The story of USA’s comedy struggles is established: The network paid a lot for Modern Family repeats and hoped to build a brand around that seemingly lucrative syndicated asset, but whether the resulting comedies have been well-received (Playing House), generated mixed responses (Sirens) or forgotten entirely (Benched), nothing USA has tried has really worked as planned, including those Modern Family repeats.
Perhaps that’s why USA is raiding sibling network CNBC for established self-appointed wisdom-giver Donny Deutsch, star of The Big Idea, who moves into the sitcom realm with Donny!, which premieres on Tuesday night (Nov. 10) and appears to hail from the same school of ironic punctuation that brought us Jeb!
Congratulations, USA. It’s an Emeril!
Every few years, a TV network decides that a TV personality who seems funny in spontaneous small doses would be even funnier in extended contrived doses and they attempt to build a sitcom around variably fictionalized versions of these media stars. The hastily canceled 2001 NBC series Emeril, which proved conclusively that Emeril Lagasse should stick to enthusiastic applications of garlic and The Trinity, is just one high-profile example of this phenomena.
USA would protest that Emeril failed because it was wholly and badly scripted, thereby missing the off-the-cuff energy that made people love Lagasse, if you happen to believe that people loved Lagasse. In contrast, Donny! is described in promotional materials as “soft-scripted.”
In literal terms, this seems to mean that a heavy improvisational component is involved.
In practical terms, this leads the viewer to an increased appreciation for actual scripts. There’s precious little chance that a hard-scripted version of Donny! would have been better, but at least that hope was something to cling to while waiting patiently for the first two episodes of Donny! to end.
Created by Donny Deutsch and Angie Day, Donny! stars Donny Deutsch as TV personality Donny Deutsch, host of a lifestyle counseling show that’s a little bit like the one Donny Deutsch used to host. Donny is very wealthy and very insulated from reality, relying heavily on intrepid producer Pam (Emily Tarver) and his team of three assistants (Meera Kumbhani, Hailey Giles and Jessica Renee Russell) to do whatever it is that he does.
The TV version of Donny is amiably oblivious in that you know absolutely none of his fumbling gaffes and excesses will ever be truly harmful, because when 22 minutes are up, this Donny Deutsch is a good father, a well-meaning advice-giver and, more than anything else, rich enough to be insulated beyond caring.
A darker perspective on Donny! would be to say that it’s a satire of Deutsch and of TV’s Lifestyle Industrial Complex, from Dr. Phil to Dr. Oz to Wendy Williams, but it’s really not because as clueless as Donny is, the show coddles his cluelessness well past the point at which it stops being funny and never investigates the idea that spewing hypocrisy on TV and behaving like an avuncular perv to your employees is anything other than lovable at the end of the day.
The entire conceit of the show is how much, or rather how little, Donny Deutsch wants to mock himself. “Love thy selfie” says the tagline to the show, but what’s the harm in a little self-love? Donny! truly wants to know. In the first episode, for example, Donny takes a guest to task for sending an unappealing sext to an ex, but then wouldn’t you know that Donny is prone to accidentally sending sexts himself. But while the woman is derided for lewdness and for her angry expression, Donny generates sympathetic chucks for his classiness at only sending out classy pictures of himself topless and flexing and trying to rebrand them as “suggestive pics” instead. The not-so-underlying message of the entire first episode is that women who send sexts are crude sluts who should know better, but when you’re a 57-year-old man with guns like Donny Deutsch, you can easily weather the minor criticisms of other TV stars from within the NBC-Universal family.
The frequency with which Donny! chooses to depict Donny with his shirt off moves from laughably egotistical to just plain creepy in the second episode, as the show advances from its accepted acknowledgement that Donny is admirably ripped for a 57-year-old man to an extended illogical treatise on Donny’s pubic hair, which he discovers is excessive after lowering his standards to date an older woman, in this case Christie Brinkley, who plays herself and puts Donny’s performance as himself to absolutely shame. Leaving aside how much you want Donny Deutsch discussing his man-bush on your TV, the show makes the joint argument that Donny only dates younger women, only dates younger women without pubic hair and yet has never had to have a conversation about his own pubic hair, which is either inconsistent or a celebration of wealthy older male privilege. No matter which one it is, I actually want no part of it, because it isn’t even slightly funny. It’s also the weakest form of self-effacement imaginable to have a character proudly expose himself in the bathing suit area and have the only titters relate to his nether-grooming. It’s like, “I’m so humble I’ll admit I have an ample penis, but I don’t know how to properly present it.” And did I mention how traditionally effective it has been for Donny to sleep with women in order to fix problematic situations? Again, the problem is in the wrapping, not the package. It’s all icky and unfunny.
Also not funny? The long string of repeated jokes about Donny doing Putin/Bad Russian Figure Skater sexual role-play with his young girlfriend. Maybe if said young girlfriend were actually a human character with whom Deutsch had any chemistry, it would be different, but instead it’s a, “Look how wacky my fictionalized life is that I do role-playing with my hot younger girlfriend and by the way have I mentioned I have impressive guns, let me take my shirt off.”
Deutsch doesn’t really have chemistry with anybody, so it isn’t surprising that the scenes in Donny! that come closest to funny are the ones in which he’s completely absent. The assistants, either the Deutsch-ettes or Donny’s Angels, have a couple OK scenes in which they discuss how silly it is that Donny has three assistants, which isn’t meant as a commentary on how superfluous they are trying to be funny on an unfunny show. And Tarver has sharp, withering comic timing usually put to use trying — ineffectually — to deflate Donny’s ego, but none of her deadpans are a commentary on how stranded she is an actress on a show that only cares about its leading man. TV Deutsch has two kids, but they’re characters exactly to the degree that you need to know that Donny wants to do right by them, no matter how blundering his methodology.
And for his own part, Deutsch is also limited, but he’s as much limited by what he’s being given to do as by his own clear lack of range. Were this a hard-scripted show, you’d blame the writing, but this is at least partially what he’s giving himself to do, which actually makes it even worse. But maybe you’ll think it’s the height of observation to have Donny gently chided for trying to make every show segment about lesbians, but for him to call various female authority figures “sweetie” without anybody caring. The “lesbians are good for ratings” thing is also as trenchant as the show’s media analysis gets. Donny gets the tiniest poke in the ribs for how he’ll whore himself out for any product placement, but nobody’s going to roll their eyes at unamusing appearances by corporate stablemates Kathie Lee & Hoda or Joe Scarborough & Mika Brezezinksi.
For this sort of show to work, the focal star has to be absolutely ruthless. Curb Your Enthusiasm not only doesn’t care how awful you think Larry David is, but Larry David doesn’t even care if you know that he has enough money not to care what you think of him. He’s funny because he’s frequently awful, he stares you in the eye and says, “So what?” For all that Donny! is willing to lampoon Deutsch’s buffoonery and the tackiness of his wealth, it uses his success as an ultimately unimpeachable validation of his nothingness. He’s unfunny because he’s frequently awful and he stares you in the eye and says, “Have you seen me do push-ups in my oversized bedroom?”