Thursday, April 9, 2009

Watered-Down Less Good Versions of Your Old Favorites

"Better Off Ted"

They canceled "Undeclared" and "Freaks and Geeks" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "Arrested Development," but at least a few people saw them. Now we have less good descendants scattered across network and cable. You can see the work of the same writers, actors, and directors, recombined and watered down into new shows that are less original, less funny, and somehow considered better bets for long-term survival.

"Better Off Ted" is getting at least a fair shot and a good timeslot from ABC even though its single-camera, satirical style doesn't fit in with any of the other original comedies on the network. ("Scrubs," salvaged from NBC for a final season, is the only other thing on schedule the least compatible and accordingly provides the lead-in.) It's pretty funny and has a terrific cast -- Portia De Rossi from "Arrested," Jonathan Slavin from "Weeds," and the fine Malcolm Barrett, about whom I have written before. Jay Harrington, who seems to have been cast because he resembles (and has identical initials to) Jon Hamm, is adequate with an option for likable as the lead.

"Ted" was created by "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" mastermind Victor Fresco, and the quirky casting and certain peculiar touches (like the fake ads that sometimes serve as act breaks) reflect that late, lamented show's style. "Ted" isn't as edgy nor as surreal as "Controls," taking more cues from the heightened reality of shows like "Arrested Development" and "Malcolm in the Middle." It also borrows from "Malcolm" the device of the lead frequently addressing the camera directly, which is less effective on this new show. On "Malcolm," the impassioned pleas of Frankie Muniz made sense, as the hyperintelligent teen's only escape valve from his unapologetically lower-middle-class family. Harrington's Ted should be less self-centered and more on the ball, and it's one of the things about the show that makes the character less appealing than he could be. Internal monologues like those of "Scrubs" would work better, but what would really improve "Better Off Ted" is if they dropped the concept entirely. It works better when it's an ensemble show rather than focusing on the lead, as De Rossi and the dynamic scientist duo of Barrett and Slavin get most of the laughs.

It's hard not to hold "Better Off Ted" to the high standards of "Arrested Development," because that's clearly the gold standard for Fresco and his writers. There's elements of Michael Bluth in the Ted character, the only sane man in a world of eccentrics, although Ted interacts more with his coworkers than his family. Fresco's first sitcom covered similar ground, although on "Controls the Universe" his lead was as weird as the wackjob supporting cast (which included Jonathan Slavin), imagining conversations with the hundred-years-dead builder of his office complex. "Arrested" was good, indeed great, from its first episode, and "Ted" lets half-baked concepts from its pilot continue to slacken the pace in later episodes.

Andrea Anders simply isn't very funny as the other "normal" in the office with whom Ted plays out a tired will-they-or-won't-they chemistry that's way too played out for a writer with Fresco's imagination to be trotting out. Even if Anders was effective in the role the interplay between Ted and Linda has a 50's screwball comedy timing that doesn't gel with the rapid, modernist pace of the rest of the cast. Besides, De Rossi needs more screen time as Veronica, Ted's deliciously insincere superior. She's doing another riff on the same character she played on "Ally McBeal" and "Arrested Development," but her experience on the latter really perfected her deadpan style. She's as funny here as you've ever seen her, although the show needs to introduce a foil for her -- the science guys are (correctly) too terrified of her to engage in witty repartee, and Harrington isn't on her level. The "commercials" also don't work. They're too subtle and don't get any laughs coming out of the main body's more sledgehammer-like gags.

The best thing about "Better Off Ted," and the chief sign of its potential, is its ability to handle controversial material. The fourth episode, "Racial Sensitivity," had an over-the-top plot regarding the motion-detecting lights in the office not registering the presence of black people. This logically led to some scenes that could have been deeply offensive if the tone was not exactly right. A sign next to the motion-sensing water fountain reads "Manual Fountain (For Blacks)." A white character is even heard to say, "Man, I got the worst black guy" (after the company hires minimum-wage white people to follow the undetectable blacks around, so the lights will turn on and doors will open for them). But the show is so ridiculous that it plays this material strictly for laughs and gets away with it. It's not skin-crawlingly awkward like the racial stuff on "The Office" or "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Not that there's any problem with that approach -- sometimes direct confrontation is good. But "Better Off Ted" takes the somewhat more difficult task of presenting these jokes in a noncontroversial manner and largely succeeds. Part of the continuing racial healing process in this country is the ability of people of all backgrounds to laugh at stuff that's just completely ridiculous.

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