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'Kath & Kim' Is a House Of Mirth

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

Molly Shannon and Selma Blair are two hoots worth a happy holler in NBC's "Kath & Kim," a cleverly funny sitcom debuting tonight after scoring a smash with a different cast in Australia. The show has been painlessly Americanized and might as well be an indigenous creation, armed as it is with wicked, wacky comment on the mores and morals of the mall culture.

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The principal theme is Americans' pathological fear of growing old -- not the logical dread of facing retirement during an economic apocalypse, but a deep, crazy dread that goes back further, perhaps to the baby boomers and their veneration of youth as the sweetest of all virtues.

Shannon plays Kath, the divorced mother of Kim, a teenager with pathetically cut-rate values. Kim's recent marriage to the lovably clueless Craig (Mikey Day) is breaking up over such issues as her inability to cook dinner, even when it involves popping a plastic platter into the microwave. "We can't go to Applebee's every night, Kim," Craig beseeches her. "We are not millionaires!"

Although that line was quoted in the promos, it seems fresh again when it pops up in context, probably because the context is full of painfully recognizable leopard-print truths. As Kath, Shannon is obsessed with firming her glutes and thinning her thighs -- continuing to exercise even when other activities claim her time. She tries to put the kibosh on her daughter's plans to move back in with Mom, especially since Kim's room has been turned into a gym.

It's not that Kath wants to be alone. Kath is a walking "loser magnet," according to her daughter, yet has landed a bubbly Mr. Swell named Phil (John Michael Higgins) -- formerly Big Phil until he lost 200 pounds. He also gained great success as the owner of Phil's Sandwich Island (where the menu includes the Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ham special). Phil greets Kath with a flattering "Hey there, hot stuff" and, introduced to a skeptical Kim, grandly declares: "It's a pleasure to meet the lovely daughter of the lady who rocks my world."

Kath and Phil are a compatible couple, and a subtly poignant one, too, in their sorry striving to be cool and their steadfast state of denial. They won't acknowledge their ages, much less act them; thus do they end up, in the second episode, dancing up a storm for drag queens and couples in a gay bar called Maneaters. The three transvestites who counsel and commiserate with Kath are so touching and funny that they deserve to be series regulars.

There's something swift and straightforward about the comedy. Its only structural oddity is its occasional alternating voice-overs, during which we hear Kath and Kim's innermost thoughts -- thoughts that are hardly among the most "inner" you've ever heard. If mother and daughter aren't smart, neither are they malicious; if they're thick-headed, at least they're not cold-hearted, not even in how they misguidedly drink a toast to global warming. Yes, this heating-up might burn up polar bears, they agree, but it is good for their tans.

Shannon is one of the great female comic finds of "Saturday Night Live's" third decade (another, Tina Fey, will do more of her Palin playin' in an "SNL" election special an hour after the sitcom tonight). Shannon has gleefully hopped from movie to movie, making mountains from the molehills of tiny parts -- stealing scenes in such comedies as the stunningly funny "Talladega Nights." Blair, who has a long list of credits, might be best remembered as a virginal victim of "Cruel Intentions."

Higgins -- who played David Letterman in the HBO version of Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" -- is perfect as Phil. As superbly superior as Shannon is (a comparison to Lucille Ball, while inevitable, would not be overreaching), the whole cast shines, and not just in refracted glory. "Kath & Kim" is a frantically tacky fracas.

'Testees'

Years ago, TV Guide's synopses of Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello movies would often begin "Two zanies . . ." -- as in, two zanies join the army or two zanies run into Frankenstein. The two-zany formula still works for movie after movie, and the occasional TV show. Case in point: Tonight's "Testees," airing on the risk-happy FX network; the comedy doesn't push boundaries so much as trounce and trash them.

Even the show's title is a trifle problematical for a family newspaper. There are few lines or situations that can be readily quoted here -- but who wants jokes spoiled anyway? Cut raggedly from the "Dumb & Dumber" cloth -- which was torn from countless comrade comedies -- "Testees" is wall-to-wall uproarious.

The titular testees are a pair of likable slackers who, forced by an unforgiving economy to find work, reluctantly return to their jobs as human guinea pigs for new chemicals, pills and other products at the Testico corporation. Although he begs to be given the placebo for a case study of a medication, Peter (Steve Markle) gets the real pill and soon swells up like the Hindenburg. He seems, in fact, to be pregnant, much to the amusement of his partner, Ron (Jeff Kassel).

Like all dopey bozos worthy of the reputation, these two suffer from rotten luck and severely limited intelligence. Thus, their old foe Larry (Kenny Hotz) gets to try the experimental genitals enlarger while they cope with impending motherly fatherhood. Their attempts include duping a luckless sap of a neighbor (Joe Pingue) into posing as the world's tallest and tubbiest baby.

The risque words and situations in "Testees" -- few if any of which would be permitted on the major or minor broadcast networks -- illustrate yet again the separate set of rules by which cable, even basic cable, operates, free as it is from clumsy FCC intervention. Will there be howls of protest and charges of indecency from the usual suspects? Probably not. Condemning "Testees" would likely contribute to its popularity which, especially among tween-aged boys, ought to be considerable.

For the program to debut on a solemn high holy day for Jews is unfortunate timing, but then, propriety of any kind is utterly alien to the sensibility that produces these nose-thumbing, dumb-cluck comedies. Besides, if television can stand "South Park" and "Family Guy" and many other outrages that are considerably less amusing, then "Testees" deserves a test drive, no matter how testy some viewers might become.

'Life on Mars'

Despite the prestigious presence of stars such as Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Lisa Bonet and Gretchen Mol, "Life on Mars," a new ABC crime drama, comes off as naggingly undistinguished. When you get right down to it, there's not much point in getting right down with it.

"Life on Mars" crossbreeds cop drama with time-travel adventure, even though it seems that at least one time-travelin' show flops every year.

Both too little and too much seem to be happening in "Life on Mars," and the marquee names turn out to get much less screen time than an awfully humdrum young hero. He's Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara), the unfortunate bloke who takes the obligatory knock on the noggin that transports him from 2008 -- a great year to be transported away from, of course -- and back to 1973, the year he was born and, son of a gun, also the year that a little boy was set on a path that would lead him to crime, corruption and creepy stuff right out of "Silence of the Lambs."

For about the first 15 minutes of "Mars," our police-detective hero runs around town in pursuit of a deranged serial killer who takes the beautiful, seemingly ageless Bonet (playing mysterious Maya, Sam's honeybunch) as his prisoner. As Detective Sam briefly rests, the camera suddenly zooms in on his iPod; David Bowie is asking the musical question, "Is there life on Mars?" Then there's a conk and a bonk and a sort of a clunk, and Sam's head hits the pavement, and things go all swirly-whirly and zap. He wakes to discover horror upon horror: an 8-track tape player installed in his car and a photograph of Richard Nixon mounted on a police station wall.

Run, run, run for your lives!

One nuisance common to almost all time-travel fictions is the period during which the hero or heroine must face the reality of having journeyed backward or forward through the ages. You know -- at first he can't believe it, then he can't get anybody else to believe it, then he's called nutty, then he goes batty and so on. It's all predictably and ploddingly done in "Life on Mars" -- except for one brilliantly effective piece of visual punctuation that speaks worlds in an instant.

We won't tell you what it is, but you'll know it when you see it. But one moment can't save an entire hour.

"Life on Mars" occasionally scores a nice bit of eerie spookiness, but the premise remains more party-pooper than mind-boggler. One hour of exposure to "Life on Mars" and you might indeed wish time travel were possible -- at least so you could travel back to the beginning of that hour and spend it some other way.

Kath & Kim (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 8:30 on Channel 4; Testees (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 10:30 on FX; Life on Mars (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 7.


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