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What’s good on TV

October 28, 2011

Every season our illustrious TV networks put what they think is their best foot forward to bring us the kind of entertainment they hope will provide eyeballs for their corporate sponsors’ advertising. Here at TBTS we provide you the great service of watching this stuff and picking the good ones out of the muck.

Fortunately, you don’t actually have to watch everything to get to the good stuff. It goes without saying that we can safely eliminate anything that involves toddlers, teen pregnancy, real housewives, and dancing with, at, or adjacent to “the stars.” This narrows the field substantially and, as I’ve said before, we watch a lot of TV at my house, so a rigid pre-screening process is a necessity. Virtually all “reality” programming can be dismissed out of hand (there, I said it) as can anything that involves, or has ever involved, Charlie Sheen.

There are a couple of one-hour dramas that caught our attention, both shamelessly trying to bag some of that Mad Men mojo. But one of them, The Playboy Club, was cancelled after only 3 episodes; none of which we managed to see. The other, Pan Am, shows promise with its romanticized portrayal of 1960s flight-attendants. The pilot (ha!) episode did a good job of establishing the characters and pulling the audience into the world of pretty, ocean-hopping stewardesses and their various hopes n’ dreams. I’m a little concerned about a subplot involving a stewardess who has been recruited as an FBI spook. It has the potential to get hokey real fast. But I’m optimistic about the show’s ability to entertain me without insulting my intelligence. And hey . . . Christina Ricci. (ABC, Sundays)

Happy Endings castI’ve watched the 4 new sitcoms that are worth watching, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m giving a couple of them only a few more episodes to improve before I lose interest, but on the whole I am impressed. Happy Endings (technically a mid-season replacement from last year) is, frankly, this generation’s Friends, but don’t let that scare you away. Where NBC’s paean to 90’s whiteness eventually became contrived and lazy (alas, the once-vaunted How I Met Your Mother appears to be headed in this direction), Happy Endings is fresh, clever, and funny if not necessarily wholly original. It features an interracial couple, a nerotic funny-girl, an aimless thirtysomething dude and his ex-fiancee, and a gay guy who live in Chicago and . . . do stuff. The cast is appropriately attractive and diverse, but I get a sense of self-awareness from it. Like it’s done with an ironic wink at the audience. It also helps that the gay character is not at all like the homosexual men we’re used to seeing in sitcoms. There are no zany Jack McFarlands here; or even low-key Will Trumans, really. Happy Endings‘ Max is a self-centered, quick-witted, cynical, unemployed, video-gaming manchild who just happens to be gay. As simple as the concept sounds, it’s quite refreshing. The show even lampoons the idea of the typical sitcom gay friend with the introduction of the flamboyant Derrick and his catchphrase, “D-R-A-M-A, DRAMAAAAA!” The pilot episode started with the aborted wedding between dude Dave and his blonde fiancee Alex, and despite plenty of opportunities to play the “will they or won’t they?” card, the show has thus far thankfully shied away from such frivolity. Bonus points for Damon Wayans, Jr., who is the spitting image of his father. Seriously . . . it’s uncanny. Happy Endings is a few episodes into its second season. It’s worth catching the first season’s 13 episodes before getting settled into the current season, although I think some of them were aired out of order. Your mileage may vary. (ABC, Wednesdays)

2 Broke Girls, Kat Dennings & Beth BehrsI lump Whitney and 2 Broke Girls together for no other reason than they’re both written by comedienne Whitney Cummings, who also stars in Whitney. Honestly, I only started watching 2 Broke Girls because Kat Dennings is in it and, well, I have a little, teeny-tiny crush on her. She plays  a snide, cynical diner waitress who takes the recently disgraced daughter of a rich embezzler under her wing. Conceptually, it’s not bad; but the execution leaves much to be desired. Comic timing is severely lacking, and the laugh track is just awful. Don’t get me started on the hapless, thickly-accented Chinese diner owner or the sassy, pop-culture catchphrasin’ black cashier. The offense-o-meter is dangerously in the red on this one. It would be one thing if I could give them the same benefit of the doubt I gave, say, Married with Children. But I cannot. 2 Broke Girls has maybe 2 or 3 episodes to get significantly better before I give up.

Whitney, on the other hand, is much stronger though still seems to struggle with original storylines. It’s mostly about Whitney and her live-in boyfriend escalating arguments to the point of ridiculousness. Some episodes are funnier than others, but I find the supporting cast of zany friends to be unremarkable at best. However, it is occasionally funny to see Whitney and her boyfriend cleverly one-up each other. (2 Broke Girls: CBS, Mondays. Whitney: NBC, Thursdays.)

Up All Night castI sat through almost every episode of Will Arnett’s previous effort, Running Wilde, practically trying to will it to get better. It never did, and was rightfully canceled. However, his new show, Up All Night, featuring himself and Christina Applegate trying to juggle their work and their relationship as they cope with the anxiety of having a new baby in the house was strong right out of the gate and has remained consistently funny. Perhaps it’s because Arnett’s character this time around is not clueless, selfish, or deceitful  (I was seriously worried the guy was getting typecast). Or perhaps it’s his wonderful chemistry with Applegate as they bounce off each other, alternately enabling and gently criticizing each other’s neuroses. Or perhaps it’s Maya Rudolph who provides most of the laughs as manic, self-absorbed Ava, an Oprah-esque talk show host and Applegate’s best friend and boss. Whatever it is, it works. A birth flashback scene in which Applegate starts singing “Lightning Crashes” had me laughing so hard I had to pause the show so I could catch my breath. (Fox, Wendesdays)

New Girl castI’ve saved the best for last. Believe me when I tell you that New Girl is the cream of this season’s crop. Zooey Deschanel is simply delightful as Jess, a quirky free spirit (natch) who has to find new roommates after she catches her boyfriend with another woman. She moves into an apartment with 3 single dudes and they all manage to hit it off. This show has a quick wit and optimism that just goes right to the middle of my soul. The dudes support Jess in her break-up, even going so far as to wear silly hats when they help her to finally confront her ex (it makes more sense in context, and is actually very sweet). She helps each of them in turn to become less of a knuckle-dragging slob. Honestly, they had me at “put a dollar in the douche jar.” (Fox, Tuesdays)

Strong performers like the smart and heartfelt Parks & Recreation and the gut-bustingly funny Community and Modern Family have set a high bar. Let’s see if this new blood has what it takes to go the proverbial distance and keep themselves in my busy television schedule.

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