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T.V. on TV: 30 Rock, Dexter, Harvey Birdman and Knives, Knives, Knives

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T.V. on TV: <em>30 Rock</em>, <em>Dexter</em>, <em>Harvey Birdman</em> and Knives, Knives, Knives

One of those old warhorses that TV columnists trot out year after year is “Whatever happened to the sitcom?” These columns usually recount how the genre’s popularity has fallen off since the early ’90s. Though the piece admonishes the weak sitcoms on the air today, it ends with a reminder that The Cosby Show ended a long dry spell for the genre in the early 80s, and predicts that the cyclical nature of show business will eventually propel sitcoms to the top again.

This is not one of those pieces. The sitcom really is in as much trouble as it seems to be. It’s not in its death throes, but it’s an art form that increasingly feels irrelevant. Everybody Loves Raymond was the genre’s last significant hit, while the biggest sitcom right now, Two and a Half Men, has its moments, but it drifts too close to self-satisfied smarm far too often. The sitcoms that take chances with the genre’s form (from Arrested Development to The Office) struggle to carve out ratings niches where they can survive.

It’s not that sitcoms have completely lost the interest of the American public—syndicated reruns of Raymond and Friends still draw good ratings. It’s just that the genre seems to have completely ceded the profound to the many excellent dramas clogging the airwaves right now. In the 1970s, the sitcom aimed for the political whether subtly (Mary Tyler Moore’s understated support of the working woman) or blatantly (the dinnertime tirades on All in the Family). In an era when The Bionic Woman was the number-one drama and Marcus Welby advocated the cure of homosexuality, the sitcom focused in on a nation’s hypocrisies. How many sitcoms now, even good ones, aim to say something beyond “Here are some funny jokes”?

But even if you have nothing to say, you can still get away with a lot in a sitcom. Perhaps nothing is as ingrained in our genetic code as the setup-punchline dynamic. A team of solid comedy writers can crank out amusing spins on familiar setups with workmanlike precision if they know what they’re doing. This is why the later seasons of Cheers, which mostly abandoned the show’s earlier Hepburn and Tracy-esque fizzy rush and wandered off into ever-more absurd situations, still garner laughs; the writers were so tuned in to their craft and the actors knew their characters so well that they could mine solid jokes from the weakest setups. And, to be fair, there are a few sitcoms on right now that manage the same trick.

But a good sitcom has more than professional writing. It has interesting characters. It has an airtight premise that can spin out hundreds of different stories. Most importantly, it has believable relationships. Canadian critic Jamie J. Weinman (who writes for MacLean’s magazine) has positedthat the modern sitcom falls apart because its characters don’t fall into believable relationships. For the most part, he’s is right. When critics got their first look at ABC’s new Ted Danson vehicle Help Me Help You, they seemed mystified as to why they didn’t like it more. It copies the post-Arrested Development formula rather well. It features crazy characters (check) spouting crazy jokes (check) while trapped in crazy situations (check). What they forgot was that even Arrested Development’s occasionally strained farce was grounded in a family that felt like a family. All of those characters related to each other in believable ways. The relationships on Help Me Help You are so unrecognizable that the characters might as well be in their own little insane universes. Most of the new comedies are equally disappointing in this respect. The lone exception is 30 Rock (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., NBC), which premiered last week.

30 Rock, of course, is the “other” backstage at a late-night sketch comedy show on the schedule this season. Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (on the same network, no less) got there first. While Studio 60 is more tightly presented and professionally mounted, though, its flaws are more fatal than 30 Rock’s. I’ve written extensively on Studio 60 in the past; suffice to say its hermetically sealed universe of snobbery is far less credible than 30 Rock’s depiction of television as a place where people occasionally make good art or good comedy by accident.

Tina Fey, the former head writer for Saturday Night Live, created the show and stars as its main character, Liz Lemon, a barely disguised version of Tina Fey. In the pilot, she’s struggling to protect her sketch comedy show, The Girlie Show, from the manipulating hands of NBC executive Jack Donaghy, a character so coolly shark-like he could only be played by Alec Baldwin. Donaghy advises Liz to hire funny and crazy Tracy Jordan (fellow SNL-alum Tracy Morgan) to complement her longtime friend Jenna DeCarlo (Jane Krakowski, a very funny actress who had suprisingly little screen time in the pilot). Liz resists, and a fairly stereotypical sitcom storyline is born.

Because Fey’s characters are all pursuing very different goals, they often work at cross-purposes, creating a comedy of conflict that’s both believable and refreshingly funny (more so than Studio 60, or any other new comedy this fall). Yes, we’ve seen boss-employee conflict on a sitcom before, but Fey’s vision takes a different tone. Donaghy isn’t a blundering idiot; he’s able to peg Liz, identifying who she is and what she wants so thoroughly and so coolly that she’s left stammering. This isn’t the most original setup in the world, but it’s certainly very different from the Lou Grant and Mary Richards pairing that has been copied far, far too often. Similarly, Liz and Tracy are very different people, but they’re both driven to be funny, albeit in different ways. The conflict here is less between the people and more between styles of humor—Tracy is much more blunt and over-the-top, while Liz is more acerbic and stereotypically witty.

This is not to say that 30 Rock is perfect. It’s more flawed than just about any good new show this year. For one thing, Fey is so focused on her central foursome that the other characters get short shrift in the pilot (and there are a lot of characters on this show). The pace is also a bit too relentless; the show’s refusal to pause means some jokes get lost in the shuffle (for instance, a priceless bit where Tracy orders an apple juice in a restaurant, learns they don’t have any, and orders a gin and tonic instead). 30 Rock debuted to anemic ratings, but shows this funny tend to find their audience (even in the age of low-rated sitcoms, the quality ones from Scrubs to How I Met Your Mother have found loyal cults). Fey’s show isn’t the future of the sitcom, but it’s just enough to toss the drowning genre a life preserver.

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Not to make The House Next Door the official opening credits dissection site of the Internet or anything, but the opening of the darkly compelling drama Dexter (Sundays, 10 p.m., Showtime) deserves special mention. Based on Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, it’s about a serial killer (Michael C. Hall of Six Feet Under) who kills other serial killers while posing as a harmless working stiff (conveniently, he’s a blood spatter expert for the police department). Dexter’s character seems mundane but is secretly brutal; the credits sequence cleverly inverts this dynamic by showing us a string of ordinary actions filmed in tight closeup, so that they look sinister or grotesque. From a distance, of course, shaving or juicing a piece of fruit or lacing shoes looks perfectly normal, even banal, but from a few inches away, these same actions appear shockingly violent; it’s hard not to wince as the blades of Dexter’s razor attack the stubble on his neck, or as the laces of his shoes slip through the holes, looking for all the world like a noose being hung from the gallows. The only misstep is Rolfe Kent’s theme, which is too playful and bouncy. The juxtaposition of music and images treads treads close to nauseating.

There are other reasons to watch Dexter, from its mordant sense of humor to its nicely skewed vision of the world. While it’s not yet on the level of the best HBO dramas, it’s a big step forward for perennial also-ran Showtime; it legitimately feels like nothing else on TV, instead of a pale copycat of a competitor’s hit (Brotherhood, good as it was, felt like The Sopranos grafted on to The Wire). The show directly engages its protagonist’s twisted morals and considers the philosophical grounding of right and wrong, agendas you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere on TV. The show questions the bloodlust of the typical viewer of a crime procedural, fiction and nonfiction. We watch such programs to see the good guys catch the bad guys, but while the standards used on, say, CSI are socially and legally acceptable, is our desire to see the criminal decisively eliminated really that inexecusable? Isn’t Dexter the character just taking the judge, jury and executioner mentality of Court TV to its logical end? Is killing all right if you only kill bad people? Dexter isn’t afraid of these questions, and unlike other procedurals, it doesn’t send you away reassured that the world is a just place. Dexter has minor problems (an overwrought voiceover chief among them), but it’s one of the true pleasures of the fall season, and surprising to boot.

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Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim is no longer as good as it was during its heyday from 2002-2004. The 15-minute sketch shows that compose the bulk of the channel’s lineup have ceased to simply embody deeply weird, inadvertent stoner humor (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021), instead trying to be weird and appeal to stoners. One can’t make something weird simply by throwing as many random gags at the screen as possible; you need a truly weird worldview to pull it off.

Thank God, then, for the four-season old Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and its definitively weird worldview. The show is mostly a collection of pop culture references, which is a kind of humor that is often indefensible, but it’s so committed to its vision of Hanna Barbera characters working at a law firm that it makes even potentially overdone premises (Peter Potamus swallows radioactive ant waste and becomes an Incredible Hulk knockoff) deeply funny. While this season isn’t as well-done as previous one (Seasons One and Two available on DVD), the episodes are consistently amusing, and the voice work of Stephen Colbert and Gary Cole is first-rate. Make no mistake: this is a weird, weird, weird show. You have to appreciate a cartoon that devotes an entire episode to a parody of this 1980s thriller.

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NBC’s scheduling of Poker After Dark to air after Carson Daly’s late-night talk show signals the continuing attempt by networks to consign that stand-by of middle-of-the-night programming, the infomercial, to the dustbin. Infomercials hit their peak as a cultural touchstone in the early 90s when irony lovers stayed up late to mock the advertorials and their often basement-level production values. Unfortunately, infomercials have slowly gotten less interesting over the years, their production values gettintig better (or at least appearing to).

Fortunately, though, there’s one infomercial, which seems to always be airing somewhere on the dial, that doesn’t conform to those standards. Simply labeled “Knife Show” on most TV guides, the program comes to you from the good Southerners at Cutlery Corner. The show is nothing more than a man standing in front of a camcorder and shouting at the viewer, offering hundreds of blades, from steak knives to broadswords, at bargain-level prices while an unseen man (presumably the camera operator) mutters about what a good deal the viewer is getting. The program actually appears to emanate from someone’s basement, and no one would mistake the production values for anything approaching good. Disembodied hands occasionally appear in front of the lens to point at random items for sale. Text gets frozen on the screen. Closeups on the merchandise shudder and shake during pans, as if the camera were mounted on a rusty tripod. I hope the network’s pursuit of late-night ratings doesn’t lead to the blandly awful replacing the insultingly awful. There needs to be room in this world for “Knife Show,” after all.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.