Risk/Reward: The Crude Experimentation of ABC’s Mixology

MixologyImage

Mixology doesn’t make sense, at first.

During the panel at the Television Critics Association press tour for the series in January, the producers were asked a range of questions about the viability of the show’s premise—documenting ten singles in one night in one bar—before I got a chance to ask my question, which was basically a good-natured way of asking “Did anyone try to convince you not to do such a thing?”

Television development is a game of risk/reward. Mixology represents a substantial risk for creators Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, as it’s their first television show and they’re playing with narrative in ways that most would advise against. As I noted in asking my question, there is no escaping this premise—whereas other shows can throw out their premises (see: Cougar Town) or make significant adjustments to characters as they evolve over time (see: Parks and Recreation, The Office), Mixology is tied to telling one story about ten characters in one night in its first season (which debuts tonight at 9:30/8:30c on ABC).

To their credit, Lucas and Moore were fairly open about the fact that this was a swing. Speaking to reporters, Moore described the process of the show’s creation:

“We just kind of sat down and thought what would be the best show, most interesting show to us, how to do it differently, how to show people, like, meeting and falling in love and that comedy in a different way.  And we didn’t really think about, sort of, the structure of TV and how it works and all of the rules.”

It’s easy to scoff at this—I do it often when film writers move into television, seemingly with no attention to the medium’s specificity—but in talking with Lucas and Moore after the panel it became clear they understand television enough to know they’re breaking some rules. Although the room didn’t exactly buy Moore’s attempt to sell the show as “Lost in a bar,” it was at least a gesture toward the televisual tradition the show leans on, and on principles of episodic and seasonal storytelling the show needs to address to succeed. Mixology has aspirations, ones that make it an interesting experiment in how we connect with characters, and how stakes function in television comedy.

It’s also a show that, six episodes in, makes more sense than it did at first, if not enough to make it a fully successful experiment.

Although a few critics are on its wavelength (including big guns Variety and Entertainment Weekly), Mixology is getting ripped apart by many, and this isn’t surprising: the show leans heavily on zeitgeist-chasing one-liners that would strike some critics as overtired and others as over-reliant on highly problematic gender politics. Mixology’s humor too often mistakes ugly for edgy, and there’s a mean streak that makes several of the characters difficult to connect with if you’re not on their wavelength—most critics aren’t on the wavelength of shameless womanizers, it turns out, and that makes parts of Mixology difficult to stomach.

Over the course of six episodes, though, the show wants to get you on the wavelength of shameless womanizers. Pushing the Lost comparison, the show wants you to meet someone in the bar and then later on discover they’ve got a heartwarming back story, reinvesting you in their character. In talking with members of the show’s cast following the panel, they all stressed the heart of their show, expressing their belief that each character had that kernel of truth driving them. The problem is that, having only seen the pilot at the point I was discussing the series with them, I had seen no inkling of that heart. The pilot offers a basic introduction to the premise and nine of the ten characters—a casting change led to a new character being introduced in episode two—but has no time to foreshadow anything but the fact a night at the bar is about to unfold.

The structure creates problems of characterization beyond the lack of heart in the pilot. Because the characters are all introduced upfront, some spend a number of episodes as lame ducks, devoid of the backstory provided for other characters. And yet the show often tries to divide its time evenly, dropping in on microstorylines for characters that the audience has been given minimal reason to invest in. The show lacks substance during these moments, going through the motions of “people hanging out in a bar” mainly to remind audiences those characters exist. In those moments, Mixology feels problematically small, as there’s zero stakes (and this is a show that, in hinging its drama on whether people get laid, lacks significant stakes to begin with): nothing important can happen with those characters, because we don’t really know them yet, so they’re just marking time until it’s their turn to have a real storyline. The impulse to keep the characters “present” for the audience makes sense, but it comes at the expense of time that could be spent expanding the more-important, and generally more-effective, central storylines.

By the time the show gets to its sixth episode, it has provided backstories for each character, and introduced enough potential couplings that you start to differentiate between the characters. It’s the first moment where I felt like I was watching the show Mixology was designed to be, a show where the unpredictability of the bar scene envelops ten characters in different stages of their romantic lives. The problem is that it comes halfway through the season, and I’m not sure how many viewers will be as invested in the structural experimentation angle of the show—which drove me to keep watching—within ABC’s core demographics. As much as the tone of the show still wasn’t working for me in the end, the structure was starting to work, but way later than one would normally expect—I think viewers who appreciate the show’s humor might well be very invested by that stage, but they need to have patience in order to get there.

Viewers tend to lack patience, which is why pilots are normally designed to give audiences every hook imaginable. Whereas most television pilots are picked up for providing a sense of closure, though, Mixology was seemingly picked up for avoiding it. Its open-ended structure is designed to encourage the audience to speculate, to get them invested in the huge range of potential outcomes, but it’s difficult to be invested in an abstract television premise. The show uses voiceover to try to present a point-of-view (including some Modern Family-style morals), but it’s the point-of-view of the show’s most boorish character (Andrew Santino’s Bruce)—as much as How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby is insufferable, his heart was on his sleeve, and it bought that premise-heavy pilot a lot of goodwill.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can understand television as a problem solving medium. Mixology’s problems are inherent to its premise, but those problems are inextricably tied to its promise, and it’s the premise that got it picked up (and noticed by the actors, who said it stood out in reading piles upon piles of pilot scripts). All shows end up having to negotiate the pilot that was sold to the network and the series that the writers, actors and production crew end up wanting to make, but Mixology feels like a negotiation from the word go, and it struggles to shake that feeling. While both the cast and producers said they felt Mixology grew into itself as it went along, which is evidenced by where it ends up in episode six, that this growth is so much on the surface of the text makes it more difficult to connect with the characters as people and not as objects.

Although these challenges put the show in a difficult position, Mixology is most likely to end up a victim of its timeslot. Placed after Modern Family as a last-ditch effort for ABC to save face with young adult audiences, the show is a poor fit for the family sitcom, and will struggle to draw the audiences that watch Modern Family live (which, it would appear, skews heavily on the high end of the 18-49 demographic). Despite this inherent incompatibility, the timeslot nonetheless creates high expectations the show is unlikely to meet, creating a greater likelihood of ABC moving the show around its schedule. ABC is having a disastrous year, and there is a good chance Mixology will struggle to escape the swirling vortex around it.

I consider that unfortunate. As much as I struggled to connect with the show’s characters, and found its sense of humor at times abhorrent, I like the idea of something structurally experimental getting time to connect with audiences. Through six episodes, there are fundamental flaws in the show’s structure that make it difficult to engage with its characters, but you can also see other parts of the structure that are working, and you can see how seven more episodes might get the show to someplace “new.” At TCA, I asked about what a potential season two might look like, and I couldn’t help but speculate on potential options: does it become an anthological series, covering a different set of characters each season? Do they use this season as an extended pilot, and use audience feedback to help determine which characters continue on in a more traditional sitcom? While a season two remains purely hypothetical—and, given trends at ABC, improbable—the fact so many options are available is incredibly interesting to me.

It’s less likely that mass audiences will be as excited about the structural uncertainty of Mixology’s future. It’s also plausible that many who are invested in questions of narrative structure in television sitcoms may struggle more with the show’s humor. But compared to pilots that register immediately as settling into one box, comfortable in telling stories the way we’ve always told stories, I respect that Mixology wants to do something different; it has its problems, and it hasn’t quite solved them through six episodes, but I’d much rather see a show face its uphill battle than not bothering going up hills at all. I would never argue those who struggle with the show’s humor should sit through the entire season, but at this point I remain invested in Mixology’s narratology, if not necessarily its narrative.

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