It's remarkable that the past few summers have yielded such ripe fruit as "Survivor," "American Idol," "The O.C.," and "America's Next Top Model" when preliminary reports indicate that this summer, the TV fields are as barren and dry as the Oklahoma dust bowl.
Feel free to set me straight if you've stumbled on a juicy crop in some fertile corner of TV land, but so far, I'm not impressed. I fell asleep halfway through "The Casino." The first episode of "The Jury" made me wish I were asleep. Early feedback on "Next Action Star" is lukewarm at best. Since "almost funny" is about as appealing to me as "sort of cooked" or "nearly sexy," "Last Comic Standing" isn't even an option.
And I don't know about you, but I find "The Graduate Student" pretty tedious and unbearable. Professor Dinglestein is a powerful presence, but that doesn't make all of those nights in the lab heating up SpaghettiOs on the Bunsen burner any easier to bear, and socks with sandals are never OK. Similarly, I appreciate the spunk behind "The Nail Salon," but how many times can we hear the same temperamental manicurist whine about hangnails and fungal infections?
I'm not sure whose idea "Next Agricultural Engineer" was, but heads are definitely gonna roll. So far "The Pharmacy" looks like a snoozefest, but "The Post Office" has potential, particularly if that one mail clerk keeps making miniature replicas of his co-workers out of sweet potatoes.
Still, "Assistant Manager" is blatantly scripted, and "Last Registered Nurse Standing" is obviously a bad imitation of "Dermatologist!" While I'm a big fan of "Doggie Day Care," I don't love "The Chiropractor's Office," and can you honestly name a single person who's on the edge of their seat to find out who'll be "America's Next Top Senior Vice President of Marketing"? I didn't think so.
Child stars in your eyes
Thank God for small favors, like the recent "Showbiz Moms & Dads" marathon on Bravo (episodes replaying Wednesdays at 8 p.m.). I know I'm late to the party, but what a fabulous party it is, with temperamental teenager outbursts, self-tanning 4-year-olds and lots of really bad parenting. And let's be honest, when it comes right down to it, what's more entertaining than really bad parenting?
"I worry about Jordan's arteries, I worry about my arteries and I worry about Samantha's. So I try to make some selection sometimes from the fast food chain of, like, what I think might be nutritional." -- Tiffany Barron, stage mother, having just ordered a No. 5, a No. 10 and a No. 10 at Taco Bell.
Personally, I've always thought that refried beans and easy cheese are healthier when squeezed into a burrito than they are dripped over corn chips or stuffed into a fried taco, so I applaud Barron's choice of a No. 5, when many less-conscientious parents would go with, say, a No. 2 or a No. 6.
Tiffany's mothering skills seem up to par by my calculations, and they're certainly reflected in her teenage daughter Jordan, who's prone to making levelheaded statements like, "I can't wait to be famous and I can't wait to make millions of dollars for shooting one film." I'd be craving the big money, too, if I ate nothing but nacho cheese for the past year.
The best thing about the Barrons is the way that, no matter how few roles Jordan wins after countless auditions, they refuse to take any advice from the professionals and experts they encounter along the way. One woman tells Jordan she should absolutely memorize her monologue before an audition, and Jordan gets defensive about it. Another suggests that she should go on Accutane for her acne and get a hairstyle, which not only horrifies her and her mother, but sends them both into shock over how shallow Hollywood can be. Have these two even caught a glimpse of Lindsay's Lohans before? Wake up and smell the Olsen twins, guys!
Duncan Nutter is another story altogether. Blessed with a large family chock full of lovely, camera-ready children, Nutter trades in a five-bedroom house in Vermont for a two-bedroom apartment in Queens so that he and his pretty kids can pursue acting. Never mind that none of them are remotely interested in auditioning -- Duncan is determined to follow his dreams and insert his own dreams into his kids' lives. "Dad really wants to do this, and so I am doing it really because he wants us to," his young son Isaiah tells the camera. "I just don't want him to feel like he's pushing us too hard."
As bad a parent as Duncan might appear to be and as sick as it is that his poor kid has to not only play along with his games but also protect his stupid feelings, all of his kids are pretty great and they seem to love (if not respect) him a lot. Similarly, even when pageant mom Deborah Tye tells her 4-year-old, Emily, "Stop crying, your eyes are gonna get puffy!" it's tough to get too worked up, given how well the two get along. Yes, it's sick to see a 4-year-old with a bottle tan and curlers in her hair, but is it any more sick than seeing a kid chow down on a bowl full of sugary cereal while sharpshooting innocent bystanders at the mall using his Playstation? "Showbiz Moms & Dads" are scary, but I'm betting "Overworked Moms & Absent Dads" would be a lot scarier.
No, that doesn't justify the bad behavior of these monsters. Yes, I saw the episode where Tiffany drove off to Colorado with her new husband, leaving her teenage daughter behind to live with her grandfather. But be sure to check out the follow-up show, where we learn that Duncan's kids are well-rounded and have lived in places like Indonesia and that Tiffany left her husband and moved back to L.A. (as her surprisingly astute daughter predicted she would).
See, TV isn't all bad. But if you want to continue to embrace the blue screen, steer clear of "North Shore" (Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox), a cheesy cross between "The O.C." and that old Connie Selleca vehicle "Hotel" (with a few hints of "Assistant Manager" and "Filthy Rich Kids With Pretend Jobs at Their Dads' Companies" thrown in).
Do I really have to tell you what "North Shore" is about? There are hot people in it. The hot people are mostly boring and act by squinting, or by staring off into the distance like one of those "regular dad" men in the Sears catalog. Occasionally, when they're really worked up, the hot people do hard math in their heads like Joey from "Friends" did on his soap opera when he needed to pretend to be thinking about something serious. Every now and then -- about once per commercial break, actually -- the hot people strip down to their bathing suits, and then we get to see why they were cast in the first place.
I guess it's more like "Baywatch" meets "Melrose Place," but much less fun. The main guy -- Is his name Josh? -- anyway, he's some kind of manager at this hotel in Hawaii, and his ex-girlfriend is the hotel owner's daughter. "Josh" has some fun-loving, working-class friends who hate his ex-girlfriend, even though she's really a great girl and she looks just like Liv Tyler, except with an even better body. She's super down-to-earth and street-smart, see, but she's also loaded and wears heels and white pantsuits on the beach like some kind of young, hot, female version of Ricardo Montalban.
It's not a well-written show. But the funny thing about hot people is that, if you make them say even moderately clever things every once in a while, you've got a hit on your hands. Unfortunately, it takes clever people to write clever dialogue, and all of the clever people are writing for "The Joe Schmo Show."
Bad sitcoms don't ...
But we'll get to that in a second. First, let's talk about a show that's well-written but still doesn't work: "Good Girls Don't ..." On this darling little sitcom, which airs on Oxygen (Fridays at 9 p.m.), people say things like "Just because I'm hot doesn't mean I don't have feelings," and "I love your swollen feet, they look like they should belong to a fat little Hobbit" and "Nothing says 'I'm sorry' like a hand job." How in the world can you go wrong, when two of your characters are an extremely slutty girl with a pot belly who drinks too much and a pothead without a thought in his head who attracts women effortlessly? Sounds like a hit to me, but fat sluts and potheads are two of my favorite things, so I'm a little biased.
So where does "Good Girls Don't ..." go wrong? Well, first of all, I know it makes me sad and old-school to admit it, but there are shows that need a laugh track. "Arrested Development," which will return in the fall thanks to the rather unexpected good graces of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, doesn't need a laugh track because it's a single-camera sitcom, which viewers are mysteriously more willing to appreciate without a chorus of laughing tourists in the background. It's also unconventional and fast-moving, the cast is remarkably talented and -- this is the important part, so listen up -- it's funny.
"Good Girls Don't ..." is clever, but not nearly funny enough, or maybe the actors aren't funny even though they're saying funny things, or maybe the directing is awful. It's tough to tell, but for whatever reason, the show doesn't work. Even though the words themselves are great, the performances feel very hokey and pained, and the timing is all wrong.
But, like I always say, behind every flat, uninspiring, culturally insignificant subject, there's a sweeping trend, and "Good Girls Don't" is no exception. Since shows on Comedy Central and other cable networks or even on Fox (since they don't care about offending people) have so much more leeway in terms of the topics they can mine for comedy, it's not hard to see that the next great comedies aren't going to come from ABC, CBS or NBC. Recognizing this, HBO, brave pioneer that it is, has announced that it's interested in luring out-of-work comedy writers (of which there are hundreds, thanks to the reality-heavy fall schedule) into its lair to write -- you guessed it! -- multiple-camera comedies. This lagniappe (free gift) is not only nice for those writers clever enough to write for the Clever Channel ("Arliss" notwithstanding), it's nice for the sitcom itself, which could use a little HBO-style reinventing.
Leave it to the Really Good Channel to zig when everyone else is zagging. When they stop charging so much and start churning out intelligent, sophisticated reality shows, that's when the other guys should sell their DeLoreans and move back to Omaha. In the meantime, HBO will just keep making shows that those of us who don't mind paying too much for televised entertainment will keep raving about to our more sophisticated, book-reading friends. (Yes, we know you couldn't care less about Swearengen, but we haven't read Clinton's memoir yet, so what do you want?)
Schmos in paradise
But even if you don't get HBO, even though you're strongly advised to stay in your forts and sidestep this sorry summer crop of shows, there is one ripe 'n' juicy mess on the horizon: "Joe Schmo 2" (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Spike TV). This "Truman Show"-style fake reality show was a surprise hit last year, and this year the producers have chosen to include two hapless innocents, a guy (Tim) and a girl (Ingrid).
The two victims think that they're contestants on a dating show called "Last Chance for Love," but, in fact, their fellow contestants are all paid actors. The drama comes from putting the ignorant victims into absurd situations, like last year, when the Joe Schmo du jour was handcuffed to a pretty fellow contestant, and her boyfriend (played by another actor) showed up to serenade her, only to storm off the set angrily as his girlfriend chased him, still handcuffed to the Schmo. The comedy comes from all aspects of the show, from the ridiculous characters and comments of the fake contestants to the endless parodies of reality-show conventions, like humiliating challenges and hilariously somber "elimination ceremonies."
Although the first episode of "Joe Schmo 2" was downright brilliant and Ingrid and Tim are garrulous and confused and absolutely the perfect choices for the show, there are a few warning signs that things could go downhill from here. First of all, the first fake contestant to get eliminated was "Rita" (Natasha Leggero), even though her character's tendency to drink too much and fall down was not only believable, thanks to her natural talent at improv, but indescribably funny to boot. On top of that, although Ingrid is likable and fun and smart and confident and everything you'd want in a fake-reality-show victim, she may be a little too smart not to figure it all out. Last week, the show ended with Ingrid grilling the girls about whether they memorized their elimination-ceremony responses, then saying that she felt like she was on "The Truman Show." While it was amusing to see the director screaming to find some excuse to get the other, clueless contestant, Tim, out of the room, thereby salvaging the show, Tim is far less interesting than Ingrid and it would be a shame to see her go.
We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, at least we have two hours of "American Podiatrist" each week, although I do wish the voting were a little more fair. Most Americans aren't exactly well-versed in treating foot ailments, but it doesn't take an expert to recognize that Dr. Bleen was absolutely genius in treating that diabetic's gangrenous toes, particularly compared to Dr. Halligan and the mess he made of that poor girl's plantar wart! I mean, what is that guy's problem? It's like he wants to cauterize everything within spitting distance!
Next week: Stay tuned for "The Mini Muffin Assembly Line Worker," "America's Next Accounts Payable Associate Supervisor" and "Last Superintendent of Public Schools Standing"!