Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Hard to Believe "30 Rock" and "Kath and Kim" Are Part of the Same Comedy Block

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

It wasn't that long ago that Thursday nights on NBC really were "Must See TV." With "Friends" and "Seinfeld" anchoring the 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. slots, the network used the 8:30 p.m and 9:30 p.m. perches to launch successful sitcoms like "Mad About You" and "Frasier" (as well as a bunch of less memorable ones).

Now, NBC still provides some of the best comedies on television on Thursday nights, even if none of them get monster ratings. "My Name Is Earl" at 8:00 p.m. and "The Office" at 9:00 p.m. are the relatively successful anchors, but the network is only batting .500 with its choices this year for the launching pad half-past slots. "30 Rock," which debuted its third season Thursday night, is a natural fit to follow "The Office" at 9:30 p.m., but the only place "Kath & Kim," the new American adaptation of the Australian comedy that airs after "Earl" at 8:30 p.m., belongs is in the cancellation pile.

"Kath & Kim" didn't make my August list of the five shows I was most looking forward to seeing, mainly because I'm not a fan of Molly Shannon and the snippets aired by NBC were insipid. But as a single-camera sitcom on NBC's Thursday night lineup, I figured "Kath & Kim" had to at least be watchable, so I also didn't place it on my list of the five shows that looked the most ridiculous.

Man, was I wrong. There is no way to sugarcoat it: "Kath & Kim" is a train wreck.

Shannon and Selma Blair star as the eponymous mother-daughter team. In the series premiere (which aired on October 9), Blair's Kim leaves her simpleton husband Craig (Mikey Day) and moves in with Shannon's Kath, her mother, who after many romantic travails has met the man of her dreams, food court fast food restaurateur Phil (the always excellent John Michael Higgins; I feel bad for him every moment he's on screen). Phil's last name is Knight, and Kath's last name is Day. "Kath & Kim" is the kind of show in which this fact is played up like it's the funniest thing in world. Trust me, it's not.

I guess it's supposed to be cute and funny that Kim is always sniping at her mother and that she's not very smart. But that's not how it reads on screen. Instead, Kim is one of the least likable characters on television. She is bitter, mean, lazy, judgmental, materialistic, dumb and shallow, and she lacks any kind of compassion or core that makes her the least bit relatable or inspiring of any compassion. You just don't give a crap about her, and within seconds, you just don't want to be around her anymore. Kim is like Paris Hilton, only with no money. Who would want to spend time with that?

At least if Kim was funny, there would be a reason to watch. As written, she is not. Unless you find yourself cackling at lines like, "Doing your own nails is poor," or "When did you start caring if gross dogs have fleas?" Or when she gets angry at her husband for not being wealthy, even though he keeps trying to woo her back despite the fact she left him for no good reason and treats him like garbage, and says, "Why didn't you come up with Craig's List?" It's unclear why Craig would want Kim back; she seems to have no redeeming qualities (other than looking like a trashy version of Blair, but that certainly doesn't come close to making up for her putrid personality).

Shannon's Kath isn't a horrible person like her daughter, but she is an exceedingly boring one. We have seen Shannon do this same character a thousand times before: the cluelessly lame optimist who thinks she is a winner, but clearly isn't. Kath is left with plots like her quest to rent a garish pumpkin-shaped carriage for her wedding, even though she can't afford it, and she's afraid to ask good guy Phil to help, since he doesn't want a big wedding. Again, we've seen this shtick before from Shannon, and it's grown tired.

Of course, in the end, Phil comes through as a real prince charming. At that point, I was just happy that the episode was over.

I'm not saying I expected NBC to replace "Scrubs" in its Thursday night lineup with something of equal quality. "Scrubs" was a groundbreaking sitcom that, from a quality point of view, would be hard to replace. But I didn't think the network would come up with something that was on par with "The Bill Engvall Show." Considering that the night's programs have survived based on buzz and critical praise more than actual viewership, I will be shocked if "Kath & Kim" is on the air much longer.

When we last left the staff and cast of the fictional "TGS" on the very real "30 Rock," as I wrote last May, things had gotten a bit weird. Network honcho Jack Donaghy (a pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin) was about to be made the new chairman of the company by his boss, Don Geiss (Rip Torn), only for Geiss to slip into a coma, leaving the devious barely-in-the-closet Devon Banks (Will Arnett) in charge, as he had romanced Geiss's child-like daughter, the new chairman of the company. Jack, distraught, had taken a job in a hilariously lame duck Bush administration. I complained that separating Jack from "TGS" head writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) was a mistake, as the the show really is built around their odd-but-great chemistry.

The season premiere on Thursday demonstrated that "30 Rock" has shaken off it's slight misstep of last season and is back in fine form. Jack has returned to New York, and he takes a job in the NBC mailroom as a way of getting his position back in the company (he explains that it took him 19 years to reach the top the first time, but now that he has learned so much, this time he thinks it will only take him nine years). Liz, meanwhile, wants to adopt a baby, so she has to impress the cranky agency investigator sent to evaluate her (a very funny Megan Mullally).

The episode was classic "30 Rock": a blend of smart, laugh-out-loud lines; silly physical comedy; and bizarre, wacky (and funny) story lines, but all of it done with enough heart to make you care. And with Jack and Liz back in the same building, the whole thing snapped into place beautifully. Their relationship, an odd mix of liking each other but also feeling like the other is insane, is like no other one on television. Jack can toss off a line about how being the victim of unwanted advances by a boss is bad ("It's not fun, like when men do it to women."), and then follow it up with a shot at Liz ("Have you ever been sexually harassed? No, of course not."). And their inability to even fake a kiss in front of Geiss's daughter was a moment of great awkward comedy.

But at the end, you see some emotion. With Jack back in power, Liz steps into his office again after leaving it. Jack asks her if she needs something else, and she simply smiles and says, "I just like seeing you in there." They may be my favorite couple on television, and they're not even a couple.

The sheer lunacy and volume of silliness is great. When Liz asks the staff to make their offices safe for the investigator, producer Pete (Scott Adsit) can be seen in the background with an inflatable sex doll. Liz, upon seeing baby dolls from the fake nursery she had Pete create for the investigator, says, "Is it wrong I just want to have one of these to grow up and resent me?" Jack tells Liz how he worked his way through school doing "the day shift in a graveyard and the graveyard shift in a Days Inn." And the investigator's short-term memory loss after accidentally getting hit in the head with writer Frank's (Juda Friedlander) gold nunchucks (a gift from Tracy Morgan's Tracy Jordan as payment for working on his porn video game) leads first to Liz's joy (a "do-over" after the investigator forgets all the disastrous things she's seen) and then pain (when the investigator then forgets the second interview in which Liz impresses her). And the little threads of the show always lead to unexpected payoffs, like when Liz and Jack act like they're in a soap opera to get the soap-loving Geiss's daughter to leave him alone.

The amazing thing about "30 Rock" is that it is one of my favorite programs on television, even though I'm not a huge fan of the supporting cast. Tracy Morgan's persona is off-putting, Friedlander's trucker hats are a joke that has gone on way too long, and Jane Krakowski's insecure actress has her moments, but often feels like she's repeating the same joke over and over again. Even page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), who is very funny, is running the risk of his one-note character (the eternally upbeat hick oddball) becoming tiresome.

And yet the show remains smart and fabulously entertaining, mainly due to the top-notch writing and the brilliant performances by Fey and Baldwin. I've been waiting for the ratings to catch up with the critics on "30 Rock." Watching it doesn't feel like homework. There are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments each half hour.

"30 Rock" is as good as any comedy on television, and it is a perfect fit for NBC's Thursday-night lineup of smart, single-camera sitcoms. "Kath & Kim," on the other hand, isn't a good fit for any network on any night.