Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Little Engines That Could: The Workhorse Sitcoms Are Not New

Galadriel Stineman
NKU Grad Galadriel Stineman guest starred on The Middle and we’re hoping she returns

     A couple of months ago, many publications were rushing to critique/promote the new fall season.  Having sat through a number of these highly regarded shows, I have to say that I’m more interested in some of the under the radar shows that have been on the air for two to four years.  Here’s a quick run-down:

Cast of The Mindy Project
     The Mindy Project is the brainchild of Mindy Kaling and her voice, literally and metaphorically, is the main note of the series.  Love it or hate it, this is the raison d’être for the show.  It’s quick paced and the tone is snarky.  It’s much livelier and more American in its rhythm than The Office, which is where Kaling came to prominence.  I don’t buy Mindy or really any of the other characters as medical personnel, though I did with the cast of Scrubs.  I could see them as lawyers or as teachers or even in some type of unspecified office profession, but I can’t see them in life or death situations.  Part of that is because there’s been little focus on the medicine; instead, it’s about their professional/personal relationships and it feels a little lightheaded.  

     Mindy’s character is a mash-up of Mary and Rhoda for this decade, but Kaling’s performing style has the voraciousness and ethnic edginess of a young Nancy Walker (Rhoda’s mother) and that frisson is the secret sauce that will keep this dish hot.  Well, that and wondering when she’ll hook up with her nemesis/secret crush (though they don’t know it yet, they will by season two and then we’ll see if they turn into a neo-Sam and Diane) played by Chris Messina.  He’s been good since I first saw him in Six Feet Under and he’s been in a lot lately.  It’s worth watching from time to time, but not every week.

Ben and Kate with
Friends and Family
     Ben and Kate is a sweet little show starring Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon as siblings – she’s younger and responsible while he’s an older, wild man/child – raising her young daughter.  Lucy Punch is a stitch as Kate’s co-worker and best friend.  However, I’m always wondering where the little girl is when she’s not onscreen.  Who’s babysitting her?  Ben’s best friend’s parents have been mentioned, but in almost every episode?
Again, this is one to check from time to time, but not appointment television.

Cheryl Hines and Jeremy Sisto of Suburgatory
     The second season of Suburgatory is a little haywire.  The boilerplate fish out of water set-up of a downtown single dad and his teenage daughter relocating to the suburbs is strong, but the tone runs up and down the scale from realism to surrealism to mock-horror and served up in an overlit, candy colored palette that could induce a visual diabetic coma.  It seems like a parody of Desperate Housewives, but that was a parody of so many things that a parody of a parody is finally left without a sense of itself.  I can’t stand Jane Levy’s or Carly Chaikan’s voices; the former should sound ironic, but sounds bitter and unfunny, while the other is just a monotonous drone.  Levy looks like Emma Stone, but doesn’t project the same emotional complexity.  Again, it’s because of her voice.  Chaikan is stuck playing a one-note, selfish bitch that isn’t funny and she has far too much screen time.  Rex Lee plays a school counselor who’s the same queen he played on Entourage.  I know a number of school counselors – they’re smart, compassionate, and overworked.  They also have senses of humor.  Why can’t TV portray one for real?  On the plus side, Cheryl Hines is ebullient, Jeremy Sisto is a reliable straight man, and Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell are stealing the whole shebang as a simultaneously pompous/smarmy and generous/viciously competitive upper-middle-class suburban nightmare couple.  This is one to DVR and fast-forward to the adults; the teenagers aren’t worth the attention.

Happy Endings
     Happy Endings should be a top ten show.  This is a crack ensemble and Elisha Cuthbert has really gotten better in the last year since the writers have figured out what to do with her character by pairing her back with Zachary Knighton.  The show started when she dumped him at the altar and now they’re friends with benefits.  This puts a romantic heart running alongside the Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans, Jr., married couple that is sharp, wild, and crazy about each other as well as Adam Pally as the semi-schlubby, semi-employed Max and Casey Wilson as desperately upbeat and astonishingly clumsy Penny.  Why she hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy is beyond me.  Oprah always wondered where the black friend was on Friends – this show has both a black friend and a gay friend and they’re never underlined.  One warning:  this show’s verbal slapstick is so fast that some references can get lost while the physical slapstick is both grim and spectacular.

The Modern Family
     Modern Family:  yes, it’s the best ensemble on TV.  Yes, situations are fresh.  Yes, the kids are as complex and as delightful as the adults.  However, the writing is not always on the same level as the acting and the editing covers that some time disparity.  Has there been an economic downturn for these characters?  Except for James Marsden’s homeless visitor in the first season, everyone looks well fed, paid, and rested.  

The Middle 
     The Middle has been consistently one of the best shows and it’s one of the few to address the struggles of the (lower) middle class with wit, empathy, and a streak of originality.  The children are the most realistic looking ones since Roseanne or Good Times.  Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn are the most realistic married couple on any show right now.  Neil and I are always saying, ‘Why aren’t more people watching this?  Does it hit too close to home in the Midwest?’  It is appointment television for us and every episode has been either very good or excellent.  Marsha Mason, Betty White, Doris Roberts, John Cullum, Brooke Shields, and even Norm MacDonald (possibly the most untalented performer to emerge from SNL, but actually good on this show) have been excellent guest stars and actually seemed like they were from the Midwest.  Galadriel Stineman played Axl’s (the oldest son, who’s a smart ass, intellectually lazy athlete) tutor this week.  It was great to see her since knowing her at NKU.

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