TV Watch: With all those horrible zombie noises exploding, can anyone tell whether the new "Odd Couple" is funny?
I thought I was more or less keeping track, but I missed it -- I mean, the pilot-premiere of the new TV Odd Couple. After all, you can't set your DVR before the week of the show, so if you miss the week of, then you can't set your DVR, right? So anyhow I did watch this week's episode, more or less, and after watching it, or trying to, I still don't know -- was it funny at all?
I think maybe it could have been. Thomas Lennon and Matthew Perry and seem plausibly enough cast as sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison and nutjob-fastidious Felix Unger, who's still a photographer, as in the first TV Odd Couple series; as anyone who's seen the great film adaptation of Neil Simon's original play, written by the playwright and directed by Gene Saks, remembers from the great "date" scene with the Pigeon sisters, one of the girls asks Felix where he gets his ideas after he tells them, "I write the news for CBS."
Okay, so far Lennon is overacting and Perry is underacting, or perhaps overdoing something-other-than-acting, which involves deliving lines like a line-delivering machine while staring straight at the person he's not-talking to, as if he'd never acted before. All perfectly workable: Oscar has been given some potentially usable cronies: Wendell Pierce as his agent, Yvette Nicole Brown as his assistant, Dave Foley as . . . well, his lazy 'n' chubby chum. There's also a weird girl who comes from I-don't-know-where, since I missed the pilot, played by Lindsay Sloane, who I guess is supposed to be antically amusing.
And maybe she is. Amusing, I mean. This is what I can't tell. Because, as you may sort-of-notice in the clip above, where it's not nearly as bad as it is in the actual show, every time one of the actors delivers a "gag," as soon as the last syllable is completed there arises this horrible noise, which makes it impossible, for me at least, to actually register what the actor just said, and therefore makes it impossible for me to guess whether it might have been amusing if I had actually been able to hear it. When the so-called gags are closely spaced, this hideous racket keeps thundering away at the innocent viewer until one wishes it would just stop.
Yes, once upon a TV time Oscar (Jack Klugman) and Felix (Tony Randall) played Password, with the real Allen Ludden.
It's been a long time since I saw an episode of the first TV Odd Couple, but between its original network run and years of saturation syndication, I once watched those episodes a lot, and I don't remember them being anything like this. My recollection is that that cast -- Jack Klugman as Oscar, Tony Randall as Felix, Al Molinaro as their friend Murray the cop, Penny Marshall as Oscar's hapless assistant Myrna Turner (and even, occasionally, her then-husband Rob Reiner as Myrna's boyfriend Werner) -- had to earn their laughs (and I mean from viewers, not from whatever professional laughers there may have been on the noise track), as of course had been the case with the great stage and screen Oscar (Walter Matthau) and Felixes (Art Carney and Jack Lemmon). (Okay, eventually there was an Odd Couple II, with Matthau and Lemmon, and written by Neil Simon, and it seemed to demonstrate why Simon hadn't wanted to revisit his great creation. But surely this isn't a standard to which anyone is aspiring?)
Once upon a time we used to hear about the great artistry involved in laugh-trackery -- having a wide range of kinds of laughs available, understanding that people hardly ever cackle in unison but respond differently to different kinds of humor, and sometimes respond singly or in small groups, and at different lengths with different intensities. Oh, the laugh tracks that resulted were ghastly, and made every show they were applied to seem horribly unfunny, but at least you appreciated the effort. Now it's just those more or less unvarying explosions of sounds seemingly made by very loud zombies declaring their miraculous return from the presumed-dead.
Come to think of it -- and as a matter of fact, I've been thinking about it a lot -- I've been having this problem a lot in recent years. Chuck Lorre shows seem particularly problematic. For example, much as I love The Big Bang Theory, and really I think it's a great show, every now and then I find myself trapped in the Valley of the Exploding Zombie Noise-Bombs, and I suspect that somewhere along the line I developed the knack of focusing on the great characters and filtering out all those laugh-unlike noises. I recall too that for the first few years of the show, I wasn't all that crazy about it, and wonder if maybe I hadn't yet developed my general immunity to them. When I get caught in one of those horrible-noise vortices, I wonder too whether this has something to do with why some people really hate the show.
I also tried to watch a few recent episodes of Chuck L's Mom, which I had dismissed after an early episode or two as simply unwatchable. Now they had this new plot line where the daughter's apparently refound father is killed off and sorrow ensued. I thought maybe that might be interesting, and I had a vested interest in thinking better of Allison Janney, who plays the mother, because she is, after all, Allison Janney, and we have those terrific years of The West Wing to show us what she's capable of doing. Nobody since Aaron Sorking seems to have been able to use her without making her look cartoony, and in that initial episode or two of Mom that I tried to watch, I thought she was ghastly, and was only consoled by the assumption that after a few episodes it would disappear without a trace, and maybe Allison will be luckier next time out.
So I tried several times to watch the show, seeing where this new plot development might take it, but there were the horrible zombie noises exploding all around us, and this time, since I was concentrating, or trying to, I was pretty sure that it wasn't anything that the actors were saying that was making the zombies rise.
And don't tell me this or that show "was recorded in front of a live studio audience," because it's been years since that helped. Those audiences have been transformed into crude versions of the newfangled horrible laugh tracks -- making those same blood-curdling loud risen-from-the-dead noises in unison before they've had a chance to actually react to whatever may have been said, and keeping on doing it. It all sounds like a great deal of retro-tech anti-wizardry to me, possibly coupled with heavy drugging of the so-called audiences, taking them beyond even the expectable euphoria when civilians find themselves sealed inside the Gag Chamber with real live TV cameras rolling -- often the only element of the proceedings that seems close to live.
There's some food for thought as the viewer tries to figure out whether it's a machine or a "live studio audience" making those ghastly noises. It surprises me to think, though, that that's what TV-makers really want us thinking about while they're purportedly "amusing" us.
In the end, I guess I'll keep watching The Big Bang Theory as long as I'm able to navigate the zombie explosions, and I'm relieved that Two and a Half Men, another Chuck Lorre show, has departed first-run prime time -- for a bunch of reasons, but definitely including the zombie-noise factor. This is a show that, at least in earlier seasons, was often genuinely amusing, but seemed noticeably less so under the influence of the roaring zombies. I certainly won't be revisiting Mom anytime soon.
But the new Odd Couple is not a Chuck Lorre show. Given my attachement to the material, it's something I would love to be able to enjoy, and as I say, it does seem to have a bunch of workable elements in place. It's just that, after one shot at it, I don't seem able to hear it.