Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Show me that smile again!": Nobody's Watching, the pilot

As a preview of our super TV pilot explosion (coming soon!), I thought I would take your hands and guide you through a. . .pilot that never made it to air.

But somehow, SOMEHOW, Nobody's Watching, from three of the most fertile minds behind Scrubs made its way to YouTube. And if you want to know what I'm talking about, you can play along. The pilot is in three parts, uploaded by someone named impytherap. The three parts are here, here and here. And if you're not enjoying part one, stick with it. It picks up in parts two and three.

All caught up?

Good. Let's talk.

Nobody's Watching is, honestly, maybe the meta-est show to ever come out of a TV writer's brain. The setup for it takes nearly nine minutes (and not even all of the regular characters have been introduced), and the whole thing is a commentary on the audience's relationship with television and the thin line between fiction and reality (funny stuff! I know!). Scrubs is a show that often delights in juvenile humor (and Family Guy, which produced two of the writers before they went to Scrubs, ONLY knows how to do juvenile humor), so it's weird to see something this brazenly INTELLECTUAL from them. That's not to say that the show doesn't have its share of dumb jokes, but that's also not to say that the show's dumb jokes are unintentionally dumb (that is to say that the dumb jokes become a meta-commentary on the sitcom's setup-punchline structure itself).


Nobody's Watching, in short, is about two guys (one is, apparently, from Mad TV and the other is Billy from Battlestar Galactica) who send a tape out to all of the networks saying that sitcoms suck. The WB, apparently, agrees with them and flies them from Ohio to Los Angeles, where they are told that they will be creating the next great sitcom but that cameras will film the process. What's more, they have to live on the sitcom sets (three standard setups, including a bedroom, living room and office), though they can wander the backlot as well. And when they're on the sitcom set, there will be a live audience watching them at all hours of the day, laughing at their antics. Their exploits are watched by two network executives, who are pulling the strings to create maximum conflict. In essence, the two guys have been invited to Hollywood not to CREATE the next great sitcom but to BE the next great sitcom, though they don't realize this yet.

If this is utterly confusing to you, you'll probably be impressed by just how easily the show sets this whole premise. If the jokes are a little dumb in the first third of the pilot, it's because they're strictly at the service of setting up that whole paragraph above in as little time as possible.

The two guys are pretty reliable dumb dork archetypes (Libby actually said, "They do know that they can only have one Zach Braff, right?"). The network executives get most of the best laugh lines as the evil agent from Prison Break and Ted from Scrubs banter about how they're going to screw over our heroes. And the two girls, an uptight executive wannabe played by an actress I can't place, though I know I've seen her, and a gorgeous girl "discovered" outside, played by former model (and Maxim girl) Mircea Monroe, are both fun (though I liked the uptight executive better, being forever fond of the funny best friend). Alan Thicke has a surprisingly large role in the pilot, though it's not immediately clear if he would be a regular or just a sitcom cameo (several other sitcom regulars appear -- I will spoil none of their appearances). Thicke is one of the best things about the pilot, gamely making fun of himself.

The show's final character, as it were, is the live studio audience. Since the characters know they have a studio audience watching them, they frequently react to the audience, wondering whether the audience is laughing because they have something on their face (when, really, something funny is happening upstage from them). It's one of the most innovative ways to comment on a TV show's relationship with its audience that I've ever seen. More than any medium, television is dependent on fans. If you don't get an audience for your film, your film is still made and can be seen on DVD eventually. If you don't get an audience for your TV show, you're out the door. It's sort of daring to have the characters outright criticize the audience for laughing at certain things or having other typical studio audience reactions, but Nobody's Watching manages to loop back around and make the relationship between viewer and character that much more interesting in the end.

That said, I'm not sure this could have worked on network television. I just don't see what episode 100 of this show is (though, honestly, I would trust these writers to think of that many episodes). And the show is awfully mean, insulting lots and lots of popular sitcoms (one commenter on YouTube was so miffed that the show made fun of Coach that he wrote off the whole enterprise). But, what's more, it engages in the kind of condescension that has gotten satirists from Mark Twain to Alexander Payne in trouble (though, to be fair, the writers of NW are FAR more subtle in their condescension than Twain or Payne are -- it's all subtext here). These are two guys from Ohio, and they're pretty stupid. They WANT to write for sitcoms, but they have to wait for a network to fly them out to LA to make the big move (one character, in particular, was so afraid of leaving home that he turned down a chance to go to Notre Dame). It's a crass change-up of the old TV maxim that small town life is a better life (indeed, the Ohio the boys come from appears to be a grey suburban wasteland), and I'm not sure if that undercurrent would have turned more people away than it would have brought in.

What's more, there's a lot of commentary going on here about the difference between our reality, reality TV reality and sitcom reality. The hot girl looks like hell when she's sopping wet in baggy clothes and un-makeuped. But when they put her in a sexy "TV" outfit and parade her in front of the studio audience, you immediately realize just how important those elements are to a television show. And when she turns up on different film stock later, she looks even better, playing up another aspect of production. Her sob story when we first meet her seems real, but, again, when she's on set, she's clearly acting (or is she?). Similarly, the two guys at the center of the tale are, in a sense, always performing. But when they don't THINK the cameras are on them, they slip into a far more laconic pace, a more realistic one. And when they're on stage, they're suddenly sitcom performers, over-enunciating and driving home every punchline with as much emphasis as possible. The writers pull the rug out from under us in what we perceive as the reality of the show multiple times per episode. Is this real? Or is it reality TV real? Or sitcom real? There's no safe harbor, and I'm sure most would leave scratching their heads.

But, most of all, this show is FAST. Not Arrested Development fast, but certainly The Office fast. It was always going to be jetting out in front of the audience, daring them to catch up. And I'm not sure The WB would have known how to sell that (since the audience has shown such a glowing love in the past for humor that's unpredictable). Plus, if every TV series is about retelling the pilot over and over and over, how do you establish all of the stylistic devices this show has in future episodes? How do you not confuse people when the characters react to the studio audience? Or when the network executives pop up on a completely different set to play Mephistopheles?

I do hope Nobody's Watching finds a home somewhere. Even though a lot of the jokes weren't the best, I think that was part of the point (and I know the writers would find better ones). While it was passed over for the 2005-06 season, the show's success on YouTube has apparently led the executive producer to shop it around again for the 2007-08 season (which, honestly, Hollywood is gearing up for). Here's hoping he can make something of it. Because this, despite its flaws, is one of the most INTERESTING sitcoms I've ever seen.

And if anyone knows just who plays the uptight executive girl, PLEASE let me know.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

This was quite a joy to watch. Interesting for something to be so over the top and subtle at the same time. Not sure how it would play out in the long run, but it would be awesome to find out. Found this little article on the show and internet TV watching in general: