Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Good, Some Less So: A Look at the New Sitcoms of 2014

John Cho and Karen Gillan star in Selfie, on ABC

Amid the high profile dramas that are debuting on the small screen this season (Gotham and How to Get Away with Murder), comedies are flying a little under the radar. Last year saw well over a dozen new network comedies launched, and a year later we've had a few heartbreaking cancellations (Trophy Wife, The Crazy Ones, and Enlisted) and one break out, consistently deserving hit, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (The Andy Samberg comedy premiered with such a strong comic voice and sense of itself that its eventual success was visible in the first 5 minutes of the pilot. So far, its sophomore season has continued in the same vein.) This fall the networks are offering only a handful of new sitcoms, and today I'll be taking a look five new comedies, in order of their relative promise: Black-ish (ABC), Selfie (ABC), A to Z (NBC), Marry Me (NBC), Mulaney (FOX).

Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne on Black-ish
Black-ish is far and away the most self-assured of the new comedies. A family ensemble comedy, this ABC series stars Anthony Anderson as Andre 'Dre' Johnson, a successful advertising executive struggling to bring up his kids in a upper-middle-class Los Angeles suburb. Joining him are Tracee Ellis Ross (from UPN/CW's Girlfriends) as Rainbow, his biracial anesthesiologist wife, and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as Dre's father, a grounded grandfather figure who spends his time peering over a newspaper and commenting wryly across the dinner table. Dre – not unlike Modern Family's Phil Dunphy – is a well-meaning doofus dad, regularly trying, and failing, to connect meaningfully with his children. Rainbow, raised by hippies and decidedly post-racial in her outlook, is alternately amused and frustrated by Dre's deeper commitment to his black identity. As the title implies, the series puts issues of contemporary African-American life alongside some of the more straightforward challenges of parenting in the 21st century. ABC paired the new show perfectly with its current most successful sitcom, Modern Family, another good-natured, big-hearted show with a soft political edge to it. There are moments of Aaron McGruder-esque bite to Black-ish (and I'm hopeful for more to come), but there is no doubt the show is more concerned with internal and interpersonal situations than with broad cultural critique. (Its characterization of the casual racism Dre experiences at the office are not as powerfully drawn as the more intimate inter-generational issues which are the heart of the show.) By the second episode, the comedy already felt like an old friend – tune in, and you'll be coming back weekly.

Karen Gillan as Eliza Dooley on Selfie
Selfie is a romantic comedy inspired by Pygmalion, with Doctor Who's Karen Gillan as the interpersonally-challenged Eliza, playing opposite John Cho's Henry.  Henry, a marketing guru, takes on the project of "re-branding" the social media obsessed Eliza, helping her pull her eyes away from her smart phone and engage with the world, and the people, around her. Taking broad cues from Shaw, Selfie (created by Emily Kapnek, of Suburgatory) replaces Cockney with Twitterspeak and phonetics with marketing savvy and is all the better for it. Cho's Henry Higgs thankfully has little of the misanthropy of his namesake, and none of the inherent disdain for his apprentice. The opening episode may be a little too full of cringe-worthy exploits by Eliza, whose superficiality is a thin mask for her profound social awkwardness, but it is precisely Henry's sympathy for her that makes us feel that both she and Henry are worth redeeming. The title – once you past its unfortunate idiom-of-the-moment feel – applies equally to both Henry and Eliza; both are as self-involved and still largely unknown to themselves. Without the inescapable power dynamics of Shaw's original story (though both work for the same pharmaceutical company, Henry has no real power over Eliza), the two are already on the road to developing a genuine friendship. No doubt this is a romantic comedy in waiting, but so far the series seems willing to let their Platonic relationship grow before taking that inevitable leap. (The Mindy Project after initially struggling with its own rom-com frame finally decided to embrace it in the current, third season – to great comic success. Hopefully Selfie's Kapnek has been taking notes.) A little uneven at the outset, Selfie is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman on A to Z
A to Z is, on the other hand, a much more conventional romantic comedy, albeit with an ambitious framing device. The couple at the centre are Andrew (Mad Men's Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti, How I Met Your Mother). Andrew is a romantic, a believer in destiny and true love, and Zelda is commitment-phobic and wary of intimacy. They meet in episode 1 and, as narrator Katey Sagal tells us with meta-self-consciousness they "will date for 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days and 1 hour. This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship, from A to Z", in a tone that happily called to (this viewer's) mind Bryan Fuller's Pushing DaisiesA to Z offers an ambitious frame with a run of the mill rom-com under the hood – but the frame is compelling, and it gives a kind of faux fairy tale feeling to a solid, if sometimes uneven, effort. Feldman and Milioti are both genuinely charming, sincere, and convincingly neurotic star-crossed romantic leads. And, like this summer's You're the Worst, A to Z has struck that rare balance in romantic comedies, where the story is told convincingly from both sides. Each are equally broken, equally obsessive, and equally charismatic. (Almost so much that I actually wonder if the show's writers are applying a hidden mathematical formula to the scripts.) But the real draw of the series is Milioti, perhaps the one face to emerge from the How I Met Your Mother finale disaster unscathed – in fact, it was her poignant portrayal of the "Mother" that made Carter Bays and Craig Thomas' decision to follow through on their plan to kill her off so tone deaf to the show's committed audience. Already, Milioti's Zelda is a worth successor to that breakthrough role.

Ken Marino and Casey Wilson in Marry Me
Marry Me only premiered this past Tuesday, but this show quickly disappointed. It is the brainchild of David Caspe – whose Happy Endings aired on ABC until its cancellation last year after 3 increasing strong seasons. Marry Me comes with two strong lead comic actors – Ken Marino (Party Down) and Casey Wilson (Caspe's wife, and also part of the Happy Endings ensemble). A lot of potential, and yet it all added up to a frustrating 22 minutes with more cringing than laughter. The premise of the series has Jake (Marino) and Annie (Wilson) "finally" getting engaged after six years of dating. There is a wider cast – including SNL veteran Tim Meadows as one of Annie's two dads – but all were underused in a storyline which basically has Annie neurotically screw things up and Jake working damage control (as she insults his mother to her face, gets him fired etc.). There is no doubt that Wilson does play that role well, as evidenced in Happy Endings – she has a classic, comedic persona that harkens to an era of physical comedy that is rarely seen these days. But here her antics grew tired even before the opening credits rolled, and if this "crazy girl/long suffering guy" structure maintains itself in future episodes, it is has already outlived itself.  Happy Endings turned into a strong ensemble show which quickly looked beyond its initial "situation" and grew into a comfortable, dysfunctional comedy. So far, Marry Me offers only one-dimensional dysfunction, and a potentially wider cast of people for her to negatively affect, and I fear even Wilson and Marino's inherent likeability won't be enough to hold the series afloat. I'm on board for the next few episodes however. Call this one: wait and see. Caspe has proven himself before, and should the series leave behind the self-mortification of the show's opening scenes and grow into a genuine multi-generational ensemble (with Meadows and JoBeth Williams as Jake's mother Myrna already hinting at that untested promise), Marry Me may still turn itself around.

John Mulaney and Elliott Gould in Mulaney
And because every fall season needs a sacrificial dud (thank you FOX!), there's Mulaney – starring comedian John Mulaney as a struggling comic in New York City. Mulaney is alone among the shows reviewed today in being a more traditional, multi-camera laugh-track sitcom. (That itself these days should be a badge of comedic honour.) Mulaney comes from five years as a writer for Saturday Night Live, and in both SNL and on stage, he has certainly proven that he is talented and funny. Mulaney also has a main cast that includes comedy legends Martin Short and Elliott Gould. So, what does add up to? It turns out, very little. At least last year's Dads failed by trying to do something. Mulaney on the other hand feels phoned in on every level.  It can't even convincingly look or feel like New York City (though the sets do bear a striking resemblance to a studio in L.A.). And, for more tragically, it isn't funny. At all. (It is especially painful to watch Elliott Gould struggle through his scenes playing the clich├ęd "aging queen" neighbour Oscar.)  With episodes book-ended by clips of John Mulaney's (genuinely funny) stand-up act, the series seems to beg for comparisons to Seinfeld. Give it a few weeks and it will have at least one thing in common with the classic sitcom: neither will be airing in prime time. Watch Mulaney disappear without a trace in a few more weeks.

Black-ish airs on Wednesdays on ABC and Citytv, Selfie on Tuesdays on ABC, A to Z on Thursday on NBC and Global, Marry Me on Tuesday on NBC and Global, and Mulaney on Sundays on FOX and Global.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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