Saturday, January 27, 2018

Joke-Delivery Systems: Checking in on Some Network Comedies

Dylan McDermott in L.A. to Vegas

The Fox sitcom L.A. to Vegas is a lot like the titular flight that it chronicles: it’s quick, it’s fun without offering much of substance, and it doesn’t ask much of you in terms of investment (financial in the case of the flight, emotional in the case of the show). There something disarmingly straightforward about the title card that appears before each episode: “There are people who fly every weekend from L.A. to Vegas. This is their story.” As that introduction wryly suggests, this is a comedy with very little on its mind other than providing its cast with a vehicle to deliver zingy one-liners.

In that regard, they’re fairly well served by creator Lon Zimmet and his team of writers, and you can detect the fingerprints of executive producers Steven Levitan (creator of the long-running sitcom Modern Family), Will Ferrell, and Adam McKay. Levitan’s been more immediately involved in directing some episodes of the series, but Ferrell and McKay’s signature brand of absurdist-lite humor creeps into the proceedings in a noticeable way.

If nothing else, L.A. to Vegas gives its leads a chance to play light farce, rather than the heavier roles in which they’ve previously been cast. That’s especially the case for Dylan McDermott, who’s been featured on dramas like The Practice but isn’t known for comedy. Here, he’s clearly enjoying himself as Captain Dave, the square-jawed pilot whose lack of self-awareness renders him ridiculous. It’s a familiar trope: the FX cartoon Archer has long mined the comic potential of the manly-man type (that show’s title character is a super-spy on the lines of James Bond) who’s far clumsier and unappealing than he appears. Like H. Jon Benjamin on Archer, McDermott is also essentially playing a cartoon character, but he at least finds some moments where he can add a hint of depth. When he’s injured and has to give way to a rival captain (played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Dermot Mulroney, whose similarities to McDermott in appearance, name, and professional resume have become something of a long-running joke), there’s an element of fear and desperation that begins to creep into his clowning.

Kim Matula as Ronnie in L.A. to Vegas.  

Kim Matula’s career, while shorter than McDermott’s, is similar in that she’s primarily been cast in serious roles in soap operas such as The Bold and the Beautiful and unREAL. She plays it straighter here than her castmates, but she plays off them well, showing some skill with comic timing as her flustered and frustrated flight attendant Ronnie tries to deal with the oddballs who regularly fly her route every weekend. The rest of the series are regulars are intended as caricatures, albeit periodically entertaining ones. Nathan Lee Graham is Ronnie’s gay (and possible ageless) co-worker, and Peter Stormare and Ed Weeks appear as a seedy Russian gambler and a college professor respectively. The one role that often strikes an uncomfortable note is the stripper Nichole – Olivia Macklin strikes a note of comic obliviousness, but there’s something unpleasant about the condescending way that Zimmet and his writers portray her in terms of her profession.

The comparison between L.A. to Vegas and Archer is a useful one: they’re both effectively cartoons, but the latter demonstrates what a show with a glib comic tone and exaggerated characters must do if it’s to achieve any sort of staying power. Archer has managed to mature in surprising ways, playing against its audience’s lowered expectations to find moments where characters can (sort of) grow and develop, deepening our emotional investment in what began as two-dimensional caricatures. By contrast, watching L.A. to Vegas still feels like eating candy: it’s appealing in small doses, but you’re still aware that you’re consuming empty calories. Skipping off to Vegas for a weekend now and then might be a fun getaway, but if you don’t have a good reason for doing so regularly, you might begin to feel guilty about spending too much time there.

                                                                * * * * * * * * * * * *

If L.A. to Vegas doesn’t offer much prospect for long-term growth, NBC’s Great News is another network sitcom that has managed to grow and achieve at least some of its potential since I wrote about it last spring. At the time, I wrote that it felt like a 30 Rock clone that could become something more if it managed to tap into the weirdness of its parent show and to find something for its lead, Briga Heelan, to do.

With two (shortened) seasons under its belt, it’s fair to say that Tracey Wigfield’s comedy has managed achieve both of those goals. Comedy veterans Andrea Martin and John Michael Higgins are still the main attractions, but Wigfield and her writers have figured out the rhythms of the show’s ensemble and have begun to utilize them to maximum effect. They’ve also figured out how to tap into Heelan’s skill at playing the dizzy and frequently bewildered - but ultimately competent – news producer Katie. A romantic storyline with her equally at-sea boss Greg (Adam Campbell) still feels obligatory rather than inspired, but Wigfield knows how to pair up members of her cast in order to let them play their unique comic talents off of one another, and the rapport between Martin’s Carol and Higgins’s blustering newsman Chuck has acquired an extra level of poignancy, spurred by a late-season arc that subtly raises the question of how older people are expected to fit into today’s fast-paced workplace.

That late-season arc also feels definitive in terms of narrative closure, and, while I’m completely oblivious to how the show’s been performing in the ratings, the show’s shortened run doesn’t bode well for its future. Hopefully it will return for a third, because it’s hit its stride and become immensely enjoyable.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment