By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
It's a rare day indeed when those gush words quoted in movie ads -- "hilarious," "riotous," "wonderful," "delightful" -- can be reasonably applied to a TV sitcom. But forsooth, the day has come: "The Knights of Prosperity" is knee-slappingly and side-splittingly funny stuff, or as close to that as TV gets these days.
The ABC comedy (premiering tonight), an ensemble farce about lovable losers and their mad pursuit of ill-gotten gains, brings together a group of at most semi-familiar faces whose quest for money might be hopeless but who find mucho mirth wherever they turn.
Among the executive producers is David Letterman -- who on almost any given edition of CBS's "Late Show" proves he is still the fastest, funniest man on television -- and some moments in the "Knights" pilot sound somehow Lettermanesque. (Rob Burnett, whose association with Letterman and the comedian's Worldwide Pants production company goes back many years, co-wrote and directed the pilot.)
Meeting secretly in the warehouse of Glickman's Jewish Supplies, the would-be thieves decide that if a stranger comes upon them, they'll pretend to be a book club discussing "The Bridges of Madison County." Naturally, a stranger does appear, prompting one member of the group, immigrant taxi driver Gourishankar Subramaniam (Maz Jobrani), to improvise, "I really liked the bridges, and I thought Madison was an excellent county."
One of the discarded titles for the show was "Let's Rob Mick Jagger," and the rock star makes a guest appearance -- but apparently only in the first episode. The robber band's founding father, Donal Logue as Eugene Gurkin, sees Jagger conducting a tour of his Manhattan penthouse on one of those voyeuristic celebrity magazine shows and that plants the great scheme in his brain.
Unfortunately, Jagger turns out to be harder to rob than the pope. That penthouse is protected with locks and bolts and surveillance cameras, a metal detector, voice and fingerprint identification systems, various other high-tech gadgets and a few old-fashioned human guards. Even professional thieves would have a hard time, which makes the slapdash crew's goal all the more hilariously audacious.
They're a joyously incongruous aggregation. In addition to Gurkin, who commemorates his 20th anniversary as a janitor by wrestling with an overflowing toilet, there's the grandly immense Rockefeller Butts (Kevin Michael Richardson), bigger than that former NFL player they called "The Refrigerator" and always dressed in impeccable jogging suits from the fat man's shop; Francis "Squatch" Squacieri (Lenny Venito), Gurkin's loyal and equally intellectual buddy; and the bluntly gorgeous Esperanza Villalobos (Sofia Vergara), a waitress who integrates the previously all-male group.
Defending the addition of Esperanza when some of the guys grumble, Gurkin reminds them that Knights -- the gang name they agree upon -- is "an equal opportunity criminal organization."
Among the most lovable of the gang is Josh Grisetti, who as Louis Plunk has a profile reminiscent of the young Ray Bolger. Plunk is a virgin and, as the least qualified for the job, is naturally chosen by the others to seduce a young woman who happens to have the secret security codes for Jagger's apartment building stashed on her computer. Poor Plunk goes about this with painfully funny disdain that turns into just as painfully funny bravado once he becomes idiotically self-confident.
On one level, the show spoofs every heist and caper movie from "Ocean's Eleven" to "The Thomas Crown Affair" (imitated in the split-screen opening credits), from "Topkapi" to "Rififi." Making the thieves wildly inept makes them lovable, and as Gurkin says, "We deserve this as much as anybody."
Television is forever dangling luxuries, and the people who enjoy them, in front of viewers' eyes -- tauntingly, coldly, cruelly. Jagger, genially spoofing himself, shows off an indoor swimming pool and such absurd amenities as a warm yogurt bath.
Gurkin sees his group as modern Robin Hoods. In the second episode, the gang does its traditional group prayer before setting out on another rehearsal and Gurkin says on behalf of all of them, "We want our slice of the American dream." How else, the show asks, are these people ever going to get it?
Plunk, officially the group's "intern" (hoping to get college credit for his effort, and thus reminiscent of the "Kramerica" intern on "Seinfeld"), says in the second episode that his life's ambition was always to be a network censor -- the joke being, of course, that nobody could pick a lowlier goal. Apropos of that, when Jobrani is asked what part of a woman he most prizes in tonight's premiere, he surprisingly utters a clinical name for female genitalia. That is a scoff in the face of the Federal Communications Commission, which fines networks for using "dirty" words but can't, even by its own perverse logic, start banning medical terms found in the standard dictionary.
"Knights of Prosperity" probably should be considered adult fare, but there's an aura of absurdity to it that older and smarter kids should appreciate. There might not be lots of quotable jokes, but that's because it's largely a comedy of attitude -- an engaging and endearing attitude toward life and its myriad, innumerable injustices.
Whether Jagger will appear in future episodes hasn't been publicized, but the series could be done without him, since it's about the planning of the heist and need not ever get around to the execution. Maybe, if the show runs more than six episodes, the Knights will cling to their dream unto infinity and not even notice that they never do get around to making it come true.
The joy is in the dreaming. And on "Knights of Prosperity," so are the laughs.
The Knights of Prosperity (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 7.