Jake Martin
Can five new comedies survive the fall rush?
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In autumn hope springs eternal, and usually lasts about a week. Then the Nielsen ratings come in. In network television that is when executives can garner a sense of whether the new shows they have spent the previous six months primping and priming will see the light of the May sweeps. Industry types spend July and August buzzing over which shows will hit and which will miss, as pilots are bandied about and advertising executives decide where to put their money.

Any show with “CSI” as its prefix is a safe bet to see springtime; others, particularly comedies, are not nearly as easy to track. The following overview of five of the most buzzed-about new comedies considers whether they are worth the hype.

The most highly anticipated comedy of the fall, Fox’s Running Wilde is engaging, light-hearted television. At this point, it is also the funniest new show on the docket. The show follows the adventures of the vacuous playboy Steven Wilde (Will Arnett) as he reconnects with childhood sweetheart Emmy (Keri Russell), now grown up. She is an environmental advocate and a single mom to daughter Puddle (yes, Puddle), residing in the Peruvian rainforest with her eco-terrorist fiancé.

The downside for “Wilde” has nothing to do with the show itself. Rather, because “Wilde” was created by the team behind the critical darling “Arrested Development,” it suffers by comparison. To put it in sitcom terms: if “Arrested Development” is Marcia Brady, then “Wilde” is Jan. Perhaps it is unfair that “Wilde” is held to such a high standard, since it is a good show in its own right, but “Wilde” winds up looking pedestrian next to its innovative predecessor.

Arnett’s Steven Wilde is the show’s high-status buffoon, a character both utterly ridiculous and lovably human. He is a fundamentally good man in need of a moral compass, which is where Emmy enters. Russell has the thankless role of playing “straight woman” to Arnett’s comedic brilliance, but her gentle underplaying and likability complement her co-star’s histrionics. Though “Wilde” is not one for the ages, it is solid, and the skill and likability of its two leads should make for a steady run.

The self-explanatory idea for CBS’s S#*! My Dad Says came from a Twitter feed with a similar but more explicit name. While the concept of the show (and its title, to which reviewers are referring as “Bleep My Dad Says”) has all the makings of a dissertation on what’s wrong with contemporary television, “Bleep” is not as bad as it could be or should be. While the writing of “Bleep” will not change the face of comedy, it manages to be clever and sharp, particularly the one-liners delivered by the eponymous father, portrayed by the television legend William Shatner.

The show should be commended for attempting to move beyond the one-liners of its gimmicky premise and to explore the complicated, often messy relationship between Shatner and his younger son Henry (Jonathan Sadowski). But the father/son “moments of truth” feel contrived, and Sadowski’s Henry comes across as petulant and whiny. Nicole Sullivan, the lone female voice, portrays the wife of Shatner’s dim-witted elder son, Vince (Will Sasso). She not only holds her own with the boys but usually outshines them.

The fundamental problem with “Bleep” is the premise: the show has nowhere to go after the one-liners have run their course. That puts in question the show’s staying power.

Staying power seems not to be a problem for NBC’s Outsourced, which has the comedy legs to last. NBC has put so much faith in this show that it appears in the venerated Thursday night lineup alongside such heavyweights as “The Office” and “30 Rock.” The network’s faith is not unfounded. The show, based on the independent film of the same name, is a fish-out-of-water tale about Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport), an American 20-something thrust into the heart of India as the manager of a call center for a novelty catalogue that sells such items as whoopi cushions, fake blood and bacon wallets. His staff is made up of a group of misfits, called “the B team,” who have little understanding of the kitschy Americana they are hawking over the phone.

The writing never plays to the lowest common denominator in terms of cultural stereotypes. And while cultural disparity is the foundation of the show, the laughs come from a sense of discovery rather than disdain. Rappaport, highly likeable in the lead role, steers the ship with ease; that’s no small feat, since the temptation for smugness is ripe with this kind of character. He is amply supported by a cast of unknowns, who showcase their quirkiness with a clear sense of ensemble that hearkens back to the early seasons of “The Office.” Most great shows do not hit their stride until their second or third season. “Outsourced” could be such a show. One can only hope that NBC maintains its faith in it long enough for that to happen.

CBS’s Mike & Molly has a one-joke premise, and that one joke is a fat joke: both the titular leads (portrayed by Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy) are obese. The show looks at the blooming romance between the two, a police officer and an elementary school teacher, respectively, who meet at an Overeater’s Anonymous meeting. Hijinks and fat jokes ensue.

The show works. Yet having seen only the pilot episode, I find it hard to predict how long it may run, given that the well of obesity humor is relatively shallow. From Ralph Kramden onward, television has presented its fair share of iconic overweight characters. While size always played a role in their humorous appeal, however, weight was never the whole joke. The writers of “Mike & Molly” have yet to find the layers beneath the fat.

Although the supporting cast is appealing (Katy Mixon as Molly’s morally bankrupt sister is especially funny), the show relies entirely on the skill of its two leads. Both Gardell and McCarthy bring a depth and sincerity to their performances rarely seen on television, let alone in the cartoonish world of sitcoms. They are more than ready to take the show to another level.

If you can wait out the first dark and uncomfortable 10 minutes of the pilot of Fox’s Raising Hope, you will be more than rewarded. It could become a fine show. Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), a bumbling slacker in the midst of an existential crisis, finds himself the sole caregiver to his newborn daughter after unfortunate events leave the infant motherless. (This unseemly plot contrivance may or may not involve an electric chair.) Jimmy recognizes fatherhood as an opportunity to give direction and meaning to his aimless life. In its ability to tease out the extraordinary from the mundane, “Raising Hope” leaps beyond the standard television fare.

The talented cast includes Martha Plimpton as Jimmy’s no-nonsense mom, Virginia, who somehow manages the difficult task of fusing bitterness with tender affection. Cigarette dangling from her sour-milk lips as sardonic platitudes fly, Plimpton never lets the audience doubt for a second that she is one protective mama bear. With his wide-open gaze and blank-slate delivery, Neff is wonderfully clueless as Jimmy, yet he manages to convey a powerful sense of hope and spiritual depth, which drive Jimmy and help him to identify the importance of the journey he is about to begin.

Almost all contemporary American film and television, mirroring the culture at large, prioritize the value of career and sex, not necessarily in that order. The beauty of “Hope” is its emphasis on the significance of vocation outside the realms of occupation and romantic attachment. Jimmy finds relevance through the fundamentally self-sacrificial nature of parenthood, in spite of the less-than-ideal circumstances in which he finds himself: single, unemployed and living with his parents. In many ways Jimmy is a classic American protagonist, restless and yearning for self-discovery. Yet rather than going west or moving inward in the hope of finding himself, Jimmy moves outward and discovers himself in the face of a child. As Jimmy says: “I just want the chance to do something good. This is [my] chance to do something good.” And something good aptly describes much of what’s happening with this show.

Jake Martin, S.J., a Jesuit scholastic, teaches theater and theology at Loyola Academy in Willmette, Ill.

Comments

Edward Visel | 10/23/2010 - 3:58pm

An undeservedly generous review; I'm not sure any of them are worth following. The whole fall season has proven to be a bust for me. Even Boardwalk Empire hasn't grabbed me, despite the hype. The only worthy new show I've seen this year was Rubicon, and I'm not certain it will make it to next year. On a happier note, neither will most of the comedies above, plus a crop of films with Oscar aspirations are coming soon.

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