November 30, 2011 4:49pm PT by Tim Goodman
'I Hate My Teenage Daughter' and 'The Exes': A Culture of Low-Bar Ambition
If you’ve ever thought, confidently, that you could write a sitcom in your sleep based on all of the crappy 30 minute comedies you’ve seen through the years, then Fox’s I Hate My Teenage Daughter and TV Land’s The Exes will confirm your belief with distressing clarity.
And yet, maybe it’s just too easy to dismiss the hackneyed and predictable nature of each – they air tonight – and instead the focus should be on how this kind of half-assed brand of entertainment even gets on the air.
So, close your eyes and think about this theory: Let’s say you’re a budding TV writer. You love television. You watch it all the time. You know you can do it and you’re going to prove that you can do it – for good money, no less. But maybe what you don’t know – and this is the scientific part – is that you have been brain-washed through the years to judge where the bar of quality really is. Yes, you’ve been conditioned by a history of unfunny comedies to think that all you have to do is regurgitate all that is simple and easy and comfortable and people will pay you for the effort.
Theoretically, you’d be right. All you have to do is study mediocrity in, say, a 10-year period of primetime. And you’ll spot the trends – punch lines you can see coming before they’re spoken. A laugh track that makes you want to giggle at a joke that is a variation on 30 or 50 other similar jokes. You can manipulate your characters in a way that will make them familiar – and familiarity is essential here – so that viewers will feel a kinship with them and thus chuckle along at their sitcom actions.
Ah, isn’t that a soft and warm cocoon of easy living? Yes, it is.
But that doesn’t make it right. What you’re not admitting to yourself – you, the budding, possibly fictional wannabe sitcom writer – is that repeating what is easy and proven and successful doesn’t make you a comedy writer. It makes you an enabler.
And so, for those who wrote the lackluster and witless collection of early episodes for I Hate My Teenage Daughter and The Exes, perhaps scorn isn’t appropriate. Maybe they just need to see that what they are doing isn’t merely making a living, but perpetuating a state of narcotic faux-joy and laughter on the American public. By keeping viewers in this comfortable state of familiarity, the writers are essentially pressing the button that adds the narcotic into the drip line that feeds into the vein of the general population, keeping the masses anesthetized against wanting something more challenging and ultimately more rewarding.
Maybe this knowledge, this image, will make them stop. Yes?
One can dream.
On the other hand, maybe churning out easily digestible pabulum is precisely what the masses want and this makes the writers of bad sitcoms something akin to care-givers instead of, say, masters of hackery.
Whatever – the damage is already done here. The Exes (10:30 p.m., TV Land) is perhaps a series that gets a bigger pass because TV Land has done nothing but produce familiar and predictable sitcoms based on a formula that the more soft corners there are and more well-trodden the comedic territory is the better. But this sitcom about three divorced guys living across the hall from their divorce lawyer doesn’t get any more watchable just because TV Land cleverly cast actors who have been in funnier shows in the past than this one. Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock From the Sun) is Holly, the divorce lawyer who can’t find love; Donald Faison (Scrubs) is playboy Phil, Wayne Knight (Seinfeld) is reclusive and lonely Haskell and David Alan Basche (a string of fine movies and TV roles) is needy Stuart – all forced to recite lines quite inferior to the ones in their past.
Stuart cooks a breakfast scramble and Haskell says, “So, you’re gay, huh?” Holly says things twice when she’s lying: “No I didn’t. No I didn’t.” Phil gets annoyed at Stuart’s neediness: “You’re like my ex-wife, without the expensive breasts.”
Yeah. Stuff like that. Over and over again. The trouble with The Exes is you keep wishing these actors, who have been so funny in the past, were still on those shows instead of this one. But they’re not and The Exes will probably be a hit for a crowd not expecting a lot (like Hot In Cleveland) and everybody will get paid, so, what’s the harm? Oh, that's another column.
I Hate My Teenage Daughter (9:30 p.m., Fox) has the same problem of good actors in bad parts – it’s just more annoying because unlike TV Land, Fox really does know better. The gist of the series is that two divorced moms, Jamie Pressly and Katie Finneran, were pathetic growing up and are pathetic now, as grown ups. They allow their popular, good-looking and devious teen daughters to run the house. The moms can’t say no.
Hopefully, after reading the next couple of paragraphs, you can.
Only a high-gloss and clueless broadcast network would cast Pressly as Annie, a dowdy, insecure mother who apparently can’t find a man, while her bratty daughter Sophie (Kristi Lauren) is the sexy one. In what world is this believable?
The smart and likeable Finneran is Nikki, whose insecurities have apparently led to an ambitionless life where wanting to be best friends with her bratty daughter Mackenzie (Aisha Dee) is a dream that always falls apart, leaving her to stuff her face with food (in one scene, literally, for supposed comic effect).
Eric Sheffer Stevens is Matt, Annie’s ex and a musician who only thinks about the next young thing to bed – because Pressly is apparently so unattractive. Chad Coleman (who was so fantastic as Cutty on The Wire), plays Gary, the golf pro ex of Nikki. The two ex-husbands pop in repeatedly just to spout lines that show how happy they are not to be married to these insecure losers anymore. “My doctor said I had to give up you, or salt. And you know I love my salt,” Gary says.
There’s even a joke about how the white golfers he’s giving lessons to call Gary “Tiger” because, well, he’s a black golfer. Get it?
Yes, the whole world gets it and doesn’t think it’s funny. Which is pretty much the problem with this series in a nutshell.
Who wants to watch a sitcom where snotty teens play mean girls to their mothers (when they are not texting, of course)? When Annie recalls how her daughter Sophie said she didn’t know how to dress, she asks Nikki, “Who says that?” To which Nikki replies: “I’ll tell you who says that. A bitch!”
You’d think with Broadway and film actress Finneran (who also starred in the cult comedy, Wonderfalls), the writers would give her something more substantive and less embarrassing, but no. And every time Pressly delivers a line, you wish she were still making My Name Is Earl instead. Or any show but being miscast in this role (even though she tries her damndest to make the stupid funny).
With any luck, both of these shows will die quickly and the talented actors in each will find work in other series that don’t pander so tragically to the notion that Americans will laugh at anything because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do by sitcom after low-bar sitcom.