Saturday, October 4, 2014

'Mulaney' Is More Lamey, Because It's So Obviously 'Jerry-Rigged'

Imitation is the sincerest form of television. Long before recycling became our national guilt trip, TV network nabobs were obsessed with going green (as in profits) by digging through piles of old series that had been even marginally successful, dusting them off and bringing them back before us with a new coat of paint and a fresh set of faces.
Mulaney's sitcom just doesn't stand up. (Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

It's a gimmick that's as old as the situation comedy format. (I rest my case.) But when a new show blatantly attempts to imitate a series that, almost by consensus, was the greatest TV comedy ever conceived, shouldn't it be held up for a special type of contempt?

It's impossible to completely like or appreciate Mulaney, premiering Sunday (Oct. 5) at 9:30 p.m. EST on FOX, because it's such a painfully obvious and pale imitation of Seinfeld – from the standup routines that used to mark Jerry Seinfeld's early episodes to the lame parodies of each member of the '90s show's Fantastic Four cast.

Am I the only one who sees this shameless miscarriage of comedy? Apparently not. In Mulaney's second episode, the protagonist's girlfriend, an alleged comedian groupie, ends their relationship and labels him a "Seinfeld ripoff" as she stalks away. Mulaney acknowledges it! In his own script! What the heck are we to make of this?

I suppose if you're going to rip off anyone, steal from the best. But why? Comedian John Mulaney, the show's namesake, seems a likeable enough fellow, impossibly thin and boyishly good looking. (Suggestion: Stay away from the skinny ties, John; they make you look even thinner, like a living hologram.) He's the golden child of Lorne Michaels, an executive producer on Mulaney, who hails him as "one of the most brilliant" people he's ever had in his Saturday Night Live stable after Mulaney won an Emmy Award for writing on SNL.

He could easily stand (up) on his own merits, create a concept uniquely his own. If this is meant to be an homage, it's too homogenized. I swear, even the refrigerator in Mulaney's funky urban apartment looks eerily familiar!

Seriously, look at that fridge! (Ray Mickshaw/FOX)
Mulaney is a struggling, up-and-coming young comic who lands a job writing jokes for a once-big comedian named Lou Cannon, who has been reduced to hosting a daytime game show called You Guessed It. (And, you guessed it, the show's name is used repeatedly as a shallow punchline.) Cannon is played, surprisingly, by Martin Short, which in and of itself is no reason to think less of him. But he's obviously there merely for name value: Short's trademark schtick, all ego and bluster, does nothing to improve the series.

At home, unlike Jerry, Mulaney has a roommate. Her name is Jane (fellow SNL alum Nasim Pedrad), and she introduces herself to us in the pilot by screeching, "I AM NOT CRAZY!" Oh, boy. She is the borderline-psycho, angry, totally unlikable Elaine. Seaton Smith, whose limited TV credits include one of my favorite shows, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, is Mulaney's best buddy, a preening fellow comedian named Motif.

Smith is African American and, unlike Seinfield, it's nice to see people of color acknowledged on this show as living in a major metropolitan city. (In one episode Motif reveals he has never seen an episode of Friends, which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense.) He has the height, build and fright-wig hairstyle to represent the caramel Kramer; I don't know if Motif is intended to be a second-rate standup, but you'll wish he was as funny as he thinks he is. And the first time he bugged out his eyes to make a point, like a big-boy Buckwheat, he lost me for the foreseeable future.

Most interesting, however, is the Mulaney body double for George Costanza. Andre (Zack Pearlman) is a round, red-headed, bushy-bearded drug dealer whose every arrival at the apartment door is met with disdain by all inside, particularly Jane. He's even more socially awkward and enraged than George, who wasn't always welcomed with open arms, either. Maybe if he had come bearing drugs.... 

Mulaney is the bizarro-world Seinfeld (in keeping with Jerry's love of all things Superman), where every character is recognizable but disturbingly, uncomfortably strange. In this remake, the part of Newman will be played by Elliott Gould – yes, Elliott Gould – as Oscar, John's contentedly gay neighbor who pops in to offer advice and New York anecdotes. It's sad to see Gould's talent wasted like this; wonder if he was low on cash.
The cast of 'Mulaney' (Joe Viles/FOX)

Nothing is all bad, and there were a few moments in the episodes I saw that brought a chuckle to my lips. But I only remember laughing out loud once, when Motif gave a name to the aforementioned woman who dotes on comedians. As I recall, Seinfeld took a little time to truly translate his comedic style to the sitcom format, but Mulaney has miles to go: his pacing, his posture, his flat affect make his every line of dialogue sound like he's still trying to work a crowd at the club. It's even more glaring because his actual standup routine is inserted into every episode.

There's clearly a lot of money invested in this series. I'd be happy just to have the T-shirt concession from one large crowd scene involving a cancer walk, and Cannon's game-show set, for the relatively few seconds we see it, is eye-popping. They got Ice-T to do the show's opening voiceover. FOX thinks enough of its potential to schedule Mulaney at the end of the network's monstrously successful Sunday "Animation Domination" block, following Family Guy. But I suspect that Peter Griffin will make John Mulaney appear even more one-dimensional than he is by comparison – and nowhere near as funny.

I vividly remember many years ago chatting with Jerry Seinfeld at a TV convention the summer before Seinfeld was to debut on NBC. I noted that even at that time his show had broken new ground: historically, prime-time television frowned on allowing Jewish comedians to use their own names for their characters for fear of alienating sections of the country. "You're right," he agreed. "Years ago, I would have had to be 'Jerry O'Brian.'"

In that and many other ways, Seinfeld was and is a trailblazing, culture-changing, generation-defining broadcast landmark. To come behind it 16 years later with this cheap knockoff is embarrassing, if not insulting.

On the Big Glowing Box 1-10 remote, Mulaney –  2 clicks.

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