TV Satirizes TV, But Ignores Truth: A Look at MY ADVENTURES IN TELEVISION

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! As Sitcom Tuesdays have been exploring The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998, HBO), this entry examines a thematically similar series created and executive produced by Peter Tolan, one of the most prolific scribes on Larry Sanders and the writer credited for many of its best episodes. This week, we’re looking at Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central), which aired for two weeks on ABC in the spring of 2002 before being yanked from the schedule and returning nearly two months later in May as My Adventures In Television, when four more episodes were scheduled — but only three aired. I’ve seen all five broadcast installments of this multi-titled series (I’ll refer to it as the second title, because it aired one week longer under that name), and while there are too few offerings available to choose a list of favorites, for the sake of your critical pleasure, I’ve selected one episode to share below.

Set in the world of network television at the fictional IBS (yes, get it?), the series is centered around idealistic juvenile executive David Weiss (Ivan Sergei), whose first day of work launches the pilot. He soon finds IBS to be a world of questionable morality, propagated by the likes of the ruthlessly ambitious Senior VP of Programming, Mike McClaren (James Michael McCauley), the vapid and air-headed VP of Comedy Development, Lindsay Urich (Melinda McGraw), and the reasonable but unqualified “token” black executive, Joanne Walker (Sherri Shepherd), who’s now serving as VP of Programming. Ed Begley, Jr. plays their boss, the bumbling and tasteless Network President, Paul Weffler, while John Cleese is everyone’s boss, Red Lansing, the owner of IBS. Lori Laughlin recurs as herself, playing the female lead from one of the network’s sitcoms, while opportunities occur, as in The Larry Sanders Show, for starry cameos by folks like John Ritter and even Garry Shandling himself. Aside from Tolan, who was coming off The Job (2001-2002, ABC), series writers included Co-EP Daphne Pollon (Murphy BrownStyle & Substance, Love & Money), along with Supervising Producers Jenji Kohan (Mad About You, Weeds, Orange Is The New Black) and Mike Martineau (Larry Sanders, Mad About You, The Job).

Purported to be a satire of the industry, the show — while nevertheless visually brighter than Larry Sanders (this is a multi-cam mostly in front of a live audience, with some Sanders inspired walk-in-talks that likely were shot without one) — offers a much harsher take on its behind-the-scenes personalities. In this regard, it actually adheres to the sarcastic irreverence that many over-associate with Tolan’s prior TV-backstager. For instance, in addition to Shepherd’s character proudly proclaiming her tokenism, other stories in the show’s brief run include McCauley’s character feigning homosexuality in order to make industry connections, and McGraw’s character adopting a Chinese baby on a whim. (This latter episode, the fourth aired, “Chinese Baby,” caused a controversy for its perceived racial insensitivity. In fact, the series was pulled from the airwaves two weeks later before its last installment, “Diversity” — all about the network offending different minority groups — could be broadcast, cementing a cancellation that already seemed imminent.) Tolan’s heavily parodical aims make themselves more prominently felt with each installment, and while The Larry Sanders Show also contrasted the industry’s glamour with its off-screen absurdities for the sake of a premise-connected dramatic gravitas, such broad and comedically driven narrative goals are not found in that HBO series.

The success of My Adventures In Television‘s satire, specifically its laugh-getting success, can be debated. As always, low ratings were the cause of cancellation, and high quality writing (a subjective determination) would have been, as always, the best defense. Truthfully, no show should be counted upon to deliver excellence in such a short two-week (or five-week or six-week) period of time — the writers, the actors, and the audience all need to get to know the characters. But signs of future growth must be evident. For this series, I think both the setting and the comedic sensibilities of its creative team do indicate that the writing would have improved over time. Additionally, the cast is strong — John Cleese, though not terribly well-served yet, remains an asset of the tallest order, surrounded by amusing personalities like Shepherd, McCauley, and McGraw. And Sergei, though comparatively dull, is designed for a character-driven arc. None of that’s the problem. The problem, as I see it, is the inherent confusion in the premise’s intentions to take us “behind-the-scenes of network television,” a place these writers know well but we, the audience, know little. This concept implies, like The Larry Sanders Show, a certain commitment to reality — an aesthetic choice that stands in contrast to the heightened burlesque that comes packaged to these scripts’ satirical objectives.

In other words, the show tonally implants a chronic believability problem — both in its characters, who each verge on the caricatured extreme (McGraw in the “Chinese Baby” episode is a sight to behold), and in its storytelling, which frequently engages with ridiculous ideas that stretch the bounds of common sense — not to mention the particulars of the industry being spoofed. For instance, the oft-reinforced joke about network executives hungering for gimmicks to drive up their ratings is a good launching place for a comedic story… but when it’s associated with the cast attempting to convince a serial killer (Ted McGinley) to let them broadcast his execution live in primetime, the show is forcing the audience to leap over a gulf that’s not otherwise suggested by the premise or its comedy. Jumping these kinds of hurdles must be rationalized for the audience — sometimes laughs are enough of an enticement (again, a subjective determination) — but often times, especially in the case of a new show, the writing has to reinforce what the premise suggests (here: an insider’s look), for that’s all that the audience knows of the show. Because My Adventures In Television fosters such a disconnect with its credibility, it’s hard to want to invest any further — it just doesn’t seem trustworthy.

Ultimately, this series proves how wise The Larry Sanders Show was to constantly strive for truth in its characters and in its storytelling. The honesty with which it imbued its universe is something that connects it to the great ensemble comedies of yore, like the quintessential example of this genre, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In contrast, My Adventures In Television could never be in that category. It’s tonally resistant to genuine connection. So, on this sad-but-true note, I’m going to share with you the aforementioned serial killer episode, “Death Be Not Pre-Empted,” which was the first to air under the My Adventures In Television title, as the series’ third installment, when it returned to ABC on May 29, 2002. The script was written by Daphne Pollon and directed by Bob Berlinger. Aside from McGinley, Shandling makes a cameo. You may laugh, but witness how the satire isn’t supported by the premise — are we or are we not to believe these characters are real? (And can you even stick around long enough to answer?)

 

 

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

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