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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 22, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Crazy Ex, Breakfast All Day, Undateable Live

You know you're really getting old when your children discuss your surprise birthday party in front of you.

And you only remember that they did so when everybody jumps out and says "surprise."

*

The new TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has two things going for it, actors Rachel Bloom and Santino Fontana. It has a lot of other elements that are still up in the air, so that at times the show is wonderful and at other moments you have to turn away from the train wreck.

The premise is that Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is a high-powered young lawyer who is about to be named a junior partner at her New York firm, with a salary of half a million. But on the street she happens to see Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), the boy she was in love with during summer camp when they were both sixteen.

The flashback shows us that he was most definitely not in love with her.

Josh tells her he's heading back home to West Covina, California -- so she, being bold and wanting to get out of her work-only rut, quits her job and moves to West Covina. But she denies, to herself and everyone else, that she's moving there for Josh.

Hijinks ensue. But here's where the problems start popping up. At no point do we ever see her behave like the kind of human being who gets offered a partnership at a good law firm. At no point is she any better than ditzy.

But it's worse than that, because she's also selfish and exploitative. She meets Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana), a friend of Josh's, and Greg (the best character in the show) sees right through her -- but still falls for her, especially because she deliberately leads him on, including a lot of kissing, just so she can use him to get close to Josh.

I'm a few episodes in, now, and I have to say that if the actress Rachel Bloom were not so vibrant, if she didn't throw herself into the role so heartily, I would have stopped watching, because the character of Rebecca is, to put it kindly, repulsive. She's only funny if you like watching amoral people humiliate themselves. I don't. I prefer comedies about people that have something likeable about them, and who notice their own misbehavior and correct it.

Maybe I'd care if we saw any attribute in Josh that made him worth all the emotion and desire she expends on him, but we don't. He's somewhat good-looking, and he tries to be nice to her, but that's it. He's boring. Not the actor's fault -- the writers just haven't given him anything interesting to say or do yet.

We don't care if she ever gets together with Josh. No, I must correct myself. We hope very much, for Josh's sake, that she doesn't. We hope she'll move to a big city -- not New York, that bridge is burnt -- and return to sanity. Or at least that she'll wise up, leave poor Josh alone, give it a try with Greg, and spend a few minutes at the office doing the job they're paying her for.

I watch with sadness as the writers use comic "types" for characters. In the writer's room, someone says, "Oh, wouldn't it be funny if ...?" My answer is: No, apparently not.

But it's in the script anyway, and the actors make the best of it, probably not sure whether to hope that their character stays in the show for a long run, or mercifully gets written out very quickly.

Now, just in case you were wondering if maybe it couldn't be this bad, let me add one more nightmare: It's a musical.

There's one big Broadway-style musical number in every episode. These musical numbers are well-performed. They have some amusing moments. But the songs are kind of awful. The kind of song that gets real Broadway songwriters replaced during out-of-town tryouts.

That's probably why the writers feel comfortable keeping all the characters shallow: They think musical comedy characters are shallow. They only seem shallow to ignorant people, because musical comedy characters get all their character development in a handful of lines and a couple of songs.

"Characters" in pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical revues were shallow. But in the great musicals, they're passionate and deep.

Bobby in Company, for instance, is a fun-loving bachelor with a bunch of clever married friends, but after all the comedy he sings one of the great songs of all time, "Being Alive," and it doesn't feel out of place.

Oklahoma! has the silly "Persian" peddler Ali Hakim, but it also has the menacing Jud Fry ... and makes a character out of him. Rod Steiger played Jud Fry in the movie, OK? A part that needed an actual actor to play it.

Nobody in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is written with the heart or spine of a real human being, except (so far) Greg. And that's not enough.

With weak songs, shallow unlikeable characters, and the comedy of humiliation, what's not to hate?

Santino Fontana as Greg has a spark of the sort of talent and charisma that made Justin Long grab us as the bartender in He's Just Not That Into You, and whether this show lasts or not, Fontana deserves, and I hope he gets, a prominent career.

And Rachel Bloom has the gift of making us think that these unbelievable actions might be done and these lying words might be said by a sane person. But the scripts are making her work way too hard to bring that off.

Here's how they might be able to make this show watchable all the way through each episode:

1. Learn from Cop Rock and I'll Do Anything and ditch the musical numbers. Now. Without apology or regret. You tried, you showed that you don't understand either songwriting or musical comedy, so give it up immediately, you're spending way too much time and budget on jazzy drivel.

2. Get rid of Josh as a love interest. The actor might actually be talented, and I can see him continuing in the friend zone. Think of him as the Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt, in Parks and Recreation) of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- a guy who was once the love interest of a major character, who then hangs around and becomes much more interesting when paired with another character. (And not the clownishly sexy and possessive girlfriend he's got right now.)

3. Stop making Rebecca stupid. Show us the woman with the law degree. Let her be witty instead of ditzy. Let's see her do real things and have real friendships and real relationships. Let's see her be good at her job. This is an actress capable of making us love her the way we once loved Mary Tyler Moore (and will never love Lena Dunham) -- if she's given a chance to play a likeable, believable character.

4. But then you're stuck with a title that no longer has anything to do with the show. How is it Crazy Ex-Girlfriend if she's no longer crazy?

Suck it up, kids -- the writers and actors on Cougar Town managed to live with a title that no longer fit the show, and it eked out a respectable six seasons. In fact, they dumped the "cougar" premise almost at once, except for the comic-relief character of Barbara Coman (Carolyn Hennesy), who was basically in the show only to remind us of the original premise.

But the makers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won't do any of these things. Instead, they'll spend more time and effort trying to make the unworkable things work. They'll fail.

And Hollywood will learn all the wrong lessons. They'll conclude "musicals don't work on series television," whereas the truth is that musicals might work if they stopped trying to put on big production numbers and thought of ways to do real character songs, like "Being Alive" or "My Boy Bill," or good relationship songs, like "When the Children Are Asleep" or "You Must Meet My Wife" or "Bring Him Home."

You can't do the big spectacle numbers, because even with big-screen TV, it's still taking place in a little box surrounded by our living rooms. You can only do intensely personal musical numbers, dramatic or comic, because that's what television is good at.

And Hollywood will keep trying to make comedies with zany leads, when all the long-running shows make it clear that we need to care about and believe in the person at the center -- the character who sees the world pretty much the way the audience does.

Amy Poehler pushed that envelope as far as it can go in Parks and Recreation, and it only worked because she played the naivete of her character with such earnestness, and because the writers did not relentlessly humiliate her.

Even The Office gave us mostly-sane, entirely likeable characters (Jim and Pam) through whom to view events until Steve Carell was able to show us the earnest, desperate, needy man behind the monstrously unlikeable Michael Scott character (something that Ricky Gervais never did in the original British version, because he's not an actor, and Steve Carell is).

Otherwise, whom do we love for long sitcom runs? Reasonably normal, decent people, played by intensely likeable actors: Dick Van Dyke. Mary Tyler Moore. Fred MacMurray. Alan Alda. Ted Danson. Kelsey Grammer. Ron Howard (twice). Jerry Seinfeld. Ray Romano. Kaley Cuoco. Angus T. Jones.

Your viewpoint character can't be the most insane one. It just doesn't work. We have to have at least one leading character that we want to invite into our homes week after week -- someone who sees the world pretty much the way we do. Someone who joins us in shaking our heads at the antics of the crazy people around him or her.

As for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom will do a much better job of carrying a TV series if she's not playing the crazy one.

At least the movie My Super Ex-Girlfriend was told from the point of view of Luke Wilson, playing the boyfriend who couldn't get rid of a clingy ex. And even that couldn't hold our attention for long, anymore than The War of the Roses could, because we never understood why the exes ever loved each other in the first place. There was nothing to love, and therefore no way to believe.

But even as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gradually collapses, I keep hoping they'll make the necessary changes to save it, because doggone it, everybody involved in this debacle seems to be so sincere about the boneheaded mistakes they're making. And West Covina, California, deserves a sitcom.

*

Speaking of using stunts to try to make a TV series stand out, somebody got the bright idea of taking the wonderful sitcom Undateable and putting it on live.

So that's what it is this season, Undateable Live.

The trouble with doing a sitcom live is that most three-camera sitcoms are already done in front of a live studio audience, so the laughter will be genuine. The only thing not-live about it is that if somebody screws up, they can do the scene over again, so we end up seeing a "live" performance that is more or less as it was supposed to be. The studio audience had to sit through some scenes several times, but it was live each time they did it.

So how do you make it clear to the audience at home that this show is "live" in a different way from all those other live sitcoms? That it's going out over the air without being edited, with no chance for retakes?

The makers of Undateable have thought of a dozen different ways -- and used all of them. I've seen two live episodes now, and here's what they do:

The title sequence involves the studio audience, as do the credits at the end, and they're really funny, though I wonder what they'll do next week.

The actors sometimes go into the audience between scenes and clown with audience members.

During the supposedly "real" events of the sitcom, the characters are sometimes openly aware that they're in a live sitcom. It's not that the actors break character, it's that the characters watch themselves on television, or refer to other television shows, or even speak of their own show -- as if these characters know that they're being filmed.

They bring in actors playing themselves, who refer to the tv shows that made them famous and speak to the characters on Undateable as if they knew they were performing in a sitcom. Scott Foley (Scandal) and Sarah Chalke (Scrubs) have each appeared in one episode this season; it's an effective running gag that I don't expect to get tired of soon.

The play-in and play-out music is also live, by different groups or singers performing their own songs. Last year, they had Ed Sheeran perform, but he was part of the story. Now, a band like Kodaline or a duo like Nico & Vinz comes out onto the stage and plays in full view of the audience ... and us. But they aren't in the story -- they just perform. And so far, the music has been very good.

All these "proofs" that the show is live do work. To my surprise, I must add, because usually when a show breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, it's a death knell.

The Office and, to a degree, Parks and Recreation spoke directly to the camera by pretending that a film crew was doing a documentary and the characters were talking to the camera because they were being interviewed. Of course, in real interviews with untrained people, they don't talk to the camera, they talk to the interviewer.

But in Undateable Live, they don't actually talk to the camera. They break the invisible fourth wall by talking to and about the live audience there in the studio. And this method works very well. So far.

Here's what doesn't work: Actors breaking up and laughing.

The characters can talk about being on a TV show and having a live audience and it still works. But when the actors laugh at their own funniness, it does not.

I think these folks might have watched old Carol Burnett and Red Skelton episodes to see how to do live comedy, and they learned the completely wrong lesson. Performers in sketches on Carol Burnett and Red Skelton sometimes broke up laughing so they couldn't go on with the sketch, and this made the live audience laugh all the more.

What the Undateable folks don't understand is that every one of those performers was perfectly capable of doing all their scenes with straight faces. They broke up laughing on purpose. And they only laughed at times when it would make the audience laugh more.

They pretended to be stifling a laugh, because trying not to laugh is funny -- but only if the audience already thinks that the thing they're laughing at is funny.

On Undateable, the actors tend to break up at times when the audience is not already laughing. It's not exquisitely timed the way it was with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, or Red Skelton. It's just clumsy and distracting.

Why doesn't it work? Because Undateable is not a sketch comedy show, it's an ongoing sitcom where we're supposed to care about the characters, not just come back to watch the performers do comic skits. So breaking up laughing is destructive.

Maybe it wouldn't be destructive if the out-of-character laughter came at really funny moments, but instead it seems to come when the character is supposed to be angry or hurt. The laughter seems to be the actor saying, "By acting upset, I'm really being funny," which is pathetic and unlikeable.

Remember that Harvey Korman never broke himself up. He would laugh at Tim Conway, so that his laugh never felt like he was bragging about his own comic achievements.

Of all the actors in Undateable, the one who handles live TV the best is Ron Funches. He uses that same skill very well in his many appearances on @midnight. Rick Glassman is the best at staying completely in character -- even during his audience bits.

But look, I have to admit -- I already loved this show, so I want them to succeed. I preferred it when they weren't doing it live, and if they go back to a regular three-camera shoot I'll be relieved. But once they decided to try this live-broadcast shtick, then I'm glad they're doing it so inventively and well.

*

I like fine restaurants. But I'm not a snob. When I want a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder, I go to McDonald's and make no apology.

Ordinarily, such events occur about once every three years, though I've binged now and then -- and paid for it in body mass. However, I'd go to McDonald's way more often if they didn't stop serving Egg McMuffins at ten-thirty a.m.

Specifically, what I love is the Sausage McMuffin with Egg. It's a weird way to name it, but I learned the hard way that if I ask for a "Sausage McMuffin" I'll get an English muffin with a patty of sausage. No egg.

But why isn't it an "Egg McMuffin with Sausage"?

I've also learned that if I'm traveling far from the South, the sausage is different. Apparently, only southerners expect a sausage patty to have some bite to it. You get a McDonald's sausage patty out west or up north, and it's just a slab of mostly pork fat with nothing spicy or flavorful.

To such sausage I quote St. John the Revelator: "I will spue thee out of my mouth" (Rev. 3:16).

It's quite possible that McDonald's has changed its practice, and now the sausage is good in other places. I wouldn't know, because I don't buy Sausage McMuffins with Egg when I'm outside the South.

I have long regretted the fact that you can't get a McMuffin after ten-thirty, because it is, by far, the best sandwich McDonald's sells. Better than the Big Mac, better than Filet-O-Fish, better than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, better than the late, lamented McDLT.

But those of us who don't eat breakfast are McSOL.

So you can imagine how my heart leapt within me when they announced that McDonald's would start serving their breakfast menu all day. I was not alone -- the rejoicing among my friends was loud and prolonged.

Until we learned that there would only be selected items from the breakfast menu.

Well, that made sense. Hotcakes are hard to eat in a car, and breakfast biscuits need to be freshly baked to be any good. Who cared, as long as I could get my Sausage McMuffin with Egg?

Then, on my way home from a UNC-TV board meeting, I stopped at a McDonald's (it was one of those rare cravings) and along with my sandwich, I got their brochure about Breakfast All Day, which was scheduled to start the very next day.

The brochure showed Sausage Biscuits, Bacon Egg & Cheese Biscuits, and Hotcakes. But it omitted any kind of McMuffin at all.

Doom! Woe!

The McDonald's website promises that Breakfast All Day will include Sausage McMuffin with Egg. But it has an asterisk which leads to a note saying "Menu items vary by location. Deliciousness doesn't."

Well, first of all, deliciousness does vary by location, as I found with McDonald's sausage patties outside the South. And second, apparently that particular McDonald's on I-40/85 was a place where menu items varied and the McMuffin would not be served.

Now, it's not a total disaster. McDonald's Hotcakes have long been the best hotcakes served at any breakfast restaurant chain. That's right, better than at restaurants that specifically call themselves pancake houses.

But I can't eat McDonald's Hotcakes with butter and syrup in a moving car. Especially when I'm the one driving it. It just isn't practical to make a syrup sandwich out of McDonald's Hotcakes and eat it in your hand. You end up with your clothes, your hands, and the steering wheel and gear shift icky and sticky.

Alas, while I know people who adore McDonald's biscuits, I am not among them. Neither the biscuits nor the eggs are pleasing unto me. And even my Sausage-Biscuit-eating friends call it "a lump of pork sitting in my gut all day," which I don't regard as a high recommendation. Other people's "guilty pleasure" is far too often my own abdominal churn-obyl.

To test local availability, I drove one afternoon to the two McDonald's restaurants closest to my house (Pisgah Church just west of Elm; Battleground at Cone) and both of them were just as that brochure threatened: You can get the Egg and Sausage Biscuit, with flavorless eggs and biscuits so greasy you could squeeze them and lube a car; you can get hot cakes; but you can't get any kind of McMuffin.

I did buy and eat an Egg and Sausage Biscuit, and as one of my Biscuit-lovin' friends cheerfully warned, it sat like a lump so uncomfortably that I couldn't get to sleep till six a.m. My idea of "comfort food" includes the notion of "comfortable," and since I was not the latter, it was not the former.

I am not angry about this absence of McMuffins on the Breakfast All Day menu at the McDonald's closest to my home. After all, I can still get them if I drag out of bed before ten. But omitting the best item that McDonald's sells from the Breakfast All Day menu leaves me ... disgruntled.

Please, local McDonald's! Gruntle me! Add McMuffins to the Breakfast All Day menu!


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