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What I Like About What I Like About You

It all started with those evil bastards at ABC. In the late 1980's ABC launched their TGIF lineup, designed to turn Friday night prime time into television's version of the teen center. The idea was to convince Little Jimmy to spend Friday at home enjoying some wholesome family entertainment, instead of out on the streets whorin' around and smoking crack.

There were two major problems with this concept, however. The first was that the shows -- Family Matters, Full House, and Just the Ten of Us, to name a few -- were unilaterally horrible. Every TGIF show was painfully contrived, saccharine enough to wipe out whole species of lab rats, and filled with jokes so stupid and condescending that they seemed to have been copied verbatim from Laffy Taffy wrappers.

Of course, even if ABC could have produced a half-decent show, there was still a more fundamental problem: that any teenager on this planet would, and probably should, choose social activity over rotting in front of the television set -- especially if there's even the tiniest possibility that it might involve getting laid. Naturally, this meant that the only people watching TGIF were the kids too socially inept to have anything better to do, and the shows were all so awful and patronizing that they only served to make these poor rejects' lives that much more depressing. I suspect that if you looked carefully at teen suicide statistics from the last twenty years, you would see a dramatic spike every time Full House's Dave Coulier said, "Cut... it... out!" Is it any wonder Alanis Morrissette was so miffed at him?

Worse, some of the ideas put forth by these shows seemed deliberately aimed at harming their viewers. For example, TGIF told a generation of fat kids and asthmatics that when times get hard, the best solution is to hike up your pants, laugh with a snort, and do the Urkel Dance. But ABC negligently forgot to mention that the next step in the Urkel Dance is a severe ass-beating. This sort of potentially dangerous content is not something that impressionable children should be exposed to. In fact, a responsible parent, upon catching Little Jimmy watching TGIF, would give him a crack pipe and a condom and tell him not to come home until morning.

Fortunately, in the fall of 2000, after over a decade of tarnishing our nation's youth, ABC scrapped TGIF in the face of declining ratings. (That decision has worked out really well for them, as the smashing success of TGIF's Friday night successors will attest: Two Guys and a Girl, Madigan Men, Norm, Thieves, That Was Then. Ratings bonanzas, all!)

Unfortunately, The WB then decided to pick up Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the Friday night teen center torch. Even on a good night, spending thirty minutes watching The WB is like having laparoscopic surgery performed through your urethra. So the idea of the Frog Network applying its singularly horrific vision to these already miserable teen shows is utterly harrowing.

That's why I'm downright shocked to admit that one of their new Friday night offerings, What I Like About You, is pretty OK television. It's a refreshing throwback to the days when comedy meant tripping over the Ottoman instead of an endless stream of wise-ass comments. And while the show is in no danger of being discussed at a Mensa meeting, I actually found it fairly entertaining.

What I Like About You is the story of Holly Tyler, a fun-loving 16-year old (is there any other kind?) with a knack for getting into kooky hijinks. Holly's salesman father has earned, you guessed it, a "Big Promotion!" that requires him to move to Japan. Rather than follow him to the land of silk and Sony, Holly decides to move in with her 28-year old sister, Val. Holly doesn't appear particularly upset about being separated from her father, which might strike you as a bit peculiar. Except that Dad is played by Peter Scolari, whom you may remember as the Bosom Buddy that doesn't have a shelf full of Oscars. Have you missed him much since Newhart went off the air? Okay then.

Amanda Bynes portrays the accident-prone Holly, and she is by far the show's biggest strength. Bynes built her comedy chops during a four-year stint on Nickelodeon's All That, which I've never actually seen, but which I gather is like an updated You Can't Do That On Television. So Bynes is basically a Moose for a new generation. She's cute in a gawky sort of way, winningly self-confident, and probably already a leading masturbation fantasy among pubescent boys across the country.

The WB's web site makes much of Bynes' "unique gift for physical comedy." I'm not sure I'd go quite that far. When it comes to physical comedy, the term "gifted" is more appropriately applied to the likes of Jim Carrey, although his so-called gift is more likely the product of years of self-loathing redirected into years of practicing in front of the mirror. Bynes is not of that caliber, but she does fall down well, and she brings to the task a ton of enthusiasm. It's a little ingratiating, but it's also infectious. In one scene, Holly dives, fully clothed, into an occupied mud bath in search of a dropped Polaroid snapshot of J.C. from N'Sync. It sounds stupid on paper, but Bynes is just so darn game that she makes it look almost natural, and the end result is surprisingly funny.

What I Like About You is a dumb show. Each episode consists of a dumb setup, followed by some dumb physical comedy, followed by a dumb resolution. Occasionally there's also a dumb subplot. And there's really nothing wrong with that. That formula is the very epitome of situation comedy, and it's good fun, just like it used to be back in the Three's Company days when this approach was more common. Maybe it's just the effect of too many years watching thirty-somethings sit around and chat in upscale coffeehouses, but seeing guest star Tony Hawk skate into a fully laden buffet table during the pilot episode felt like a breath of fresh air.

Of course the show is not without its share of problems. One of them is Jennie Garth, who plays big sister Val. She seemed a decent enough actress on 90210, at least for the three to five minutes that I ever watched 90210 before suddenly losing interest. Here she's just plain irritating. It's hard to tell whether this is because she can't do comedy, or because the writers haven't really given her much to do besides be a histrionic straight man for Bynes.

Therein lies What I Like About You's biggest weakness. Besides Holly, there are a total of three regular characters, and those are so poorly sketched that it seems like the writers went on vacation, leaving the script in the hands of seven-year old Billy. You get the high-strung sister/parent, the dumb-but-lovable boyfriend, and the best friend/partner in crime (who, as an added bonus, also happens to be the token black guy). Beyond those simple descriptions, there isn't much in the way of backstory for these characters, nor has any effort since been made to flesh them out.

So the whole show basically depends on the solitary premise of "Amanda falls down." This will not maintain an audience's interest for very long. Worse, because the focus is always on Bynes, it's likely that her hyperkinetic antics, which are endearing in small doses, will become grating very quickly. Like by the end of the opening credits.

That said, last week's week episode hinted that the writers are planning to expand the show's horizons by giving Bynes a job, and giving Garth a little more screen time. The episode also benefited greatly from the inclusion of two brilliant supporting actors, Beth Littleford (The Daily Show), and Samm Levine (the Jewish kid from Freaks and Geeks). Unfortunately, it looks like that bright spot may have been a fluke, as previews indicate that this week's episode is back to the old, repetitive formula.

I'm also annoyed that this show is called What I Like About You. Evidently, the show's producers had some difficulty in coming up with a title that was actually apropos of its premise; perhaps My Sister Val sounded just a bit too derivative. So they used The Romantics' big hit for both the title and the theme song, despite the fact that it makes about as much sense as calling the show Horse Rocket Cheese Podium. I suppose they're hoping that the song's popularity will net them an instant audience. But most fans of this particular song are well out of the teen show demographic, and the ones that aren't probably spend their Friday nights in Tijuana. Hopefully this sort of thing won't become a trend, lest next season bring us a buddy cop show called Talking In Your Sleep.

Nonetheless, as family programming goes -- that being defined as any show in which nobody gets screwed or shot -- What I Like About You is better than average. And while it's still not going to convince the popular kids to postpone their attempts to impregnate each other, it bests its TGIF predecessors in several key areas:

  • Important lessons are not learned. The most nauseating thing about the TGIF canon was that every damned episode had to have some sort of syrupy moral about just being yourself, or learning to forgive Kimmy Gibler, or telling somebody when the shop teacher fondles your buttocks. No such lessons are learned from What I Like About You, unless "breaking things is funny" counts as a lesson.
  • Gratuitous cuteness is kept at non-toxic levels. Apart from the occasional familial hug, What I Like About You doesn't go out of its way to be cute. This stands in stark contrast with the TGIF sitcoms, which tried to jam as much cutesy shit as possible into every episode. In TGIF-land, families and assorted wacky neighbors would organize impromptu talent shows for no apparent reason. Monkey-faced toddlers who could otherwise barely talk would emit curiously snappy comebacks. Every problem would be treated with a life-affirming speech from Dad, followed by a heartfelt "Awwww" from the laugh track. And so on and so on, until you were so revolted by cuteness, you just wanted to go out and buy a fluffy bunny so that you could slowly twist its head off.
  • Average audience I.Q. is assumed to be above the Drooling Vegetable range. TGIF always seemed to be laboring under the misconception that the teenagers in its audience had the intellectual capacity of mildly retarded second graders. What I Like About You ups the ante by mixing in some slightly more sophisticated humor of about fourth-grade level. As somebody who considers poopie jokes the pinnacle of wit, I appreciate the effort to include me in their target demographic.
  • The show is based in our universe. Some pretty over-the-top stuff happens in What I Like About You, but nothing that you couldn't imagine happening to spastic and somewhat brain damaged people in the real world. TGIF, on the other hand, was apparently set in some bizarre alternate dimension, where fat, bald gym teachers get hot lovin' often enough to produce eight offspring, nerdy black kids build evil puppet versions of themselves in their basements, and as many as two adults and three children love Bob Saget.
  • No Olsen Twins. I believe this one speaks for itself.
  • For these reasons, What I Like About You won't instill in our nation's youth an urge to kill themselves and others. Given its origins, that's really saying something.

    Anyway, at least it's not fucking Step By Step.


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