Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s entry, we’re looking — briefly, as I am ensconced at the time of this writing in everything Larry Sanders — at Inside Schwartz (2001-2002, NBC), a sitcom created by Stephen Engel (head writer of Dream On in its final two seasons) that aired in the coveted-but-cursed post-Friends (1994-2004, NBC) slot in the network’s Must See TV Thursday line-up. Over the next few years, we’ll be covering most of the forgotten shows that aired in this powerful block, and Inside Schwartz, because of Engel, gets to be the first Wildcard floperoo. My thoughts are going to be short, because I don’t have the energy to dedicate too much of my time to mediocrity, but I wanted to first note that the series starred Breckin Meyer as Adam Schwartz, an aspiring sportscaster who works for his father (Richard Kline) at the family’s local pita shop. Adam is coming off a relationship with the dreamy Eve (Maggie Lawson), for whom he still pines, while other regulars include his neighbors, the Coberts (Bryan Callen and Jennifer Irwin), his friend William (Dondre T. Whitfield) and his bestie, Julie Hermann (Miriam Shor), with whom he shares a platonic relationship that we can all deduce will grow into something more. The show’s hook, and the reason I wanted to cover it now, is that Adam’s thoughts are punctuated with sports figures, references, and gags — à la Dream On‘s use of classic film and television clips.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored how the success of Dream On was predicated on its ability to turn the gimmick of using MCA Universal’s library as the impetus for its premise into a tonal barometer between two juxtaposing elements — romance and reality — whose relationship would set the series’ sense of humor and allow the characters to be story-motivators within the aesthetic. Well, I’m here to tell you that Inside Schwartz, with a similarly conceived concept (albeit, one more reliant on physical beings rather than clips) doesn’t find a healthy relationship at all. In fact, early episodes — written by Engel — use the device as the series’ primary source of interest, a stylistic choice set to define what makes the show unique… you know, instead of the characters. As a result, press at the time rightly ascertained that this whole idea was a gimmick, and saw underneath the rhetoric to know that there was nothing in support but another “singles in the city” construct, which was already perceived to be trite and unoriginal. Furthermore, this design is dependent on the audience’s ability to invest emotionally in the characters, and since fatigue about NBC’s attempts to create such factory-made homogenized fare (even with some sports conceit splashed on top) precluded many from doing so, the show would never have a chance to prove how it could become more character-driven after this necessary premise-based exposition.
But this gimmick wasn’t just signaling a lack of creativity within the series’ design; it also stood as its poorly understood albatross. That is, as the show attempted to portray the sports gags as a unique distraction from NBC’s applied cookie-cutter design, the truth is that Inside Schwartz never figured out how to use them — the way Dream On knew how to frame Martin’s perspective using the clips. Are they mini-fantasies that reveal Adam’s character, or are they just funny jokes to bolster boring wannabe Friends scenes? Also, with NBC trying to simultaneously make the show more like Friends while promoting it as fresh and original (through its sports angle), how were the writers to know how much to use said sports angle? Initial episodes, of course, feature it a lot; later ones maybe have one or two beats. And even though the show always needed to be more character-driven, it nevertheless also needed to make up its mind regarding this part of its identity. Because that never happened, true quality could not yet be assured. Only nine episodes (of 13 produced) aired between September 2001 and January 2002. I have seen eight of them (and it’s quite possible the one I’m missing, “Event Night,” is the most brilliant), so I can’t choose a list of favorites. I can, however, share one of the stronger offerings with regard to the presentation of the characters (but not its uninspired “typically sitcom” story). It’s “Play-Action Fake Boyfriend,” the seventh aired (on December 20, 2001), tenth produced, with a story by Debora Cahn (The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy), a teleplay by Gail Lerner (Will & Grace, Happy Endings), and direction by Gail Mancuso (Roseanne, Friends).
Come back next week for another Wildcard entry! And tune in on Tuesday for Larry Sanders!