Case Study 85: Pair of Kings, Episode 33–“Pair of Clubs”

Original Airdate: October 24, 2011 on Disney XD
When I was a kid I was a regular viewer of the Disney Channel, despite knowing that the material was often sentimental and nauseatingly family friendly. You were never going to find Ren & Stimpy on the Disney Channel. Sometime around the turn of the century, I stopped paying attention to what was happening on the network altogether, so I missed out on a parade of smash hit original live action programming that no doubt shaped the tender brains of many a millennial. Hilary Duff, Raven-Symoné, the Sprouse brothers, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez all managed to crawl out of the primordial slime that was entertaining untold numbers of tweens after school and on the weekends and into the light of quasi-respectability in the world of adult celebrity. But is anything that’s happened in the world of live-action Disney original series worth paying attention to? I have it on good authority that it is not. Nevertheless, here is a review of Pair of Kings.

Strengths

  • One slightly charming joke. Okay, it’s not much, but here it goes. At one point in the story, we’re meant to understand that a week has passed, and we’re shown this information with the traditional image of a calendar’s pages turning. King Boomer (Doc Shaw) turns to King Brady (Mitchel Musso, Hannah Montana) and tells him “Close the drapes; the wind is blowing the pages off the calendar.” Yep, that’s the highlight. A tiny soupcon of postmodern self-awareness. By the way, does anyone reading this actually have a page-a-day paper calendar that shows nothing but the date?

Weaknesses

  • Unfunny. Always a bad way to start things off with a comedy. In case that gem with the calendar didn’t do it for you, here’s a couple other random gags. Boomer wants to open a nightclub in a disused library, which Brady disparages as entailing “storytime at club bookmobile.” Boomer tries to get customers to come to the club by offering visitors an opportunity to kiss him. Villainous cousin Lanny (Ryan Ochoa) receives commands from his talking pet fish Yamakoshi (Vincent Pastore, The Sopranos), causing him to marvel, “How can something that swims in its own toilet be so smart?” How, indeed.
  • What the fuck is even happening here? Just in case you’re as agitated and disoriented as I was when I finished watching Pair, let’s take a quick step back. Pair of Kings is about two brothers who look nothing alike and are also somehow the joint kings of the Pacific island of Kinkow. How can a place have two kings at once? Never mind, who cares. But don’t worry about remembering that bewildering premise, because being island kings has sweet fuck all to do with the story at hand, which is about nightclubs. Why are these teenagers running nightclubs when they’re not old enough to drink? Is it because they want to find people to fuck? No, don’t be stupid, this is Disney, no one fucks anything. So if there’s no drinking, no fucking and no recreational drug use, what’s the point of a nightclub? If you guessed Mitchel Musso singing, you’re in luck. Anyway, evil talking fish exist in this world and for some reason want to overthrow the monarchy. Yamakoshi convinces Lanny to try and trick the kings into…wait for it…raising the dead. Eventually zombies appear. Brady and Boomer come together to defeat them. I wonder if I’ve entered some kind of fugue state. Did I mention that there’s a little person with white guy dreads named Hibachi? (Martin Klebba, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)
  • Cheap-looking. When I think remote Pacific island, I definitely think “soundstage.” When I think about the props in this show, I think “Dollar General.” When I think about the director (Adam Weissman, Liv and Maddie), I wonder if IBM has developed some kind of primitive AI for directing television aimed at America’s slack-jawed preteens. At no point does anyone involved in this show make an intriguing choice in terms of visual presentation and I’ve seen work in high school auditoriums with better production values.
  • Wanting it both ways. Look, I get it if you want to have some comedy violence, especially if the whole plot centers around those awful boys getting torn apart by the ravenous living dead. I also understand that they’re the protagonists and that it’s hard to come back from having your lead get disemboweled. At least tear someone apart. But there’s not even a glimpse of blood, even when Hibachi is turned into a zombie. Apparently it’s a painless transition. If you’re determined to be squeaky clean with this bullshit, maybe don’t raise the dead, especially if you’re raising them to kill people and then they don’t actually kill people. I realize some PTA member out there would be pissed off if there were bloody eviscerations being performed for the benefit of fifth graders, but walk the fucking walk.

Final Judgment: 1/10. By all rights, this should be a total zero, but there’s something hypnotic about the depths of the bizarre mediocrity on display here. It’s confusing, it’s bewildering, but it’s not boring. Family Ties is boring.

NEXT TIME: Let’s never speak of the Disney Channel again, and instead focus on The Six Million Dollar Man.

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Case Study 85: Pair of Kings, Episode 33–“Pair of Clubs”

Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

Original Airdate: March 2nd, 1976 on ABC

When sitcom fans in the 70s weren’t busy watching Archie Bunker yell racial slurs or Mary Tyler Moore throw her hat into the air, they were waist-deep in 50s nostalgia.* It all started with a weirdly successful rom-com anthology series. Love, American Style churned out more than a hundred episodes, which makes me wonder if Ryan Murphy is currently shopping American Love Story. One particularly well-received segment led to Happy Days, an omnipresent television juggernaut. It ran for eleven seasons and spawned a gob-smacking five spinoffs, and without it we wouldn’t have half of the best bit characters on Arrested Development. (In fact, Arrested may never have existed, seeing as how Ron Howard was an executive producer.) The ties between Laverne & Shirley and Days weren’t exactly bone deep—Laverne (Penny Marshall) dated The Fonz for a grand total of three episodes—but L&S was a roaring success in its own right, eventually airing 178 episodes. What works and what doesn’t?

Strengths

  • Cindy Williams. The entire cast does well here, but it’s really Williams’ episode. The premise is that her buddy Laverne has agreed to a hasty marriage proposal without really thinking it through, and Shirley’s conscience and sense of duty to Laverne obligates her to try and intervene. The show was renowned for its use of physical comedy, and you don’t really see too much of that here, but it’s the little moments that sell you. When Shirley finds out about the proposal, she chokes on her drink and Williams spins it into gold. Her chemistry with Marshall is perfect, even this early in the show’s run. There are emotional valences to the story that fail or succeed on their own merits (see below) but Williams credibly displays a range of emotion that you don’t always get in a standard sitcom.
  • Weddings. Shakespeare famously made weddings synonymous with comedy, and the tradition persists to this day. Why? A wedding is the biggest party most people will ever throw and it is ripe for disruption. There’s the solemnity of a church ceremony just waiting to be interrupted—in fact, a traditional ceremony has a moment specifically inviting interruptions, and of course L&S gleefully seizes the opportunity. There’s tons of family and friends mixing together who may not get along. There’s an expensive, ornate, top-heavy cake. While disrupting a funeral can also be hilarious, weddings are a naturally happier occasion and so everyone’s in a better position to laugh it off. We see Laverne’s wedding rehearsal, and while it’s not quite a debacle on the level of the pilot for The Brady Bunch, we at least get to hear greaser/wacky neighbor Squiggy (David Lander) respond to a request to give the bride away by saying “Okay, take her, I ain’t stoppin’ ya.” What are comedies good for if not taking the wind out of stuffy, nonsensical social institutions?
  • Strong character work. You learn something revealing about both of these women over the course of 22 minutes. Shirley cares enough about Laverne to risk a big fight by giving her a wheelbarrow full of wise yet unsolicited advice. I’d venture that most people in her situation would bite their tongue if their friend was considering a bad marriage. Play it out in your head—if I tell you your fiance is an asshole and you’d be a fool to marry him, what happens to our friendship after you go through with it? Not Shirley—she can’t stand the thought. She really does care about Laverne. And what does it say about Laverne that she’d consider this arrangement in the first place? You’d need to be a specific combination of insecure to settle so quickly and laid-back enough to accept the situation for what it is. The thing is, it seems more or less acceptable! Sal (Paul Sylvan, Busting Loose) isn’t an asshole. Laverne is quick to point out that he’s handsome and respectful and kind. She’s not wrong that it’s somewhat childish and unrealistic to expect fireworks and goosebumps to follow naturally along behind romance. You don’t have to have the love of a century to have a reasonably happy marriage that lasts a lifetime. Of course, Shirley talks Laverne out of it, but their conversations are revealing without painting either party as an asshole. It’s some pretty deft characterization, all things considered.

 
Weaknesses

  • Sappy moments. The show isn’t willing to accept that Laverne isn’t exactly wrong about marriage sometimes being a compromise. It tips its hand when we get treated to swelling violins beneath Shirley’s big speech about love and goosebumps and Laverne’s confession that she’s worried she’ll never hear another proposal. Look, I like these people but I don’t like them well enough to go on a Titus-Andromedon-grade face journey.

 
* Why did seventies audiences have such a hard-on for the fifties? A cynic might say that whitebread middle America missed the halcyon days before black people won a seat at the table, because there’s nary a black or brown face in the entire Happy Days expanded universe outside the occasional Very Special Episode.

Final Judgment: 6.5/10. I struggle with these pre-Simpsons comedies. They pre-date the days when a sitcom told five or six jokes a minute. The problem is that while L&S has a strong ground game and good fundamentals, no guts were in danger of busting. Nary a knee was slapped. I can’t really give a full-throated recommendation to a comedy that isn’t actually that funny, but that’s not because it’s badly-written witless tripe. When you’re waiting for the roars of laughter from the studio audience to subside between every wry one-liner you’re not left with much actual content at the end of the day. So I’m splitting a hair. I promise not to turn this into Pitchfork.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been awhile since we’ve gone digging around through the YA bargain bin, and fate has dealt us a Pair of Kings.

Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”

Original Airdate: December 8th, 1990 on Fox

Much like Mission: Impossible, 21 Jump Street was a TV show that made the jump to theaters decades after edifying the nation over the airwaves. The movies are fresh in the minds of the public while neither show is on Netflix. That’s important, because these days if you want to get into the zeitgeist on a streaming platform, Netflix is far and away the preferred option, with 75% of streaming customers in the US having a subscription. Jump is on Hulu, which enjoys a pitiful 17% of the market. Impossible is on CBS All Access, and that’s just too sad to talk about. Anyway, no one gives a shit about the original 21 Jump Street TV show now, but at the time it helped a burgeoning network establish itself with some of the members of their target demographic that don’t enjoy hooting at Christina Applegate. Is it worth revisiting? Look down. Does it say “Strengths” below this paragraph?

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting from men in mullets. This cast of this show had a lot of churn for something that was only on the air for five seasons. Last time I promised you Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) and I lied. Instead, you’ll have to settle for Michael Bendetti as Mac McCann. It’s okay, Benedetti’s cuter and wears less denim. Oh, and he probably doesn’t beat women. He’s also disappeared from the face of the earth, if his IMDb page is any indication. Which is a shame, because he’s not the problem here. That would be Peter and Michael DeLuise, who play goony brothers Doug and Joey Penhall, respectively. They’re obnoxious, their delivery is stilted and here they play undercover cops taking on an all-too-plausible assignment as frat jocks. Because there’s no justice in the world, they both went on to star in seaQuest DSV and Peter was on Stargate SG-1 and all good things in the world were sapped of energy and love.
  • The entire premise of this series is ridiculous and unrealistic. The people that write this show couldn’t even be bothered to set it in a real city, so it’s set in Metropolis. Yes, like Superman. I guess that tells you right there how much they care about realism, which immediately undercuts one of the more fundamental pleasures of a crime procedural. It gets worse, though. The idea behind the show is that the MPD has a special unit of youthful-looking cops who they use to secretly infiltrate the social circles of those rotten teenagers. At least, that was the idea originally. By this episode, everyone was so very tired that mission creep had set in and we lay our scene tonight at a college. Are crimes committed by the YA set so pernicious in Metropolis that there needs to be a special task force? Is this really the best use of everyone’s time and money? I suppose if it helps them solve murders…
  • Oh but wait, this individual episode is even stupider than that. So the death of one Steve Campbell (Noah Beggs, The Interview) instigates the events at hand, but it’s an accidental death. As in, not a murder. Well, but the accident happened right after a robbery! And it turns out Campbell had turned to a life of crime because he was being blackmailed! And he was being blackmailed because he had purchased a term paper and turned it in as his own work! That all adds up to something that should require five people ostentatiously wasting taxpayers’ money, right? At one point, the intrepid Captain Adam Fuller (Steven Williams) counsels his team that while plagiarism is a crime, selling gently used essays isn’t. Except there’s one problem: plagiarism isn’t a crime! Look, I realize it’s TV and I’m willing to forgive a certain level of enhancement but I really feel like “knowing what is a crime” is a bread-and-butter prerequisite for a show about crime-fighting.
  • And who the fuck cares about essay mills and academic dishonesty? I’m not saying they could never be an intriguing plot element, but they’re definitely not intrinsically interesting and you know that Jump isn’t doing anything unique with this material. Although there is one amusing bit—since this is before all 270 million Americans were waist-deep in AOL CDs, the essay mill has an actual brick and mortar location! McCann easily gets a job there, because that’s clearly how the world works. And the plot grinds on, having left us here.
  • But really there’s only maaaaaybe 20 minutes of plot, so we’ve got to pad this shit out. Two guys leave the essay store and McCann and Sgt. Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) are supposed to each take a guy and follow them, which was a dumb plan from the start because McCann’s also supposed to be working the store, but whatever. He’s locking the door behind him when he’s waylaid by sexy blackmail victim Melinda Cross (Venus Terzo, X-Men: Evolution.) The tail is botched! Are there any real consequences for any of this? Nope? We were just filling out the hour? Later, the cops set up a sting where one of the mullets buys and hands in a phony term paper. He’s contacted by the blackmailer. They do the whole “leave a paper bag full of money beneath a park bench” thing. And instead some other dude sees a paper bag full of money, goes to take it and gets arrested. The story continues to go absolutely nowhere. I get that there are dead ends in police investigations, but I don’t know if that needs to be dramatized quite so extensively. In fact, I really don’t think the director (Randy Bradshaw, The Song Spinner) is asking himself  “How can we show the audience that cops need to try a few things before being able to close a case?” It’s probably something more along the lines of “How many more episodes of this crap do I have to shoot before we get syndicated?”
  • They assume the audience is stupid. Oh, god, I can’t believe there’s more. We reach our putative climax as McCann lurks in Cross’s closet, waiting for the blackmailer to arrive. He knocks. Cross opens the door. The blackmailer proceeds to announce, “That’s right! Gary Austin! The store manager!” I realize that the preceding 35 minutes had been eminently forgettable, but the bad guy (Cameron Mitchell Jr., Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days) doesn’t need to smugly declare his name and profession to help guide the slower audience members along.
  • A dumb closing scene to top it all off. Hoffs realizes she hasn’t had anything to do for the entire episode and goes to visit the storefront one last time, where she suggests that the owner (Alex Bruhanski, Bird on a Wire) get a cup of coffee with her so she can convince him to change his evil ways. He brushes her off and she’s says that at least she can sleep at night. And that works! He goes with her and has coffee! In what universe does a cliched lecture from a stern law enforcement officer convince a morally wayward adult to give up on a remunerative life of non-crime?  That’s the world of Metropolis, baby!

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Do you a remember a time before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos when sophisticated urbanites sneered at anyone who owned a television because they assumed it was full of vacuous nonsense with no substance? This is why.

NEXT TIME: Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hassenfeffer Incorporated! That’s right, baby–Laverne & Shirley! I don’t know why I’m so excited, but anything’s gotta be better than this.

Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”