Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have a chance to highlight in full — offering casual commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode that I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, I’m looking at four early 2000s efforts that share similarities with our current Sitcom Tuesday star, Malcolm In The Middle.
TUCKER (October 2000 – December 2000, NBC)
Premise: A 14-year-old and his divorced mom are forced to move in with her sister and their family.
Cast: Eli Marienthal, Noelle Beck, Katey Sagal, Nathan Lawrence, Alison Lohman, Casey Sander, Andrew Lawrence, Seth Green
Writers: Terri Hughes & Ron Milbauer, Sheila R. Lawrence, Daniel Joshua Rubin, Ira Fritz & Neal Howard, Chuck Tatham, Chris Alberghini & Mike Chessler, Rick Kellard, Steve Joe & Greg Schaffer, Robin Schwartz & Robert Tarlow
Thoughts: This single-cam comedy about a 14-year-old boy stuck in a dysfunctional house was immediately compared to the still-new Malcolm In The Middle. But aside from this basic setup — and the fact that, in the beginning, the kid narrated the show (à la Malcolm’s fourth wall breaks) — the premise itself is higher concept, with a “forced to move in with extended family” hook that renders this show a little less narratively traditional than Malcolm… However, if Tucker seems to be more precise with its situation, it’s stylistically less rebellious — its episodes are more conventionally plotted, with a kid-focus even more reminiscent of many prior sitcoms in this category, filled with tropes like annoying adults, mean kids, and a hot girl next door. The only thing perhaps different is that it’s a bit hypersexed, especially early on, like in a pilot story where Tucker is maligned in the neighborhood (by his own aunt!) as a Peeping Tom pervert, and in a running gag where Seth Green (who appears several times as himself) dates Tucker’s 14-year-old crush. Green’s casting was weird in 2000, and it’s even weirder now — it’s a gimmick that not only doesn’t make a lot of sense, it doesn’t feel very funny, given the age gap. Some of this sexual sensibility burns off as the run progresses, but it speaks to the show’s general desperation/insecurity about being unique, and that feeling that it’s not as special as it wants to be never goes away… That said, I have to give Tucker some credit. It’s cast well (even its guests — Christina Pickles plays Tucker’s grandma, while John Ritter is his estranged father), with the standouts being Tucker himself, Eli Marienthal, and Married… With Children’s Katey Sagal, who is amusing as the show’s most outrageous comic character. Additionally, there are specific relationships between each member of the regular cast that are distinct and ripe for light conflict. In this regard, I think the show is actually better designed than it is executed — the exact opposite of Malcolm, which claims a more ordinary setup but exceptional writing. But directly compared to Malcolm (as it was in 2000), Tucker is also far less fun.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced; only five broadcast (one on the West Coast only).
Episodes Seen: All 13 episodes.
Key Episode: #6: “You Make Me Sick” (Syndication Only)
Why: This episode pairs Tucker with his difficult Aunt Claire (Katey Sagal) and boasts a script that does a fine job making clear the series’ distinct central relationships within the ensemble.
OLIVER BEENE (March 2003 – September 2004, FOX)
Premise: An 11-year-old attempts to navigate his preteen years during the early 1960s.
Cast: Grant Rosenmeyer, Grant Shaud, Wendy Makkena, Andrew Lawrence, Daveigh Chase, Taylor Emerson, David Cross
Writers: Howard Gewirtz, Steven Levitan, Carter Bays & Craig Thomas, Chris Harris, Jace Richdale, Jim Bernstein & Michael Shipley, David M. Stern, Bill Callahan & Philip Wen, Kristofor Brown, Stephen Lloyd, Brenda Hsueh
Thoughts: This single-cam comedy about a boy from a goofy family in 1962 is like an actually comedic version of the wistful Wonder Years, and with scribes like Howard Gewirtz (Taxi, Wings, Just Shoot Me!) and Steven Levitan (Wings, Frasier, Just Shoot Me!, Modern Family), it’s indeed funny. The cast is great as well — Grant Rosenmeyer is maybe the funniest kid lead in any of these shows (including Malcolm In The Middle), and Grant Shaud and Wendy Makkena are perfect as his parents. Also, the leads are all fairly well-defined, at least initially — I think some of that definition actually gets burned off as the series gropes around for story, particularly in its second season. Speaking of story, Oliver Beene is like all those sitcoms with a high-concept nostalgic setting (such as That ‘70s Show) in that satisfaction of its situation involves the strong use of character in low-concept relation to one another within stories that also somehow engage the era itself. If scripts use the characters but not the setting, they’re not fully fulfilling the premise and thus feel incomplete. And yet, if the setting is made more important than the characters, it looks like idea-driven gimmickry. Unfortunately, I think Oliver Beene, though amusing, has trouble negotiating this balance, especially as it loses the novelty of its era and runs out of ways for it to be meaningfully invoked, leaving stories to feel unmoored from the series’ specific identity. Accordingly, the show’s best episodes are the earliest ones, where the characters are decently well-established and the ‘60s hook is vital to the storytelling — which is also fun, imaginative, and flashy, rendering this the best of the Malcolm imitators discussed here.
Episode Count: 24 episodes produced over two seasons; 22 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 24 episodes.
Key Episode: #1: “A Day At The Beach” (03/09/03)
Why: The series’ premiere (shot third) is the funniest — introducing us to all the main characters in a story where the setting is fundamental to the action, without being a total gimmick. No script is as tightly written or comedically indicative of the show’s unique creative sensibility — oh, and there’s a fun guest appearance from Just Shoot Me!’s Wendie Malick. (If I was choosing other episodes, I’d select “Space Race” and the original pilot, “Fallout,” which also use character, comedy, and setting better than the rest of the series.)
THE O’KEEFES (May 2003 – June 2003, The WB)
Premise: An eccentric family sends two of their kids to public school for the first time.
Cast: Judge Reinhold, Kirsten Nelson, Tania Raymonde, Joseph Cross, Matt Weinberg
Writers: Mark O’Keefe, Jennifer Konner & Alexandra Rushfield, Craig DiGregorio, Paul Ruehl, Tom Saunders & Kell Cahoon, Kevin Murphy
Thoughts: With a premise that, at its core, is about two sheltered, naïve, eccentric kids being thrust into the public education system for the first time, The O’Keefes is basically a school-set single-cam sitcom centered around teen outsiders (one of whom is played by Tania Raymonde, the recurring Cynthia on Malcolm In The Middle). Many of its stories are thus fairly simple — with the goofy nerds either struggling to fit in or oblivious to the fact that they don’t, and then coming out on top in the end, thanks to their basic good nature. This isn’t the kind of sitcom I typically enjoy, for it invites a lot of teen-based clichés, and in this genre, child/teen leads too often exist as plot devices rather than actual characters, especially when ideas feel like they could be done (and would be done similarly) with anybody… Okay, to be fair, the situation for The O’Keefe’s is actually more specific — for these sheltered kids were previously homeschooled by a pair of kooky parents. Well, the father is kooky at least — he’s played by Judge Reinhold, the series’ driving comic force, who is skeptical of sending his kids out into the world. This seemed to inspire the main critique about the series, for some thought that it was making the kids (and those homeschooled like them) the butt of the joke. But I don’t agree; we’re always supposed to laugh at characters on the sitcom. And, frankly, the series honors its kids, whose quirks make them lovable and triumphant. If anyone’s mocked, it’s the kooky father… a clown whom scripts have trouble connecting to the school where the teens mostly reside. Accordingly, I think The O’Keefes’ ultimate problem is that it’s not designed well, for if episodic conflicts are to mostly come from the kids being fish out of water at school, that makes the primary setting not the eccentric home where the show’s star and funniest character lives. So, this seems like it was destined to fail. And it’s never good enough for that to be in doubt. A clear misfire.
Episode Count: Eight episodes produced; five broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All five broadcast episodes.
Key Episode (of Seen): #2: “Election” (05/29/03)
Why: The second aired episode best describes everything I noted about the series above.
COMPLETE SAVAGES (September 2004 – June 2005, ABC)
Premise: A divorced dad raises five rambunctious boys.
Cast: Keith Carradine, Shaun Sipos, Erik Von Detten, Andrew Eiden, Evan Ellingson, Jason Dolley, Vincent Ventresca, Autumn Reeser
Writers: Mike Scully & Julie Thacker, Brian Scully, Steven Molaro, Adam Lorenzo, Andy Gordon, Lissa Levin, Donick Cary, Tom Gammill & Max Pross
Thoughts: Co-created by a Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond alum, Complete Savages is a periodically funny sitcom that really embodies the domestic format, especially in the post-Roseanne era of blue-collar realism, or in this case, crassness. Unlike the others here, this is a multi-cam and there’s no mom — but, like Malcolm In The Middle, it’s also about a family of five boys and their dysfunctional household. It’s not as impressive as any of the aforementioned though because not all the regulars are well-defined. Only three of the five boys have any real comedic shape — the jock, the nerd, the prankster. The oldest and youngest are merely there to serve their positional roles as bookends, otherwise bringing no value to comedy or story. What’s more, despite these routine and uninspired comic personas for the middle three children that do influence their usages, they’re basically generic too, with none of the leads — and not even their beleaguered father — feeling multi-dimensional. As for the storytelling, the scripts themselves are funny and effort is made to occasionally weave ideas together in an attempt to exhibit some kind of narrative intelligence, but nothing here is particularly fresh or notable — and in general, with all the characters seeming to exist to reinforce a collective identity without being conceived as individuals in relation to one another, it’s never great. (Oh, of note: Mel Gibson executive produced the series, even offering a few gimmicky cameo appearances.)
Episode Count: 19 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 19.
Key Episode: #11: “The Man Without A Ball” (12/03/04)
Why: Betty White guest stars in two episodes as the boys’ mean elderly neighbor. Her first entry is especially funny, as she’s uncompromisingly crusty for no good reason. It’s one of the TV legend’s best sitcom guest stints — I cited it here upon her passing a few years ago — and it’s still the most notable half hour of the series. (Also, there are two episodes where Shelley Long guests as the nerd’s girlfriend’s mother — they’re notable, but not great.)
Ultimately, I say… FORGET everything, but enjoy what you can of early Oliver Beene and Betty White’s episodes of Complete Savages.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical rarity!