Thursday, December 6, 2007

“Underbelly” Makes Itself Too Comfortable in the Mainstream

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

ABC has returned another sitcom to the air, and it’s not “According to Jim” (yet). So that’s two things to celebrate. “Notes From the Underbelly” (ABC Mondays, 9:30 p.m. Eastern), which had an eight-week run in April and May last season, made its way back to the network’s schedule last Monday at 9:30 p.m. in the comfy spot after “Samantha Who?” (which moves to 9:00 p.m. from 9:30 p.m., where it had followed the “Dancing With the Stars” juggernaut).

At first blush, “Samantha” and “Underbelly” appear to be a good match. Both are single-camera half-hour comedies aimed at more “adult” (as in identity, not porn) issues. But where “Samantha” is a truly original, sharply written breath of fresh air (you can read my October 18 review here), “Underbelly,” despite certain surface appearances to the contrary, rehashes ground that has been heavily trod many times before. More importantly, “Underbelly” just isn’t as funny and clever as it could and should be. Which is a shame, since there are some really positive elements in place.

The sitcom follows a group of six friends, two couples and two singles. Lauren and Peter (Jennifer Westfeldt of “Kissing Jessica Stein” and virtual TV newcomer Peter Cambor) are expecting their first baby. Julie and Eric (Melanie Deanne Moore, who you’ll recognize from numerous commercials, and Sunkrish Bala, in his first series lead) are the overprotective parents of newborn baby Perry (who they constantly call “Baby Perry”). Cooper (Rachael Harris, who has guested on a ton of other shows) is a baby-averse, hard-as-nails divorce attorney, and Danny (Michael Weaver, a survivor of the legendarily bad “The Mullets”) is a juvenile goofball.

If that set up of characters feels like you’ve seen it all before, that’s because you have. Cooper and Danny are stock characters that have been present in numerous sitcoms, and they lack the slightest bit of three-dimensionality or originality. Harris looks as though her face would break if she smiled, and Weaver seems to have his emotion meter constantly set to maximum silly. To show Danny’s immaturity, the writers actually resurrected the long-trite bit of the clueless guy eating face cream thinking it’s dip. New mom Julie is the most insufferable character of all, especially as embodied by the helium-voiced, mega-caffeinated Moore. These three seem like they have relocated to “Underbelly” from one of the mindless sitcoms out there, like “According to Jim” or “Two and a Half Men.”

The plots are as clichéd as the supporting characters. This season’s debut last week revolved around Julie contending with an overly protective nanny (yeah, there’s one we’ve only seen a thousand times before), while Danny and Cooper stumble into a credibility-straining opposites-attract series of dinners that were not only tired but wholly predictable. (Wow, he can cook and she reads romance novels she keeps in the oven. Startling ... not so much.) Meanwhile, Lauren and Peter argue over whether or not they should find out the gender of their fetus, which, by my calculation, is the 1,876,474th time a show has adopted that story line this decade (hey, if the show can be so lazy with its plots, I don’t have to actually do research to find out the real number of times the device has been used, right?). The conflict sets up Lauren’s complaint that Peter isn’t assertive enough, only to find in the end, of course, that he does stand up for things he really cares about, and their dynamic works fine for who they are.

It reminded me of how CBS’s “Rules of Engagement,” a comedy that aims far lower than “Underbelly”(David Spade is a cast member, so that’s a given), handled a similar plot line so much better. (You can read my September 27 review of “Rules” here.) In “Rules,” Patrick Warburton’s Jeff is banished to the guest room when his snoring keeps Megyn Price’s Audrey awake. Jeff and Audrey go through their clever paces (including a very funny running joke involving Steven Seagal) before discovering at the end that they prefer being together. In “Underbelly,” we roll our eyes waiting for Lauren and Peter to reach their inevitable conclusion that their personalities are well-suited to each other, as we’re forced to endure epicly overused jokes, like Lauren reacting to Peter’s newfound assertiveness with a non-ironic rendering of the should-be-retired-forever line, “I’ve never been more turned on by you than I am right now.”

Monday’s episode wasn’t much better, built around Lauren and Peter’s neurotic stalking of their OB-GYN and Peter’s fear of not being able to take care of the baby once it arrives. The subplot involving Cooper’s use of Julie’s video blog about Baby Perry to ingratiate herself with her underlings at the office was certainly more inspired, but, again, the over-the-top silliness of the characters rendered the activity so unbelievable that the story line went down in flames. Actual personal blogs and Web sites can be exceptionally off-the-wall, and yet Julie’s blog, from the way it appeared on the computer to the manner in which she related personal details about her married life, felt false, almost like what someone who has never been online would imagine these kinds of videos to be like.

As I watched “Underbelly,” the one feeling that overwhelmed the others was the frustration that the show didn’t have to be this way. The single-camera format, which raises expectations that the program will not follow the conventional clichés of the sitcom format, only serves to highlight how mundane everything is. But even as the characters and stories felt like the work of a supremely mindless show, there were hints at what “Underbelly” could be. For starters, despite the recycled plots, the show avoids the kind of idiotic broad jokes that have threatened the genre (like, for example, Charlie Sheen rubbing his crotch on everything to combat a rash in this season’s premiere of “Two and a Half Men”). In the middle of the uninspired goings on, clever lines occasionally pop up like lifelines from a drowning show. I liked Lauren and Peter playfully sparring over the contents of their earthquake kit, with Lauren admitting she breaks into it when she’s hungry, and Peter admitting he has a second, back-up basket for that very reason. When she demands he reveal its location, arguing that he might not be home when the earthquake hits, Peter calmly replies that in that case, she will have learned her lesson. In the season premiere, they are equally charming while engaging in dueling bribes of a mariachi band (she wants them to leave, he wants them to stay).

Actually, Peter and Lauren, as portrayed by Westfeldt and Cambor, are likable and funny characters that deserve to be surrounded with a better show. Westfeldt’s indie film pedigree (she broke through writing and starring in “Kissing Jessica Stein”) is apparent in her performance. There aren’t many female comedy leads on network television as unaffected and low-key as she is in “Underbelly.” And I like the kind of goofy naturalness Cambor brings to Peter. In lesser hands, especially surrounded by far broader characters and performers, there would be great temptation to amp up Peter’s dorkiness. But Cambor matches Westfeldt’s easy-going demeanor, creating a couple that you would like to spend a half hour with, especially if they were given funnier dialogue and less clichéd plot lines to work with.

I also like that the show is not afraid to portray Lauren as being ambivalent about her impending motherhood. That angle is not one we’ve seen often on network television, especially on a half-hour comedy. I suspect that Moore’s over-the-top mom Julie was placed next to Lauren to highlight her lack of blind joy about having a baby, but I wish the producers would have trusted Westfeldt to make us feel Lauren’s doubt on her own. She’s certainly up to the task. Julie’s cartoon-like enthusiasm hammers the point home, and it’s painful to watch.

At a time when sitcoms are having trouble finding a place on network schedules, I greet the introduction of any half-hour comedy with a mixture of happiness and worry. At this point, the mere existence of a new or returning sitcom is cause for celebration. But at the same time, I am concerned that if the program doesn’t cut it, with critics and/or audiences, the failure will be used to bolster the idea that comedy no longer works on television. Personally, I think that good comedy will always find an audience, but it might take a bit more time than, say, a police procedural.

As a result, I went into the second season of “Underbelly” hoping for it to be good, so it could join “Samantha Who?” to create a solid hour of comedy on ABC. That didn’t happen. But I’m happy to say that there is enough to “Underbelly,” especially with its lead couple, that maybe the show will find its voice and get better. To do so, ABC will have to be patient and allow the producers to take some chances and provide the lead characters with some original and offbeat material to work with.

In the end, the problem with “Notes from the Underbelly” is that there isn’t enough “Underbelly” being explored. And let’s face it: “Notes from the Been-There-Done-That Mainstream” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.