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Analysing "Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays":
...and the sophomore bumps of "Dan for Mayor" and "InSecurity".



 

Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays is a new comedy series airing on the CBC. Comedy has often proven a hard sell in Canada -- Corner Gas and the first few seasons of Little Mosque on the Prairie being the exception.

CTV has recently announced the cancellation (after only their sophomore seasons) of its only two sitcoms, Dan for Mayor and Hiccups. Showcase has apparently cancelled Almost Heroes after only one season. Global’s last few stabs at comedies (The Jane Show and Da’ Kink in My Hair) limped through two seasons before being put out of their ratings-challenged misery. And even though the CBC’s spy comedy, InSecurity, is in its second season, that’s more a show of faith than as a result of good audience numbers.

When it comes to narrative, scripted comedies (i.e.: sitcoms) with more-or-less mainstream ambitions, comedy is hard, as industry folk will tell you. And by “mainstream” I mean less reliance on four letter words and porn jokes.

Comedy is hard to do well (as one Canadian programmer remarked many years ago, “a bad drama is just a bad drama…a bad comedy is embarrassing”) but comedy seems equally hard to promote and to click with the target audience. And that brings us back to Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays because, though suffering from poor ratings, it also boasts some unusually good reviews. Some critics are calling it the best comedy on TV -- not the best Canadian comedy, mind you, but the best even factoring in American network sitcoms and hip and trendy American cable series.

Yet even with those accolades, Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays is having trouble scaring up viewers. I don’t mean people are tuning in…then tuning off ‘cause they’re bored (which is fine, to each his/her own) I mean they just aren’t giving it a try in the first place. Granted the title alone might have befuddled viewers -- personally, when it was first being promoted, I assumed it was called simply Michael…and was going to air twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays -- adding to the confusion, the CBC premiered it on Wednesday! (Though subsequently moved it to Tuesdays).

The CBC has long had a split personality when it comes to programming -- when it offers fare that is too mainstream, detractors will denounce it for producing pabulum, or for doing nothing but offering the same material the other networks offer…yet when it tries for the quirky or experimental, detractors will accuse it of elitism, of not appealing to mainstream Canada. Right wingers accuse it of being left wing, Left Wingers of being too right. Critics claim it’s a money pit, and demand to know what tax payers get for 1.1 billion a year. Granted, if you look at a current TV guide you’ll see Global is currently airing no Canadian scripted TV series -- zero, zip, nada -- and CTV is airing one (Flashpoint), while the CBC is airing 5 or 6, and that’s just on the English language wing. So that’s what you get for 1.1 billion -- an actual schedule of Canadian programs (in English and French). Whatever issues any of us might have with the CBC (and I have a few) I can certainly sympathize with its position between a rock and a hard place.

Anyway, Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays is about the quirkily co-dependent relationship between David (Bob Martin), a psychiatrist, and his long time rife-with-neuroses patient, Michael (Matt Watts). Part of the joke is that David is, in his subtle way, almost as mixed up as Michael. Indeed, I wonder if the opening title sequence is meant as a gag, as it’s actually David -- not Michael -- we follow getting ready for his day, and one wonders if (for a first time viewer) it’s supposed to be a joke that we assume this is the neurotic Michael, almost obsessively-compulsively going through his morning routine, popping pills to get himself going…and then the punch line is that he’s revealed to us as the psychiatrist at the end of the credits.

Whether Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays is truly the “best” comedy on TV is a subjective opinion…but it is astonishingly sure footed and surprisingly nuanced. As fans who like it (but lament its poor ratings) have pointed out, the problem may be that it is essentially a quirky cable series cast adrift on a major network -- in American terms, it should be on HBO, not NBC. It even looks more like an indie film than a weekly TV series. Although unlike many cable series, it’s not going for a shock factor -- it’s an adult series in that these are adult characters, and will have extramarital sex and the like, but nothing you wouldn’t see on any other prime time TV show. I’m not even sure if there has been use of any notorious four letter words.

There’s also a breathtaking level of compassion at work in the series -- for all that it’s a comedy (therefore satirizing people) and for all that these are mixed up, neurotic characters, Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays actual seems to like its characters, and too respect them. And not just the leads, but supporting characters too.

If Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays is whizzing by a mainstream audience, then it may also be failing to click with the “edgy, cable” crowd for that reason. It’s not mean, it’s not caustic. Consider HBO Canada’s Call Me Fitz, a very funny, very dark comedy about an amoral used car salesman. Call Me Fitz is hilarious, and has reaped a fair amount of accolades…and part of its humour is derived from its cynicism, its nastiness, its -- though I hate to use the overworked and deplorable term -- its political incorrectness. Yet central to the premise of Call Me Fitz is that the amoral salesman (played by Jason Priestley) is paired with an enigmatic innocent (played by Ernie Grunwald) who acts as his conscience -- that’s both the comedic, and dramatic, heart of the series. Yet I came across one message board where a commentator declared how much he loved the series, thought it was hilarious…and really wished they’d kill off Grunwald’s character. Yet without the conscience character, there’d be little heart to Call Me Fitz…it would just be half an hour a week of a sleazy people doing irredeemably sleazy things…and then you realize, oh, right…I guess that’s what the commentator wants.

Faced with that kind of a “cable” audience, that love of nihilism, one can see the struggles Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays faces. One can imagine fans of Call Me Fitz, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, or any number of series would be completely stumped by Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays underlining…warmth. It isn’t that these aren’t messed up, sometimes callous characters capable of being at odds with each other…it’s just that the effort is made to recognize people are more than the sum of their short comings.

The series is quite funny…but it’s often a dry, or droll funny, as much about the reaction shot, the delivery, the sly dialogue that hints at what’s below the surface, as about the obvious slapstick or punch line (though it has those, too). Bob Martin is truly brilliant as David -- Martin an actor whose credits go all the way back to his teen years (including as the Matthew Broderick-substitute in the CBC’s one-off War Games-like drama, Hide & Seek) but the few times I’d seen him on TV hadn’t made much impression (though I have appreciated his voice work in series like Puppets Who Kill and on the Matt Watts-scripted radio comedy, Steve the First). But he brings a note perfect subtlety to the comedy in Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, keeping the character grounded, and convincingly evoking a psychiatrist’s emotional reserve. Matt Watts, who as an actor and writer has been responsible for the -- arguably -- brilliant radio sci-fi comedies Canadia 2056 and the above mentioned Steve the First (and its sequel), is also good, the series even credited as being “based” on his own neuroses. Supporting turns like Tommie-Amber Pirie (as the not quite ditzy receptionist-turned-love interest) and Jennifer Irwin (who can play a suppressed manic-ness like few others) are good, as are guest players like Martha Burns and American import Ed Asner. Pablo Silveira, as Michael’s abrasive co-worker, started out a bit problematic and one note (as written -- no fault of the actor) but he’s actually gown quickly, becoming friendlier to Michael. He’s still a bit abrasive but, as suits the series’ humanist tone, not unreasonably so, where we actually can sympathize with him in his dealings with the difficult Michael.

Even the series’ use of voice-over (as David reflects on events) is well handled, thoughtful, and funny…and I say that as a guy who usually finds voice-overs in TV series to be extraneous, heavy-handed in a Polka Dot Door way, and more a sign of pretension than true profundity.

The series can also can be quite smart -- not superficially clever, but truly smart. In a recent episode, after David has revealed to the neurotic Michael that he (David) has been writing a book about him, Michael reacts angry and hurt. David immediately launches into his therapist mode, insisting Michael is really working out issues of resentment about his father. It’s a funny scene, but also subtle and, in a way, disturbing. Because David is frankly abusing his position. Sure, Michael has issues about his father…but his anger at David is no transference; he really is mad at David for what David has done. Yet David (well played by Martin) isn’t deliberately lying, not necessarily…in fact, we can infer he is trying to convince himself as much as Michael that his rational analysis is correct. And the scene is funny because, as such, it reverses their roles…Michael is the one who has a clearer grasp of the situation than David does.

Anyway, the series is funny and compassionate and quirky, and well acted. Not just from the regulars, but even recurring guest stars like American actor Ed Asner who was a hilarious scene stealer as David’s own slightly senile psychiatrist (particularly the scene where he blithely tells David that he feels nothing for his patients…then tries to placate a hurt David by assuring him that with him it’s “different”) -- again an example of the series’ compassion, of giving characters their due, because even as the series veers into questionable taste, satirizing the character’s mental feebleness…he still has flashes of insight into David’s situation that David, for all his intellectual acuity, fails to achieve.

Yet despite all this, and as mentioned, some great reviews…the series is floundering in the ratings.

As I say, maybe it’s the wrong type of series for its network and time slot.

But there’s another problem, too.

For one thing, as much as all the things I’ve written above are true -- I’m not necessarily running out and recommending Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays to friends and family. And partly that’s just because it is quirky. Sure, you recommend TV shows (or books, or movies) to people because you personally like them...but you also do it because you genuinely believe they’ll like it too. Because it’s akin to something you know they already like, or maybe because it features an actor you know they liked in something else. But you wouldn’t just recommend something for the sake of recommending it. If I had a friend who didn’t like fantasy or horror, I wouldn’t bother recommending, say, Lost Girl to them (the only exception might be if the series sufficiently defied the clichés of its genre that I could, sincerely, suggest they still might like it despite its genre -- i.e.: I know non-horror/fantasy viewers who got hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Anyway, in the case of Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, it’s not quite setting a fire under my fingers, and getting me to shoot off e-mails to kith and kin saying: hey, you’ve got to check this out…

And maybe that’s because it’s not quite setting a fire under me, period. Now, obviously, that’s a tricky thing to define. There are a lot of shows I watch, and enjoy…but I’ll admit, I’m sufficiently old and jaded that my days of fanatical obsession with any show may be behind me. So, really, is Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays any different than a lot of shows? Probably not. But that does mean it’s not necessarily poking its head above them, either. I definitely enjoy watching it…but I sometimes have to remind myself to tune in in the first place.

There are series currently airing that aren’t quite as well done, as sure footed, as classy as Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays…that, viscerally, I’m more enthused about.

If I were to put on my critic’s hat, what might I suggest are flaws with the series? Well, for all that it is quirky and off-beat…it could equally be argued it’s pretty simple and obvious. The core premise, of a co-dependent psychiatrist and his patient where the psychiatrist has his own hang ups…well, I think that practically is its own genre of stories, isn’t it? And the fact that many episodes seem to be wrapped around various therapy tests Michael undergoes, to combat and curb one of his many phobias (heights, crowds, etc.) does mean the episodes can be a bit formulaic, with at least a few scenes per episode involving Michael inserting himself into a (for him) uncomfortable situation, and then us watching him behave wackily while others stare at him, bewildered.

Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays is certainly a good series -- it keeps me amused (sometimes smiling wryly, sometimes laughing out loud) and it boasts some well drawn characters you can care about. Whether it’s the “best” comedy currently airing in North America is debateable, but I have no trouble saying it’s “among the best”. But unlike some series, where you can pound your fists together and wonder why -- why! WHY!!! -- isn’t it doing better in the ratings, the very things that make the series good are precisely things that make one realize it is a tough sell with only a niche audience to begin with. Too quirky for the mainstream crowd who likes their Mike & Molly and, just to be snide, arguably too smart (and too Humanist) for the “smart crowd” who likes their caustic cable shows.

As I say: comedy is hard. Any storytelling formula is like cooking: a lot of ingredients have to be used, and in the proper measure. The difference between a tasty treat and something fit for the compost can be as minor as the wrong proportion of spices, or 5 minutes too long in the oven. And so it is with TV and movies -- the difference between what works and what doesn’t can almost be infinitesimal. The wrong actor for a part (a good actor, just wrong for the role) can completely throw off a production. A two second edit can make all the difference in a scene’s impact. And comedy is an even more delicate soufflé than drama to concoct.

I was thinking about this considering some of the other comedies on Canadian TV, and how delicate is a successful formula to maintain.

Dan for Mayor, for instance, I really enjoyed in its first season, and was happily recommending to a few people. Yet, I’ll admit, it’s second season has left me a little…well, it’s still okay. It’s still funny, and clever. But it just doesn’t seem to have the same spark. Maybe now that Dan’s mayor the series has lost the (arguably) more atypical grist for plots that the first season’s run up to an election provided. We’ve seen political TV series -- including municipal comedies -- before, we hadn’t necessarily seen election series quite as often. Maybe there was more going on with the characters and their emotional entanglements (with Dan attracted to both the niece of a rival candidate and his ex-fiancée…who was engaged to another man) that the second season’s more stable domesticity lacks (now that Dan is happily back with his ex, and the niece is gone from the cast). Dan is certainly less of an underdog hero now that he’s mayor! The plots just seem a bit thinner, less energetic. Still clever, still witty, but like maybe they’re stretching to fill a half hour the way the first season wasn’t as much. Like a recent episode where Dan hosts a mayors conference, and the series quirkily suggests an analogy between the mayors and high school, with various cliques, and Dan eager to be accepted by the “cool” mayors. It was a cute idea…but did start to sag as the A-plot in a half hour episode.

Dan for Mayor is still a funny, perfectly agreeable comedy -- but I’ll admit it does seem to have lost something from its first season (ironically, maybe the creators, knowing how fickle is Canadian TV, hadn’t expected to be required to deliver a second season!). I don’t think any of that was relevant to its cancellation (I’m not sure the ratings took a significant hit) but it does mean that just as I was happy that Dan had been renewed for a second season…it’s failure to get a third leaves me ambivalent.

Another comedy that has also undergone a sophomore make-over is InSecurity -- but in this case, it’s quite deliberate. Not that it’s anything obvious at first -- same cast, same environment. It’s more just a gradual, creeping feeling that comes over you watching the new episodes that something is different. The first season was something atypical on the TV landscape -- though delivered with restraint (no laugh track and movie-style filming) it was a kind of slapstick parody, owing more to Get Smart than “realist” character sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother. I had commented in my initial review (being a website, I can sometimes alter and re-think my posted reviews as new episodes and new seasons demand comment) it was an audacious thing to do…but it did mean there was a certain lack of character connection that even comedies sometimes require. We might enjoying laughing at/with the characters…but we didn’t necessarily care about them. Clearly, comments like that struck home (I say “like that” because I’m not suggesting my comments in particular were ever read by anyone associated with the series). And so the second season has proudly declared it’s going to play up the character/office nature of the comedy, and downplay the parody/wacky antics of the first season. Oh, it’s not a complete overhaul -- there’s still the characters having misadventures while tracking foreign spies, still black humour involving exploding mice and the like. But there’s a definite skewing towards reining in the more extreme aspects (Richard Yearwood, as the Nigerian-born agent, has toned down his accent, f’rinstance) and more emphasis on character interplay and buddy humour.

And the result…is mixed.

Obviously suffering from poor ratings, there was a feeling something needed to be tried. But I’ll admit, I miss the first season wackiness -- indeed, over the course of the summer, I began to enjoy InSecurity even more in re-runs, appreciating it as an unpretentious oasis of goofiness in a rather uniform dessert of sitcoms largely concerned about relationship issues and office politics. InSecurity was a wacky parallel universe where Canada had super subs and was involved in a Cold War with…the Dutch.

Don’t misunderstand -- InSecurity is still amusing, and I may well groove to it a bit more as I get used to this new direction. But like with Dan for Mayor, there seems to be an energy problem at work with the new season, a tempo weakness. It lacks energy. Like Dan for Mayor it can still be quite clever (ironically, maybe more clever than the average American sitcom) though maybe too clever for its own good. In one episode, a theme of family relationships is teased through the various sub-plots, including team leader Peter confiding to avuncular Claude that he never had much of a relationship with his father. Then what ensues is various scenes between them that, subtly, are supposed to parallel father/son encounters -- Peter cutting his finger and Claude bandaging it, or perhaps more cleverly, a scene where a discussion about the origin of fake padding an agent used to go undercover as a pregnant woman leads Peter to innocently ask Claude “where do baby bumps come from?” It’s quite clever stuff -- maybe too clever, because it was also pretty low key, not laugh out loud stuff, the humour stemming not from punch lines or pratfalls, but from the viewer seeing humour in the situation. I could well imagine a viewer, not paying attention to the subtext, finding those scenes quite awkward, as they just seem to be these rambling interludes with no obvious purpose or pay off.

The more “realist” tone can also lead to questions of appropriate subject matter. Although the first season did involve some quasi-real world threats (North Korean spies, etc.) a lot was pretty absurdist, a-political stuff (as mentioned, evil Dutch spies, or right wing extremists targeting an Arts building). With the second season there seems more an attempt to hew closer to reality -- but is that what we want…or need? A comedy…about Islamic terrorists? Stuff like that is liable to offend left and right both. Liberals will roll their eyes at yet another series where brown-skinned actors are typecast as the “enemy”…while Right wingers will no doubt be outraged at reducing potential mass killers to cuddly comic foils.

The result is that two comedies I was enjoying in their first seasons, I’m finding myself a bit less enthusiastic about in their second (they are funny -- just not as funny). And Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays possesses a strong vision of what it wants to be, and boasts some great critical reviews to back it up…but suffers from anaemic ratings, with little likelihood of being able to turn that around. And as I say -- and have repeatedly noted about some low-rated series over the years -- it’s not that Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays had good ratings and lost them. That could reasonably be construed as a criticism of the series: the audience came, it saw, it said “meh”! Instead, it’s ratings were poor from the beginning, which is a bit harder to interpret. Was it not publicized enough? Was there nothing about the premise to pique curiosity? Were the commercials not funny enough, not highlighting the best one-liners? Is it programmed in a bad slot? Did that title alone confuse potential viewers (seriously, I could see that happening -- and even though it is now on Tuesdays, I know a lot of people who if they miss the first few episodes of a new series, just don’t bother anymore).

One thing is for certain: comedy is hard. When a comedy act fails, they don’t call it “dying” for nothing.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

November 1, 2011

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