Tuned In

TV Weekend: Burgers and Sides

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This weekend, midseason-debut frenzy kicks into high gear, with several new shows debuting on Sunday alone. I’m on deadline for the print magazine, as well as trying to get some work done in advance before taking some time for personal business next week, so I don’t have time to review any of them at length. But here are some capsule impressions of a quartet of new shows, and I’ll come back to them later if they turn out to be worth it:

Bob’s Burgers (Fox): I’m a huge fan of Loren Bouchard (Home Movies, Dr. Katz)–and, frankly, I would love to see Fox establish a new animated sitcom from someone who is not Seth MacFarlane–so I had high hopes for this show. (Which, as you may have guessed, is about a guy and his family running a burger joint.) So I was disappointed that none of the trailers I saw since Fox announced it made me laugh. But then Fox sent one episode–the first–and it made me think that Bouchard’s conversational style of humor just doesn’t lend itself well to trailers. Like Home Movies (with whom it shares its star, H. Jon Benjamin, now also of FX’s Archer), it’s almost a non-premise sitcom, whose main attraction is how well the vocal actors bounce its digressive dialogue off each other. I did laugh at the pilot, if not as much as I wanted to, so I’ll put this one on probation, and hope.

Episodes (Showtime): It’s hard to pull off a TV show satirizing the idiocy of the TV business without seeming smug; even an excellent show like Ricky Gervais’ Extras sometimes felt as if it were inviting us to thank God that those idiot executives didn’t ruin Gervais’ The Office. And Episodes–in which a British writing couple sells their UK sitcom to an American network, buying into a world of disillusion and lies-with-a-smile–is not as good as Extras. But while the TV satire is far too broad, the dialogue is wittily written, and Matt LeBlanc–playing himself, inappropriately cast by the network to replace the elderly thespian who originated his role–turns out to be a pleasure to watch. LeBlanc, or “LeBlanc,” starts out as an empty-headed showbiz diva, but as the series goes on he develops depth, proving savvy and developing a surprising symbiosis with the creators he was forced on, and the series gains depth with him.

Shameless (Showtime): Irony alert: the plot of Episodes centers on a critically acclaimed UK show that meddling American executives ruin by refusing to let it run essentially unchanged in the US. It’s followed by this American adaption of an acclaimed UK drama, which, at least early on, is almost slavishly unchanged from the original–to its detriment. William H. Macy “stars” (which is to say, does not have the biggest role, but is the biggest star in the ensemble) as Frank Gallagher, a drunk, ne’er-do-well and paterfamilias to a family of six kids in Chicago. Because Frank is rarely around, the family is held together by eldest daughter Fiona (Emily Rossum) while other kids work jobs or pitch in to keep the family together. Like the UK original, there’s a refreshing spunkiness to its depiction of life on the edge–The Wire, this ain’t–and the performances, especially Rossum’s, are strong. But the show needs to find a distinct voice and style. It still has the visual aesthetic of a certain cheeky brand of contemporary British series (see also Skins, being remade for MTV), and though the series has been moved to Chicago, the way it draws its milieu and the mechanics of poverty and society make it feel like we’re still in Manchester. (The series has even kept the original character names, making one of the kids “Liam Gallagher,” a joke on the name of a member of Oasis, which rings false for a blue-collar family this side of the pond.) Because its milieu doesn’t quite ring true, neither yet does the original’s daring mix of dark subject matter and comedy. Instead, it simply too often feels like an unconvincing portrait of poverty and the Gallaghers, like an English council-estate family plopped in the Midwest. The next two episodes depart more from the original, and suggest the series may find its own voice; on the other hand, they’re not nearly as well written, so I can’t say Shameless has successfully crossed the Atlantic yet.

The Cape (NBC): If Heroes was NBC’s attempt to reinvent the superhero story, the The Cape is, I guess, it’s attempt to un-reinvent it? There are heroes and villains with costumes and nicknames (“Chess,” e.g.), a fictional metropolis called “Palm City” and, per the title, a cape. There are also, unfortunately, a stiff performance by star David Lyons, as a cop, on the run for A Crime He Did Not Commit, who becomes the eponymous superhero, and the kind of dialogue that gives comics a bad name (“One man can still make a difference!”). After one dose of this pastiche, expect The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy to be on the Internet within minutes, registering his disgust throughout the world.

Finally, I haven’t yet gotten through the Masterpiece series of Downton Abbey, debuting on PBS Sunday. But from what I’ve seen I can recommend it to fans of the Upstairs/Downstairs school of British drama; see Maureen Ryan’s review for a hearty recommendation.