By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Heaven knows that being good for a few laughs is enough these days -- at least when it comes to that seemingly endangered species, the television sitcom. Yet Spike TV's "Factory" -- kind of a blue-collar version of "The Office" -- not only pushes funny buttons but also posits a portent: Here's one direction where sitcoms can go to keep the genre alive.
That's because, like so many artifacts of the modern world -- cars, publications, documentaries -- "Factory" is a hybrid, a sitcom with whiffs and riffs of reality inside. As with Larry David's cripplingly funny "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO, "Factory" is largely improvised by talented actors who have to be more than actors. They have to be hybrids, too -- part performer and part conjurer, capable not just of reading someone else's lines but also of inspiring spontaneous convulsions of their own.
There is, however, a solo auteur who is chiefly responsible for the show: producer-creator Mitch Rouse, who also appears in the role of Gary. He's one of four friends who hang around at the factory, mostly in the snack bar, chewing fat by the yard and avoiding work with a near-spiritual devotion. Presumably, Rouse sets up the major story line and plot points for each episode, then trusts his co-stars to help invent dialogue that is authentic, amusing and fresh, which much of it is.
The result is less a tidily cohesive narrative with the proverbial beginning, middle and end than a collection of thematically linked vignettes that together impart an impressionistic view of blue-collar ecstasies and agonies. The lengths of the scenes, and maybe even the order in which they appear, are most likely determined in the editing room after everything's been shot. A viewer can't tell how much is improvised and how much is scripted, but it doesn't matter so long as things keep bubbling merrily along, and they do.
Spike TV is aimed primarily at young adult males, but "Factory" seems anything but exclusionary in its appeal; it should be equally enjoyed by those who share the outlook of the shaggy-baggy heroes and those who find them to be wastrels and scoundrels. It's actually quite hard to deplore them, because they're surrounded by snobs and sycophants who take life and themselves far too seriously, and thus present a threat.
The four friends compensate by trying to shrug off even as grim a crisis as the one that opens tonight's pilot: the death of a supervisor who gets pulled into a "pneumatic bander" by the necktie he didn't want to wear in the first place.
When management announces a search for the man's successor, a mirthfully girthful Gus (Jay Leggett) dutifully sets about getting all the other members to blackball each other, thus saving one and all from lives of dreary responsibility and annoying authority. The gang includes Smitty (David Pasquesi), who lives with his ex-wife but lusts after her stepfather's sister's 21-year-old daughter, a seductive perpetual houseguest; and Chase (Michael Coleman), who thinks his wife is bipolar but might just be using that as an excuse to avoid her.
Their nemeses abound -- Todd (Rick Hall), the company suck-up whose company the others try to avoid; Donald McKenzie (Christopher Allen Nelson), son of the deceased worker and, to his sorrow, the chap who urged Dad to wear the fatal necktie on the fateful day; and a shameless crook with the too-cute name of Tovar Plots (Mark Beltzman), who runs the local funeral parlor and a disreputable used-car dealership (as if there were any other kind).
At the funeral of Donald's father, Plots puts in a plug for his "newly renovated" mortuary and urges the mourners to consider it for "any and all" of their "fune-er-airy needs."
The friends are not dummies or caricatures; there are only faint traces of Homer Simpson and his barfly cronies. Not that there's anything wrong with Homer. But "Factory" is not a cartoon, only slickly stylized satire. We never find out -- at least not in the first couple of episodes, what's even made or done at the factory itself; it's a detail we don't need. The men aren't interested in work anyway; they're interested in gossiping about women, complaining about women, wondering about women and grasping desperately -- but not too desperately -- for little shreds of dignity wherever they might emerge.
Spike TV proudly sports a macho, know-nothing attitude in its on-air look and promotional materials, but that's really more put-on than gospel. Much of its daily fare -- reality cop shows, for instance -- is duplicated elsewhere.
"Factory" is the network's first try at a situation comedy and, surprisingly enough, it's neither perfunctory nor primitive. It is, in fact, one of the few pleasant surprises of the summer.
Factory (30 minutes) debuts tomorrow night at 10 on Spike TV.