asks you how to build a fire... well, you turn the little punk into the local authorities. And maybe, before the SWAT team gets there you, I don't know, give him some matches or something. So when a TV network shows time and time again that it wouldn't know comedy if comedy walked in and sprayed it with seltzer water, you take the time to explain that no, Bob Saget is not funny. Not ever.
We'll start out with the basics -- buy WB executives a mess of Dixie cups with the jokes printed on the side, maybe even splurge for one of those Joke-of-the-Day desk calendars. Once they grasp those concepts, we'll move on to knock-knock joke books and Ray Stevens albums. And then, if the WB executives really show a knack for this sort of thing, we'll teach them about funny voices and balloon animals and fart jokes.
Sure, it seems remedial, but you've got to walk before you can run. And who knows? With a little patience and the entire series of Truly Tasteless Jokes books, perhaps one day people will tune into the WB and laugh with it instead of at it.
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