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Dramedy or Comerama?

A while back, some insightful network executive decided audiences might like a little humor with their overblown drama, and thus the Dramedy was born. Still the same weighty themes, but explored with lightness and good cheer. Then, like some mad professor locked away in the cellar, writers began to tinker with the formula.

They upped the silliness, threw in extra yuks, and dared to crack wise about the soul-crushing themes that had weighted down traditional TV fare. And then the line got blurry. Did someone put a little funny in their drama, or did they get some angst in their comedy? Are we meant to laugh through our tears or feel bad about laughing? What are these programs, Dramedy or Comerama?

Fall TV:
  • New Nightmares
  • Nerds & Cavemen
  • 1. Viva Laughlin (CBS, Sundays 7 p.m.) CBS calls this show a "drama." If that's the case, they're combining a noir-ish thriller with Grease, because that's what this reminds me of - a Grease for sexy, sexy grown-ups who, even though they're up to very serious things like running crooked casinos and killing people, can nonetheless spontaneously start singing and dancing to rock 'n' roll oldies. And if that's the case, it's a "black dramedy," or a "musical comerama."

    Oh, crap, let's face it - Viva Laughlin defies categorization. The question that will have to be answered here is, are the producers capable of doing something that only the British have so far succeeded in doing - bending genre conventions in such a novel and memorable way as to produce a very intense drama that can also incorporate wacky, ironic rock musical numbers? Or is that too much to ask of American network TV? In my world it shouldn't be, but as I've learned so many times, Hollywood and I don't often share the same planet.

    blackpool.jpgMaybe it'll help that the main creative force behind the BBC mini-series this is based on (Blackpool), has made the jump to CBS to help the Tiffany Network try something that, for us Yanks, is truly different. Peter Bowker's original mini-series was mighty strange but it worked because of the freedom that British TV has compared to the American networks in an era of FCC crackdowns. 2004's Blackpool and its later follow-up special, Viva Blackpool, were great partly because of the over-the-top salaciousness and utter abandon of its musical numbers, many of which starred the inimitable David Morrissey as the Rev. Ripley Holden, a small-time wedding chapel entrepreneur who dreams of striking it big with an amusement park in the British seaside gambling town of Blackpool. They were so weirdly out-of-step with the "straight" story that was being told that the combination somehow worked . . . but it was fragile. Its conceit was gossamer thin, and a lot of its oomph depended on several very edgy stylistic elements working together perfectly.

    It's hard to imagine CBS allowing the same kind of freedom to Bowker and his American producing partner, Hugh Jackman. I've seen a clip of one Viva Laughlin musical number - and it's almost exactly the same as from Viva Blackpool: fittingly enough, the Elvis song "Viva Las Vegas." But that was the least "shocking" of the Blackpool numbers that are available on YouTube. What's CBS going to do when they show, say, two men doing a tango, and the angry calls from Idaho start pouring in to advertisers?

    A lot will rest on the abilities of Lloyd Owen as the American Ripley Holden, which is kinda weird because Owen's a British stage actor. So you're going to have a Brit playing an American in a series based on a quirky British show. I don't know, but I think this is all going to go over the viewing public's head.

    Diagnosis: Dramedy

    Prognosis: I predict Viva Laughlin will be trashed, panned and beaten bloody, but that it won't deserve it. My guess is that it will be a valiant try to do something different that will come up somewhat short.

    - Don Jacobson

    2. Big Shots (ABC, Thursdays 9 p.m.)
    Having scored impressive successes with female-oriented comeramas like Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, ABC has decided to woo the testosterone-soaked side of the gender divide with the same formula.

    And why wouldn't it work? After all, as revealed in Big Shot's signature gag, men are the new women. And by "new women," the creators evidently mean "gossipy bitches." It's essentially Sex and the City with a disparate group of four men who are friends solely because the script tells them to be. Oh, and because they're men, they're all wealthy CEOs, meaning ABC thinks its male viewers want to watch the comical travails of the guys who just pink-slipped them, raided their pensions and tried to grab their wives' behinds.

    ABC also seems to think its male viewers want to listen to the same tired jokes that weren't funny when Jackie Gleason spouted them in The Honeymooners. To wit, in one of the previews currently in heavy on-air rotation, Christopher Titus' character deadpans, "I'm married. I'm done with good times." Hilarious, right? Because we all know that once a man marries, his wife zips up her vagina and opens it only to release a shrieking, needy, thankless brat every two to three years.

    I'd write more, but I have to go brow-beat my husband.

    Diagnosis: Comerama

    Prognosis: If this does well, please kill me.

    - Natasha Julius

    3. Pushing Daisies (ABC, Wednesdays, 7 pm)
    Producer Bryan Fuller is really on a roll. His Wonderfalls was another of those criminally under-appreciated terrific shows that usually last about five weeks because of their mismanagement by network suits (in that case, Fox), who, if they can't neatly pigeonhole something, they get very afraid and toss it over almost immediately. But now I'm sensing a change - the whole willingness to engage in genre-bending like dramedies and comeramas is finally giving weird comedy-dramas like Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies space they never had before.

    pushing_daisies.jpgSince that show was yanked two years ago after a measly 14 episodes (some of which never aired), Fuller, who started his TV life as a Star Trek geek, struck paydirt as an exec producer of Heroes. That has earned him a chance to use WF's sweet-yet-edgy fantasy style with a full-on network blitz behind it. As you can tell, I'm pretty damn excited about this show. It could be this year's most-deserving show that makes it huge.

    Pushing Daisies seems to be a lot like Wonderfalls only writ much larger. It even stars a WF veteran, Lee Pace, who in the Fox series played a key supporting role as an atheist doctoral student whose slacker younger sister has apparently developed an ability to "talk to God" through various inanimate representations of animals, such as a wax lions, brass monkeys, totem poles, you name it. One of the many funny ironies of Wonderfalls' premise was that the sister's completely unwanted conversations with something that may or may not be God fills his heart with a unbridled jealousy - it turns out his atheism is just a pose that he's built into an entire persona when all he really wants out of life is a reason to believe. Instead, it goes to someone who doesn't give a damn. So clever.

    The way Fuller integrated the visual effects of animating inanimate animals (get it?) was so smooth and fit so well into the semi-comedic premise (an early comerama) that the results were at once hilarious, spectacular and actually kind of deep. I'd be rather shocked and disappointed at this point if he doesn't succeed wildly at doing it again, this time with Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Addams Family), the current master of the brightly colored, visual feast style of filmmaking, handling the direction. The buzz is already pretty loud about Pushing Daisies.

    This show also has a high concept very similar to Wonderfalls: Pace is an unassuming man who has let the world find out his secret that he can bring dead people and animals (again with animated animals!) back to life with a touch, but if he touches them again, they immediately die, this time for good. This is both a blessing and curse when the girl he had a childhood crush on is murdered. He reanimates her in order to find her killer, all fine and dandy, but of course, they fall in love and can't consummate due to that no-touch thing. He also uses his power to bring other murder victims back to life, discern their killers and collect the rewards.

    Diagnosis: Comerama

    Prognosis: Two words. Can't wait.

    - Don Jacobson

    4. Chuck (NBC, Mondays 7 p.m.)
    I think I saw this show a few years ago. Only it was called Jake 2.0 and it rocked. Chuck? Well, maybe not so much.

    A computer nerd working at a local electronics store somehow opens a magically encoded e-mail that implants a laundry list of government secrets into his head. Were this to happen in real life, I think we all know how it would play out. The feds would declare him an enemy combatant, lobotomize him and shove him in Guantanamo where the sun don't shine. However, since this is television, the computer nerd is given a pair of hot FBI agents as bodyguards and trained in uber-cool espionage techniques like that slightly-dated laser thing from Mission Impossible.

    Here's the thing, though. In Jake 2.0, the central character ingested a bunch of nanobots that altered his physical form, turning him into the ultimate agent. His brain and his personality, however, remained utterly geeky. The joy was in watching him adjust to his new corporeal abilities. In Chuck, the massive information dump into the main character's head doesn't appear to come with a personality change or a physical upgrade. So what exactly are we supposed to watch? It would be like if you took Joe Pesci's character in Lethal Weapon 3 - the bumbling witness - and made him the star of the movie.

    Diagnosis: Comerama

    Prognosis: With Lethal Weapon 3, you had the pleasant memories of Lethal Weapons 1 and 2 to get you through. With Chuck . . . you've got Chuck. And he's no Joe Pesci.

    - Natasha Julius

    5. Reaper (CW, Tuesdays, 8 pm)
    tyler_labine2.jpgThe comerama in its purest form, Reaper takes the adventure/comedy style that was first pioneered by Steven Spielberg in the Indiana Jones movies and updates it to the Kevin Smith era - indeed, the Clerks creator directed the pilot episode in which the show's central themes are set up.

    Briefly, they are this: Home improvement store clerk (?!) Sam (Bret Harrison) finds out on his 21st birthday that he has strange powers of making things move merely by willing them to. His fellow slacker buddy (Tyler Labine of the great, late Invasion) thinks it's awesome. His parents then tell him that they sold his soul to the devil before he was born. It's not too long before Beelzebub (Ray Wise playing Satan as a nasty businessman) shows up to tell Sam he's now his bounty hunter on Earth, and his job is to bring escaped demons back to Hell (which makes me wonder, why would Satan want to do that? Wouldn't he want to let the evildoers unleash Hell on Earth?)

    Be that as it may, Reaper promises a lot of post-modern black humor, which usually is just my cup of tea. From the clips provided by The CW, the laughs are going to come mainly from Labine, who has the deadest slacker dead-pan in the biz. He was just about the best thing of many great things in Invasion, in which he played (guess what?) a slacker/alien conspiracist who was the only townie who figured out that a cadre of body-snatching extra-terrestrials were taking over the Everglades. This time out, he's got a role that's considerably less grim and more jumping-around funny. I'm sure he'll excel as the bounty hunter's gung-ho sidekick.

    Harrison's claim to fame was as the star of the lame Fox comedy The Loop. Was its mediocrity his fault or the producers'? I guess we'll find out now. The showrunner here is Mark Gordon of Grey's Anatomy. Not exactly a hipster comedy. Two of the other producers are from NBC's Ed, which was a comerama pioneer. I'm not sure this bodes well. Kevin Smith's deft touch looked good on the pilot's clips, but what will happen once he heads back to featureville?

    Diagnosis: Comerama

    Progonsis: I want to believe in Reaper. I could be wrong, but something I can't quite put my finger on tells me it's not equal to the sum of its parts.

    - Don Jacobson

    6. Dirty Sexy Money (ABC, Wednesdays 9 p.m.)
    The insanely wealthy and twee-named Darling clan of New York City needs help with the inevitable legal and PR troubles that accompany its noblesse oblige. To that end, the family recruits Nick George, the embittered son of Papa Darling's late chief advisor.

    It seems young Nick became so disgusted watching his father's soul be sucked bone-dry by the Darlings that he ran off and became - horror of horrors - a goodie-goodie lawyer for the unwashed masses. Still, a wad of tainted cash buys a lot more happy endings than a heart full of good intentions, and Nick is willing to deep-throat his sizable pride for the right price.

    The dramatic tension will presumably be generated by the clash of values between Nick and his Hiltonishly vacuous charges. There's also plenty of traditional prime-time soap conflict fodder as ABC once again tries to convince us to feel sorry for the filthy rich.

    Diagnosis: Dramedy

    Prognosis: The cast is impressive, featuring the rapidly-deteriorating Donald Sutherland and a post-Six Feet Under Peter Krause. If it makes it late enough in the season, it'll have Lost for a lead-in. This could be a solid performer for ABC, which has struggled to find a good partner for its Wednesday-night behemoth.

    - Natasha Julius

    moonlight.jpg7. Moonlight (CBS, Fridays 9 p.m.)
    Ooooookay. So, there's this private eye, right? And, like, 60 years ago he got bit by a vampire. And now he investigates crime while fighting the undead at night. I know.

    And apparently he's in love with a mortal chick, which is a serious problem because, well, DUH! He's a vampire! Think Angel meets Moonlighting meets Doctor Friggin' Who. And I'm guessing, although I don't know for sure, that the crimes he investigates are perpetrated by evil demons who only he can slay, because, seriously, otherwise this premise doesn't make a lick of sense.

    I'm pretty sure the supernatural bent is being played at least partially for laughs . . . at least, that's the universe I would prefer to occupy. The preview's kinda jokey, anyway. I think. Maybe. When an off-screen interviewer asks what it's like to be a vampire, the main character answers, "it sucks." I KNOW!

    Diagnosis: Dramedy

    Prognosis: Well, he is undead. This one might be around for a while.

    - Natasha Julius


    Posted on September 17, 2007

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