Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A tale of three comedies

Oh Earl. When WILL you learn?

Last fall, the big story was that comedy was BACK in a BIG WAY, baby. Three shows looked to lead the charge: NBC's My Name Is Earl, UPN's Everybody Hates Chris and CBS' How I Met Your Mother.

Mother debuted respectably, Earl killed in the ratings, and Chris (for one week) beat NBC's Joey. Everybody got a full season. Everybody was happy.

I kept up with all three shows all season long, and I think they've all held their own. But they all offer vastly different approaches to what they're doing. It might be beneficial to look at them in comparison to one another.

Chris, I think, has been the most consistent. It has disappointed some people by not being as abrasive or confrontational as a Chris Rock routine, but the story of the young Chris Rock and his childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant never erred from the path it set for itself. It was always intent on being a sweet show about coming of age and finding a safe haven in your family. The jokes, such as they were, were never scabrous, instead choosing to be more gentle and observational, like the kind of humor found on The Cosby Show or The Wonder Years.

And it was those two shows that Chris seemed most like. Its structure was roughly similar to Malcolm in the Middle, but none of its characters were over-the-top stereotypes like that show's characters. The family at the center of the show started out a little thinly drawn (here's an abrasive mother! and a caring father!), but the show slowly deepened them, showing the desperation and love beneath the mother's abrasiveness and just how worried the father was at all times about keeping his family above water. The two younger siblings of Chris, barely there in the pilot, were given B-stories, developing their rivalry and affection for each other. And the show even expanded the world of the hapless, nerdy Greg, Chris' only friend at the predominantly white junior high school he goes to. Greg's life with his single father was drawn in around the margins of the show, but it offered up pathos and gave a new view at a character who could have been pathetic.

Where the show most excelled, though, was at filling in the universe around Chris' family. The block Chris lives on was richly populated with recurring characters and locations and running gags. From the guys who just want to "hold a dollar" to the owner of the little store across the street, Everybody Hates Chris created a universe by going small, by finding the little details that add up to make a childhood.

Lord knows the show isn't the funniest thing on TV, and it has its problems, but I've stuck with Chris because it offers up a worldview full of heart and original comic perspective. There used to be a place on the schedule for smartly written, well-acted family sitcoms like this. It's somewhat ironic that it took Chris Rock to bring them back.

My Name Is Earl has also remained consistent, but, somehow, it hasn't held my interest, despite the fact that it's done virtually the same things as Chris, almost as well. The jokes are sharp, the characters are well-defined and well-played, and the universe of the show has been expanded by increments over the season.

So why don't I like it more?

I think my issues from Earl stem from the stakes of the show. The idea of a comedy chronicling one man's self-improvement is a good one. But Earl makes the decision to live his life a certain way one day, then never looks back. He doesnt doubt himself, he doesn't make more mistakes, he doesn't find it that difficult to follow the path Karma has set for him. And the money he won in the lottery offers him a safety net at all times. Whatever happens, you know Earl and his friends will learn a lesson and probably be better off for it. The relationships stay relatively static, all attempts by the show to change them to the contrary.

Earl is sharply written, and some of the gags are great. But it's a show about one guy who makes a big change, then applies that change to the rest of his life, instead of a guy who makes many smaller changes that eventually add up to one big one. I'm sure I'll stick with Earl, but it will never be an abiding passion of mine.

Finally, we come to How I Met Your Mother, easily the most uneven, most flawed, most improved and most interesting of the three. The will-they/won't-they stuff is both interesting and not interesting because we know that Ted and Robin aren't going to get together. This both begs the question of how these two crazy kids never got together AND the question of whether we care enough to watch them NOT make it as a couple.

But the ensemble here is, again, gold. At the start of the season, the writing was wildly erratic. For every joke that worked, there were five that didn't. But eventually, the staff found its way to episodes that were roughly one joke that worked, one joke that didn't. And that ratio continued to improve. The show also figured out how to use its central character. Where Ted was kind of a loser at the start of the season, they figured out how to make him both yearn for what he can't have and be proactive in going to get it. Ted felt more like a regular guy, and that allowed Josh Radnor to sink into the role.

And this show knows about stakes. While it's another show about well-off single white kids in the city, it's about well-off single white kids in the city who can't figure out how to get themselves on track. And, in some ways, the drama of the show is better than the comedy. The fight in the finale between Marshall and Lily was genuinely heartbreaking (not to mention that the idea of pausing a fight is the best idea ever). And the moment when Ted makes it rain was one of those goofly adorable sitcom moments that you can't help but enjoy (like a low-rent version of the scene where Jim confessed his love to Pam on The Office).

The characters on HIMYM grow. They change. They screw up big time. And that makes them more realistic, even if they're sometimes the mouthpieces for crappy, crappy jokes.

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