By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Panic swept Hollywood -- as it does every day. Would the proliferation of reality shows mean an end to scripted television and with it, the unemployment of dozens and dozens of writers? Would they be taking their leased Mercedes-Benzes in for repair and then, nightmare of nightmares, never going back to pick them up again?!
Of course not, because real reality television begat, as some of us knew it would, fake reality television. As when Conan O'Brien shows funny ads on his show, items supposedly torn from real newspapers and magazines, and assures us, "You couldn't make this stuff up, folks" -- except that's exactly what his writers did. They made it up. And it's usually much funnier than if it were the truth.
Truth, shmooth. Truth is for newscasts, not entertainment shows. What a pity that it sometimes seems to be as rare on the former as on the latter.
We're not here to pick a fight, though, but to take a look at "Dog Bites Man," a moderately funny, true-to-life (but not literally true) reality show premiering tonight on cable's sometimes adventurous, sometimes just smug Comedy Central. In February of this year, a prologue informs us, a documentary film crew began shooting the day-to-day adventures of the news staff at station KHBX in Spokane, Wash., to capture what the TV news business is actually like.
"This," says the prologue, "is the real story."
Except it isn't.
It's all made up -- a fracturingly funny fake whose model, very clearly, is the English version of "The Office," a brilliantly original sitcom-cum-docucom that inspired the American imitation on NBC. The British original was the creation largely of Ricky Gervais, who brings a new, martini-dry comic sensibility to television, represented again in his mercilessly funny HBO series "Extras," about human flotsam living on the soggy peripheries of the movie business.
"Dog Bites Man" plunges right into the situation and the comedy. We meet Tillie Sullivan (Andrea Savage), a reporter returning to the station after a few months off -- time she used to recover from an affair with the preening reporter Kevin Beekin (Matt Walsh), who wants her back in the worst possible, and most pathetically obvious, way.
One way of impressing her: He has an old episode of "Jeopardy!" playing on a TV in his office, and the questions' answers (or is it answers' questions?) written on a paper that sits covertly in front of him. Every now and then, he interrupts his conversation with Tillie to blurt out "Who was Sinclair Lewis?" or "What is Belgium?" thereby bamboozling her with his artificial erudition.
Other raging egos and ditsy dilettantes roaming loose at the station (which appears to be an NBC affiliate, to judge from a peacock logo on an exterior wall) include the irredeemable vulgarian Alan Finger (Zach Galifianakis), who'll rise to leave a meeting but first ask whether anyone has any reading material he can take with him to the bathroom; and Marty Shonson (A.D. Miles), a perfect example to cite for anyone who doesn't appreciate all the subtleties and nuances contained in the word "dork."
At a staff seminar on sexual harassment in the workplace, Tillie and Kevin pelt the presiding expert with questions about an apocryphal date between co-workers that is clearly not apocryphal at all -- but instead a description of a disaster they shared a night or two earlier. He'd taken her to a simply elegant Olive Garden (no penny pincher, he) and before the evening was over, as he recalls it, "they both faced the terror of existence together in her little satin pool of serenity" -- meaning the sheets of her bed.
Earlier, co-workers discuss possible euphemisms and slang words that can be used for human genitalia ("Alvin and the Chipmunks" is suggested) and find other ways of baldly and blatantly wasting time. And later, while covering an Iron Man competition, Tillie infuriates Kevin by repeatedly suggesting "better" ways to phrase the questions he has just asked an interviewee. In this case, the interviewee is a muscle-bound bounder who understandably runs out of patience as the two "professionals" bicker and jabber like tiny-minded tots.
There's no question that "Dog Bites Man" -- which is, in the current evolving sitcom style, partly improvised by its talented cast -- scales heights of hilarity, more than one might have a right to expect. But there's a problem: Virtually all the characters are detestable in one way or another, and partly as a result, the show never seems grounded. Certainly it's not grounded in reality, although even the most fanciful fantasies really have to be.
Tillie Sullivan shows promise as The Main Character, the one through whom we observe most of the deplorable goings-on -- but then she'll do an about-face and become as deplorable as anybody else. The show is so single-mindedly fixated on making its characters look boorish and boobish that there's no one in whom one can take a rooting interest. If Margaret Dumont had behaved just as maniacally as the Marx Brothers, their encounters wouldn't have been half as hysterical.
Self-contradictory though it may sound, the comedy of chaos needs an anchor, a bit of logic, even a soupcon of sense. But even if "Dog Bites Man" isn't quite the outbreak of outrageousness one wants it to be, it still takes television another step forward in post-"Seinfeld" sitcomedy. Human behavior is still the irresistible target, but something about the slings and arrows seems provocatively new.
Dog Bites Man debuts tonight at 10:30 on Comedy Central.