Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kid Nation and Back to You: open thread

Expect Top Model and Gossip Girl posts a little later today, so you kids can talk about that. Kitchen Nightmares will get wrapped into our Top Chef post a little later in the week, too. And who wants to talk about 'Til Death?

Erik will be covering Kid Nation eventually, but he's on vacation, so we'll throw an open thread up tonight for everyone to comment on. I may also link to my review of the show sometime tomorrow when it pops up on the Web. You just never know!

The short of it is that Kid Nation doesn't really deserve all the ink that was spilled about it. It's a perfectly innocuous reality show that doesn't really do enough to say, "Here I am! I must be watched every week!" Because of the controversy, it could well attract a big audience, and everything about it screams crowd pleaser, but it's also a little flabby. There are too many kids and too many things going on at any given moment. There are some nice ideas here (particularly the weird commentary on the class system), but the whole concept probably needed a little more ironing out in the creation stage (or at least in the editing room). Still, I'll miss Jimmy. Stay strong, kiddo!

Back to You is another show we thought about covering until we saw the pilot. There's nothing inherently wrong with its workmanlike approach to comedy, but it's also the sort of thing you can't write up week after week. It's a throwback with nothing really new to say, though the cast is good and the writing is thoroughly competent. Still, there are at least a dozen funnier shows on the air, and competent just won't be enough to resurrect the multi-camera sitcom, which is too bad. I like the multi-camera sitcom. I want to see it come back. But I don't know that this will be enough to do it without some tweaking, particularly to the supporting characters, who are too broad to be a good foundation for future episodes. And the twist at the end of the episode is both too obvious and a little weak to be a major plot point in the future, all things considered.

(Here comes a lengthy tangent about the problem with sitcom pilots. I'll let you know when it's safe to come back with another paragraph in parentheses.)

One of the things plaguing the sitcom nowadays, I think, is that the world has increasingly become pilot-driven. To snag a big audience, to stay on the air, you need a patient network or a great pilot that gets people to watch a few odd episodes afterward (Lost is a great example). In terms of sitcoms, this means you need to have a hysterically funny pilot. But that's probably the hardest thing to do in all of show business -- I can think of a lot of great comedy pilots, and I can think of a lot of funny comedy episodes, but I can't think of many that manage to be both a funny episode and a good pilot. Comedy is rooted in characters, particularly in how they relate to each other. It has to start in a universal place, but then burrow to somewhere specific to IT. Everybody Loves Raymond, for example, dealt with tremendously universal situations but got at them through ridiculously well-defined characters (this came largely because the characters were based on the people in Ray's real life). The shows that have been copycats of it have just focused on universal "Marriage sucks!" jokes and haven't bothered to find anything new or specific about them. All of the characters speak like sitcom writers because they simply aren't characters.

So if comedy -- good, funny comedy -- is based in characters, how do you do a 20-minute story that both introduces characters we want to get to know AND serves up a lot of great jokes specific to these characters. Most comedy pilots try to split the difference -- Back to You makes character-based jokes, but they're all of the "I'm the blowhard!" "Well, I'm the slut!" variety -- and that leaves them feeling a little dull. I'm more likely to watch a comedy series with a pilot that's not hilarious but has well-defined characters (30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother are PERFECT examples of this) than I am a comedy series with a hilarious pilot, based in stereotypical characters (Will & Grace is a good example of this). I trust that I'll continue to like the characters and eventually find humor through them in time.

All of this is a way of saying that I can count the number of comedy pilots that are both good pilots (that set up the show, setting and characters) AND funny episodes (that are just filled with great jokes) on my two hands. I'll start with Cheers, and you guys can fill in the rest.

(OK! It's safe to come back now for more general thoughts on Back to You!)

Anyway, Fred Willard is terrific as the sports guy, but that's largely because Fred Willard is terrific as everything. Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton have a nice chemistry in the scenes where they're being anchors together, but the attempt to make it seem as if they still have feelings for each other feels a little forced. And every other character is a well-worn comedy type that the script doesn't do much else with (fat guys, sluts and smart-mouthed kids).

Back to You feels like one of those shows NBC would squeeze in between Friends and Seinfeld. This, as a matter of fact, would probably be the BEST show NBC put in that timeslot (unless Newsradio ever accidentally ran in that slot one week or something). But it's still the sort of thing you sit through, wishing it was time for Seinfeld already. Considering this is followed by 'Til Death, there's not a really compelling reason to watch it.

Still, these are consummate pros running this show. If there's anyone I trust to tweak this show into something approaching working order, it's this team. But it's going to take a lot of tweaks, and they might be big and painful ones. I'll check back in as the season wears on, but this already feels like this season's Studio 60 in terms of hype-to-actual-product ratio.


Todd said...

And saying Frasier is kind of cheating, simply because that show had one character the audience already knew perfectly well.

I was going to ban single-camera, laugh-track-less pilots too, but I can't add a lot of them to the list anyway. My Name Is Earl, maybe, and Malcolm in the Middle, certainly, but things like 30 Rock and The Office (U.S.) had pretty weak pilots from a HA HA HA standpoint.

David Sims said...


I'd say this show is more like The Class in terms of pre-season hype. Because it's not like the hype was as deafening as the "AARON SORKIN RETURNS TO TELEVISION -- CURE FOR CANCER EXPECTED" stuff we got with Studio 60.

And this show is just as mediocre, with a few decent laughs and the odd good performer, as The Class was.

Bianca Reagan said...

a comedy series with a hilarious pilot, based in stereotypical characters (Will & Grace is a good example of this).

But I loved the first seasons of Will & Grace. "Just Jack."

Carrie said...

I sort of loved Kid Nation, even though it has some major flaws. I have a soft spot for kid-based reality shows (Disney Channel's Bug Juice is one of my favorite reality shows of all time) and I really enjoyed watching the kids pull together and look out for each other. There are some really amazing kids there and it's nice to see the media's image of "all kids are stupid, fat, lazy video game addicts" refuted so soundly.

I'm going to miss Jimmy.

What I don't enjoy are the stupid Survivor-like "challenges" that make the show seem more artificial than it already is. I like the class system, but hate that challenges are what gets them there.

I despised the Back to You pilot. I find I don't respond to that type of sitcom at all anymore.

Todd said...

David -- Back to You only has to SAVE THE SITCOM as opposed to SAVING TELEVISION, so I suppose you're right.

David Sims said...

Well, Back to You isn't saving anything. I thought there was comic potential in Ty Burrell's character? And I basically always like Kelsey. And Heaton didn't even piss me off THAT much.

Still, it was lazy, it never really got a rise out of me, and it just feels so ten years ago. This is not how you save the multi-camera sitcom. Sadly, looks like Jezebel James won't be doing that either.

Todd said...

Saving the multi-camera sitcom is going to take something new and different. That something new and different is already airing on CBS. Not like I'm bitter or anything. . .

Also, Bianca, Will & Grace wasn't bad for its first two seasons or so, but that's about as far as good one-liners will carry you. The characters started out too broad, so when they went for the farce and went even broader, it just hurt to watch.

Carrie said...

Sing it, Todd. I'm bitter right along with you. If How I Met Your Mother was on NBC I really think it would be a humongous hit and be rightfully looked at as "saving the sitcom." But what do I know, anyway. I like shows like Friday Night Lights, Veronica Mars and Freaks and Geeks and shun shows like CSI and Two and a Half Men. I'm not exactly the spokesperson for the mainstream.

David Sims said...

Hey, I'm the first person to say HIMYM is the way to go. Oh well. Just watch this be its breakout year! The chorus of "I told you so" from critics will soon drive us mad, and lead to backlash. IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?