Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Captain's Not So Courageous...Or Funny

I had a sense of déjà vu watching Welcome To The Captain on Monday, but it's a sense that most viewers who aren't Canadian won't have. People who have seen the CTV series Robson Arms will understand what I'm talking about. For the rest of you – the majority I'm sure – the show will seem vaguely innovative but on the whole not particularly brilliant, and arguably not that great. Of course that's just based on seeing the first episode.

The Captain is the nickname for the El Capitan, a sort of aging glamour queen of an apartment building in Hollywood – beautiful and even stately on the outside but somewhat down on its heels on the inside. Josh Flum (Fran Kranz) is our entry into the world of The Captain and its eccentric inhabitants. Josh wrote and directed an Oscar winning short film five years ago but hasn't done much since. He's been working on a script but when his girlfriend left him he decided to move back to New York. Or at least he was planning to until his sleazy best friend and business manager Marty Tanner (Chris Klein) persuaded him to move into The Captain where Marty himself lives with his girlfriend. Once he decides to take the apartment (the previous tenant died) he meets Saul Fish, the first of the diverse group of residents, and Jesus, the building's doorman (actually I'm not sure exactly what Jesus is supposed to be as you'll see). Saul – who prefers that people call him "Uncle Saul" – is a long-time resident of The Captain. He wrote 79 episodes of a little show called Three's Company which I guess is supposed to be something of an in joke since Saul – sorry, Uncle Saul – is played by Jeffrey Tambor who was not only a frequent guest star on Three's Company but also one of the stars of the spin-off The Ropers. Quite obviously Uncle Saul is living quite well on his residual checks because he doesn't claim to have any credits beyond them. Jesus, played by Al Madrigal (who I have never heard of before this show) is supposedly the building's go-to guy; Uncle Saul tells Josh that if there's anything he needs, go to Jesus. On the whole though Jesus isn't particularly helpful – when Josh asks for some help with some boxes, Jesus says "No." On the other hand he does know everything about everyone in the building which might be good if it weren't for the fact that he will tell anyone everything about everyone in the building – he can't keep his mouth shut.

At a party that Marty claims is being thrown in honour of the new tenant but is in fact being thrown for the building manager, who just got out of hospital, who just got back after surgery, Josh meets the rest of the tenants in the building. There's aspiring young actress Astrid (Valerie Azlynn), who Marty claims is "perfect" for Josh. She is desperate to get Josh to help her study and get parts, in fact just about anything his Oscar prestige (which is minimal for a short film Oscar of course) can get her. Then there's Marty's girlfriend for now, Claire (Abigail Spencer). Next up is Charlene Van Ness (Raquel Welch), the building's resident cougar. Uncle Saul is clearly in lust for her – he says that she has an ass like a "buttery chardonnay – but Charlene's taste are for the younger things in life. Finally, as he makes a speech at what he still thinks is his party, Josh literally sees Hope across a crowded room. Hope (Joanna Garcia) is studying to be an acupuncturist. In fact she's just finished her certification exam. Josh arranges for a treatment for his sciatica at her apartment. Actually it's her brother's apartment, and is filled with "monster heads" – he designs creatures for the movies and is currently working in New Zealand. Hope is great, totally unaffected when Josh has a sudden erection during the treatment ("sets up a pup tent" as she puts it) and Josh is sure that he's found marriage material. The only thing is that as soon as she's certified as an acupuncturist, Hope is heading for New York. Impetuously Josh tells her he's going back to New York too.

Josh goes back to his apartment to find a note from Charlene, asking him to stop by her apartment. She tells him that she's got a "great" idea for an erotic story that she'd like him to write and that she's star in of course. It's really a ruse to get him into her apartment for a night of sex, as anyone but a complete moron would know as soon as he got the note. Josh emerges in the morning, exhausted, under the watchful gaze of Jesus and Uncle Saul who not appreciatively and mention that Jonathon Silverman – "he starred in Weekend at Bernie's" had spent his first night "in the 'House of Charlene' too." And pretty soon everyone else in the building knows including Hope. This makes Josh even more determined to go back to New York. He backs out of his lease with the building manager but when Hope returns that evening she tells him that she failed her certification (she left a needle in her instructor's buttocks – he discovered it while showering) and will be staying at The Captain, he makes a huge effort to stay. It's only after he's back in the place that Hope mentions that she has a boyfriend.

Earlier I mentioned the Canadian series Robson Arms as being similar to Welcome To The Captain. Both series tell the stories of an aging, once fashionable, apartment building with nosy Super (or whatever Jesus is). That's where the basic similarity stops though, and it's where – to me at least – Welcome To The Captain falls flat. Robson Arms is in its essence an anthology series that is frequently at least a dark comedy if not a dramedy. Each week different tenants in the building were featured. The only constant was the Super, Yuri, and even he isn't featured in most episodes. The sense I get from Welcome to the Captain is that they will consistently focus on the main characters of Uncle Saul, Jesus, Josh and Hope, with other cast members showing up as needed for support. And that's a shame because I don't find most of these characters to be at all engaging. Josh is essentially a straight man around whom the funny, eccentric characters revolve but while I find them eccentric I really don't find them to that funny. I've been a fan of Joanna Garcia since she was on Reba and her character seems to be one of the more down to earth among the characters on the show. Jeffrey Tambor's character of Uncle Saul is well beyond his character in last year's dismal Twenty Good Years but that's not saying a lot. It is light years behind such characters of George Bluth Sr. in Arrested Development (or so they tell me) or Hank Kingsley in The Larry Sanders Show to the point where you have to wonder whether he took this role (and the Twenty Good Years part before that) just to cash a pay cheque. Al Madrigal as Jesus is apparently supposed to be funny but so far I just don't see it. From what we've seen Raquel Welch is playing the woman a generation of us all hoped (prayed) she'd be like if we ever met her (horny, aggressive, promiscuous, and into "teaching" younger guys) even though in our heart of hearts we knew she wasn't. The problem is that she isn't so much playing a character as she is a caricature.

The script was nothing to write home about (you should pardon the expression). It felt flat and not funny at all, which is a bit of a problem in a comedy. Maybe – hopefully – it gets better and there is certainly a faction that says that "it must get better because it can't get worse...can it?" The show is quite deliberately airing without a laugh track and in a lot of cases that is a good decision. I don't think this is one of them. There didn't seem to be one unprompted laugh in this thing. The episode was alternately cringe-worthy and embarrassing. The sole exception in my view was the relationship between Josh and Hope but they weren't funny so much as sweet. As I mentioned with Robson Arms this would probably have worked as an episode – or a recurring storyline – within an anthology series, but here the relationship is the central plot point around which the entire series is built and I just don't think it is strong enough.

In most seasons even CBS would dump this unfunny mess fast. This isn't a normal year though; it is the year of the Writers Strike. The Writers Strike has in many ways given viewers what they've wanted – or said they've wanted – for quite some time; the opportunity to have time to settle into a series and decide over more than a couple of episodes before the network drops it like a hot potato. This hasn't been a bad thing although it also hasn't helped to build an audience for most new shows running against established hits. The networks have only pulled one series (Laughlin) before all of the episodes of that series have run. In many cases the result has been that shows have been kept alive long after they deserved to be around. Despite a couple of heavyweights in the cast Welcome To The Captain will, in my opinion be one of those shows that will stay alive because of the strike. I don't think it will be back after the strike and certainly not next season – regardless of when or how the strike is settled. I won't be disappointed because this show is ... well it's bad and I don't think time can save it.

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