Anyone needing evidence on why the network sitcom is failing should turn on their sets next week. Two divergently different comedies The Office: An American Workplace and Life on a Stick arrive on the small screen on different networks, with different approaches, and with diametrically opposing success.
The Office has the steepest hill to climb. Based on the wildly successful (and bitterly funny) original from the BBC, the U.S. version features Steve Carell (The Daily Show) as Michael Scott, a midlevel manager for Dunder-Mifflin. The paper supply company is his self-proclaimed kingdom where he oversees a crew of dissatisfied, long-suffering employees. Following the extraordinary Ricky Gervais, who created and starred in the BBC production (as David Brent), Carell has large shoes to fill. Fans of the original series will declare that Carell is no Gervais, and that is correct. To Carell's considerable credit, he does an admirable job of bringing his own flourishes to Michael Scott. Like Gervais' David Brent, Carell's Michael Scott is obnoxious, self-centered, clueless, and incompetent. The problem is that Michael is entirely unlikable. Gervais' David was unlikable and pathetic. You didn't like him, you were glad not to work for him, and it was great fun to laugh at him. Carell's Michael is all this, except that he inspires the desire to see him decked by a box of paper. And not in a Wile E. Coyote sort of way. Michael Scott is despicable.
In the supporting cast, Rainn Wilson (Six Feet Under) shines as Dwight Schrute, Michael's assistant and a major annoyance to Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), a bright young man who should have left Dunder-Mifflin years ago, except that Pam the receptionist (Jenna Fischer) has captured his heart. Unfortunately, she's engaged to a hulking testosterone case who doesn't love her as much as Jim.
The Office opens with the original BBC pilot script, but moves toward new scripts steeped in a U.S. sensibility. A very wise move. What isn't so wise is following the original's understated performance style that strains credibility on this side of the world, even if the cast is supposed to be playing spirit-robbed drones. Will The Office: An American Workplace work in this iteration? Given its faux documentary style and the mystifying success of lesser sitcoms, I'm not betting money on it.
Which brings me to Life on a Stick. A garish laugh track, cheaply set-up sitcom jokes, aimless young adults at the center of it all, a cute kid and clueless parents: What a concept! Yet, Stick isn't entirely loathsome. As the beleaguered father, Rick, Matthew Glave has some of the best lines and delivers them in a manner that makes them seem funnier than they are. The series stars the unmemorable Zachary Knighton as Laz and Charlie Finn as Fred, the show's alpha teens. Amy Yasbeck plays the mom. Saige Thompson plays the surly teenage sister, Molly. Frankie Ryan Manriquez (who was so charming on Life With Bonnie) plays the cute kid and younger sibling Gus. Rachelle Lefevre plays Laz's love interest, Lily. Those descriptions fully describe the depth of this new series. Like the corn dogs Laz and Fred sling at Yippee Hot Dogs, the series is noticeable at the time of consumption, but provides no value beyond bloating your backside and numbing your brain.
The Office: An American Workplace premieres Thursday at 8:30pm on NBC before moving to its regular Tuesday night time slot. Life on a Stick premieres Wednesday at 8:30pm on Fox. Check local listings.
'Idol' Chit Chat
Caught in a weak moment, I agreed to appear on Fox's early morning show to give my scintillating insights and mind-blowing predictions following the final episodes of American Idol. I join Austin musician Johnny Goudie and various radio personalities from around town. If you don't see me next Wednesday morning (I started this week), it means I either overslept, stunk, or they found someone cuter to fill my spot. In which case, you can all go back to bed. If they have me back, it's only by the gift of caffeine and a secret desire to meet Simon Cowell in person again. Simon! I still remember your embrace at Austin's American Idol auditions two years ago following the press interview. Hey, he's wee and he's mean but to borrow from Seinfeld he has the Kavorka. As always, stay tuned.