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 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Original Airdate: November 30th, 1983 on NBC

The family sitcom is the last refuge of the scoundrel of TV mediocrity. If you have airtime to fill and no interesting ideas to fill it with, give us cute kids, some tame humor and the barest shred of novelty. It’s hard to enjoy the anodyne domestic stories of years gone by in a post-Simpsons world, but it does make it easier to understand why that show made such a splash and why Married With Children might have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Of course, everything old is new again. At this point, arch depictions of dysfunction seething beneath conformity are boring (F is for Family, anyone?) and an old-fashioned goofy family sitcom like Modern Family has a wheelbarrow full of Emmys, despite not really being as modern as all that. Which is all well and good: if it’s funny, it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking. Family Ties is self-evidently not groundbreaking. It centers around the political conflict between liberal parents and a conservative son, an empty mirror image of the much more interesting All in the Family. But is it funny? Well-l-l-l….

Strengths

  • Hilarious 80s fashion. Nothing says style like a fuschia vest over a dark purple sweater, worn with panache by the inestimable Tina Yothers as eleven-year-old Jennifer. Meanwhile, teenage Mallory (Justine Bateman) is headed off to school in inexplicable Laura Ingalls Wilder cosplay. And I realize that annoying neighbor Arlene (Tanya Fenmore, My Stepmother is an Alien) is supposed to be nerdy, but all the lace ruffles are a touch extra even for her.
  • One mildly amusing line. Laughs and even smiles are few and far between in this joyless “comedy,” but there was one tiny moment. Loathsome teenage Republican Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is coaching Jennifer’s softball team with a decidedly Malthusian philosophy. All of the other girls start to back out so as not to have to deal with him, and we hear one side of his phone conversation with a truculent mom. I’ll pause here to say that a one-sided phone conversation is always an easy way to get a laugh. Some of the most potent comedy asks us to rely on our imagination of offscreen reactions and events. We see him saying, “Ms. Scofield, be reasonable…this is the championship game and we’re going to forfeit without Charlotte…We can give her her medication between innings!”

 

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting. There’s a reason most of these people didn’t have much of a career outside this show. Fox was the breakout star, and he’s more or less inoffensive here, if a bit whiny. This episode is really a showcase for Jennifer, and Yothers handles herself with surprising competence, though we’re still grading on the child actor curve. Everyone else might as well be extras at a midwestern dinner theatre. Thankfully, the worst-in-show award goes to someone who’s not a part of the main cast: Marc Price as Skippy, Arlene’s equally annoying older brother.
  • Learning a valuable lesson. One thing I’ve learned writing this blog is that while overcooked melodrama is tedious, nothing is as intolerable as bad comedy. I was wrong. There is one thing more intolerable: bad moralistic comedy. I realize that 20th-century family sitcoms are notorious for this, but it’s very hard to do well. It takes someone like Norman Lear to be able to take an ethical dilemma and make it funny as well as thought-provoking. Needless to say, he didn’t work for Family Ties. In tonight’s episode, we learn that while winning is nice, it’s not worth damaging your friendships or brutalizing little girls. Well, except that…
  • There are no real consequences. Guess what happens at the end of this trifling nonsense? It looked like Alex wouldn’t have enough players to field a team due to his and Jennifer’s sociopath-adjacent behavior. Then Arlene and the girls on the team forgive them and they all run off to play in the game after all. What the hell was the point of all this if the Keatons get away with their bullshit anyway after a few half-hearted apologies?
  • Ableist humor. You know what this episode needed? A throwaway joke about “midget kickboxing.” Okay, so this might be unfairly applying the political standards of 2017 to 1983, but either way it’s not funny. Find a way to make your shitty jokes without mocking people because of their medical conditions or don’t make them at all. I mean, they might as well have not made any jokes at all judging by the humor of the end product.
  • Sexual harassment. Again with this bullshit. Hey comedy writers: stop sending the message that refusing to take no for an answer is funny or charming or endearing. It’s creepy and women have to deal with this behavior constantly. Part of the reason for that? Media that makes it seem innocent and acceptable. Honestly, I feel bad for Mallory! She exhibits remarkable restraint by ignoring Skippy instead of telling him to go furtively masturbate in his mother’s closet, and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) still chides her for being rude. Pretty sure that Skippy is the rude one, since he’s practically dry-humping the furniture. Quit perpetuating patriarchal hegemony, Elyse.

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Hey, it turns out the things I said were strengths were kind of backhanded compliments at best! Would you look at that.

NEXT TIME: I review Brides of Christ, an Australian miniseries about nuns possibly having fun in the 1960s. It’s not a comedy, but it’s still probably funnier than this horseshit.

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Original Airdate: December 14th, 1980 on CBS

Previously in this space we’ve discussed Norman Lear’s groundbreaking classic All in the Family. At the time I pointed out that Family was just the beginning of a cottage industry of sitcoms unafraid to probe political issues across racial, class and gender divides. He made sitcoms about working class white conservatives, rich white liberals, black families with newfound wealth and black families in the inner city. His next idea was to turn his attention to the newly relevant phenomena of single parent households—by 1980 nearly 20% of American children lived in such homes. This led to One Day at a Time, a sitcom about a divorcee raising two teenage girls. Lear had struck gold—Time was a huge hit and eventually ran for nine seasons. Some TV executive out there still thinks the show is relevant, because apparently it’s slated for a Gilmore Girls-esque reboot on Netflix. But is the original worth your time?

Strengths

  • Serious plot. This is one of the things that was refreshing about Lear—he wasn’t afraid to have a comedy deal with serious issues, even if that meant sacrificing opportunities for laughs. His legacy lives on in modern-day comedies like Transparent that relentlessly probe contemporary society while still managing to be funny, to the point where the legitimacy of that show’s Emmy nomination category is endlessly debated. In this episode, we have the protagonist’s mother, Katherine Romano (Nanette Fabray, The Band Wagon) trying to get back on the dating market in light of her husband’s recent death. It wouldn’t be a Lear sitcom if Katherine wasn’t treated as a sensitive, human subject.

Weaknesses

  • Missed opportunities. The problem is that the show doesn’t do anything interesting with what could have been really juicy material. After she makes a pass at wacky neighbor figure Schneider (Pat Harrington Jr.), he turns her down. He consoles her by telling her that now’s her chance to be alone and find out who she REALLY is on the inside. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Now I’m not saying that her self-actualization wouldn’t be interesting, but that’s not what we’re getting here. Instead, we get to watch her get prompted towards self-actualization with no payoff. This is a great example of where the writers could have followed the golden rule of improv: accept the premise provided by the script and expand on it, instead of shutting it down and trying to go in another direction. Why not let Katherine and Schneider have an affair? There’s several different ways that could go. Maybe Katherine’s daughter Ann (Bonnie Franklin) is grossed out by her mom’s newfound sexuality and has to come to terms with that. Maybe Katherine thinks Schneider is more serious than he is and winds up lovelorn. Maybe they discover a problematic incompatibility. Maybe she realizes she’s not really done grieving her late husband. Instead, we’re just teased with the possibility of what could have been.
  • Nanette Fabray. Fabray’s Katherine might be fine as a comedic foil for Franklin’s Ann, but she struggles to stand on her own as the centerpiece of this episode. She’s dealing with complicated emotions like loss, heartbreak and despair. She flirts, she dances, she’s meant to come across as vivacious, but by the end of the episode she’s proclaiming that she’s got nothing to live for. Fabray doesn’t have the range for this and comes across like a stiff product of mid-century vaudeville and musical theater.
  • Primitivist joke. Primitivism is a term most frequently associated with art, but it’s a useful shorthand for a variety of racist thinking not too distantly related to Orientalism. If Orientalism exaggerates and exoticizes Arabs and Asians under the guise of an artistic sensibility, Primitivism does much the same for people living in Latin America and Africa. It casts these people as savage barbarians who are nonetheless spiritually connected to the earth and primal forces of sexuality and magic. It’s one tool out of many that white viewers use to distance themselves from everyone else. Here, it’s deployed in the service of a profoundly stupid joke: Schneider tells an anecdote about dating a “Mayan lass” in the Yucatan who couldn’t participate in a human sacrifice ritual because, thanks to Schneider, she was no longer a virgin. Now, some seven million people still describe themselves as Mayan in the 21st century, and before the Spanish conquest the historical Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Of course, that stopped in the 17th century and no one was throwing virgins down wells in the first place, so this joke isn’t just offensive, it makes no fucking sense in light of the show’s otherwise studied realism. Is it really worth being racist to make another dumb joke about how Schneider is slutty?

Final Judgment: 3/10. Norman Lear’s work is always interesting, but this is not the best specimen. Hopefully Netflix can rehabilitate this apparently beloved IP for the 21st century.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Eva Longoria had an original animated series for adults on Hulu? Come back next time as I review the unfortunately named Mother Up!

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Original Airdate: November 26th, 2004 on Channel Four

He’s not well-known in the US, but in Britain Peter Kay is a bona fide comedy star. His 2010 stand-up comedy tour holds the Guinness World Record as the most successful comedy tour of all time, with 1.2 million tickets sold, and he’s been the star of a staggering amount of television shows and specials, although since this is Britain we’re talking about, his total amount of air time is still dwarfed by something like Everybody Loves Raymond. Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere is a spinoff of Phoenix Nights, a sitcom about a working men’s club in Northern England. In the final episode of Phoenix, the club’s doormen go on the run in an RV after a wacky misadventure. If there’s one thing TV loves, it’s a wacky misadventure, so they continue apace in Nowhere.

Strengths

  • Peter Kay as Max. The show isn’t riotously funny, but I can understand why Peter Kay’s career has been such a success. Almost all of the laughs come from his portrayal of Max, a bumbling and oafish but well-intentioned lowlife. It’s the little things that do it—the affection when he calls Paddy a “melon,” the indignant squawks of “How dare you!?,” and the gormless look on his face when everything goes wrong. This episode contains an inexplicably serious storyline, and Kay does credibly well with the dramatic fare. At one point Max straight-up launches into song, and Kay’s singing voice isn’t bad! For Kay, it’s quite a tour de force for a 22 minute sitcom.
  • Restrained and reasonably sensitive portrayal of dwarfism. This episode deals with Max running into his ex-girlfriend Tina (Lisa Hammond,) and she’s a little person. For a show with a distinctly vulgar sensibility, this isn’t played for laughs. No one feels the need to remark upon it and there are arguably no jokes at her expense. I say arguably because at one point Tina tells Max that she’s secretly given birth to his child. Max blurts out, “How tall is he?” He quickly corrects himself. I think this is really more of a joke about Max being a dumbass, but I also don’t have dwarfism or, indeed, any physical disability, so feel free to contact me and tell me if you feel differently about this exchange or Tina’s portrayal in general. Either way, it’s a damn sight better than Life’s Too Short.

Weaknesses

  • Crass. It tells you something about a show’s sense of humor when the very first thing that happens in a given episode is someone farting. Shortly thereafter, Max accidentally soaks a traffic cop with a bucket of urine. Later, a party-goer sings an angry song about being pressured into a vasectomy. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I don’t love this kind of humor. I prefer it when comedy reflects psychological, social and cultural foibles, or when it’s just flat-out absurdist surrealism. Everyone farts. Regardless of what Louis CK says, it’s not intrinsically funny. The piss joke is a little better because the director employs the classic comedy technique of conveying the awful situation (the piss-soaked bobby) and cutting away before we see the fallout.
  • Gay panic. I watched two episodes of this show and they both feature jokes about the protagonists cringing as people confuse them for lovers. Wikipedia tells me that this is also a central plot point in a third episode. Look, this wasn’t funny when it happened 9 million times on Friends and it’s not funny now. Maybe you could make a mealy-mouthed argument similar to the one I just made about Tina and say this is really a joke about their insecurity in their masculinity, but I’d just rather not have to spend the time making excuses.
  • Attempt at serious dramatic storytelling. The two episodes I watched were a study in contrasts. One was a shaggy dog story about trying to steal a plasma TV, and the other was about Max coming to terms with the fact that his ex has moved on—despite the fact that she secretly had his baby. It’s not a felicitous marriage of sitcom and soap opera. It doesn’t help when the show doubles down on this with a maudlin scene featuring Max singing the entirety of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” while giving Tina pointed looks. I mean, she could have left the room after the first verse. That would have given us more time for actual jokes. There is eventually a high comic resolution to this story when Max and Paddy abduct a school bus full of children in an effort to get closer to Max’s newfound son. Of course, the kid isn’t even on that particular bus. I’m not sure that’s worth trying to get the viewer invested in Max’s love life, though.

Final Judgment: 5/10. It turns out there’s a reason Nowhere fever hasn’t spread around the globe.

NEXT TIME: On the one hand: Pirates! On the other hand: A Starz original series…I review Black Sails.

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Original Airdate: December 11th, 1971 on CBS

Back in the 1970s, All In The Family was a big deal. It wasn’t just because it was a ratings smash, though it was the number one show on TV for five years running. It was incredibly controversial in an era when any individual television show had a much larger slice of the zeitgeist. Sure, shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective get a lot of buzz, but consider this: the most recent season finale of Thrones enjoyed the highest ratings pull the series has drawn in its history with nearly nine million viewers. During the season this episode of Family aired, it was averaging 34 million a week. Take all the hype you heard about the Red Wedding and imagine four times that many people talking about Archie Bunker’s toilet. The show’s astronomical success made Norman Lear the de facto king of the 1970s sitcom, and he became known for a slate of hilarious sitcoms that took on social issues from varying sides of class, racial and gender divides. Sanford and Son, One Day At A Time, The Jeffersons and Good Times were also big hits, and as it happens, this particular episode of Family was the jumping-off point for another successful spinoff in the form of Maude.

Strengths

  • Strong characters. At first blush, the cause for controversy is obvious. Family patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was a TV antihero before it was cool. He comes across in 2016 as the raging id of a Trump supporter. Still, even in 1971, people were understandably uncomfortable about having people yell racial slurs in a primetime sitcom. But Archie isn’t a Cartman-esque sociopath. He’s a three-dimensional character who displays real depth and humanity alongside knee-jerk bigotry and reactionary vitriol. Here we get to hear about his typically crude courtship of his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton.) It involves, among other things, Archie putting straws up his nose and pretending to be a walrus. Sure, he’s mean to Edith and he yells at her and calls her names…but he makes her laugh. It definitely doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does make him seem like a real person.
  • Great cast, especially Bea Arthur. O’Connor and Stapleton are gems as always—I challenge you not to laugh at the sequence where Edith is timing a minute by counting 60 Mississippi’s, loses count, and starts to sing the Minute Waltz—but the real star here is Maude, as played by the indomitable Arthur (The Golden Girls.) Her dynamic with O’Connor is perfect, and I love the role Maude plays in the story as well. Not many people can successfully hold their own up against Archie’s endless supply of bluster, but Maude shuts him down, and it is perfect. She makes a pointedly menacing comment about Edith—”I’d kill for that girl”—and O’Connor’s reaction is spot on. Ever the asshole, he eventually comes back with a deliciously nasty comment about how she already buried two husbands, but despite the fact that he always needs to get the last word, the real reason he spends so much of the first act fulminating about Maude’s impending visit is that he knows he’s met his match, and Arthur is more than up for the job.
  • Funny. The comedic genius of this show is such that it’s not exactly easy to point to a handful of lines or gags out of context that make it solid gold material. It’s a holistic experience. So much of the comedy comes from a stellar cast performing well-written characters in an interesting dynamic. When Maude rouses Archie by cheerfully singing “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain, it tells us something about Maude’s unique variety of passive-aggression, and it’s also funny for three different reasons: Archie’s miserable reaction, the fact that Maude is being a dick but has plausible deniability because she’s being jaunty about it, and because Bea Arthur sells the hell out of the bit. The strength of the comedy is only enhanced by the fact that the writers aren’t afraid to have the characters openly adhere to distinct political viewpoints. In the third act Archie and Maude have a climactic argument about Maude’s beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Of Eleanor, Archie fulminates that “she was the one who discovered the coloreds in this country. We never knew they was there!” This line is great because in addition to exposing the foolishness of its underlying ideology, it’s entirely plausible that the inarticulate Archie would say this without realizing how ridiculous it sounds. Archie genuinely believes that the world has been made a worse place thanks to women and minorities creating a culture of grievance, and while William F. Buckley might agree, it’s clear that the emperor has no clothes when Archie puts forth the issue in his inimitable style.
  • Politics. And let’s all just take a moment and appreciate the fact that this sitcom spends a full three minutes of its runtime on a heated shouting match about FDR’s legacy. These days television shows are mostly apolitical. Producers want characters that “everyone” can relate to, so those characters don’t have weird sexual, religious, political, ethnic, national or gender identities, unlike the people you probably know in your real life. Of course, the end result is very few people can actually relate. In real life, political beliefs are a core aspect of most people’s identity. The FDR argument is entertaining, but it also provides refreshing insight into Maude and Archie’s respective worldviews. It’s also quite novel. Part of the reason this show was such a hit was because it was unlike anything else on TV. Nobody was talking about the Yalta Conference on Mister Ed.

Weaknesses

  • Bathroom humor. Okay, a big part of what makes Archie Bunker who he is is that he’s unapologetically crude. It’s in the show’s DNA. That still doesn’t make it particularly funny when we’re all meant to enjoy a good laugh when Edith gives Archie Milk of Magnesia instead of Kaopectate. You get it?! Because it’s going to make him shit more! And he’s already got diarrhea! That’s not to say this sort of thing is entirely hopeless. It can work if it’s reasonably well-integrated into the story. Maude gives Archie a delicious breakfast of cream of wheat with cheese (“It’s light, but it binds,” she reassures him) but it doesn’t help. He angrily declares that Maude was wrong again as he rushes to the bathroom. It’s pretty choice that he’s making it a point to one-up her in the middle of his intestinal distress, and the fact that he’s a jerk makes his mild suffering funnier, and “it’s light, but it binds” is an intrinsically amusing phrase, especially coming out of Bea Arthur. Nevertheless, I could have done with less about Archie’s bowels.

Final Judgment: 9/10. Family is unquestionably classic television. It lands comfortably in any top ten list of the best shows of all time, and “Cousin Maude’s Visit” was the entry TV Guide chose for Family’s ninth-place berth on their Top 100 Episodes list. Nevertheless, much like Don Draper, Sterling Archer or Frank Underwood, Archie is decidedly an acquired taste.

NEXT TIME: I cover our first Australian offering when I review the YA hit Dance Academy.

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”

Original Airdate: January 20th, 1991 on ITV

Politics is an intriguing and underexposed subject for television shows, and the British have proven extremely adept at generating high-quality political fiction like Yes Prime Minister, The Thick Of It and The Politician’s Husband. But The New Statesman is something of an odd duck. In terms of political tv shows, the cheerfully scheming immorality of its characters reminds me of House of Cards, while its sense of humor calls to mind Married…With Children. If you think that sounds like a bizarre combination, you’d be absolutely right.

Strengths

  • Edgy. Shows like Married lay claim to edginess by wholeheartedly embracing vulgarity and coarseness, and shows like Game Of Thrones reach for the ever-popular audience of easily titillated man-children by stabbing pregnant women in the baby and chopping horses in half, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen a sitcom whose plot revolved around cocaine purchases and car bombs. Perhaps it’s because the British have more creative license than censorious Americans. I don’t want to make the mistake of identifying mere novelty as quality, but these elements are at the very least attention-getting.
  • Rik Mayall. The main character has the on-the-nose name of Alan B’Stard (Mayall, The Young Ones), which gives you an idea of the level of humor we’re dealing with here, but Mayall sells the material. He goes from preening cockiness to pitiful obsequiousness very smoothly, and he makes a cartoonishly evil character seem real. Given his obvious talent, it makes sense that he’d be offered the starring role in a sitcom in light of his work in cult classics like Young and The Comic Strip Presents.

Weaknesses

  • Three different flavors of unfunny. There’s always the risk when you’re mocking a conservative character that you’re inviting the viewer to laugh with their despicable comments about the world instead of laughing at them. Shows like this one, All In The Family, Will & Grace or South Park all have character-based jokes that embrace this ambiguity. It can be done well, but one important caveat remains salient. In the wake of controversies brought about by things like greasy sewer clot Daniel Tosh wishing rape on his hecklers and Jerry Seinfeld whining about how you damn college kids can’t take a joke, it’s important to remember that a big reason why shitty jokes about rape victims and gay people are shitty is not just because of their politics but because it’s also hack material. A creative comedian can respond to a female heckler with something other than rape threats, and a creative comedian can critique a fickle, callow youth culture without relying on tired gay stereotypes. So I’m not exactly inclined to roll in the aisles when B’Stard makes a joke about how women’s pussies smell weird, even if the joke could remotely be construed as being about his own sexual repression. Then there’s every first-grader’s favorite: bathroom humor! At one point B’Stard’s long-suffering office mate Piers Fletcher-Dervish (Michael Troughton) is doing toe touches while bemoaning a mung bean casserole he was compelled to eat, and of course he farts right in B’Stard’s face. Yeah, yeah, Shakespeare and Aristophanes both used fart jokes, but you’ll forgive me for not jumping off that particular bridge. The third cardinal sin of comedy on display here is one that makes a lot of sense in context but is still unlikely to whet the appetite of the contemporary viewer: extremely dated political humor. At one point, Alan is on the phone with Salman Rushdie, who is bemoaning his ill fortunes: “First The Satanic Verses, then you poured all your royalties into Polly Peck shares!” When was the last time you heard a good joke about Enron? Or how about this gem: when confronted with a £40,000 ransom to call off eco-terrorist attacks on his office, Alan exclaims “that’s more than John Major charges for a peerage!” This stuff may have seemed like cutting political commentary at the time, but it’ll have today’s viewers struggling to remember what was going on in the news in Britain back in the early 90s.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has potential, but a comedy can have a great cast and original ideas and it’s all worthless if it’s not funny.

NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of the deep cuts of British television by reviewing the mid-seventies short-form cartoon Roobarb!

Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”