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TBTS’s Best TV Shows You DIDN’T Watch

August 17, 2010

If you’ve followed us this far, you know that there is a lot of compelling entertainment to be had on the programming roads less traveled. You can get your fix from shows other than the ones that feature sexist, chain-smoking advertising executives or high-schoolers singing pop songs.

Here we are, dear reader, at the 3rd part of our gripping, edge-of-your-seat trilogy. This is our Return of the Jedi, our Army of Darkness, our Beyond Thunderdome. This is where we wrap up the story we began in TBTS’s Best TV Shows You’re NOT Watching, Parts 1 and 2. Today, ladies & jelly-spoons, we’re going to tell you some sad stories. Stories about shows that didn’t make it. Stories about shows that were canceled before they really had a chance to dazzle us…and how it’s all your fault. We’ll start with an easy one…

Better Off Ted

Despite the lazy title (seriously, THAT’s the best ABC could come up with for a show about a guy named Ted?), Better Off Ted was a clever and subversive satire of corporate culture wrapped up in a half-hour, no-laugh-track sitcom. The humor and tone were similar to Andy Richter Controls the Universe, another great little show that never could get off the ground. Think Office Space, without the cynicism. (We do not intend this as a criticism of the cynicism, for that would border on solipsism.)

The show centers around Ted, an upper-middle manager of R&D for a large, multinational corporation. The corporation operates under the deliciously obtuse moniker Veridian Dynamics (which, frankly, should have been the name of the show, but I guess ABC wasn’t going to let a prize like “Better Off Ted” go unused.) They make everything from weaponized pumpkins to weight-loss toothpaste to the Octo-chicken (exactly what it sounds like.) If it’s technically possible but ethically questionable, Veridian Dynamics makes it. When Ted’s not wrangling his two socially inept genius scientists, Phil and Lem, he reports to Veronica (Portia de Rossi), a self-absorbed, severe, and intimidating executive VP who hands down orders from “upstairs” with precision and dismissive conviction. Ted also has an occasional flirtation with the pretty, slightly neurotic (aren’t they all?) Linda, a mid-level corporate drone whose job is never quite made clear.

Most episodes involved some kind of skewering of corporate culture, such as one about a misread memo admonishing all employees to insult each other in the workplace. None of the workers think to question a memo written on official company letterhead; they simply start stringing together nonsensical abuses and hurling them at one another. (The outtakes from this episode are available online, and they are hilarious.)

One of the interesting things about this show was that the camera was always moving. The audience follows Ted around the office as he solves one problem or another, occasionally swapping for another character as they head off in a different direction. Sometimes the camera leads Ted as he breaks the fourth wall and explains things or provides the audience with little micro-confessions. One of the best things about the show are the occasional treats in the form of Veridian Dynamics commercials. They’re the usual corporate self-pat-on-the-back spots where the creepily cheerful voiceover talks about how great Veridian Dynamics is, usually with a hilarious twist. There are a bunch of these ads on YouTube; check them out.

Sadly, Better Off Ted was canceled after only two short seasons (13 episodes each). Though not nearly as witty and manic as Arrested Development, Better Off Ted is worth a look. Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix, parts of Season 2 are on Hulu, and DVDs are available for both seasons.

Swingtown

I understand why Mad Men is successful; I really do. It’s a great show, with compelling drama, and setting it in 1960’s Manhattan makes it that much more interesting. All of this contributes to my confusion as to why Swingtown failed. Originally intended for cable (it was pitched to both HBO and Showtime), it eventually found a home on CBS where it ran for 13 glorious episodes.

It’s 1976, and upwardly mobile stock trader Bruce (Jack Davenport, last seen as Steve in the original British version of Coupling, and as the navy officer Keira Knightley was supposed to marry in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) moves his family to a nice new house across the street from the freewheelin’ Tom and Trina. Tom is a mustachioed airline pilot and Trina is a very smart and attractive former stewardess (who doesn’t seem to ever wear anything more substantial than a bikini). They’re swingers, see, and they eventually introduce Bruce and his wife Susan to “the lifestyle.” This new environment strains Bruce and Susan’s relationship as they cope with middle-aged, suburban ennui. It also negatively affects their relationship with Roger and Janet, friends from the old neighborhood.

Swingtown featured the same attention to detail seen in Mad Men. Costumes, decor, hairstyles, and music were all period-accurate. The storylines and characters were just as fascinating, and they’re less about the sex and more about the dynamics of an open relationship. Bruce and Susan struggle with their inexperience (they were high-school sweethearts) and a widening emotional divide. Their teenage daughter, Laurie, grows emotionally and intellectually; a nascent liberal clashing with what she sees as her parents’ hypocritical conservatism. Their son, BJ, lacking guidance at home, acts out at first but eventually develops a friendship with the enigmatic girl next door. On the surface, Tom and Trina seem like old pros at the whole “lifestyle”, but they have trouble with boundaries and are constantly unsure of where to draw the line. Is it OK for Tom to sleep with stewardesses on an overnight stay in Tokyo? Can Trina hook up with an old boyfriend?

The most interesting character, however, is milquetoast suburban housewife Janet. Janet is played brilliantly by Miriam Shor, whom I last saw as Yitzhak in the excellent Hedwig & the Angry Inch (seriously, go rent this movie now!) She was Susan’s best friend and confidant before the move; now she fights, almost violently, against the deterioration of her perfect suburban life. Shor’s performance is nuanced and potent. Her Janet struggles to maintain composure in embarrassing situations, then lashes out later with all the pent up frustration. She’s definitely the one to watch.

Swingtown is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Trust Me

Even a dynamic cast with great chemistry can’t save a show if the ratings just aren’t there. Such is the case with Trust Me. It ran for a solid 13-episode season before being canceled by TNT. Again, I honestly don’t know why this show failed. Maybe it was its lack of a gimmick. There are no wisecracking teenagers, no tertiary characters with their catchphrases, no wacky physical comedy. It was just a simple show with snappy dialog and sympathetic characters.

Trust Me was about Mason (Eric McCormack, Will & Grace‘s Will) and Conner (Tom Cavanagh, Ed from…Ed) two copywriters at “Rothman, Greene, and Moore,” a fictional Chicago ad agency. Mason is the straight-laced, ambitious, and career-driven family man. Connor is the creative but irresponsible bachelor who takes liberties with his expense account. They’ve worked together for years, but things get a little squidgy (it’s a word!) when Mason is promoted to Creative Director. They pitch clients together, hassle their creative team (including Mr. Christina Hendricks himself, Geoffrey Arend as a nerdy graphic designer), hand-hold the testy new copywriter Sarah Krajicek-Hunter, and get spanked by their nemesis: rival ad man Simon Cochran.

That’s really all there is to it. Bloggers in the advertising industry commented favorably on the accuracy of the show’s portrayal of the business. What really kept this show interesting was the creative process on display. Mason and Conner were always working on some brilliant new ad campaign for a big client like a cell phone company or an energy drink. They came up with some really clever stuff and it was fun to watch them develop the campaign, from the slogans to the logos and imagery. These were ads that would have actually worked in the real world.

Alas, Trust Me has not been released on DVD and it doesn’t look like TNT will release it anytime soon. However, a few episodes are streaming from IMDB.com. Also, if you’re so inclined, the entire run is available via bittorrent.

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Shows are canceled because there aren’t enough people watching. Sometimes the network makes stupid decisions that contribute to this. Constantly moving a show around in the weekly line-up makes it difficult for audiences to keep track (like Fox did with Firefly, damn you Fox!). This is less of a problem in today’s world of Tivo and other time-shifting devices, but audiences still need to make an effort. If you like a show, stick with it, let the network know. If it fails despite your support, make sure you buy it on DVD. It shows the network that you at least liked that kind of programming. Don’t just seethe in frustration when your favorite show starts dropping in the ratings or disappears from the schedule entirely. And definitely don’t stalk the network executives responsible. Trust me on this one.

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One Comment
  1. September 6, 2010 7:41 pm

    I tuned into Newsradio for David Foley, one of my two favorites from The Kids in the Hall. The show exceeded my expectations from the start.

    The first episode definitely pays homage to its predecessors – Mary Tyler Moore, WKRP, Taxi, Murphy Brown – with the classic “protagonist arrives at the new workplace” opening, but it creates its own identity pretty quickly. Foley’s character is a straight man with a sharp wit, a nice guy with unexpected toughness, somehow managing an unmanageable crew of hilarious misfits (including his own boss).

    Newsradio rarely went for the obvious joke, rarely relied on pop culture references, and avoided the “dumb guy” cliche on which so many sitcoms rely. (Matthew degenerated into this role somewhat in later seasons.) It was funny because the characters were vibrant and strange, and because the writing was insightful and original.

    And because the cast was brilliant. I kind of disliked Phil Hartman coming to the show, but I had to admire him after watching him play Bill McNeil. The weakest links in the show were the female characters, but I attribute this to the fact that the writers were mostly men, and men frequently have trouble writing women well. And even as the weak links, they were better than adequate, and vital to the show.

    The relationship between the show and NBC was stormy. I am not sure why NBC supported far weaker shows like Suddenly Susan and Third Rock From the Sun while giving Newsradio the shaft over and over. Eventually this poor relationship, combined with the murder of Hartman, destroyed the show. The later seasons were plagued by poor ideas (mostly mandated by the network brass) and mediocre writing. The actors did their best, but by the time it was cancelled, it was probably time to put it to bed. (Although I always wondered if it could have returned to its glory-days with just a change of network.)

    A fantastic show through season four or so.

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