Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"This place is not well-built!": The Class in its first (and only?) season

The Class, along with Studio 60, was the pilot script that touched off the fiercest bidding war in the waning months of 2005. It came from David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik -- men who had worked on Friends and Mad About You, respectively. And the premise, as Friends-y as it was, seemed interested in doing new things with the multi-camera sitcom form. For starters, it was going to follow a huge ensemble cast -- the show started with eight regulars and at least as many regular recurring players. Then, it was going to mix a dark, mordant sense of humor with genuinely shocking dramatic events. A character could cheat on his or her spouse or run over another character with his car or do any of a number of rotten things. And the jokes weren't bad, per se. They were pretty well-constructed and fell in the right places of the show's rhythm.

But what did The Class in was its premise. For some reason, I saw every episode of the show in its first season, and I still have no idea what the show wanted to be. Crane and Klarik tap-danced furiously, trying like hell to make the show work -- shedding cast members, streamlining storylines, introducing romantic entanglements for no reason. In short, the show that Crane vowed would not be like Friends started to look an awful lot like Friends.

The first premise for the show was an intriguing one, but inherently flawed since it just wasn't believable -- a bunch of kids reunite on the anniversary of their first day in the third grade (because Ethan -- Jason Ritter -- the guy throwing the party, met his wife the first day of third grade) and hook up in new and interesting ways. From there, the characters split off into four different shows (essentially) while rarely interacting with each other. Ethan and Kat (Lizzie Caplan, the best thing about the show from week to week) made up one show (rather inexplicably, I might add). Lena (Heather Goldenhersh) and Richie (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) made up another (which was probably the most engaging of all of the shows, to be honest). Duncan (Jon Bernthal) and Nicole (Andrea Anders) were in another. And Kyle (Sean Maguire) and Holly (Lucy Punch) were in the last. None of these shows was good enough to stand on its own, and I think the idea was that they would all prop each other up from week to week. Instead, they just made your head spin.

Most excruciating was the Kyle and Holly story (Kyle was Holly's gay ex-boyfriend, and her husband was a flaming apparent homosexual -- though the show never really went anywhere with this), which never fit organically with the series. Holly was dropped, and Kyle ended up Ethan's best friend through a series of events I found too boring to even remember. Maguire was a fine enough actor, but the writers never knew what to do with his storyline without his boyfriend around or Holly's husband for him to play off of (and, really, how many "I'm gay but I don't know it" jokes ARE there anymore?). So his role was slowly marginalized.

Then, the writers tried to turn all of the other characters into couples. Richie and Lena already were, and Duncan and Nicole had been, but Ethan and Kat felt a bit forced (especially when Duncan and Kat randomly got together in the finale). There was a sense about the show of frantically throwing plot threads at the wall and seeing what stuck, then throwing out the rest. And as things were slowly excised from the show, it became more and more conventional and lost the things that made it at all worth watching in the first place. A show about three couples who hang out a lot? Where have I heard of that before?

The Class, when it started, wasn't very good, but it had good craftsmanship, solid direction by James Burrows and an appealing cast. Its desire to look and laugh at the darker things in life was admirable, if not exactly well executed. And the central theme -- stated in the pilot and then quickly abandoned -- wasn't too bad (it was, roughly, that the promise and optimism of childhood is slowly sanded away over the course of a long, hard life). But the show couldn't sustain that much dramatic tension and be the kind of show people wanted to watch, so it turned into a dull, pale clone of its old self and its creators' former successes.

Now, the cast here was appealing enough (and the writing -- while not laugh-out-loud funny -- had a good sense of pacing), so I could be persuaded to watch more of this show, but I think this is probably it for The Class, which is stuck on a CBS that doesn't really need it, even if it holds on to quite a bit of How I Met Your Mother's audience. The strange, mystifying success of Rules of Engagement further sealed the coffin. If Old Christine does better in the ratings after HIMYM, CBS will probably ditch The Class. Indeed, the only thing keeping it marginally alive is the fact that CBS would like another comedy hour somewhere on the schedule.

But even if it did return, what would the show look like? The Class is like Exhibit A in the dangers of retooling a show on the fly (Brothers & Sisters, curiously, is Exhibit A in how a good producer can retool a show on the fly). It might stand as a cautionary lesson. Or it might come back for a second season, and after months and months off the air, would anyone notice?


Kenny said...

It took me a while to figure out, but I realized that The Class 1.0 was essentially a sitcom in daytime soap format. Think about it: big cast, parallel plotlines that continue from week to week and rarely (yet occasionally) intersect, dramatic plot twists and big cliffhangers? The only difference is it's half an hour and has a studio audience.

The problem with running four parallel shows is that no show has enough screen time for a developed story. Essentially you have four five-minute sitcoms--no wonder every story was so shallow in that incarnation of The Class. It felt like you were watching four mini-shows but nothing really happened in any of them. A show made of nothing but C-stories. Wonder if the show could have worked as an hourlong?--more suited to its daytime soap format.

Of course, there would still be the problem of the contrived premise, but by the end they did an okay job of justifying that the characters saw each other all the time. My question was, did any of these people have lives at all before the reunion?

I never like Holly and was glad to see her go, but it was especially odd when they continued to bring back Perry even after she was gone. Talk about insult to injury!

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Kenny, that's the best summation of The Class' problems that I've seen. I should probably just quit now and turn over the blog to you.

No, seriously though, you're right that it might have made a better dramedy -- say. . .all of these people return for a high school reunion and bump into each other and realize how wacky their lives are? It's been done, but it would have felt more organic.