Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s entry looks at Jason Alexander’s second post-Seinfeld series, the flatly mediocre Listen Up (2004-2005, CBS), which many cite as the last show belonging under the umbrella of the “Seinfeld Curse” — the belief that the four players on the stratospheric hit were so closely associated with 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. So I wanted to go beyond this idea and examine four of these post-Seinfeld shows and see what I could find; this is our last entry, as the next time a Seinfeld co-star would headline a series, it would end up running for five seasons, netting her another Emmy award, and effectively “breaking” the “curse.”
So what of the artist formerly known as George Costanza’s second attempted TV comeback? Well, if Watching Ellie paved the way for the official elimination of the “Seinfeld Curse” in our collective conscious by reinforcing how talented these individuals were (i.e. “Louis-Dreyfus deserves more success; let’s not be resistant to the idea that she can find it”), then Listen Up proved that it was a false prophecy all along. For while the dreadful The Michael Richards Show (2000, NBC) had the unenviable task of going first, it also stank to high heaven — tainting each flawed, but progressively less disastrous series to come. Yet, by the time of the 2004-2005 season, one of those watershed years in the evolution of television programming (NBC’s comedy changed as Friends and Frasier were no more, and The Office debuted; ABC rediscovered the dramedy with Desperate Housewives; CBS bid farewell to Everybody Loves Raymond), it finally seemed like everyone was now rooting against the notion of the fake curse. This false external excuse used to take blame off mediocre/faulty series for their own failings was no longer applicable — Listen Up‘s success or failure was going to have nothing to do with Seinfeld. Indeed, as it turned out, for the first time in this Wildcard series, its quality was concerned with nothing but simple mediocrity: pure, unalloyed averageness — irrespective of its lead’s Seinfeldian past. In fact, if anything, the harsh external treatment given to the prior three “cursed” shows actually benefited this series, for now the audience was actively crusading for success.
But mediocrity is the cardinal sin in a situation comedy. Sure, I might feel like vomiting and refuse to show an episode of a truly terrible series like Richards’ aforementioned vehicle on this blog, but I can’t fault it for boldness — nor will I forget it. Listen Up… well, this I might forget. The show, created by Jeff Martin (The Simpsons, Late Night With David Letterman, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson) was based on the published columns of sportswriter Tony Kornheiser; Jason Alexander played Tony Kleinman, a columnist and co-host of a sports talk show alongside his best friend and former NFL player Bernie Widmer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner, of The Cosby Show). But it’s Tony’s personal life that seems to cause him the most anguish; not his understanding wife Dana (Wendy Makkena), who works as a zoo administrator (there’s a mildly amusing running joke about no one understanding what she actually does for a living) — but his two kids: Mickey (Will Rothhaar), a spacey golf prodigy, and Megan (Daniella Monet), a smart-mouthed overachiever (in everything but sports). If this reads like every domestic sitcom from the early 21st century, there’s a good reason — because it is. Despite Kornheiser’s words as inspiration, this is just a typical family-with-a-goofy-dad series: the figurative wheel of the situation comedy (surrounded on the schedule by other “wheels”: Still Standing and Everybody Loves Raymond). But one can never reinvent the wheel; one can only, to turn another tortured metaphor, attach it to a good car. I’m referring, of course, to the characters.
Sadly, none of the characters are really conducive to memorable laughs, nor do they offer enough unique qualities to rise above the common, expected, and dreadful tropes of the genre. Now, it’s not the cast’s fault. They’re all perfectly fine. (I’d quibble about the wife perhaps not being able to carry her comedic weight — but I don’t know if the series ever gave her the chance!) And while Alexander’s Tony is essentially a “George Costanza lite,” particularly as the series wears on (we saw this in Watching Ellie too), it’s neither a cause for concern — George was an extension of Alexander, like everything he’s going to do in his career — nor an inhibitor of laughs. In fact, Alexander’s neuroses are what’s used to drive the majority of the show’s comedy. The primary issue here is how stories are crafted, for although a domestic format is a solid change of place for the actor, it’s his workplace environment that begs for more exploration. Alexander and Warner have an odd chemistry, but this could have been maximized for comedic gain: here are these two stark opposites (with totally different performative energies, too) — why not play up that tension in an expanded look at their universe at the station? That‘s the part of the show that remains fresh — not the boring “kid X is giving me Y problem this week” schlock that bogs down the series, especially initially. Fortunately, as the year progresses, the show gets better about integrating Warner into otherwise domestic-based episodes, but it’s never in a meaningful way, leaving the premise arguably unfulfilled. All we can do then is hope for a narrative that both makes sense for these thinly drawn characters and offers a few actual laughs.
As always, mediocrity alone isn’t enough to cancel a series. It’s only enough to keep the ratings at a good-but-not-great level and earn reviews that are mixed-but-leaning-negative. But it also isn’t bad enough (The Michael Richards Show) or flawed enough (Bob Patterson, Watching Ellie) to be hated, especially when the guilt about the extrinsically applied “Seinfeld Curse” made both critics and audiences more forgiving of mediocrity — because, hey, at least it looked like a lot of good-but-not-great, moderately successful hits. The actual reason for the series’ cancellation after a one-year 22-episode run came down to finances. Because it was a star vehicle with a modest base of support, it was not financially expedient to produce another season. Many starry shows, including those that are better than mediocre, from the first decade of the 21st century were axed for similar reasons. (Back To You, anyone?) So this inoffensive, not dreadful, un-cursed average domestic sitcom, with a big star, folded after just one year. And having seen all 22 episodes, I am finally able — for the first time in this series — to present an actual list of favorites. But, for the sake of continuity, and for a sheer disinterest in mediocrity (sitting through Love & War a few months ago was enough), I’m going to briefly list the episodes I would have highlighted (should anyone who has access to this show be interested), and do like I’ve done the last few weeks: share a single episode that can represent the lot.
If I were highlighting, I probably would have singled out “Mickey Swallows A Bee” for being among the few to use Tony’s relationship with one of his kids comedically; “The Gift Of The Ton-i,” which features Garry Marshall as Tony’s dad and delivers its laughs; “Thanksgiving,” a routine domestic comedy holiday outing with Marla Gibbs as Bernie’s mom; “Tony The Tiger,” which throws all of its figurative eggs into Alexander’s basket; “Snub Thy Neighbor,” in which the show goes broader than ever before and seems to be pushing for an elevated type of humor that had previously been non-existant; “Weekend With Bernie,” which features the best usage of the dynamic between Alexander and Warner; and “Couch Potato,” which has an amusing premise and gains points for integrating Bernie into a story with the family. I’ve decided to highlight the last one mentioned, simply because, as the series’ 18th aired, it shows you the identity into which the series was hoping to settle. The entry was written by Dan O’Keefe (Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, Silicon Valley), directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr. (Wings, Just Shoot Me!, Girlfriends), and broadcast by CBS on March 07, 2005.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for more Seinfeld!