TV Review: FOX's 'Running Wilde'
Will Arnett and Keri Russell star in a new comedy that has yet to find its form
There's something courageous to the idea of reviewing FOX's "Running Wilde" without mentioning the words "arrested" or "development."
There's something adventurous to determining that you're going to review 'Running Wilde' as the not-especially-funny show that it is and not as the successor to the extremely funny show that it isn't.
But I can't.
FOX can't either.
Without the associated names of Mitchell Hurwitz, Jim Vallely and Will Arnett, there's no way that "Running Wilde" makes it onto the air at all. For FOX, picking this show up was an act of good faith for a group of talented individuals who brought the network great acclaim and minimal viewership over three excellent "Arrested Development" seasons. It's that same good faith that then let the show's creators turn around and largely overhaul the pilot when they decided that the first version wasn't really the show they wanted to make.
And it's that same good faith that TV critics can't quite let go of, as we'll simultaneously over-judge and under-scrutinize any show Hurwitz is a part of for the near future. That is to say that we'll denigrate it for not being "Arrested Development" while also giving its potential for improvement the benefit of the doubt that we might not give otherwise.
So, after seeing two different versions of the "Running Wilde" pilot and a second full episode and finding none of them all that funny and seeing no real signs of improvement, where does that leave me? If I *didn't* know it was people whose work I love and respect, I'd probably quit now.
Then again, if it weren't from people whose work I love and respect, might I be more content with the couple half-laughs I got from the early episodes and I wouldn't expect anything format-shattering?
I suspect that it's the former, that Hurwitz, Vallely and Arnett are going to keep me tuning in long past the demonstrated on-screen quality would mandate.
Thoughts on "Running Wilde," and not that other early show that has nothing to do with it, after the break...
Arnett, who co-created the show with Hurwitz and Vallely, stars as Steven Wilde, the immature playboy son of a wealthy oil magnate. Steve thinks only of himself, except for when he's engaging in games of one-upsmanship with his similarly undermotivated, equally rich neighbor Fa'ad (Peter Serafinowicz). Steve's only real human connections are to his lifelong errand-boy Migo (Mel Rodriguez) and his lifelong nanny Mr. Lunt (Robert Michael Morris).
But then, into Steve's life comes Emmy Kadubic (Keri Russell), a humanitarian who has been living off in the Amazon rainforest with her 12-year-old daughter Puddle (Stefania Owen) and her environmentalist boyfriend Andy (David Cross).
Steve's entirely selfish. Emmy's entirely selfless.
Surely sparks can't fly between people so different?
Well, it's hard to tell. Arnett and Russell have no real chemistry and the contrivance that brings keeps Emmy around permanently is flimsy at best. So after two pilots and a second episode, "Running Wilde" isn't exactly a romantic comedy, though Emmy genuinely seems to want Steve to become a better person and Steve genuinely seems to want Emmy to believe that she's making him a better person.
The show's premise is probably needlessly complicated. Surely she could be a do-gooder and he could be a thoughtless playboy without the clutter of the different continents and the flashbacks and the convolutions required to get out characters to clash for the first time. It's pointless to say "Frank Capra knew how to make this kind of thing look effortless," but he did. "Running Wild" is straight out of the Capra/Sturgess/Wilder handbook, but delivered by people who are outthinking themselves.
Hurwitz, Vallely and Arnett, plus equally disengaged directors Anthony and Joe Russo, are too invested in the unfunny ephemera that what ought to be the core of the entire show -- boy and girl meet and bump heads, even as sparks fly -- gets muddled.
The show's rhythms just aren't confident yet and that that uncertainty shows. Politically incorrect jokes that must have seemed hilarious on the page get rushed through so quickly that not only is there no chance to laugh, but there's no desire. The rushed punchlines are especially notable in the revised pilot where the actors seem noticeably tired of some of the jokes that are being recycled from the original pilot. There are things in the new pilot that aren't funny that used to be funny in the original, because of haste rather than revisions.
And when the show isn't deadening punchlines by hurrying through them, it's killing punchlines through over-explaining.
In the second episode, for example, the co-dependent Steve tells Mr. Lunt that he'll never outlive needing his services and that "The last thing that you'll see on this Earth is my tear-stained face as I shovel dirt onto yours."
That's the punchline, right? That Mr. Lunt is going to see this happen? It's a part of the main joke, right?
So when Mr. Lunt adds, "I'm going to see this?" that somehow makes the original laugh line less funny.
There are multiple instances of punchlines being similarly dumbed down in these first episodes.
Less effort has been put into softening the characters, specifically our hero.
There's a commitment to this kind of self-centered jackass that Arnett possesses that few actors can even approach. It's a commitment that's too great for this venue. In order for the show to have any kind of purpose, we have to be able to see at least one crack in his facade from the beginning. We have to believe that it's worth following a comic journey with this guy and rooting for him to be laid low so that he can eventually rise up as the better man we assume he'll become. But maybe the "Running Wilde" writers are trying to avoid that convention and they're willing to have Steve be insufferable for as long as possible? It's tough to warm to.
Russell, who really would have been a major movie star in that Capra/Wilder/Sturgess era, has the chops to go wherever the writers want Emmy to go, but she's in a holding pattern. The best way to describe the character would be as "indecisively liberal," or "conflictedly altruistic" and in the second episode they finally find one or two ways to make those traits funny by accentuating Russell's ability to play flustered/embarrassed/indignant simultaneously, which "Felicity" fans can tell you is beyond compare. But because Arnett has decided to play Steve as a black hole of narcissism, Russell is too often left without a foil.
Oddly, the most fully realized performance in the episodes I've seen comes from 12-year-old Stefania Owen, who basically counts as a total newcomer unless you somehow remember her from "The Lovely Bones" (which I don't). Playing a girl who was raised in the wild, but now wants to be raised in the Wilde, both an innocent and a girl who knows that she'd rather have a few luxuries than not. I laughed more times at Owen's reaction shots than at the rest of the episodes combined. Plus, the only hints that Arnett is able to loosen up come in his scenes with Owen.
Most of the major background players were recast between the original pilot and what will air on Tuesday. Rodriguez and Morris are less funny than their predecessors, who also weren't funny. I can accept that as late additions, they're still figuring things out like what silly accents their characters are supposed to have and what their characters' relationships to Steve are supposed to be. Broad, colorful supporting characters aren't supposed to be quite so hard to define.
Just look at Serafinowicz, who has his exaggerated accent and body language down pat. He's so committed that he may or may not be playing Fa'ad in semi-brown-face (I really can't tell if it's just heavy eyeliner). The immensely talented British is so pleased to be hamming it up on an America show that its heartbreaking that his talents are, for now at least, being wasted on what is little more than a basic sitcom Wacky Neighbor.
It's not unusual for good comedies to require a little extra time to find themselves. That's the case for many of my favorite sitcoms, whether we're talking about "Parks & Recreation" or "The League" or "30 Rock" or even "Community," which had a solid pilot that didn't prove to really be the template for the show.
Perhaps it's just more bad luck that Hurwitz, Vallely and Arnett are best known for a show (one that I didn't mention a single time in the actual body of the review) that burst forth fully formed from its superlative pilot on. "Running Wilde" definitely isn't going to be that kind of success and, at least in the early going, it's a real disappointment. But I'm sticking with it, at least for a little while.
"Running Wilde" premieres at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 21 on FOX.