December 8th, 2009
Better Off Ted came out of nowhere. It was a mid-season comedy on a network that didn’t do comedy, from the creator of a previous comedy that everyone liked but very few people watched. There was nothing inherent in its premise that really drew me in, and while its cast wasn’t bad on paper it didn’t seem like something that I would actively tune in to see on a regular basis.
And then I watched it, and it was one of my favourite new shows of the year.
The show was never even close to a hit, pairing with Scrubs and drawing decent but uneventful ratings. And then, after a surprising renewal, the show’s remaining first season episodes were burned off in the dead of summer to even worse ratings. It was a strange journey through the show, but through it all my love for the show carried me through.
And yet, Better Off Ted returns out of somewhere. It returns with expectations from viewers and critics alike who fell in love with the show, and it also emerges on a network that does do comedy and actually draws quite spectacular ratings for said comedy. As such, the stakes are now significantly higher, and debuting against the Biggest Loser’s finale and airing out of a deflated Scrubs is not going to help matters.
“Love Blurts” is a solid episode of the show that suffers based on these expectations, as I spent much of the episode imagining how the situation the show was presenting would have been better if they had done this, or implemented that, or gone back to past episodes and did what they did there. The show has become its own curse, and it leads to a premiere that kept me at a distance while doing more than enough to remind me why I missed this show and why I will continue to suggest it to anyone and everyone.
If I had to rewrite this episode, I would make one single change: rather than having Ted head off on a story of his own with the bland and uninteresting Danielle, I would instead place Ted where it seemed like the episode was heading towards, trapped between Phil, Lem, Linda and Veronica’s demands. Jay Harrington is not unfunny, but the show is never at its best when he is at the centre of its humour. Sure, making up fake Indian names is funny once, but it felt like the gag just kept going to the point where it wasn’t contributing anything to the episode either comically or in terms of his character. For Ted Crisp to pull a Ted Mosby (saying “I Love You” on the first date) implies that he is in fact crazy, whereas almost every one of the show’s best episodes have been those that teach us (and Ted) that he is there to keep things relatively sane around Veridian Dynamics, and when he becomes a participant (like when he became part of the underground medieval fight club) it becomes awkward. And while it’s fine if the show acknowledges that Ted being weird is weird, here the show seemed to accept that Ted is the one who is crazy, and it wasn’t comically or emotionally interesting enough to really sustain throughout the episode.
It’s clear that Fresco wanted to be able to offer an introduction to all of the characters, and a premise that could effectively involve all of them. As a result, the edible moss project never really went anywhere and the “Wee! Genetic Matchmaking” story was the only bit of Veridianness to be found in the half-hour. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a really fun story idea and had some nice ramifications overall, but it seemed to spread a bit too thin amongst the characters without really bringing them together. I never entirely bought Veronica’s involvement in the story, even though I loved nearly every word that came out of Portia de Rossi’s mouth. And I thought Phil and Lem’s stories were both funny in their own ways, but neither really clicked with their characters in a truly substantial way, and the characters were better when interacting with Ted (which would have happened more often in my own version of the episode). And Linda, although perhaps most comfortable in her spinoff from the central premise of the episode alongside guest star Taye Diggs, is at her best when interacting with Phil/Lem/Veronica, which the episode didn’t allow.
I think it captures just how awkward a position the show was in. For fans of the show, we have certain expectations of what an episode should do, and this episode didn’t necessarily live up to them. However, for new viewers, the show was trying to ease them into its style of storytelling, trying to situate Ted within an emotional spectrum (content but ultimately alone(ly)) and provide a sense of who these characters are and what they represent. For us older viewers, this feels unnecessary, and seems to almost dilute the show’s charm. And, most problematically, for new viewers, the episode doesn’t show the series at its very best, forced to represent everything as opposed to just giving it all up and going whole hog on a particular idea: it could in fact play better for us because of our nostalgia for the characters informing us in ways new viewers wouldn’t have. Heck, as far as I saw, there wasn’t even a fun “Veridian Dynamics” ad during the episode to help draw you into the show’s world, which seems like it runs contradictory to what drew people into the show earlier this year.
Of course, the episode still had a number of great lines, and the wonderful character interaction that was there from the very beginning was on occasion at full force. There is nothing here that convinces me that the show has fundamentally changed, or that it can’t be as good this year as it was last, but rather signs that in its attempt to mediate its way through an awkward re-entry into ABC’s lineup it has made a few compromises too many for it to be operating to its full potential. Hopefully, in the weeks ahead, the show finds its path to comic genius, but in the meantime the show makes me happy just remaining on the air.
- The plan right now is for Scrubs and Better Off Ted to serve as filler between seasons of Dancing with the Stars, so admittedly the ratings expectations are fairly low: the shows aren’t going to break out, and they really can’t with just 13 episode orders.
- However, I was still disappointed the show didn’t try to launch Better Off Ted out of Modern Family (perhaps airing a special Tuesday Cougar Town and creating a Bill Lawrence block) – the two shows aren’t wholly compatible, no, but anything that could give Better Off Ted a boost would be a nice step in the right direction for the show.
- Seriously, Portia de Rossi killed this episode: anything to do with Veronica’s sister has become one of my favourite running gags on the show.
- Full disclosure: Alan Sepinwall’s review already “spoiled” that the first two episodes aren’t super awesome, so perhaps that coloured my view of “Love Blurts.”