Teach me the secrets of secular pleasure! TV to soothe the savage breast

I’ve been watching a lot of television, to supplement my present Pokémon Emerald addiction and to avoid work – even internet work, and I’m supposed to be doing that for fun.

To say that TV hasn’t been good for ages is a lie – you just have to know what to look at. The three series that I packed episodes of into this weekend cover different subject matter, but they all share one common element: they make me laugh. It is funny, then, that all three of them are sitcoms devoid of laugh tracks.

There should be another caveat: one of them has been cancelled because, as some wags have alleged, it is too “clever” for television.

The programs in question are:

  • Arrested Development
  • My Name is Earl
  • Scrubs

Their various comedies – absurd, built up jokes; jokes at the expense of classless criminals; Zach Braff being annoying but also being funny and allowing his cast members to be funny around him – alienates them from audiences. If you can please everybody, though, you run the risk of pleasing no one. Hence Yes Dear, My Wife and Kids, How I Met Your Mother and Everybody Loves Raymond.*

My Name is Earl boasts a simple concept: a criminal wins $100,000, loses it, and becomes convinced of the existence of karma. Thereafter he decides to right all of the wrongs he has committed in his life.

The beauty of My Name is Earl is that you don’t have to believe in karma: for the sake of the show’s conceit, it simply does. Despite the fact that each episode features Earl setting out to cross an item, or items, off of his list, the approaches taken never seem formulaic. Earl narrates his wrong doing, sometimes through a montage of scenes set to rockin’ music (Guns N’ Roses! Red Hot Chili Peppers!), then rights it.

In solving the problems, Earl learns important but not cloying lessons. If, for instance, he begins to interfere in someone’s life with a negative impact so that he can cross a crime against someone else off his list (as in the episode “Broke Joy’s Fancy Figurine”), he will realise and set himself straight. It’s like double karma, and it’s always pleasant when an episode can resolve itself in a roundabout fashion.

Jason Lee, thankfully free of the shackles of Kevin Smith**, is excellent as Earl, but he is well matched by Ethan Supplee as his brother Randy and plays perfectly against the all too accurate Jaimie Pressly.

I think that the lesson of My Name is Earl, apart from the fact that repeated flashbacks can aid comedy effectively, is that karma is funny. If you don’t believe that, you should check out the conclusion of “Randy’s Touchdown” and be proven horribly wrong.

Arrested Development is slightly “higher class” fare, if only because the family that it tracks are of an (allegedly) higher class than Earl’s cohorts. The episodes that I watched over the weekend were the last five or so produced as part of the second season. Sadly, Arrested Development is no longer with us; its truly stellar ensemble cast created a comedy about a family that never got along but tried to, gosh darn it.

Arrested Development knows what is funny, and frequently takes risks that may repel the audience so that those who stick around are met with incredibly hilarious payoffs.
While the situations presented are in and of themselves funny, running jokes add to the comedy in unforeseen ways. I was, for instance, initially disappointed in the show’s references to the “Star Wars Kid” incident, but the joke was repeated often enough that it actually managed to become funnier with each turn. Given its alleged “fake documentary” conceit, which, despite Ron Howard’s helpful narration, it never really adheres to, it is remarkable to see in these scenes retrospective foreshadowing. The paradox of the camera closing in on Buster as the onscreen George Michael cries “my hand!” is a major cause for mirth as the documentary makers could not possibly have known the significance of that line at the time of filming. That sort of absurd impossibility is one of the greatest charms of a show that offers genuinely clever surprises.

Beyond that, Arrested Development can intuitively divine precisely what is funny about any given scene. The revelation that Gob is Steve “volt for” Holt’s father is not particularly funny; the humour of the situation comes from the fact that the scene is backed by a “Transylvanian” remix of “The Final Countdown”. If you know anything about Gob, then you know that’s great stuff.

I suppose that Arrested Development gives its kicks in many ways, but the most gratifying is definitely the way in which it plants the seeds of comedy for future episodes. It rewarded its viewers, and it’s a true shame that it’s no longer on the air. At least I’ve still got an entire season left to devour (the wonder of DVDs …).

Scrubs is the longest running of these three programs and, like Arrested Development, it takes a serial approach to comedy not often seen in modern sitcoms to illustrate the lives of people who work in a hospital. If you look at something like Frasier or Friends, I think that you’ll find a lot of their success rests in the fact that they told their stories over the course of a season, or even several seasons.

Scrubs has the most potential of these shows for drama, but it is also the most potentially annoying. It makes allusions and cutaways, but in a much more stylish and less constant fashion than Family Guy. They’re almost never total non-sequiturs, either.
The problem is that this could be seen as gimmick TV – remember when Ally McBeal had special effects shots all the time to interrupt the flow and annoy the crap out of its audience so that it didn’t have to do real comedy or drama? Uh … of course you don’t. And neither do I.

Anyway, Scrubs‘ cutaways have the potential to be annoying but they almost never are. It’s a matter of personal taste, of course, but these are executed in the least grating way humanly possible and, as the years went by and the creative staff grew more faith in their characters, the use of the technique was greatly reduced.

Zach Braff’s JD is a character that one will alternately cheer on or want to punch in the face, dependent on his current fixation: if JD is obsessed with Sarah Chalke’s Elliot, he’s going to be less tolerable than when he’s fighting Neil Flynn’s Janitor. John C. McGinley’s Perry Cox was initially too much of a sad, angry bastard to like, but fortunately the writers could see this and allowed for some softening up by turning his life in a more positive direction. Watching someone desperately trying not to screw up a good situation through his misanthropy is eminently more watchable than watching someone ruining an already bad situation through his misanthropy, plunging himself into further misanthropy and misery any day of the week. This is the law of the universe.

The episodes that I was watching covered the first half of the third series. I’ve seen parts of the fourth and fifth series and I kind of respect that a lot of the time the show simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. The surrealism may grow over the years, but the human drama is still there. Scrubs can grate, but it can also be great … and sometimes both at once. It’s a risk that you have to take.

I say I don’t laugh much when I watch TV or go to the movies. I lied. I don’t laugh if I see something mediocre. If I can see a comedy that does what it is supposed to do, then it’s all on.
These three shows, one sadly departed, are prime examples of comedy done right.

*Yes, I get it: they’re all horrible people! That’s not funny!
**Okay, that’s not fair; if Jason Lee has a major role in a Kevin Smith film, that film is probably going to be enjoyable. Excepting Chasing Amy, but that’s another story.

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