Rewriting the Rules
When the writers' strike began, there was speculation that TV would be filled with cheaply produced reality programming, second-tier series that were originally passed on, and, of course, reruns. All of this is true. But there is another form of TV that is appearing, probably more by coincidence than by planning: the unscripted series that relies on the improvisational skills of its actors. Three of them launch this month.
10 Items or Less (TBS) returned for a second season with an eight-episode run earlier this month. The cast remains the same – series creator John Lehr stars as Leslie Pool, the owner/manager of a locally owned grocery store that he inherited from his father. The Green & Grains grocery store is barely surviving, thanks to the Super Value Mart chain store down the street and Pool's ineptness. Still, he manages his oddball staff with a stubbornly sunny disposition. His staff has other goals beyond the Green & Grains – all of them pipe dreams – but sticks around out of respect for the elder Pool, whom they all loved.
Like all unscripted series, a loose outline provides direction for the improvised dialogue. The eight-person ensemble features several live-theatre and improv veterans. This, in addition to a cast fully warmed up in its second time at bat, makes 10 Items or Less considerably tighter and funnier than its first season.
New to the unscripted scene are two workplace comedies, Head Case and Hollywood Residential. Although the preview screeners I watched were very rough, it's clear that the laugh potential is high in Head Case. The series stars Alexandra Wentworth as Dr. Elizabeth Goode, therapist to the stars. Coming in for time on Dr. Goode's couch (as themselves) are Andy Dick, Jeff Goldblum, Joel Madden, and Jonathan Silverman, among others. Greg Grunberg (Heroes) has a particularly uncomfortable (and funny) appointment with Goode, in which he describes his messy sexual fantasy featuring the good doctor.
As if being on the receiving end of her very public patients' private problems weren't bad enough, Goode's own dysfunctional family does its part to cultivate her neuroses outside the office. That family includes a lascivious mother, a sister referred to as the "young, pretty one," and a father who has an uncomfortably close relationship with his youngest daughter. In short, Head Case is willing to skate very close to the edge; fortunately, it manages to do so without tippling over into bad taste. Steve Landesberg (Barney Miller) also stars as Dr. Myron Finkelstein, Goode's office partner.
Also set in La-La Land is Hollywood Residential. The title of this unscripted series takes its name from the fictional celebrity-home makeover show that aspiring actor Tony King (Adam Paul) hosts while waiting for his big break. Unfortunately for him, Tony's acting chops are as lame as his handyman skills. Hosting the small cable show allows Tony proximity to the star power he wants. All the celebrities want is a free remodeling. Tony's schmoozing would be harmless if it didn't always lead to trouble, as when he parties a little too hard with Tom Arnold. Arnold ends up in rehab, derailing the makeover show's tight shooting schedule and inciting the wrath of the Hollywood Residential producer and director. Paul is particularly brilliant in a scene where he pulls off the bad actor audition with such finesse it makes you wince. Paula Abdul, Chris Kattan, Jamie Kennedy, Cheryl Hines, and Beverly D'Angelo are among the celebrities starring as themselves.
10 Items or Less airs Tuesdays at 10pm on TBS. Head Case airs Wednesdays at 9pm on the Starz network. Hollywood Residential airs Wednesdays at 9:30pm on the Starz network.
What Else Is On?
The Independent Lens series brings a writer's life to light in the sublime How Is Your Fish Today? Set in modern-day Beijing, the film follows Hui Rao (who co-wrote the script with director Xiaolu Guo), a struggling screenwriter who writes soap operas for a living. After a film producer rejects his last script, Rao goes into a funk, then begins rewriting. In doing so, he recalls a place he learned about as a boy, Mohe, a distant village near the Russian border. Mohe was a mythical place in Rao's young imagination. That memory gets Rao imagining his main character, Lin Hao, traveling to the distant Mohe. A visual depiction of his screenplay unfolding, interspersed with Rao's personal story, makes for a fascinating study of imagination, a writer's process, and how much characters drive their creators. Stunning, not only in how seamlessly the film accomplishes this marriage of fiction and nonfiction but also in its subtlety. A 2007 Sundance Film Festival selection, the film is presented in Mandarin with English subtitles. How Is Your Fish Today? airs Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 9pm on PBS.
As always, stay tuned.