Mike's Adventures in Sitcomland: Day Four

When people speculate about the downfall of America, it's usually our failing financial markets, our military over-extensions, maybe some sort of Apocalyptic religious war. But no one ever seems concerned about the state of American pop culture.

I bring this up because NBC's Kath & Kim is, apparently, a remake of a popular Australian sitcom, another in what's becoming a fairly long line of American shows adapted from foreign shows. There was a day, my friends, not so very long ago, when America ruled the sitcom! Do you think ALF was adapted from a Japanese show called Alien Furry Sock-Puppet Our Friend? Do you think Cheers was adapted from an Indian show about the neighborhood hookah bar? No! 

Don't get me wrong, sometimes these translations work: the only people still arguing that the American version of The Office is a cheap ripoff are being curmudgeonly for the sake of being curmudgeonly, like those people who refuse to listen to any REM album past Murmur. But more often, it seems, these remakes fail to capture some hard-to-define charm of the original, like the American version of Coupling, which I'm sorry to bring up, since as a nation I think we decided to never speak of again.*

This remaking business just strikes me as fundamentally lazy. It's not like it's all that much work to come up with one of these things; in fact, they seem to be put together in a kind of Sitcom Mad Libs game: [Lead character name] works at [business] with [secondary character name] who's quirky because of his/her [race/appearance/unmarried status/mild developmental disability], hijinks ensue! 

Or: [Lead character name] has just seen his/her life change due to [new career/marriage/divorce] and is trying to [make it work!/meet Mr. Right!], hijinks ensue!

K&K is, in fact, sort of a mixture of the two: Kath (Molly Shannon**) runs an in-home hair-styling business, and lives with her daughter Kim (Selma Blair***), who's quirky due to being incredibly stupid. Also, Kath has a new boyfriend (John Michael Higgins), who runs a mall sandwich shop called Phil's Sandwich Island and is quirky because he's basically like every other comically over-earnest John Michael Higgins character ever****.

It's not hard to imagine K&K as a translated foreign show, because it seems like it should be funny, and is often very close to being funny, but some hard-to-define thing just isn't quite right. The humor (attempted) mostly stems from the same kind of dramatic irony that propels a show like Absolutely Fabulous: two characters who clearly think their lives are glamorous and enviable, but which are in fact kind of sad. The show's best moments play on this kind of tension, like when Kath says "No, Kim, not the Pecan Sandies, those are for company!" Or when Higgins' character takes Kath out for a special engagement dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Or when Kim storms into the living room and complains about their being out of Doritos for the third time that week, then pouts "What else am I supposed to eat with my Hot Pocket?"*****

Of course the balance one has to strike in this kind of deal is making the characters funny without making fun of them. This is the particular genius of the Best in Show-style mockumentary, in that the characters are all patently ridiculous, but they're so over-the-top ridiculous (and so earnest) as to actually be fairly sympathetic. They're ridiculous caricatures but they're also, somehow, totally real humans. Kath, at times, seems to fit this mold (i.e., the Pecan Sandies joke, or her attempts to turn her living room into a "real salon" by adding one of those little Zen rock fountains), but Kim is just too much of a joke, her stupidity manifesting itself mostly in mispronouncing words or failing to see why her somewhat-estranged husband would value a job at the electronics store over a job at Cinnabon, since working at Cinnabon means free Cinnabons******.

For the show to work, I think the writers need to spend more time studying that Best in Show mold, and figure out how to strike that balance (it might involve actually making the characters more ridiculous, the show's premises more absurd). They've got a cast that could pull it off: Shannon is funny, Higgins is really funny, Selma Blair is perfectly capable of giving one-dimensional characters a depth of humanity.

Verdict: As has been noted by pretty much every television critic, the outlook for this show isn't exactly promising, based on the first two episodes (yes, I actually watched two episodes this time). But I don't think it's a lost cause ... yet.

*Actually, I know at least one person, a person generally smart about other things, who really loathes the British version of Coupling, to the point where it almost made me reconsider, but then I saw the episode where the curly-haired guy pretended to have a wooden leg to date a woman he met on the train, and I was back to being a fan. 

**playing a character that's sort of a variant on her SNL "Forty and Fabulous!" character.

***who is, at least, not playing her usual film role of Repressed/Dowdy Girlfriend Sure To Eventually Be Left For Someone More Fun.

****like his character in Best in Show, or his small part in The Break-Up, a movie I find to be vastly underrated, probably because too many people expected it to be a typical romantic comedy and so were confused when Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Anniston fail to get back together in the end.

*****Actually, it's beginning to dawn on me how many of K&K's jokes revolve around food, which is kind of odd. I would be surprised if there isn't, at some point, a joke revolving around either tuna noodle casserole or Hamburger Helper.

******The show uses a stand-in for Cinnabon, of course, but it's clearly meant to be Cinnabon.


Anonymous said...

The Best in Show / Waiting for Guffman / fakeumentaries by Chris Guest (as some would say) backlash begins here. It's not that they are bad comedies (though they are close), it's that every seemingly sensible critic insists on saying things about them that aren't true--like that these characters are human beings. No, they most certainly are not. And Mr. Guest (as others would say) certainly has no affection for them, either.

I agree that Kath and Kim is dumb so far.

TMC said...

1. If I thought I could convince you to run these posts every week, I would. Great addition to the blog.

2. I would probably consider taking a paycut at Temple if the new contract included free Cinnabon.

3. I hate that forty & fabulous character Shannon used to do. Actually, I think I hated all of her regular characters. I've found her much less unlikable outside of SNL.

4. I also thought The Break-up was pretty underrated. A victim of misleading marketing.

Mike said...

I think the reason the Best In Show-type movies work is because while the characters are definitely cartoonish, they're still likable, somehow, which sort of defies convention. I tend to be really sensitive to books/stories/movies in which the characters are being mocked, in which, as Frank Conroy once said in workshop, the reader/viewer "is being invited to take a piss on these people from a third-story window."

So, while I agree that probably 2/3 of the mockumentary characters aren't "real people" per se, they always seem to be exaggerated in a way that's not strictly mocking.

The more I think about it, it seems to me you have to go in one of two directions. Either a) make a character like Michael Scott on The Office, who's not that bright, vaguely sexist/racist, etc., but is also fundamentally wounded in a way that makes him very human and sympathetic.

Or, b) make the characters so over the top ridiculous, like the ladies of Absolutely Fabulous, that the humor comes from the ridiculous/cartoony aspects of their personalities.