NVTV 36: Selfie and Benched

At this point in their respective lives, Selfie  and Benched have almost identical strengths as weaknesses; both shows are perfectly cast and unevenly written, and his week was a very good example of that dichotomy for both show. 

On Selfie we got the weakest writing- at both a joke and story level- that we've seen in weeks, but it almost doesn't matter because Karen Gillan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Brian Huskey have inhabited their characters to the point that they're funny almost by default. There's an incredibly funny- and yet incredibly stupid- segment late in the episode involving a bored Eliza and a rotary phone, that would have been absolute death with almost any other actress but is flat out spectacular because of Gillan's commitment to the bit. Alison Miller's Julia is terribly written, but Miller- a vet of a much better show costarring Cho in Go On- is good enough to make a very dull character ("She's lady Henry, but without any conflict!" said some asshole in the writer's room) bearable. 

As for the writing? The plotting was poorly paced, the jokes were iffy, and the resolution was mostly saccharine, but that's more or less par for the course at this point. Selfie's only had maybe one or two truly well-written episodes, and it doesn't necessarily need great writing to entertain.  

Sadly, though, Selfie is likely dead. It exists in the same mostly-cancelled limbo as Bad JudgeMulaney, and A to Z, and barring a massive ratings spike it's toast. It was alternately too smart for its target audience, and too dumb for the audience it actually should have been aimed at, and then translated to bad ratings in spite of a big promotional push and a stellar- and by network TV standards, fairly star-studded - cast. Hopefully we at least get to see the rest of the initial thirteen episode order, because for all its warts, Selfie is an extremely fun show to watch. 

Benched on the other hand is much more likely to survive, with a cheaper cast, lower expectations, and a stronger start…. but like Selfie, it's pretty much living off the natural charisma of Coupe and Harrington more than off of any particularly good writing or storytelling. The beats in this week's episode were paint by numbers, and the best joke of the episode felt like an ad-lib. Still, it's early yet, and it's much easier for a show's writing to improve (see Bad Judge) than its cast. 

Perhaps it's unfair to claim both shows are poorly written, as both have a very natural and deep understanding of their respective characters and what makes them interesting; they just don't always know how to make them funny. Luckily for us, Gillan and Coupe and the rest are strong enough to inject comedy into mediocre gags… but unluckily for Selfie, at least, that's not quite enough on its own. 

NVTV 35: Mulaney, "Simpsorama", and Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Strong night of comedy last night. Let’s start with the show I usually cover, then briefly touch on two others I don’t.


Mulaney is growing on me. I’m not sure if it’s actually improving so much as I’m just getting used to its awkward rhythm (and make no mistake, this is still very much a multi-cam show that has no business being a multi-cam show), but the utter darkness lying beneath its generic New York sitcom surface is intoxicating. In the second consecutive episode focusing heavily on death- in this case the death of a priest- the show continues to be utterly remorseless in its quest for laughs, and its characters continue to plumb the-I hate to say it, but the right word is Seinfeldian- depths of human selfishness and desperation. Motif’s overwhelming need to be accepted, played for laughs in a one-off bit about John’s mother’s affection for his real name, is positively Constanza-esque and gives the show’s most problematic lead something to build off. Jane’s rabid co-dependence continues to be one of the show’s strongest notes, played here as she endures the terrifying, Andre-esque side effects of a low-rent birth control pill in pursuit of a man. Lou Cannon’s obsessive need for adulation leads to him kissing John’s mother, and John’s deep-seated Catholic guilt and ever-present hypocrisy combine as he torments himself- and others- over a meaningless white lie. Even Andre and Oscar had strong moments this week, and that’s a refreshing change of pace from their usual role as glorified sitcom furniture.

Bottom line: Mulaney is still very much a work in progress, but if you’re the type amused by a character caught praying late at night by insisting that he was actually just masturbating, it’s a show that caters to your (and my) dark, cynical sense of humor.

Elsewhere, one of my all-time favorite shows, Futurama, sort of returned in a crossover with the faded- but still occasionally very funny- Simpsons. Most reviewers seem to be drowning in the ocean of their own expectations, but for what it was- a Simpsons episode with Futurama characters in it- “Simpsorama” was very funny, and spoke to much of what made those shows great in their respective primes. There were perhaps a few too many in-jokes, but that’s the nature of the beast in a setting like this. Ultimately, this show gave me Moe calling Bender “Blade Rummy,” Homer half-heartedly strangling mutant Bart-monsters to death, and the Professor’s unique brand of casual disrespect, while also giving me a par-or-better episode of both The Simpsons and Futurama, and that’s all I really wanted. It’s not Bender’s Big Score or Jurassic Bark by any stretch of the imagination, but it was foolhardy to expect it to be.

Finally, I don’t normally write about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as it’s not a new show and it’s so consistent that I rarely would have much to say, but this week’s episode was the strongest of the season so far, and perhaps the first to get full mileage out of the entire cast up to and including Scully and Hitchcock. Alan Sepinwall- a much better critic than I am- correctly noted that the show has hit a point where the plot is almost immaterial because the characters are so well-defined and perfectly portrayed that they can make almost any situation funny just by being a party to it. What he didn’t spend a lot of ink on was the subtle maturation of every member of the cast in this very strong episode; from Terry and Jake being able to look past their distaste for defense attorneys, to Rosa putting her instincts aside and supporting Amy (which, granted, has been Rosa’s arc for a while now), to Boyle standing up for himself, and even to Captain Holt letting his guard down just enough to play along on the “why is Amy late” game or risking his career by instigating a pow-wow/haranguing, all of these characters ended this episode somewhere besides where they started, and with a cast of nine characters (ten counting the guest star), that’s no mean feat. Even Scully is able to evolve past his own sandwich lust to champion the cause of a better union rep, albeit that swing was leftover dependent. Excellent, excellent television and it’s a real shame that none of this fall’s sitcoms seem to have anywhere near enough potential to become a show like this, particularly with Selfie and Bad Judge- the two most promising shows, albeit both still with a lot of growing to do- already more or less cancelled.

Dark days for the network sitcom, but at least we’ve still got the Nine-Nine.  

NVTV 34: Benched "Downsizing"

Benched built on a strong pilot by turning in easily the strongest second episode of any of the shows I've been covering. While not a network sitcom, it's easily the strongest starter of the season, and assuming it can maintain momentum it will rapidly shoot past Marry MeSelfie, and Bad Judge on my personal power rankings. 

Eliza Coupe has always been one of the funniest women on television, and she's overdue to have a show built explicitly around her; there's not a scene in the second episode that doesn't include her, and the show is stronger for it. Like Kate Walsh over on Bad Judge she's able to play the deplorable sides of her character without losing sympathy, and like Selfie's Karen Gillan she's willing to commit to the jokes just as hard as the emotional stuff and to give each exactly the right pitch. Seriously funny, compelling stuff from her. 

It doesn't hurt that her supporting cast is without a weak link. The villains are excellent (though it will never not be weird to see Marueen Ponderosa as a high-powered attorney), and the good guys- Maria Bamford, Oscar Nunez, and Jay Harrington- are all comedy vets with excellent typing and the elusive ability to bring real human depth to characters that exist largely just for laughs. 

The jokes are still probably the show's weakest link, but the cast is so good that it's hard to tell; Eliza Coupe is basically funny whenever she wants to be, regardless of material, and Jay Harrington's timing is almost Hedberg-esque; not in terms of delivery, but in the ability to make almost anything funny just by *when* he says it. 

Big thumbs up so far. 

NVTV 33: Cristela and Mark Cuban

Very little new to say about Cristela this week. I hate Mark Cuban, so I'm probably biased. Only note much worth making was that it was disappointing to see Cristela's blonde coworker back to a one-dimensional punchline after being treated as an actual character last week. 

NVTV 32: Bad Judge "What is Best in Life", A to Z "F", and The McCarthys "Love McCarthys Style"

Another Thursday, another three episodes. Let's start with the best of the bunch. 

Bad Judge continues to be a flawed but very fun show, as even when the comedy isn't clicking, it's a blast just hanging around with Rebecca, Tedward, and Tom. This week was funnier than last, with an excellent Conan the Barbarian running B-plot and the very skilled Racahel Harris playing Dana, Wright's nemesis of the week. The comedy still wasn't at the peak level the show's shown before, but there was enough there for a lot of good character stuff from both Judges Wright and Hernandez to thrive. 

On the downside, Bad Judge really struggles to use its entire ensemble in a given episode; Ryan Hansen had all of once scene this week, and I didn't realize till watching this episode that this was really the first time Judge Hernandez- a series regular- has had much of a plot line. Walsh is so entertaining at this point that the show can pretty much get away with whatever it wants when she's on screen- and especially when she's excited about something, or dressed up in "full regalia!" or putting whichever cartoon client of the week in their place- that it doesn't have to be much else to be passable, but if it wants to come back for a second season- highly unlikely at this point- it's going to need to figure out how to balance its supporting cast's screen time, make the comedy more consistent, and keep all the strong character stuff we've gotten the last two weeks. Bad Judge is still probably my favorite of the new sitcoms, but it's also still largely unbalanced show with a lot of growing to do, and little time left to do it in. 

A to Z was, as usual, a mess. It's odd that a comedy that's as funny as this one usually is- and for all my bitching, A to Z is usually pretty funny- can be such a disaster. It's got good jokes, good writers, and an excellent cast, it really ought to be good… but, unfortunately, the characters torpedo it week after week. Andrew remains almost entirely devoid of positive character traits, Zelda remains completely inhuman and almost totally without principles, and poor Lenore Crichlow is stuck playing a woman who's only motivation is to find a man- the most tired and dull of all sitcom females, and one that A to Z apparently has no interest in putting even the slightest spin on. The plot, as usual, was problematic- Andrew acts like a jerk, Zelda rewards him for it, nobody seems to notice- though there was a nice moment with a spider at the end of the episode that gave us some idea of what a *good* version of this show might look like. On another positive note, the stuff at Wallflower remains consistently entertaining, and a work-com set entirely within that world would likely have been a better show than the quasi-misogynistic meres A to Z turned out to be. Hong Chau, not for the first time, only gets a minute of screen time and yet gets likely the episode's biggest laugh; failure to recognize which of your character work- or doesn't- is a surefire way to get cancelled, and unlike Bad Judge, A to Z deserves its fate. 

Lastly, The McCarthys was much closer to the show I originally feared it would be for its first ten minutes last night, before turning into a pretty entertaining episode. It has the opposite problem of A to Z- the character writing is excellent, but the jokes are not- and yet is a much, much better show, even with a distracting and obtrusive laugh track and nowhere near the star power. The jokes are simple, but they fit the characters, and they work at that level; sometimes that's all you need. I'll probably never love The McCarthys, as I don't much love the shows its trying to emulate, but as long as the show lets its characters dictate its comedy instead of the other way round, I'll also probably never hate it. If you like multi-cam, live studio type shows, you could do a lot worse the The McCarthys.