Monday, November 08, 2010

This $#*! Ain’t So Hot

There are reasons why I don't like reviewing a new show based on the pilot, and this show is an example of why. If I had written about $#*! My Dad Says after the first episode of the show aired I would have panned it quite badly. And it would have deserved it too because that pilot episode was pretty dreadful. About the only sympathetic character in the whole episode was Tim, the "nice homosexual from the DMV," and his role was almost entirely as a deus ex machina, intended to make the Shatner's character stop being so damned obstinate about his relationship with his kids. If the show had continued in this vein it might have survived but wouldn't have been enjoyable to watch. Fortunately something changed, and while the show is never going to be an outstanding artistic success it also isn't going to die a quick death.

William Shatner plays Ed Goodson, a retired Navy Doctor in his mid 70s whose relationship with his two sons can best be described as strained. Ed is opinionated and is not shy about sharing his opinions with anyone who is nearby, whether they're interested in them or not. This may at least partly explain why Ed's two marriages broke up. Ed thinks he's perfectly happy living alone – he doesn't need anyone and he doesn't have much patience for anyone who isn't as self-sufficient as he is. That would include his younger son Henry (Jonathon Sadowski) who lost his job at a magazine as a result of the recession and needs a place to live. Ed was ready to give him the bum's rush until some he met Tim at the DMV and he came to realise that unless he at least tried to compromise with his sons he'd be all alone. As a result Ed finds himself living with Henry in a relationship that is not without its disagreements (massive understatement) – which of course is the root of the humour. Rounding out the cast are Will Sasso (MadTV and Less Than Perfect) and Nicole Sullivan (also from MadTV as well as King Of Queens) as Ed's other son Vince and Vince's assertive wife Bonnie.

Unusually, Thursday night's episode focuses on the relationship between Ed and Vince with Henry taking a back seat and the B Plot in the episode. Vince has always craved affection from his father, affection which – of course – he's never had. Every week Vince invites Ed over to their place, which as we discover is just a few blocks away from Ed's house, (and has a view of a place that has a view of the ocean), and every week Ed never shows up. One might expect that this would discourage Vince and he'd give up on his father showing up, and it might to an ordinary man. But Vince is no ordinary man. At least where his father is concerned he's an eternal optimist hoping that he'll get some sort of recognition from his dad. At work – they sell real estate – Vince and Bonnie arrange to have Henry take their bulldog Root Beer out for a walk. However, because Henry has an emergency meeting with an editor who wants to publish some of his freelance writing, Henry is forced to leave the dog with Ed. Naturally Ed is determined not to bond with the dog, and just as inevitably he ends up doing just that, to the point where he sings a lullaby to the dog ("Hush Little Baby") and seems depressed when Vince and Bonnie come to take the dog home. In fact he's so put out by the dog leaving that he actually goes to their condo "for dinner." Vince has set a place for his dad, like he does every week, while Bonnie is so sure that he won't show up that she makes a bet with him, like she does every week (apparently it involves sex). They're both surprised when Ed walks in the door, but it soon becomes apparent that Ed isn't interested in spending time with his son and daughter-in-law; all he wants to do is spend time with Root Beer. Ed claims that spending time with Root Beer has led him to a breakthrough, that there was a member of the family that he neglected and was never there for. This gets Vince's hopes up that his father is about to acknowledge that maybe he wasn't there for his eldest son and that he's sorry for all of that. But it doesn't work out like that. It turns out that the family member that Ed is sorry about neglecting is his former dog Schwarzkopf. Ed leaves as soon as he gets that off his chest. Vince is crestfallen but it is the effect on Bonnie that is really galvanizing. She goes all "mama grizzly" on Ed and tells him how much Vince looks forward to seeing his dad, and how Schwarzkopf wasn't the only one that Ed neglected and was never there for when he was working. When Ed tells her that Vince is fine, Bonnie makes it absolutely clear to him that Vince isn't fine, that he craves his father's attention and every time his father blows him off or ignores him it hurts and disappoints him and makes him feel inadequate. When Vince comes home from walking Root Beer, he finds his father there. He tells his son to come over to the couch where he's sitting and indicates that Vince should put his head on Ed's shoulder. Once he does he starts singing "Hush Little Baby" to Vince. When Bonny comes home she found Vince, asleep on his father's shoulder. Ed tells her to be quiet; that he'd just got him (Vince) down.

The B Plot in this episode was much weaker than the main plot. It featured Henry, who is supposed to be the second lead in this series, looking to "expand" his love life. This is after a date with a girl named Donna who is "safe" and in Henry's view boring. As we discover, her job is literally to watch paint dry. Henry is looking for someone who has a bit more of an edge. When he visits Vince and Bonnie's office he meets their boss, Katie. What he doesn't know about Katie is that she's manipulative and doesn't appear to have any boundaries. She had previously given Bonnie listing that would have represented half her total commission for the year, but suddenly took it back. Then Henry shows up at the office and suddenly Katie turns all sweet and charming as she flirts with Henry. Henry is clearly interested in Katie. When Henry leaves, Katie reverts to type and informs Vince and Bonnie that if they can deliver Henry to her for dinner she'll give them back the listing. She makes it clear to them that Henry will be dinner. When Henry arrives at the office, he's expecting a normal date starting off with dinner. Katie has something different in mind. She's wearing a trench coat which she strips off to reveal a lacy black bustier and stockings. She proceeds to ravage him. When Henry returns home his shirt is torn and he can barely walk, and he spit out at least one tooth. After giving Bonnie her listing, he informs his father and sister-in-law that while he was looking for someone crazy, he had in mind Playboy Mansion crazy, not Bates motel crazy. As henry described it, Katie did something that was "so profound and so disturbing to me that it would make German pornographers blush." Suddenly boring Donna doesn't look so bad to him.

There is nothing particularly innovative about $#*! My Dad Says. The basic premise is of a man who is forced by circumstances to move in with someone who is the polar opposite of himself. Think of The Odd Couple mixed with Two And A Half Men and you won't be far from the direction of this show. Into the mix you can add just about any show in which a parent is forced to deal with the mistakes he (or she) made in raising their adult kids. Or not as the case may be (Alan and Charlie's mother on Two And A Half Men refuses to face her failures in raising her sons; at least Ed is trying... a little). I think that this has a lot to do with the source material. As everyone knows, $#*! My Dad Says started out as the Twitter feed (and later book) Shit My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. Halpern's explanation on the Twitter feed is simple: "I'm 29. I live with my 74-year-old dad. He is awesome. I just write down shit that he says." Which if fine for 140 characters at a time, or a collection of those 140 characters at a time. The problem comes in taking those pithy remarks and building a television series around them. While the writing, particularly for Shatner can be quite funny, the show as a whole comes across as feeling like a bit of a retread. Yes it's funny – much funnier than I found the pilot to have been – but the sense of "I've seen this before" is inescapable.

Which leads us to the cast. The supporting cast is something of a mixed bag. I love Nicole Sullivan in just about anything that she's done and while I'm less familiar with Will Sasso, I'm quickly becoming something of a fan. He's a strong actor in a supporting role and his face is capable of conveying his emotions in a way that we don't see with some other actors. It's a significant part of his acting arsenal, and it gives him a sympathetic air. As for Sullivan, Her character of Bonny is very much the dominant member of this pair, even though she can be kind of pathetic in her desire to please and to be upwardly mobile. In a previous episode she tried very hard to become friends with two married high end brokers, and it didn't matter that they may have run over a guy in Mexico and killed him (what broke up the "friendship" was that the wife was pro-Angelina Jolie while Bonnie was pro-Jennifer Anniston). Sasso and Sullivan work well together, having spent several years at MadTV during the same period, and I don't think it is that hard to see them as the leads in a fairly typical domestic comedy. For me, the weakest of the supporting actors on the series is Jonathon Sadowski. Much of Sadowski's role is spent reacting to Shatner of course, but there is something about Sadowski that is doesn't measure up to the other three actors in the show. Sadowski spends a lot of his time reacting to Shatner and generally being antagonistic to the character of Ed. Henry is the voice of "sanity" in this family, even more so than Bonny. I think part of the problem is the way that Henry is written. His major reaction to any opposition from Ed is to threaten to leave or to feel insulted, and for me that just doesn't work. Still part of the problem has to go to Sadowski because I just don't think that he has the comedy acting chops that the other actors in this series do.

Sadowski's biggest problem may be that he's the actor who spends the most time working with Shatner, and Shatner kind of overpowers him. Shatner isn't brilliant in this, at least not as brilliant as his list of Emmy wins for The Practice would indicate, but he delivers what he's asked to deliver here. They've given him the character of a crusty curmudgeon when, when you eventually get through the crust has a somewhat less crusty interior. Shatner is loud (few scenes with him are delivered below a low bellow) bombastic, and chews the scenery with the intensity of my dog when she gets a dog treat. In an earlier episode there was a scene where Ed has to sing karaoke. He did "I'm Too Sexy" in a fashion that wasn't quite as painful as Shatner's version of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" was very much in the expected Shatner style. And this Shatner, who is very much a caricature, is probably exactly what the producers is looking for. I think that's true about just about any producer who hires Shatner these days. The effect can be quite funny, and it's part of what makes Shatner work as a comedic actor. Still it's got to be hard for someone like Sadowski to work against a presence like William Shatner.

To sum up my feelings about $#*! My Dad Says is kind of difficult. I think it is funny, but I'm well aware that there are people who found According To Jim to be funny (I just don't know anybody who'll admit it). Having said that it's funny I'm also wise enough about the show to know that it isn't innovative in the way that shows like 30 Rock, The Office, or Modern Family are innovative, and I don't find it hilarious the way that I find The Big Bang Theory which precedes it on Thursday nights to be. I mostly like the cast even though I think that Jonathan Sadowski is not the ideal person to play opposite Shatner in as key a role as Henry should be. I think that the writers were presented with a significant problem given the vague and limited nature of the original source material. There were directions that they could have taken that might have been more innovative but they didn't; they took the safe and well trodden path. And, as Robert Frost might said, that made all the difference, because $#*! My Dad Says could have been more than just a funny show, it could have been a very funny show that been another option for future writers. In twenty years people may feel nostalgic for the show, but nobody will be talking about the new ground that it broke. I think we may have been spoiled by the shows that have debuted in recent years.

Full episodes of $#*! My Dad Says can be found online at the show's CTV website for Canadians. Apparently it is not currently available online in the United States.

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