'Four Kings': No Diamonds in This Deck of Cards

Todd Grinnell and Seth Green play half of a quartet of male friends in NBC's tediously predictable sitcom.
Todd Grinnell and Seth Green play half of a quartet of male friends in NBC's tediously predictable sitcom. (By Mitch Haaseth -- Nbc Universal)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Maybe one reason sitcoms have declined in popularity is that they tend to be so sitcommy. The people in sitcoms all speak sitcomese, all act the same, do variations on the same dozen-or-so jokes, even look cut from the same catalogue. Thus the shortage of water-cooler sitcoms today -- the kinds of shows people talk about and quote the next morning, as they did with "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Seinfeld."

Heck, they still do it with "Seinfeld," and loyalists have seen those episodes eight, 10, maybe 20 times.

Tonight, as an example of How Not to Change Things, NBC offers a perfect example of the standard, no-surprise, dumbed-down, artificial, annoying, plastic, formulaic sitcom: "Four Kings," about a quirky quartet of man-child goofs trying to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood by male-bonding their heads off in the big city.

The premiere, at 8:30 tonight on Channel 4, begins with a prologue in which we hear but don't see a sweet old granny talking to four little boys, only one of whom is apparently a grandson. She tells them to be friends forever and watch out for one another. At the end of the episode, the scene is reprised so that granny can say: "Together, you have the power of kings. That's what you are: four kings."

What a long way to go to get the title of the show into a line of dialogue! And it doesn't make any particular sense: "kings"? At most, musketeers. Or maybe horsemen of the apocalypse. The boys don't seem to have a lot in common except, once they get older, the proverbial fear of commitment. Although the scripts of the first few episodes contain a smattering of gay references -- as virtually all modern sitcoms do -- the guys don't seem to qualify as metrosexuals, if there is such a thing.

They're just the same wandering souls we saw in "Diner" 20 years ago, only not as funny and much more self-conscious. They vow never to let a relationship with a girl come before friendship with a buddy -- a motto crudely summarized as "It's bros before hos." Really, they're thinly disguised misogynists, viewing women as The Enemy, a conspiracy of party-poopers who want to break up their little boys' club and trick them into growing up and having kids of their own.

Most conspicuous of the cast members is Seth Green as Barry, mainly because Green is recognizable from the "Austin Powers" pictures; he played, hilariously, Dr. Evil's warped crank of a son. Here, he's the picked-upon little guy whose three friends, in the first scene, try to talk him into spinning around inside a laundromat's clothes dryer.

Others in the group: Shane McRae as Bobby, a pathetic simpleton; Todd Grinnell as Jason, who was fat as a child and so obsesses over his physique as a grown-up; and Josh Cooke as Ben, most mature of the ensemble. It turns out to have been Ben's grandma we heard in the prologue. In the pilot she dies, leaving Ben her vast and apparently rent-controlled New York apartment. Ben must decide whether to ask his grasping, shrewish girlfriend to move in or to share the place with his lifelong chums.

Gosh, whatever will he do?

In the first few episodes, there are jokes about sex, panties, masturbation, sex, one-night stands, sex, urination and lots and lots of dopey guy stuff. The gang seems to have a "Central Perk" sort of hangout with, very briefly, a Cheri Oteri-type gal-pal behind the counter. But most of the scenes are in the apartment once Granny dies and Ben inherits it.

"Look at where we are," Barry marvels. "This is going to be great!"

Oh, no it isn't. It's going to be loud, obvious and horribly predictable.

Some of the zingers do have a hint of zing in them, but the fact that the boys mostly enjoy insulting one another, playing tricks on one another and socking one another makes them fairly insufferable as even vicarious companions.

NBC desperately wants to rescue the ruins of its once-mighty Thursday-night comedy lineup, but even though this show comes from the producers of the medium-size hit "Will & Grace," it simply doesn't stand out enough from a bland and bloodless crowd.

Preview tapes of "Four Kings" were, as often happens with rough cuts sent to critics, in pretty bad shape. Many scenes looked murky and chronically underlit. And yet they actually weren't dark enough -- because I could still see the actors. The soundtrack was defective, too, because I could hear the -- for lack of a better word -- "jokes."

"Four Kings" isn't just tediously sitcommy, it's painfully sitcrummy.

Four Kings (30 minutes) airs at 8:30 tonight on Channel 4.

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