Friday, January 22, 2010

Shows to Watch...

It's become a running gag in my family that my favorite television shows are always quick to be marked for cancellation. With this in mind, I thought I'd voice my support for two terrific shows before they disappear from the airwaves....

"Better Off Ted" is a laugh-out-loud comedy that has been occasionally compared to "Arrested Development" for being a show that can be quite silly and farcical but whip-smart and witty too. The show's title character, Ted Crisp, is a corporate R&D exec (and single father/widower) who struggles daily to maintain his moral compass and a clear head at a huge faceless technology company named Veridian Dynamics. Veridian is your stereotypical business conglomerate run amuck, manufacturing a wide range of goods ranging from household products to weapon systems that are often more harmful and dangerous than they are useful, caring little for the public good or common sense, and even less for its employees.

Below: "Tonight, we dine in HELL!"

The sitcom is perfectly cast with actor Jay Harrington as the lead, who also serves as the show's narrator, often speaking directly to the viewer. The strong and hilarious supporting cast includes two scientist geeks, Phil and Jem, geniuses lacking in all social skills and blissfully unaware of their evil scientist talents; a public relations person, Linda, who has a mutual crush on Ted, and in her own way tries to tweak management while she can while still keeping her job; and a terrific Portia de Rossi (from the above-mentioned "Arrested Development") as Ted's boss Veronica, a humorless "company man" who has no problem rationalizing and defending the company's often inane and arbitrary projects and policies.

Like "The Office," "Better Off Ted" mines office politics and corporate culture for its humor, and features characters that are well defined and quirky. However, while "Better Off Ted" definitely features a more damning view of faceless corporate life and technology and science run amuck—in fact, not too unlike the world portrayed in Terry Gilliam's dark comedy film, Brazil—"Better Off Ted" still manages to be sunny and breezy because most of the characters in their own way manage to maintain their individuality and find their bliss, partly due to the company's inherent inability to manage itself.

Of course, the bottom line is that this is a smartly written and funny show. Past episodes featured Phil being convinced to be cryogenically frozen for a year since it was determined he would be missed least at the company; the development of energy-saving motion sensors for opening doors and operating conveniences like water fountains that did not respond to dark skin; a memo the company refused to acknowledge containing a typo that advised employees to "NOW use insulting and offensive language"; and a project to develop meatless artificial beef. Central to each episode are the individual stories of the characters, whose ethics are often tested by their company, and the romantic tension that exists between Phil and Linda, occasionally extending into an occasional triangle with Veronica who otherwise has no time or use for genuine human relationships.

Although ABC ordered a second season of this mid-season replacement (now currently running), the network otherwise has not appeared to be strongly behind the show, dumping episodes—often two at a time—on arbitary nights, usually a harbinger for cancellation. Let's hope ABC recognizes it has a gem on its hand and renews it and gives it the promotion and support it deserves.

Below: "I like being called yummy."

Another show that has been on the precipice of cancellation its first two seasons but was granted a reprieve and rebooted this month with a bit more fanfare for its third season is "Chuck." The series is a light drama/comedy about a computer geek who inadvertantly becomes the avatar for a valuable computer program/database called "The Intersect" that makes him a valuable asset to the CIA and National Security Agency—as well as to various shadowy evil organizations on the show, such as the Fulcrum. Assigned to protect him is hardnosed old school spy John Casey and his beautiful partner, Sarah Walker. As the series progresses, a romantic tension emerges between Chuck and Sarah, which forms the spine—and heart—of the series.

As cover, Chuck and Casey work at a "Buy More" store (think Best Buy), which is a front for the operation; Sarah works at a local yogurt shop. The employees at the Buy More are Chuck's friends and provide a comic counterpoint to the spy stories.

At first glance and relative to the gritty and slick action productions that now populate the airwaves, "Chuck" has a bit of a low-rent/cheesy look to it—no doubt partly a function of its budget—and the stories have a retro '70s detective show feel to them. The fight scenes/choreography are not particularly elaborate or explicitly violent, and the villains are old-school baddies. Nevertheless, though the show doesn't take itself too seriously, the show is deceptively well written and makes you really care for the characters—Chuck is an "everyman," torn between wanting to do the right thing for his country and wanting to be rid of the Intersect from his body; and Sarah is similarly torn between duty and her growing feelings for Chuck and his personal well-being. These ethical and emotional dilemmas are the center of the show's success and its dramatic tension.

I actually did not begin watching "Chuck" until its second season and have watched it almost exclusively on Hulu. But I quickly got hooked on the series, and have found the twists, turns and reveals to be quite effective.The third season has upped the ante—Chuck uploaded a new version of the Intersect at the thrilling climactic episode of the second season that now not only provides him with an extensive top secret database but also gives him the abilities and skills of a superspy—often to humorous effect since he's still learning to control it. Fortunately, after being on the edge of cancellation in its first two seasons, "Chuck" has apparently begun to find some footing. Let's hope it stays viable.

Below: "Chuck" season 3 promo."

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