TV Review: Starz' 'Gravity'
It's possible to do a comedy about suicidal losers, but this isn't how it's done
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Because Starz is premiering two shows on Friday (April 23) night, there's an initial instinct to review the second season of "Party Down" and the debut of "Gravity" in the same post.
I briefly considered that space-saving plan and decided to put the time into separate reviews for a pair of reasons:
Firstly, he qualitative discrepancy between the two shows is too great. "Party Down" is one of cable's comedy treasures, a little ratings-starved show that deserves as much exposure as I can possibly provide for it, since its future hinges largely on how fast it comes out of the gate this spring. "Gravity" is just about as unpleasant an unlikable a show as you're likely to see this year and if dedicating a little extra space to tearing it to shreds gives it extra publicity as well, hopefully I'll also be able to steer away a few people who are on the fence.
Secondly, it's bad enough that Starz is pairing the two shows in the same one-hour block, no critic should do the same. I get that Starz doesn't exactly have myriad choices when it comes to combining original programming, but "Party Down" and "Gravity" are are almost tonal opposites. One's Los Angeles, one's New York. One's funny, the other's a heap of affectations and poorly arced neurosis. One's likable and human, featuring an ensemble of characters with different personalities and voices, while the other is the series creator and a half-dozen characters who all sound exactly like the series creator. "Party Down" isn't a hit, but the people who watch it, love it. "Gravity" only looks more leaden in comparison.
So I already posted my "Party Down" review. Even without Jane Lynch, it's still one of TV's funniest shows.
And as for "Gravity"? Full review after the break...
Created by Eric Schaeffer and Jill Franklyn, "Gravity" focuses on a group of suicide survivors who hold weekly meetings in a church basement. Lily (Krysten Ritter) has a sucky job and daddy issues, so she popped pills. Robert (Ivan Sergei) is mourning his wife, so he drove off a cliff. Carla (Robyn Cohen), Jorge (James Martinez), Shawna (Rachel Hunter) and Adam (Seth Numrich) also sit around the circle with Dogg (Ving Rhames), the group's leader. They're like "The Dream Team" only suicidal.
Hovering on the outside of the group is Miller (Schaeffer), a detective with anger issues and a gambling problem who inexplicably becomes obsessed with Lily and even more inexplicably begins hanging out with other members of the group and still more inexplicably eventually begins to dominate episodes, despite having no organic reason to be on the show at all. It's my hunch that Schaeffer had been pitching a story about an annoyingly stunted cop and nobody would buy it, so he just decided to repurpose the character in a pilot that somehow made it to air.
I'm not going to lie and tell you that I don't have preconceived feelings about Schaeffer, but it's not like they're arbitrary. I've seen "If Lucy Fell," "Fall," "Never Again" and multiple episodes of the short-lived FX series "Starved" and I think that's sufficient background to build a sense that Schaeffer has never met a living human being nor watched the way any living human being acts. Aaron Sorkin characters all talk like Aaron Sorkin. Quentin Tarantino characters all talk like Quentin Tarantino. David Mamet characters all talk like David Mamet. None of those writers, though, create worlds half as insular as the ones crafted by Schaeffer. You watch a Schaeffer movie and it's hard to shake the sensation that you're watching the behaviors and interactions of a whole different and unfamiliar species of stilted, erratic mammals.
Part of why I keep trying with Schaeffer -- and I watched four episodes of "Gravity," so you can't say I didn't give this sucker a chance -- is that he has a near-courageous eagerness to tackle off-beat and dark subject matter, while attempting to find humor in the horrifying. A comedy about eating disorders? Well, "Starved" wasn't funny or illuminating, but at least it looked at a world I'd never seen on television before. Similarly, if "Gravity" had anything profound to say or any clear humorous point of view, it would be an untapped television perspective. Instead, the characters are disappointingly flat and predictably motivated and any insights into suicidal people are reduced to declarative sentences like "Suicide is a crime" or "Suicide is a sin" or "Suicide is the ultimate selfish act," as if no writer could possibly illustrate those sensibilities without announcing them. Maybe if Schaeffer really wanted to make a show about his main characters, he could explore these bigger issues, but instead he'd rather do scenes with his character making fun of yoga or yelling at debt collectors.
And "Gravity" isn't even vaguely a comedy, at least not in successful execution. In four episodes, the only smile I got was for an old chestnut Schaeffer didn't write -- "Why'd the chicken commit suicide?" "To get to the other side" -- but which played well in context. Showtime and HBO have been mastering the art of the laughless half-hour pseudo-comedy with shows like "Hung" and "Nurse Jackie," which occasionally seem to be comedies only by virtue of their length, but they're both laugh riots compared to "Gravity." Schaeffer's tendency toward ugly caricatures of homosexuals or old people or racial minorities are the only real hints that somebody somewhere thought "Gravity" could be a hoot. Though I guess if you think a whole episode about a suicidal man's small penis is a laugh riot, then the third episode is the one for you.
Schaeffer and I probably share a feeling that no subject should be taboo for comedy if it's done properly. And it's not like it's impossible to do a humorous, profound and touching story about unlikable people brought together by their shared depression and desire to end their lives. Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down" starts with a group of ugly, awful characters contemplating jumping off a roof and without softening any of the characters in the slightest, you laugh and get emotional in no time.
Even with a full season to get to know these characters, I doubt I'm going to care very much.
I'd always found Ritter to be a bit too arch and self-consciously hipster-quirky until I finally got around to watching the second season of "Breaking Bad." Her brief arc on the AMC series proved that with the right writing and the right handling, she can be beautiful and dramatically effective in every way. Heck, I'll go a step further. Krysten Ritter was fantastic on "Breaking Bad." Here? She's back to being a sullen energy-suck and she has zero chemistry with either Sergei or with Karl Geary, who plays a random Irish grifter in one of the show's least interesting time wastes.
Sergei is bland, Rhames is underutilized, Hunter is inexpressive and Martinez and Cohen are both co-starring in a show that seems to require a good deal more over-acting. That leaves Schaeffer, whose acting has always been the least of his problems, mostly just hogging the spotlight and giving himself one big, obtrusive scene after another.
And all of those thematic and character complains are leaving behind things that may be even bigger problems for "Gravity." The individual episodes are dull and incident-free and it may be one of the most visually ugly shows -- video, plus amateurish lighting, particularly in outdoors shots -- I've ever scene. "Gravity" doesn't look or feel like a professional production, nor does it have the ragged, intentionally lo-fi charm of an "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
Eventually, the pieces in "Gravity" might come together. There might be a legitimate reason for Schaeffer's character. There might be a viable explanation for the Irish grifter. There might be insights aplenty into suicide and depression. The show might find its comedic footing and the leads might catch a spark. But shouldn't four full episodes be enough time to give a show to prove that it's at least heading in the right direction? From what I've seen, "Gravity" is as inept as any new show this season.
"Gravity" premieres on Friday, April 23 night on Starz.