The Future and the Past

Entertainmental_3_26_15I got a glimpse of the future and past of TV this week, which at the time was the present, so it was sort of the whole Christmas Carol experience. And I’ve come to a Scroogesque revelation I’m here to herald: network TV is dead. I’ve seen its death throes and they were grotesque and deeply unfunny. Long live the cable/Netflix/Hulu/any other model for original programming. I watched NBC’s Undateable and Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. One was predictably solid, and one was unconscionably horrible. Let’s visit the Ghost of Television Past first.

Undateable is—and I don’t make this pronouncement lightly—the worst, most uninspired piece of garbage I’ve ever seen. I honestly couldn’t have hated it more. If they allow this program to be exhibited on televisions in any prisons or detention centers, we are going to see lawsuits for cruel and unusual punishment. It was execrable.

I was roped into this dud by the presence of Chris D’Elia and Ron Funches in the main cast. These are two of the funniest standup comedians in the business. Having seen them shine on Comedy Central standouts Workaholics and Kroll Show and in their standup routines, I just figured they would never be on a show like this. Walking into the show blind like that made what came next hit me like a punch in the stomach.

To call the show unfunny would be complimentary; to call it moronic, a reprieve. I literally didn’t even smirk or smile a single time. The cast, which if I remember the story line, and I really might not because it was so hard to stay conscious, just sat around a bar set for 20 minutes and set each other up with easy, terrible, predictable punchliney nonsense. They hadn’t a shred of chemistry between any of them.

There are two women and four men in the core cast; three of the men are completely interchangeable, and the hilarious Funches is completely wasted in a role that would be a little offensive if the whole package wasn’t so uniformly terrible. D’Elia, who previously demonstrated his willingness to be on awful shows with Whitney, the short-lived Chelsea Handler monstrosity, is lazily uninspired and a hollow shell of his energetic stage version. He barely looked awake for most of the pilot, which felt a decade long.

I’m trying not to belabor this point too much, but if you like this show, I straight up hate you.

Meanwhile, over at Netflix, Tina Fey returns to TV comedy with the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And I say it’s the future of TV not because it is groundbreaking or even that amazingly funny. It’s just so successful at being exactly what middle class viewing audiences want, and what the networks seem to deliver less and less of; it’s good, dirty but not filthy, funny and representative of Americans in most of the country. And it doesn’t hurt that you get the whole package with no commercials to watch whenever and however many times you want.

Kimmy is the wacky story of eternal optimist Kimmy Schmidt, who escapes from a bunker, where she has been held by an apocalyptic cult leader, into the big scary world she hasn’t seen for years. After that it’s basically just another fish out of water comedy which derives most of its jokes from the fact that Kimmy has never seen a smart phone.

But it’s good. Fey wrote the show, as well as producing and playing a small supporting role, and she’s one of the best. Her light, wordplay-laden dialogue is familiar and refreshing at the same time, and the story line is delightfully wry, making edgy but never hardcore jokes. It’s a level of comedy that’s somewhere in between basic cable and premium cable. It’s edgier than basic, but not outright F-bomby like HBO, and so the target audience here is enormous.

Ellie Kemper, who came to fame by way of the US version of The Office, stars as Kimmy and is blandly likable. She’s not bad, but she’s given very few opportunities to be funny. Her co-star, Tituss Burgess, a Broadway star who we recently saw in 30 Rock as the transcendent D’Fwan, steals the show completely. He’s absolutely phenomenal and a constant delight as Kimmy’s roommate. He’s also the opposite of every member of the cast of Undateable. Because he seems like he actually wants to be there, and he has a part to play that wouldn’t be better off in a paper shredder.

I do wonder if the all-in format of posting all the season’s episodes simultaneously won’t hurt Unbreakable. By releasing them all at once, we talk about it in the first month while we’re all watching the show. Then it’s gone from our radars until 2016. Undateable, on the other hand, gets to roll out week by week for months, staying fresh on the tips of people’s tongues. I mean, hypothetically, there’s obviously no way in reality that anyone is talking about this show, other than to call it a crime against humanity.

The future and the past of TV comedy are in front of you. With Undateable, NBC has given up on behalf of the networks. On behalf of all of us, I thank them.

By Ygal Kaufman