The SEINFELD Curse (II): A Look at BOB PATTERSON

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This week’s post looks at the short-lived Jason Alexander vehicle Bob Patterson (2001, ABC), the lauded star’s first post-Seinfeld series. Unfortunately, Bob Patterson seemed to go the way of The Michael Richards Show (2000, NBC) with overwhelming critical derision and a truncated run that helped fuel the notion of the “Seinfeld Curse” — the belief that the four players on the stratospheric hit were so closely associated to their iconic characters that success in another TV role would be impossible. It’s a theory not confined to Seinfeld (just ask Tina Louise), but for all hit series, as the nature of television involves an intimacy between character and audience that’s only enhanced by longevity. However, oftentimes this notion of “typecasting” becomes a crutch that performers and commentators use to keep themselves from having to examine the critical merits of an actual work. Let’s go beyond this hex idea and examine these post-Seinfeld shows on their own terms…

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In the case of The Michael Richards Show, which I could barely bring myself to discuss last week (because there were no critical merits, and I am no longer masochistic here when it comes to bad TV — thanks to The Ropers), the series was so flagrantly rotten that it had the effect of also crippling the other efforts that followed. In other words, because The Michael Richards Show, easily the worst of these post-Seinfeld series, was the first time viewers got to see one of the latter show’s regulars back on TV, it made audiences (who had loved Seinfeld) much more skeptical and harder to please. Additionally, the series introduced the notion of the “Seinfeld Curse,” ensuring that it would forever be a part of the dialogue surrounding these talented performers (until it could officially be “broken”); if something wasn’t immediately brilliant, said curse would be half-jokingly considered the reason. Now, I find this entirely unfair, for even though The Michael Richards Show was indeed terrible, I don’t want to blame its horridness on anything other than its own failings: the series was terribly designed and written. However, the problems become less overwhelming as we progress through these “cursed” shows — heck, even Bob Patterson, which premiered a year after Richards’ series (as part of ABC’s Tuesday line-up of sitcoms), isn’t nearly the disaster its predecessor was… although it still doesn’t work.

Let’s discuss the premise. Alexander, also the co-creator (with Peter Tilden and Michael Markowitz), plays the eponymous Bob Patterson, a motivational speaker and the #3 “self-help guru” in the country, who (surprise, surprise) isn’t nearly as confident or adept in his personal life — just ask his dippy ex-wife (Jennifer Aspen) and smart-mouthed son (James Guidice). At the office, Bob works with his partner Landau (Robert Klein), a dopey intern (Phil Buckman), and a black paraplegic secretary (Chandra Wilson). The concept, aside from the clichéd ex-wife angle, doesn’t set itself up for failure in the same way that “Richards as a private investigator” does, but the pilot establishes that the crux of the comedy will come from spoofing the self-help trend. So, in effect, the premise is based around a comedic idea, instead of a comedic character, and that’s already apparent (and troubling) within the first five minutes of the premiere episode. Alexander, who had already proven himself highly capable, is charged with filling out what is otherwise missing on the page. But it’s an unfair responsibility, particularly because the premise isn’t as low-concept as Seinfeld‘s was initially — meaning there are more idea-based story demands. Many critics were not only shocked that Alexander wasn’t able to automatically elevate this material (as they anticipated), but also that Bob Patterson wasn’t terribly dissimilar from the neurotic, bloviating George Costanza, which was considered a fault.

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I tend to take a more forgiving position here, because acting for television requires that the performer put more of him/herself in the role than in other mediums (given the length of time with which this character might exist). So I think it’s expected that every role an actor plays on television is going to be more alike than unalike. Also, we must be keenly aware of the double-edged sword of expectations; if Alexander were to play an entirely different role, audiences would have been equally dissatisfied. So when discussing Alexander’s work on Bob Patterson, I think it’s best to acknowledge that the issues go beyond him. As always, we have to look at the writing. Now, again, the premise isn’t entirely unworkable, but it certainly needed to be more character-driven, for all five of the broadcast installments are governed by their loglines and the funny ideas that these writers have crafted — not this group of characters. This is common in new shows that don’t yet know their players, but signs of forward momentum in this regard must be offered — and they aren’t. And while there’s no greater problem to have than thinly drawn characters (which is Bob Patterson‘s cardinal sin), the show’s failure to suggest that they will become more interesting speaks to an issue for which these early episodes deserve to be held responsible: the inability to accurately reflect the type of storytelling the series will utilize.

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That is, the series gives no indication that it can craft many worthwhile comedic plots within this premise. Every story idea, because it’s not working in tandem with the characters, feels like a contrived struggle, and with the regulars showing little signs of development, prospects look dim. All we have to rely on are Alexander’s feverish attempts to find laughs within these ostentatious stories — which may be inherently amusing, but are also belabored and unsubtle. So it’s no surprise that when ratings were mediocre (because the series was up against Frasier, the real cause of this show’s demise) and reviews were worse, Bob Patterson only made it to five episodes. Many blamed the “Curse” — and when the show began production amidst creative struggles (replaced actors and a departing Executive Producer), this narrative of doom was already being formed. But the inevitably of failure was not externally applied; rather, it was internally determined based on faulty development (specifically of character — not just Bob, but the whole ensemble) and a reliance on a good-but-not-great premise. It wasn’t a disaster, but given Alexander’s pedigree, it sure seemed like one — thus furthering the public perception of the “Seinfeld Curse.” And while it’s not the worst show we’ve covered here, you’ll be glad to know the next two sitcoms in this series (which will resume after a one-week pause) are more watchable. (Not great, but watchable — with less lingering stench from Richards’ show!)

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So, because there are only five findable outings, I can’t do a list of favorites; instead, I’ll share the offering that I find the most enjoyable. This is the fourth aired entry, “Awards Bob,” in which Bob competes with the #2 Self-Help Guru, played by William Shatner — gimmicky guest star appearances were already a hallmark by week four — for an award. Look for one of Seinfeld‘s classic guests, Frances Bay, in a supporting role. Aired on October 24, 2001, this installment was directed by Barnet Kellman (Murphy BrownMad About You) and written by Hayes Jackson (Mad About You, According To Jim). Enjoy this 16-year-old ABC flop!

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for more Seinfeld!

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