Thursday, September 25, 2008

CBS Unveils Two New Sitcoms, "Worst Week" and "Gary Unmarried"

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

Is it better to aim high and miss, or aim low and hit the mark? Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of such mind-bending scripts as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," once said: "I'm a big proponent of failure. I would much rather see an honest failure in a movie than a slick piece of trash." On a much smaller scale (much, much smaller), two new CBS sitcoms (both of which made my list of the five new programs I was most looking forward to seeing), "Worst Week" (Mondays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Gary Unmarried" (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern), represent the two sides of this dilemma.

"Worst Week" may be part of the most mismatched pairing of shows in the history of television, as it follows "Two and a Half Men," an insipid crapfest that would be raising its aim if it started pitching to the lowest common denominator. "Worst Week," on the other hand, sets its sights high, maybe impossibly high, by deconstructing the entire sitcom format. I'm sure the show will benefit from the "Two and a Half Men" lead-in, but I can't imagine anyone finding both shows funny. The sensibilities are that different.

"Worst Week" took the number-one slot on my top-five list based largely on its creator, Matt Tarses, who cut his teeth on two of the most innovative and influential single-camera sitcoms ever, "Sports Night" and "Scrubs." Like those two originals, "Worst Week," also using a single camera, doesn't go for easy laughs, instead throwing itself head-first into its world. In this case, it is the spectacular messes Sam (Kyle Bornheimer) gets into whenever he is around his girlfriend's parents, Dick and Angela (Kurtwood Smith of "That 70s Show" and Nancy Lenehan of "My Name Is Earl").

"Worst Week" is dedicated, really singularly, to making you uncomfortable. Rather than concentrating on a wacky plot to drive the action (think Lucy wanting to work in Ricky's club) or the antics of the characters (think Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer creating havoc in and around New York City), the show piles disaster on top of disaster, all relating to Sam becoming a human wrecking ball in the presence of his (supposed-to-be) future in-laws. You see, Sam has gotten his girlfriend of two years, Melanie (Erinn Hayes), pregnant, and the two plan on marrying. But Dick and Angela don't like Sam much (referring to him exclusively as Melanie's "friend"), so Sam and Melanie haven't broken the news to them just yet.

The debut episode takes a classic sitcom premise -- Sam is derailed on the way to an important dinner with Melanie and her parents, at which they are going to share their big news -- and just pummels it into the ground until it's powder. To say that there is a plot arc to "Worst Week" is really a stretch. Rather, the first installment is a series of supreme screw-ups by Sam that cause increasingly more heartache for Dick and Angela.

Think I'm exaggerating? Well, Sam misses the dinner in question when a co-worker with a crush on him tries to drive home drunk from an office party, leading Sam to take her home in a taxi, in which she vomits on him and then passes out. Bad for Sam. They are ejected from the cab by the driver (who asks Sam how he would like it if he came to his place of business and vomited). Worse. Sam then carries her in the rain for miles so that she gets home safe. He decides to shower (since he is soaked and covered in vomit), and when there are no available towels, he walks into her bedroom nude, at which point the co-worker wakes up, thinks he is hitting on her, and throws him out of the house with no clothes. Even worse. Which leads to him showing up at Dick and Angela's house late at night in a diaper made from a plastic garbage bag, asking to borrow money to pay for the taxi he took there. Really worse.

That would be enough (and then some) to fill a whole episode of most sitcoms, right? Well on "Worst Week," that gets you to the halfway point. And what happens afterwards is exponentially worse for Sam, Dick and Angela than what we've seen thus far. Seriously. It involves, among other things, Sam urinating in Angela's marinating goose, Dick slipping on a pool of Sam's urine and getting a concussion, Sam coming to believe that Dick is dead (and telling Melanie, Angela and Melanie's brother in Kenya about it), and Sam slamming Angela's car head-on into a car driven by the undead Dick. Truly, for Sam, the worst week.

Does it work? I guess it depends on your tastes. This is challenging stuff. Nothing Sam does is intentional. As he tells himself in a conversation with Melanie (and she agrees), he's a good guy. There is no reason for all this bad stuff to happen when he's with her parents. So you feel uncomfortable for every minute of the half hour (or 22 minutes if you use a DVR). While Smith's familiar crustiness is good for some laughs (at one point he deadpans, "I'm just going to rinse the urine out of my hair and I'll be off"), Dick is not Red from "That 70s Show." As Red, Smith got to act big and give a lot of kick and emotion to the punch lines. As Dick, he does most of his work with a sarcastic tone and a withering glance. "Worst Week" doesn't offer a refuge of classic set-up-punch jokes or neatly tied together endings. In fact, the debut episode ends with no resolution, just a final act of destruction by Sam (one which you know is going to happen the second you see the prop in question earlier in the half-hour).

If you like comedy in a nontraditional (almost avant-garde) format, which aspires to make you desperately uncomfortable (and succeeds), then "Worst Week" is right up your alley. I don't suspect that's a terribly large audience, but then again, the "Meet the Parents" movies were big hits. On the other hand, "Worst Week," while smarter than those films, is also less traditional. If I sound confused, I am. I'm not sure what the audience will make of the show. I do know, though, that it is probably the most challenging sitcom on the air now, for better or worse (again, which is determined by your tastes).

I think the biggest problem, though, is where do they go from here? Are we going to watch week after week as Sam implodes around Dick and Angela? How do you do that without becoming repetitive? And how do you top the shock value of Sam's exploits involving urine and death? I wonder if Tarses has painted himself into a very uncomfortable corner.

While I admired the effort of "Worst Week," I can't say I enjoyed it, either. I don't want to sign its death warrant after one episode, but it just may be the "honest failure" Charlie Kaufman talked about.

On the other hand, "Gary Unmarried" could not be more different than "Worst Week." A traditional multi-camera sitcom, "Gary" follows "The New Adventures of Old Christine," and the two shows are a perfect match, as "Gary" in many ways is a male version of "Christine." House painter Gary (the great Jay Mohr) has recently become divorced from Allison (Paula Marshall), and while the marriage may not have worked, they are both dedicated to making things work for their two kids: the Gandhi- and Al Gore-worshipping pre-teen Louise (Kathryn Newton) and the awkward 14-year-old Tom (Ryan Malgarini).

In the first episode, Gary, for the first time since the divorce, has sex with another woman, Vanessa (Jaime King), whose condo he's painting. When Allison unexpectedly walks into the house with the kids, Vanessa has to sneak out. Gary thinks Allison would be upset if she found out, but she later springs on him that not only is she engaged, but the lucky guy is their touchy-feely marriage counselor, Walter (Ed Begley Jr.). The four of them end up being thrown together in a "Christine"-style extended family.

If you go into "Gary" looking for a genre-busting piece of transcendent television, you will certainly come up empty. There is something almost old-fashioned in the construction of the show, even if the content is modern in its frankness. There are enough punch lines to make Henny Youngman happy. You never seemingly go more than a line or two without a zinger. Some work (like when Allison tells the kids, "Have fun with your father; I never did," or when Gary facetiously responds to Allison's description of seeing the older Walter in the bathroom, "Were you helping him in or out of the tub?"), others fall with a thud.

But that's okay. "Gary" is funny often enough to be an entertaining diversion. Mohr and Marshall seem to be embracing the simple nature of their show, giving what might be called "sitcomy" performances, playing up the jokes in a heightened way. And Begley Jr. is playing a character he has taken on numerous times, the tweedy, pompous, less-than-masculine intellectual. Or put another way, Mohr, Marshall and Begley are great, but nobody is being asked to do their most challenging work here.

In the end, "Gary" is pleasant enough, like cotton candy, sweet but lacking in any nutritional value. The show is definitely worth watching, but it's hardly appointment television, something that "Worst Week" is certainly aspiring to, but hasn't reached, at least not yet. "Honest failure" or "slick" entertainment? (I won't call "Gary" "trash," because it's funny enough, but I have no doubt Kaufman would put it on that side of the comparison he set up.) It's up to you. I'll happily keep watching "Gary," even if it is just a trifle, but "Worst Week" is living week-to-week with me. While I admire the effort, I don't feel the need to be uncomfortable by choice. Life gives me enough of those opportunities every day.