Thursday, October 4, 2007

Finally Improving Fall '07 TV Watch: Aliens In America and (yay!) Pushing Daisies

Sometime around the third season of Sex and the City, someone out in TV Land decided that sitcoms no longer needed to be funny. Humor in comedies died as the once ubiquitous laugh-track faded out, which in itself was one of those great steps in television evolution I was totally in favor of: "The Powers That Be finally realized that we, the viewers, were smart enough to figure out where the jokes were without being told." Turns out, TV viewers aren't all that smart, and left to wander the comedy landscape without a guide, they seem to think anything not involving an actor in an Emmy-winning crying scene is funny. Hence, Desperate Housewives, which is mediocre satire and about as funny as having Dane Cook perform at your parent's funeral.

Not that the unfunny comedy can't be good; I can count Weeds, The Knights of Prosperity, Everybody Hates Chris, and probably others if I thought about it, as shows that aren't absurd enough to really pull off the humor that they're going for, but are certainly watchable just to empathize with the well-crafted, multidimensional characters. Complaining that Weeds isn't funny is a lot like complaining that Mad Men isn't funny: who said it had to be? You still get a way better TV bargain than you would watching Two and a Half Men.

That's pretty much the case with Aliens in America, the CW's token dork show, about an unpopular high schooler whose image-conscious Midwestern family takes in a Pakistani exchange student. The premise sounds like a recipe for stock "comedy," and there's plenty of mismatched housemates dialogue that's obligatory but not that funny, like den mother Franny telling Raja, the exchange student, to go to bed at 6:30 so the rest of the family can discuss how to "return" him. (It's a theme that's sort of harped on in the pilot.) The family's shallowness and ignorance is the joke here, but it comes off as mean-spirited plotting. I had the same issue with the bit about Justin finding himself on the seniors' "Hottest Girls" list or the reveal with Claire's boyfriend at the end of the episode.

But the show is really good when it's spontaneous — the scene out of nowhere with the bullies fighting over which one of them would sleep with their sister was hilarious, and (maybe I'm naive here but) I wasn't expecting Raja's class to unanimously blame him, personally, for 9/11, especially when the whole dialogue opened so innocently. I can see the show moving in that direction — the writers had to manipulate the story for Justin and Franny to eventually have changes of heart, but the rest of the characters can grow organically since they don't have to, a never will, accept Raja. The dynamic softened in just the right way, pitting a now-likable family I can empathize with against an unlikable world I also empathize with. I'm not prepared to laugh, but I'm prepared to care.

Not that I'd lodge any complaints if the networks would create more shows like 30 Rock or Arrested Development. You know, stuff that you actually do laugh at.

So, last night...

I've been waiting sooooo long for Pushing Daisies, since I'm a huge Wonderfalls fan, and the "Pie-lette" did not disappoint, other than in its coy yet surprisingly appropriate title. Bryan Fuller, who created Dead Like Me and the aforementioned Wonderfalls, and wrote the Heroes turning point episode "Company Man," specializes in charming tales of alienated misfits and pulls them off with a lot more honesty than, say, Josh Schwartz (Chuck) or Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (Reaper). Of the three shows Fuller created, Pushing Daisies is by far the most cloying and even more saccharine than its color palette, but the material — within the first five minutes, a nine-year-old boy kills his mother and his best friend's father — tempers and even somehow justifies the sweetness, like in those pre-Disney fairy tales where the princess marries Prince Charming and the evil witch has her brains picked out by a colony of rabid bats.

Fuller brilliantly exploits his fairy tale narrative model to get what has to be the most complicated exposition ever on television out of the way in a hurry: "Once upon a time... magical powers... here's the rules... we're not gonna bother questioning them cause that's not what the show is about." Little Ned has a crush on the little girl next door, and the amazing ability to raise the dead with a single touch. The caveat is if he touches them again, they die for good, and if he doesn't, someone else dies in their place... although that's a moral dilemma that's pretty easily worked around when Ned's childhood crush is murdered and he brings her back to life.

The look and tone of the show are heavily influenced by the French fantasy director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, where the quirks grow out of characters fascinated by the trivial, like the mechanical hand on a stick Ned uses to pet his once-deceased dog. It's not even close to actually petting your dog, but it's important because it's all he has. The central conceit — Ned and his childhood crush, Chuck, are infatuated with each other, but can never touch — is similar, with the disparity between what's genuine and what's settled for magnified a hundredfold. The kissing monkeys as surrogates for Ned and Chuck, is actually pretty touching and special, as basically the peak of their relationship, and representing what they'll never achieve. Sad stuff, but it made the part of me that owns ten Chicken Soup For The Soul books smile inside.

I also need to say a little about Chuck who, in a show with zero gender politics, somehow manages to be the most daring and dynamic new female character of the season. So, writers of Bionic Woman, let's see how this works, so maybe your show won't suck so much. (Actually, I read that the second episode wasn't nearly as bad as the pilot, but it doesn't matter to me, since I was watching an episode of Mythbusters I've already seen seven-hundred times.) Chuck has two things your bionic heroine desperately needs implanted: something to strive for, and something to lose. Pushing Daisies and its bizarre presentation is satisfying on the same visceral level that Bionic Woman reaches, but Fuller hits a nerve of universal experience that most shows this season don't dig anywhere near dip enough for.