Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guide Me Away

Once upon a time, a long time ago – back when television didn't have pictures and was called radio – there was a show called Our Miss Brooks. Our Miss Brooks – which in due time actually got pictures and became a television show – starred the fabulous and amazing Eve Arden as a high school teacher named Connie Brooks, Gale Gordon (who would later play Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show and would appear in just about everything else that Lucille Ball did until one or both of them died) as Principal Osgood Conlkin, and Jeff Chandler (on Radio) or Robert Rockwell (on TV) as Mr. Boynton as the Biology teacher that Connie swooned over. I mention this show, which I've never seen but have heard courtesy of the old When Radio Was show that I used to be able to hear on KIRO in Seattle (until the idiots there decided I'd rather hear some moron who thought it was cool to say things like "comely Jewess" to describe Sara Silverman), because the producers of the new series Miss Guided stole the idea behind the older show but neglected to bring any of the wit or intelligence that the show that debuted over 60 years ago had.

Judy Greer, who played Kitty Sanchez on Arrested Development, is Becky Freely. Becky was one of the nameless, faceless mob at her old high school, who has come back as an adult to be the guidance counsellor. There she is surrounded by a gang of total incompetents. These include the principal, Mr. Huffy (Earl Billings). Let's just say that he's laid back to the point of being nearly comatose and while he wouldn't rather be anywhere else it's pretty clear that he'd rather be almost anywhere else. Then there's Bruce, the Vice Principal. Bruce, played by Chris Parnell from Saturday Night Live is one of those freakish human teachers that you only find in sitcoms set in schools. He believes that every student is up to something, that unless dances are strictly controlled – by him – there'll be a race riot and that students who are even slightly outside of the norm are carrying weapons or drugs or both. Tim (Kristopher Polaha), who used to teach auto shop is the new Spanish teacher. As he puts it, he's about one session in the language lab ahead of the kids in his class in speaking Spanish (and has to practice before Parent Teacher meetings with "real Mexicans") but he's just happy to have been asked to be something other than a glorified mechanic (the former Spanish teacher was arrested for something on his computer hard drive – the janitor was offered the job but he didn't want anyone checking his hard drive). And then there's Lisa Germain (Brooke Burns), the newly hired English teacher. Back when they were both in school, Lisa was Becky's nemesis – Lisa barely knew that Becky existed. Becky was the Homecoming Queen – Becky got stood up by her date – a cheerleader – Becky was going through extensive orthodontia – and was dating the quarterback that Becky had a crush on (after their one scene together in the high school production of The Sound Of Music). Naturally, Becky has feelings for Tim. Her way of expressing them is to nearly run over someone in the school parking lot in order to get a parking spot near his. Just as naturally Lisa, who is in the midst of a divorce from the quarterback, is also attracted to Tim, but is far more aggressive in going out to get what she wants.

The episode centred around the Homecoming Dance (and was cleverly titled Homecoming – a double meaning there since it was the homecoming as well for Lisa and all of Becky's not very well buried insecurities) which Becky was organizing and was supposed to chaperone along with Tim. Becky expected Tim to ask her to the dance and was shocked to discover courtesy of one of her guidance counselling sessions, that Lisa had asked Tim out. Now I'm not entirely sure how it happened (I was trying to do something else at the time) but somehow Becky ended up outside the gym where the dance was being held, hiding in the bushes with one of the "outcast" students, and watching things go well for the students who have come to her. And, of course, watching Tim and Lisa out of fear that Lisa will steal "her" man. In fact, after the dance Becky follows Tim and Lisa out to the parking lot and hides behind a car to overhear them talking. It all seems pretty stalker-ish.

It says something about the quality of a show when I find the person who is supposedly the antagonist – Lisa – to be a far more rounded, interesting, and dare I say it sane than any of the other characters on the show. That includes the lead character too. Lisa is more active than Mr. Huffy, more competent than Tim (she actually speaks Spanish since she lived on a cattle ranch in Spain, writing a novel) saner than Bruce (not that this is hard to accomplish) and way more confident in herself than Becky. Meanwhile Becky, who we're supposed to identify with, like, support and cheer for come across as unerringly happy and smiley to the point of near idiocy. As to her "relationship" with Tim, at times it comes desperately close to stalking behaviour anywhere except within the script of a TV series. It's kind of creepy really. That's not to say there weren't some nice touches. The two scenes with the janitor are fun as are some of the flashbacks to Becky's numerous high school humiliations. I particularly liked the one where her parents are videotaping the play and you can hear one of them say after she delivers her one line that they should go now since she's said her line.

Earlier I mentioned Our Miss Brooks. There are a lot of similarities in the plot; an unmarried teacher, a potential relationship with a fellow teacher who seems to be so desperately thick about figuring out that the woman is interested in him, a rival for his affections, and a principal who is at best aloof or perhaps obtuse (although I can't imagine Mr. Huffy exploding in the way that Mr. Conklin did in virtually every episode). The similarities are superficial though. Connie Brooks was aggressive, smart, sassy, sometimes sarcastic, and always ready with a comeback for whoever she was talking too. Mr. Boynton was so far from being the incompetent that Tim is that it bears mentioning only for completeness. Boynton wasn't stupid, he was just a painfully shy man who was far more comfortable with his bullfrog Mac than with any woman. As for her rival for Boynton's attention, Daisy Enright (played by Mary Jane Croft) is very much her equal, with the addition of a scheming nature. The latter sets her up as the antagonist as we are not meant to admire this quality. While Daisy's character might be considered "old fashioned – the conniving woman trying to get a man by whatever technique available – the rest of Our Miss Brooks seems far more modern than the characters on Miss Guided. Connie Brooks in particular is probably far closer to what a modern teacher is like than Judy Greer's Becky Freely.

The thing about Miss Guided that is so galling for me is that it's not hard to recognise that the producers are leaning much too far in the direction of farce than they should. They seem to be relying on the old trick of exaggerating situations way out of proportions to the material. This can work in some situations, but even shows like The Office and 30 Rock don't take farce anywhere near this far. It says something when the most human character of the lot is supposed to be the arch-rival of the protagonist. I think this is another colossal flop on the comedy front for ABC even if it should earn strong ratings when it is inserted into the Thursday line-up (against the first night of the NCAA Basketball championship by the way so this smells like a burn-off rather than a show the network hopes will come back), and frankly I don't think that it could happen to a more deserving show...even According To Jim. Or maybe I'm just an old fart with memories of the "good old days." Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

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