Monthly Archives: January 2010

Canadian time-travel soap ‘Being Erica’ returns. Don’t like the sound of that? Watch it anyway.

Canadian television has brought few imports to American over the years, though those that have made it across the border have developed surprising rabid followings, i.e. SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, and Degrassi. Though these few successes have not done much to whet the American appetite for Canadian shows, cable channel SoapNet has begun to add the occasional Canadian soap/drama to its lineup of American daytime soaps and reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210, One Tree Hill, and The O.C. They began by broadcasting  2008’s elaborately trashy MVP (basically Footballers’ Wives with hockey), and last year ran the first season of Being Erica, a dramedy which plays more like a combination of Ally McBeal and The X Files than SoapNet’s typical programming.

Erin Karpluk as Erica Strange

The premise is this: Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk), a single Jewish Torontonian in her early thirties, is not happy with her life. She gets fired from her job, has strained relations with her family, and carries a torch for her married best friend. This all leads her to Dr. Tom (Michael Riley), a mysterious therapist who sends her back in time to work through her regrets. Each episode finds Erica hitting another on her list, from her parents’ divorce to her sister’s wedding to, ultimately, her brother’s death. These trips to the past usually feature some 90’s related fashion faux pas and cringingly misplaced references to Chumbawumba and Britney Spears. But the surprise is that it’s still good. Somehow this ridiculous premise becomes not only extremely watchable, but emotionally resonant.

Part of this success is due to the carefully drawn characters and their relationships. Erica is not, as one might initially think, a dizzy-neurotic stereotype in the mold of Friends. Her relationships with her parents, sister, and friend Katie are complicated, and their realism makes the show so genuine that the audience isn’t as concerned with the logistics of time travel. It’s also worth noting that Erica is a practicing Jew (her father’s a Rabbi), a fact that blends seamlessly into the show (one episode revolves around Erica’s Bat Mitzvah), and something we rarely see represented fully on American television. The only character that’s not quite up to snuff is Ethan, Erica’s milquetoast love interest who generates about as much heat on-screen as the icy Canadian tundra. But it’s inspiring, in a way, that the strongest characters on the show (and the strongest actors, led by the endearing Karpluk) are female.

The most affecting episode thus far was Being Erica‘s season one finale, in which Erica dealt with the death of her brother Leo. It’s these types of plotlines that give the show its weight. Leo’s death was there the whole season, rearing its ugly head just when we thought we could float away on a cloud of Ethan and Erica romance plots. Played by the expressive young (and might I say, dreamy, but ahem, young) actor Devon Bostick, Leo is a confused young man screwed up by his parents’ divorce. His death, though an accident, is the culmination of a year of discontent in the Strange household. So as not to ruin the dramatic heft of the episode for new viewers, I’ll just say that it’s a complicated plot that is somewhat resolved, but not as neatly as one might hope. Erica’s time travel is not supposed to change the events of her life; it’s supposed to change her perspective. It is, after all, therapy. It’s painful.

Which brings us to season two. Disappointingly, due to CBC budget cuts, this season will only feature twelve episodes. The first, “Being Dr. Tom” premiered last Wednesday and focused on the therapist’s mysterious past. It seems as though this season will go with a bit of a different angle (as many of Erica’s regrets have already been revisited), but hopefully it will keep showing the same warmth and commitment to character week after week. Not too shabby for a SoapNet show.

Being Erica season 2 airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SoapNet.

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Ode to Andy Richter, Antihero of Late Night

The Tonight Show controversy of late has audiences rallying around Conan O’Brien, that lanky redheaded purveyor of weirdness who spent years on the Late Show celebrating the absurd: the masturbating bear, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, “Driving the Desk,” staring contests and “In the Year 2000” were among the segments that lasted far longer and were way more memorable that even Conan himself would have predicted. His self-deprecating monologues and silly stunts with guests (like cutting Dave Foley’s hair) set him apart from the lame grandfatherly vibe of Jay Leno and Letterman’s biting sarcasm. Late Night with Conan O’Brien became one of my favorite shows in probably about 1997, when I was old enough to stay up that late and probably still not quite old enough to get all the jokes. I stopped watching it much in 2000, when the show lost some of its spark. The reason for this? The departure of Andy Richter.

A friend of SNL head writer and Conan producer (and voice of Triumph) Robert Smigel, Richter was originally hired as a writer for Late Night, but just before the show aired was brought on as an Ed McMahon-style sidekick. And the rest is history. Salon’s Heather Havrilesky wrote yesterday on Salon about how Conan has never been afraid to be weird, to trust that American audiences were not simply looking for a retread of Johnny Carson’s gentle schtick. But a lot of the time on Late Night, Conan played straight man to his growing cadre of weirdo sidekicks: first Andy, then Max, then Joel, the psychotic announcer. Andy Richter’s late night persona involved decidedly more than just supplying a “human laugh track,” a la McMahon. He wasn’t the best friend, guy-next-door kind of sidekick but rather an awkward, hapless eccentric who often became of the focus of a sketch’s humor (as in the classic staring contests).

Andy’s chubby, baby-faced appearance and Midwestern background made him the perfect Mutt and Jeff-style opposite to Conan’s gawky New Englander. During Conan and Andy’s nightly bull sessions, a conversation about Andy’s weekend, delivered with aw, shucks good humor, would typically spin into off-color stories that hinted at an odd and depraved lifestyle. Unlike Max Weinberg, who we want to love but who weirds us out, Andy’s weirdness is what makes him a lovable comedian and sidekick. It also makes him a gamble for a talk show. This is the joke that Andy’s best sketches are often built around: he’s not the kind of guy most people are dying to see on television. His persona makes Conan O’Brien look comparably suave and camera-ready.

In one of my favorite Late Night sketches ever (which doesn’t seem to be available online), Andy trains to become a weatherman, only to find that he lacks all the appropriate skills (charisma, self-confidence, an understanding of how television works) and even wears a bright blue suit that causes him to blend into the weather map. In another early segment, “Runaway with Andy” (a travel show spoof narrated by Robin Leach), he travels to Coney Island with Abe Vigoda, where they taunt guard dogs and wander aimlessly, unhappily, past rows of boarded up amusements. And who could forget his fake talk show, “Andi,” which fails to produce proper guests or any conflict? Andy Richter, antihero.

I don’t know what Andy plans to do now (from his statement though, I’d guess he’s pretty pissed), but I hope he gets another chance to work his queasy-awkward magic on television audiences. It seems his best foray into television, the short-lived Andy Richter Controls the Universe (great vid of highlights here), has developed enough of a cult following to warrant a DVD release. However, he’s had enough failed sitcoms that this slap in the face from NBC might be his last straw. I hope not!

The world of late night is better with Andy Richter in it.

And I leave you with some great links:

Andy’s POV (terrible quality, but classic Andy)

Andy performing Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” (also bad quality recording)

Andy wiping the floor with Wolf Blitzer and Dana Delaney on Jeopardy

The Circle Line Show (Classic Late Night)

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My Forgotten Blogspot Blog

I began a TV blog back in 2008 that the rigors of grad school forced me to abandon. However, I’m quite proud of my entries there on 90210 and The Biggest Loser: http://www.thingsiseedo.blogspot.com/

I’ll be back soon with another “TV of the aughts” post!

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Aughts TV Revisited: The Magic of “The Office”

I must admit, the beginning of the aughts did not set my expectations high for television in the new millenium. Reality shows were in full controversial flux, with the likes of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and Joe Millionaire making headlines for bringing out the worst in people. There was the influx of boring game shows with Matrix-like sets (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link), the growth of procedural dramas, and the quite decline of my favorite genre, the sitcom. The nineties seemed impossible to top, having given us the greatness of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Simpsons at its best. The networks tried to hang onto the genre with flat family centered fare like Yes, Dear and According to Jim. But in 2001, a BBC show called The Office came along that reinvented the sitcom and made the aughts bearable long after its short run. Its American version, along with newer hits Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and even Arrested Development owe it a debt in terms of style and subtlety. The Office‘s influence is more potent than ever six years after its series finale.

With the American Office currently surfing that same tide that compelled Fonzie to jump the shark, it becomes clear that one of the smartest decisions Gervais and Merchant made with the original was letting it go in its prime. Part of this was due to early struggles with ratings, but on American television it is unheard of for a show to complete two seasons and two specials, achieve massive international success and acclaim, and then go quietly into the night. This decision leaves the show fresh in our minds and joyfully re-watchable; it hangs together like a film, and its seriality is emphasized and clear. No plot becomes unwieldy or far-fetched as so many sitcom plots do. The first season is more lighthearted and comedic, with the second season twisting into drama and bringing us to an almost gut-wrenching low point in the first Christmas special.

What remains most influential about The Office as a sitcom is its documentary-style set up, with cameras catching what appear to be offhand exchanges and conducting confessional-style interviews with characters. The dialogue is tightly scripted, and it’s a tribute to great writing and acting that it appears so off-the-cuff.  It is through this innocuous lens that we meet David Brent, Gervais’s self-absorbed boss who tells juvenile jokes and talks in circles about his life and management philosophies (he’d like to be remembered as “the man who put a smile on the face of all who he met”). But he’s so much more than that. His childish jealousy and insecurity lead to a number of the show’s best moments (a singalong of his band, Foregone Conclusion’s, repertoire; a dance-off with Swindon boss Neil), and his personal experiences later in the series are the most affecting. We also have Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a character who is at once a serious know-it-all and a childish naif; Tim (Martin Freeman), a witty average joe who still, at the age of 30, sleeps in his childhood bedroom and has no idea what to do with his life;  and Dawn (Lucy Davis), a bored receptionist set to marry a creep who won’t let her pursue her dream of being an artist.

We grow to love these characters despite the obvious flaws and poor decision-making of each, and in addition to laughing at and with them, we also feel wounded with Tim when he’s bullied by Chris Finch, trapped with Dawn when she moves to Florida with Lee, and rejected with David when he loses his job at Wernam-Hogg. We’ve all spent time in a place like Slough, less a town and more of a state of mind: bleak, confining, routine. The Office Christmas specials were the most impressive of the series because they weren’t afraid to dwell, to an uncomfortable extent, on the dark undertones of the show. The point of the Office, is seems to me, was to focus on the ways in which people get trapped in jobs and life, and how we cope with this by scaling our fantasies down and attempting to act them out within these confines. We see this in the way David slumps in his hotel after a degrading promotional appearance, and in the way Tim accepts David’s old position and begins adopting his own Brent-ish management speak.

The end of the series is, of course, some of the most satisfying television ever created (from Tim’s illustrated note to Dawn, “Never give up,” to David’s long-awaited dressing-down of Chris Finch). The characters seem to finally have what they need to move forward in life. The series doesn’t push it, however, so once the euphoria wears off we won’t be stuck seeing the characters’ lives falter once again. What makes The Office so special, I think, is something its imitators can’t get a handle on: dynamics. Like great composers, Gervais and Merchant attuned the audience to subtle shifts in mood. They brought us down and back up again, the whole time laughing, squirming, and feeling.

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I’m back!

I’ve decided to revisit this blog and get it going again, this time focusing more broadly on my thoughts about television, film, and music. More posts coming soon!

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