On ‘Animal Practice,’ only the monkey shines
By Hank Stuever,
A big reason NBC forks over so much dough for the broadcast rights to the Olympic Games, obviously, is to pelt viewers repeatedly with ads for its new shows. For the grumpy TV watcher, these commercials become like a blaring tinnitus over the 16-day stretch of sports events, repelling rather than enticing the intended market. I say if you’re going to tout a show five zillion times, you’d better be certain it’s good.
Pushing it a little further, the network has tossed a couple of fall comedy pilots into the Olympic mix, pre-premiering them into a multiplatform mediatainment world that no longer cares about TV schedules anyhow. “Go On,” a relatively bright new show starring Matthew Perry, made its debut as an Olympic prime-time aperitif last Thursday; and Sunday night, in the pyrotechnogasmic afterglow of London’s Closing Ceremonies, viewers will get an automatic buzzkill from the pilot episode of “Animal Practice,” a middling, trying-too-hard comedy set in a chaotic (and inexplicably spacious) animal hospital in the big city where everyone has a snappy comeback to everything, even if it’s just “arf.” It’s “Scrubs” with a slight risk of rabies, basically.
The show will have its “official” season premiere next month, but Sunday’s episode exhibits enough symptoms to go ahead and diagnose. Justin Kirk stars as Dr. George Coleman, a snide and socially toxic head veterinarian at the Crane Animal Hospital, where patients wait in a purgatorial lobby with their sick and injured terriers, retrievers, kitties, birds, reptiles, what-have-you. (A python, you say? Let us then wrap it around one character’s neck and have him say, “Urgg, gurgg, gurgg.”)
The cast is rounded out by two other veterinarians chosen from the standard template of “ensemble comedy characters” (awkward Asian played by Bobby Lee; lovable lunk played by Tyler Labine), a nurse (Kym Whitley as the sassy minority woman) and a nerd-girl office assistant (Betsy Sodaro) who is simply doing her impression of Kevin from “The Office.”
There is also a fabulous, already-famous monkey.
More about him (her, actually) in a moment.
On eight seasons of Showtime’s frequently brilliant “Weeds,” Kirk excelled as the existentially droll brother-in-law, Andy Botwin. “Animal Practice” gives the actor the same kind of logorrheal, sarcasm-laced monologues, but all it does is make me wonder if Kirk has a very limited range or just needs more challenging work. My hunch (a hope, really) is that he can do better than playing Andy Botwin in a lab coat.
The cast is also joined by JoAnna Garcia Swisher as Dorothy Crane, granddaughter of, and heir to, the hospital’s owner, who leaves her in charge. Naturally, she and Dr. Coleman don’t get along — she wants to reorganize the office; they used to be lovers; they can’t get over — oh, yawn. Swisher’s role is just more foam peanuts in an already empty box.
BECAUSE REALLY ALL WE WANT TO SEE IS THE MONKEY.
This is the sad, stark truth that awaits “Animal Practice” as soon as it begins: In every scene without the monkey, viewers will ask, WHERE IS THAT LITTLE MONKEY NOW?
Crystal, the crafty capuchin who single-handedly saved “The Hangover Part II,” is cast as Dr. Rizzo, the hospital’s mascot. Rizzo makes his daily rounds on a tiny ambulance and acts as a bookie when the staff decides to stage an impromptu gerbils-on-turtles race in the exam room. This monkey can also do anything the other actors can — convey emotions, nail a cue, roll its eyes in mock disdain.
I thought I was immune to Crystal’s charms until NBC brought her to a poolside party during the Television Critics Association press tour a few weeks ago in Beverly Hills, where she mingled with journalists, guests and other celebs. For Crystal, “mingling” means climbing on people’s shoulders and giving them a kiss on the cheek. Who else is going to do that at this kind of party? (Who else besides Giuliana Rancic, I mean.)
I have never seen a fresh-faced celebrity work harder to please, with barely a hint of a treat or a reward coming. Crystal did everything she was asked and then some; she apparently decided it is her job to save NBC from itself. She chirped hello and granted face time to anyone who wanted to meet her, in sharp contrast to the celebrity all the way over on the other side of the pool, Sarah Palin, who was there ostensibly to help promote her husband Todd’s NBC reality show, “Stars Earn Stripes.” Palin played it cool and remote — that whole don’t-talk-to-me shtick that famous people pull when they’re pretending they don’t want any attention. If only they could all be more like Crystal and get with the program.
But we’ve lapsed into party-scene reportage, when this is supposed to be a TV review. Therefore: “Animal Practice” is a forgettable show sloppily built from comedy cliches, but it can be fixed by firing most of the cast and rebuilding the show around the monkey.
That would be the hit of the season. A poolside scrum of semi-drunk TV critics agrees!
(30 minutes) special post-Olympics premiere airs Sunday at 10:38 p.m. on NBC. Regular season begins Sept. 26.