Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Adventures In TV Land

There was a time not so long ago when I was dropping regular and plentiful coin for DVDs of British and American TV shows that I couldn't access any other way outside of torrent sites (which I generally refrain from using anyway). There's not a lot of "Holy Grails" left in pop culture anymore, especially television. With so many cable channels trying to fill airtime, so many on-line streaming avenues, not to mention youtube piracy, it's not hard to encounter most TV shows with little to no expense and get your fill without ever feeling the need to "own" it on DVD.

The following are three shows from various U.S. cable channels that I had heard enough about to be incredibly curious but had never seen, whether it was because they had not run on Canadian TV, on-line streaming was inaccessible to non-U.S. regions, or I had just missed any Canadian broadcast (as I know one has aired on TECH TV, and another did air on Superchannel). I bought each on DVD or Blu-Ray, though not at the earliest available opportunity as my TV on DVD obsession passed a few years ago, so I haven't been keeping up on release dates. Plus, with all the fantastic television on right now, I'm fairly distracted as is.

Children's Hospital: Season 1 & 2
Created by ex-Daily Show correspondent and Hot Tub Time Machine star Rob Coddry, Children's Hospital is one of the first big web-to-TV success story. First appearing on the Warner Brothers' on-line streaming site theWB.com, it was a b-list celebrity-packed affair, 5 minutes at a time, loaded with tons of "hey, that guy" appearances, and a veritable wet dream for comedy wonks, which no doubt is what propelled it towards the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network. Coddry's sense of humor leans heavily towards the ironic, the jokes on the show tend to be flagrantly terrible (thus circling back around to funny), often pushing/reducing terrible or horrifying situations to one comedic extreme or the other (and sometimes both), and having a cast of characters, primarily doctors, who are idiots, continuing to comfortably exist their roles without logic.

The core of the series is its satire of, well, virtually every medical drama and/or comedy ever placed out there (Coddry's character rips off both a Hawkeye speech from MASH and Alec Baldwin's big speech from Malice, each used to great counter-effect). The hot-and-steamy sensibility of a Gray's Anatomy finds the doctors of Children's Hospital making out with each other in utility closets, on patient's beds, or sometimes with patients themselves. A quick-editing style maximizes the jokes but not at the expense of storytelling (though the characters are ciphers, changing on a whim to suit the needs of the comedy) as there are more than a few highly convoluted arcs throughout the two seasons, and a host of reoccurring gags that taper off and revive at a moment's notice.

The first season, in its five-minute chunklets, is quickly digested in 45 minutes, but is almost too much to take in at once. There's so many things flying under the radar that it's hard to catch them all, Michael Cera's P.A. announcements, for instance, are difficult to pick up the first time around, usually occurring at a scene change and the well-timed cast jumping in just before the announcement is finished. Beyond the dense characters and the medical-drama spoofing, the show works on another meta-level wherein Coddry (and much of the cast) play the role of actors who play the characters working on the show "Children's Hospital". A great second season episodes is a 60 Minutes spoof that goes behind-the-scenes of Children's Hospital for the taping of the "final episode", complete with reflective interviews from the cast, looking back at their "15 years on the show", as well as a glimpse at the "original pilot episode".

Characters have died and reappeared on the show in the next episode, new cast members are added and others disappear seemingly at random, and some are even spun off into their own shows. The internal logic of the show is pliable, so continuity, while somewhat maintained, isn't canon (each episode has a "previously on..." cold open, which features many new scenes not previously seen or inaccurate rehashes of previous events. It's certainly not a show for everyone, but if you're a fan of the absurd it's pretty damn terrific.

The League: Season 1

It's been said that fantasy baseball isn't for fans of baseball so much as it's for fans of numbers, odds, statistics and the sort. In much the same way the League, a buddy sitcom ostensibly about a fantasy football league isn't for fans of football or fantasy football obsessives, but instead for fans of comedy. There's no clear lead to the show as Steve Rannazzisi, Mumblecore heroes Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton, Quebec-bred internet comedy sensation Jon Lajoie, and comedians Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer all share relatively equal screen time in this loosely scripted, extensively improvised half-hour comedy from the FX Network.

The show hits it out of the gate the first episode in, establishing each of the characters, their professions, their relationship with one another and their level of investment in fantasy football, as well as the league itself, not to mention Shiva, the coveted trophy that goes to the season's winner. The show coasts along on a comedy wave through the remaining five episodes. What I appreciate about the League is how fluid it is. It uses the same type of set-ups that a show like Seinfeld might use, but it's freedom from the rigidity of a script finds it taking a much softer -- meandering even -- course, along the way collating the funniest elements that still service the larger story. A set-up like Ruxim mistakenly using a urinal for a wash basin at a Chinatown restaurant is limited to a few immediate jokes but it's not looped back into the larger story at any point. It's a funny situation, as are many on the show, that doesn't necessarily get exacerbated into a cringe-inducing scene. The League generally handles its "cringe humour" by diffusing it, primarily through how the characters react to it. Unlike other shows that use the style, here the characters are less neurotic, less insensitive, and far more aware of themselves, meaning they're able to get over certain things, and the stakes generally remain pretty low.

Also, unlike other "cringe" shows, "The League" is less metropolitan, more suburban, using Chicago as a much different location than New York or Los Angeles. Its stars are all well cast for their roles, free to do as they will within the confines of their character (differing Children's Hospital), Lajoie is frequently allowed to sing a newly minted, typically inappropriate-to-the-setting song, (trading in on what made him internet-famous) and the comraderie between the main cast is tangible from the start. It's one of the funniest, most enjoyable shows I've seen.

Party Down: Season 1

The workplace comedy is a tough one to pull off, because, ostensibly, the people working together aren't necessarily friends, and yet you have to believe that they can function together as a whole. Most sitcoms aim for the family or friends dynamic as opposed to the work dynamic because the workplace setting can start to feel limiting, claustrophobic. I found the Office became that after two or three seasons, as there wasn't a lot of escape from the Dunder-Mifflin sales room. Party Down is a show about co-workers who are not friends, who generally tolerate one another, and who are competent enough to do their jobs but would rather be doing something else. It follows "Party Down", an L.A.-based catering company and their employees, each episode taking place at a different event. The different settings allow for completely fresh scenarios to happen each episode, such as catering a porn awards after party, or a junior republicans social, or a Russian mafioso's acquittal party, spawning different discussions between characters, leading to additional insight into the people, their past, and their life outside of work without actually going there. This also permits for different guest stars - Ed Begley Jr., George Takei, Molly Parker, amongst others - to interact with the crew, which is heavy with stars.

The center of the show is Adam Scott's Henry, a failed actor rethinking his life, joining the Party Down team in the first episode, a motley crew of mostly other wanna-be Hollywood types, with Lizzy Caplan's Casey a struggling comic, Martin Starr's Roman a caustic SF nerd/scriptwriter, Ryan Hansen's Kyle the typical teen-show-handsome/handsome-but-dense actor, Jane Lynch's Constance a past-her-prime bit-part actress with stories to tell, and Ken Marino's Ron, their team leader, whose desperate desire is to open up a "Souper Crackers" soup buffet franchise. All of these characters, with their differing stages of career and differing backgrounds lead to an intriguing group dynamic, such as Constance taking Kyle under her wing, or Kyle's playful relationship with Roman, oblivious to how much Roman loathes his very existence.

Party Down can be crass, at times graphically so (as seems to pretty much be a prerequisite for a Starz-based program) but given the template, the actors, and how natural the comedy seems to emanate from the situations, it's surprising this didn't make it as a network show... legend has it Paul Rudd created the show as a Steve Carrell vehicle pre-Office and it made the rounds about studios and networks for years, always appreciated but deemed too "inside Hollywood". It only lasted two seasons, and was thrown for a loop by Jane Lynch's sudden "Glee" departure during the tail end of the first season (Lynch's Best In Show co-star Jennifer Coolidge did a wonderful job filling in), but it's grown a rather avid, and rabid fan base postmortem, with the requisite calls for a movie to happen. A mini-reunion was held this season on Children's Hospital, to much fanfare.

Final Note: There's an incestuousness to these shows, with Rob Coddry appearing in an episode of Party Down, while the League stars Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer both had roles on Children's Hospital. Ken Marino migrated to Children's Hospital after Party Down (as did Megan Mullally who took over for Lynch on Season 2 of Party Down). Rob Huebel, one of the stars of Children's appeared in the League. I could go on.