Monday, August 3, 2009

Looking for a Decent New Summer Show, I Went 0-for-2 with "Ruby & the Rockits" and "Michael & Michael Have Issues"

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

Summer is not the easiest time of year to find new shows. With the networks rolling out one inane reality show after another, to find alternatives, you have to open your mind up to possibilities you might not normally consider and take chances. Last week, I was pleasantly surprised by "Dating in the Dark." This week, I was far less lucky with "Ruby & the Rockits" (ABC Family, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Michael & Michael Have Issues" (Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern).

I have twice written about programs on ABC Family, which can be difficult because I am about as far from the cable network's targeted demographic (teenage girls) as one can get. Last year, I talked about how "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" worked better for teens than for adults, and earlier this summer, I wrote about the lead-in to "Ruby & the Rockits," an adaptation of the film "10 Things I Hate About You," which I found to hold some charms for adults, even as teens were the clear target audience.

I decided to give "Ruby" a chance mostly because I was taken in by the premise: A former 1980s pop star finds out he has a teenage daughter, which causes him to try and reconcile with his brother, who is also his former bandmate. I find something very entertaining about the idea of a 1980s star living in the 21st century. I have a soft spot for the Hugh Grant film "Music & Lyrics," and the former 1980s star premise is a big reason why. Early in the movie, we see the 1984 music video for Grant's character's old band Pop!, "Pop! Goes My Heart," and it is so dead-on in every way for that era of music, from the song itself to the tremendous period detail of the video, that it is truly brilliant (see for yourself here).

Similarly, early in the first episode of "Ruby & the Rockits," two kids watch the hit video of the titular Rockits, and watching it pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this program. Namely, that what was on screen didn't look or feel anything like a 1980s music video. To call it lazy would be, well, lazy. The complete lack of production value makes A Flock of Seagulls' low-tech classic "I Ran" look like Tom Petty's epic Alice in Wonderland homage "Don't Come Around Here No More." Taped in front of a black background that looked like someone's basement, with smoke resembling fire extinguisher exhaust, the Rockits video isn't believable for a nanosecond (the song, either), and it was an omen of things to come, since, even by ABC Family standards, nothing in "Ruby & the Rockits" has a scintilla of authenticity, credibility or believabilty.

The pilot begins with teenager Ruby (Alex Vega of the "Spy Kids" franchise) showing up at a rehearsal of former Rockits lead singer David Gallagher (David Cassidy of the Partridge Family), who is doing an extended gig at a Florida casino. Ruby tells David that she is his daughter and has come to live with him. David, a self-professed devotee of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, proceeds to try and dump Ruby on his brother and former bandmate, Patrick (Cassidy's real-life half-brother, Patrick Cassidy), who for the last 20 years has owned a car dealership and adopted a suburban lifestyle with a pretty wife, Audie (Katie A. Keane), who used to dance backup for the Rockits, and two typical sitcom kids: pudgy wise-cracking pre-teen Ben (Kurt Doss) and doltish Jason Mraz/John Mayer-wannabe teenager Jordan (Austin Butler).

Patrick and Audie agree to take in Ruby, and the first episode ends with Patrick learning to get along with David to show his kids how brothers should behave, even going on stage with David during his gig to perform some old Rockits hits. Ruby is behind the reconciliation, and she even takes Jordan's saccharine-weepy ballad and turns it into a decent teen pop song (a device used earlier and better in both "The Doors" and "That Thing You Do").

I get that this is ABC Family, not FX, so the story isn't going to be dark. But the tone goes beyond teen-friendly (and even tween-friendly) to toddler-friendly, which is kind of disconcerting when you think about the drama at the heart of the show. Ruby's mother has died, and her grandparents are so senile that they don't recognize her, so she runs away on her own and seeks out her biological father, whose first act as a parent is to foist her off onto his brother's family. But from Ruby's reaction, it is all just the greatest thing, as she instantly finds a replacement mother figure in Audie, a music collaborator in Jordan, and even a new father to go to a parent-teacher meeting in David (by the end, the insufferable and self-interested David learns just enough to know he has to go with her). The speed with which everything settles for Ruby, and the off-handedness with which the tragedy of her situation is treated, felt shocking (and, honestly, irresponsible) to me, especially considering the target demographic.

I'm sure, though, that if "Ruby & the Rockits" had been entertaining, and if the show felt plausible in other regards, I wouldn't have been so distracted by Ruby's tragic back story. But little about "Ruby" works or entertains. Virtually every scene felt forced and false. The dialogue is stiff and cliched. Like the lazy attempt at recreating a 1980s music video, a scene that encapsulated the diagrammed nature of the show had Patrick walking from his bathroom through his bedroom holding a hair brush. You knew immediately that when he reached the mirror, he would be prompted by his image to use the brush as a microphone as he dusted off his old 1980s singer moves. And you knew newcomer Ruby would catch him in the act. And yet there was no plausible reason for Patrick to be holding the brush, other than to eventually be inspired to perform. And, to me, when things feel false and choreographed, any possibility of humor is lost. The set pieces and jokes in "Ruby" nearly always seemed to fall flat.

Aside from the implausible nature of the action, the biggest problem with "Ruby & the Rockits" is David Cassidy. Granted, he's not working with the best material (typical joke: he complains of his brother: "The man is a total prima donna," before immediately turning and yelling to a lackey: "I'm still waiting on that water!"). But his performance is so forced, over-the-top and false (I know I've used the word a lot, but it fits), it's hard to watch. For someone who grew up on a sitcom, it's shocking how Cassidy seems to lack even the most basic sense of comic timing.

The rest of the cast is fine. Vega is obviously talented. She sings the show's theme song, and also performed the song she rewrote for her cousin, and she has a perfectly acceptable teen pop voice. Her eager-to-please performance in the show made me think she belonged on ABC Family's sister station, Disney, in a Miley Cyrus-like sitcom. Even though Vega is 21, she still has the bearing of a teenager. Keane is fine as the warm-but-strong mother figure, and Patrick Cassidy is blandly fine as the responsible brother/parent.

As I noted when I wrote about "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and "10 Things I Hate About You," I fully understand I am not in the target audience for these shows, and the same rings true for "Ruby & the Rockits." But I do have eyes and ears, and I can easily see and hear that "Ruby" isn't up to the level of its ABC Family colleagues. I'm sure even tweens and teens will be able to figure out that "Ruby" just doesn't work.

As for "Michael & Michael Have Issues," I would have to agree with the title, with no issue bigger than that the show isn't funny. I didn't laugh once in the 30 minutes of the first episode. Not a giggle, not a tee-hee, not even a chortle. I didn't even move my lips into a quasi-smile. Nothing.

The eponymous Michaels are Michael Ian Black ("Ed") and Michael Showalter (writer-director of "The Baxter"), who have performed together often, most notably on "The State" and "Stella." The premise is a meta show-within-a-show (a sketch program also called "Michael & Michael Have Issues"), with the Michaels enjoying a love-hate relationship with each other. Black and Showalter have historically embraced a kind of smart comedy that challenges audiences. Black is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy (I'm definitely not on the love side, although "Ed" is a favorite of mine), consistently playing obnoxious characters who think they're a lot smarter than they really are. Thankfully, playing "himself" on "Michael & Michael," that persona is turned down a bit, so that Black is not really the problem here.

The problem is that smart comedy doesn't work without comedy. In the first episode to air (which, from what I can tell, was originally meant to be the second installment, but networks sometimes jump ahead if they're afraid the pilot isn't funny enough), the bits were predictable, and ideas were beaten into the ground, as if saying something for long enough would suddenly turn it funny even if it hadn't been earlier. A central part of the story involves Showalter and Black going to a park to try and buy marijuana as a birthday gift for their uptight producer, Jim Biederman (playing "himself"). Showalter wants to approach the white guy in the hockey jersey and a "Da Bears" mustache, on the theory that he looks so much like a cop, he couldn't be a cop. (Showalter is sure the Rasta guy is the undercover officer.) Black disagrees. Showalter is insistent, but instead of approaching the target, he tells Black to go. I wonder if there was one person watching who didn't know exactly what would happen next: Black, even though he has no reason to do so (remember, he has stated he's sure the guy is a cop), approaches the guy in the hockey jersey and offers him money for pot, the guy turns out to be a cop, and Black is arrested. Showalter, rather than doing anything to help, runs away, failing even to go to the station to bail out Black.

Showalter ends up giving Biederman the book Black suggested earlier as a birthday gift and going home with the pretty new girl at Biderman's birthday party, while Black goes to prison. When Black shows up at Showalter's apartment at 4:00 a.m. to exact revenge, he forces Showalter to go to the park and try and buy pot (really?), only the cop-looking guy turns out to be an actual dealer. While Showalter is buying the pot, Black is mugged and beaten by three hoods. Showalter leaves the park, not seeing Black semi-conscious off to the side.

What is smart and/or funny about all of that? None of it worked for me. And I certainly didn't want to spend 30 minutes with either of these guys, let alone both of them.

"Michael & Michael" goes for the early "Seinfeld" ploy of showing you real-life situations and then the comedy that resulted from them (with "Seinfeld," it was the stand-up jokes; on "Michael & Michael," it's the sketches). It's a good idea, but the problem is that the sketches are not funny. The gift-giving dilemma in real life plays out as a sketch in which nobles give birthday gifts to the king, but Showalter's minister has nothing (he's forgotten). So he offers an I.O.U. for a back rub and, when that isn't enough, five guitar lessons. I remember that "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" took a lot of heat from those who thought the sketches in the show-within-the-show weren't funny enough, but I think that charge is far more accurate with "Michael & Michael." The minister-king sketch later finishes with the minister giving the king a massage with a "happy ending." Disturbing? A bit. Funny? Not at all.

I know that Showalter and Black are critical darlings. (One of their jokes about drugs being bad for people that devolved into a list of all the people for whom drugs are good even made Entertainment Weekly's "Sound Bites" list of funny quotes for the week.) But I don't see it, at least not in "Michael & Michael Have Issues." If you are a fan of Showalter and Black, well, then maybe you need to chalk up my opinion as being from a guy who just doesn't get it. Because I don't. It feels to me like two smug guys who are convinced they are hilarious, so convinced that they believe anything they do will get laughs, no matter how stupid. But if you are not already a fan of the Michaels, I doubt you will find their new show the least bit entertaining.

If summer television can be a bit of a dumpster dive when you look for something worth watching, this week I came up with a couple of cartons of spoiled Chinese food. If you're sick of bad reality television, I doubt you'll find "Ruby & the Rockits" or "Michael & Michael Have Issues" to be much of an improvement.