Last season our editorial staff praised NBC for “getting back in the game” and expressed high hopes for their new creative shows, particularly The Event. Unfortunately, for them, many of their new shows failed to resonate with the large audiences they sought. This year NBC is keeping an eye on the competition with a set of relationship driven comedies (one complete with a baby), two British remakes, a sitcom and crime procedural, and period piece The Playboy Club, which has incited comparisons to the successful show Mad Men. Will this safer strategy work? Only time will tell.
Prime Suspect (9/22/2011)
Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin – Madison
Prime Suspect takes the title, lead character’s first name, and premise of a female cop working in a man’s world from the much-beloved British series. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed how little the show cares about its forerunner and how odd that is. Taken on its own merits, though, it’s a passable procedural, with an interesting lead character ably played by Maria Bello. What bugged me, though, was how clumsily it set up the sexism in the cop shop. The supporting cast of men are (at this point) little more than crude caricatures, with the show’s supposed concern with sexism thus rendered in paint-by-numbers, where’s-the-caveman-club fashion, lacking nuance. Sexism is shown to take place when men say “no, you can’t do this because you’re a woman and we men are better than you,” while the show (so far) seems unable to consider deeper, more subtle modes of sexism.
Prime Suspect also quite depressingly embraces other -isms in the process of tsk-tsk-ing sexism. So, for instance, in the opening minute of the show, we learn she’s a tough cookie when a stereotypical rude, loud, and disrespectful Middle Eastern cabbie gives her a hard time. The first suspect is white, but nope, it isn’t him – it was the Hispanic guy. And when they need to talk to the Hispanic guy’s mother, they bring out a never-before-seen African American cop, evidently because he speaks Other-ese. Moreover, even before she enters the cab back in those first scenes, we see her talking to her boyfriend, and from here on the show is at pains to establish her heterosexuality. It’s not a “problem” that she’s straight, but I found it off-putting how much the show wanted to insist that she is. Given that elsewhere in the episode a suspect’s innocence is framed as relative since we learn he solicits male prostitutes, and the pilot adds a nascent homophobia to its rather racist view of the world.
What a pity, therefore, that a supposed retort to sexism begins this way. It doesn’t give me much hope for where it’ll go from here.
Whitney (Premiered 9/22/2011)
Kyra Hunting, University of Wisconsin – Madison
In a season full of humdrum new sitcoms it is hard to hate Whitney. I have always enjoyed Whitney Cumming’s stand of comedy and therefore expected to enjoy the sitcom. Sadly, I was largely disappointed. There was something oddly retro about the series, and not in the good way, with its announcement of a live studio audience and awkward background laughter. The premise, the daughter of a frequent divorcee finds herself in a long term relationship, is afraid to get married, and needs to keep spicing her relationship up in hilarious to “save” something that appears to not need saving, feels less fresh then it should (probably due to painful Better With You memories). While there were some legitimately funny laugh out loud moments in the pilot and Whitney’s comedic timing is good, although undercut by the non-diegetic laughter, I also found myself vaguely offended by the gender politics. Whitney’s boyfriend is extremely likable, endlessly patient and generally willing to go along with almost anything. Whitney, although at times endearing, is exceptionally neurotic, wants to be sexy but can’t quite manage it without a costume, is socially tone deaf, but not quite unapologetic…and yet somehow feels toned down and femmed up for prime time. This effect is only heightened by the inclusion of her friend Roxanne (played by Rhea Seehorn) although likely my favorite characters her primary purpose appears to make Whitney seem girly in comparison (you are supposed to know everything you need to know about her by the fact that she wears pants to a wedding and pays alimony to her ex husband – a backlash image in feminist clothing if I ever saw one). Even the tagline of the show: Always a trophy. Never a wife….seems to have this almost but not quite quality of reaching out towards independent contemporary women and just falling short. Whitney has its moments, a strong cast, the occasional funny line, but as much as I want to like it, it just feels about 10 years too late.
The Playboy Club (Premiere 9/19/2011)
Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin, Madison
On Sunday, Mad Men continued its odd streak of winning at the Emmys without garnering a single acting award. But Jon Hamm’s secret weapon to secure an Emmy next year was unveiled the very next evening when Eddie Cibrian stepped into the Playboy Club. Cibrian may look like Hamm, but his time on screen should remind the voters how fine and nuanced a performance Hamm offers. And yet, to be fair to Cibrian, the snoozefest that is Playboy Club gave him less to work with than a bad clue on Pictionary. I’m told the show is sexist, and I was expecting it to be regressive, but in truth, anyone who says they were offended by it is lying, since surely nobody could stay awake or interested long enough to be annoyed. Indeed, I’m still somewhat amazed that the show could include several energetic musical numbers yet still seem entirely devoid of life. The genre of anti-fandom requires hyperbolic statements, but I quite honestly have seen few things as boring as this show. I can only hope that the AC Nielsens will announce a “bunny emergency” for it (okay, I did like that phrase, so the show wasn’t a complete waste of my time). I’d rather NBC bring back Leno, even if they put him in a bunny costume.
Kyra Hunting, University of Wisconsin, Madison
That The Playboy Club is NBC’s run at cable drama on a broadcast network, is evident almost immediately in its Mad Men meets Sopranos vibe. Certainly, NBC’s drama doesn’t come close to either of those programs in terms of its writing or acting. Rather, both are a little on the thin side and the preponderance of mystery elements introduced in the pilot itself has all the earmarks of a show trying just a little too hard. With all that in mind, I was shocked that I kind of like The Playboy Club. Gloria Steinem had warned me that I ought to be offended, and indeed the insipid voice over declaring Playboy the site of progress and dreams certainly evoked a great deal of ire, but if the intention of the show was to glorify Playboy, as the voice over suggests, it appears to be failing. What made the show interesting to me was how, for all the visual glamor and sorority style fun depicted in the pilot, the program in fact depicts a ‘60s even bleaker then that of Mad Men. The ‘60s of The Playboy Club is not the era of Kennedy optimism, pristine middle class housewives, and women starting to make their own way; it is an era of organized crime, shady business and political deals, violence against these “glamorous” women and sets of unpleasant choices for anyone not in the echelons of upper class white straight male privilege. Mad Men has from time to time been criticized for skirting issues of race and sexuality and The Playboy Club does include these issues front and center in their pilot. (You could have knocked me over with a feather to see The Mattachine Society depicted, however imperfectly, on broadcast television – the obscurity of the reference alone is of note!) I suspect The Playboy Club will suffer in the reviews for its comparison to Mad Men but it is important to remember that most television viewers do not watch AMC’s signature drama. The Playboy Club might just be Mad Men for the masses a bit of historical critique covered in an overtly titilating, mystery and crime driven candy coating.
Free Agents (Premiered 9/14/2011)
Evan Elkins, University of Wisconsin, Madison
The laugh track isn’t dead—it just lives within the secondary characters of Free Agents. At several points, lead character Alex (Hank “Please Look at My Pecs” Azaria) conjures chuckles from the other inhabitants of the glassy, open office in which all like-minded yuppie-themed programs seem to take place (including the program directly preceding this one, Up All Night). Even without the laugh track or studio audience, the sitcom still finds ways to let us know when our hapless/handsome leading man says something funny. Honestly, though, Free Agents isn’t all that bad if we judge it by the low, low standards of network comedy pilots. There’s some formidable comic talent around the edges (Joe Lo Truglio, Natasha Leggero, Al Madrigal) and behind the scenes (Party Down co-creator John Enborn, The Larry Sanders Show director Todd Holland), and it sustains an oddball energy that I found somewhat endearing even when I wasn’t laughing. Still, it toes an uncomfortable line between realistic romantic comedy and cartoonish excess without really satisfying either approach. In particular, the storyline involving Helen’s (Kathryn Hahn) obsession over her recently deceased fiancé is tonally off, and though I appreciate the attempt to mine humor out of a distinctly unfunny premise, a dead fiancé is treated as another bump in the road for careerist Helen—a symptom of a broader “you can’t have it all” lifestyle symbolized by Lean Cuisines, red wine, and ABBA’s “Fernando.” Bottom line, Free Agents is reliably mediocre, but it might be worth revisiting after a few episodes–particularly if Lo Truglio’s security guard, a relatively unique character amid a sea of “bro,” “nerd,” and “ice queen” archetypes, gets more screen time.
Myles McNutt, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Free Agents doesn’t have to be as unfunny as it is, nor will it necessarily be this unfunny in the future. I really like both Azaria and Hahn as the two leads, but my takeaway from the show really stops at that point: none of the supporting characters made any sort of impression (outside of my recent Buffy viewing framing Anthony Stewart Head in a particularly pointed fashion), and more importantly I still don’t know what the show wants to be in the future. While it’s not uncommon for comedy pilots (as Evan notes) to struggle to capture the rhythm that may eventually make the show a success, Free Agents was tonally inconsistent without suggesting that this inconsistency is something they intend on exploring in the future, and, while this is highly subjective, I’m not convinced that they have any clear perception of what this show should be (despite being based on a British series). To use a drapery metaphor, it’s all curtains and no rod: there are ideas here, and there are some solid actors here, but there’s nothing to hang them on. These kinds of pilots are in a difficult position, as they are technically better than pilots with a solid foundation but nothing else to recommend them, but they’re also more likely to struggle to find an audience as they take time to develop. The show, as it is, feels too bawdy to survive in the family hour after the sweeter Up All Night and too vaguely conceived to catch an early cult following like Enbom’s Party Down, leaving it a likely candidate for early cancellation barring a surge in quality in the coming weeks.
Eleanor Seitz, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Hank Azaria is a great actor, and I think he kind of owns this show. Yes there are two leads, but it is my impression that this show is kind of about teaching Alex how to be a man. Don’t be fooled by the title of this program, it is not primarily a romantic comedy, it is a bromance – hence Helen’s role as both friend and lover to Hank. Helen is clearly more masculine than Alex. For example, we begin the show with him crying and her calling him a cab, before she walks through the pilot giving him advice on dating and almost playing Pygmalian to his Eliza Doolittle, in a postfeminist gender performance reversal where Alex is essentially too feminine in the wake of his divorce, and the females walk around exchanging dialog such as “Did your vagina die of a heart condition too?” I see traces of The Hangover in this series, with the style of comic timing, the high raunch factor, and the bromance between masculine characters along the gender spectrum. The pathetic married man is probably at the bottom of the masculine scale. Perhaps its just me and my gender studies perspective on everything I watch, but I really see Free Agents as a show that disciplines men and adapts hegemonic masculinity in a metrosexual environment. Whether the characters are watching the hilarious “Swords cut meat” (I live the side stories or little nuanced motifs in this show), shopping for clothes, being told how to be a wingman or participating in the bro banter that inhabits each scene, or receiving manly massages courtesy of the lavender shirt wearing Giles the librarian (Sarah Michelle Gellar is not the only Buffy cast member to return to TV this season), we are seeing a very specific configuration of masculinity. I suppose I find pleasure in this sort of comedy, when done right, and I think Free Agents has potential.
Up All Night (Premiered 9/14/11)
Amanda Ann Klein, East Carolina University
The final shot of last night’s Up All Night captured what I appreciated about the premiere. We see Reagan (Christina Applegate), Chris (Will Arnett), and their baby, Amy, lying on a blanket, enjoying a sunny day. Reagan promises to be there for Amy’s many “firsts” and then mother and child gaze into each others eyes. Chris, moved by his wife’s words, lets out a happy expletive. Reagan adds, “She’s [bleeping] beautiful.” Reagan and Chris are sentimental, and therefore, relate-able parents. But they also swear like sailors, which makes them relate-able people. It’s a good sign when you watch a show and feel like you might like to hang out with its characters: Reagan, a producer of an Oprah-like women’s talk show, Ava, performs a drunken rendition of “Rocky Top” at a karaoke bar while Chris, a lawyer turned stay-at-home dad, does a jig behind her. Of course, they pay for this evening of debauchery. When Amy rouses her hungover parents a few hours later, Reagan nicely summarizes why heavy drinking and parenthood don’t mix: “Know who’s NOT hungover? That baby.” While most parenting sitcoms address the usual clichés of dirty diapers and sleep deprivation, it is refreshing to see a show tackle a slightly new angle: how first-time parents must learn to say goodbye to their old lives and embrace their new, child-centered existence. I also enjoyed Reagan’s egotistical boss, Ava, played by Maya Rudolph. As her recent film roles have demonstrated, Rudolph can transcend the comic buffoonery of Saturday Night Live to play subtle, nuanced characters. So far it is hard to tell if Ava will be more like Lillian in Bridesmaids or like Michael Scott in The Office. Regardless, I hope that Up All Night ends up appealing to a demographic beyond the frazzled new parent set because I’d really like hear Reagan perform some of her famed old-school raps.
Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin, Madison
I really wanted to like Up All Night, and though I still might, I was underwhelmed. It’s a refreshingly rare focus for a sitcom – many sitcom parents have children who are old enough to say cute things, and many have couples pre-children, but very few deal with newborns, and I’m struggling to think of any sitcom in which the newborn isn’t simply an addition to a slate of other kids, or a late addition to the cast. Moreover, alongside Modern Family, it’s working on single-cam-izing the family sitcom, thereby offering new possibilities. And I’m a sucker for Will Arnett, and feel that Christina Applegate deserved much better than Samantha Who. Alas, though, maybe she’s just not that good at reading scripts, ‘cause this one’s really quite slow (especially when followed by the much crisper, punchier Free Agents). It couldn’t seem to make its mind up, either, whether it wants to be charming or edgy; certainly, both are possible (witness The Simpsons), but Up All Night’s pilot doesn’t really nail either. A key pity, too, is that the pilot doesn’t give us interesting central characters. All I know about Arnett’s character is that he likes hockey and online gaming, and is reasonably understanding, while I know that Applegate’s is good at her job. By contrast, Maya Rudolph and the writers really throw themselves into her supporting character (though I still find her a paltry copy of Allison Janney’s recent turn in the doomed Mr. Sunshine). Rudolph steals most of the scenes from our leads, and thereby sets up what could be a killer pattern for the (short?) future of the show unless Arnett and Applegate and the writers remind themselves that this is their show. The baby’s super cute, but so far the show itself is the kind of baby I might politely say is adorable to its parents, but really show little interest in; let’s hope it quickly grows into its looks.
Sarah Murray, University of Wisconsin, Madison
The heavily promoted Up All Night brings together Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, and Lorne Michaels. Comedy gold? Maybe. Applegate and Arnett are new parents Reagan and Chris Brinkley, adjusting to life with an infant. As Reagan goes back to work for her erratic talk show host boss Ava (Rudolph), Chris transitions to stay-at-home dad. This prompts a predictably gendered formula where Applegate swoops in to save everyone around her while narrowly avoiding her own breakdowns. These scenes – Reagan saving Ava from “eating her feelings,” or Chris calling from the grocery because he can’t find the “normal cheese” section – are humorous, if not a little ordinary. The funniest take is 30 seconds in when, bewildered by a positive pregnancy test, Reagan says to Chris, “This baby might be a good thing. Because one day you’re gonna die.” This is hilarious not only because it’s achingly true and a statistical reality that men die first, but also because deadpan is Applegate in her element. It sets the show’s tone and offers a poignant cultural touchstone, a nod to the existential reasons we suffer through procreation. Perhaps the best way to approach Up All Night is with patience. As to the speculation that Rudolph will take center stage, re-focusing the plot around her character’s Oprah-esque talk show, this would be disappointing. Applegate and Arnett can easily steer this ship, despite the challenge Arnett faces to move beyond his comfort zone. Applegate subtly outshines Rudolph, although Rudolph does nail a laugh-out-loud Stevie Nicks impression. The potential for comedy gold occurs when humor and painful, bittersweet reality are effortlessly combined – epitomized by Arnett’s drunken karaoke: “My baby’s gonna be up in two hours!” Do you laugh or cry? The pilot concludes as Reagan declines Ava’s invitation to attend a Sunday work function, for the first time telling her boss no. This is undoubtedly a moment every new parent faces, the conscious, public, loaded decision to choose family or work (especially for women). Or in Maya Rudolph speak: “At a certain age, a woman has to choose between her ass and her face.”