Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Return of “My Boys” and “The Bill Engvall Show”

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

TBS, one of the last networks making comedy a priority, unveiled a new season of two of its sitcoms last Thursday: “The Bill Engvall Show” (new episodes air Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and “My Boys” (new episodes air Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern). I reviewed both of these shows last season, so I was curious to see if “Engvall” had gotten any better, and if “My Boys” was still funny.

Stand-up comic Engvall plays Bill Pearson, the buffoonish king of his family castle, who, with his light-years-smarter-than-he-is stay-at-home wife Susan (the always solid Nancy Travis) is raising a brood of sitcom clichés: The pretty, shallow blonde high schooler Lauren (Jennifer Lawrence), the moronic space cadet middle schooler Trent (Graham Patrick Martin), and the brainiac nerd boy Bryan (Skyler Gisondo).

Last year, I called “Engvall” “dated and offensive to women,” railing against an episode plot that revolved around Bill’s distress at his discovery that Susan, horror of horrors, had a small bank account of her own. This season’s premiere of the show, I am happy to report, did not feel sexist, but there is no doubt that the sitcom trades in a 1950s ideal of family and feels woefully out-of-date in 2008.

The premiere is built on the slight and not terribly funny story of Bill being upset that his kids collect their allowances but don’t do their chores, so he orders them to clean up the garage. When the little monsters refuse (asking what’s in it for them), Bill cuts them off from everything (food, their rooms, etc.) until they capitulate. The plot points were as predictable as you can imagine. The kids are strong at first, Bill starts to cave only to be propped up by Susan, until finally the children cave and clean the garage.

If you think this all sounds way too slight of a story on which to base an episode of a sitcom, you are correct. The secondary plot, involving Susan’s ability to upgrade her cell phone for free while Bill could only get token freebies (reception dots and a case) was equally superfluous.

I guess what I’m saying is that while last year’s episode was offensive, this year’s premiere committed a far greater sin for a sitcom: It wasn’t funny. I didn’t laugh once. There wasn’t one line of dialogue, set-up or visual that entertained me. It was about as boring as 30 minutes of television can get.

Part of the problem is the cast. While Travis has good comic instincts and adds life to an underwritten character, her work is wasted, as she is surrounded by a motley crew of actors. Engvall is awful, even by comic-turned-sitcom-star standards. He is stiff in his line deliveries, overly emotive in his inflections, and just seems to be trying to get from mark to mark successfully while not blowing his lines. None of the kids are interesting, all bland and lifeless in a bad sitcom way.

The end credits of “The Bill Engvall Show” indicate that the copyright holder is Very Funny Productions Inc. I’m not sure what the name refers to, but it can’t possibly be this show.

“My Boys,” on the other hand, is sharp and fresh in a way that the “Bill Engvall Show” can only dream about. Shot in a single-camera style (like NBC’s Thursday night comedies), “My Boys” centers around Chicago sports writer P.J. (Jordana Spiro) and the surrogate family of guy friends (and her brother) with whom she hangs out.

In last year’s season finale, P.J. had just boarded a plane for Italy with her gal pal Stephanie (Kellee Stewart) and Stephanie’s boyfriend, but we didn’t know which, if any, of her possible suitors was joining her. This year’s premiere answers the question in the first scene, and it turns out it’s none of the above. P.J. ditches her flawed pursuers (a business titan, a baseball player, and her college flame) to ask Bobby (Kyle Howard), one of the guy friends in her group with whom she had a fling. P.J. decides she has feelings for Bobby, but after Stephanie ditches her boyfriend the second day in Italy, any chance to move out of the friend zone with Bobby is dashed.

“My Boys” has a quirky, just-off-center sense of humor that really works. Bobby doesn’t tell the gang he’s off to Italy, so when he doesn’t return any of their calls or emails for 24 hours, Kenny (Michael Bunin) comes to the logical conclusion that he has to be kidnapped or dead. While P.J. is away in Italy, Mike (Jamie Kaler) gets the gang banned from their regular watering hole because he wooed the waitress by talking like Matthew McConaughey, slept with her, and then declined to call her afterwards. My favorite moment of the episode came after P.J., upon returning home, fixes everything with the waitress, but when she is told Mike’s appeal was his Texan accent, P.J. immediately calls him on doing McConaughey.

Kenny’s worrying and P.J.’s knowledge of Mike’s propensity to break out a Matthew McConaughey persona to woo women successfully plays off the pseudo-family dynamic of the group, which is far more interesting than anything going on at Bill Engvall’s sitcom house.

There is also so much more happening in an episode of “My Boys” than you'd find in "Engvall." In addition to P.J.’s efforts to woo Bobby, Stephanie trying to recover from her breakup, Kenny looking for Bobby, and the gang trying to figure out what to do without their regular bar, Brendan (Reid Scott) copes with his radio station changing from rock to easy listening and P.J.’s brother Andy (Jim Gaffigan) enjoys the spending power that comes with his new corporate law job. A bit more interesting than household chores and cell phone woes, no?

But it’s the cast that makes “My Boys” work. The guys have a nice rapport that makes the kind of jabbing that good friends share with each other feel natural and lived in. My favorite scenes in the show tend to be the weekly poker games in P.J.’s apartment, where everyone sits around the table, jokes around and argues. It’s a good ensemble.

And Spiro, as the center of the storm, is everything Engvall isn’t. She is real, relaxed and engaging, and, most importantly, knows how to get a laugh without overselling the punch line.

“My Boys” may not be an elite sitcom like “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Office,” “30 Rock” or “Scrubs,” but it is funny and provides a half hour of entertainment. In the modern television landscape, that’s a pretty big deal. And it’s a claim that “The Bill Engvall Show” can’t make.