My Name Is Earl, How I Met Your Mother, Out of Practice, Office

Ah, mid-to-late September is here. You know what this means. No, not the gorgeous fall season. No, not the cloudless sky and cool nights. No, not the horrendous traffic as all kids big and small get on the road and start crawling sideways… No, this means new TV shows. And unlike so many many other websites, magazines and TV promos, in here we will not review a show before seeing it. We will tell you what we think after we sit down and catch it ourselves. That’s what reviewing is all about. Late, but honest. Anyway, we’ve been so busy trying to catch up with all the new shows out there, that it’s best to review stuff in groups. Today, it’s the new offerings from CBS – How I Met Your Mother, and Out Of Practice; and NBC’s new hit – My Name Is Earl. Also, an honorable mention to The Office. Why, you may ask? Why the heck not.

It’s good to be a sitcom these days. Hardly any competition, very high standards, and very low expectations. It means that if you are so-so, you have about 3-4 weeks before you’re canned. But if you’re good… Boy oh boy if you’re good, you’re the next Desperate Housewives, only funnier, smarter and only half-an-hour long. And not sexist. Yeah, I gotta problem with that housewife show, and the more popular it gets, the more I resent this pretentious piece of crap. But enough about my hang-ups.

I’m hooked on Earl – it’s exactly what it wants to be – Jason Lee is channeling Nicholas Cage (Raising Arizona, anyone remember?) as a white trash hoodlum with some intelligence, karma issues and even sense of self-importance. He’s straight up about his feelings, about his aims, and that makes the show all the more incredible. The writing is sharp – nothing is over the head, or below the belt. Just because the subject matter is white trash doesn’t mean you have a monopoly on poo-poo jokes and in-breeding commentary. This is not a stereotypical show – it loves its characters despite their flaws. And boy are these people flawed. Earl one day gets a lottery ticket and is immediately hit by a car. He figures it’s karma – if you do good to others, your life will prosper; if you’re a terrible person – your existence will be miserable. He makes a list of things he’s done wrong in his life, and follows it to correct past mistakes. Simple, honest and seemingly never-ending premise for the show about a guy who’s patiently trying to make himself over, despite his lifestyle (include a cheating wife and kids; and a couch-potato brother in law). The makeover is funny, never crossing the line of moralizing, always keeping the tone observational. Plus, there’s the ongoing monologue (first person, by Jason Lee), and lack of laugh track. Say what you want about NBC’s last couple of years in sitcom business, but they have Scrubs, The Office, and now this – all without a laugh track. I think this is catching on – other networks are smarting up to this concept. Check out Earl on Tuesday nights.

A quick note about the Office – it follows Earl, and after the success Steve Carell had with his 40 Year Old Virgin this past summer I was worried that NBC will jump the shark on this and will change the format to something more easily digestible. Well, I’m relieved that the show is still very dry, very quiet in its pace – but hilarious if you are into this. I know many people hate it, and think it doesn’t do justice to the original British sitcom. But on its own, as a running commentary on office politics, corporate bean-counting and office romance – this is as funny as it gets – never sugar-coating the reality, always going for the groan rather than a cheap laugh. Cruel and funny. Check it out the show’s got a lot of spice.

On to CBS – they have conquered the dramas, and reality shows (CSI, Survivor), and now seem to be finally getting the formula right for the sitcom. Monday nights are a little more fun this year with two hilarious new shows. How I Met Your Mother has a simple premise – it’s a flashback show to the dating game in the old days (today). The cast includes Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howzer); Alyson Hannigan (American Pie films); and Jason Segel (Freaks & Geeks, Slackers). It’s meet cute in the early 21st century. I bet many references and jokes will be dated in a few years, but they’re dead-on today – blogs, dress codes, limo conduct, dieting fads, pub ethics. This show feels like it was taken right off the street – people sound just like we do; and have same problems we do (if you and I were dating that is). Easy to connect to these young people, and a lot of fun to watch them survive the excruciating dating game. If the writers don’t run out of topics, the show can last a long while. The cast works well together, and two of them have plenty of experience and great comic timing.

Finally, Out of Practice, also on Monday nights on CBS is more about the cast than the plot (warning – I am getting biased here). Ty Burrell (In Good Company, Black Hawk Down); Henry Winkler (the Fonz, Arrested Development); Stockard Channing (West Wing, 6 Degrees of Separation); Christopher Gorham (Jake 2.0) and Paula Marshall (Snoops, Hidden Hills, Cheaper by the Dozen) and Jennifer Tilly. They’re a family of doctors – all are sitting pretty in their lavish offices, with high-paying clients. One of them – younger one is a bit self-conscious. He’s only a shrink, and that gives him a huge inferiority complex. It doesn’t help matters that the rest of the family (in their efforts to appease their young sibling) seem to rub things in his face with their stories and their success.

The show is produced/written/directed by the same gang that put together Frasier – and the writing shows from the first scenes. It’s smart, it’s about families, and it’s about conflicts. Inner, external, you name it. Remember how Frasier Crane had a conflict in every episode -no matter how superfluous? Same story here. If they can really deliver the same quality show week after week – about families that have jobs, clients, love life and weekends – they got a hit. CBS has been doing family shows for a while – why not infuse this tired formula with some “work” and “friendship” themes? There’s a reason Cheers and Frasier ran for so long – they were exceptional. Good luck to this team – they are clearly trying to achieve the same goals here. I’m tuning in on Mondays to CBS and Tuesdays on NBC for my weekly sitcom fix. You should too.

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