Thursday, September 27, 2007

CBS’s Monday Night Sitcom Lineup Runs From Brilliant to Awful

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

On Monday nights, from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., CBS airs four, half-hour, multi-camera situation comedies. This fact would elicit a yawn and incredulous “So what?” just ten short years ago. Now? It’s newsworthy. As I wrote on August 30, traditional sitcoms are a dying breed, and the CBS Monday night lineup represents the only four half-hour comedies the network currently airs.

I tuned into the season premieres on Monday night, hoping that nothing I saw would give credence to the “sitcom is dead” proponents. While I was generally happy when 10:00 p.m. rolled around, there were some causes for concern.

The night began with the return of “How I Met Your Mother,” which literally picked up at the exact moment that last season ended, with Barney (Emmy nominee Neil Patrick Harris) in mid-word. In May, Barney promised Ted (Josh Radnor) that his newfound single life after his breakup with Robin (Cobie Smulders) would be “legen-“, and this season began with the ensuing “-ary.” My August 30 article outlined in detail why I love this program, and Monday’s season premiere did not disappoint.

Newly single Robin returns from Argentina with her perfect rebound guy (played by Enrique Iglesias), who is so hot that both Lily and Marshall (Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segal) can’t help but succumb to his charms. Meanwhile, Ted decides to try and “win” his breakup with Robin, leading to his hookup with rocker chick Amy (Mandy Moore, playing very against type), much to Barney’s dismay, since Ted found her without Barney’s help.

The premiere was as funny and twisty as any episode from last season and set up what looks to be the overriding plot arc for this season: Finally seeing the woman that will become Ted’s wife (the “your mother” of the show’s title). So far, she is just a yellow umbrella walking down the street. Written by show-runners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the latest installment of “How I Met Your Mother” shows just why it’s the best multi-camera sitcom on television. It doesn’t look like the show has lost any steam, and it appears we’re in for another season filled with lots of laughs and great storytelling.

Next up was the series bow of “The Big Bang Theory,” a new offering from “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre (more on all of that later). “Bang” follows what happens when Penny, a ditsy, pretty waitress (Kaley Cuoco of “8 Simple Rules”), moves in next door to science geniuses Leonard (Johnny Galecki best known from “Roseanne,” but unforgettable as Trouty in “My Boys”) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons of “Judging Amy”).

I had tempered expectations for “Bang,” since I’m not a big fan of “Two and a Half Men” (again, more later), but I was pleasantly surprised by the entertaining pilot. It was jam-packed with sharp, funny one-liners, deftly handled by Galecki, Parsons and Cuoco. Like when after Leonard awkwardly asks Penny to join the boys for an Indian take-out lunch, complete with an endorsement of the colon-cleansing effect of curry, Sheldon calmly observes, “I’m no expert here, but I believe in the context of a luncheon invitation, you may want to skip the reference to bowel movements.” Yeah, it’s a poop joke, but at least it’s a clever one. And it’s funny. Or, when Leonard finally admits to having a crush on Penny and says their children will be smart and beautiful, Sheldon replies, “Not to mention imaginary.” The half hour contained a lot of good laughs in this vein.

Sure, Sheldon and Leonard are written way too over-the-top as nerds (their clothing is beyond geekiness, dripping into color blindness), and their nerdy friends, one Jewish and one Indian, fall into boring, accepted stereotypes (the Jewish guy thinks he’s cooler than he is, the Indian guy is so shy around women he can’t even respond to Penny’s simple question to him and sports an accent so exaggerated it makes Borat look tame by comparison). But the actors do their best to humanize these uber-nerds, and the jokes were funny and clever enough for you to let it go.

My only question is whether there is enough here to support an ongoing show. Will the science-speak and the nerds-hanging-with-the-hot-girl premise get old after a few weeks? Time will tell. But, I’m willing to watch and find out. The “Bang” pilot was absolutely entertaining, offering exactly what one expects from a traditional sitcom: laughs, with some heart.

Which cannot be said about “Two and a Half Men.” Ratings and awards are no more judges of a show’s quality than rating a band by the number of MySpace friends it has. But with its big audience and Emmy nominations, I figured I must be missing something. As I watched the season premiere of “Men,” I went in with the attitude, “I’m sure the show is funnier than I remember.” Oh, was I wrong. By the time the end credits ran, two thoughts raced through my head: 1) “Okay, so this is why sitcoms are dying.” 2) “I would have spent the last 30 minutes more fruitfully if I had stared at my ceiling doing nothing, since at least I might noticed a leak.”

“Men” is one of the least funny, least interesting, least imaginative, crass (in a bad way, not in an “American Pie” way), cliche-filled, lazy, joyless, formulaic and off-putting sitcoms I have ever laid eyes on. Ever. I have expressed my disdain for “The Bill Engvall Show” (look for yourself here), but “Men” is even worse. How? Where to begin? It’s kind of like trying to describe why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a nut job. The possibilities are endless.

The opening scene of the season premiere of “Men” featured the machine-gun delivery of attempted jokes that fell flat. Some just weren’t funny, while others lazily repackaged old lines that weren’t funny when they were first thrown out there, sometime around the Reagan administration. Jon Cryer’s Alan, defending the size of his manhood in front of his young son, declares, “I’m a grower, not a shower.” If just being not funny isn’t enough for you, what about going for offensive, too? Alan tells his son not to be black or white at school, advising him, “If anyone asks you’re mulatto.” It gets better (worse, actually). When Alan insists his son only buy beige clothing so nobody mistakes him for a gang member, Charlie Sheen’s Charlie tells his nephew, “Instead of being mistaken for a Crip or a Blood, you’ll be mistaken for a Band-Aid.” I sat staring at the television, wondering to myself, “People watch this? Voluntarily?”

I’ve just scratched the surface of this crap storm. The secondary plot of the season premiere centers on Charlie having a rash on his groin, causing him to rub his crotch on various objects throughout the episode. If you have a sixth-grade education, “Men” is a tough 30 minutes to endure.

Then again, if you believe the ridiculously intrusive laugh track, each time Sheen dry humps an inanimate object, it is raucously funny. Of course, the laugh track seems to kick in non-stop, especially after lines that don’t even seem to be punch lines. It kind of reminded me of the “Scrubs” episode in which J.D. imagines life in the hospital as a traditional sitcom. One of the running jokes is the loud canned laughter after not-funny lines. In “Men,” that exact phenomenon happened, only it wasn’t a joke. The producers really expect you to think that their lame attempts at humor are funny, because they’ve punctuated it with canned laughs. They’re wrong.

“Men” represents everything that is wrong with the modern sitcom. Sure, if you present me with “Two and a Half Men,” “According to Jim” and the like, I’ll say it’s a dead genre, too. The sooner “Men” is off the air, the better the chance that half-hour comedies can try and regain a foothold on network schedules.

Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Is he just a snob? Sometimes we just want some silly laughs. Not everything has to be as smart as ‘The Office’ or ’30 Rock.’” I can assure you, I like a silly sitcom as much as the next guy, so long it contains the “com” part of “sitcom” and makes me laugh. Don’t believe me? Well, I laughed often during the season premiere of “Rules of Engagement.”

Nobody will mistake “Rules” for a member of NBC’s Thursday night lineup of single-camera, quirky comedies. “Rules” is a straight-forward, battle-of-the-sexes, set-up-punch-line sitcom. It’s about two couples, one married for more than a decade and the other newly engaged, navigating the waters of coupledom, with a single friend on hand to remind them of everything they are missing out on (or not, as the case may be). Unlike “Men,” “Rules” is funny. Again, no new ground is being broken, and I wouldn’t expect critics to start waxing rhapsodic about this sitcom, but “Rules” provides a solid 30 minutes of laughs and entertainment.

In addition to good, old-fashioned joke writing, “Rules” has two stellar leads: Patrick Warburton (Elaine’s Devils-watching, car-selling, Jesus-worshipping boyfriend Puddy on “Seinfeld”) and Megyn Price (a refugee from the awful “Grounded for Life”) as Jeff and Audrey, the long-time married couple. In the season debut, Jeff’s snoring drives Audrey to banish him to the guest room (she has an important presentation she needs to rest up for), where he taps into his long-lost college self, eating junk food in bed, listening to records (not CDs, but actual vinyl, and bonus points to the writers for choosing “(Ain't Nothin' But A) House Party” by the J. Geils Band) and watching Steven Seagal movies (he observes that when he fell asleep, Seagal was skinny, but when he woke up, Seagal was fat, but still couldn’t act). Of course, by the end, Audrey admits she wants Jeff back in bed with her, and Jeff admits he wants to be there and will have the surgery she suggested to correct his snoring (it is a traditional sitcom, nonetheless). But, the combination of love and aggravation that Jeff and Audrey feel for each other, while exaggerated a bit (again, a sitcom), resonates with anyone who’s been in their shoes.

The younger couple, Adam and Jennifer (Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich), are not quite as interesting, but are serviceably funny. The look on Jennifer’s face when she catches Adam off-handedly admitting he was flirting with a diner waitress is funnier than anything said or done in the entire half hour of “Two and a Half Men.” The rowdy single guy is played by David Spade, which means he’s, well, David Spade. I’m not going to pretend that I run to the theater to see a Spade movie, but he has been entertaining on television (more on “Just Shoot Me” than on “8 Simple Rules”). And a dollop of Spade’s id-gone-wild persona works well surrounded by the two committed couples. When Spade’s character gets revenge on Adam for flirting with the waitress he was interested in, it may be a classic Spade moment, but it is also undeniably funny.

“Rules” may not be Must See TV, but it certainly qualifies as Decent Way to Kill Half an Hour Fun.

Three out of four isn’t too bad. CBS’s Monday night schedule will never approach its 1973 Saturday night (remember when networks actually offered original programming on Saturdays?) lineup of “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show” (topped off by “The Carol Burnett Show”). More realistically, it should look to challenge the network’s 1991 Monday night offering of “Evening Shade,” “Major Dad,” “Murphy Brown” and “Designing Women” (topped off by “Northern Exposure”).

“How I Met Your Mother” is of superior quality, “The Big Bang Theory” has a chance of being good, and “Rules of Engagement” will keep the laughs going. And as bad as “Two and a Half Men” is, it is also the highest rated show in the bunch. So CBS is off to a pretty good start. Now, if only they would add a second night of half-hour comedies. That would really be newsworthy.