“Beating a Dead Workforce” & “Change We Can’t Believe In”
January 5th, 2010
To define a show based on a single episode is unfair, especially when that episode is as great as Better Off Ted’s “Racial Sensitivity.” And yet, when the show came out of the gates feeling somewhat “off” this year, our collective go-to in terms of expressing our disappointment was lamenting that the show wasn’t reaching the heights of that episode. And while it’s understandable that we would want the show to live up to its best episode, and it’s true that part of the early season struggles (relative to the show’s standards, not comedy in general) have been the result of moving too far away from corporate satire the show does best, I think we need to stop judging Betted Off Ted based on that standard.
Except that we can’t. Watching an episode like “Beating a Dead Workforce,” you can’t help but feel that is an attempt at capturing the same greatness of “Racial Sensitivity,” trying to create another out of control corporate reaction to a particular problem. And while the episode has some great lines, and some enjoyable sequences, it just isn’t going to live up to that episode, so a potentially great episode feels just…solid. And when we get an episode like “Change We Can’t Believe In” that skews too close to basic “A/B/C Plot” Thematic sitcom structure, it’s just a reminder that the show now has two primary modes: a comedy which aims for something novel but feels (perhaps unfairly) just off the mark, and a comedy which delivers a funny take on largely pedestrian stories.
Neither show is bad – in fact, they’re both actually quite good – but neither show is “Racial Sensitivity,” and while I want to be able to get past that and enjoy the last few weeks we’ll ever have with the show for what they are, I just don’t know if it’s going to happen.
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.
November 18th, 2009
In terms of the great comedy battle of 2009, which continues to rage amongst shows both new and old, Modern Family is at a distinct disadvantage: with Parks and Recreation delivering some legitimately great comedy and Community doing a really compelling and confident meta-storyline, the simplicity of this show is a disadvantage in terms of being flashy. There comes a point where the hype surrounding the show creates greater expectations than the storylines themselves can live up to in terms of their premise, requiring viewers to appreciate the strong execution where originality isn’t overtly present.
“Great Expectations” is a solid episode of the show, featuring a number of fun loving gags and a couple of big guest stars, but nothing stands out as particularly stunning as compared to some of the other comedies. In this instance, I think there was enough nuance to each individual story to continue to prove how strong the writers understand these characters, but it nonetheless follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s one of their stronger episodes due to a nice role reversal, but it’s not reaching as high as some of the other comedies are right now.
October 21st, 2009
Modern Family has thus far proven itself to be an extremely well-executed sitcom, but one that isn’t really doing anything particularly innovative. Its pilot established a really fun integrated family setting, with three separate families having their own idiosyncrasies and then exploding into all-out chaos when they come together. Episodes like last week’s indicated that the show is strong enough to be able to bring in a guest star and not have it disrupt the show’s rhythms.
However, “Coal Digger” is the kind of episode that demonstrates one of the show’s key problems, in that the elements that make the show stand out (like Ty Burrell’s hilarious Phil, or Eric Stonestreet’s loveable Cam) are being used in the same fashion each and every week to the point of growing repetitive. It isn’t that the episode doesn’t try anything new, placing Gloria and Claire at each other’s throats over both recent and long-standing issues, but rather that the way the episode is structured feels too rote at this stage, and the characters that usually elevate that material are beginning to feel not so much tired as perhaps a bit overexposed.
I’m not suggesting that the show is falling apart of anything, but after a week where it really branched out into something new for it to return to the same old structure feels a bit out of place.
“The Bicycle Thief”
September 30th, 2009
I, like every other TV critic on the planet, liked Modern Family. I even loved parts of it. But I was one of the few who expressed some trepidation at what the show was going to look like in the weeks ahead. So much of the episode was derived from the amazing final scene, one where everything came together in a bit of epic coming timing, and I wasn’t sure how the individual stories could live up to that moment.
For me, “The Bicycle Thief” leans heavily on two elements that made the pilot as strong as it was, focusing on Ty Burrell’s cool dad Phil and Cam’s dramatic side. I love what it does with Phil in this episode, and very much enjoy Cameron and Mitchell’s side of things, but I felt as if Jay and Gloria’s side of the equation was lacking a bit.
And it matters because here they choose to let the different families stand on their own for an episode, connecting them together with a general theme (a theme of fatherhood, in particular) as opposed to letting them mingle between one another. It makes for an episode that is somewhat less zany and surprising, but in at least 2/3 of its content it’s just as strong as it was last week.
September 23rd, 2009
There has been a pretty impressive critical consensus that Modern Family is pretty darn good. While Glee might be creating the most enthusiastic response amongst fans, and Community appeals to particular senses of humour more, Modern Family has been the one pilot that nearly everyone has considered well-made, well-cast, and just all around kind of great. It’s also one pilot that I wasn’t able to see in advance, which meant that I went in with that always awkward sense that I was almost required to love the show. Expectations were higher than perhaps any other show, and the result could easily have been a sense that this had all been overhyped, and that it was all for naught.
But, as hard as the critics have tried to potentially ruin this experience, and the clips I saw back when the show was first announced ruined particular moments, and ABC decided to ruin the pilot’s “surprise,” none of it did anything to ruin the enjoyment of an enormously charming pilot. With a fantastic cast and a clever premise, the show only stops delivering laughs to provide heartwarming moments which are then turned upside down all over again.
The show isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s a pilot which so hilariously defines its characters without turning them into one-dimensional stereotypes that it is certainly something to get excited about.
“Jabberwocky” and “Secrets and Lives”
August 11th, 2009
In its first season, Better Off Ted was not so much a revelation as it was a pleasant surprise. Kept for midseason with nary a bit of hype, the show caught on with critics, and despite never connecting with mass viewers developed a cult following that earned it an against the odds second season. Of course, ABC then chose to air the remaining episodes from its first season as part of its summer lineup, a lineup which was dreadfully received and has seen numerous cancellations. In short, Better Off Ted might as well have been better off dead as opposed to airing during the summer, raising some questions about how the show could perform when it returns in November.
But what really captures me when watching Better Off Ted is that I don’t really care about all of these behind the scenes shenanigans – at the end of the day, this a very sharp comedy series with a host of likeable characters and clever storylines, and at no point did I find myself lamenting its strange route to this place when enjoying the two episodes that conclude the show’s first season order. I don’t think either episode was perfect, each having a few issues here or there, but the show is just so much fun that I don’t really think about all of the reasons not to get too attached, or to raise concerns about the show’s trajectory.
Instead, it’s six episodes of comedy I thought I wouldn’t see until DVD, conveniently placed in the summer months when nothing else is on.
“Trust and Consequence”
July 13th, 2009
The truth of the matter is that Better Off Ted’s summer ratings have been less than impressive, and that the consequence is that the show likely isn’t making much of an impression heading into its second season in the fall. However, right now, I don’t care. The real truth of the matter is that the show remains absolutely fantastic, with a laugh ratio that most comedies can only dream of.
“Trust and Consequence” was another example of the show’s ability to take one idea and run with it. This wasn’t an episode that was about a particular series of plotlines, but rather one event that creates logical consequences that are all quite humorous, with jokes piling onto jokes in a way that makes the conclusion where everything comes to a speedy end feel both clever and like leaving a great story while its quality is still high.
I don’t have too much to say, but some thoughts after the jump.
“You Are the Boss of Me”
June 23rd, 2009
I realized when preparing for this post that I have never written about Better Off Ted before here at Cultural Learnings, which means that I am officially “part of the problem.” Suffering from fatigued ratings, but bolstered by critical raves and strong network support, Better Off Ted left the airwaves having aired about half of its 13-episode order to an uncertain fate that thankfully (and surprisingly) ended in a second season renewal with a return at midseason paired with returning Scrubs. Then, bizarrely, ABC decided to burn off the remaining episodes of that order in the summer instead of holding them over to air at midseason.
Dan Fienberg has a big discussion of all of that logic (short form: it helps the show fit into the window being provided at midseason, plus ABC isn’t the brightest network around), but right now I just want to rectify what has been a poor oversight on this part. I’m sure I’ve told anyone who asked that Better Off Ted was the sharpest new comedy of last season, arriving without much fanfare with a top notch cast, a humorous setup, and one particular hilarious episode (“Racial Sensitivity”) with which non-fans can easily be turned into converts (which ABC has smartly made available for FREE on iTunes, in both Canada AND the U.S. even), but unfortunately I’ve never taken the time to really sit down and write about the show.
So, a few months too late, let’s take a look at why Better Off Ted, and “You Are the Boss of Me” by extension, presents a case for the show’s high quality.