Case Study 49: The Larry Sanders Show, Episode 4–“Guest Host”

Original Airdate: September 5th, 1992 on HBO

There wouldn’t be a golden age of television without HBO. They were pioneers in making uncompromisingly original TV in the 1990s and 2000s—major characters would die without warning, sex and politics would be addressed explicitly and frankly and Detective Stabler’s anus would be aggressively displayed for all the world to see. But HBO’s comedies often lag behind its dramas in terms of critical acclaim. Veep and Silicon Valley have begun rehabilitating the network’s reputation for humor, but unless you love Chris Lilley, Ricky Gervais or Entourage, pickings are otherwise slim. One notable exception would be The Larry Sanders Show and its spiritual successor, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Premiering in 1992, Sanders is something of a deep cut—apparently, HBO even let the rights slip away from them for a while, because I first caught the show on Netflix before it migrated to Crackle. (For those of you returning from Wikipedia, I’d like to welcome you to the exclusive club I joined seconds ago: People Who Know What Crackle Is.) Anyway, HBO is in the process of bringing Sanders back, and according to The Hollywood Reporter that started before star Garry Shandling’s untimely death. It’s also worth mentioning this wasn’t Shandling’s first trip around the pay cable maypole: the late 80s saw Showtime, the b-list HBO, hosting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which offered a meta take on the sitcom, as opposed to Sanders’ meta take on the late night show.

Strengths

  • Sharp show-biz satire. This episode, along with many episodes like it, tells the story of egotistical, childish, self-serving celebrities being wrangled by patient, long-suffering handlers. They present an effortlessly smooth face to the adoring public, but all that charisma evaporates when they go behind the scenes to engage in petty squabbling. They’re enabled and actively encouraged by their overseers at the network or studio, who urge them to prioritize ratings, money and their career above friendships, family and fulfillment. Sure, it’s been done before and since–Hollywood writers writing what they know–but it’s reliably entertaining, because we all watch TV and movies and who wouldn’t want a peek at how the sausage is made? Because it involves entertainers and celebrities—big personalities, with a flair for the dramatic gesture and the witty putdown—it’s more intrinsically amusing than watching people fight over, say, a vice-presidency position at a bank. The particulars here involve talk show host Larry Sanders (Shandling) taking a week off, being replaced by guest host Dana Carvey (Saturday Night Live.) As soon as Larry sees that Dana isn’t a terrible host, he’s immediately filled with insecurities, and these are only amplified when the network discovers that Dana has been offered a permanent hosting gig at NBC. Meanwhile, second banana Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent) is furious that he wasn’t considered for the guest host position, despite the fact that his audition makes it very clear that he would not thrive behind the desk. In the final scene, Larry is planning to go out and host an episode, thereby returning from his vacation early and unseating Dana. Eager to mend fences, Dana reassures Larry and tells him the NBC deal would be for a primetime talk show, meaning they wouldn’t be competitors. Mollified, Larry offers him the opportunity of replacing Hank for the night. With seconds before the show starts, Dana comes clean and tells Larry that the deal was for late night all along. Cut to credits. Dana’s career may be on the upswing, but he’s just as much of a petty asshole as Larry and Hank—and yet Larry and Dana are committed to trying to maintain the illusion of their friendship, because theirs is a business where vicious competition is painted with the veneer of camaraderie and fine fellowship.
  • Dead-pan comedy. There’s definitely an art to dry humor. It’s hard to compete in a crowded comedy landscape where there’s many things that are lapel-grabbingly wacky. This is even more pronounced in a post-laugh-track scene—you can cram in more laughs per minute if you’re not waiting for the roaring to subsist after Sheldon’s latest riposte. But if you’re going for a realistic vibe and your characters aren’t over-the-top caricatures, you have to make yourself stand out. Sanders is droll as opposed hysterically funny, but on that scale it does reasonably well. There’s lots of small moments, like when Larry offers Dana a Coke and absently tosses it in his direction—Dana makes no move to try and grab it and it bounces off the couch. There’s the look on Larry’s face as his wife (Megan Gallagher, Millennium) sings the praises of Dana’s interviewing skills. There’s the moment when Hank convinces his producer Artie (Rip Torn, Men In Black) to give him feedback on his disastrous audition and he storms off in a huff after one piece of benign criticism. There’s not a lot of knee-slapping, but it’s decently amusing.
  • Strong characters. The real highlight on this show is Rip Torn’s performance as Artie, who has an air of authenticity as a realistic, experienced Hollywood producer. He’s gentle and patient with the talent—he lets Hank audition even though he knows there’s no hope—and he’s fiercely protective, turning on Dana hilariously quickly. He walks the line between network management and the creative staff with ease, but he’s also self-aggrandizing enough to claim that he “saw it coming” every time there’s a new development with Dana’s rival show. Hank’s character is also a well-drawn portrait of power-hungry mediocrity. He’s obsequious with Artie, Larry and Dana, but when he senses that Dana’s not inclined to take his lame advice about the intricacies of late night, he rants to assistant (Linda Doucett) about how Dana’s a “snotty little shit.” It’s mentioned that Hank’s previous job was as a cruise director, which is just about perfect for his corny sense of false cheer.

Weaknesses

  • Bloodless on-air segments. I’d almost be willing to forgive this as close observation. Late night comedy is seldom very funny. But we see Larry and Dana’s opening monologues, and they’re supposed to be good. Larry jokes about Dan Quayle and potatoes, saying that Quayle is used to pointing to the pictures when he orders his lunch. He observes that in light of rappers like Ice-T, Ice Cube and Vanilla Ice, he’d make his rap name “Hey, Put Ice On That.” This material would be wretched even if it weren’t hideously dated. Dana’s is even worse—it’s a mishmash of his various unfunny bits from SNL. Generally, Saturday Night Live is pretty overrated—I could live my entire life without ever seeing Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri in cheerleader outfits again—but the early 90s was a pretty solid time for the show. It’d be easy to forget that if you were just going off Hans & Franz, though. And the fact that Dana’s monologue is supposed to be spellbinding is central to the plot!

Motivation: Money. The network and Larry are worried that Dana would siphon off all his viewers, so they want to cut his week of guest hosting short so as not to give a leg up to the competition.

Final Judgment: 7/10. It’s far from the best HBO or even HBO comedies have to offer, but it’s worth watching.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that the NFL sponsors a cartoon? I review NFL Rush Zone, and we’ll see if the villain is a doctor with a defamatory concussion study.

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Case Study 49: The Larry Sanders Show, Episode 4–“Guest Host”

Case Study 48: Mickey Mouse, Episode 36–“A Flower For Minnie”

Original Airdate: May 29th, 2015 on Disney Channel

Periodically, you’ll see reports claiming that Kids These Days recognize Mario, Joe Camel, or Pikachu more frequently than they recognize Mickey Mouse. You can blame the rise of video games or a boom in tobacco advertising in the 1980s, but Mickey’s declining popularity over time is chained to Janet’s Law: you’re only as good as what you’ve done for us lately. Despite the fact that his face is plastered over 40 square miles of prime Florida swampland, Mickey hasn’t been holding down any television or film franchises of any notoriety. At best, today’s kids are familiar with him as a supporting player in the Kingdom Hearts games. Eventually, somebody at Disney must have caught on to this, because now we have a series of animated shorts starring America’s favorite everymouse darkening our door on a semi-regular basis.

Strengths

  • Animation & humor style that blends old and new. It’s easy for Mickey to tip its hat to retro styles, seeing as how the little rat’s been around for almost 100 fucking years. Regardless, the Mickey on offer here looks a lot more like Steamboat Willie than he did in my childhood. I understand the logic here—short-form cartoons originated as preludes to feature films and have often been an uncomfortable fit on a TV schedule. It’s why so many of the shows I review here find themselves desperately grappling to fill 22 minutes and it’s why the Huckleberry Hounds and Schnookums and Meats of the world divide their time between three distinct cartoons. But Mickey is very much a product of the 21st century. There are plenty of elegant modern touches to the animation—consider the Mickey’s-eye view of syrup drizzling over his breakfast pancakes—but the humor has also been updated for the jaded eye of post-millennial youth. There’s plenty of violence of the broken teeth and exes for eyes variety, and there’s even a sprinkling of gross-out humor—we get treated to a dog man’s protruding nipple, and a pig man’s hairy, misshapen ass is exposed, complete with a flatulent sound effect. Ain’t no way that shit was gonna fly in Fantasia. All this amounts to a cartoon just as much influenced by Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants as it is by Silly Symphonies.
  • Rapid-fire. The other upside to having four minutes to work with instead of 22 is that the end result feels much more content-rich. The plot here is simple: Mickey (Chris Diamantopoulos, The Three Stooges) is trying to find the perfect flower for Minnie (Russi Taylor, The Simpsons.) In the course of trying to find that flower, he has eight separate misadventures in just under two minutes. Huckleberry had seven minutes and didn’t even get half as much content crammed in there. So the creators of Mickey are really trying here, and they’ve certainly got the spectacle down—there’s even a catchy song and a denouement featuring a full-scale parade and marching band. And yet…

Weaknesses

  • Not very funny. All that incident doesn’t get you very far when the end result is barely worth cracking a smile. Most of the jokes here consist of Mickey getting his ass kicked in various ways, and while that’s definitely a staple of cartoons going back decades, it’s not intrinsically funny in and of itself, or at least I never thought so. Haw haw haw! He’s been grievously injured! Now he has to go to the hospital! Or maybe he’ll die! Yeah, never did anything for me. And it’s one thing when you disguise full-body third-degree burns by making Daffy Duck all sooty, but as mentioned, today’s fast-paced climate demands that Mickey look approximately 60% more damaged. There is one funny moment, though. One of the flowers Mickey attempts to pick turns out to be from the bouquet on someone’s coffin. Mickey address the mourners thusly: “Uh…he was a good…man?” Diamantopoulos’ reading is gold, even if it’s a little macabre for first-graders.

Motivation: Mickey just wants to show his love for Minnie with a daisy. “She’s the flower blooming in my heart,” he sings. What a man!

Final Judgment: 6/10. If this blog has taught me anything, it’s that there’s oceans of shitty to mediocre children’s television out there, so in that respect Mickey’s ahead of the pack. But thanks to We Bare Bears, I believe we can do better.

NEXT TIME: I finally come for HBO. What’s that? Am I reviewing one of HBO’s many popular shows from this century? Nope—The Larry Sanders Show! Hey now.

Case Study 48: Mickey Mouse, Episode 36–“A Flower For Minnie”

Case Study 47: The Mysterious Cities Of Gold [1982], Episode 18–“Maiden Flight Of The Great Condor”

Original Airdate: August 28th, 1982 on NHK

The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a French-Japanese co-production, and unlike many of the kids’ shows I’ve reviewed so far, it’s serialized as opposed to episodic—that is to say, it tells a long continuous story. There are risks to doing this—a 10 year old isn’t going to binge-watch a Saturday morning cartoon the same way you’d swallow up an entire season of House of Cards in a weekend—but Cities does a good job of bringing the viewer up to date on what exactly is going on in the story before any given episode, which makes sense. Much like Powerhouse, it half-heartedly attempts to be educational by way of a documentary featurette appended to the end of each episode that is superficially related to the plot, addressing subjects such as the natural geography of South America or the fauna of the Galapagos Islands. There’s also a 2012 sequel of the same name.

Strengths

  • Original premise. You don’t see a lot of historical fiction pitched at kids, especially not in serialized cartoon form. Cities tells the story of a small group of travellers on a grand adventure, searching for the eponymous cities. It pertains to a particularly bloody moment in Spanish history, but it doesn’t whitewash things too aggressively—Zia (Janice Chaikelson) is a kidnapped Inca princess and Tao (Adrian Knight) is the last living descendant of an extinct tribe. But the show doesn’t lean too heavily on historical elements and instead looks for material in the fantastic. In this episode, the explorers are menaced by a tribe of hill-dwelling giants and make their escape in a giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. And about that…
  • A giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. I guess you might call this sort of innovation in 16th-century historical fiction “sunpunk.” Either way, it’s unexpectedly awesome to watch what at first appears to be a gigantic golden statue spread its wings and take flight when exposed to the sun as the temple around it dramatically crumbles to the ground. If a jaded adult can experience a few moments of surprised joy at this spectacle, I can only imagine how a kid would feel. It’s even better when Esteban (Shiraz Adam) discovers that a magical trinket makes it stow its landing gear and submit to passenger control. You may have seen the recent stories in the news about how a 15-year-old discovered a heretofore forgotten Mayan city using the help of satellite photography and deductions about astronomy. If there are still jungles today that are so thick and impenetrable that they contain unknown secrets, imagine what it must have felt like to be an explorer 450 years before Google Maps. Barring major technological innovation like deep space travel, only fiction can offer the thrill of exploration in the 21st century.

Weaknesses

  • Aurally displeasing. First of all, there’s the music, which sounds like a reject from Eurovision 1977. Wikipedia discloses that one of the directors of the show vetoed the original Japanese theme music because it was too “understated.” They may have overcorrected. The other audio issue here is the dubbing. I understand that dubbing comes with the territory in anime, especially if it’s pitched at kids and/or rebroadcast in the US, as was Cities. Still, it’s egregiously terrible here, and the issue is that the creators didn’t even try and rewrite the lines so they fit the amount of animation time they had. I wouldn’t care if the faces didn’t sync up with the dialogue, but once again, they overcorrected–the faces sync up fine, but every other line of dialogue is so rushed that it sounds like you’re watching Gilmore Girls on 2x. A couple of rewritten lines and the show would have been that much more immersive.
  • Padded. I watched four episodes of Cities to get background and they all felt like there was 10 minutes of content in a 20 minute show. Often the padding takes the form of dreadful interludes of “comic” “relief” featuring the bumbling sailors Sancho (Terrence Labrosse) and Pedro (Michael Rudder, Blindside.) Mercifully, they’re only in the background here, but instead we get a pointless excursion to an underground volcano viewing platform and some stupidly careless death-defiance when Esteban and Tao try and climb to the top of the enormous bird statue/airplane. The best kind of suspense is transparently manufactured suspense designed to kill time!

Motivation: There’s a couple things going on here. Any story of exploration is to some extent driven by knowledge, but Esteban is seeking to be reunited with his lost family, and his Spanish guardian is of course looking for money in the form of that sweet, sweet municipal gold.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Definitely nothing too special, and I can’t imagine why anyone who isn’t a nostalgia junkie would want to seek this out.

NEXT TIME: Another review of an extremely short subject as I analyze Disney’s new Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Case Study 47: The Mysterious Cities Of Gold [1982], Episode 18–“Maiden Flight Of The Great Condor”

Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”

Original Airdate: May 28th, 2015 on FOX

Hey look, I’m reviewing a show from this century! The executive producer of Wayward Pines is M. Night Shyamalan, which is somewhat ominous considering the quality of his last eight movies, but thankfully he didn’t write any of the episodes. Pines is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch. This appears to be one of those situations where the entire enterprise was meant to be contained in the first 10-episode season, but the show evidently did well enough in the ratings to merit a second season despite the fact that they’ve run out of novels to adapt. (Game Of Thrones syndrome?)

Strengths

  • Intriguing. Pines owes a suspiciously large amount to Lost and Twin Peaks, and while it manages to set itself apart during its later episodes, the burden of derivativeness looms large over the first few. Anything operating out of the Lost playbook risks suffering from the same ill that plagued that show–lots of mysterious things that promise an interesting story dangled in front of you without any payoff. Thankfully, Pines overcomes this potential flaw and by the fifth episode we’ve got a pretty solid idea of what’s going on without having sacrificed any suspense. In the meantime, the intrigue of the decidedly weird town of Wayward Pines is delectable. Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, There’s Something About Mary) travels to the secluded Idaho hamlet on an investigation for the Secret Service, but when he tries to leave he discovers that all the roads out of town circle back around. He sets off into the forest, only to find a giant electric fence with a sign warning him to return to Wayward Pines, and that “beyond this point you will die.” He even realizes that there are tiny speakers planted everywhere outdoors to simulate cricket song. Part of the reason mysteries and science fiction have proved themselves to be such enduring genres is that humans have a natural curiosity. If you present us with a set of unusual circumstances, we want to know what’s going on. Even if the explanation is ultimately unsatisfying, the very wonder of the intrigue itself is a pleasant sensation. Problems only arise when you try and prolong it indefinitely.
  • Creepy. Pines starts as a mystery and is eventually revealed to be full-blown science fiction, but it consistently offers the rewards of horror fiction. Imagine finding yourself trapped in a town that looks perfectly normal on the outside but which operates on a set of unknown principles, controlled by unknown actors. The consequences of trying to escape are dire: episode 2 ends with a brutal public execution. There’s also plenty of more traditional horror film elements–in this episode, Ethan finds his way into a mysterious storage facility. He’s searching the interior of a car when he’s abruptly interrupted by someone smashing through the window with a syringe full of sedatives. That’s right, a good old fashioned jump scare. Hell, at the end of the episode we get our first glimpse of the hideous, carnivorous monsters that live outside the fence. Strong horror fiction often melds mundane fears with extreme consequences. Here, a fear of nonconformity or malicious nurses and cops gets parleyed into a violent, high-stakes environment. It’s very effective.
  • Melissa Leo and Terrence Howard. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Terrence Howard (Empire) are good in everything, but they especially shine here as the banal faces of evil in Wayward Pines. Leo plays Pam, the nurse at the local hospital. When Ethan wakes up there after the car accident that brought him to Pines, she’s all benevolent smiles, and Leo masterfully manages the transition into creepy insistence that Ethan follow doctor’s orders and then into outright menace as she threatens to give Ethan the incorrect amount of anaesthesia, ensuring that he’ll wake up during brain surgery, unable to move but feeling every cut of the knife. As the first half of the series develops, her aura of veiled menace is pitch-perfect. Howard also displays excellent modulation as the smarmy yet intimidating Sheriff Pope. His character also starts out on the ambiguous side, but even after it’s revealed that, why yes, he DOES slit people’s throats in the town square, Howard’s performance remains captivating and the sheriff seems entirely real–and entirely unpredictable.
  • Raising the stakes. So resolving the mysteries at hand and having Ethan escape the trap of Wayward Pines would give the show plenty of material. By the end of episode 3, the viewer is operating under the assumption that the real world is just on the other side of the fence. It’s tantalizingly close but hopelessly inaccessible, and some unknown evil is controlling the denizens of the town. Then the show tosses us a curveball–Ethan gets the upper hand on Pope in a fight and kills him. After Pope’s been incapacitated but before Ethan finishes him off, Pope murmurs, “You think you want to know the truth, but you don’t. It’s worse than you could ever even imagine.” His claim is immediately proven true. Ethan uses Pope’s keys to open a gate on the fence–and a barely-glimpsed monster emerges to steal Pope’s corpse. I liked Pines quite a bit, but even if it had been terrible I would still have wanted to see Episode 4.

Weaknesses

  • Matt Dillon and Charlie Tahan. This show’s single biggest deficit is the gaping black hole where the personality of the main character should be. Dillon’s emotional range as Burke appears to have “stony” at one end and “slack-jawed” at the other. In the first three episodes, he discovers the dead body of one of his colleagues. He witnesses the execution of his erstwhile co-conspirator (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers) after they botch an attempt to escape the town. He’s confronted with the news that his wife (Shannyn Sossamon, Sinister 2) and son (Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) will also be trapped with him in Wayward Pines. Burke’s reaction? Just another day at the office! This is more of a detriment in any given episode the more heavy lifting that Dillon has to do, but it’s never a good look when your lead actor is lousy. Tahan’s performance as Ethan’s son Ben is one note played over and over again on a poorly tuned and possibly rusty saxophone, and that note is “sulky teenager.” But he’s a child actor. Matt Dillon is a 35-year Hollywood veteran. What’s his excuse?

Motivation: It’s a mix of knowledge (who makes the mysterious phone calls that tell the townspeople what to do?) and survival (Why is this weird, aggressive sheriff in my house all of a sudden?)

Final Judgment: 8/10. This was very good, if somewhat light. One wonders what they’re going to try in the hastily conceived second season. I’d also give an 8/10 to the season as a whole, though there are ups and downs.

NEXT TIME: I travel to a steampunk version of the 16th century as I review The Mysterious Cities Of Gold!

Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”