Monday, January 16, 2012

¡Rob! Stomps On My Memories

ROBThe new CBS series ¡Rob! takes the idea behind an old Canadian show that I remember quite fondly and manages to strip out everything that I found charming and funny about the original. And really all it took was some really bad writing and Rob Schneider.

Many years ago (about 40 years ago actually) when I Was A Teenaged Child of Television (hmm, that might be a good title for some sort of blog) and CTV first established itself in the Saskatoon market, one of the shows they had was a sitcom called Excuse My French. The show was about a young couple who decide on the spur of the moment to get married. There are a number of complications. For one thing, his family (well there’s only his father really) is rich while hers is working class. But the big hang up is that they’re living in Montreal and he’s an anglophone and she’s a francophone (although in Montreal then, and even now, if you were French-Canadian you probably spoke some English). The show starred Stuart Gillard (probably best known today as a director in Canadian and American TV, whose credits include Charmed, One Tree Hill, and 90210) as Peter Hutchins and Lise Charbonneau as his new wife Marie-Louise and a number of French-Canadian actors who are pretty much unfamiliar outside of Quebec playing Marie Louise’s family. This included her parents, an uncle and a separatist brother (also in college). I remember the show as being rather funny even if it was being done on a budget that would make a shoestring look obese.

Over the years I’ve often thought that you could take the basic concepts behind Excuse My French and use them in an American sitcom. The basic idea would be a clash between cultures and across economic class lines. You could make the lead characters the college aged son of a rich Anglo and the daughter of a working class Tejano family. In fact, if you wanted to throw in a really fun twist, you could make the husband be the first generation of the family born in the United States (his family are Canadian – a recognition of the Canadian original) while his wife’s family can trace their history in Texas back to before Texas was a republic, in fact before the American Revolution. I’m not saying that the concept would work of course. There are a lot of ways that this could go wrong, and ¡Rob! not only finds all of them, it finds a few that I never thought of.

I should start out by stating that I don’t like Jon Schneider. He evokes Jon Lovitz levels of annoyance in me and that’s saying a lot (its an 8 on the annoyance meter, with the late Chris Farley being a 10) and I find myself unable to even think of watching just about anything that he’s in. And with all that being said, even if I liked him as an actor, Rob Schneider would have been wrong for this part because of his age. At 48 he’s too old for the role playing opposite 32 year-old Claudia Bassols as Maggie, his new bride. In fact Schneider is six years older than the woman playing his mother-in-law on the show Diana-Maria Riva (who you might remember from Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip or the last season of The West Wing). The age difference between Schneider and Bassols removes any charm that the relationship might otherwise have possessed had the characters (particularly Schneider’s) been younger or at least closer together in age. The thing is that the Rob and Maggie relationship has to work from the very beginning because it is the source of conflict between Rob and Maggie’s family.

The Spanish speaking members of the cast are generally good at least in terms of acting qualifications. Cheech Marin plays family patriarch Fernando, opposite Diana-Maria Riva as Rosa. Eugenio Derbez, one of Mexico’s best known comedic  actors plays Rosa’s younger brother Hector (despite being seven years older than Riva), and Lupe Ontiveros (who played Gabrielle’s mother-in-law in the early episodes of Desperate Housewives) plays Rosa’s mother. Claudia Bassols is probably the least experienced cast member with most of her previous work being in series in Spain. They’re a good cast but the writing that they are forced to work with in this show is abominably bad.

Many of the alleged jokes in this show are either borderline offensive or sophomoric; and high school sophomoric not college sophomoric either. Some of the others are allegedly funny because they’re trying to play the turn-about card. Here’s a few examples:
  • When Rob first arrives he’s mistaken for Maggie’s cab driver.
  • Rob goes to meet his new in-laws and meets his new wife’s extended family. Rob: “Well now I know what’s going on with all of those siestas.”
  • Rob tells to his new mother-in-law (whose husband owns eight car washes) that he’s a landscape architect. She thinks that means that her daughter has married a gardener. Later in the episode she complains to him, “I wish you people wouldn’t use a leaf blower”. This is funny(?) because one of the stereotypes of Mexican immigrants is of the gardener using a leaf blower.
  • Rob assures his new father-in-law of his liberal credentials on immigration. His father-in-law responds that he thinks they should build a big wall along the border with gun turrets to keep the illegal immigrants out. They’re competition (although of course all or almost all of his employees are illegal immigrants). This is funny because it’s coming from a immigrant who’s got his and doesn’t want anyone else to get theirs.
  • Eugenio tells Rob that he’s in the US “for a visit”…and then immediately confides to Rob that he’s not going back. He then announces that Rob is lending him $7,200, which is news to Rob.
  • Rob goes upstairs to find Maggie and somehow wanders into her grandmother’s bedroom. He accidentally tips over the candles in a shrine in her room, spilling was onto his pants. He takes them off because his genitals feel like they’re burning, just as grandma comes into the room. She shrieks and people come running. Rob tries to hid behind her but she bends down in front of him, so when the family arrives it appears as though he’s somehow humping her. It’s a visual joke that comes damned close to being a joke about rape.
  • Maggie claims that Rob has some sort of OCD. When they are planning a party at Rob’s place for his in-laws, Rob has to have everything planned out meaning, naturally, that “hilarity” will ensue when his “well planned” evening goes awry.
  • Things are icy between the in-laws and Rob until Rob announces that he has wedding pictures. Of course they’re on his phone only, and of course within one or two photos, Rob clumsily drops the phone into a pitcher of Sangrias. He then reaches in to try to grab the phone, and then serves the Sangrias that he just had his hands in. This did allow Eugenio to get one of the few good – or at least above the standards of the rest of the show – jokes in the show: “This is very good. What type of phone did you use in it?”
  • Trying to make small talk he brings up the murdered Tejano singer Selena. “What a tragedy. So sad.” Everyone looks at him like he’s a tonto. Or perhaps an idiota.

Rob wasn’t the worst comedy to debut in the past couple of weeks. After all it did appear two days after the second (and as it turned out the last) episode of Work It, a show so abysmally bad that most people are convinced that it wasn’t released it escaped. As bad and at times distasteful as it might be ¡Rob! isn’t as bad as that. There is also the possibility, albeit an incredibly slim possibility, that the show’s writing could get better in the next few episodes. I don’t think it will, but if the ratings for the first episode manage to hold up it is likely to get a chance. There are so many ways that this show could be improved without actually eliminating the guy the show was named for.

I hope and expect that the ratings for ¡Rob! will collapse in the next couple of weeks. It’s not a great thing to say but the fact is that I hope that public, having seen the first episode of the show, will desert it by the time the second episode airs. I know I won’t be watching it. Forty years ago I saw something better done for a fraction of the cost of this mess. But very few people even knows it existed. Too bad, because the people responsible for ¡Rob! could have learned a few things from it.

(Correction: Apparently CBS changed the title from ¡Rob! to Rob. I’m sticking with the first title because that’s what has appeared in the promos.)