Saturday, October 7, 2017

Wait and See: Fox’s Ghosted and ABC’s The Mayor

Adam Scott and Craig Robinson in Fox's Ghosted.

I think I like Ghosted –  though, to be honest, I’m not sure. Even though I’ve watched roughly 22 minutes of Fox’s new paranormal comedy, I have no idea if I’ve seen anything that will be representative of the kind of show that it will eventually become. It’s a dilemma that’s inherent to any attempt to critically evaluate the sort of serial storytelling that’s central to how television currently functions, and one that initially put me off shows that would later become favorites of mine, most notably Parks and Recreation. For a number of reasons, this problem seems particularly acute in the case of Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten’s sitcom version of The X-Files.

Judging from the pilot, Ghosted isn’t an instant success. The main draw here is the pairing of Craig Robinson and Adam Scott as ex-cop Leroy Wright and disgraced scientist Max Jennifer, who get press-ganged into a secret government task force called the Bureau Underground when one of its agents mentions them in a last, desperate transmission. Robinson and Scott seem near-ubiquitous these days in comedies, on both the big and the small screens. They’re mostly typecast here, with Robinson leaning on his usual routine of juxtaposing deadpan skepticism with moments of manic energy, while Scott, who’s recently branched out a bit more in work like Big Little Lies, reverts to his nerdy, earnest Ben Wyatt persona. That’s not to say that their respective shticks aren’t effective, however, and there’s something to be said for talented comic actors who know how to fall back on what works, instead of trying to completely redefine themselves as Serious Thespians mid-career. Still, the familiarity of their roles compounds the feeling that we’re seeing a rote rehash of buddy-cop and horror-movie tropes (you’ll never guess what the fate of Leroy’s former partner has to do with why he left the police force).

I think Gormican and Etten include these tropes because they’re parodying them, but in their rush to establish the show’s premise by shoehorning everything they can into the pilot, they don’t have sufficient time to establish a more confident tone that will allow us to fully appreciate how they’re both honoring and skewering the movies and TV shows that inspired them. The breakneck pace of the pilot also keeps us from ever getting to fully know the supporting characters in the Bureau Underground; we get the obligatory montage that introduces Ally Walker’s Ava, Adeel Akhtar’s Barry, and Amber Stevens West’s Annie, but other than a name and a job title, they’ll be ciphers to us until the show has more breathing room to establish their personalities.

The main problem with Ghosted‘s first episode, as with virtually all half-hour comedy pilots, is that it’s simply trying to do too much in an extremely limited amount of time, all with a view towards creating a product that its creator can sell to both a network and, ultimately, an audience. Both Leroy and Max get the sorts of familiar character arcs that would normally play out over the course of a two-hour movie, but they’re so compressed that nothing has the time to really stick with us. That’s not how shows like these work: it takes a long time for the writers to figure out the characters’ individual quirks, as well as what the actors portraying them are capable of doing effectively. This build-it-as-you-go approach is a normal part of contemporary television, but it’s also frustrating, because it leaves us in a sort of limbo as we keep tuning in to see if the creative team has figured it all out yet, a phenomenon that critic Alan Sepinwall refers to as “hope-watching.” Sometimes this approach pays handsome dividends, as with the initially somewhat shaky Breaking Bad or the aforementioned Parks and Rec, but there’s always the nagging worry that a show like Ghosted won’t figure itself out quickly enough, prompting you to quit on something that, on paper, looked like it could be promising.

 Brandon Micheal Hall in ABC's The Mayor. (Photo: Tony Rivetti/ABC)

The pilot for ABC’s The Mayor provides a useful contrast with Ghosted’s overly busy first half-hour. Jeremy Bronson’s political sitcom follows aspiring rapper Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall), who runs for office in his mid-sized town as a publicity stunt. Courtney still lives with his mother, resourceful mailwoman Dina (Yvette Nicole Brown), and his friends T.K. (Marcel Spears) and Jermaine (Bernard David Jones) serve as his campaign staff. Inevitably, Courtney fails upward in spectacular fashion, and his promotional gambit ends with his inauguration as the new head of his hometown. This brings him into an uneasy partnership with his former high school classmate Valentina (Lea Michele), a type-A go-getter who ran the losing candidate’s campaign.

Whereas Ghosted feels like a full-length trailer for a show that could eventually turn into entertaining television, The Mayor comes off as more fully realized and self-assured. Granted, there’s a lesser degree of difficulty when it comes to establishing the latter’s premise – Ghosted is essentially trying to do a comic half-hour version of hour-long shows such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – but I came away from The Mayor with a much stronger sense of how Bronson and his writers view their characters, as well as the environment those characters inhabit. It doesn’t hurt that the writing is snappier, and its earnest, broadly optimistic tone gives it extra appeal. That latter point is especially important, given that you wouldn’t expect a story about a politically inexperienced entertainer who unexpectedly wins an election and finds himself in way over his head to strike many people as particularly funny these days.

It also doesn’t hurt that Hall has charisma to spare, as well as an easy rapport with Spears, Jones, and especially Brown that helps us to instantly understand their characters and how each of them relates to the others. As with Scott, Michele’s somewhat typecast here, essentially reprising the early version of her Rachel Berry character on Glee, but she's effective, and she and Hall are able to generate some tension in their relationship, which provides a welcome contrast to the show’s generally light and sunny tone thus far.

The problem with both Ghosted and The Mayor, of course, is that we have no idea whether or not their pilots accurately reflect the sorts of shows that they’ll ultimately become. The Mayor feels very much of a piece with its fellow comedies on ABC: well-executed shows with diverse casts whose upbeat tone serves to counteract their more pointed moments of social and political commentary. It’s been a successful recipe for the network thus far, but I can’t help thinking of how I’ve eventually moved on from all of those shows after watching them for a season or so, starting with the by-now elderly hit Modern Family, which arguably provided the template for its successors. Too many of them have felt entertaining but inessential, their potential to pack a satirical punch both dulled by the demands of producing a show with a style broad enough to appeal to a network audience and diluted by the need to turn out a full season of material. Ghosted, on the other hand, could develop into enjoyable escapism, especially if Robinson and Scott are able to find new variations on their roles. In both cases, the nature of television nowadays means that I’ll have to hold off on a definitive judgment for at least a few weeks, unsatisfying though that might be.

 – Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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