Even in the era of Walter White, Don Draper and the gang from “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” broadcast network executives are still obsessed with the idea of likable and admirable heroes, especially when it comes to comedy. You'll occasionally find your questionable morality in network dramas like “Scandal” and “The Good Wife,” but sitcom protagonists tend to have their rough edges sanded off as quickly and artlessly as possible.
One new network comedy debuting this week illustrates why the suits tend to freak out about likability, while another demonstrates the pitfalls of trying to tone down bad behavior. ABC's “Selfie” (Tuesday at 8 p.m.) features a heroine so obnoxious that one wishes the network had stepped in to soften her up, while NBC's “Bad Judge” (Thursday at 9 p.m.) stripped away many of its heroine's most questionable traits from the original pilot and didn't bother replacing them with anything worth watching for.
The “Selfie” pilot was available online for a while (albeit in a slightly longer form than what will air tomorrow), so some of you may have already had the misfortune to endure the introduction of Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan), a one-time ugly duckling who has transformed herself into a beautiful and utterly vapid swan, incapable of thinking or speaking without references to hashtags, cat gifs and her 263,000 social media “insta-acquaintances.” When she flirts with a co-worker, she tells him, “I know it's intimidating to fall for a girl with a strong pelvic floor and an advertising presence on her Facebook page.” Upon suffering a very public – and immediately tweeted – humiliation in front of all the co-workers who rightfully despise her, she laments in voiceover, “I'd spent years laughing at stupid idiots on the internet, and now, that stupid idiot was me.”
Eliza, as the name suggests, is inspired by the heroine from “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” with John Cho as Henry, a repackaging expert at her company whom she recruits to change her image. What it winds up being, though, is “Pygmalion” in reverse: instead of a woman whose inner beauty is hidden under a filthy and low-class exterior, we have a rotten person wrapped up in beautiful (if drastically overdone) packaging.
It's also in many ways the inverse of creator Emily Kapnek's last ABC comedy, “Suburgatory,” which took a three-dimensional heroine and dropped her into a cartoon world. Here, it's a cartoon character trying to make her way through something resembling the real world. Kapnek's a smart writer and “Suburgatory” was at times a terrific show, but it was also wildly uneven and tended to stumble the more it focused on its most ridiculous parts; here, Kapnek's put her biggest weakness front and center. Eliza is such a broad caricature of everything Kapnek finds annoying about social media that she's unbearable – and not just to the other characters on the show.
And the thing is, as often happened even in the bad episodes of “Suburgatory,” the “Selfie” pilot offers glimmers of a show that can work. John Cho is very good: understated and wry and charming. Karen Gillan seems game for anything – even if it seems a terrible idea to force her to play American(*), since her Scottish accent is so appealing and so often funny – and the few moments where Henry and Eliza are just bantering and flirting (even as he denies that this is what's happening) are relaxed and assured in a way that the scenes like the one where Eliza pictures hashtags floating above her neighbor's head are not.
(*) Kapnek has argued that a show where a Scottish woman is shunned by her American co-workers means something different than if they're all Americans. As with most examples of having a foreign actor play American (to varying degrees of believability), it seems like a problem that could be finessed in one or two lines of dialogue that would never have to be dealt with again, and in so doing give Kapnek and her writers access to so many more things that their leading lady can make funny.
Obviously, there's an evolution with a show like this, as Henry tries to “fix” Eliza – even as she's drawing him out of his own repressed shell – but the pilot digs such a deep hole for Eliza that Kapnek might have been better off creatively ditching the social media premise and just doing a show with these two as mismatched co-workers.
Unfortunately, that show would have much less of a shot of getting on the air, since the networks pretty much only greenlight high-concept sitcom pilots, even if those shows then have to awkwardly ditch those high-concepts by episode 2 – or, in the case of “Bad Judge,” by the time the final version of the pilot airs.
The original pilot that critics saw in the summer was by no means good, but it at least had an idea behind it, as suggested by the title: Kate Walsh is a judge with a messy personal life and a cavalier approach to her job that makes you wonder how she ended up with it in the first place. She risks missing important work functions to play drums in her rock band (called Ladycock, no less), has sex in her chambers between cases, annoys everyone she works with, and is clueless why a little boy calls for her help at school until he reminds her that she put both of his parents in prison.
After the pilot was made, “Nurse Jackie” co-creator Liz Brixius was brought in to run the show, but the version of the pilot that you'll see reflects less the sensibility of a producer whose previous series was about a reckless, self-destructive painkiller addict than it does the paranoia of NBC executives who suddenly didn't want their judge to be so bad. They didn't just throw out the original pilot and start over(**), but they changed or abandoned whatever they could. Rock band? Gone. Unprofessional behavior? Minimized. The little kid? Now, the judge not only knows who he is, but has a long-standing relationship with him, because her new flaw is that she just Cares Too Darned Much about the loved ones of the people she puts away. About the only questionable things remaining are her sex life and wardrobe – because, hey, they need something to put in the ad campaign – and the '70s panel van she drives. And guess what gets destroyed by the end of episode 2? (Hint: it is not her collection of bustiers.)
(**) I don't know if the final version will play as clumsily to people watching the series for the first time, but the funniest part to me was watching the struggle to stitch together the new and old scenes, which results in Walsh's character seeming schizophrenic more than anything. It's all so random that it smacks of a creative team that threw up its hands before the task was even done, knowing there was no way to salvage this mess they'd inherited.
Walsh is an appealing, versatile performer, and her stint on “Fargo” earlier this year was a reminder of just how funny she can be, particularly playing a disreputable character. Like I said, the original “Bad Judge” pilot wasn't all that funny, but a show with the guts (and the appropriate channel placement) to go full “Bad Santa” with her as the lead could work very well. Instead, “Bad Judge” has been noted into oblivion. She's no longer quite so bad, but she's also not anything else. She's just… there.
And one of the few things more potentially fatal to a network sitcom than having an unlikable main character is having a forgettable one.
GRADES: “Selfie” C- / “Bad Judge” D+
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org