Friday, October 13, 2006

This Is The One

We look for it every year, we TV fans and don't deny it. We look for the worst new show on TV. As a group we search high and low for the successor to According to Jim or The War At Home; the show that we would be too embarrassed to call a guilty pleasure because it would reveal that our taste wasn't in our mouths it was was somewhere nearer to our gluteus maximus. In other words the show that makes us cry (with real tears mind you): Oh God, oh God, make it stop, make it sto-o-o-o-p!!!!

Like many of you I expected that the show this year that would make me writhe with despair would be Fox's Happy Hour but then a funny (well not so funny really but you get my drift) thing happened - I watched the pilot. There, amidst the bad writing and the characters drawn with what seemed like a broken crayon was a redeeming quality. Her name is Beth Lacke and and any time she is on the screen in that show you suddenly forget that there is anyone else on the screen. She dominates like a colossus among pygmies. Oh don't get me wrong, the show is terrible and there's only so much she can do to save it by force of personality, but at that it's better than 'Til Death and light years ahead of the abomination that is Twenty Good Years.

This isn't just because I don't like John Lithgow. Actually I loathe him, particularly when he's doing comedy - or in this case allegedly doing comedy. Lithgow is the inveterate scenery chewer and while someone like James Woods will from time have softer moments - in Shark these are usually the times with the character's daughter - for Lithgow there is no off switch. In Twenty Good Years he plays Dr. John Mason. Mason is a surgeon's surgeon with an ego that thinks that not only do surgeons think they're God, the most over achieving surgeons think that they're John Mason. Mason is an arrogant Lothario (he makes a suggestive comment to his scrub nurse after a surgery despite having several ex-wives) who imagines himself to be the indispensable man at the hospital where he works. It's a delusion shattered at his sixtieth birthday party at the hospital when the hospital administrator (played by Tim Russ from Star Trek: Voyager, who I only recognizes by his voice) presents him with a putter and tells him that he's going to have plenty of time to use it because he's being forced to retire. For two years he'll be working part-time before the hospital no longer needs his services.

John's best friend, Judge Jeffrey Pyne (played by Jeffrey Tambor), has his own problems. He's an exceptionally timid and indecisive man. This plays into the hands of his overbearing girlfriend Gina (played by Judith Light). She has told him - nay, ordered him - to propose to her that night at the party that Jeffrey is throwing for John's birthday and Jeffrey is more than cowed enough by her to do it. At the party we meet the other two regular characters in this show; John's daughter Stella (Heather Burns) who is extremely late in a pregnancy, and Jeffrey's son Hugh (Jake Sandvig) an improbably scrawny male model who is in a full page ad. Jeffrey scurries around his apartment worrying about what he should tell people who are asking about the father of Stella's impending child - she went to a sperm bank because she got tired of waiting for the "right" man - and about his son's chosen career - he wants Hugh to go back to college and tells him "I used to look like you!" as a warning. When John shows up at his party he is drunk on a bottle of vodka and having had a revelation. He has realized that he has never done any of the things that he wanted to do when he was a young man except be a surgeon. He tells Jeffrey that they have just twenty good years left and they should live them to the fullest. It isn't entirely clear that Jeffrey wants to be included in they but what John is saying is enough in the emotion of the moment for him to tell Gina - in front of all their friends - that he was dumping her. Gina reacts by slapping Jeffrey and then, for good measure, slapping John.

The morning after the party Jeffrey is full of regrets (to the point where he wants to reconcile with Gina) while John has decided that their first great adventure will be a polar bear swim and he has the Speedo "banana hammock" on under his coat that he intends to wear - after he moves into John's apartment of course. Jeffrey throws him out but essentially relents when Stella tells him that now that John is only working half time he can't afford his alimony payments to the several ex-wives and his apartment. She persuades Jeffrey to let John live with him; just before her water breaks. For once Jeffrey is decisive enough to keep Stella calm and ask his bailiff to get the emergency services. Stella gives birth to a baby girl who of course enchants John. The experience and bonding seems to be enough to get Jeffrey to go along on John's lifestyle change, and the next day they are seen charging into the frigid Atlantic.

Where to begin on what's wrong with Twenty Good Years? Oddly enough I won't start with the writing or the acting. Instead I will come down on whoever decided to add the laugh track for the episode. You do not add laughs when someone says something. Note that I didn't say something funny, I just said something. Whoever was adding laughter to this show apparently decided that any statement at all was worthy of at least a little laughter. Of course that might be because it was a little hard to tell when there was something to laugh at. There were a couple of moments that were genuinely funny, like after Gina slapped John and he said "Well that was just rude," or the moment when Jeffrey told his son "I used to look like you." Unfortunately those moments were far too few and far to far in between. Most of the time my reaction to the supposed jokes (the ones where the laugh track guy gave us the really bigger laughs than he did with ordinary lines) was "uh huh" with the occasional "that was supposed to be funny?" thrown in for good measure. As for the cast, setting aside Lithgow and Tambor for a moment, it's clear that Burns is the more experienced member of the two person regular supporting cast but I have to think that her job is going to be the most thankless one on the entire show, since I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her than we will of Jake Sandvig.

Which brings us to Lithgow and Tambor, and the basic concept of this show. I've watched Jeffrey Tambor off and on since he was on The Ropers and Hill Street Blues, and while I was one of the many who never watched arrested Development I know that Tambor is a very good straight man and can be quite funny. In this show though I think the producers have chosen the wrong path by making his character indecisive and at times almost timid. As for Lithgow, well he'd probably be better served if he used his indoor voice a bit more. The man seemed to be shouting through most of the episode. Maybe it's Lithgow's interpretation of his character's overwhelming - or overbearing - personality. Together the two men do seem to have a sort of chemistry together - they reminded me most of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, or Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Of course that's only appropriate since deep down at the heart of the matter this series is nothing more than The Odd Couple with some cosmetic adjustments. Instead of everyday lives as fortyish divorced men, this show is about guys in their sixties living out some rather stupid adventures of the type that people usually get out of their way in their twenties. At its heart though this show is about two guys who are polar opposites forced by circumstances to live together. We've already seen Jeffrey cleaning up his apartment (after the party); if John turns out to be a slob the comparison will be complete.

The concept of this show could work if the writers and producers brought something sufficiently new to it but the notion of living life to the fullest while you can, just isn't enough for me. When you balance the small number of "pros" for this series with the very large number of "cons", I have to say that of the new sit-coms that I've seen (I confess to not seeing them all) this has to be the worst, which I'm sure is not a distinction the people involved were hoping for.

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