As the 2010-11 TV season winds down, the networks are moving the last of their regular inventory onto the prime-time schedule, hoping that something they've held back might connect with an audience. Fox and ABC have new half-hour comedies airing on Wednesday nights, hoping to keep viewers after the credits roll on their most successful shows ("American Idol" for Fox, "Modern Family" on ABC).
On Fox, Christian Slater gets another chance at network series stardom with "Breaking In," airing Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. I liked the show's premise (a company that breaks into businesses to expose security gaps, a la one of my favorite caper movies, "Sneakers"), plus the performances by Slater and the ostensible lead Bret Harrison were better-than-average, but I still thought of it as half of a show. Not a bad half necessarily, but certainly an incomplete (and overstuffed) one.
Harrison plays a career college underclassman who has channeled his high IQ into computer hacking and gaming the school's systems, which is exactly what gets him caught by Slater's company. Then the younger man is offered an ultimatum -- join Slater's high-tech security business as the new intern or face the music (to the tune of $350,000). As you may have guessed, Harrison doesn't choose to straighten up, fly right and work out a reasonable payment plan.
I wondered more than once as the program rolled along if "Breaking In" was originally envisioned as an hour-long action-comedy along the lines of NBC's "Chuck." The show has that kind of vibe -- a loose comic sensibility, but with lots of quick cuts, high-angle shots and nifty gadgets for the actors to play with -- but my guess is that after a few turns through the script development process, it wound up being condensed into a half-hour.
If that's the case, I think it was a mistake, because to keep all those action-comedy elements intact, the program has to operate at full-throttle on two quite different storytelling tracks, which ultimately short-shrifts both efforts.
Much of the show felt rushed to me. The other major characters -- potential romantic interest, check; office rival, check; new best friend, check -- are quickly introduced, along with just enough backstory to establish their presence, then herded into a too-dense action-movie plot involving the theft of a sports car that really needs more time to cook than a conventional network half-hour (which translates to less than 22 minutes, sans commercials) really allows.
The other track the show is trying to simultaneously ride is to be an ensemble comedy in the vein of "The Office" or "Community," among others. This is where the show's focus should be; inside the workplace is where the comedy really sparks. I liked some of the inter-office by-play (Alphonso McAuley -- a/k/a "new best friend" -- has an obsession with extremely complicated office pranks, among other things) and there's a lot of potential to grow these characters and their relationships. But my biggest concern is that the people behind the show are already far too invested in putting the characters into action plots with lots of gee-whiz gizmos, without much interest in building anything beyond that. Two stars (out of four).
Before I talk about ABC's "Happy Endings," which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (out of the finally-returning "Cougar Town," which is the happiest news of the week for me), I have a little experiment to conduct, if you'll kindly indulge me.
Imagine, if you will, a pilot script that the hackiest wannabe sitcom writer would have deleted off their laptop hard drive long ago, one that only produces a show that wrings out laughs when viewed in a jaded or ironic fashion, one that strands a batch of good actors (which I can say unequivocally, having seen several of them in programs other than this one) with dialogue and situations that make them look like they not only can't act, but also can't read. Go ahead, take all the time you need.
Okay, you got it yet? Yes? Good. Hold tight to that thought -- if you dare.
Are you hearing the tone-deaf, overly snarky dialogue delivered at a standard bah-da-bum pace? Seeing the never-would-ever-happen-in-reality-ever situations? Wondering who thought these characters were relatable -- or even remotely interesting?
Congratulations! You have imagined a sitcom that is still likely light-years better than the pilot of ABC's "Happy Endings." Wow, I hated this show. (And you know I don't like to haul out the "wow" very often, but there it is.) Six self-absorbed dullards with psyches arrested at the developmental level of none-too-bright eighth graders -- who are all supposedly best friends, yet also apparently have never even met one another, based on how they react to each other in day-to-day circumstances -- quip their way through a little universe that was created just for them.
Whatever promise the show might have ever had blinks out before the opening credits. (I'm having to tamp down another "wow" here.) The program opens with the sextet (a word that would made this crew titter -- oops, did it again) at the very large -- and obviously very expensive -- church wedding of two of the group. As the groom (played by Zachary Knighton) finishes his vows to the bride (Elisha Cuthbert), the wedding is interrupted by a hunky guy on in-line skates who comes rolling up the aisle, declaiming his own love for the bride. If you can't possibly guess what happens next (and after that -- and yes, after that, too), all I can say is welcome to Earth, enjoy your stay -- and please don't hold "Happy Endings" against the bulk of humanity.
Back in January, I reviewed a very rote NBC sitcom pilot called "Perfect Couples" and -- after referring to it as being an inferior product from the Sitcomland factory assembly line -- gave it one and a half stars. Viewing the first episode of "Happy Endings" accomplished something of a miracle -- it somehow managed to make me smile wistfully at the relative competence of "Perfect Couples." Well, figuratively, anyway. Half a star.