Monday, September 21, 2015

ABC Comedies: 'The Muppets' Grow Up and 'Doctor Ken' Fumbles

If you would have asked me years ago which I preferred, comedy or drama, I would've easily answered with the former. And yet, as I've grown in my love of television and pop culture, I've expanded my television repertoire to include more and more stellar dramas. But comedy is still, without a doubt, my truest love. I watch episodes of New Girl whenever I need a pick-me up. Community's seasons can still make me laugh. I have yet to find a problem that Friends can't cure. So whenever the newest crop of comedies is released during the fall and winter, I'm always most eager to see which ones will make it onto my "must-watch" list. ABC released screeners for The Muppets' first two episodes ("Pig Girls Don't Cry" and "Hostile Makeover") as well as the pilot for Ken Jeong's new multi-camera comedy, Dr. Ken.

There were merits and problems with both comedies, so I thought I would combine the reviews and talk a little bit about each of them.

The Muppets, "Pig Girls Don't Cry (Pilot) & "Hostile Makeover"
Season premiere: September 22, 2015

In his review of The Muppets' episodes, Alan Sepinwall talked about the disappointment he felt regarding the portrayal of these iconic characters. If you've been around the block a while, you might have watched The Muppets back in the 70s, 80s and 90s in their various series, specials, or movies. Growing up as a kid in the 90s, I clearly remember watching The Muppet Christmas Carol and owning the movie on VHS. I love going to Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World and attending the Muppets 3D show. And I think that it's really difficult to separate that version of the iconic characters from those we see in the new ABC sitcom.

Because Sepinwall is right -- The Muppets are a bit darker and more cynical in this show than you would expect them to be. I think that this series is kind of an answer to the question of what happens when we grow up -- if WE, the audience, have aged and have become a bit more jaded and aren't as idealistic and optimistic as we once were, do the Muppets do the same? Or do they stay vibrant, silly, and cartoonish forever? And if they DO grow up just as we do, how do we handle that? I think that it is difficult and jarring to see these characters -- the ones that, to many of us, represent childhood and innocence -- make innuendos or joke about AA or reference more adult humor. It's hard to see that, but I don't think it necessarily makes The Muppets bad. I think it makes it a separate entity from the versions preceding it. And honestly, I don't think that most people will notice the humor or subject matter as jarring, even if the critics were a bit taken aback by it.

With all that being said and while I do agree with Sepinwall's assessment to an extent, I think that The Muppets is a really solid start for the ABC sitcom, even if the audience has shifted. This isn't a children's show (though there's not much or any material in the pilot and second episode that would exclude it from being family-friendly), but it is the kind of show that will fill you with a sense of nostalgia. A lot of the characters you love have returned. The series itself is a mockumentary. akin to Modern Family with talking heads. Since it is obviously shot on the ABC lot, there are a ton of guest stars in the first few episodes alone: Laurence Fishburne, Elizabeth Banks, Lea Thompson, Jay Leno, Imagine Dragons, Josh Groban (who's a delight), and Tom Bergeron are all either the pilot or "Hostile Makeover." There are new Muppets introduced (most notably, Kermit's new girlfriend, Denise), too.

Billy Prady (most famous these days for The Big Bang Theory) is at the helm of The Muppets and you can sort of tell in the type of humor that is utilized. Both episodes are chuckle-worthy in numerous places, very rarely slapstick or schtick-y, and -- at this point -- while containing some growth in characters, not much in the means of heart yet. I think that the format of the show lends itself to more silly shenanigans and segregated stories (there's a whole sub-plot in the second episode of Bobo the Bear trying to sell everyone cookies for his daughter's troop) than it does one cohesive narrative. Honestly, the more I let the episodes sink in, the more I felt like I did see shades of something I might see in a show at Disney's Hollywood Studios: a bit zany, fast-paced, with meta acknowledgement of an audience and the format of a show-within-a-show.

If you loved anything related to The Muppets growing up, I can pretty much promise that you won't be disappointed with the new ABC series. I know that I wasn't.

Combined Episode Rating: 

Dr. Ken, "Pilot"
Season premiere: October 2, 2015

Guys, I love Ken Jeong. I really do. I think he was hilarious on Community and I think he's an extremely talented comedic actor whose facial nuanaces alone are enough to warrant giggles sometimes. But I hated Dr. Ken. Really, the only reason I'm giving it the star rating that I am is BECAUSE of Ken Jeong (and the adorable little Albert Tsai). Everything else -- the multi-cam laugh track being the biggest offender -- was wearisome and unfunny and, worst of all, cliched. The show is essentially about Ken Jeong's character, a doctor, who is trying to navigate being father to a teenaged daughter and son who would rather be a mime and march to the beat of his own, weird drum than do anything else. He, Ken (the character, not the actor), is extremely aloof and I think that Dr. Ken's biggest problem is that it doesn't know what exactly it wants to be. Is it a workplace comedy? A family comedy? Time in the pilot is split between the two, with neither atmosphere being particularly compelling or funny.

Did I mention that I didn't really find the pilot funny at all? For the amount of funny people in it, I was severely disappointed (though not entirely surprised). Look, again, I love Ken Jeong and I fully believe that he could be the lead actor of his own series... but not this one. Multi-cam comedies lend themselves to over-the-top, zany performances and Ken really tries to do that whole big, sweeping, bold comedic stuff in this pilot. But to me, Ken Jeong is always at his funniest in his more subtle moments. I mean, come on. he was HILARIOUS in Community's first season as Senor Chang without having to be over-the-top or crazy with his acting (let's not forget the time he faked his own death, okay?). But that was a single-camera comedy which is more subdued and less theatrical in a lot of ways.

Again, I love Ken Jeong and I absolutely love the adorable Albert Tsai. (He's so precious you guys -- why does he keep getting cast in failed comedies?) I'm not going to assume Dr. Ken will be around very long at all, so hopefully Ken Jeong can move onto another show and we can forget this ever happened.


Thanks to Ken Jeong reaching out to me and generally being an awesome human being, I was able to acquire a screener of the second episode of Dr. Ken. And while the series still won't make my "must-watch" list every week, it was definitely an improvement on the pilot. The episode struggled less with trying to be a medical comedy and instead embraced a parallelism between the story of Ken's wife and kids at home and Ken's work relationship with his patients and staff.

It was also much funnier than the pilot was, with less cringe-inducing moments of overbearing laugh tracks (though there still are some jokes that fall a little bit flatter than others). Overall, it's hard to hate anything Ken Jeong is in. I probably won't stick with Dr. Ken, but I'm glad to know that it's not as far gone as I believed it to be based on the pilot alone.

Combined Episode Rating: 


Post a Comment