In search of this year’s “30 Rock”

"Running Wilde" runs amok and David Cross conjures "The Jerk" in "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret"

Topics: Better With You, Our Picks, TV, Raising Hope, Running Wilde, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Television,

In search of this year's "30 Rock"Will Arnett in "Running Wilde," Martha Plimpton and Garrett Dillahunt in "Raising Hope," and David Cross in "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret"

Let’s just admit that we’re spoiled right now and get it over with. When the smallest ripple throws off our experience — the dryer breaks down, the sink backs up, the transmission locks up, the baby gets croup — we lament the enormous inconvenience of it with the same grim tones of Air Force officers warning of aliens who seem to have a special interest in nuclear weaponry.

We’re so far removed from life without six-cylinder engines and five-speed chiming large-capacity appliances that our schedules unravel at the slightest failure of technology. “Then I had to actually call the repairman and wait for him to show up!” we whine to our spouses and friends in paroxysms of learned helplessness, surrounded by machinery we can’t service ourselves.

No wonder the aliens lost interest in us back in the late ’60s. Like dimwitted teenagers with bad impulse control, we’re a little too pathetic to bother monitoring us very closely. I’m sure the lizard demons of Zambular in the Galaxy of Termitrax are up to far worse.

We’re certainly pretty spoiled when it comes to TV comedies. Here we have “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Bored to Death,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family,” a veritable cornucopia of comedic treasures, and what do we want? More, more, more. More funny, more laughs, more rolling on the floor gasping for air. Remember the olden days, when there were only three good comedies on TV? The rest featured lazy but lovable suburban fathers surrounded by machinery they couldn’t service themselves — see also: soothing tales of learned helplessness to make the ineffectual masses feel less soft and worthless.

But we always want more, don’t we? We’re fixated on novelty, we’ve got to know what else might make us laugh. Do we crave comedy as a means of escaping how squishy and alienated and overwhelmed we’ve become? More laughter, more forgetting!

First, it’s time to state the obvious: Most new sitcoms are awful. Trying to discern which have a fighting chance of not sucking requires turning the processor in your head down a notch and suspending your disbelief as much as possible.



Once these adjustments are made, Fox’s “Raising Hope” (9 p.m. Tuesdays) can seem downright plucky and charming. Sure, this comedy about a clueless kid named Jimmy and his tacky, wacky family trying to raise a baby (Dad had a one-night stand with Mom, who was a serial killer and died in the electric chair) goes to all of the white-trash clichés immediately: Great grandma is senile and tries to breast-feed the baby, the ladies of the house smoke, Mom puts “day old” stickers on stuff at the grocery store to get a discount. We can predict that in the next episode, everyone will be eating Ho Hos for breakfast and carrying the baby through town in a wheelbarrow.

But Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt as the dumb dad’s parents really make this one impossible to ignore completely. And even though we’ve already got “Oh no the ugly chick likes me” jokes and “You’re right, the baby’s limbs could get amputated this way” jokes and other material that might make you smile but never laugh, there’s also a slightly disturbed tone here that’s hard to match on sitcoms about yuppies having bad hair days.

Take this exchange between Virginia (Plimpton) and her son Jimmy (Lucas Neff):

Jimmy: Well, I can’t just let her cry. I’m pretty sure she already hates me. She never smiles.

Burt: Yeah, I noticed that. I was making funny faces at her last night for like an hour. And nothing!

Virginia: Maybe she’s just a bitch.

In another scene, Virginia explains why the secondhand smoke from her cigarettes won’t hurt the baby for years. “Jimmy, smoke rises. She’s not gonna be tall enough to breathe it for a long time.”

In other words, once you get into this show’s particular spirit of stupid, it’s a little bit contagious. Depending how susceptible you are to a spirit of stupid, of course. Me, I am well nigh powerless to it.

Next up: ABC’s “Better With You” (8:30 p.m. Wednesdays), a sitcom about yuppies having bad hair days. This is the kind of show that you can imagine your sorority sisters from college (and their boyfriends) watching, since it’s all about cute girls with super-glossy flat-ironed hair who are, like, so in love with their boyfriends/husbands but, like, why are guys so dumb about stuff anyways? When, in last week’s episode, Mia (Joanna Garcia) says to her peppy sister Maddie (Jennifer Finnegan), “What is it with boys and fire stations?” it sent a cold shiver down my spine, a terrible flashback to a time spent among young women who found it strangely comforting to depict themselves and the opposite sex as mere children.

I feel that I should stand up for this wobbly little comedy, though, because, when you peel back the repetitive coupling shtick (“Oh, that really is how couples act when they’ve been together for years! Teehee!”), you’ve still got writing that’s smart enough to show some promise as well as a very talented cast. Finnegan and Garcia are convincing and likable, actually, as sisters trying to manage their idiot “boys,” and Josh Cooke (Ben) and Jake Lacy (Casey) are both charismatic and funny as their respective idiots. Debra Jo Rupp, so memorable as the mom on “That ’70s Show,” is fantastic as mom Vicky here.

Yes, there’s a lot of chatter about how to manipulate the boys that’s less than compelling, but the scene where Ben invites Casey to a wrestling match (“hug fighting” Casey demeaningly calls it) by dropping to his hands and knees in the opposite direction yelping, “Let’s do this!” made me laugh out loud. Josh Cooke steals most of his scenes, actually — watch him and you’ll see — and somehow I can’t help thinking that this show could be a serious guilty pleasure, once the writers are given a few months to hit their stride.

Likewise, Fox’s “Running Wilde” (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays) may take a while to start firing on all pistons, but there’s so much potential there that it’s tough to turn your eyes away. Naturally any show created by “Arrested Development’s” Mitch Hurwitz and starring Will Arnett, David Cross and Keri Russell is going to get tons of attention, but this comedy has stumbled a little out of the block. Russell isn’t the surest bet as a comedic actress, and her scenes tend to be a little confusing: “Are we actually supposed to care about this person? Is this a drama? Why is she talking to him?” are the natural questions that arise from interactions between an over-the-top farcical presence like Arnett and a very earnest type like Russell.

On the other hand, as formulaic a formula as the rich-bastard-falls-for-plucky-environmentalist might be, you can’t really argue with dialogue like this (which really does need to slow down a notch for the old folks like me to appreciate it):

Emmy: I don’t believe that one person is worth the energy it takes to heat 80 gallons of water for a bath.

Steve: Oh, well, you may not be worth it, but I am.

Emmy: I was talking about personal worth.

Steve: Yes, and I’m saying that I have far more personal worth than you do, but I’m not judging you for it.

Emmy: Steve, I am judging you.

Steve: Overruled!

Since we’re all judging each other these days for having too much money or being too lazy — or for being too judgmental about the rich and the lazy — these scenes unearth something very essential about the sickness and sadness of life in America these days. And no one gets to the heart of disturbed, pampered people quite like Hurwitz.

Emmy: I couldn’t figure out how to use your dishwasher.

Steve: Who, Oleg? Oh, just push the dish into his chest, he’ll take it from there.

Ultimately, we could grow to like these freaks, and the big effort here (that feels a little awkward now) is clearly to make Emmy and Steve into sympathetic characters. You know, more sympathetic than, say, Gob or Lucille Bluth. When Steve’s assistant Migo laments how little Steve’s parents cared for him, Steve replies, “No, they care about me. They just choose not to show it with words or actions.”

“Running Wilde” will obviously be a little bit of a disappointment to those who miss “Arrested Development” (and who doesn’t?), but this is exactly the sort of show that is tweaked enough and smart enough to improve vastly over the coming months. Remember, even “Arrested Development” didn’t completely make sense until about halfway into its first season.

Of course, if you really want to see Will Arnett and David Cross in fine form, you’ll tune in for IFC’s “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” (10 p.m. Fridays), which boasts the best pilot episode of the fall season, hands down. (Seriously, look for it on Hulu or catch a repeat performance of the first episode on IFC; I think I’ve watched Will Arnett’s hilarious opening scene five times now, and it’s funnier every time I see it.)

David Cross plays Todd Margaret, an ineffectual dim bulb who foolishly gets promoted (by over-the-top corporate nightmare boss played by Arnett) to sell energy drinks in the U.K. Margaret can’t do anything right, and each episode escalates from bad to worse as he, well, makes one increasingly bad decision after another. Along the way he’s plagued by a somewhat demonic, far smarter underling (Blake Harrison) and a love interest (Sharon Horgan) with an enthusiasm for molecular gastronomy who raves to Todd about “Helium-fused chicken balloons,” then makes him a meal that includes “pancetta-scented air” (“Ham farts?” he asks).

All of which lands “Todd Margaret” somewhere between “The Office” and “The Jerk,” which is a fine hybrid indeed. Although every second of this comedy is far from genius, the disturbed mood and unique mean-spirited flavor of it all points to what the network comedies are so often lacking: bold choices that border on the absurd. As a development executive might put it, this is what people like these days, and this is what’s working on “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock.” The sooner the networks can grasp that, the sooner everyone will spend less time flat-ironing hair and more time inventing something half-mad that we’ll savor more than pancetta-scented air. And with any luck, we’ll squeeze in a few more laughs before the lizard demons of Zambular descend and harvest our gizzards for their protein shakes. 

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>