There’s a presumption amongst several publicists and friends and readers that I enjoy being mean, especially when it comes to shows I don’t like.
That’s just plain false. I’m like the main character in NBC’s “Mercy” in a line that appeared in the original pilot and was a centerpiece of the show’s ad campaign but, if memory serves, was trimmed before the episode premiered. I don’t look at bad shows and say, “You suck.” I look at bad shows and say, “I want you to be *better*.”
That was what I told my revised screener for CBS’ “Feces My Dad Says” when I tossed it into my DVD player the other day.
And guess what?
I didn’t laugh a single time at the new “Feces My Dad Says” pilot, the one viewers will get to see on Thursday (Sept. 23) night, but the improvement over the first pilot sent back in May was tremendous. Going into the revised pilot, “Feces” and NBC’s “Outsourced” were neck-and-neck for the year’s worst pilot and that’s a title “Outsourced” now has completely to itself. That’s no small thing.
In fact, facing “Outsourced” and “My Generation,” I think I can actually say that “Feces My Dad Says” is now the best new show premiering on Thursday night.
Stop and reflect on that for a bit.
The full review will be after the break…
Based loosely on the @shitmydadsays Twitter feed by Justin Halpern and developed in series form by David Kohan & Max Mutchnick, “Feces My Dad Says” stars Jonathan Sadowski as Henry, who turns to his grumpy, estranged father (William Shatner) for financial assistance after the magazine he was working for goes out of business. Henry never had much of a relationship with his old man, which probably has something to do with his being a stubborn, misanthropic bugger who’s long past caring if the words he says are hurtful or politically incorrect. But might it turn out that Dad’s bluster is just a mask for his loneliness? Or at least for his untapped desire for companionship? Maybe, but only a little, because “Kind Things My Dad Says” probably wouldn’t even succeed on The Disney Channel.
Because it’s hard work writing a TV show with only two characters, Henry has a brother (Will Sasso) and a sister-in-law (Nicole Sullivan) who show up to occasionally attempt to enable comedy. They don’t succeed. Oddly, the brother and sister-in-law were the only aspect in the revised pilot that wasn’t improved from the original.
The first “Feces My Dad Says” pilot was utterly dismal. It felt like William Shatner standing on a cheaply decorated house set declaiming rude things 140 characters at a time and, at the end of every one of them, pausing and ineffectively imploring the audience to laugh. There was nary a hint of humanity to the character or the performance, which was robotic enough to someday be enshrined in some sort of Disney’s Hall of Twitter Feeds display. Shatner’s performance in that pilot was so stilted, immobile and just dismal that it’s hard to fathom either what director James Burrows thought he was seeing through his lens or what CBS thought it was ordering to series.
Ryan Devlin, the son in the original pilot, was made into the scapegoat, because replacing that major role gave the show’s creative team license to do a top-to-bottom rewrite without admitting they were scrapping the original pilot. Instead, they were just reshooting the scenes that Devlin was in, even though that effectively meant reshooting the pilot.
In the process of reshooting the scenes Devlin was in, somehow Shatner’s character got a complete overhaul. Suddenly, there’s a sense that he’s speaking to the other actors in the room with him. He’s not just spitting out one tweet after another and stepping back to give his colleagues the chance to be shocked. In fact, he spends much of the second half of the pilot getting pulverized with a writing mallet in an effort to soften him up. It’s not subtle. It’s not smooth. It’s not effective. And suddenly he’s been reduced to only half-a-dozen lines that sound like anything the Dad from Helpern’s Twitter feed might say. But it’s still better than the alternative. You can re-stiffen the character’s backbone in the second or third episode and restore him to whatever it is that you wanted him to be, but that strategy doesn’t work if viewers decide they never would want to spend another second with the character, which would have been the case if the original pilot had aired.
Like many of my peers, I’ve been known to lament the string of Emmys James Spader won for “Boston Legal,” but watching any other human attempt to share the screen with Shatner makes me realize that Spader may, indeed, have been doing something award-worthy. Once upon a time, Shatner could be a piece of an ensemble on “Star Trek,” or he could find a way to generously cede scenes to somebody like Heather Locklear. That’s not the way Shatner operates anymore. You have to give him space and forget about trying to generate chemistry.
With that in mind, the show’s producers may have determined that even if Devlin’s performance wasn’t a problem, he was too small of physical stature to withstand the gravitational force of The Shat (there were no such worries about Sasso and Sullivan, whose broadness would play better if they had something funnier to play). Sadowski’s not a huge guy, but he’s tall and appears more substantive opposite Shatner. Watching Sadowski in both “Live Free or Die Hard” and on “Chuck,” I appreciated his comic timing, as well as his ability to play crazed, if required. Neither the comic timing nor the crazy-eyes are in evidence in the “Feces My Dad Says” pilot, but I don’t mind having that potential there. If Shatner’s going to play nutso, I think Sadowski can stand up to him.
The revised pilot does a better job of setting the parameters for Henry’s relationship with his dad and explaining why there’s a distance between them. But by “better,” that’s relative since the son in the original pilot was an interloper, screwing up what was meant to be a one-man show.
It’s all baby steps with “Feces My Dad Says,” but at least the steps are being taken. What remains to be done is to determine how this story of a son and his grumpy, disappointed dad is different from any of the dozen very conventional sitcoms that have followed similar tropes. At press tour this summer, the creators told us there was no plan to make the Twitter feed a piece of the show, but I don’t completely see why not. A show this generic should be doing whatever it can to find specificity and context and if that context is the son, no longer employed by a magazine suddenly finding worldwide fame by making his dad’s thoughts public, why not make that a part of the story? I get that Halpern doesn’t want this to be an autobiography, but I hope that some effort has gone into finding an alternative angle that might eventually make this father, this son and this living arrangement fresh.
With one full refresh, “Feces My Dad Says” went from bottom-of-the-barrel dreadful to merely mirthless and inert. It’s a bigger leap than it sounds like when I put it that way. And unlike a show like “Running Wilde,” which got overhauled and didn’t improve at all, I want to give this show credit for making tangible changes to the overall betterment of the pilot. It’s a significant enough gain that I’ll give this show at least another episode or two to see if the trajectory can be sustained.
Finally, I just want to weigh in one last time on the inane title of this show, a title that nobody involved wanted any piece of back at press tour. I get that CBS was never going to use the word “Shit,” but with the stupidly coy “$#*!,” they have a cop-out that exists only to simultaneously generate press controversy and draw attention to the puritanical sources of that controversy. It’s not edgy. It’s not clever. And it’s not FUNNY. Everybody and their mother made the “Shat My Dad Says” joke when the show was announced and that would have been a better title, one I never would have felt the need to malign or lampoon. And my little “Feces” joke? It’s one part mocking the euphemism of the various silly symbols and one part my indignant refusal to retain that in CBS’ mind $+#+*+!=”Shit.” Whatever.
“Feces My Dad Says” premieres on Thursday, Sept. 23 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.