Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pilot Review: The New Normal

The New Normal (Tuesdays at 9:30 on NBC; Premieres September 11)

I really appreciate that NBC doesn't often take the conventional route when it comes to their programming; they're not afraid of a little controversy. Last year they sparked hot debate in middle America over The Playboy Club, and this year the same is happening with new comedy The New Normal. One affiliate in Utah has already refused to air it, the same one which wouldn't air The Playboy Club last year, but I'm holding out hope that The New Normal doesn't go the way of last season's flop, because there's actually something worth talking about going on here.

Ryan Murphy's (Glee, American Horror Story) new show is somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of its presentation. The primary plot follows an affluent Los Angeles gay couple, Bryan (Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon on Broadway) and David (Justin Bartha, National Treasure, The Hangover), who have it all. Well, almost... they want to have a child. On what begins as the flighty and spoiled Bryan's whim, the couple starts the process of finding a donor ovum and surrogate. Across the country in Ohio, Goldie (British actress Georgia King) is living with her grandmother Jane (the inimitable Ellen Barkin) and daughter Shania (Bebe Wood). After discovering her husband of nearly ten years cheating on her, Goldie steals Jane's car and drives cross-country for the opportunity she never got because of her marriage, to attend law school, and so that her daughter can learn an important lesson about never allowing yourself to get stuck. She ends up falling in the laps of Bryan and David as the seemingly perfect surrogate to their unborn child.

The New Normal isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here. It's about dysfunctional families, nontraditional relationships, and dreaming big while everyone says you shouldn't. What makes it fresh and contemporary is the fact that Bryan and David are two men looking to raise a child. Gay parenting isn't a topic tackled all that often in television, and when it is it usually is a depiction of two women; there's still a very harsh stigma surrounding two men parenting. It's assumed that two women is more acceptable because of the "maternal instinct," but that's not to say that two gay men can't be good parents. The New Normal hasn't gotten very deep into any of the issues inherent in this debate, but the pilot does a nice job of setting up the dynamic between the two men who will eventually raise a child.

Speaking of the two men, both Rannells and Bartha are doing pretty great work here despite playing stereotypes. In the pilot's opening moments, Bryan is creating a video log of he and David's journey toward parenthood to one day show their child, and at just the mention of the baby, his eyes well. This is a stark contrast to his character's other scenes, where he comes off as a queeny, spoiled child; before getting into bed every night, David makes him macaroni & cheese and rubs his feet. Bryan spends the majority of the episode talking about designer labels and his fear of vaginas. Clearly, he's the feminine one in the relationship. David, on the other hand, loves watching football andbeing outside with their dog. And he's a gynecologist, so he spends the whole day looking at vaginas and delivering babies. Clearly, he's the masculine one. But despite having to play what are (right now) stereotypes, both manage to find the basic humanity in their characters. Those are the moments that make us care about their journey and root for them, no matter how offensive their characterization may sometimes be.

Helping them out on this journey is Goldie, and I have to say she's the weakest character. King plays her all wide-eyed, baby-voiced, soft-spoken, and people-pleasing. She seems like a real pushover, so it's no surprise that she was knocked up at fifteen and trapped in a life as a waitress whose only familial connection is her bigoted grandmother. By the time she's comforting David while being implanted with his child, it all seems too fake. Her grandmother is another story, however. Barkin barges onto the scene with her commanding screen presence, spouting the episode's best one-liners. Her scene with Nene Leakes (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Glee), who plays Bryan's assistant Rocky, is the pilot's best and funniest. Her constant barage of unaware bigotry feels honest despite being so ludicrous. And newcomer Wood is adorable as Goldie's daughter with her oversized glasses.

The strength of the pilot does rely heavily on its great performances, as the script is somewhat lacking. There are some great lines here, mostly for Rocky and Jane; my favorite is in the aforementioned scene between the two of them: "The last time I checked this diamond, speckled watch my boss bought for me without his consent, it was 2012. Now why don't you take your Callista Gingrich hairdo and your racist mind back to the past or the South, where they belong." But other than some fun quips like that, the dialogue is fairly standard and sometimes even cliche (David says: "I don't know, my dad messed me up pretty good. Imagine what two dads could do."), and it doesn't help that the structure sometimes gets away from Murphy and co-creator Ali Adler (Glee, Chuck). The action is abruptly interrupted at one point to hammer home the thematics of the title The New Normal when random characters turn to the camera and start telling stories of why their families aren't traditionally normal. It's sudden and awkward, and not particularly funny. But I suppose it's just a way for Murphy to point out that even the show itself isn't normal. Though I swear I haven't rolled my eyes so hard in a long time when Bryan quips, "Abnormal is the new normal." We get it! And aside from that, it's a decently funny half-hour. It's not uproariously funny, but it's often clever and witty, which is more than can be said for a lot (most, even) of other comedy pilots this season. It's definitely worth a look, and even worth thinking and talking about.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pilot Review: The Mindy Project

The Mindy Project (Tuesdays at 9:30 on Fox; Premieres September 25)

Okay, let's get this out of the way: I don't get The Office. I don't find that type of awkward humor funny; I watched one episode of the show with my mouth open, disgusted that that is what people laugh at. I just don't understand. But I will say that I found Mindy Kaling insanely charming in The 40 Year Old Virgin, and the pieces I've read of her book are cute. But The Mindy Project is painfully dumb.

I'll give Mindy Kaling credit where its due: it's very refreshing (and realistic) to see a show with a romantic lead who isn't white or stick thin. I appreciate that aspect very much. Unfortunately, The Mindy Project is backwards-thinking in almost every other aspect. It follows Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN with a lousy love life and an obsession with romantic comedies. When her ex gets married to someone younger and prettier, she ends up in a public pool, drunk out of her mind and deciding to turn over a new leaf. No longer will Mindy be all about sex and charm: she's going to make her own romantic comedy, fall in love, have the happy-ever-after.

The main problem here is that The Mindy Project isn't all that interesting. Aside from the ridiculous gender problems, which I'll get into in a minute, Mindy Kaling forgot to make her story funny. She's clearly the star here: creator, writer, performer, namesake (ugh, the title annoys me beyond belief; conceited, boring and inappropriate, it sounds like a reality competition show). Perhaps somewhere in between wearing these many hats, Kaling just didn't remember that a comedy should have jokes... funny ones. Arguments over Springsteen vs. Mellencamp, a talking Barbie, and references to Michael Fassbender's genitalia are not funny. She also plays everything very expectedly, not really creating a new character but extending ones we've seen before. The same can be said of the supporting cast, all playing underdevloped types rather than people: Ed Weeks as Jeremy, a gorgeous British doctor who loves sex; Chris Messina as Danny, a hypermasculine and semi-misogynistic doctor; Anna Camp as Gwen, a supermom best friend; etc, etc. The only really successful performance in the pilot is from Zoe Jarman as Mindy's clueless secretary Betsy, who gets the only laugh-out-loud funny moment in the entire episode:

Mindy: Why do you keep giving me patients without insurance?... I need more patients that are like these guys.
Betsy: More white patients, done.

That's about it as far as comedy goes. The remainder of the pilot is a messy combination of gender stereotypes and misogny, which is strange coming from a female writer. There are a handful of scenes in which Danny is presented as both a misogynist and a romantic lead. As Mindy gets ready for a blind date, Danny tries to get her to change, insisting that men don't care what a woman is wearing and prefer less makeup, for them to "just look hot." Their pre-established love/hate relationship takes a turn for the worse when she rejects his advice, and he tells her, "You know what would really look great?... If you lost 15 pounds." So Mindy completely undermines herself with this scene, negating whatever good will she had from me by being a leading lady who isn't the typical Hollywood definition of such. Later, after Mindy's date (by the way, she has taken Danny's advice and changed into a simpler dress...) they are in the break room at the hospital watching When Harry Met Sally, with Mindy recounting how great her date was; Danny starts to question whether or not he's a man (as opposed to just being a man), someone who will get up in the night when he hears a sound rather than cowering under the covers. Is he the type of guy who will start a fistfight at a Springsteen show? Because apparently that's the kind of guy Mindy should be going for, a guy like Danny... AKA, a guy who will call her fat one minute and then try to protect her the next with his archaic definitions of masculinity and self-worth.

It's a frustrating half-hour of television, no matter how you look at it. If you want to be entertained by Mindy Kaling, it fails at being funny. If you want to just watch something while you wait for another show you actually care about to start, it fails at being interesting. If you want something smart from a clever female writer and star, it fails at being forward-thinking.

Incidentally, the original title of this show was It's Messy. And I can't help but think that would've been a much more appropriate name.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pilot Review: Animal Practice

Animal Practice (Wednesdays at 8:00 on NBC; Premieres September 26)

It's really frustrating for me, a fan of NBC despite their shortcomings and failings, to see them trying everything they possibly can to crawl out of fourth place and find an audience again... only to do it with crap like Animal Practice. I don't understand the logic behind putting shows like this on the air. Sure, they may appeal to a wide audience; people of all ages love animals in funny situations, after all. But in the age of YouTube when we can enter a search phrase and see hundreds of videos of cats falling and landing on their feet, pocket theif monkeys, farting hippos, etc; there's no reason to sit down and watch a show like Animal Practice when there's nothing else going for it besides cute pets and a monkey sidekick.

Dr. George Coleman (Justin Kirk, Weeds) is the top veterinarian in the country, and he's been running Crane Animal Hospital for years. Unfortunately, he's not as good a director as he is a vet, so when the previous owner dies, her granddaughter Dorothy (Joanna Garcia, Reba) takes over. Dorothy and George once dated, and it didn't end well: she said, "I love you" and he said, "Awesome!" Now she's back as his boss, and she's overseeing the other vets and techs as well: Dr. Doug (Tyler Labine, Reaper), who is great with animals but not so much with relationships; the emasculated Dr. Yamamoto (Bobby Lee, MADtv); Angela (Betsy Sodaro), an offbeat and off-color tech; and, of course, Dr. Rizzo, a monkey.

The plot of Animal Practice is so simple it's almost not there. It doesn't so much have a story as a set-up: weird doctors in an animal hospital... go! As such, the show itself is totally bland and forgettable. The characters are entirely one-note, from Doug who is on the rebound after being cheated on to Yamamoto who is a weak-willed and constantly emasculated man, to Angela who is wacky and says unpredictable things and steals beer from teenagers. Even the two lead characters are types: unconventional doctor and in-over-her-head new business owner, and on top of that they're exes-forced-to-work-together. It doesn't make for a very interesting experience when there's nothing new going on.

But the biggest crime Animal Practice commits is that it's just not funny. The writing is only laughable when considering how bad it is, not because the jokes ever land (because they don't). I don't find a capuchin monkey riding a remote-controlled ambulance funny. I don't find two people arguing over whether or not Arby's is delicious while a monkey throws prescription drugs at a client funny. I don't find a group of adults taking bets on gerbils riding turtles funny. If any of that appeals to you, you'll probably feel differently and find something to like in Animal Practice. It pains me to say that there's nothing for me, personally, to recommend; I love this cast for the most part and wanted the show to be good just so they could have some success. But the material is so terrible that I just can't. Justin Kirk is playing a variation of his character on Weeds, just without good material and foul language. George is a thankless character, his only defining trait being how much more he likes animals than people (which they tell us every three minutes). As Doug, Tyler Labine is nowhere near as annoying as he has sometimes been on Sons of Tucson and (to a lesser extent) Reaper), but he also does nothing in the pilot but get weepy over his ex-girlfriend's cheating ways. Bobby Lee has always been an obnoxious screen presence, and it's no exception here; his scenes are cloying. Joanna Garcia fares the best, perhaps because her character is the only one who acts like a person instead of a poorly-written caricature or stock type.

I can understand what NBC was going for by putting this on the air: trying to draw in families to the 8:00 hour through cute animals. I get it. It'll make for fine family viewing because you really don't have to think, or even pay attention really. But there needs to be something more there to keep people coming back, and right now there's just nothing to offer.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Pilot Review: Gallery Girls

Gallery Girls (Mondays at 10:00 on Bravo; Premieres August 13)

Ugh. Every time I think Bravo can't possibly go any lower (I mean, seriously, did you watch Love Broker? Or Miss Advised? Good for you, they were horrible.), they somehow manage to dig up a whole new bunch of crazies with some weird thematic commonality: dating advisers, matchmakers, singles in the South, wives of rich men, etc. This time around in Gallery Girls, we get a group of insufferable females (I'd call them women, but they're too immature to deserve such treatment) who all work in, or aspire to work in, the art world. Sounds thrilling, right?

Well, at least we know why the cast members are so annoying and overly dramatic: the art world is BORING. Everyone has an opinion, founded on absolutely nothing, and brings that subjective view to crappy, confusing and overpriced works in stuffy, pretentious galleries while drinking cheap wine and eating hummus, distracting themselves with idle conversation about world travel, graduate education in useless fields like art history and composition, or how much money they have. We all know how that goes. So clearly Bravo had to inject some life into the art gallery scene by casting girls who act like complete tools.

There are seven (!!) castmembers in total, not one of whom has any redeeming moments. They're divided into two classes: the Uptowners and the Downtowners. The Uptowners are Liz, Maggie, Amy and Kerri; the Downtowners are Angela, Claudia and Chantal. How can you tell them apart? The Uptowners are all rich blondes or snobs, and the Downtowners are all brunette hippies. Both groups of girls are highly obnoxious and pretentious in their own way: the Uptowners because they think they're better than everyone else, and the Downtowners because they think they're too cool for the Uptown scene. Amy is, by far, the most obnoxious castmember: she lives in an Upper East Side apartment by herself, which her father pays for entirely, and works as an intern for an art adviser. This is actually a running theme here: all the girls have internships and tons of money. How does that work? Does daddy support all of them?! Damn my parents for not having money! Anyway, Amy is the type to kiss ass like there's no tomorrow; upon seeing Liz at an opening, she goes on and on about how beautiful she is, despite the fact that they've been friends for over twenty years. Then she gets drunk at the afterparty, talking nonstop about just how drunk she is. Someone put a muzzle on her, stat.

The Downtowners aren't any better. Chantal and Claudia, along with another friend who wisely does not participate in the show, are opening a brand new gallery called End of Century, which will also sell merchandise in the front by undiscovered designers. So, a boutique. A dress shop that sells poorly framed, mediocre photographs and drawings. But the way they go on about the budget and how impressive the store needs to be, you'd think they were housing newly discovered Van Goghs or something. You're selling pictures of boobs and black dresses with awkward transparent panels in the back, get over yourselves. Their attitudes toward the art world are exactly what you'd expect from 20-year old art history undergrads who think that by interpreting photos and watercolors they're somehow changing the world; they are therefore better than you, and more stylish because they only wear ponchos and berets... in black and black ONLY (I speak from experience, I took art history classes as an undergrad, and so my judgment is justified). Add onto this the fact that Chantal talks to the camera like a sex kitten who just got roofied, as if we should be honored she's taking the time out of her busy day of buying wine and crackers for her "gallery" opening to speak to us about how great her shop and her life is... Gallery Girls makes me want to spontaneously combust.

Now, I'm not saying don't watch this show. Yes, it truly sucks and will probably make your blood boil just watching how amazingly stupid these girls can be... but isn't that the fun of it sometimes? I'm not going to lie, I'll probably continue to watch this show. It's a trainwreck, for sure, but it's also the kind of show I love to bitch about at work the next day or over coffee with friends. Sometimes I like to watch a show just so I can say, "Can you believe Maggie? She spends three years doing an internship that's supposed to last thirty days, and then once she finally puts her foot down and leaves... she's begging for her non-paying job back with two weeks. What an asshole! I mean, get a clue, girl! Or better yet, get a real job!"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pilot Review: Go On

Go On (Tuesdays at 9:00 on NBC; Premieres September 11)

I was so confused by Go On. The premise is bizarre and not exactly ripe with laughter, and even after watching the pilot... I'm not sure exactly what just happened. Isn't this a comedy? Someone should tell the writers that, because in the last few minutes you would've guessed Go On was a small-screen adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Matthew Perry stars as Ryan King in Go On, a fast-talking sports radio show host whose wife has recently died. Ryan is anxious to get back to work, just to have something to do, but his boss (John Cho, Harold & Kumar) forces him to attend a "life-change" therapy group to deal with his emotional build-up before he can get back on the air. The group is led by Lauren (Laura Benanti, The Playboy Club), the stereotypical kumbaya therapist who tries to get everyone to listen and respect each other's feelings and blah blah blah. Obviously Ryan doesn't take the group too seriously and starts looking for ways to get out and back to work.

On the surface, there just doesn't seem to be much funny about Go On's premise. A man's wife, repeatedly referred to in the pilot as "the only girl [he] ever loved" dies unexpectedly and he must attend therapy sessions so he can move on with his life. Where's the humor in that? I mean, it could work as a black comedy, perhaps in a film by someone like Martin McDonagh, but as a broadcast network sitcom? Not so much. The first ten minutes or so work beautifully, however. Ryan is a smoothtalker, and a hugely knowledgeable sportscaster; watching him take control of the group and break them into brackets to see whose loss is the saddest was truly funny. It plays on all the stereotypes of group therapy, of loss, of grieving, and has some honest moments. We play this game everyday; how often do you see a tweet or a status update and think, "Oh, your day was bad? Listen to what happend to ME!" Watching it unfold with a bunch of offbeat, possibly insane people competing over who has more of a right to be upset was purely hysterical. And it had a gravity to it as well as we realize this is the first time in a long time a lot of these people have laughed or smiled, especially at themselves and their psychoses.

But in the second half of the pilot, Go On kind of goes off the rails. It devolves into mushy melodrama as we finally hear what happened to Ryan's wife, which really pissed me off since it comes across as a PSA rather than an honest moment, and are meant to feel bad for the other members of the group rather than laugh with/at them. It brings the whole thing down and makes you forget what you were laughing at in the first place, and why; after all, this is pain we're talking about. What's funny about people's pain? Creator Scott Silveri (Friends, Joey) didn't find a balance between the heartwarming and the hysterical. That's something that will need to be worked on in the next few episodes, especially since so many of the other pieces of the puzzle fell into place so nicely.

I've never been a Matthew Perry fan (I'm sorry, but I hate Friends; it's just not funny to me), but he is in top shape here. He was over-the-top and overshadowed by his costars on the short-lived Mr. Sunshine, but he doesn't have that problem here. His humor is put to good use, and he does well with the more serious material as well. Laura Benanti is fine as the group leader, but she mostly fades into the background in the pilot. Obviously she will become more integrated as she's being set up as a love interest for Ryan, but she's playing everything very straight right now; I'd like to see her get a little looser, as Perry and the myriad group members were. Speaking of, the group members are the show's true highlight, particularly Julie White (Grace Under Fire) as a lesbian with anger issues trying to cope with her partner's sudden death. She portrays the right balance of humor and heartbreak that the show itself needs to find. A totally silent scene of her visiting her partner's grave is one of the most darkly humorous moments of the pilot, a moment we don't feel bad smiling at despite its sadness because it feels real and truthful, and that's where the humor in a show like Go On should lie: in exposing truths and getting us to laugh at them because we've never really thought how ridiculous we, as people, can be.

But instead, Go On is currently a bad mash-up of sitcom and melodrama, divided right down the middle at the halfway point of the pilot. It doesn't feel like one coherent show yet; it's a show with an identity crisis, but one that can be easily fixed. Here's to hoping they take the time to do so.