The Laughs, The Smiles, And The Awkward Dead Silence: Fall TV Roulette (Part Two)

fall-2014-sitcoms-blackish-cristela-mulaney-jane-the-virginComedy is hard. I know that to be true. It’s hard to make, and in the case of network sitcoms, it can also be extremely hard to sit through. There are few things more awkward than watching someone try to be funny and fail miserably at it, especially when a canned laugh track subs in for any actual human amusement.

I don’t generally expect a whole lot out of network comedies these days. Last season brought us The Goldbergs, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the unjustly canceled Trophy Wife, all of which did the trick for me.

What has this fall added to the mix? This season, I’m basically adding shows to my DVR all willy-nilly and dropping them when I get bored. Occasionally, I give up after one episode, and sometimes it’s hard to even get that far. My second Fall TV Roulette is focusing on the comedies — or at least, the shows that are trying to be funny. (Actual comedy not guaranteed.)

mulaney-martin-short MULANEY

Well, this was just painful. Mulaney is clearly modeled after Seinfeld — a comedian whose show is his last name, who does bits of standup to begin the episode, and who can’t really act whatsoever. And that may have worked out okay for Jerry, but I think things will be different this time.

Since I’m sure this is being covered elsewhere, I’m not going to be the one to claim that the show is passively homophobic and actively misogynistic (as is the standup work of many male comedians). I can’t imagine many women will find this show funny, unless they hate themselves and/or each other. Some men may find it amusing in a brash, fratty sort of way, but anyone with a taste for humor more sophisticated than can be found in an average episode of Family Guy will be sorely disappointed.

What sort of hilarity ensues in the pilot? Well, none, but here are the attempts: a prostrate exam! A crazy ex-girlfriend insisting that she is not crazy! A black man named Motif who refers to women as “bitches”! Martin Short as a delusional, washed up TV star! Whereas most shows seem to bend over backwards to feel fresh, it’s kind of like this show was conceived specifically to play with the most cliche stereotypes available. None of this would be so bad if the show were actually funny, but… no.A to Z - Season PilotA TO Z

A To Z is a lot like Manhattan Love Story, but not as charming. I have nothing against the leads, except that Christina Milioti is exactly like Jennifer Love Hewitt in every way, and that’s rarely a good thing (unless you’re watching I Know What You Did Last Summer or Heartbreakers). The high concept of the show is maybe a little too high concept, as we are explicitly informed exactly how long these two will be together (in true rip-off-of-500-Days-Of-Summer fashion), and presumably will follow them through 26 episodes until they get to their breakup at Z. (Every episode is titled after a letter, which makes me wonder what “Z” word goes along with breakups.) However, I also doubt the show will leave us on such a sour note, so they’ll probably get back together in episode AA, or whatever. (Maybe in an episode titled “AA Is For Alcoholics Anonymous” after both have turned to drinking to cope with their grief? I’m overthinking it and I should be paid for this.)

Too much in A To Z is just too hard to buy. The leads have middling chemistry, the supporting cast is cartoonish, and it’s trying too hard to incorporate online dating and social media. A few moments amused me mildly, but I’m not at all invested in this couple, nor do they have any real obstacles in their way when it comes to getting together, which makes me think this show will have trouble even getting from A To D and holding our interest. Literally, the show could end after they kiss in the first episode. (I guess a show called From A To A isn’t quite as marketable.)

A To Z is not an aggressively bad show, and not one I wish to meet a swift cancellation, because it’s not as misbegottenly grating as Selfie or Mulaney. However, I am skeptical that A To Z will ever actually make it to Z, which seems a looong time from now for a show with so little going on. It’s more like from A To Zzzzzz... (I can’t be the first to make that joke… can I?) There’s some chatter on the internet that A To Z trumps Manhattan Love Story, but take it from me — that is blatantly wrong.Marry Me - Season 1

MARRY ME

Casey Wilson is funny. Ken Marino is funny. David Caspe, who created Happy Endings and then Marry Me, is funny. And Marry Me is sort of funny. The pilot follows Annie and Jake, a couple that experience a series of mishaps while attempting to get engaged — his proposal results in Annie accidentally insulting their friends and loved ones to their faces, her proposal results in Jake getting fired, and so on. In addition to the winning leads, there are some talented supporting players including John Gemberling and Sarah Wright doing riffs on the standard his-and-hers BFF, plus Tim Meadows and Dan Bucatinsky as Annie’s gay dads (diversity!).

None of that can save this show from a stereotype so well-worn it’s all but completely eroded. How many shrill, desperate-to-marry romcom heroines must we suffer through? Isn’t it time to put this archetype to bed for a little while? Weddings are a very tired romantic comedy cliche, so it’s rather difficult to imagine what ABC was thinking when they greenlit a whole show leading up to the big event. I doubt there’s much comedy to be mined from such staples as cake-tasting and flower-choosing anymore, and it’s a little sad to watch Marino and Wilson pan for gold in this way. Marry Me isn’t a bad show, but the subject matter feels beneath the smart writing and talented performers.

Jane-the-Virgin-pregnantJANE THE VIRGIN

Jane The Virgin has an original and rather wacky premise, thanks in large part because it’s based on a telenovela. It’s not technically a sitcom, given that it’s an hour long rather than a swift half-hour, but it definitely plays up the comedy and tamps down the drama of Jane’s precarious predicament, which is that she is accidentally inseminated by a gynecologist when getting a pap smear. As you may have guessed from the title, Jane is a virgin, so this is particularly problematic for her — as well as her boyfriend and her religious grandmother, who sees this as a second coming of the immaculate conception.

Jane The Virgin has a lot going for it. As crazy as the central premise is, as it unfolds here, it’s actually fairly believable, and the characters similarly react in relatable ways. It’s particularly interesting to see how Jane’s boyfriend Michael reacts to this unconventional news. Gina Rodriguez is completely charming in the lead role, and there’s a lot going on with the supporting players (in true soap opera fashion) that suggests fun to come. I’m not sure Jane The Virgin has me hooked yet, but it’s nice to see the CW getting in on 2014’s diversity action, and yet in this show, the mostly Latino cast feels incidental rather than crucial to the premise.

MANHATTAN LOVE STORYMANHATTAN LOVE STORY

I praised this one in my first Fall TV Roulette. In fact, I called it my favorite new show of the bunch. I still like it, but I have to say that the premise is stretching itself a little thin. Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman are still talented leads with solid chemistry, but what’s with all the romantic comedy shows this season that have just waiting for the inevitable conclusion? Marry Me strings us along to prepare for nuptials, A To Z shows us every step on the road from meet-cute to breakup, and Manhattan Love Story pretty much guarantees that its leads will get together, and they already are sort of together, but they can’t be too together or there wouldn’t be a show, would there?

Episode 3 had Dana unwittingly bringing a gay man as her date to a dinner party, while Episode 4 saw bad oysters ruining a night of potential sexytime. Neither of these storylines felt particularly novel, and I’m not sure the series has quite figured out how to integrate its supporting actors, either. (In particular, the talented Chloe Wepper as Peter’s sister feels particularly underused.) I’m sticking with Manhattan Love Story, for now, but I do hope that the writing freshens up a bit. cristela-alonzo-andrew-leeds-justine-lupe CRISTELA

And the winner for “Most Improved” in the field of Diversity is… ABC! The network that brought us thae likable African-American family in Blackish has a different sitcom aiming, this time, for the Latino audience, and the formula is pretty similar. A crusty grandparent who constantly tries to get the younger generation to remember their roots heads up a colorful multigenerational household, with a spicy comedian mugging at the center. In this case, the mugging comes from the affable Cristela Alonzo, a welcome comedic presence on the fall lineup. Alonzo brings an energy and enthusiasm to the sitcom format that you’ll rarely see from more seasoned comedians — she looks really happy to be here.

Cristela features its star as a sassy law student crashing with her sister’s family while she slaves away at a no-pay internship, a strong and believable concept that makes a rare move: a realistic economic situation on a sitcom. The working-class angle of Cristela reminds me most of Roseanne, which is never a bad thing. There are many well-worn sitcom staples invoked here — the annoying neighbor with a crush on the lead, the disapproving mother, the jerky boss. Most of these are handled with just the right dose of ingenuity so that they don’t feel too stale. Cristela’s possible romance, possible just-friendship with co-intern Josh (Andrew Leeds) is, surprisingly, one of the strong suits thanks to their chemistry, and Cristela doesn’t overplay the comparisons between its star and the over-privileged white boss’ daughter (Justine Lupe).

Cristela is perhaps a touch too sitcommy for some, and it does take a bit of patience to suffer through the laugh track, but I have to say the appealing cast and overall goodwill of seeing something like this on network primetime makes it a hopeful in my book. I’m giving it a few more episodes.MARCUS SCRIBNER, ANTHONY ANDERSON, YARA SHAHIDI, TRACEE ELLIS ROSS, LAURENCE FISHBURNEBLACKISH

And speaking of Blackish. The winner for “Most Improved Show After One Week” is… this one.

Do the writers of Blackish read my blog? No. But it kind of seems like they did, since the second episode was so much better than the first. In my initial review, I asked for more from Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and less from Anthony Anderson’s Andre, and in the series’ second installment, Rainbow gets a big, hilarious subplot in which she is so caught up in her own head about being the perfect mom, she completely tunes out what her kids are saying. The episode’s A story is about Andre walking in on his young son masturbating and the uncomfortable father-son bond that ensues, a storyline not predicated on the family’s race. The third episode struck a cleaner balance between the two, with just enough race-related humor and just enough that wasn’t.

Blackish is going strong, though Laurence Fishburne has yet to do much (maybe he’s just collecting an easy paycheck and prefers to sit in the background reading the newspaper). Tracee Ellis Ross is still the series’ MVP, and fortunately has been allowed to get as wild and wacky as Anthony Anderson, rather than relegated to the usual naggy sitcom wife role. The show’s race-specific humor now feels sprinkled in when appropriate rather than forced down our throats, as it was in the pilot. Blackish is a good reason to give a show at least one post-pilot viewing, just to be sure. As of now, it’s my favorite new sitcom of the fall (sorry, Manhattan Love Story, but you’re lagging).

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