By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006
"More fun than a barrel of monkeys." Has anyone ever stopped to think how cranky, if not downright vicious, a barrelful of monkeys would be, especially once released from the barrel? Only if we use the cliche literally does it apply to two Fox comedies premiering tonight -- the aforementioned barrel of monkeys involving bared fangs, ghastly shrieks and a certain sickening simian smell.
Of the two, " 'Til Death," starring "Everybody Loves Raymond" alumnus Brad Garrett, at least has possibilities and a good excuse for a giggle now and then. The other, which goes by the cynically inappropriate title of "Happy Hour," is sheer, excruciating pain -- comparable to liberated monkeys who are not only angry but malicious.
"Happy Hour" is more like "Happy Hour in Hell."
Garrett, meanwhile -- whose big head and lumbering body suggest a friendly Frankenstein monster, like the one Fred Gwynne used to play on "The Munsters" -- easily dominates the better of the shows, " 'Til Death," in his semi-poignantly sad-sack, deadpan way. The show is a sitcom that contrasts the marital difficulties faced by two couples who are suburban neighbors living proverbial worlds apart.
In tonight's premiere, at 8 on Channel 5, Eddie and Joy -- married 8,743 days, a caption tells us -- and played by Garrett and the endearingly sassy Joely Fisher, welcome to their neighborhood a pair of jogging, cooing, painfully naive newlyweds (married 12 days) named Jeff and Steph, played by Eddie Kaye Thomas (of the asinine "American Pie" pictures) and crisply cool Kat Foster.
Eddie takes it upon himself to educate Jeff on the thwarted joys of marriage and the by-now-muted joys of Joy. His philosophy, based on years of experience: "Men want to have fun, and wives want to walk that fun deep into the woods and shoot it dead." A convenient test case presents itself: Asked -- in fact begged -- to install a pool table in what is supposed to be their new home's formal dining room, Jeff is told by Steph that, why, of course he can, whatever makes him happy, no problem at all, knock yourself out -- and so on and so forth.
What she means, of course -- as Eddie the sage informs Jeff the clueless -- is that he'll get a pool table into that dining room when the hole in the ozone layer heals itself and George W. Bush quotes Kierkegaard in a speech to the VFW. Not gonna happen -- yet Jeff persists in his delusion even to the point of buying the purple-felted table and (briefly) attempting to install it.
The script, by executive producers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, steals two jokes from "Seinfeld," which is par for the course in comedies that aim to be at least semi-intelligent. One is the concept of "make-up sex," an outbreak of coital bliss following the resolution of a big fat argument. The other involves the physical gags resulting when a pool table is installed in a room that's too small, as happened on "Seinfeld" when Mr. Costanza tried converting son George's bedroom into a billiard parlor and ended up, yes, behind the old eight-ball. Serenity now!
One of the show's seemingly original touches is to begin each half with filmed quotes from apparently real little kids in which they discuss their concepts of marriage, love, family and all those other lovely institutions that, Republicans love to claim, are in constant danger from subversive cultural forces in our society. The kids, thankfully, do not talk about politics but engagingly explain their views. This simple device helps soften the show's abrasiveness and keep it above the lowly level of Fox's tirelessly trailer-parky "Married . . . With Children."
Nevertheless, many an obvious joke is wrung from the fact that Jeff and Steph's last name is Woodcock. For example: Jeff is the new high school vice principal, and he opens a Web site for questions from kids that he calls, to snickers from Eddie and the studio audience, "mywoodcock.com."
Wait till you see, Jeff tells Eddie, "how many hits 'mywoodcock' gets." One can be grateful most of the other jokes derive from character and not from cheap setups like that.
Still, for all the stooping for laughs, Garrett and Fisher maintain an admirable dignity, so that even their bickering and feuding has a kind of classicism to it, as if in tribute to all the bickering TV and radio couples who have gone before, and who kiss and make up before the final credits roll. " 'Til Death" is all that it's cracked up to be, mainly because advance word had it cracked up to be minor and crude -- and yet it still has moments that are engagingly amusing.
Early as it is in the new fall season, meanwhile -- in fact, the season doesn't even officially begin until Sept. 17 -- Fox's "Happy Hour" stands a good chance of being named Worst New Show, or at least feeblest new sitcom.
A sordid variation on Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," the series -- premiering at 8:30 on Channel 5 -- pairs a martini-slurping slob named Henry (John Sloan) with a meek weakling named Brad (Nat Faxon) whose three-week-old engagement to a mixed-up ditz has come to an abrupt end.
What to do? For some reason, Brad begs Henry to let him move into Henry's Chicago apartment, where the two of them can complain about the opposite sex and drink gin every day at 4 while listening to an old big-band song called "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?" Frankly, a kick in the head might be preferable to sitting through this desperate, depressing, reactionary ordeal.
Brad meets an amusingly ferocious giant of a woman named Amanda (Beth Lacke), applying to her for a job but noticing, as anyone would, her ravenously ravishing predatory prowess.
The ultra-formidable Lacke could run away with the show in a heartbeat but only (A) if it had a heart to beat and (B) if she weren't saddled with weak dialogue such as repeatedly informing Brad that his testicles can be seen peeking out of his Bermuda shorts. What kind of idiot wears shorts to a job interview? The kind you hope only to encounter in a sitcom as pitifully sad as "Happy Hour."
'Til Death (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 5; Happy Hour (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 8:30 on Channel 5.