ABC: Your Source for Mimbo TV

N & I have been ill-ish and have wanted these past few evenings to do nothing but lie on the sofa with chicken soup and the DVR, and so last night despite a backlog that built up while we were in N.C., and despite NBC’s Thursday night of premieres (shame on you, NBC, for holding out on new 30 Rocks until mid-October! It’s your best show! You already skimp on the number of minutes each episode gets (average of 20 compared to the standard 22), and so help me if there are fewer total episodes this season than your long-ago-shark-jumped The Office we’re going to have to have words) we investigated the new shows on ABC’s Wednesday night lineup.

Men, apparently, are best left dumb and oversexed.

Courteney_Cox_armidilloHad you noticed? It’s like Mimbo central. First there’s the pretty gross Cougartown, starring Courteney Cox as a divorced Monica with a kid and without her cleaning/organization neuroses that made her interesting. I’m being cruel, because I guess I like C.C., but if in the pilot the major source of tension between mother and son involves his walking in (out?) on her blowing a dude twenty years her junior on the patio I think there’s nothing but trouble ahead.

It doesn’t matter what this guy “does for a living” or why he’s “into older women” or what his “name” is, what matters is that he look great shirtless (should I be thankful ABC allowed him a modest spread of chest hair?) and isn’t scared off by, say, his fellator’s teenage son in the vicinity. At the end of the episode, he’s back for more!

Are there other men on the show? Yes. Do they want anything other than sex? No. Would any of them dress up as a holiday armadillo? Not likely. Is ABC desperately trying to corral some former Sex and the City devotees, wandering errantly throughout broadcast television, hoping for half the titillation pay cable could legally serve up? I guess so.

(Speaking of desperation, let’s not forget which particular housewives ABC’s bringing back for a sixth season.)

eastwick23Then there’s Eastwick. What was once a bad Updike novel (redundancy sic), then a pretty good movie, then a great novelization of that movie, is now a TV series! And the sanctimonious woman from the movie plays the sanctimonious woman on the show! And Rebecca Romijn’s in it!

She plays the Cher character, I think, the easy breezy one who “does art”. But because this is post-millennial ABC, she can’t just do art and be a single mom, she needs also an empty-headed, slender young gent half her age to bed whenever convenient. (This one, for whatever reason, is hairless.) “I want to be your boyfriend,” he says once, post-coitally. And Rebecca reminds us viewers how “old” she is now and sorta fawns over how adorably out-of-touch her boytoy’s being. Awww. It wants a welationship!

Even Darryl, the devil character, is supposedly younger than Rebecca (is now a good place to let everyone know that RR is only 36 years old?), and he’s by needs an asshole. Arrogant and demanding. But he’s got fantastic amounts of money, and a big unit that he unveils for Rebecca the first time they meet. So of course she’ll need to sleep with him, and both love and regret it. It’s the Updikean way.

I mean all this is obvious, right? I understand the tedium of pointing out to people how new shows degrade men in ways that were the roles reversed would outrage women. And that this is I guess some kind of victory. And I guess more interesting things could be said about the many permutations the “Eastwick” myth (which I guess it’s now become…I forgot about its sequel, which was Updike’s last (antehumous) novel) undertakes and how they simultaneously dechauvenize the original and yet uphold same, and the vitality of witchery among post-post-feminist culture.

But in short: it’s depressing. Don’t watch these shows. They’re depressing to the point that they totally overshadow the greatness of ABC’s Wednesday-night kickoff: Modern Family, a single-camera, no-laff-track sitcom about three families (members of whom are all related) in some nameless suburb. The flatness of the premise bodes well, I think, for the show’s potential.

modernfamilyThere’s a gay couple, which must needs be in 2009, which yes is good news. And they read pretty authentically without being embarrassing. In the pilot they’ve adopted a Vietnamese baby, and during one of the inexplicable interview segments* one of the guys mentions that the “stress” of the adoption process has caused him to gain some weight. Cut to inexplicable nightvision shots of him snacking on a donut in the pantry. Cut back to couple being (I think?) interviewed. “I’m not saying anything,” the other, thinner, man says.

“You’re saying everything,” his partner says.

Delivery and timing is spot on, for all the characters. It’s got some contextual kinks to iron out, but mostly it’s a smart show with new kinds of jokes. Which means it’s got no hopes for a future at ABC.


* Oh, well, where do I start? I guess this is reality television’s influence on scripted television: the interview segment. The metacommentary on the action with which The Office makes its bread and butter. On reality TV it makes sense, because the whole thing is somewhat documentarian, and people can be later interviewed about their earlier behavior to fill in narrative context stuff we may not have caught on camera. So for The Office to do this, there has to be this conceit of “the camera crew” hanging out, day after day, in the office to make, what? a documentary film?

It’s like in the pilot somewhere, I think: M. Scott’s obligatory mention of the camera crew, but in Modern Family it’s just sort of assumed. Suddenly we cut to the show’s first interview segment, and we have no idea who is interviewing this married couple, or why, but we just sort of run with it so that these characters can deliver to us their background in ways that I guess I need to admit are more artful than through in-scene dialogue, or by, like, opening a scene with a panning shot on a series of causal photographs on the wall.

I guess this is the belief-suspender we need to just trust now, the way original sitcoms asked us to suspend our disbelief that we were in some family’s living room. The voyeuristic aspect of watching people live their lives is gone. Or, well, not exactly. As DFW points out in his great TV & U.S. fiction essay, while the characters on television may have had no idea their lives were being watched by millions, the actors playing those characters of course did. And so they “acted naturally” whatever that meant, giving us an idea that a natural way of being involved an awareness that one was on display, and being watched. So whatever voyeurism TV-watching liked to encourage in viewers has always been a myth.

Now, it’s not just the actors but the characters themselves who are aware they’re on television, and this allows much of the comedy (too much?) to come from those moments when they sort of remember this, and acknowledge what they’ve just said or did has been caught on camera and will be seen by millions.

And so they look at the camera. Joke!

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