Following its stellar track record with dramas (The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and now it appears Over There as well), FX is making another attempt at the sitcom genre with two new shows, Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
They already tried once, with Lucky, which was an incredible success. Except for the fact that nobody watched it but me, apparently. I still don’t understand why they gave up on that show after only one season. Sure, it wasn’t a ratings blockbuster, but it had a rare and genuine quality that should’ve been nurtured, like Arrested Development. Especially on a channel like FX, which didn’t have much else to its name at the time, and which didn’t have much to lose. It was a show about gambling addicts, especially poker players, at a time when poker was already a national obsession and only growing bigger. It was tremendously well-written: nominated for an Emmy for Best Writing two weeks before its cancellation. It had a fantastic cast, led by John Corbett, fresh off the inexplicable (to me) phenomenon of My Big Fat Stupid Unfunny Greek Wedding, and Ever Carradine of Once and Again, who is so ridiculously beautiful and charming, she might actually get me to watch that sure-to-be-lame show where Geena Davis becomes the president when it debuts in the fall. And most of all, Lucky was just plain funny. Like, Arrested Development funny. I still haven’t forgiven FX for cancelling it. In fact, I will never forgive them. Grr.
But we’re not talking about Lucky. We’re talking about Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. My quick review: they can’t hold a candle to Lucky. Screw you, FX!
I kid. I kid FX, because I love.
Okay, I’ve only seen one episode of each so far. But neither amazed me. They both deal in the comedy of humiliation, which has never been my favorite brand of humor (while I recognize and respect its greatness, I can barely sit through an episode of The Office). And they both strive to be shocking — Starved with its eating disorders and frank sexuality, Philadelphia with its gay and racial-themed humor — but neither show has a cast winning or talented enough to mine enough laughs out of the shock to really succeed.
And let’s look at those casts. Starved is headed by Eric Schaeffer, who also wrote and directed the pilot. Schaeffer seems to think he’s charmingly flawed, charismatic yet troubled. I think he’s loathsome. I don’t care for him as a character or as a performer. He always seems to cast himself as the ladies’ man lead in his own projects, when he’s actually so creepy and disturbing it seems more likely women would cross the street to avoid him. Take this pilot episode for example: he instantly charms a woman on the subway into a date, which in and of itself is unlikely enough; then on that date he forces her to throw away her shoes, which he doesn’t like, and to wear new shoes that he’s bought her. Creeeepy. Does she ditch him immediately? No, she has sex with him that night! Yes, of course she does. Why wouldn’t she? And he has such utter contempt for her as a person that he’ll only listen to her talk about her day while she’s simultaneously giving him a blowjob, and speaking in a British accent (to mimic an actress on a TV commercial he likes). This character is an asshole, but Schaeffer still thinks women would find him irresistible. I just don’t get it.
But he’s got an excuse for being an asshole: he’s got an eating disorder. He’s a slave to food, he conflates sex with food (the TV commercial he’s obsessed with uses sex to sell cookies, which leads him to try to recreate his girlfriend in the image of the commercial’s star), he’s got an unhealthy body image, he’s under constant mental pressure — you get the idea. But why does this make it okay for him to be an asshole? And why does this woman still want to be with him?
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a grand tradition of assholes on television. There have been plenty of assholes who were also funny and charming enough to like and laugh at, from Archie Bunker to George Costanza. The problem is, Schaeffer’s character is just an asshole.
The rest of the cast is a pack of nobodies, who don’t bring much to the show, at least not in this first episode. Which leads us directly into the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is such a complete pack of nobodies, that as of this writing, the IMDb page can’t even be bothered to name them. And neither can I… except to note that the female lead, Kaitlin Olson, who previously appeared in the last two dreadful seasons of the Cleveland-set Drew Carey Show has a line in the pilot about a dream she had in which she found herself in Cleveland — which I got a kick out of, whether that was an intentional inside joke or not.
The show centers on three knuckleheads who own a bar in Philly (Olson is a waitress at the bar), and the stupid and offensive things they do. The first episode is all about misunderstandings and prejudices involving race and homosexuality. The guys make a racist assumption about one of Olson’s friends, then spend the rest of the episode trying to prove they’re not racist, while only digging themselves deeper. There might be some clever humor to be found in this premise, but these guys don’t achieve it. There are some sharp lines and stinging moments, but the cast is such a bland and uninteresting group that it’s hard to feel one way or the other about them, to root for them or to revel in the pain of their missteps.
FX has enough of a reputation for quality (a well-earned rep, for sure) that I’ll check out another couple episodes of each show before making a final judgment. It’s possible I’ll grow to accept the characters more, which will help bring the humor out. But I just don’t have the time, or the room on my TiVo, to keep following unlikeable characters who are also unfunny.