'Rob,' 'Are You There, Chelsea?,' 'Napoleon Dynamite': Tim Goodman's TV Reviews

Are You There, Chelsea?, NBC

Premieres: Jan. 11, 8:30 p.m. ET

Based on Chelsea Handler’s best selling books, the half-hour comedy stars Laura Prepon as a young semi-autobiographical Handler. Jack McDorman (Greek), Ali Wong (Breaking In) and Mark Povinelli (Water for Elephants) star as Handler’s co-workers at a local sports bar, while Lenny Clarke (Rescue Me) portrayers her father. Handler herself will recur as her real life born-again Christian sister, Sloane.

The following three reviews originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

TV's midseason kicked off 2012 with one of the worst sitcoms in ages -- ABC's Work It -- but in case you feared the lack of ambition and of writing skills were used up for the calendar year, please welcome the trifecta of lameness, aka Rob on CBS, Are You There, Chelsea? on NBC and Napoleon Dynamite on Fox.

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For those keeping track at home, that's one heinous half-hour of unfunny comedy for all four major broadcast networks.

Poorly done job, comedy development departments. Poorly done job.

 The only explanation for Rob is that CBS executives simply are not paying attention anymore.

Perhaps they believe -- with history as a sorry-ass guide -- that whatever they throw on the network will succeed, no matter how poorly executed. It's the only reason anyone could have read the Rob script and thrown money at it for a filmed pilot.

It's hard to know what Rob is going for as a comedy, unless there's some kind of prize for slothful execution with a blatantly obvious take on interracial marriage tossed in for spice. Actor Rob Schneider created the series, according to CBS, "which is loosely based on his whirlwind romance and marriage to Patricia Azarcoya Arce, a TV producer from Mexico."

Now it could very well be that Schneider's association with his wife's extended family is one of shockingly vapid encounters about the cultural divide, or it could be that CBS' comedy development department hammered the right angles and intelligence out of the show before it hit the air.

They're certainly skilled at that.

How else to describe how Schneider's character, an architect with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and, until this point, a lifelong bachelor, can infer that Mexicans must breed wildly during their siestas? And when that is met with polite chagrin from his wife, add on that because they're all Catholic, they must not use protection?

Only a character that dumb can then decide to bond with his father-in-law by talking about guacamole. See, just the sound of "guacamole" is funny, right? It certainly tickled the laugh track (or clueless, screaming audience) on Rob. The series goes on to make jokes about immigration and still more culture-shock thigh-slappers. When those seem played out, there's this offering by Rob: "I hate kids. That's why I keep a cell phone near my balls so I don't make one."

But the nadir of a pilot that is dull, dimwitted and offensive comes when Rob, visiting the parents of wife Maggie (Claudia Bassols), walks into her grandmother's room and admires the shrine she has built to her late husband, complete with burning candles. Rob knocks the photo into the candles, pulls his pants down and rubs his crotch up and down frantically until the grandmother comes out to see this. "I poured hot wax on my genitals," he tells her, then wrestles with her as she tries to get away, only to have the family arrive as they fall into an embarrassing sexual position. This is known on the show as the "humped my grandma" moment.

Or, if you prefer, the exclamation point on the lameness of Rob.

Airdate 8:30 p.m. Jan. 12 (CBS)
Cast Rob Schneider, Claudia Bassols, Cheech Marin, Diana Maria Riva, Lupe Ontiveros, Eugenio Derbez

Are You There, Chelsea?

Based loosely on the life of comedian Chelsea Handler, NBC's Are You There, Chelsea? can partly be judged on its title. The original title was Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, the title of Handler's popular book, and you have to wonder why NBC changed it to something that really makes no sense. Perhaps the half-assed attempt to connect the title to the book is mirrored by the half-assed attempt to make outrageousness the premise for a sitcom.

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Starring Laura Prepon (an actress who will hopefully one day get better material), Chelsea tells the story of a woman who works as a waitress at a sports bar and says stuff like, "I'm so excited to show him my boobs," talks about "boners" and excessive drinking and, well, if you're familiar with Handler at all, then you know the series. There's no crime in turning her life into a sitcom -- it's certainly better than Rob. But there's definitely an "Is that all there is?" element to Chelsea. The show is so wrapped up in moving the needle of apparently outrageous behavior that it never does anything but repeat itself. Handler has a recurring role as elder sister Sloane, which gives her a chance to play both sides of the shtick, but her presence almost makes the jokes even more obvious.

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In many ways, Chelsea pairs well with NBC's other forced sitcom, Whitney (and that's not a particularly good thing), with the two series reflecting the blind spot of NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who loves ferociously independent, borderline obnoxious women (see Weeds and Nurse Jackie on Showtime, his old stomping ground).

The problem is, that type of character -- brash, fearless, proudly in-your-face -- works better on dramas than comedies because it allows actresses a wider range. Stuffed into a sitcom, those traits nearly always are played as sassy/sexual -- which might be shocking if you've never been to a big city, but once that attitude is spread thinly over a number of predictable jokes, the reaction is more likely to be, "Great; now what else ya got?"

In Chelsea's case, nothing.

Airdate 8:30 p.m. Jan. 11 (NBC)
Cast Laura Prepon, Lenny Clarke, Lauren Lapkus, Jake McDorman, Chelsea Handler, Ali Wong

Napoleon Dynamite

The reaction to Fox's decision to animate Napoleon Dynamite, a cult movie made in 2004, is mostly this: "Why?" Or sometimes this: "Really?"

Really. The why isn't all that difficult to suss out -- networks like known entities (The Firm, Hawaii Five-0, Prime Suspect, etc.), whether they're bankable or not. Although it might not be true in real life, sometimes in Hollywood there's a sense that no new ideas exist, so recycling is the next
best thing.

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And though the creators of Napoleon Dynamite, Jared and Jerusha Hess, believe that the movie was essentially a three-dimensional cartoon to begin with, animating it doesn't actually make it better (or even funny), even if you bring back the original cast to do the voice work. That's partly because Napoleon Dynamite already was an acquired taste.

He's a 16-year-old nerd living in Idaho and battling the often embarrassing and painful coming-of-age rituals that occur in high school and at home. Jon Heder infused the film character with cynical-dolt genius, reducing slack-faced dismissiveness to an art form. That laconic pacing and approach to life might work in a cult film where catchphrases abound, but it's less effective as animation, partly because The Simpsons and Family Guy work triple-time on verbal and visual jokes while Napoleon Dynamite seems one-note.

In fact, Napoleon Dynamite seems closer in tone to King of the Hill, Fox's long-gone animated gem, except that it's not nearly as clever or evolved. Maybe those people who saw the movie will love the series and vote for Pedro and pals yet again, but the prediction here is that the movie doesn't translate as effortlessly as its creators thought and has a short, Allen Gregory-type life on television.

Airdate 8:30 p.m. Jan. 15 (Fox)
Cast Jon Heder, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Haylie Duff, Sandy Martin, Jon Gries