Incompetent, Inconsequential, In-Laws
No, that honor goes to In-Laws, a half-hour long collection of bad ideas, obvious jokes and uncomfortable silence where the laughs should be. Thoroughly pedestrian and thuddingly unfunny, In Laws makes the shows that surround it -- the forgettable Just Shoot Me, the wheezing and tired Frasier and the aforementioned assault on the sense that is Hidden Hills -- seem like innovative, fresh blueprints for comedy by comparison. In-Laws is the toenail in the meat loaf, the marble in your popcorn, the excessive amounts of water in the weakened mixed drink they serve at T.G.I. Friday's or Houlihan's or J.R. Fantoozler's House of Eats.
Just in case you've managed to avoid wronging God recently and have been spared any exposure to In-Laws, the Pynchonesque premise goes thusly: In order to defray expenses so that he might attend cooking school, Matt Landis and his freshly minted bride, Alex, move in with her parents, Victor and Marlene Pellet. Victor, it seems, hates Matt for reasons that are probably more fitting for a scholarly discussion on the psychological bonds between father and daughter than a Web review of a crummy little NBC sitcom, and so each week, In-Laws viewers are treated to hilarious instances of Victor glowering at Matt. Why, it's just like "Meet the Parents," only this time, our hapless hero has moved in with his zany, sociopathic in-laws. Also, there's a lot more loud, pained sighs.
Elon Gold and Bonnie Somerville play the happy newlyweds in such a bland, uninspired way that NBC could probably replace them -- with different actors, with CGI effects, with inanimate stumps -- and nobody would notice or care. The parents are played by Dennis Farina and Jean Smart, who've been funny and enjoyable in many other projects, but not here, not at all. The writing does them no favors, forcing them to work off of caricatures and saddling them with some of the most obvious setup-punch line dialogue you'll ever see outside the jokes printed on the side of a Dixie cup. Dennis Farina is supposed to be the gruff-but-lovable father-in-law, and Jean Smart should the play the boozy, free-spirited matron role, while Elon Gold and Bonnie Somerville just try their best to be pleasant and inoffensive, so by God, that's what everyone does. And the end result is a half-hour comedy that seems to last about a week.
(Based on the early episodes of In-Laws, NBC seemed intent on turning one of Farina's recurring phrases -- something about "private convo time" -- into a catch phrase that would sweep the nation. Early episodes were peppered with the phrase. It appears all over the In-Laws Web site. NBC even worked up a promo about how the show's legions of fans had been moved to work the phrase into everyday conversations. Thankfully, that effort has been fingered for the nonsense that it is, and "private convo time" has failed to enter the popular lexicon. In latter installments of In-Laws, it's been phased out or dropped entirely. Still, if you happen to know of anyone who's been suckered into using this would-be catch phrase, quietly send me a few bits of key information -- names, addresses, regular routes home -- and I'll take care of it. I know guys who can handle it. Your name doesn't have to be connected.)
But even if all this wasn't so -- the lead performances weren't so oaken, the supporting players not so misused, the scripts not written in crayon, and NBC more interested in entertaining America than tricking it into saying stupid things -- In-Laws would still be doomed. It's the show's premise that ultimately does it in; the "how-will-our-hero-anger-his-father-in-law-this-week" conceit gives the program absolutely no headroom to grow.
Interestingly enough -- well, not interesting per se, but it's a smoother transition than "In another bit of minutia about this terrible program you'll likely never watch," doesn't it? -- the concept behind In-Laws stems from the stand-up comedy act of Elon Gold, the blandly agreeable young man who stars in this mess of a show. I've never seen Gold's act, but even if he blows the roof of the joint, there's a big leap between killing during a 40-minute set at Zanee's Laff Hut and coming up with stories to sustain a weekly TV series.
In the pilot episode, Matt and Alex Landis move in to her parents' home; this irritates grumpy father-in-law Victor to no end. In a subsequent episode, Matt crashes his father-in-law's Fleetwood; naturally, this made the ol' man quite irritable. In the most recent episode I watched, Matt finagled his way into an outing at the race track with Victor, which, as you may have guessed by now, served as a source of irritation for the ol' grouch. Then, in a twist worthy of Dickens, Victor won at the track, decided Matt was a lucky charm, and pretended to be nice to him; now it was Matt's turn to be irritated. And... and...
And I can't pretend to care about this anymore.
Look, you can probably see the problem here better than I can explain it -- it's the same damned thing. Not just a recurring theme that crops up every now again over the course of the series. Not just a motif. Not just some similarities in narrative here or there. The same basic episode week after hideous, life-denying week. Even if you're entertained by the sight of Dennis Farina making frowny faces at hapless goofs -- and really, if that's your thing, there's a library worth of titles available at Blockbuster for your viewing pleasure -- is that really the sort of thing you can look forward to every week?
Dear Lord in heaven, the answer must be no.
Now, assuming that mankind must be punished for its wickedness and In-Laws gets renewed for a second season, how can the show's producers ever hope to wring anything out of this thinnest of premises? If they keep Gold and Farina at each other's throats, then the show just gets tedious and repetitive -- well, more tedious and repetitive. And if the two patch up their differences and become grudging friends, well, there goes your whole show, doesn't it? Unless they have the Gold character start picking fights with a rotating cast of his wife's relatives -- uncles, aunts, second cousins, stepsisters. Who knows? If In-Laws enjoys a Cheers-like run, by the year 2012, we could be watching Elon Gold trade tired barbs and wearied grimaces with his father-in-law's brother's son's college roommate's third cousin twice removed's fraternal twin.
Maybe they can cast Jon Seda in the role. You know, just to ensure that it's completely unviewable.
Still, we have the brain trust behind In-Laws to thank for inspiring a burgeoning generation of sitcom writers to follow their bliss. No, not by lowering the bar so that any chimp with a two-page treatment and a copy of Final Draft can swing a sitcom deal, though that was my first thought, too. Instead, what the In-Laws folks have done is prove you don't need a Harvard degree, an in with the you-scratch-my-back world of network television, or damning photos of particularly influential programming executives. All you need, if In-Laws is anything to go by, is a premise -- say, a newly married goofus who moves in with his grouchy father-in-law. The rest, as they say, takes care of itself.
Don't believe me. Then take a few moments to assemble your own In-Laws plotline -- just like the pros do it!
There! A handy-dandy plot for In-Laws in the time it takes you to thaw out a microwave burrito. Sure, you still have to come up with dialogue, punch lines and a basic shooting script, but if the first half-dozen episodes of In-Laws is anything to go by, that doesn't require much effort these days either.
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