The concept behind “Showville” (AMC, Thursdays at 9:00 p.m.) is pretty simple. Hollywood blows into small towns, auditions the hams in the populace for four slots in a local talent show, then two coaches help the final four refine their acts so that one victor can take home $10,000 and bragging rights as the town’s favorite act. The problem is that finding a focus and, more importantly, a tone for this hour-long is not so simple. Just as “Showville” searches for talent, it’s still seeking its own focus.
Is it a real-life “Waiting for Guffman?” Is it “America’s Got Talent” without the budget? Or maybe a behind-the-scenes drama about regular people living lives of quiet desperation? Right now, it’s a little bit of all of the above, which means it’s not enough of any of these disparate ideas to feel coherent or intentional. The show makes gentle fun of a few people, tosses in some Hollywood coaches who are neither Paula Abdul sweet or Simon Cowell mean, tries to amp up our enthusiasm for a small town competition without driving home what’s at stake, and slumps to a finish, exhausted from running in so many directions and getting nowhere.
The first episode takes place in Holland, Michigan, which seems a prime location for some gentle fun-poking. There’s a damn wooden shoe store, for crying out loud. This story inspires coaches Lisette Bustamante and Alec Mapa to stomp around in big, heavy clogs and try on ridiculous bonnets, reveling in the un-Hollywoodness of it all.
Mapa and Bustamante have valid Hollywood credentials, but only Mapa emerges as a character worth knowing. He seems to have a sincere fondness for the townspeople and isn’t afraid to cuddle with a magician’s pet rabbit or talk about what it was like growing up so dorky he beat up himself at recess. We don’t spend much time with him, but the time we do spend makes me want to see more. Bustamante, on the other hand, offers valid advice to the aspiring competitors, but watching her is like being stuck in a boring dance class in which you’re not allowed to try out any steps.
With mentoring not exactly providing much entertainment, we’re left to look to the four finalists for amusement. It seems as if the four acts were chosen by a game of rock, paper, scissors or in the misguided hopes of finding a little something to appeal to everyone like chocolate-covered nachos. There’s the Polish magician who has a loving marriage and can make doves appear from feather boas. There’s the Baby Boomer couple who play penny whistles, seemingly one step removed from an unfunny “Saturday Night Live” skit. There’s the quirky couple with a sideshow act who may be too edgy for the small town they’re in, and there’s Doug. Doug is a music teacher who sings about the mime in his head and takes his stuffed cat everywhere he travels. I would say Doug is meant to appeal to the viewers who love the loser auditions on “American Idol,” though Doug isn’t without talent. He’s just kind of a happy-go-lucky guy severely lacking in people skills.
We spend a little time finding out that almost everyone has a day job (duh) and that they take their hobbies seriously. No one mentions whether that they really, really want the cash prize. In fact, we don’t really hear anyone discuss it at all until the last half of the show, and it’s only when Maciej the Magician wins that we learn he and his wife want to travel to his native Poland. Might have been nice to know that he hoped to win for some other reason than bragging rights.
As if to underscore that the show can’t quite decide whether to be mean or revel in a small town’s quirky goodness, the music vacillates between elephant-walk melodies most often used in broad sitcoms and more serious music when it’s pretty clear an act doesn’t entirely suck.
Watching “Showville,” I can’t decide if small towns are crawling with fairly talented people who could probably put together Vegas-worthy routines if they didn’t have to spend so much time working day jobs (I suspect that may be true of the sideshow act Jackie and Michael) or if there are just a lot of people who have inoffensive hobbies that liven up family Christmas parties, or there are just a lot of dorks who you’d rather not spend too much time getting to know (Doug).
Probably all of the above, but given that “Showville” can’t decide how we should feel about that — whether this mix is what makes small towns wonderful or borderline pathetic — the end result is just a semi-palatable mash-up of things that really shouldn’t go together at all.
Did you watch “Showville”?