American Idle: How to Remake a Stalling Superstar Search Show

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music, TV

Judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler join Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest in American Idol’s tenth season.

Quick, name the most recent winner of American Idol.

Drawing blanks? You’re not alone.

Lee DeWyze is the answer, but it’s not as if the season nine winner made much of a splash. His debut album made the weakest debut on the Billboard 200 album chart of any Idol winner — No. 19 — and quickly tumbled to the bottom rungs of the chart. At the same time that Idol winners’ album sales take a nosedive, the show’s ratings have hit their lowest point since 2004. To make matters worse, the flagship judge, Simon Cowell, is not returning for the show’s tenth season.

Hoping to breathe new life into the show, Fox is changing things up a bit. In addition to Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, and pop singer Jennifer Lopez will be critiquing the contestants. As they vie for the American Idol crown, contestants will no longer be limited to performing only covers, and could opt for singing original songs. Big name producers  like Rodney Jerkins, Alex Da Kid and Timbaland will mentor them, and the contestants’ new material, including music videos, will be released during the season rather than months after.

“Normally with a new artist, the world isn’t waiting,” Geffen chairman Ron Fair told The Hollywood Reporter. “In ‘American Idol’s’ case, the public is — they want to hear something great. With a big tail wind like that, you want to set sail.”

The show’s creators want to reinvigorate ratings, but American Idol remains the No. 1 show on television and is a cash cow. It might not command the viewers it once did, but it still has the highest ad rate of any program. Idol creators want more. When the show debuted in 2002, it was subtitled “The Search for a Superstar,” but a look at recent Idol alums reveals that they’ve veered from that.

“What is in our wake?” asked Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe. “I suppose you’ll go Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and then you start running out of Idols. We have got to go back to creating an American Idol. If that’s what we’re here to do, that’s what we have to do.”

And the stakes for Idol are higher than ever as television gets a second reality pop star show, X Factor. Simon Cowell will debut X Factor this September on Fox, and if Idol‘s ratings and contestants can’t keep up, it won’t matter how you market it — Idol will be irrelevant.

30 Rock

TV: Celebrity Hits: Did the Quaids Go Crazy Or Just Watch 30 Rock?

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in TV

Watching TV shows months or years after they air can mean missing out on the culture’s zeitgeist, but it can also provide a chance to see otherwise overlooked pop culture connections. Like, for example, the one I just noticed between the wild events in the life of Randy and Evi Quaid and the TV show 30 Rock.

In case you haven’t been following the story, Randy Quaid was once a respected actor. He has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and he won a Golden Globe (although I’m still not quite convinced that means anything these days.) He’s most famous for playing Cousin Eddy in some National Lampoon movies, though those under 30 may know him better as that crazy drunk pilot in Independence Day.

For reasons no one claims to understand, Quaid and his wife Evi have literally gone crazy. After living the high life and subsequently falling on hard times, Quaid walked away from a starring role in a Broadway play — a role Vanity Fair said would have been a comeback and a “coup” for the actor — two weeks before it was to begin in 2008, was banned for life from the stage actors’ union, and was arrested several times. He and his wife are currently charged with all sorts of things, from burglary to fraud to squatting.

Stars implode all the time, but what makes the Quaids’ story so interesting is that earlier this year the couple fled to Canada and began saying a group called the “Hollywood Star Whackers” was after them. Supposedly the group is trying to kill them, but it’s also behind a vast conspiracy that has engineered most of the couple’s financial and legal troubles. The Quaids also say the Hollywood Star Whackers are responsible for the deaths of David Carradine, Heath Ledger and others.

The Quaids and the alleged conspiracy out to kill them have attracted a fair amount of media attention. And, for people on the lam, the duo has been remarkably easy to find. They’ve been profiled and talked about, and the January issue of Vanity Fair includes a lengthy piece for which writer Nancy Jo Sales hung out with the couple in Vancouver for a while. (The Vanity Fair piece mentions that the Quaids even pitched a reality show based on their recent escapades escaping the law and would-be assassins.)

Theories about the Quaids’ collapse range from drugs to mental illness, and the Vanity Fair piece seems to faintly endorse the popular theory that Evi is somehow at fault. But while any or all of those explanations may fit, there is a much simpler one: 30 Rock.

More specifically, during the show’s first season episode “Cleveland,” star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) finds out that Bill Cosby hates him and, subsequently, that an evil group of African-Americans called the “Black Crusaders” is trying to destroy him. As a result, he has to give up his life in New York to go on the run.

Though similar premises have been used before (and though things eventually work out for Tracy Jordan), the similarities between the 30 Rock episode and the Quaids’ story are worth a double take. Both plots hinge on the existence of a ridiculously named cabal of evildoers; both involve struggling stars hiding out in remote locations; and, in both cases, the people surrounding the targeted stars don’t really believe in the evil group.

Obviously there are also a lot of differences between the Quaids’ story and the 30 Rock episode. But a lot of the things that differ — the motivations of the evildoers, the place chosen for the hideout, etc. — wouldn’t have worked for the Quaids, even if they had wanted them too.

There are also other reasons to suspect a Quaid-30 Rock connection. For example, “Cleveland” originally aired on April 19, 2007. That was about a year after Randy filed a $10 million lawsuit against the producers of Brokeback Mountain — he said he was misled to believe that it was an indie film when it wasn’t, but perhaps he was already in financial trouble — and about a year before his more serious legal problems and arrests began in earnest.

In other words, if the Quaids were looking for a script to guide their escape from trouble, they could very well have been looking around the time the episode aired. (The 30 Rock season one DVDs came out in September 2007, which might even have been better timing and which means the Quaids could have seen “Cleveland” at any subsequent time.)

One of the most surprising things about this situation is that any potential connection between the Quaids and 30 Rock hasn’t really been talked about in the media. Aside from a few user comments on entertainment blogs and Internet magazines, my Google searches couldn’t even find anywhere that mentioned the Quaids’ name and 30 Rock on the same page. Perhaps some blogger out there has made this point before, but it appears no one in the mainstream media has spent any time on this connection, either seriously or in jest.

And in the end, I have no idea what is going on with the Quaids other than that their strange behavior bears an uncanny resemblance to an episode of a popular TV show. Did the couple watch 30 Rock and rip off the story? Is this particular plot so elemental that the similarities unfolded independently? Were the Quaids influenced by some earlier film/text/media, perhaps one that also influenced the 30 Rock writers? Or could the Quaids genuinely be crazy — or even telling the truth?

Perhaps only time, lawsuits, and police investigations will tell. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep my eye on Tina Fey and company for clues about where the Quaids might be headed next.

Brad Womack

TV: The Bachelor and the State of Humanity

Written by Meg Walter on . Posted in TV

Brad Womack is this season’s bachelor on The Bachelor — and his reputation certainly precedes him.

This is Brad’s second run on ABC’s hit series, having ended his first shot at TV love without a fiancé. His great sin, as far as I can tell, was telling two women that he was not in love with either of them and, therefore, would not be marrying either of them.

This confuses me. Isn’t honesty an admirable attribute? Isn’t it far better to call it quits on a relationship before the ring?

This season’s hopeful Mrs. Womacks sure don’t seem to think so. Rare was the woman who, when meeting Brad, did not say, “I saw your season, you have a lot of explaining to do,” or “I hope you’ve changed.” One girl even slapped his face on behalf of all the women in America. Now that’s the way to catch a man.

Shockingly, the slapper was not the craziest of the bunch. Madison — model by day, vampire by night (fangs and all) — not only made the cut to appear in the initial group of women, but was given a rose and advanced to the next level. If there’s one thing that should be avoided in the search for a potential mate, it’s fangs. And the thirst for blood. (I’m looking at you, Bella.)

Along with crazy, this season also has its fair share of catty. One of the best parts of The Bachelor is the individual interviews with the girls. The girls pretend to be “besties” when together, but then when they’re alone in front of the camera they express their true frustrations with, most often, the girl The Bachelor likes most.

There’s a clear frontrunner on the backbiting front. Michelle from Salt Lake City (woot!) nearly passed out with envy when she was denied the “first impression” rose. Even though all the girls share concerns about Brad and his supposed inability to commit, there were still quite a few “I’m not here to make friends,” and “These girls better watch out,” the standard reality television declarations of “I will win and the rest of y’all are will leave here crying.”

It doesn’t take long to tell that The Bachelor is not actually about the bachelor. It’s about women wanting to be better than each other — wanting to look hotter, flirt better, kiss longer and get married faster, because, gosh dang it, without a man thinking we are The Best, we’re nothing. The Bachelor is essentially Survivor with skankier dresses. These girls don’t want Brad. They want a trophy (ring).

That, I believe, is why so few Bachelor/Bachelorette relationships have made it to the altar. To actually get married, you need love. Love beyond $2,000 dates and hair and makeup artists and vacations to exotic locations every week. The kind of love that can eat ramen noodles for dinner every night and play Monopoly on the weekends and pay bills.

The Bachelor is consistently a trainwreck, and Brad and his new lady friends should not disappoint. I thought the Jake-Vienna season was a disaster, but this season promises so many more catastrophes. I had to remind myself to exhale when the season preview ended — so many tears, so much kissing, so many exotic locations and so much girl hate.

It’s not good television. It’s awesome television. Television that makes you appreciate your own stable relationships. Television that makes you squirm with embarrassment on others’ behalves. Television that makes you question the state of humanity.

Sherlock

TV: Review: Sherlock

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in TV

Confession: I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. When I was 8 years old, I found an old copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes that belonged to my father, and I spent the next few weeks plowing through it, reading every one of Conan Doyle’s original stories. These stories still hold a special place for me, and are a huge part of why I decided to study literature.

So naturally I am always interested when a new film or television adaptation of the Holmes character comes around. From the old Basil Rathbone films to the Jeremy Brett TV series to the recent Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. reimagining, I’ve seen and enjoyed dozens of adaptations over the years. When I was in London recently, I began to hear about a new Sherlock Holmes series (simply titled Sherlock) being produced by the BBC that had received rave reviews. My interest was piqued, and upon returning to the States I looked around for how I could see the series. I discovered the show had aired in the U.S. on PBS as part of their masterpiece series, and was available to view online for free through December 27th. I promptly went and watched the entire series and was really surprised by what I saw.

The twist in the story is that Sherlock removes the Holmes story from the Victorian Era and places it in modern day London. The modern day element feels completely natural, and at no point does it seem like they are being modern for the sake of being modern. Much like in the original stories, Sherlock uses whatever tools he has available to him, whether it be text messaging, modern-day forensics or Google.

While Holmes purists may hate the change of time, the fact is the Sherlock Holmes stories were never about the Victorian Era — they were about the characters. By removing Holmes and Watson from the traditional Victorian setting, the show separates itself from more recent adaptations that focused too heavily on the Victorian elements. This allows the show to place a real focus on the characters, giving them the chance to develop over the course of the series.

The acting in Sherlock is top notch. Benedict Cumberbatch (whose previous credits include the Oscar-nominated film Atonement) plays the title character, in what may be the best incarnation of Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever seen. Cumberbatch plays Holmes as a self-described “higher-functioning sociopath,” who’s intellect (and ego) is truly worthy of the Holmes of the literary canon. Watching him on-screen, you really feel like he is that smart — 30 minutes into the first episode, I realized I was just expecting Holmes to always be a step ahead of me.

Cumberbatch’s  performance emphasizes the more anti-social elements of the Holmes character, but not in the way the recent Robert Downey Jr. incarnation did. Downey’s character had an undeniable charisma, and came off as though he was choosing to be anti-social at times. In many way’s Downey’s Holmes was just an extension of Robert Downey Jr. real personality. On the other hand, Cumberbatch’s character does not choose to be anti-social — he simply does not know how to have human interaction. He is the way he is, and in this he becomes much more believable and relatable. He is not larger then life, just smarter than the rest of us.

Martin Freeman plays Dr. John Watson. Freeman has previously appeared with minor roles in a slew of films, including Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Love Actually. Freeman gives the Watson character a new level of depth as a man trying to deal with post-military life. In Sherlock, Watson isn’t the unintelligent, blundering follower of other incarnations. Instead, he is shown to be a very capable and intelligent (albeit not as intelligent as Holmes) man.

Throughout the series Holmes’ trust in Watson grows and he begins to assign him important and meaningful tasks. Watson does not just tag along, but becomes a proactive player in the stories. Freeman and Cumberbatch have an undeniable chemistry, and their relationship grows and develops naturally over the course of the series. In short, Cumberbatch and Freeman deliver what is the most nuanced portrayal of the Holmes and Watson relationship that I have ever come across.

The writing is another area where the show really stands out, the dialogue is clever and demonstrates a wit rarely seen in American television. By setting the show in the modern environment and combining it with excellent writing, Sherlock feels more exciting than previous adaptations — the show moves quickly from scene to scene with fast-paced dialogue and plots. The series consists of three, 90-minute episodes, all of which are wildly entertaining. At the end of each 90 minutes, I found myself wanting more.

The short of it is, if you like Sherlock Holmes, go check out Sherlock. If you just like good TV, go check out Sherlock. The show may not be available for free online viewing anymore, but it’s certainly worth a few of your hard-earned dollars on Amazon or iTunes.

Glee Christmas

TV: In the War on Christmas, Glee Leads the Charge

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in TV

As Glee episodes go, this week’s “A Very Glee Christmas” isn’t bad. The songs make more sense, a few characters — notably Sue — experience actual development, and there aren’t an abundance of awkward moments.

But besides raising the bar slightly for the show, the episode is also notable for the conspicuously secular approach it brings to what is ostensibly a religious holiday. Given the show’s willingness to address faith in the marvelously titled but poorly executed “Grilled Cheesus” episode, that approach is surprising. It also scores a big secular win for the so-called “war on Christmas,” that perennial conflict between fanatics on the Christian right who want to plug Jesus into the holiday, and their liberal counterparts who feel that thinking about a guy getting kicked around and tortured to death dampens the most wonderful time of the year.

The most obviously secular part of “A Very Glee Christmas” is the song selection. Though some of the greatest — and oldest — Christmas songs are either hymns or religious in origin, no member of New Directions sings them. Instead, they perform a series of classic Christmas-special hits like “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year,” a couple of numbers from the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a song by The Carpenters (just to make sure there is at least one really lame moment in the episode.)

But song selection isn’t the only secular part of the show. Significantly, Rachel and Puck, two Jewish characters, and Kurt, a formerly anti-religious zealot, show no qualms about partaking in all the seasonal cheer. And while Rachel explains her participation to Finn as just wanting to do something he enjoys, her justification basically boils down to saying, “I might not be a Christian, but what does that have to do with celebrating Christmas?”

And that seems to be the takeaway message. The episode argues that no matter who you are, what you believe in, or how you live, Christmas is for you. In essence, it’s an extension of Glee’s larger multicultural thesis, which is generally admirable.

When it comes to Christmas, however, that idea is also controversial. Every year, people get up in arms about companies using words like “holidays” and “season” instead of “Christmas.” Others lament the commercialization of the holiday, or militantly try to impose Christian symbolism on pagan icons like wreaths and evergreen trees. In “A Very Glee Christmas,” however, those are the very things that matter. Glee’s holiday is all about physical ephemera.

None of this is to say the episode isn’t charming. It really is. The story is also largely about giving, charity and kindness, things that Christians and non-Christians alike tend to value. For those of us who delight mostly in the commercial gaudiness of the season, the episode might even be memorable enough to watch again next year. But for anyone who feels that our modern holiday has strayed from its course, “A Very Glee Christmas” must surely be evidence of one thing: the war on Christmas is far from over.

Simpsons Christmas

TV: Best Christmas Episodes (Part 1)

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

There’s nothing quite like the Christmas season on television. Aside from season finales, Christmas is the time of year that a show’s writing staff really pulls out every stop to make a great episode.

However, most of these specials go overlooked during the holiday season, as most people turn to old standbys like Peanuts, Rudolph, and Frosty. That’s not to say there isn’t anything wrong with the saccharine sweetness of those classics, but since the ’70s and ’80s heyday of schmaltz, there have been a number fantastic Christmas specials that explore the less-overt aspects of the holiday.

In other words, that means that all of these are slightly mean-spirited or sad Christmas specials, because, let’s face it — for everyone that loves Christmas, this time of year is an equally depressing one for someone else. Comedy has a knack for making tragedy into cheer, though, so let’s get on with it.

Seinfeld, “The Strike” (1997)

Okay, this is more of a Hanukkah episode, but Rhombus readers are nothing if not tolerant, right? Seinfeld’s take on the holiday season involves the now-famous celebration of Festivus, an occasion created by Frank Costanza after becoming frustrated with the materialism of Hanukkah (and Christmas). Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer end up involved in this year’s Festivus party, and the event quickly devolves into the same kind of chaos everyone has experienced at a family party — hilariously, of course. For a show that based itself on observations of the minutae of life, Seinfeld’s holiday special not only provided wry commentary, but also created an entirely new holiday. It’s a true Festivus miracle.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “A Very Sunny Christmas” (2009)

This is one of my favorite Christmas specials ever, because it’s terrible people doing terrible things — at Christmas. Jordan Petersen already wrote a fantastic bit about this special in his Christmas round-up, but it’s worth mentioning twice. It’s that funny. If there’s any room for some pure blackness in your Christmas rotation, watch It’s Always Sunny. So with that out of the way, I’ll move on to my next-darkest choice.

American Dad, “Rapture’s Delight” (2009)

Family Guy’s little brother has turned into one of the most delightfully absurd shows on the air, and its holiday special revels in the show’s chaos. If the title weren’t evidence enough, its plot is centered on the Christian Rapture and the beginning of the apocalypse. Granted, it’s only bookended by actual mention of Christmas, but for some reason, nothing gets me in the holiday spirit like a post-apocalyptic dystopia and an epic showdown with the Antichrist. If your religious convictions will stop you from laughing, this probably isn’t a good choice. But for anyone who enjoys a little faith-based awesomeness, check this one out.

Community, “Comparative Religion” (2009)

It’s a little much to consider a show’s freshman-season Christmas episode a classic, but as has become the consensus on this site, Community is no ordinary show. The group’s divergent religious beliefs come into conflict during December, as their study group includes a devout Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, a “Buddhist,” and an atheist. As they struggle to reach a compromise on faith before their holiday party, everybody realizes that the holiday season is about family and friendship. Of course, this being Community, the episode ends with the study group bloodied and bruised from an incredible fight sequence in a winter wonderland, which makes every lesson learned even sweeter.

The Office (UK), “Christmas Special” (2003) and The Office (US), “A Benihana Christmas” (2007)

While each version of The Office is very different in its tone and character development, both managed to bring incredible Christmas stories to their viewers. The UK Office used Christmas as a backdrop for its series finale, in which the camera crew revisits the characters three years after the series had supposedly ended. What ensued is one of the most tragic and also touching comedy episodes of the last decade, but it also serves as an amazing testament to the power of what Christmas can do for even the most lonely of souls.

As for the American version, each season, with the exception of the writers’ strike-shortened fourth, has had a fairly memorable Christmas episode. However, season three’s “Benihana Christmas” also used the holiday to add a great deal of depth to its already-established characters. Michael Scott is one of the saddest characters to ever grace a comedy series, but his relentless naivete reaches new heights at Christmas, when he is broken up with not once, but twice. Amongst all this looming melancholy, the rest of the office busts out the comedy to create an episode that hits that sweet spot of sadness and joy that only The Office can provide.

The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)

Twenty-one years ago, America was introduced to the Simpson family in a Christmas special that nobody at the time realized would spur a revolution in animation and comedy. As far as Simpsons Christmas episodes go, the rest never quite reached the quality and freshness of that first outing. This episode also brings more of the sentimentality that characterized those early years of The Simpsons, and makes for something truly sweet and winning from the family that would partly define the next twenty years of American pop culture. So, not only does this amount to a great Christmas episode, but also a nifty history lesson on the television medium itself.

That’s it for this week! Stay tuned to Rhombus for next week’s part two, in which we look at this year’s crop of holiday specials and see if any stack up against the true classics.

Glee

TV: Glee, Community and Consistency

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

This week’s episode of Glee should have been poised to be one of the highlights of the series’ entire run. Instead, the glee club’s return to competition felt like it came out of nowhere, with no build-up other than characters dropping the word “sectionals” sporadically throughout the season.

Last year, Glee built its first 13-episode run to that final performance at Sectionals, as if the glee club’s entire fate revolved around the competition. Once that first run ended and the show went into hiatus, though, Glee became more and more of a headache to watch and quickly became the most inconsistent show on television.

At its outset, Glee was a show about a high school teacher wanting to relive his glory days, and a group of kids with nowhere to fit in. That group of people came together through a love of music, and made a few fantastic hours of television. Now, the show will have plotlines appear and conclude within a single episode, creating a continuity that is baffling at times. Characters, most prominently Will Schuester, will make complete 180-degree turns in their motives. The characters serve whichever purpose they need to each week, and whenever the show has a big finale-esque episode (like this week’s) that needs to tie the past ten episodes’ loose threads up, the result is anticlimactic and feels unearned.

Even with all this inconsistency, Glee still remains one of the most popular shows on the air. Its success is counter-intuitive to everything ratings machines have been telling America for decades.

TV viewers are supposed to like consistency, familiarity, and characters that won’t change too drastically. This theory is why Two and a Half Men and American Idol, while both very different shows, are hits. They provide a safety for viewers — a show they can watch without thinking too much. Even Modern Family, while churning out smart and hilarious half-hours week after week, sticks to this tried and true principle.

But under most people’s radar, there is a show that reliably outdoes both Glee and Modern Family at their respective games. Community is just as wildly unpredictable as Glee, as Meg Walter pointed out on Rhombus a few weeks ago. The show can jump from a zombie-apocalypse episode to a parody of Mean Girls to an episode ribbing convoluted conspiracy theories — all without ever feeling strained. However, what most viewers of Community forget is that, during the show’s first two seasons, only a handful of episodes have been the genre-bending parodies the show has become praised for.

The rest of Community‘s episodes are smaller in concept, but equally great in comedy. The show began by mostly taking familiar sitcom tropes and turning them on their heads, as evidenced in last month’s exceptional “bottle episode.” These episodes succeed or fail based on the believability of its characters. Community‘s cast began as a group of stereotypes with little development. But while Glee has let its characters stagnate and remain caricatures, Community has given every member of its ensemble unique dreams, fears and motives that can carry an episode. The show’s writers pride themselves on the ability to pair any two characters and make a compelling plot, something they’ve proven in nearly every episode.

A TV show can only succeed if the viewer truly believes that the characters have lives off-screen. Characters need to be a show’s fallback, something it can turn to when a story becomes too absurd or illogical. That has been Glee‘s biggest shortcoming, because without those relationships and character dynamics to fall back on, what should be an important episode in the show’s mythology comes out of nowhere and still feels anticlimactic. It makes for a show that may be enjoyable to watch, but is completely superficial and fake. Building relationships is how shows like The Office and Modern Family have built their success, in making characters that feel like genuinely real people. Through that, a show can take its characters anywhere — even to the moon, as Community has already done this season!

To call Community a parody show is “an oversimplification… and not the whole truth,” to quote the show itself. It is more aptly a show about a group of friends that, when it wants to, can parody just about anything it wants to. By combining that wild inconsistency of Glee with genuine characters to care about, Community is poised to go down as one of the greats.

If all this sounds like a shameless plug to watch Community, that’s because that is exactly what this is. Watch it.

Community airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. on NBC. Glee airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on FOX.

Arrested Development

TV: Development Arrested: Can Lightning Strike Twice?

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

FOX recently announced its plans for mid-season replacements, and it seems that Running Wilde will be the network’s first major cancellation of the fall season. The sitcom, starring Will Arnett and Keri Russell, has struggled in its timeslot, and FOX has gone so far as to hold off all new episodes until after November sweeps.

Any show placed between Glee and the fall’s only breakout hit, Raising Hope, should have been a home run. However, after only six episodes, what may seem like a premature death is actually a telling example of one of the strangest occurrences in television — the continual failure of Running Wilde’s creator Mitchell Hurwitz.

It’s not easy being Mitch Hurwitz. In 2005, he was undisputed television royalty, with his creation Arrested Development being praised as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Even though it never found a solid audience, its status as a critical darling made up for the middling ratings. Once Arrested Development was cancelled in 2005, FOX (and the TV world in general) eagerly awaited Hurwitz’s triumphant return — but it never happened.

Now, being the mind behind a television show is one of the most stressful jobs in show business. Just like a director or screenwriter has lofty expectations after a hit film, the TV world looks to creators as the minds responsible for their shows. One-hit wonders are fairly uncommon.

Take Chuck Lorre, for example. His first production, Dharma and Greg, was always stable, if not a full-fledged hit. Afterward, he went on to create Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two of America’s most popular shows. His newest production, Mike and Molly, is expected to continue this trend. Lorre’s shows are almost universally detested by critics, but they inexplicably resonate with Middle America.

Hurwitz, in 2005, was expected to find a niche as the thinking man’s Lorre. But by 2008 there was still no sign of a follow-up — until Hurwitz announced his new program Sit Down, Shut Up, his adaptation of an Australian sitcom. The twist? Hurwitz’s version would be a live-action/animated hybrid. Even though Sit Down boasted a large cast, including many Arrested alumni, it was critically panned and audiences ignored it as well. After a mere four episodes, it was bumped to late Sunday nights where it met its doom.

After that fiasco, expectations for Running Wilde were lukewarm at best. The show was billed as a romantic comedy, once again with multiple actors and callbacks to Arrested Development. While critics were more enthusiastic this time, audiences remained nonplussed. (By the way, it’s worth checking out the show on Hulu. It’s really coming into its own as an alternative to TV’s generally mean-spirited comedy, and getting cancelled so early would be a shame.)

But why can’t Hurwitz catch a break? He proved he’s immensely talented, with his writing skills lending themselves to much of Arrested‘s success. It’s precisely that success that has caused his continual failure.

It may seem obvious that FOX adored Arrested Development — the network kept it on the air for three years despite middling ratings and continually played up its Emmy success. However, Hurwitz has since revealed in interviews that FOX was a constant burden in the show’s production, telling Hurwitz they didn’t “get it” and were worried about it’s relatability to audiences. Because of their lack of support, FOX pressured Hurwitz to change his style and tone in his subsequent projects as the network kept bidding highest to attempt to reclaim that Emmy glory.

Granted, it would be nearly impossible to follow up Arrested Development, no matter how fantastic the show is. It’s incredibly difficult to win over a passionate fan base, and the watering-down of Hurwitz by FOX doesn’t help. Arrested Development was transcendent because it expected so much of its audience, like the ability to catch callbacks and foreshadowing that spanned the entire series. It was the complete opposite of Lorre’s check-your-brain-at-the-door CBS sitcoms — and that’s why it was incredible. Meanwhile, Running Wilde is more comparable to Outsourced in its obvious humor.

Maybe Mitch Hurwitz will never be able to capitalize on Arrested Development’s success. Perhaps he needs to find a network other than FOX to foster his creativity. Lightning can strike twice, and Hurwitz just needs the support and backing to make magic happen again. Or he could just make the Arrested Development movie already.

I’d be happy either way.

Community

TV: A Community Where You Belong

Written by Meg Walter on . Posted in TV

I assumed that Community would never make it. I wondered why Joel McHale would take a character role, being as great as he already was on The Soup. I remembered the ill-fated shows NBC had previously tried to place with the big boys in the Thursday night line-up. Come to think of it, I don’t remember those. I guess that proves my point.

But like all those sad sitcoms of yore, I gave it one deciding view. I was impressed — and I’ve only been increasingly impressed with each episode since. As cliché or absurd as it may be to call 30 minutes of television revolutionary, I just can’t help myself. Community deserves it.

Community goes where no show has gone before and where many movies have failed. To produce one quality parody takes incredible writing. To produce a quality parody every week takes incredible thinking.

So many satires fall short. Oftentimes more painful than enjoyable, a full-length feature film will merely imitate that which it is trying to mock. The only differences are usually uglier people and poop jokes. I’ve seen Dance Flick. Okay, fine, and the Scary Movies. I regret all eight of those hours. Community is no imitation. Instead, Community takes on one genre after another. One week it’s zombies, the next week it’s Lost, a John Hughes film, Mean Girls, then Star Trek.

The real strength in Community is its characters. Each serves as a lovable hyperbole — the arrogant ex-lawyer, the leather jacket-wearing political chick, the naïve preppy freshman, old Chevy Chase, the Christian black woman, the delightfully ignorant jock, and the socially inept geek whose occasional television trivia commentary keeps the show just self- aware enough to get away with it.

Each episode is its own. There’s very little story that carries over from one episode to the next — and that’s why Community will last. It can’t be ruined by plot when there’s a new plot each week. And though I’ve often thought these writers have to eventually run out of ideas, the series only seems to be getting stronger.

While this season of 30 Rock seems less sharp and The Office scrambles for fresh ideas, Community is becoming the King of Thursday night. This week’s episode did not disappoint. Each character is so strong, their dialog so sharp, and their antics so unpredictable, that watching Jeff, Britta, Shirley, Abed, Troy, Annie and Pierce stuck in a study room together searching for a purple pen was the highlight of my day.

And at the risk of spoiling an ending, I never saw the monkey coming.

Conan 1

TV: Review: Conan

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

There was no way Conan could live up to its hype.

The NBC late-night debacle of January 2010 needs no introduction, and that alone would have been enough to build insurmountable anticipation for tonight’s premiere. But Conan O’Brien and his loyal, sometimes rabid, fan base built Conan (the show, not the man) into something far larger. Over the course of the last nine months, Conan (the man) became what more than a few news outlets have called America’s 21st Century folk hero.

After the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, the creation of one of Twitter’s most prolific accounts, and a relentless marketing campaign that made Lost’s finale look like it was undersold, Conan could only hope that his two million Twitter followers would follow him to TBS. Hopefully, they’d bring all their friends with them too. Conan faces stiffer competition than ever in his new timeslot — he’s up against The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the first half hours of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

That’s enough about speculation. Did Conan succeed triumphantly, or will he fall into obscurity as a speed bump in television history?

Well, short answer: Conan’s premiere was a resounding success for the audience it was built for — fans of his old Late Night show who felt shortchanged by the watered-down Conan of The Tonight Show. I felt like Conan was tailor-made for people like me. I had been watching Conan on NBC habitually since fourth grade, and last winter’s disaster in late night was personally devastating.

As a longtime fan, tonight’s episode of Conan was a marvel to behold. Conan felt loose and natural, like he did in his Late Night time slot. It’s as if the weight of hosting a venerable program like The Tonight Show is gone, and Conan can do whatever he wants (and he does).

However, this approach isn’t going to win over anybody who’s on the fence. For example, my girlfriend’s parents hate Conan, pegging him as “weird” and “cringe-inducing.” They are diehard fans of Jay Leno, though. It’s simply a matter of taste in comedy — and obviously Conan, and subsequently Conan, aren’t for everyone. It’s also safe to say that anyone who was sympathetic to Leno during last year’s transition period won’t be tuning in on basic cable.

Now, on to the specifics of the show itself. The premiere opened with a fantastic cold open, portrayed as a chronicle of Conan’s descent into turmoil and eventual redemption in being picked up by TBS. The cold open featured Conan’s “wife” and 14 kids, two attempted Mafia hitjobs, and a disturbing clown costume. Jon Hamm (or is that Don Draper?) appears in a very funny cameo, as does Larry King, Conan’s guardian angel. It’s a great start, reminiscent of the also-great cold open of Conan’s Tonight Show.

The show then moves into a little shakier territory. As much as I love digs at NBC and the limitations of basic cable, I can’t wait for Conan to move into his more standard fare. It’s difficult to gauge how the show will function with this kind of joke being prominent, but judging by Conan’s enthusiasm, it’ll be back to business as usual in a few days.

As for the guests, Seth Rogen and Lea Michele played along, with Rogen in particular providing great fodder for Conan to joke with. A highlight was the winner of the “First Guest” poll, with Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, briefly appearing. I was only slightly disappointed in her not garnering a seat on the couch for an interview.

The show ended with Conan, always the guitar aficionado, playing alongside Jack White in an engaging performance. During the song, Conan’s joy in being back on television was obvious and glorious to behold. Sidekick Andy Richter and the rest of the staff and crew appear just as excited as Conan himself, and with a surprise appearance from The Masturbating Bear, the show soars on that energy.

It’s rare to see an entertainer so deeply invested in his craft, but Conan has proved the hype true by creating a show with so very few wrinkles and kinks. Without any limitations, and with the full support of TBS, Conan can be every bit as absurd as its host wants it to be.

Here’s to a long basic cable run, Conan. After this year, you’ve earned it.

Conan airs Monday through Thursday at 9:00 P.M. Mountain Time on TBS.