Thursday, March 6, 2008

“Unhitched”: When Mediocre Things Happen to Good People

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

Imagine you are an actress, and, despite your celebrity lineage, you slog through ten years in the business, failing to break through. You settle for roles in movies nobody saw, occasionally getting a regular part on a show that doesn’t go anywhere. And then, one day, you end up on one of the most beloved, innovative, and critically acclaimed sitcoms of all time, where you spend a year as one corner of television’s favorite love triangle. Suddenly, you’re a star. You go on the major talk shows, get interviewed in magazines and newspapers, and, at the age of 31, finally make it. And then, six months later, you are in what amounts to a knock-off of a TBS comedy.

How do you handle it? To find out, just ask Rashida Jones. The Harvard-educated beauty is the daughter of music legend Quincy Jones and “Mod Squad” star Peggy Lipton. She endured ten years of movies with names like “Roadside Assistance” and “Strip Search” (even ending up on the cutting room floor of that one, but that might be a good thing), and managed a season of “Boston Public.” And then, after starring in the well-received British series “NY-LON” (currently in development to be remade for U.S. television), she hit pay dirt: The role of Karen, Jim’s Stamford branch girlfriend on “The Office.” As the girl that got between Jim and Pam, Jones had finally made it.

(As an aside, I am one of the few people in America who was rooting for Jim to choose Karen over Pam, even though I knew the odds of that happening were roughly the same as the networks shuttering their reality divisions to make way for comedy programming.)

Jones did her season on “The Office,” and with the world at her feet, and offers presumably pouring in, she chose as her next move ... “Unhitched” (Fox, Sundays at 9:30 Eastern), a sitcom that feels like a knock-off of “My Boys,” the TBS series about a female sportswriter (played by Jordan Spiro) and her group of guy friends.

I’m not saying “Unhitched,” which made its debut Sunday night, is bad. In fact, I quite enjoyed the pilot, and it certainly is more entertaining than must current sitcoms. But there is nothing at all special about this comedy, and Jones may have the least interesting role on the show. “Unhitched” follows four friends who recently exited bad relationships. Craig Bierko plays Jack “Gator” Gately, whose wife left him for a member of Cirque de Soleil. He is friends with Jones’s Kate, a lawyer who compares every guy to her ex-boyfriend, even though he was, to quote Gator, “a douche.”

Gator and Kate’s two best friends are super broad characters straight out of a multi-camera sitcom (“Unhitched,” like nearly all new comedies, is shot single-camera). Tommy (Johnny Sneed) is a doofus so out of touch with his surroundings that when Gator asks him to take a drunk business associate home, Tommy takes her to Gator’s home, not hers, thinking that’s what Gator wanted. And Freddy (Shaun Majumder) is a nerdy, recently divorced Indian doctor, whose accent is so exaggerated, he makes Apu from “The Simpsons” look like Mohinder from “Heroes.”

At least in the pilot, Jones has the least to do of any of the four main characters. The episode opens with Gator on a blind date with a seemingly normal beautiful woman, who turns out to live in a jungle-like apartment, own a pet chimp, and harbor a desire to have violent sex like the gorillas she studies. The opening scene ends with the chimp wanting to get in on the action with Gator, so that the second scene opens with Freddy, under a sheet, mending to Gator’s injuries in his, um, posterior region. Which leads to one of the best lines of the pilot when Gator describes the chimp as “Bi-curious George.”

Freddy has problems of his own. It’s his birthday, and he is distraught that he cannot repeat his yearly ritual of going to dinner with his wife at his favorite restaurant, “Thank Goodness It’s Friday’s.” So, he hires an escort to go with him to the famed family-friendly dining place. When Freddy falls for the seemingly (the initial impressions of all the dates of the characters in “Unhitched” warrant the tag of “seemingly”) sweet prostitute, he ends up proposing to her after a whirlwind overnight trip to Atlantic City. By the time Johnny Knoxville turns up in a cameo as the hooker’s pimp/boyfriend, things have spiraled far lower for Freddy than you might have guessed.

Tommy, meanwhile, is on a constant quest for women, which includes the 16-year-old daughter of another of Gator’s business associates (he thinks she’s older). He is saved by Gator telling him to “sign her yearbook and start talking with the adults.”

And poor Jones’s Kate is left to cheer up her friends, while going on a date with a Boston Celtics employee who she initially rejected because of his slight stature. The guys urge her to give him a chance, and she does, ending up in courtside seats at a Celtics game and meeting players Paul Pierce and Ryan Gomes. Which would be cool, except Gomes was traded last summer to the Minnesota Timberwolves, something, I’m sure, the folks at Fox were none too happy about. There was no doubt something was going to go wrong with the date, but I was surprised when it turned out to be that the guy was not a team executive, but the leprechaun mascot. This revelation is played like the ultimate embarrassment for Kate, but this view seemed mean-spirited to me. The guy flies into the air and dunks the ball, and she is mortified. Why? The mascot is confident and charismatic. I think what he did was pretty cool. The show, on the other hand, treated the situation like he revealed himself to be a white supremacist. I don’t get it. It certainly didn’t make me sympathetic to Kate’s woes with men.

But I guess I’m overthinking “Unhitched” if I’m judging Freddy’s accent or Kate’s displeasure with her mascot date. I can hear the clamor that it’s “just a sitcom.” And, again, I do acknowledge that the show is funny. When Freddy is under the sheet examining Gator’s behind, and Gator goes to shake Tommy’s hand, Freddy says, “Do not pull that finger.” When Kate asks Gator why he hadn’t signed his divorce papers yet, and Gator says there were still some things he wanted to check, Kate replies, “Why? Is there something you haven’t given her yet?” The punch lines tend to be both funny and smart (the “smart stupid” I wrote about last week).

And the cast is strong. Jones, even though she has little to do, knows how to turn a line. Bierko, who has been successful in theater, is a likable center for the characters to orbit around. And while a bit broad for my taste, Sneed and Majumder generate laughs with their antics.

I even like some of the ways “Unhitched” tries to appear modern. Several scene transitions made use of Google Earth-like satellite photos, showing the change from, say, the characters being in Boston, to Freddy being with his escort in Atlantic City. And the theme song, a dying art on television, is a peppy burst of emo bubble gum that works for the tone of the show. (The song is “Hey,” by Gilmor, which you can listen to at the band’s MySpace page.)

And yet, there is something missing from “Unhitched.” Maybe following up “The Office” was an impossible task, and nothing would have lived up to the heights Jones experienced in the sales office of Dunder Mifflin. But “Unhitched” is something I feel like we’ve seen a million times before. From the tired device of a guy stalling on signing his divorce papers, to the formulaic all-the-dates-will-go-bad plots, it all felt like ground that has been especially well trodden upon. In fact, when Kate is at the Celtics game and meets the players, it kind of felt like Spiro’s “My Boys” character had moved from Chicago to Boston and died her blonde locks brown.

I like “My Boys.” I gave it a good review in this space back in August. But I’m sure no show wants to be known as a “My Boys” wannabe, especially one executive produced by the Farrelly Brothers. (Ah, the chimp attack on Gator’s butt and the Johnny Knoxville cameo make sense now!)

I’ll watch “Unhitched” in the coming weeks. I’ll laugh at its silly humor. I’ll note that it’s a step up from many of the comedy-free sitcoms on television. But I doubt I’ll stop thinking that Rashida Jones deserves more and wondering what would have happened if she was given better material, in the way that “Samantha Who?” is tailor-made for Christina Applegate.

I guess I should be happy Jones is working. “Unhitched” may not be “The Office,” but it beats being cut out of “Strip Search.