I know. I know. I’ve been away for a ridiculously long time. While this might be old news to many of you (who may have finished bingewatching the shows in question), due to having my internet out and/or travelling, I have just gotten around to watching some of Netflix’s comedies. It became quickly apparent that I haven’t missed much.
Industry insiders are excited by Netflix’s rapid rise from an online subscription company that stole Blockbuster’s thunder to a vertically integrated film and TV enterprise. Before they try to dominate the industry, perhaps the VOD platform needs to slow down a bit and improve their shows, at least the ones they’re pawning off as comedies.
I guess I’ll begin with the show that began Netflix’s foray into the world of original programming, Lilyhammer. The premise, a New York gangster, Frank (played by rock and roller and Sopranos alum Steven Van Zandt) is relocated to a tiny Norwegian community through the witness protection, follows the fish out of water formula that can create great conflict, from which stems great comedy.
Lilyhammer’s problem is that the protagonist isn’t enough of a fish out of water. It’s true that people often understand a language before they speak it, but Frank’s fluent comprehension of Norwegian off the bat eliminates an important cultural barrier that could have made for great situations and conflict. There is a lack of obstacles and everything is immediately solved through blackmail.
The writers, Norwegian Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad and American Van Zandt, take the Euro-American co-production too literally; having the Norwegians speaking 50-50 Norwegian and English and switching mid-sentence is a quirk that quickly becomes irritating and distracting. Ultimately there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with it, except that it’s dull.
One of the biggest problems with celebrity culture is that an oligarchy of individual brand names appear everywhere, whether or not they’re suited to the project. Ricky Gervais, who specializes in rapier wit and intensely un-PC zingers, has no business writing and starring as Derek, a show about an autistic caretaker at a low-end British nursing home. Given his comedy background, it is not surprising that people accused Gervais of exploiting people with disabilities.
Although I find his claim that Derek is “simply naive and gullible” dubious, I don’t believe he is openly mocking his creation either. Actually, it is a goodwill effort to humanize an unglamorous and less powerful person. The problem is that “heartfelt” is not Gervais’ strong suit and he doesn’t write quirky misfits very well.
Its only asset is the intelligent and naturalistic turn by Kerry Godliman as the hardworking and caring head nurse. Unfortunately, putting her as the heart of the show cannot overcome Derek’s greatest shortcoming of lack of material and sluggish pace.
I was psyched when I first heard that Friends’ co-creator Marta Kaufman, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin were joining forces on Grace and Frankie. Where Friends excelled with chemistry, Grace and Frankie has none. The titular characters are grim and bitter glimpses of Rachel and Phoebe thirty years in the future.
The way the episodes are written, there’s really no good reason for these two women, one an uber-WASP, the other a posh hippie, to stay together as they clearly can’t stand one another. Yes, every episode ends with a convenient “moving” pep talk where they pledge allegiance, but it never feels organic. That the show isn’t able to get past these women’s loneliness gets old fast too.
My biggest gripe with the show is that the comedy and drama are diametrically opposed. The show refuses to laugh at the morbidly humorous prospect of two septuagenarian women whose husbands leave them for each other, treating the divorcee’s plight with the utmost seriousness. The lily-livered treatment of the two gay men played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen makes them superfluous to the show: especially Sheen who definitely doesn’t deserve the same salary as his female co-stars and executive producers.
Meanwhile, there are lame jokey subplots that are merely filler, such as Sol’s trepidation of his stepdaughter Brianna, Brianna’s and Frankie’s pot smoking escapade, and Frankie’s lubricant juice.
One of the elements that made Friends so brilliant was that the tragedy and comedy were cut from the same cloth: The Gellar’s favoritism of Ross at the expense of Monica, Chandler’s traumatically inappropriate two mothers, “we were on a break” saga, Phoebe’s mother’s suicide and absentee father, etc. It seems within the span of twenty years, especially post 9-11, we have lost the ability to laugh at ourselves.
It seems that Netflix is going to go whole hog in campaigning this show for comedy, as due to the strict 30-minute rule the Emmy’s have enforced this year, making it the only show eligible. The award it absolutely deserves is “Most Awkward Use of a Token Black Character.”
Whenever I watch a new show, I pledge to commit to viewing the first three episodes to get an idea if it has any potential. I had to make an exception for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. On the surface, Kimmy Schmidt, about a woman who has to adjust to the real world after her Midwestern cult was disbanded, seems like the polar opposite of 30 Rock.
What was a minor flaw on 30 Rock, the every-line-is-a-snarky-pop-culture-punchline writing style is supersized to an epically failure proportions for Kimmy Schmidt. The parallels become undeniable when Kimmy relocates to New York, essentially making it a 30 Rock rehash, angled from Kimmy/Kenneth’s POV surrounded by third-rate 30 Rock archetypes, Titus, a gay Tracy, and Jane Krakowski stuck in a hollow Jemma mode.
Ellie Kemper is a member of an unnerving trend in American comedy, the cutesy quirky girly woman along with Amy Poehler, Jenny Slate, Zooey Deschanel, Mindy Kaling, and even Fey to an extent.
I’m sad to report that even my darling Orange is the New Black has had a serious quality malfunction this latest season. It is inexplicable that the same team of writers (more or less) who seamlessly interweaved the stories of prisoners and guards from various backgrounds with sensitivity and perception have produced scatterbrained scripts in the third season. It is as if last year they all developed an unhealthy addiction to Tumblr and Reddit, where they poached their narrative threads, namely the fan fiction and the fetish pantie cartel.
Storylines and situations ricochet like rogue ping-pong balls. Most of the characters have been plagued with absurd subplots, like Sophia turning into an anal holier-than-thou bitch, Piper as a pantie Mafioso, Fig and Caputo as fuck buddies, Mendez as a lovesick prisoner (minus his pornstache). The writers have royally fucked up with Poussey, morphing her into a Santeria porn reading cooking channel obsessed freak.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that OINB regains its steam, somewhat, in the last two episodes, when it returns to the dramatic roots, and as always finishes with a surprising cliffhanger. Even in bastardized form, OINB is still more watchable than most shows on right now.
I’m not even going to bother with Scrotal Recall or Richie Rich (unless anybody can make a convincing argument for why I should).