Friday, February 18, 2011

Good News: Four Promising New Sitcoms of 2011

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 18, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

While the 2010-2011 television season has given us some extraordinary new dramas, comedy lovers haven’t been as lucky. In 2009-2010, the US networks gave us a number of critical and popular successes, most notably Modern Family, Cougar Town, and Community. But this past fall, the only comedy standout has been NBC’s Outsourced. And Outsourced, despite doing consistently well in the ratings, has generated an almost unanimously poor critical reception – one which, in my opinion, is wholly undeserved. Considering the largely disappointing crop from the first half of the season, I awaited this new batch of sitcoms with a mixture of both eagerness and trepidation. Fortunately, it would seem that the networks were saving the best for last!  Below, I review some of the sitcoms that have debuted in 2011 that I believe are worth checking out: Bob’s Burgers (Fox), Traffic Light (Fox), Mr. Sunshine (ABC), and (for our Canadian readers) CBC’s new spy spoof, Insecurity.

Bob’s Burgers (Fox) – Premiered January 9

Bob’s Burgers is the newest addition to Fox’s longstanding Sunday night animation line-up. The new dysfunctional family on the cartoon block is the Belchers, and the series revolves around their struggles to keep their floundering burger joint afloat. Voiced by some of the best talent on television (including Archer’s H. Jon Benjamin as the titular Bob, and The Flight of the Conchords’ Kristen Schaal as his daughter Louise), Bob’s Burgers is a welcome change of pace from the breakneck tempo of Seth Macfarlane’s Family Guy and (the currently far more reliable) American Dad. Its deadpan tone is the valium to Macfarlane’s crack cocaine style of adult cartoon comedy. Creator Loren Bouchard (who produced the 90s-era squigglevision cult favorite, Dr Katz, Professional Therapist) has opted for a lo-fi animation style reminiscent of the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim brand, giving Bob’s Burgers a signature look and feel. Now in its fourth week, I admit I was not initially impressed by the pilot episode. The plot of the pilot – Bob and his family react to rumours circulating that his burgers are made from human flesh – was possibly a little too over the top for this uninitiated viewer. But as its tone and characters grow more defined with each passing episode, my appreciation and understanding of the show grows along with them. Perhaps if I re-watch the pilot again, my initial disaffection for the story will dissipate. True to its timeslot, Bob’s Burgers is shamelessly profane, cringe-inducing, and sublimely tasteless. Nonetheless, there is an unexpected sensitivity and humanity to the series (and especially the protagonist Bob) that makes it well worth every discomfited squirm. 

Traffic Light (Fox) – Premiered February 8

Traffic Light is a new relationship comedy adapted by screenwriter Bob Fisher (Wedding Crashers) from the International Emmy Award-winning Israel sitcom Ramzor. The series revolves around three longtime 30-something male friends, each at different stages in their romantic lives: Mike (David Denman, most famous for playing Pam’s ex-fiancé Roy on NBC’s The Office) is married with child, Adam (Nelson Franklin) has just moved in with his girlfriend, and Ethan (UK transplant Kris Marshall, best known for My Family on BBC) is still single and unattached. I prepared myself for Traffic Light by watching half of the first season of the Israeli sitcom days before the FOX series aired, which in retrospect was about as helpful as reading a novel in advance of seeing its Hollywood film version. Not only can this be a sure recipe for disappointment, it can make it far too difficult to see a new show as an independent entity, with its own strengths and its own ambitions. And all I will say here is that had FOX attempted a straight adaptation of Ramzor, Traffic Light could easily have been the most hilariously profane new sitcom of the year.  As it stands, the pilot of the FOX series showed itself on the high side of average, with a charismatic cast and refreshingly sincere relationships between our three guy friends. It is however precisely this sincerity which separates it so dramatically from the series that inspired it. Nonetheless, by the end of the first episode I found myself charmed by the new show and intend to keep it in my viewing roster for the time being.  (Note: Back in the summer of 2010, the pilot for Traffic Light was circulated to critics under the far superior title of Mixed Signals, and I’m not sure why they decided to revert to the new name, which is a literal translation of the Israeli title. After the untimely cancellation of FX’s mysteriously-named, but pitch perfect, Terriers, I am more sensitive than ever on the risks associated with naming a series. In this age of 200-plus channels, with new shows premiering year-round, a vague or ambiguous title can make or break a series right out of the gate. Here’s hoping Traffic Light can survive long enough to realize its potential.) 

Mr. Sunshine (ABC)Premiered February 9

Starring, co-produced, and co-created by Matthew Perry (along with TV veterans Alex Barnow and Marc Firek, Til Death), Mr. Sunshine is a new workplace comedy with a caustic tone and a brilliant ensemble cast. Perry plays Ben Donovan: the self-involved 40-year-old general manager of the Sunshine Center, an arena that plays host to any numbers of events, from sports, to concerts, and even the odd circus. Completing the comic picture is a wildly unpredictable, and often drug-addled, boss (played with glee by The West Wing’s Allison Janney) and a number of co-workers that range from the incompetent to a touch of the criminally insane. Also notable is the welcome return of Andrea Anders, who was last seen on the cancelled-too-soon Better Off Ted, also on ABC.  Already by the end of the second episode, we are given a glimpse of the comic riches to be mined with this talented cast, who are clearly not there solely to play scenery on “the Matthew Perry Show”.  As for Perry, he slides effortlessly into the character of Ben (no doubt due in part to the fact that he created the character himself), an amiable misanthrope who seems like a sturdy fusion of his Chandler persona and the dourer, self-destructive Matt Albie, who Perry played on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Almost seven years since the last episode of Friends, Perry finally seems at peace with his most famous role, happily playing a cynical charmer who, while not Chandler, is also not obsessively not Chandler. Even if the character he plays isn’t entirely sure of himself, Perry is clearly a man who has become comfortable in his own skin.  

Insecurity (CBC)Premiered January 4

Created by Virginia Thompson (Corner Gas), Insecurity is an action comedy set within the fictional Canadian National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). Set in Ottawa but filmed primarily in Regina, Saskatchewan, Insecurity offers a uniquely Canadian send-up of a genre that often takes itself far too seriously. (24, I’m looking at you!) The series follows a largely incompetent team of spies who, despite their lack of even basic espionage skills, somehow succeed in keeping Canada safe from her enemies, both domestic and foreign. (One episode involves our team taking down a bumbling crew of ultra-conservative domestic terrorists intent on destroying that bastion of Canadian liberalism: the headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.) Insecurity stars Natalie Lisinska (Chloe) as the beautiful team leader and William Devry (The Bold and the Beautiful) as her equally attractive, but easily distracted, boss, Insecurity also boasts the incomparable talents of Rémy Girard, the French Canadian star of the Academy Award winning film The Barbarian Invasions. Girard plays Claude, the wine-loving, middle-aged spy often depicted as the smartest person in the room. Girard’s career in Quebec is legendary (he has appeared in many of the best films and television to ever come out of French Canada), but this is the first time he has appeared in an English language sitcom. The very best of Canadian television comedies are those which unashamedly embrace their Canadianess, and Insecurity is no exception. Though not as ambitious as Slings and Arrows, as intricate as Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom, or as dark as Rick Mercer’s Made in Canada, with intelligent writing that belies the goofiness of its plots and a contagiously irreverent sense of play, Insecurity has them all beat for sheer fun. CBC has already renewed the series for a second season.