When shows fail: Til’ Death

Brad Garrett must know some dark secrets about Fox executives. Maybe he’s close pals with Rupert Murdoch or Glenn Beck’s promised to lead a rebellion on his behalf.  But its more likely that the Fox network’s warped sense of what funny doesn’t extend to live action comedy.

The brilliant (or near brilliant) but prematurely canceled list of live action Fox comedies goes on for miles and miles. Daring demented comedies like Greg the Bunny, The Tick, Action, Titus, Undeclared, and the universally acclaimed Arrested Development struggled to make through their first three seasons for over the last 15 years. Yet somehow Til’ Death has managed to make it to episode 14 of its 4th season without even the amount of success or acclaim of Undeclared or Arrested Development.

The premise for episode 14, The Perfect Couple, Joy surprises a reluctant Eddie with a shocking once in a lifetime chance to meet a new couple Stephen and Simona (the well cast, funny duo Kevin Nealon and Susan Yeagley) who she invited over for dinner. Turns out Eddie likes the couple and Joy feels left out and doesn’t want befriend them. This leads Eddie to conspire to force the couple on his wife.

Even if you forgive the obligatory sitcom combination of a shlep husband Eddie (the aforementioned Brad Garrett) and the hot wife Joy (sitcom vet Joely Fisher) you’ll find that Til’ Death doesn’t for much to hold on to. Besides the formula of the “ugly” husband and “hot” wife has worked in recent years.

For example The King of Queens gave viewers a likable working class couple Doug and Carrie (Kevin James and Leah Remini) who played similar roles. But as episodes went on the characters and their worlds evolved. Carrie’s father Arthur lived with the couple, and Doug hung out with friends from his job at UPS-like company. You’ll find nothing remotely like that in Til’ Death. Its fatal flaw is that there’s little redeeming, interesting, familiar about Til’ Death’s central characters or the world they exist in. The show’s anorexic, and lacking any color or wrinkles in their reality. Eddie and Joy’s life seems empty, awful, spiteful and unfunny. Which ironically makes the episode’s premise is plausible but problematic.

Lets start with the plot which implies that Joy knew this couple well enough to invite them over to dinner. But the plausbility is thrown out the window when Joy gets upset and clams up when she learns that they actually like her husband. Didn’t she invite them over to meet her husband? From there the show struggles through an implausible chain of events that left me wanting to run away from Eddie and Joy. They’re Al and Peg Bundy without the charm or the funny.

The show’s B-plot was also a puzzler. There seems to be no connective tissue between the central couple and the show’s only supporting character Kenny. Why and how do they know Kenny? They have no friends or family and they don’t appear to be colleagues and why would he want this standoff-ish couple in their life. Without some connection whether through the episode’s plot or some sort of relationship the awkward distracting b-plot serves no purpose and was nothing but a distraction.

King of Queens gave viewers nothing brilliant or insightful, just nearly two hundred episodes of comfort food. That’s all water over the bridge at this point. After suffering through my third viewing of The Perfect Couple I found myself wanting to see the Stephen and Simona show and not more of Til’ Death.

Rejections: Why show’s fail: Castle

Why shows fail: Castle (ABC)

“I forgot I wasn’t a cop”

Like Ally McBeal in reverse Castle (ABC Tuesdays 10 PM) is a better series now then at its inception. Its found its tone, style, pacing and a growing audience. Now deep into Season Two, the murder mystery dramedy seems to have hits its stride but trouble seems around the bend.

On its surface Castle is quite similar to other similar procedural dramadies like Fox’s House or CBS’s The Mentalist. Charismatic Firefly alum Nathan Fillion plays metro-sexual murder mystery novelist Richard Castle (who everyone calls Castle), lives with his daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn), and his mother Martha (Dharma and Greg vet, Susan Sullivan). When Castle kills off his main character he manipulates his way into shadowing hardened yet sexy New York City detective Kate Beckett (the ever icy Stana Katic) to develop his new leading lady character.

What separates Castle is its fatal flaw. House and The Mentalist created loan wolf central characters with no equal in the cast. In premise, this is true about Castle, but its reemerges in flaw in each episode’s execution. Every episode’s plot hinges on both Castle and Beckett. Not just as “partners,” and murder mystery lovers but as potential lovers.

The writers got about two thirds of it right

Fillion more than fills Castle with a wonderful zest for his new life helping solve actual crimes and and his natural comedic flair and Canadian newcomer Katic is convincing as a tough cop, I even bought them as partners. But even as the story slings, the characters slip down the proverbial will they won’t they slippery slope, toward a partner/lover relationship it becomes harder and harder for the viewer to fathom.

The Third Man (Season 2: Episode 14) was pivotal plot wise and a perfect vehicle to bring their sexual tension to the fore. In Third Man, Castle and Beckett investigated a “real live Goldilocks.” A family comes home from vacation to find that someone has been living in their apartment while they were away. They find someone dead inside their apartment. From there, the plot has enough twists and turns to keep even the most lazy viewers interested.

At the same time, an article comes out in the naming Castle one of New York’s top ten hottest bachelors. The blurb also mentions that he’s dating Beckett. In several well timed comedic sequences Castle attempts to keep it from Beckett. When she does find out their mutual jealousy overflows and eventually assists them in cracking their case and leading the two back to each other.

Which speaks to the first crack in Castle’s foundation. Despite the writers’ screaming intentions and the improving chemistry between Katic and Fillion, Castle and Beckett are clearly captivated by the murder not each other.

The characters jealous reactions seem half heated and unnatural. Beckett’s reaction to Castle’s moves are beyond belief and serve the purpose of tying the episode with bows.

As a TV show, Castle is still quite puppyish, constantly bending plausibility. Castle’s character has evolved and is no longer a curious unwanted observer with “House” style breakthroughs, he’s now a “Mentalist” style partner with an increasing amount of insights on cases within his dialogue. This now semi equal partnership exposes new cracks in the show’s logic.

Unlike The Mentalist or House, Castle doesn’t even allow the viewer plausible deniability. Castle seems to have no boundaries or consequences for his actions. Castle goes on busts, inside interrogations, and Beckett’s fellow NYPD detectives and their boss Captain Roy Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) don’t seem to remember that he’s an author unless its for comic effect. At one point, as Beckett pulls her gun and tells Castle to hold her purse.

But in this case, the lack of plausibility has helped transform the show into light basic cable popcorn drama, akin to USA’s Burn Notice or Psych. All three shows ask you to suspend your disbelief but Castle’s cast crumbles in comparison.

But that comparison speaks to another major crack in Castle‘s armor, Castle’s minor characters are all underdeveloped. The worlds of Burn Notice and Psych are full of characters and character actors (like Burn’s Bruce Campbell) that are either utterly believable or eccentric yet indispensable.

Its often hard to tell Beckett’s fellow homicide detectives Ryan and Esposito apart. Other than race, there’s no distinguishing traits between two. Both have the same habits (odd trivia), they sarcastically poke Castle with similar quips and are constantly together. Even the show’s Captain calls them, “They” or “Them.” And why wouldn’t he? These characters are discard-able.

Developing the characters is an opportunity for story-lines going forward but unlike other procedurals who’ve followed that logic like Law & Order: SVU there doesn’t seem to be anything worth mining in either character.

These weaknesses bring give me pause when thinking of the show’s longevity. Add Castle & Beckett’s shaky shift from partners to lovers and I see a creative train wreak. Unlike The Mentalist or House, it doesn’t matter how interesting Richard Castle is his character and this series’ fate are bound to Beckett and how they resolve their will they/won’t they scenario.

Stronger show like Frasier were troubled after they cracked that safe, let alone a show who relies on it for half their plot.

For now Castle gets by on Fillion’s charm and its clever murder mysteries but not much else. But with all these cracks in its foundation its doubtful how much longer it can keep up.