It's not that we dislike multi-cam comedies, it's that we dislike bad comedies
If "Whitney" is bad -- and it is, at least in pilot form, bad -- you have to give the new NBC sitcom credit for coming off the blocks as belligerently bad.
Check out this interview with series executive producer Betsy Thomas, in which she blasts the "comedy snobbery" regarding NBC's Thursday comedy lineup, saying, "Somehow it became cool to stop trying to be funny." In the article, Thomas raises the perfectly valid point that as much as I/we/smart-people love NBC's Thursday single-cam comedies, with the exception of "The Office," they're not hits. They'd all basically be considered failures if they were on ABC or CBS. [So maybe audiences don't love single camera comedies. Except audiences love "Modern Family."]
Or catch the opening to "Whitney" itself, in which Whitney Cummings tauntingly declares, "'Whitney' is taped in front of a live studio audience... You heard me." Dontcha be confusing "Whitney" with a single-camera comedy and dontcha be accusing "Whitney" of using a laff-track, y'all.
Yup, "Whitney" is defiant and the pre-premiere party line appears to be simple: Critics who don't like "Whitney" don't like "Whitney" because it's not "cool" to like multi-cam comedies anymore, but that human beings (i.e. non-critics) love multi-cam comedies so, without using exactly these words, we can all suck it.
I don't have an immediate defense to that, since I can't look at the network comedies that I liked this year or last year or any time in the recent past and say, "Ha! There's the multi-cam comedy that I love, so you're wrong," though "The Big Bang Theory" is a regular part of my viewing rotation and "Mike & Molly" also isn't a series I ever go out of my way to mock.
But regarding "Whitney," there's only one truly important rejoinder and it goes a little like this: Disliking "Whitney" isn't reflective of a dislike for multi-cam comedies, it's reflective of a dislike for unfunny comedies and complaining that "Whitney" doesn't mesh with NBC's other Thursday comedies isn't a coded way for criticizing it as multi-cam, but rather a coded way for saying it isn't good.
And if it's snobbery to say, "I prefer good comedies to bad comedies," I guess I'll just have to cop to that. [As if I've somehow ever disputed charges of snobbery in the past.]
More on "Whitney" after the break...
There's a tendency to shy away from the word "sitcom," which has become as much of a bad word or an antiquated word as "multi-cam," but if "Whitney" is going to take pride in being filmed in front of a live studio audience, it should also feel pride in being a sitcom of the most retro type imaginable.
Whitney Cummings plays Whitney Cummings, but not the Whitney Cummings who's a successful stand-up comic, but a slightly different Whitney Cummings who's a photographer. [Why was this the professional choice they made? I don't know.] This Whitney Cummings is in a long-term relationship with Alex (Chris D'Elia), who made a lot of money selling an Internet something of some sort. [Neither main character's professional background actually has anything to do with anything in the pilot.] Whitney and Alex have been together for a long time (five years in the original pilot, but three years now, because somebody must have told somebody this would sound less dire, or maybe just make them seem younger), but they aren't married and they aren't engaged, in part because Whitney's mom (Jane Kaczmarek) has left her terrified by the entire institution.
They've got some wacky sitcom friends, too. Lily (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Neal (Maulik Pancholy) are dating and although the NBC press description has lots of details about each character, in the pilot at least, she's a harpy and he's whipped. There's also bitter, cynical Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn) who's mostly there to lament about dating and the state of contemporary masculinity. And finally there's sexist cop Mark (Dan O'Brien) who says obnoxious and chauvinistic things and waits for the audience to pretend that it's 1984 and them laugh.
A lot of "Whitney" is actually about pretending that it's 1984. Or maybe 1993. And the weird part is that I can't tell if it's intentional. The original pilot had a couple vintage 2009 punchlines about Vajazzling and a character asking not to be CC-ed on something conversational, but they were trimmed. The current "Whitney" pilot is stripped of most pop culture references and even a "Dr. Quinn" reference has to be followed by the question "Medicine woman?" as if the joke needed additional clarification to be funny.
But there's a fine line between being intentionally retro and evergreen and coming across as dated and "Whitney" is mostly in the latter category. Cummings' comedy -- I don't claim to be an expert, but I've seen my share of Roasts, YouTube clips and late-night appearances -- doesn't tend to be reference driven and, I'll confess, I've always felt like she tends a bit too much towards obvious "women are different from men" punchlines, so I can see how this would be a logically network de-raunchified version of what she does. But as predictable as I usually find Cummings' stand-up, I can also respect that her writing is somewhat sharp and her delivery usually hits well.
In "Whitney," however, the writing isn't sharp and the delivery doesn't tend to hit well. For a sitcom with a love for traditional sitcom conventions, "Whitney" doesn't have a very good grasp on ideal sitcom pacing and scene tend to drag in ways that are inexcusable in the high-punchline-per-minute-ratio world of the multi-cam sitcom. The wedding sequence that makes up most of the pilot's first half seems to go on forever and very few of the punchlines either hit or flow organically into the marriage-based-insecurity that fuels the rest of the episode. Too many punchlines are just jokes repeating themselves, rather than the kind of escalated humor this branch of the genre thrives on. If "Whitney" ever decides to let D'Elia be funny, that would help, since too many scenes are Whitney saying ostensibly funny things loudly and then waiting for D'Elia and the audience to laugh and then gracelessly hammering home another ostensible punchline. For now, there's no back and forth and Cummings' is trying way too hard, which is a bad match for D'Elia's low-key, bemused charm.
I'll say this again: Exactly one scene in "Whitney" worked for me, but at least it worked for me well. Worried that their sex life is on the rocks, Whitney decides to role-play as a naughty nurse. This sequence, mostly spoiled already by NBC promos, works because it's the one time in the pilot that suggests or proves that Whitney and the creative team are aware of the way a good multi-cam scene should start from character, escalate, escalate and close strong (though this scene also includes the gratuitously repeated "Dr. Quinn" joke, so it's far from perfect). I'm not saying that "Whitney" should be composed entirely of scenes featuring Cummings in a naughty nurse outfit, just to note that it seems counterproductive and wrong to claim that every scene in "Whitney' is a total dud.
And I could generously agree that Jane Kaczmarek is an improvement over Beverly D'Angelo as Whitney's mom, but in terms of actual resemblance and ability to be intentionally funny on cue.
And, heck, I'll even agree that the revised ending to the new pilot is markedly less bad than the original ending and that several of those cut punchlines were cut for viable reasons, meaning that the producers are not unaware of some things not being funny.
I don't know why I'm inclined to such generosity toward a pilot which is, naughty nurse scene aside, completely without mirth. It could be that I don't think NBC and CBS are necessarily wrong in feeling like Cummings is a star of sorts. I just feel like this is a pilot which, despite Emmy winner Andy Ackerman directing and the punchy Betsy Thomas (also an Emmy winner) producing, exhibits a weird discomfort with the form it's so proud to be trying to reinvigorate. That's why, like I said in my original Take Me To The Pilots post, NBC should have let them scrap the pilot entirely and try again, rather than just tinkering with a few random scenes and pretending that was a solution. It wasn't a solution and this is a bad pilot and that's what my grade reflects, but I can somehow imagine it getting better. By next week, I may have discarded that hope as well.
"Whitney" premieres on Thursday (September 22) night on NBC at 9:30 p.m. ET.
Music mogul tells HitFix why he bet on Simon Cowell
On Wednesday (September 21) night, viewers were introduced to L.A. Reid, "X Factor" judge.
Music fans didn't really need an introduction to L.A. Reid, record industry power-player since founding LaFace Records back in 1989. In the subsequent 20-plus years, with LaFace, Arista and The Island Def Jam Music Group, Reid has been credited with signing, developing or shaping the careers of artists ranging from Pink to Usher to Justin Bieber to Rihanna and more.
Back in March, Reid made the decision to exit his position as Chairman and CEO at The Island Def Jam Music Group to come join Simon Cowell on "The X Factor" (and then taking over the Epic Label Group in July).
In my recent interview with Cowell, he praised Reid for his taste and for their similar backgrounds, but on Wednesday's premiere, a lot was made of the two men bumping heads when evaluating potential "X Factor" talent.
The day before chatting with Cowell last week, I sat down with Reid to talk about his big job switch, about his "X Factor" judging approach and his overall approach to judging talent.
Check out the interview...
Russell's nephew manages to make Russell look friendly and well-adjusted
Pre-credit sequence. We're on Redemption Island with Semhar. She feels abandoned by her team. "I gave them my every last strength and they sent me to Redemption Island. Figures," she says. The rules for Redemption Island seem to be identical to last year. Anyway Semhar is still crying. She confesses that she comes pre-equipted with abandonment issues, which must really be exacerbated when your "Survivor" tribe abandons you. In her loneliness on Redemption Island, she talks her way through a so-so poem. It ends with "I don't miss you, I miss feeling loved." Sniffle.
Whatever Simon Cowell's new concoction is, let's find out together...
OK, kids... It's time for "The X Factor." There's been so much darned hype for this one that a premiere live-blog seemed appropriate...
So let's go!
In the classic "Simpsons" episode "Day of the Jackanapes," Sideshow Bob is released from prison with only one thing in mind: Revenge [in this case, against Krusty for erasing all of the tapes from their classic shows together].
Sideshow Bob is monomaniacal and in one scene, he plunks himself down on a TV studio catwalk and observes, "Ah, the catwalk. The perfect vantage point... for revenge."
He then pulls out a bag of savory snacks and opines, "Ah, kettle chips. The perfect side dish... for revenge."
Finally, as a brainwashed Bart moves in the direction of Krusty with a bomb strapped to his chest, Sideshow Bob caps the joke.
"Well, Krusty, this is your Waterloo. Soon, you'll be Napoleon Blown-apart," he says. A crew member objects, but Bob adds, "It was the perfect pun... for revenge."
In its perpetual and near-infinite wisdom, "The Simpsons" was poking fun at the convention that when fictional characters determine that it's time for revenge, they almost never go out and just get revenge. Instead, they talk about it endlessly and portentously. They won't freaking shut up about their need for revenge. And finally, you're all, "Oh my God. Just get your revenge already!"
"Day of the Jackanapes" and kettle chips came to mind several times while I watched the first two episodes of ABC's new drama "Revenge," in which the main character spends so much time talking about her need for revenge that an "Oh my God. Just get your revenge already!" reaction is almost inevitable. And while the character does, indeed, slowly begin to get said revenge, it's an almost joyless endeavor.
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but there's a difference between "cold" and "emotionless and dull," a distinction "Revenge" is unable to make in the early going.
Click through for a full review...
Cowell talks Paula, Justin Bieber, Rebecca Black and how 'X Factor' is different
It's been 20 months since Simon Cowell appeared at the Television Critics Association press tour to announce that he was departing "American Idol" and that a FOX version of "The X Factor" would premiere in the fall of 2011.
"The X Factor" will finally launch on Wednesday (September 21) night on FOX and for many, the show's format and its differences from "Idol" remain a bit of a mystery.
Fortunately for FOX, then, the x-factor in this new singing competition's success is likely to be Simon Cowell himself. And Cowell, of course, is as well-known a quantity as there is on television.
I sat down last week with Cowell, who serves as judge/mentor/producer/creator on "The X Factor," to talk about transplanting his British smash to American soil, a conversation that touched on Paula Abdul, Justin Bieber and why "X Factor" will be able to dodge the rut that recent "Idol" winners have fallen into.
FOX comedy co-stars discuss how they relate to Zooey Deschanel's Jess
While she may be the only one described by the FOX marketing department as "adorkable," Zooey Deschanel isn't doing "New Girl" as a one-woman show.
In addition to chatting with Deschanel last week, I also caught up with the actors playing her character's three new roommates -- Lamorne Morris, Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield -- plus Hannah Simone, who plays her best friend.
I'm saving my interview with Morris and Greenfield for next week, since the "New Girl" pilot features Damon Wayan Jr., while Morris' character enters in the second episode.
So for now, let's hear a bit from Johnson and Simone, as they discuss how much we're going to be seeing their characters and what they hope to find out about Nick and Cece, respectively.
You may recognize Johnson from the film "No Strings Attached" (scripted by "New Girl" creator Liz Meriwether), while Simone's credits include episodes of "Beatiful People" and "Kojak."
"New Girl," of course, premieres tonight (September 20) at 9 p.m. on FOX.
Alas, there's nothing memorable about this Poppy Montgomery drama
Damnit, "Unforgettable" producers. The punny blood is on your hands with this one. I didn't want to do it. You forced my hand.
You could have called your new Poppy Montgomery drama "Crime-Fighting Redhead Memory Girl" and I wouldn't have had a clue how to start my review. You could have called it "Super-Brain Coincidence Procedural" and I'd have wracked my own less-than-super-brain for hours musing on an appropriate lede. You could have named it "Poppy Montgomery Looks Great, Solves Mysteries and Doesn't Know What People From Syracuse Talk Like" and you'd have taken all of the ammunition out of my critical pen.
But no. That's not the way you chose to go. You took the approach that dared critics to be lazy, forgetting that you were premiering in the same week as 20 other network dramas and that, amidst that avalanche of new programming, "lazy" would be a welcome respite.
Most shows make us work at least a little bit harder. "'Revenge'? More like revenge on viewers!" or "'A Gifted Man'? More like a gifted director for the pilot!" or "If this pilot weren't so dull, a 'Person of Interest' would be me!"
Would that I were a proud man, too proud to rise to your bait.
I am not. Because if you name your show "Unforgettable," you'd darned well better hope the resulting drama is memorable and while I'd shy from saying that "Unforgettable is a bad pilot, it's also a pilot that would have even Marilu Henner pausing and trying to remember if she'd actually watched.
Full review after the break...
As you may have heard, Zooey Deschanel is a fine reason to watch this one
If you haven't already read Mo Ryan's excellently reported feature about the declining number of female writers and producers in Hollywood, you really should.
Ryan was writing in response to the annual study from San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film indicating a significant drop in the percentage of women writing for broadcast television.
That study and its discouraging words pointed to the 2010-2011 TV season and while it's too soon to project how next year's study will pan out, I suspect there's cause for at least guarded optimism.
I made my list of Fall TV Season's 10 Least Bad New Network Shows last night and of the 10 pilots I picked, seven were created or co-created by a female writer and the percentage of those standout shows to feature a female character or female characters in lead roles was even higher. You'd have to be a dreamer to think that in one year, there'd been a meaningful sea change in the industry, but I'm equally hesitant to think of it as a total aberration.
I'm so darned peppy about this possible new semi-trend that I'm not going to quibble that three of the shows in my Top 5 -- "New Girl," "Hart of Dixie" and "Suburgatory" -- are mighty similar female-driven fish-out-of-water stories. Hollywood's creative laziness very rarely benefits women and it isn't really creative laziness if all three shows are also clever and likable, is it?
First out of the gates for this trio is "New Girl" -- No "The" no matter how many times I type it and have to delete it -- in which creator Liz Meriwether and star Zooey Deschanel fuse seamlessly in a way that sometimes even the best of showrunners and stars take years to achieve. If you like Zooey Deschanel, this is Zooey Deschanel at her best.
And if you don't like Zooey Deschanel? Well, you probably hate puppies, rainbows and unicorns as well.
[I kid. I understand as well as anybody does that Zooey Deschanel is a polarizing figure. I can imagine "New Girl" converting a few doubters, but Zooey fandom and its antithesis are pretty entrenched positions. I'd add that this is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl performance/character, but like so many good ideas Manic Pixie Dream Girl has lost enough meaning that detractors have decided that "Zooey = Manic Pixie Dream Girl" is a worthy formula, which it didn't used to be. But that's an entirely different article/review/meditation and I'm not going to get into it here.]
Full review after the break...
FOX's newest comedy star explains how she's like her character
There is a fine between asking Zooey Deschanel how she feels about being adorable and asking her opinion of "adorkable," a word accompanying her image on posters and billboards nationwide.
Or at least I hope there is.
I sat down last week with Deschanel, star of the new FOX comedy "New Girl," to discuss the development of her free-spirited and zany character, what drew her to the small screen and the sensation of hearing that your face is stories high in Times Square.
Oh and if you're curious, the "Elf" and "(500) Days of Summer" star doesn't mind the word "adorkable," though you're going to have to watch the interview to find out why not.
"New Girl" premieres on FOX on Tuesday (September 20) at 9 p.m.
Check out my interview (and read Sepinwall's interview, which is longer, but features less Zooey imagery).