Thursday, August 9, 2007

TBS Offers Original Sitcoms With Mixed Results

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

TBS, whose daily lineup is heavily reliant on reruns of older sitcoms (“Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Sex in the City,” etc.), has jumped into the current comedy void this summer with new episodes of three original half-hour shows. This is welcome news in an environment that is not friendly to sitcoms. Few get on the air, and even fewer (basically, NBC’s Thursday night lineup of “My Name Is Earl,” “30 Rock,” “The Office,” and “Scrubs” and CBS's “How I Met Your Mother,” are worth watching, and the critics love “Everybody Hates Chris,” too) are worth watching. But the key question is, Will TBS’s offerings, “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” “The Bill Engvall Show” and “My Boys,” do more harm than good?

“Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” debuted first, on Wednesday June 6. I have already discussed this show in an earlier article, so I’ll move on to the other two. (One-line review of "Payne": Awful and racially offensive, but I acknowledge that Perry is not making the show for me.)

On Tuesday July 17, TBS debuted “The Bill Engvall Show,” starring the FOF (Friend of Foxworthy) and Blue Collar Comedy veteran.

Try this plot on for size: A husband is distressed when he discovers that his wife, a stay-at-home mom, has a small separate bank account of her own money. He is further upset when she decides to start a muffin business. As demand grows, the husband bristles at the increased load of household chores, which he is inept at trying to perform. Meanwhile, his best friend and his co-workers assume that if his wife is working, he must be having money problems. In the end, the wife misses her family and gives up her successful business to go back to doing the household chores. If your first guess was that I have described an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Leave it to Beaver,” you would be more than 50 years off. For as much as the story sounds like a relic from the 1950s, it actually aired on this week’s episode of “The Bill Engvall Show.”

I kept waiting for the twist that would allow this show to not feel as dated and offensive to women as it was, but the modern element never came. Instead, I watched in amazement as one woefully out-of-time scene after another unfolded before my eyes. A lunch cart clerk gives Engvall’s character a free bag of chips with his sandwich as charity since he must be having money problems if his wife is working. Engvall’s character can’t heat up frozen pizza or do laundry without the colors running. He asks his best friend, Paul, if his ex-wife ever worked, and Paul tells him that his ex-wife was a magician, because she made his money disappear. If you find that punch line funny, maybe “The Bill Engvall Show” is for you. (After all, somebody is watching this monstrosity, considering its debut episode drew 3.9 million viewers, a hit by basic cable standards.) But, if you found the joke predictable, not the least bit funny, and offensive, then this is a series you should make sure to avoid.

Engvall is a stiff and uncomfortable presence on the show as Bill, a therapist who may be the least believable medical professional on television. Like “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” the sets are distractingly cheap (can’t TBS afford to stage a show?). The views out the living room window look like Monet paintings, and the backyard set was so false at first I thought the producers were doing it on purpose as some kind of joke. There wasn’t a single punch line that didn’t feel recycled from a decades-old sitcom, and the characters, as you can guess from the description of this week’s plot, are strictly two-dimensional sitcom types. The three kids are a precociously smart younger son; a floppy-haired, Tiger Beat-friendly, dim-bulb middle child; and a pretty, blonde high school-aged older sister. When have we seen that before? Oh yeah, in every mediocre family sitcom ever made.

At least “The Bill Engvall Show” is providing work for some engaging actors, although you can’t help feeling bad for them that they’re stuck in this mess. Nancy Travis, whose short-lived sitcom “Almost Perfect” from the mid-1990s was vastly superior to her current gig, plays Bill’s homemaker wife. Tim Meadows, who when properly employed brings a great deadpan wit to put-upon characters (like his principal in “Mean Girls”), is not well-served portraying Bill’s best friend, a misogynistic Lothario. This week’s episode also featured two very funny character actors, Aloma Wright (Nurse Laverne on “Scrubs”) and Richard Gant, as a couple seeking counseling from Bill. I couldn’t help thinking that the actors would need counseling after slumming on this show and having to deliver sub-“According to Jim” punch lines.

TBS redeemed itself with the second season of “My Boys,” which launched on Monday July 30. The show follows sportswriter P.J. (the quirky and engaging Jordan Spiro) and her close-knit group of friends and poker buddies, which includes her henpecked brother, Andy (Jim Gaffigan); her colleague and former fling, Bobby (Kyle Howard); her college best friend and potential love interest, rock DJ Brendan (Reid Scott), her best college girlfriend, the unabashedly girly Stephanie (Kellee Stewart); the neurotic Kenny (Michael Bunin); and the guy’s guy (so much so he has no furniture in his apartment except for a recliner and a giant television), Mike (Jamie Kaler). From time to time, the annoying-but-means-well Trouty (Johnny Galecki) stops by to throw the group into chaos.

The show has attracted an impressive array of guest stars, including Laurie Metcalf as P.J.’s favorite aunt (a free-spirit who engages Kenny in a fling), Nicole Sullivan as Kenny’s new girlfriend who was pregnant when he met her (we later learn she’s a surrogate) and Neil Flynn (the janitor in “Scrubs”) as a retired baseball player who takes advantage of fans that have the misfortune of recognizing him.

“My Boys” is everything that “The Bill Engvall Show” is not. P.J. is a modern woman, grappling with dating issues while maintaining a great career and a family of close friends. While P.J.’s voiceovers can sometimes be grating, the dialogue and story lines are smart and fresh.

The first episode of this season had us watch P.J. grapple with the fallout from her kiss with Brendan in last year’s season finale. Where “Engvall” would have cast the woman as the victim when things don’t go well for the couple, “My Boys” starts you down the road thinking that P.J. has been victimized, only to twist you in just the right amount at the end as she realizes that she pushed Brendan away by putting her friend before him at the key moment of decision (she brings Stephanie a spare set of keys rather than stay in the apartment and see what would happen with Brendan).

In the second episode, P.J. gets a career break when she is invited to be a guest on a weekly sports talk show. Much comedy ensues, not just from P.J.’s horrendous performance (her attempted catch phrase, “He put the lotion in the basket,” would be water cooler fodder if “My Boys” was on a network), but from the mad panic her friends go through trying to decide whether or not to tell her the truth about her crash and burn.

“My Boys” does a great job of avoiding old and tired sitcom conventions. Even Andy’s wife, when we finally meet her towards the end of last season, turns out to be great and nothing like the demanding shrew Andy has made her out to be. The show also moves in a very naturalistic, laid back rhythm, far less frantic than that set-up-punch staccato of lesser sitcoms. The show is also shot in single-camera format (like “Scrubs” and “My Name Is Earl,” where “Engvall” is in the more traditional three-camera format) with exterior shots and sets that look more natural and realistic than most half-hour television offerings (another huge difference from “Engvall”).

What really makes “My Boys” work, in the end, is the cast, especially Spiro. She’s exceptionally natural and easy-going, and she is pretty in a more realistic and earthy way than you usually experience in sitcoms (think Courtney Thorne-Smith in “According to Jim”). The group has great chemistry and rapport, creating a gang you want to hang out with for 30 minutes each week.

That is not to say that “My Boys” is an elite sitcom at the level of NBC’s Thursday night lineup. There are sloppy errors (P.J., Bobby and the others get way too many sports terms wrong, like when P.J. referred to Cubs manager Lou Piniella as the club’s “coach”), and while the show delivers a lot of smiles, burst-out-loud laughs are far less common. But these are only quibbles. Even in a sitcom-friendly environment, “My Boys” could hold its own with other half-hour comedies.

At TBS, though, “My Boys” is the undisputed champion. Let’s congratulate the network for putting sitcoms on the air. At the same time, let’s hope that the future holds more half-hours like “My Boys.” If the genre is to be resuscitated, it won’t be through lowest-common-denominator bating series like “The Bill Engvall Show.”