Thursday, August 09, 2007

Lessons from Summer Burn-Off Theatre

At this time a year ago, "Knights of Prosperity" (then called "Let's Rob...") and "The Nine" were two of the most-anticipated new shows on any network. Now they're teaming up for ABC's microscopically-rated summer Wednesday lineup, and watching the two combined hours of both shows last night reminded me a little of their initial promise and a lot about why they both failed. Spoilers ho...

After Mick Jagger -- far and away the funniest part of the show -- refused to appear in any episodes past the pilot, "Knights of Prosperity" creators Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman spun their wheels for seven episodes before having Eugene and the Knights move on to a new celebrity target. In the last episode to air before cancellation, they briefly considered Kelly Ripa, but then Eugene fell in love with her and they turned their attentions to Ray Romano, who in the show's universe is in town starring in an off-Broadway show where he plays a heroin addict.

Now, Romano's a good choice: he's funny, he's available, and he's friendly enough with Burnett and Beckerman due to the Letterman connection (Rob and Jon were writer/producers on "Late Show," Worldwide Pants produced "Everybody Loves Raymond") that he's not likely to bail before they're done with him. And, like Mick before him, Ray proceeds to steal the show out from under the main characters, whether he's overacting in his play (which is so cheesey that its title is included in the dialogue) or whining at length about the burdens of celebrity.

(From what little I know about Romano, this doesn't seem like a stretch; the "Raymond" writers once described Ray Barone as being exactly like Ray Romano, only saner and nicer, and they weren't being sarcastic.)

But the fact that at least two of the celebrity targets (maybe three; I missed the Ripa episode) so easily upstage the regulars isn't a good thing, and it's one of several reasons -- along with the name, the premise, the timeslot and America's near-total mistrust of new comedies -- that the show failed. All of the Knights have their funny moments -- Kevin Michael Richardson as Rockefeller was a great "find" (in that most of his resume consisted of voice acting before this), and I hope to see more of him in the future -- but none of them, with the possible exception of Eugene, exist as anything but the broadest of stereotypes, there to do their schtick and drop whatever pop culture-themed punchline Beckerman and Burnett thought up at the time. A little of that goes a very long way, and if Jagger and Romano weren't written any more deeply, at least we had our prior knowledge of each to fill in the blanks.

The first of last night's episodes suggests that the creators were aware of this, as the script was devoted to humanizing Louis the intern by introducing his rich bastard father. (Played by one of my favorite Hey It's That Guy!s, James "If Cromwell's not available, I'm your man!" Rebhorn.) And, again, I laughed from time to time -- a rarity these days for network comedies -- but I'm not in any way surprised that the show didn't work.

As I mentioned when I wrote about "The Kill Point" the other day, it became obvious quickly that "The Nine" had a flawed concept from the start. The bank hostage stuff was inherently going to be more exciting and interesting than anything happening to the characters in the aftermath, and yet the flashbacks themselves had two basic problems: 1)There's no suspense about any of the broad strokes (how/when the siege ends, who lives, etc.), so all that's left to fill in are the smaller details like how Scott Wolf betrayed his girlfriend or why Kim Raver's hair got butchered; and 2)Even the filling in of said details was never going to live up to however we imagined it in our heads when the pilot had that amazing time-jump from the start of the siege to the end.

Last week's episode took place almost entirely in the bank and suffered from the no-suspense problem as it tried to create false jeopardy around Wolf's character, while last night's episode was largely about the survivors' present-day problems. The notion that they're all being watched because one of them was in on the robbery doesn't thrill me -- it's one or two steps removed from a silly "Prison Break"-style conspiracy theory -- and yet I suppose it's more dramatic than most of the episodes that aired back in the fall. Interesting isolated moments here and there, but this is one of the most dramatic pilot-to-series quality drop-offs I've ever seen.

Anybody play nostalgic masochist like me and watch either one? What did you think?


Anonymous said...

I would have watched Knights if I had known it was on. There are so few shows that even make me crack a smile, so I really was sorry to see this show go.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about pilot to series drop-offs, but how about Rescue Me's drop-off between seasons?

Season 3 wasn't amazing, but it was still enjoyable. This year, though, I actually find the show unwatchable. The only reason I haven't tuned out is because I'm hoping it will be better next year. Otherwise I would have stopped subjecting myself to the show weeks ago.

On the plus side, 24's season to season drop-off doesn't seem so bad now.

Anonymous said...

I love The Knights. Yes, Jagger was funny in the pilot, but he's not the reason I stayed with the show. And I completely disagree that Romano upstages the regular cast. I much prefer the interactions within the cast.

Anyway, it doesn't feel like any other show on television, it makes me laugh out loud, the actors are totally game and really well cast in their parts, and the constant scheming gives it a lot of room story-wise. Most comedies get by pretty heavily on the backs of their characters. i.e. How everybody in The Office reacts when Phyllis gets flashed on her way to work. Knights has really distinctive characters too, but it can also have the funny disguises and decoy safes and all the caper elements. Didn't people also think 24 had a really limited life in it because Jack Bauer would inevitably save the world at the end of the first season? The Knights could've had a life beyond the one it did.

Anonymous said...

Did Donnie Andrews show up in Season 4 of The Wire playing one of the guys helping Omar out in prison?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about "Knights." Its funny moments are very funny, but the are other times it struggles. Very few shows hit their stride right out of the gate. "Seinfeld" took a couple of years to gel; if it had been canceled after the first season, we'd be talking not about what a huge mistake the network made, but about the show that fell short of its promise (if indeed we talked about it at all).

I think it's very hard to produce a good show when the networks have such itchy trigger fingers.

Jeff K. said...

I'm with anonymous #2 (and #1, I guess as well...) in that I like the Knights and was happy to see it appear on my TiVO; I had no ABC was burning them off as well.

Last night's episodes kept me amused the whole time. Being a theatre guy who's seen one too many shows like that, it had me rolling ("They killed Hope!" -- and then, in case we missed it, "Hope is dead!" Brilliant.)

And I guess I was just blinded by Esperanza's tits in the second episode. :-)

Tho I also liked Romano's rant to the other "HITG!" about the reason behind the comped "appeteasers."

("Hey, look! That guy from TV is having an appetizer.. maybe I should too!")

Sure its uneven and fairly predictable (or just odd -- the kid getting drywalled in?) but the cast is likable enough (have I mentioned SofĂ­a Vergara?) and Burnett & Beckerman could always be counted on to keep me smiling.

Sleep well, Knights...

Anonymous said...

The Nine was one of my favorite of last season's new shows, and I've been thoroughly enjoying the burn off.

I can see the criticisms you mention, but for me, the relationships that developed between the group were fascinating to watch even if they weren't high tension.

As for the sense of inevitability in the robbery, I saw it as an actual plan, with the writers knowing where they were going from the start in a way the creators of Lost and 24 never seemed to be able to manage after season one of those shows.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I like "The Nine" and am enjoying it despite knowing that we're going to be left without a resolution.

It's too bad it didn't stick. It did have a great pilot. But you're right, that the follow-up episodes lost the suspense -- since we know how it all turned out.