The writers strike is finally having an impact on the prime time television schedule. Many shows are out of new episodes to air, and the networks aren’t rolling out a lot of their midseason replacements until January. What is a viewer to do? Some might say, “Read a book,” but, come on, get serious. I write a television column. The TV fix has to be satisfied somehow.
Which led me to the conclusion that it was time to give a chance to shows that many have dismissed in the past as being, well, crap. I decided to visit two ends of that spectrum, laying fresh eyes on a show I occasionally catch as a guilty pleasure, “Deal or No Deal” (NBC, Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. Eastern), and a sitcom that has been the living, breathing embodiment of bad television, “According to Jim” (ABC, Tuesday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern).
“Deal” has taken a lot of crap for being a symbol of idiocy on television. Unlike “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” or “Jeopardy,” “Deal” contestants don’t have to answer any questions. As the argument goes, there is no skill in playing “Deal,” since the contestants just pick numbers. I think that charge is unfair.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that you have to be the bastard child of Marie Curie and Mister Rogers to succeed on “Deal.” But to say the contestants are “just picking numbers” ignores the element of the show that you have to decide when to stop playing. Think of a game like Texas Hold’em. There are no cards to play, and the only decisions a player makes are whether to stay in the game and how much to bet. I look at “Deal” as the kids version of Texas Hold’em.
In case you’ve somehow avoided this omnipresent program over the last couple of years, the rules are pretty simple. A contestant picks one of 26 cases (each one held by a model), which contain dollar amounts ranging from one cent to one million dollars. That case now belongs to the player, who then proceeds to have the models reveal the contents of more cases until, at different points in the game, the unseen banker offers to buy the contestant’s case for a sum of money. After each offer, host Howie Mandel asks, “Deal, or no deal?”, meaning, Does the contestant want to take the money offered by the banker or keep on playing? After each offer, the number of cases the player has to open before the next offer decreases, starting with six and dropping by one each subsequent time. So, yes, as far as the game goes, people are just picking numbers. But the game lies in knowing when to take the banker’s offer and when to play on.
The reason why “Deal” is so successful, I think, comes down to two, separate, intertwined and equally necessary elements: First, the game does have inherent tension. When you watch as someone decides whether to turn down tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and win even more, you can’t help but be nervous. I think viewers can’t avoid putting themselves in the players’ shoes. Would I have the guts to keep going? Does it make sense to keep going? How do you say no to a lot of money, knowing that one bad case opening can doom you to a much smaller offer? Even if it is against your better judgment, you can’t help but get sucked into the action.
One reason I enjoy watching is to see hubris and timidity punished and smart playing rewarded. Players get to bring three friends or relatives with them as an advisory section, but from what I can tell, the job of two of the three supporters is to push their friend or loved one into taking stupid risks (one always seems to be the ignored voice of reason). Too often, it seems like the rooting section brings ridiculous factors into the game, like saying, “You deserve the million dollars.” Sure, so do good school teachers, but if deserving money meant you got it, hedge fund operators would be research scientists. Or, the supporters will say, “You came here with nothing, so you can’t lose if you leave with nothing.” It doesn’t seem to dawn on these folks that when the banker offers a boatload of money, that is real cash in the pocket of the player. If the person comes away with next to nothing, that person has lost a ton. Most of all, instead of looking at the board, analyzing the cases left in play, and determining a smart course of action, the advisers seem to run on emotion. As a result, a disproportionate number of contestants blow large sums of money. Which, of course, makes for compelling television.
The bottom line is that even if we think the player is doing something foolish, we, as an audience, are still sucked in, sweating while waiting to see what is in the case. And on the rare occasions that the person in the spotlight is making smart, reasoned decisions, you are sucked in even more, wanting the player to be rewarded with some big money. Either way, you’re hooked.
The second element in the show’s success is easy to identify: There are 26 attractive women on stage in pretty clothing. The genius of “Deal” is that the models are not presented as passive, unapproachable eye candy meant to be seen and not heard. They appeal to both genders. In fact, it seems like the female contestants often know the models’ names more often than the male ones do. After all, each week the 26 women wear matching gowns and accessories. There is plenty for women watching to discuss and comment on, but in general, the wardrobe tends to be smart and classy while also being sexy. Which, of course, is what most male viewers care about.
Also, the models are part of the action. The contestants universally talk to them as if they control the amount of money that’s in their cases, begging them for the appearance of a low dollar amount (the contents of the cases are loaded before the game by an independent third party, and nobody on stage knows what is in the cases). Mandel regularly announces the name of the model after a contestant chooses a number, and the models often engage in conversations with the contestants. They’re not part of the background, they’re participants in the game.
But the most important factor, I think, in the accessibility of the models. They are not uniformly tall, blonde, pictures of perfection (like, say, on “The Price Is Right”). The women, while nearly universally beautiful, are attractive in a real-life sort of way and look different from each other. There are several African-Americans, Latin-Americans and Asian-Americans; tall women and shorter ones; and blondes, brunettes and redheads. It looks more like a convention of high school cheerleaders than the lobby of the Ford Modeling Agency.
If you’ve caught Howie Mandel’s standup act or suffered through him guest hosting on “Regis and Kelly Live” and you’re saying to yourself now, “I cant’ watch ‘Deal or No Deal’ because Mandel is unwatchable,” your attitude is understandable. But you should know that Madel is fine on the show. “Deal” is like a machine, from the lights to the sound effects to the pacing to the wardrobe to the unseen evil banker to the monochromatic shirts worn by the contestants and their supporters to a billion other visual elements of the show. Mandel is just part of that machine. As a result, he spends most of the time fulfilling his role, dramatically asking “Deal or no deal?”, bantering with the unseen banker or outlining the options for the contestant. Or, put another way, there isn’t a rubber glove being blown up on a head in sight. So while I wouldn’t want to see Mandel in a comedy club or watch him host a talk show, in the context of “Deal,” he is fine.
This week NBC ran a week of “Deal” specials under the theme “What’s the Deal?”, adding twists to the game like letting the television audience see the contents of a chosen case before going to a commercial or spinning a wheel at the end to see if a player’s winnings will be doubled, tripled or halved. A testament to the “Deal” formula is that the new twists kind of bugged me. I like just watching the game unfold. The other stuff seemed superfluous.
Think of “Deal” like a bag of sugary candy: It’s find to treat yourselves over the holidays, but when you finish the bag, it’s time to get back on the straight and narrow. “Deal” can help get you through some of those strike-ravaged weeks, at least until new shows arrive in January.
“Jim,” on the other hand, won’t get you through anything. It is the kind of offering that can make you wonder if you should even be watching television at all. Returning for its seventh season soon (yes, believe it or not, this sitcom has a cockroach-like ability to survive despite being the focus of such disgust), ABC thought it would be a good idea to whet our palates with some reruns from last season. So, at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, we were treated to last year’s season finale, in which Jim (Jim Belushi, and by the way, I have to give him credit for something, but at least he allows Ashlee Simpson, Eli Manning and Eric Roberts to feel like they’re not the lamest siblings in the public eye), well, does what he does in every other episode of the show: pisses off his pretty wife, Cheryl (Courtney Thorne-Smith, who must spend every waking moment telling herself she used to be on “Melrose Place” and “Ally McBeal”); banters with his idiot, Drew Carey-knock-off buddy, Andy (Larry Joe Campbell); and makes a fool of himself before reconciling with Cheryl in the end.
What? You want plot specifics? Really? Fine. Jim doesn’t want to go to the co-ed baby shower for Cheryl’s sister, Dana (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who must spend every waking moment telling herself that she shared a movie screen with Diane Keaton and Steve Martin in the “Father of the Bride” films). Through a case of mistaken identity, he ends up on the fakest looking talk show in television history (I’m sure it’s happened to you a bunch of times), and before you know it, he is espousing all his theories on the importance of being a “flannelsexual,” his term for a guy’s guy. In the end, Cheryl convinces him to go to the party. Big deal.
It’s not the plots, per se, that make “Jim” such a horrendous half hour of television (not that anyone will confuse the writing with “The Usual Suspects”), but it commits three sins that make it unwatchable: It’s not funny, it is so far from reality (even for a sitcom) that you are distracted, and it has a bad, almost creepy, vibe to it.
Let’s start with the humor. The episode’s opening before-the-credits scene was an amateurish, painful-to-watch attempt at nearly dialogue-free humor, involving Jim trying to eat a snack and drink a beer while watching a game, only to be interrupted before he can take a sip by a phone he can’t reach because he’s trapped under a tray of what appears to be nothing but condiments (even the props are lazy on this show). It made me think about the brilliant opening to a “Frasier” episode in which Niles tried to juggle ironing his pants and cooking something on the stove, leading to him cutting himself, passing out from the sight of his own blood, and burning his pants and the food. The “Frasier” opening was worthy of Buster Keaton. The “Jim” opening wasn’t worthy of David Spade in “Rules of Engagement.” The loud, intrusive and nearly illogical laugh track didn’t help matters, but then again, at least it told you where the writers thought the humor was supposed to be.
Okay, maybe physical humor isn’t the show’s forte. Maybe it’s funny dialogue? Uh, not so much. Unless, of course, you think it’s funny for Jim to respond to Cheryl calling his theories crackpot by saying, “Crackpot? How about genius pot?” Hmm. Maybe Andy’s lines are funnier? Seeing an opportunity to meet girls, he tells Jim, “I’m on an express train to naked town. Next stop, doing it!” Did that slay you? No? Okay, what about kids? Everyone thinks it’s funny when kids speak, right? So it must be funny when Jim’s young son says in a monotone that “nothing brightens up a room like periwinkle.” Don’t you get it? See, if Jim had a gay son, that would be hilarious, right? Oh, no, wait, it’s not funny at all. It’s homophobic and mean-spirited. Right.
Which is a good segue to the really negative tone of the show. There is nothing feel-good about “Jim.” The battle of the sexes is a common sitcom theme, but the reason it works is that banter always masks positive feelings between the main couple, from Ricky and Lucy to Chandler and Monica. But in Jim, there is a malevolence to Jim and Cheryl’s relationship that is really off-putting. At the end, Jim hugs Cheryl, and she pats his back asking him to let her go. He doesn’t stop. She looks aggravated about it and tells him to break the hug. Jim, with a kind of scary look in his eyes, says it’s not a hug, and pushes forward on a reluctant Cheryl as the picture fades to black. I know the writers were thinking it was a “cute” moment, but it played like someone needed to call 911 to prevent a date rape. If there was any less chemistry between Jim and Cheryl, they’d be in comas.
Finally, the show strains reason at every turn. The kids are like table ornaments, only appearing in one scene to remind you that Jim has a family, but absent every other moment in the home. Cheryl seems to do nothing but sit around the house, and Jim seems to work about an hour a day. The biggest problem is that you don’t for a second believe that Cheryl would be married to Jim. Hell, it would be hard to believe that any woman would be consensually married to Jim, let alone a homecoming queen type like Thorne-Smith. Even by sitcom standards, their relationship more than strains credibility, it shatters it into a thousand pieces.
I really had an open mind hoping that “Jim” wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I hoped it might provide, at worst, a laugh or two, and would at least be a benign way to pass half an hour. With sitcoms in a state of decline, it’s like there is added pressure on each one to do its part to keep the genre going. I’m sad to report that not only has “Jim” dropped the baton in this relay race, it’s also kicked it into the crowd and used it to beat a spectator to death. To say “Jim” is a train wreck only serves to slander locomotive crashes.It should come as no surprise that I support the writers in their strike, so I’m prepared to weather the barren TV landscape their job action has produced. But not by watching “According to Jim.” The weekly ritual of the models saying, in unison, “Hi Howie” when they hit the stage is good for more laughs than you’ll get in an entire episode of “Jim.” Stick with “Deal” until the midseason replacements come around.