TV

How Bad Are These New Fall Sitcoms Supposed to Be?

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There are big questions about TV, and then there are even bigger questions, like “what is this?” and “who is this for?” In the case of two new sitcoms, ABC’s Selfie and FOX’s Mulaney, the big question is, “is this supposed to be good?” Or perhaps more accurately, “how bad is this supposed to be?” Both shows defy expectations of cultural pundits, fans, and network executives, for better or worse.

One bored afternoon, I watched Selfie’s pilot episode, expecting it to be bad, because it seems designed to be bad. Its zeitgeist-humping title puts it in a lineage of instantly dated misfires like Friends With Benefits or Man Up! A retelling of Pygmalion about a social media addict is a cravenly unexciting premise. I imagine an ABC executive greenlighting Selfie by shrugging and saying, “The kids like selfies, right? This show will write itself.” Selfie isn’t aimed at the lowest common denominator; it’s aimed just above it.

Going into Selfie with my expectations thoroughly managed, I was surprised by how not-terrible the pilot was. It contains icky moments and bad jokes, but there are also flashes of wit. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan, as creator Emily Kapnek’s third redheaded heroine, is particularly good. Her sexy baby voice is dead-on and her permanent pout doesn’t hide the insecurity in her eyes. And as is typical of ABC single-camera comedies, the production design and lighting is well-crafted (the visit to John Cho’s house is softcore real estate porn). The second episode, which was written by razor-sharp hater Amelie Gillette, is abnormally current, with a reference to #aftersex selfies.

Selfie could be like Cougar Town or Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 or any number of poorly named ABC sitcoms and eludes its terrible title’s odds. Like Cougar Town, Selfie could evolve into a hangout show, where characters and chemistry, funny jokes, and generally agreeable atmosphere overcome a weak premise. Selfie was supposed to be bad, but defied the odds and ended up being good.

Mulaney, on the other hand, sounds good on paper. John Mulaney is one of the finest comedians working today. His two standup specials, The Top Part and New In Town, are excellent, and his name was mentioned as a potential head writer at Saturday Night Live someday. The fact that he co-created fan-favorite Stefon makes him an SNL hall of famer. The show’s cast includes comedy legends Martin Short and Elliot Gould, and Nasim Pedrad was another bright spot on SNL’s past few seasons. The “comedian hanging out with his friends” premise is a ripoff, sure, but John Mulaney knows that he’s making a modern Seinfeld. “Mulaney probably has more of an idea of how to use and subvert the multi-camera format than the pilot suggests,” David Sims wrote in The Atlantic. “He’s using the clean soundstage presentation to tell stories about mean, arch weirdoes,” Sims notes, suggesting that Mulaney is a Lucky Louie-style subversion of sitcom tropes. But so far, that reading of Mulaney doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as the show doesn’t get that tone right.

Last night’s episode, “The Doula,” was a tonal mess. Mulaney, Pedrad, and especially Short are unlikeable characters, but the audience is supposed to be on their side. Maybe. It’s hard to tell! Short, who plays Mulaney’s boss, is sexually harassing women, so Mulaney is tasked with getting him laid because, in this world, that’s the solution when a man is acting like a predator. The whole thing feels like Seinfeld via Chuck Lorre. The Chuck Lorre (creator of Two and a Half Men, the current gold standard for sitcom misery) comparison wouldn’t be a problem if Mulaney was clearly a subversion of the Lorre style, but it isn’t.

Mulaney wants to be good. Or at least John Mulaney wants Mulaney to be good, because much of it is his standup act translated verbatim into dialogue. FOX apparently has other ideas for its quality. The three-camera, laugh track setup requires the actors to undermine the script’s occasional good jokes with overplayed reaction shots. The set bears resemblance to an actual New York City apartment, but not one that John Mulaney would live in. Mulaney, as a disgusting character, would live in squalor like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, not in a fussily organized yellow kitchen from 2 Broke Girls. Mulaney suffers from the inherent personality disorder of a script stuck in a halfway place between trying to be a good show and trying to be a bad show, and it’s succeeding at neither.

Ultimately, “good” is subjective, of course. But graded in terms of effort and craft, Selfie scores higher than Mulaney, which I would never have assumed before watching both shows.