Every so often you come upon a show that is either extremely good or mind numbingly bad. Fox's new comedy 'Til Death is neither. It is on the whole a rather pedestrian production with a couple of bright shining points. Those points are Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher.
The thing about Garrett and Fisher is that they look like they could have been married to each other for twenty five years. This is a good thing because they are in fact playing a couple who have been married to each other for twenty five years. All to often in modern sitcoms you come upon people who look like the only reason they could possibly have gotten married is because of failed birth control. Who would believe that Leah Remini would fall in love with Kevin James or that Courtney Thorne Smith would end up with Jim Belushi in real life? That's what made TV couples like Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton or even Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson work; you could easily conceive of them being a couple. The same is true of Garrett and Fisher. Plus they're both solid talents - I was never a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond but in the parts of episodes that I did see it was Brad Garrett not Ray Romano who I found funny. Having two solid performers in the mix is essential because this series really has a cast of four. There's Garrett and Fisher as Eddie and Joy Stamm, and Eddie Kaye Thomas (from the American Pie movies) and newcomer Kat Foster as Jeff and Steph Woodcock who have been married for all of twelve days.
It's hard to say much about a show with a cast of four people. Eddie and Joy are a couple in the stage of their relationship where, while they still love each other, the spark is basically gone. They're comfortable with each other but the passion is gone. For Eddie marriage is now so that you'll have someone to drive you to the hospital, and happiness is driving home with a warm bucket of chicken on your lap. Beyond that, Eddie's a cynic about marriage. It is the job of women to suck the fun out of everything. Jeff on the other hand is a young and idealistic to the point of naivete guy from Minnesota (for some reason sitcom producers equate Minnesota with idealistic to the point of naivete - Marshall on How I Met Your Mother is from Minnesota). He believes that if husbands and wives communicate marriage can be a equal partnership and love can triumph over all.
The show opens with Jeff & Steph moving into the neighbourhood and meeting their new neighbours, Eddie & Joy. As it turns out Jeff is the new Vice Principal at Winston Churchill High School, where Eddie teaches History, so Joy suggests that they car pool into work together. While they're getting to know each other in the front yard, Jeff suggests that since they probably aren't going to do much formal dining maybe they could have a pool table in the formal dining room, and Steph seems to agree. On their drive to work Eddie tells Jeff that he won't be getting the pool table and explains exactly how Steph will go about letting him know. Arriving at home Eddie finds that Joy wants them to go jogging - which goes against their fortieth birthday present to each other to allow themselves to get fat - but is soon persuaded to watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show instead (Joelly Fisher of course was a regular on Ellen's sitcom). More to the point Joy has invited Jeff & Steph over for dinner that night. Sure enough Jeff tries to show Eddie that communication and compromise and love has already allowed him to get his pool table for the formal dining room. As if it were scripted (!) Eddie's explanation of exactly how Steph would steal Jeff's fun - by not letting him have the pool table - plays out and the younger couple have their first fight. This amuses Eddie and horrifies Joy. They "catch" Jeff & Steph's fight when Eddie explains his theory about women sucking the fun out of life and giving as an example the hot tub he'd wanted years ago which Joy denied him. She in turn reminds him that in all their years of marriage they have never taken advantage of the free trips she can get as a travel agent because he refuses to travel outside of the USA. The next day at work Jeff is triumphant. He's getting his pool table! All it took was understanding and great make up sex - twice. The make up sex part really interests Eddie and when he gets home he decides to make up with Joy. Unfortunately his attempts are rather clumsy and only serve to reheat the argument. Eventually Eddie walks out to go over to Jeff's to play billiards. It turns out that Jeff got his pool table all right, complete with purple felt (Steph thinks purple's a nice colour...if you're a pimp), but it's not in the formal dining room but rather in what must be the house's smallest bedroom. The size of the room and the table make it virtually impossible to shoot a game. Still, in his anger Eddie tries, but only manages to bring the rack of cues down on his head. Joy takes him to the hospital and the argument is basically resolved to the point where they actually consider the idea of make up sex once they get home, but pretty quickly decide against it. In the final scene of the episode, Jeff tells Eddie that he really wants to get rid of the pool table because the room is too small. Eddie tell him that he can't get rid of it immediately because that would mean admitting that Steph was right. Jeff's just going to have to wait until the first child is born.
There's nothing special about 'Til Death. It's the sort of show that - with minor variations - the other three networks have at least one of. This show being on Fox there seems to be a bit fo a tendency to go for the low joke. Thursday's episode featured several repetitions of jokes or implied double entendres related to Jeff & Steph's last name - Woodcock - and Jeff's decision, which he believes is hip but is really incredibly naive, to create a website called mywoodcock.com (Sony Pictures, which produces the show, has actually set up that website; whether they do anything more with it than what you see is a whole other question). But that's not the big problem. The big problem is that this show just doesn't stand out from the crowd. At its heart it's a domestic comedy about a couple who have been married long enough that they basically take each other for granted even though deep down they love each other. It's the sort of show that gets stamped out using a cookie cutter. That's unfortunate for a lot of reasons but one of the big ones is that Brad Garrett and Joelly Fisher deserve to be working in something a lot better and a lot more original. While I don't see this show being cancelled quickly, I can't see it being renewed for a second season either. Then again no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public in general or Fox viewers in particular. That may explain why Arrested Development was cancelled and The War At Home not only wasn't the first series cancelled last year but was actually renewed for a second season. But, given just how competitive the first hour of Thursdays is, with Survivor, My Name Is Earl, Ugly Betty, and Smallville up against it, I don't expect a ratings stampede towards 'Til Death. It's a show that makes you go enh.