TBS's '10 Items' And 'My Boys': Save the Receipt

Corn dogs, anyone? John Lehr, left, and Robert Clendenin in
Corn dogs, anyone? John Lehr, left, and Robert Clendenin in "10 Items or Less," premiering tonight on TBS. (By Dany Feld -- Tbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

What do years of exposure to insipid sitcoms do to the human brain? Maybe nothing, since they may bypass the brain altogether and register instead in some other internal organ -- say, the gallbladder. Shouldn't science be studying this? More to the point, shouldn't TV critics receive the equivalent of combat pay? Or at least free psychiatric counseling and hot chocolate for life at Starbucks?

Actually, "10 Items or Less" and "My Boys," two new sitcoms surfacing this week on the TBS cable channel, aren't entirely without merit, although "10 Items" comes close. The premiere episode, at 11 tonight, also makes a stab at being entirely without laughs -- never mind 10 or less. Things look up slightly in the second show, a week from tonight, when the image of Jesus seems to appear on one wall of Greens & Grains, the raggle-taggle grocery store where the series is set, and the manager tries to exploit it for profit.

Meanwhile "My Boys," premiering with two episodes back-to-back tomorrow night at 10, shows a little more promise and even a trace of charm. It's about a female sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times whose status as "one of the guys" proves a liability to her romantic life, such as it is. The series has auspicious credentials: Among the executive producers are Gavin Palone, who works on Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" at HBO, and Jamie Tarses, the youngest person ever to run ABC's entertainment division when she held that post in the 1990s.

But worse news first: "10 Items or Less" would deserve praise for experimenting with traditional sitcom structure if (a) other shows, like the aforementioned "Enthusiasm," hadn't already carried out the same experiments, and much more successfully, and (b) the people who made the show knew what the heck they were doing. No one is likely to call any of them geniuses who are squandering their talent; they're more like scavengers trying to assemble a comic Frankenstein's monster from bits and scraps of other shows.

The producers and writers attempt to combine a scripted show with improvisational comedy, the technique that David has perfected with "Enthusiasm." But you have to master the rules before you can run around breaking them, and you need actors who are capable of making up their own lines and even comic situations to supplement whatever the writers have concocted. Such actors are hard to find.

Bluntly put, neither the writers nor the actors are good enough at what they're trying to do to justify trying to do it. They'd all be better off making "10 Items" a traditional scripted show, because then it would stand a better chance of making sense. Characters and their motivations might even be clear and consistent from scene to scene. Instead, everyone gropes around for ideas that prove stubbornly elusive.

The obvious inspiration for the show is "The Office" -- the British original and NBC's adaptation. John Lehr inhabits the Ricky Gervais role of office manager, but he's the manager of a supermarket instead, one handed down to him by his father, who died of a heart attack at 72. This, incidentally, is made the subject of a joke. Lehr is explaining to an employee that they're standing at the very spot in the very aisle where his father was stricken: "The funny thing was . . ."

But there was no funny thing, and there rarely is where the death of a parent is concerned.

Jennifer Elise Cox possesses one of the few familiar faces in the cast. She was one of the kids in the "Brady Bunch" movies but is miscast here as the nasty and vindictive manager of Super Value Mart, Greens & Grains's high-powered competitor. She wants Lehr, who plays fatuous doofus Leslie Pool, to sell out so that her store can expand its parking lot.

Greg Davis Jr. and Christopher Liam Moore set off a spark or two as a battling bagger and checker; Roberta Valderrama tries to keep her character, Yolanda, from being a Hispanic caricature; and Kirsten Gronfield brings a sweet naivete to Ingrid, another inexplicably loyal employee. Even when the actors manage to get a scene going, the director cuts away abruptly to something happening in another part of the store and then back again. Any hope for even minimal momentum is clumsily cut short.

"My Boys" is a more assured and tolerable half-hour, although it would help if Jordana Spiro exerted more energy in the central role: PJ Franklin, who writes about sports and is most comfortable hanging out with guy friends, a gang that treats her apartment in much the way that the regulars treated the bar in "Cheers." There's also a real bar they all go to when PJ runs out of beer.

Some of the details of their lives are real groaners. They all love to play poker, the card game that has come back from the dead with a vengeance and fills up hours and hours of airtime on one cable channel or another. Did our oft-cited forebears ever imagine we'd be spending our evenings watching other people play cards? Aren't there a dozen things wrong with that picture? At least if we watched people play Twister, there'd be some physical movement going on.

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