highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between

Television shows should have a pre-determined lifespan. The average good show deserves three years; longer runs should be granted only in exceptional circumstances, such as The West Wing‘s built-in long story arc or ER‘s soap-opera-style revolving door ensuring that there’s a totally new cast every season-and-a-half.

Family Guy has had a great run, and arguably it’s been made better by a 2-year hiatus between cancellation and a miraculous resurrection thanks to DVD sales. But picking up “Volume Five” of the series on video — which, confusingly, is not Season Five — was a disappointing experience. I’ve almost always taken an episode or two to warm to each season of Family Guy; the show’s style is so astringent at times it’s hard to remember it’s primarily slapstick and silliness. But this isn’t that. The show has slowed measurably. Its gags have become overly familiar, while its characters are starting to become either broad parodies of themselves (Peter, Meg) or too diffused to remain interesting (Chris, Stewie). The show hasn’t nearly bottomed out — nothing like the complete disintegration of the Homer character after six or seven seasons on The Simpsons — but it’s time to either take another hiatus or just end it and do something else.

There’s nothing in this season — at least the first two discs, which is as far as I’ve gotten and may be as far as I ever go — that came even close to making me laugh as hard as the collective guy-dumbness of Peter, Chris, Brian, and Stewie drinking ipecac for the hell of it, or Stewie’s “Doing a little writing, huh?” taunting of Brian (both, I think, from the previous season). But more crucially, nothing in this “volume” has disturbed me like the Golden Turd mini-film from American Dad or Peter’s ongoing fight with the giant chicken or Herbert the pervert’s heartbreaking musical paean to Chris (delivered from a ladder outside Chris’s bedroom window). Horror has always lain side-by-side with the humor on Family Guy; that Herbert has become a colorful, almost genial minor character who raises not one goose bump is just the most obvious example of the loss of real electricity in the show. What used to be unsettling, creepy, or at least giddily disorienting has become comfortable, almost predictable. At this point, the “This is worse than the time I…” setup is so hoary and worn-out that I almost find myself looking away when the inevitable wacky flashback comes.

There are still great moments in the show, but they now mostly come in little throwaway bits, and they’re lighter-than-air bits, not the nasty, toothy kind that used to be the show’s stock-in-trade. There’s a really funny running gag in one episode about people over-pronouncing the “h” in “whip,” and there’s an absolutely brilliant bit between Stewie and Brian in which Stewie plays both himself and his imaginary housekeeper, who trade back-and-forth on a tin can phone with an irritated Brian. It’s great, character-based humor in a show that’s in danger of not even having characters anymore, the kind of slow-building joke the show’s writers used to be willing to take the time for.

When Family Guy was the funniest thing on television, its writers were well-known for sniping other shows; one of their better jokes went, “Now I understand Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night — it’s a show that’s too good to be funny.” I disagreed with them, but the jibe could almost stick to Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show that is good — in some ways, smarter and less condescending than any of his other work — but not really funny.

The overarching theme of Sorkin’s television writing seems to be that quality and integrity — whether in sports broadcasting, national politics, or comedy — will, given the opportunity, seize the popular imagination and uplift the national consciousness. This is a noble ideal, and it’s the thing I find irresistible about all his work. It also poses an enormous risk, because in order to defend quality in a television show, you have to be able to portray quality. It’s like a musician taking the stage and saying, “I’m an amazing singer, and you guys are gonna love this.” Okay, sometimes that kind of bragging actually works — it’s practically mandatory in hip-hop — but you’ve got to back it up or risk looking like an ass.

Comedy is especially hard. When I’m recommending a movie to friends, I always hesitate to use words like “hilarious.” I’m afraid that I’ll rev up perverse expectations, that people will feel, “Okay, so make me laugh.” Sorkin here has created a show in which bright, funny people are forced to defend good, smart comedy against the forces of creeping stupidism — meaning, of course, that in addition to the drama of the defense, he must, at some point, reveal at least a little of the good, smart comedy.

I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been written elsewhere, but Sorkin’s problem is that he doesn’t really have the hang of inspired sketch comedy. What we get, with the notable exception of Sarah Paulson’s note-perfect impression of Juliette Lewis, is SNL in an off season — sketches that love their concept too much, often delivered too slowly and with obvious effort. Sorkin gets this in principle — at one point, a producer tells an actor that the problem with her performance in a dinner-table scene is that she’s asking for the laugh instead of asking for the butter — but he and the cast can’t seem to stop doing exactly that. The great sketches on SNL work because the writers and actors commit to the situation, not what’s “funny” about the situation. In particular, Sorkin never even attempts the surreal goofiness of John Belushi’s samurai or the Land Shark or the Church Lady or Christopher Walken’s census sketch. Yet it’s ultimately those kinds of sketches, and not celebrity impressions, that people remember. (There is “Celebrity Jeopardy,” but the impersonation of Sean Connery there has left reality so far behind that it becomes a real — that is, fictional — character.)

The jokes are also brutally overwritten, with far too many words standing between the setup and the punchline. Here’s one from the show’s version of “Weekend Update”:

A new study released by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University finds that most men are almost always thinking about sex. In a soon-to-be-published companion study, researchers hope to be able to prove through a series of controlled experiments that water quenches your thirst.

No two writers do things the same way, but I would say that the following words, in order, could be removed from the joke to make it better: “at Indiana University,” “most,” “through a series of controlled experiments,” and “your.”

Even a professional comedian like D.L. Hughley is funny in the show but not the show-within-a-show, which just highlights how much better Sorkin is at writing carefully scripted chaos. The best episode of the series, “The Disaster Show,” plays to all Sorkin’s strengths: complicated plotting, carefully orchestrated chaos, ensemble interactions, and the desperate humor of people who are in constant peril of being completely humiliated. Sorkin himself tips his hat to how much more comfortable he is with this kind of writing by having a character tell guest host Alison Janney that this isn’t her “White House show” where they get to do it over and over again. (Janney, for the record, is magnificent, by far the funniest person in any episode of the show.)

On the other hand, as noted above, the drama around the comedy show works very well, exceptionally well. All the flaws of The West Wing — self-importance, unclear thinking on complex political and especially religious subjects, an embarrassing, fawning adoration of military ceremony, millions of miles of walk-and-talks — are ameliorated or irrelevant here, mostly because producing Saturday Night Live is not running the free world. The actors are free to be a little mellower and less gravely concerned; the art direction and lighting can be frillier and less shadowy.

Meanwhile Sorkin’s gotten more comfortable with the inevitable intersection of reality and fiction — where in The West Wing he awkwardly tried to pretend that no president since Nixon even existed, here he openly acknowledges Saturday Night Live and even has a guest host forget where she is and announce the wrong show. And although it’s clear that Sorkin still can’t quite wrap his head around people of faith, he’s much more comfortable here writing dialogue about religion for an open doubter, Matt Albie, than he was writing prayerful words for the President and Toby on the other show. Where those characters — the President especially — could often come off as scripturally sanctimonious and yet perversely enslaved to a secular left-wing agenda, Matt’s liberalism seems all of a piece with his general philosophical outlook.

And the good things from Sorkin’s previous work have come along with him — especially the actors. Evan Handler and Carlos Jacott unfortunately get too few lines and disappear about a third of the way through the series, but Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford absolutely get Sorkin’s writing, delivering it with cool, comfortable ease. They’re joined by an outstanding Steven Weber, Amanda Peet, Columbus Short, The Office‘s Lucy Davis, and Sarah Paulson, who, again, is the only plausible sketch comedian in the cast.

They’re also joined by some incredible guest stars, including Christine Lahti, Ed Asner, and, a personal favorite, Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall as a deadly serious comedy writer. But perhaps the best gimmick is that every week’s show-within-a-show has a guest star and a guest musician, which means that every show gets, at least, a nice musical performance, and frequently also someone really interesting/hot, like Felicity Huffman or Lauren Graham. Sting gets to work both sides of the street, playing the lute and also goofing around about his lute-playing, but then Sting is a rare talent.

Here’s a brief plug for HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, which I only found out about because a friend from New Zealand (the Conchords’ home country) played clips on YouTube for me: it’s hilarious.

See how confident I am you’ll like it? Go to YouTube and watch “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room.” You’ll dig it.

In truth, only the musical numbers are really funny, and the show sometimes telegraphs the best lines in the songs with artlessly obvious visuals. I remember reading an interview with Simon LeBon in the ’80s where he slammed music videos that parrot the lyrical content of their songs. “I hate it when the song goes, ‘She walked through the door,'” he said, “and you see a girl walking through a door.” The music videos here suffer from some of that, mostly because the songs, which were written to stand alone, have been wedged with varying levels of grace into silly storylines featuring the two band members, Bret and Jemaine. But the stories are harmless and often amusing, and the songs are brilliant. Flight of the Conchords call themselves a parody folk duo, but they easily take on styles ranging from 80s synth pop to Prince-ish crooning to a truly encyclopedic survey of David Bowie personae. My personal favorites so far are “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” and “It’s Business Time,” although the rap battle between the Rhymenosceros and the Hiphopopotamus probably caused me to laugh the most.

Finally, Judd Apatow continues his uncanny streak of writing sitcom premises as though they were naturalistic dramas and absolutely getting away with it. Knocked Up is a fine film built from, essentially, the same lame-ass setup as the crappy Matthew Perry movie Fools Rush In, but with such grace and such passion for human frailty that we remember why that set-up sounded good in a pitch meeting to begin with.

The premise, of course, is that two mismatched singles hook up one night and end up with a baby. Apatow buys our willingness to believe by spending quite a lot of time crafting a totally credible hook-up for his odd couple; after that, really, we’re his to lose.

He could lose us, if this were a comedy about a guy cleaning up his act to be worthy of the girl who’s too good for him. And, indeed, Seth Rogen’s stoner loser Ben does need to man up some to merit the hot and very together Alison. But I like that he changes less than the formula demands — he’s still an obnoxious ass, capable of saying very much the wrong thing — and Apatow sweetens the mix by giving Ben a new male friendship to draw him gently away from the 4:20 crowd he shares a bungalow with. He bonds, en passant, with the husband of his girlfriend/ babymama’s sister, who is both doggedly devoted to his family and deeply depressed by his domestication. Pete is both role model and caution to Ben; he embodies the inevitable compromises of love, the slow, agonizing release of self that maturity demands.

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