Thursday, September 20, 2007

BACK TO YOU

Veteran sitcom writers (i.e. over 25) are looking at the producers of BACK TO YOU as if they’re Davy Crockett & bunch holding down the Alamo. They’re the last protectors of the multi-camera format. As if it’s not hard enough to do a good show anyway.

I say count the laughs, not the number of cameras.

I really liked BACK TO YOU. Yes, I know most of the people involved, and yes it isn’t groundbreaking, but so what? It made me laugh. It was a pleasure watching Kelsey Grammer and Patty Heaton together. They’re a master class in comic acting and timing.

Trust me, you have no idea. There are so many painfully mediocre actors out there (many forced upon showrunners by the networks). Not reacting to anyone else in the scene, stepping on laughs, crunching jokes, zero physical skills, and even in a few cases sneaking quick peeks to see if they’re on their mark. I watch shows, I spot these people and cringe. And some of them are household names. Many writing staffs spend 3/4 of their time just trying to hide these enemies of comedy. So to have the privilege of seeing two of the very best perform at their prime, that’s sure worth 22 minutes of my week.

And here’s where BACK TO YOU really won me over: There’s a point where Chuck (Kelsey) and Kelly (Patty) are about to go on-air live and Chuck learns he has a daughter by Kelly from one wild night. Two seconds later he launches into a pre-written commentary on coming back to Pittsburgh. And now, everything he says has a double meaning, “I left a part of me here”…”I was like a lone Allegany warrior, separated from his tribe, riding bareback and unprotected”, etc. I thought, that’s damn clever writing. Worthy of tuxedo shows (my expression for Emmy recognized shows).

And the fact that it has a very retro feel to it ironically makes it stand out. Why can’t audiences enjoy THE OFFICE and BACK TO YOU?

I haven’t seen any future episodes and like I said yesterday, the real key to a show’s success is how it evolves. But I’m rooting for it.

And they won’t have to hold down the Alamo very much longer. Reinforcements are on the way. Networks are developing a lot more multi-camera shows for next season.

Maybe they figured out, after the twentieth bad expensive “edgy” KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY that when you look through the history of television, with very few exceptions (MASH being one), the classic sitcoms we still enjoy today were all multi-camera. I LOVE LUCY, THE HONEYMOONERS, PHIL SILVERS SHOW, DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, ODD COUPLE, COSBY, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, even SEINFELD -- all multi-camera. Count the laughs.

And by the way, not everyone died in the Battle of the Alamo. A few went on to write features.

44 comments:

R.A. Porter said...

^^^ Idiot who forgot to set TiVo last night. Fortunately, FOX has the show streaming on their website.

I just finished watching and have to say it's already better than the ads for it. There are moments that are more relaxed and that feel more natural, though it's still too jokey for me. Other than Heaton and
Grammer, everyone is playing a broad stereotype without much room for growth that I can see. Montana's not one day going to expose an untapped vein of pathos, the station manager isn't going to stop sweating, and Gary C is just a joke about a name.

I'm not looking for hyper-realism, but it seems they put the secondary characters into such small boxes they won't be able to stretch at all.

A couple of things that stood out to me:
- Heaton and Grammer do a walk-and-talk around the studio and backstage at the top of Act 1. I doubt it was intended as a Sorkinism, but I couldn't avoid thinking of him when I saw it.

- There's a nice joke about the vagaries of viral videos: "I was hoping it would get lost in all that furor over 'Baby Slips Off Soapy Dog'"

- The quieter moments just between the pros are really nice. Several with Heaton and Grammer, and even the editing bay scene with Grammer and Fred Willard. I especially like the interaction about age and Chuck's disappointment. Made his little botox joke really work well. Of course, a minute later they kill the scene with a "this just in" retread.

- And there's a wind gag. Very original. And not great as a physical bit. Might as well be watching a mime.

- On the other hand, there's a fantastic physical bit at Kelly's house when Grammer and Heaton both sit, and hop up from the ottoman where they'd had their two-minute affair. Very subtle, though it would have been nice if the laughtrack hadn't been juiced for it quite as much.

I thought I was going to hate this show, but I'm optimistic that at least the leads (and Willard) can make a decent go of it. I'm very happily surprised.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

So far: Patricia Heaton, 1; Kelsey Grammer, 0.

But I'm willing to watch again to see if Grammer becomes Chuck Darling yet.

And for Fred Willard, and for the storyline with Kelly's daughter.

blogward said...

When I watch (YouTube) shows like WKRP Cincinnatti and Taxi, etc., however good they are, there's always the feeling that they could be even better. That's what some showrunners seem to have given up on; improving on what went before, rather than just following the latest trend. Here in Blighty Doctor Who and Torchwood appear to have set a trend for kid's TV for adults, alongside comedy dependent on fart jokes. Bleuuch.

l.a. guy said...

r.a. porter said everything I was thinking but was too lazy to write.

One bit of trivia that will be lost on most viewers, the "Robert Broder is a blight on society" line was a nod to an agent.

Watching the show did bring to mind an article I just read (but can't remember where-- probably Variety) about how producers are finding it harder to develop characters with an ever shrinking amount of time. I think it said sitcoms are down to 21 minutes. Subtract theme song and credits and it's not a lot of time for the story, plus the continual interruptions are not conducive to engaging an audience. It seems like the barely one dimensional supporting characters suffered the most from that, but I can see why the producers rightly focused most of there attention on the Grammer/Heaton duo.

For me the show was a solid 'B', good enough to keep watching and hope it keeps improving.

Sebastian said...

Funny - I thought the exact same. The "barebacking" joke was the point where I thought "This is good writing" :-)

There were enough sex jokes before that but this one was smutty without being in-your-face at the same time.

I was reminded of "Frasier" - other authors see this as a problem and I honestly don't. I like it that Patricia Heaton does not play Marie Barone yet Kalsey Grammer seems to be playing Frasier.

It's as if Frasier finally was able to find the woman he wants, with a history between them which isn't ruined (yet). I love it. It's what "Frasier" wasn't able to deliver because it would not fit the premise - and "Cheers" always focused on the wrecked relations of Sam Malone.

I hope "Back to You" will not touch the awkwardness and give us some touchy feely moments and that the drama and farce will involve the TV-station or maybe the adolescence of Gracie (the daughter) :-)

David said...

//though it's still too jokey for me. Other than Heaton and Grammer, everyone is playing a broad stereotype without much room for growth that I can see.//

That was my problem with the show. Half of the dialogue that wasn't from the two leads (and about a fourth of it that was) was just simple one-liners, some of which were quite clever, but many of which fell flat. All the supporting characters seem so far to fit into predetermined sitcom stereotypes (most notably "the nerd" and "the slut").

That said, there were a few laugh-out-loud moments (like the monologue Ken mentioned), and hopefully it will get better as it has more time to develop. I'll be tuning in for the next couple of weeks.

Mef said...

I know it's part of the same speech but my favourite was the apparent, a parent pun. I thought that was clever.

Didn't like it as much as Ken did but still rooting for it.

Joey H said...

Enjoyed the show, too. And don't give up on Montana. Ayda Field has some pretty good comedy chops if they give her anything to work with.

Unkystan said...

Hey c'mon everyone. Is it really fair to base opinions on a pilot? So far I liked what I saw, but I'll reserve judgement after a few more episodes once all the exposition is out of the way and the dust settles in.
But I do love the fact the the show has theme music and an actual opening sequence.

Teddy said...

Definitely good - not great - good. Kelsey and Patricia were fantastic. Two consummate pros once again showing the alsorans how it's supposed to be done.

Hopefully it will grow some legs and develop a little bit. As someone else has already said, I was anticipating more. I know it's just the pilot and much more could be in store. Let's just hope it comes.

I have no hope for much else this season. Although, on your advice Ken, I plan to invest a little more time with 30 Rock. I, too, love Tina Fey. I've also thought Baldwin to be an undervalued talent, whispering and all.

a buck short said...

ALAMO-SCHMALAMO. As titular president of the Chill Wills Fan Club and Chili-Cookoff Society, I’m a bigger fan of the John Wayne version than the more recent John Lee Hancock one.

I agree about Patricia Heaton. Her reactions were central to Everybody Loves Raymond, especially to set up Ray Romano’s own reactions to those. You could predict them, but that was part of the enjoyment. More exclusively so than Doris Roberts' great comedic reaction punchlines to the whole bit, or Peter Boyle's comic punctuational gooses. At least that's what I think.

Am I the only one who remembers the Vic Greco & Fred Willard standup comedy team from the 60’s (In the heyday of Burns & Shriver, Stiller and Meara, Rowan and Martin, Smothers Brothers, Hendra & Ullet, Wayne & Shuster, etc)? As I recall they were kind of edgy and took chances. Greco scared me a little, because he used to play the straight man a somewhat more like an angry-irritated tough guy than most of the others Plus he seemed to look to me a lot like Edward Binns. Man it’s getting so you can’t turnaround anymore without bumping in to 2-3 dozen Second City alums. Wait a minute, it’s been that way for 40 years.


"There were enough sex jokes
before that but this one was
smutty without being in-your-
face at the same time."

SMUTTY IN-YOUR-FACE was the same kind of double entendre deal from the woman club manager in this week's Rules of Engagement - not that there's anything wrong with that, and hey, I watch it for the articles.

A funny though equally unsubtle touch was David Spade keeping track of the double meaning lines (which was every single one for her) with one of those clickers they used to count attendance with in theaters -- as she rattled them off.

VP81955 said...

Give the series a few more episodes to develop the supporting characters. For the first ep, you understandably focus on the leads. I have faith, given the pedigree of people working with this show, that the supporting cast will evolve into textured personalities.

My hope is that "Back To You" doesn't get swamped by "Pushing Daisies" when it debuts on ABC in a few weeks.

Mr. Hollywood said...

I admire your thoughts greatly Ken, but I frankly was non-plussed by the pilot of this show. I defer to your experiences working with sitcom actors, but both Grammer and Heaton do nothing for me. Again, a show set in a newsroom ... enough! The young news director is way too broad with the sweaty pits and the disheveled look ... the bimbo weather girl ... the guy with the hard to prounounce name. I was bored with these three after the first show!
And I HATE laugh tracks. Don't tell me when to laugh. I will when it's funny...and nothing in this show was funny to me.
I love Fred Willard ... he can read the phone book and I'd enjoy it ... but the rest of the show ...
Will give it a few more episodes but I can already say it's no 30 ROCK or THE OFFICE, two superb pieces of comedy!

Dimension Skipper said...

I say count the laughs, not the number of cameras.

...Why can’t audiences enjoy THE OFFICE and BACK TO YOU?

Maybe they figured out, after the twentieth bad expensive “edgy” KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY that when you look through the history of television, with very few exceptions (MASH being one), the classic sitcoms we still enjoy today were all multi-camera...
______________________

Mr. Levine, I agree with everything you said, but I'm giving you a standing ovation for the quotes above. It's about time somebody with network connections said all that.

Personally (and it very well may be just me) I generally don't go for the one-cam sitcoms because to me they almost always come off as just plain trying too hard to be "hip" and "edgy." I also hate even more the tendency for fast edit whooosh segues and when they add cartoon sound effects to otherwise normal joke scenes. If you have to add cartoon sound effects then the jokes probably not funny to begin with.

And yet—probably still in the minority here—a laugh track, when not too blatant does not bother me at all. If the jokes are funny enough then I'm already laughing anyway. It's when the jokes are not really jokes and they crank up the laugh track even more that it gets really annoying.

Dimension Skipper said...

As for the show itself, I mostly enjoyed it, but I tend to like my sitcoms in the traditional style to begin with (for some of the reasons noted in my comment above).

The pilot was not perfect, but mostly enjoyable for me. I think viewers should keep in mind that it WAS the pilot and as such there's a significant amount of show setup and character introductions going on—get supporting characters on and off quickly, let the two leads carry the episode.

Subsequent episodes should provide a much better idea of whether or not it will be watchable in the long run and if the supporting characters will have any depth.

Fox Cutter said...

Normally I find sitcoms to be tiring, and I hardly ever laugh at them, but this one was better then I expected. A bit rough it places (but it's the Pilot, what do you expect) but when it works it really works. I'm going to keep an eye on this one to see how it develops.

Heck, if it lasts past six episodes (though this is Fox... so call it three) I might even trying writing a spec for it.

Melissa said...

I enjoyed it, and I'm not a huge Grammer fan (sorry Ken, I find him so very one note). Their chemistry is excellent, the supporting cast is solid and the writing is strong and funny. I found the news director a little to remisent of Miles Silverberg (I get it, news directors these days are young), but still good. While I thought adding the twist of the child together was a bit lame and unnecessary, it will be fun to see how that unfolds. Count me in the group that likes The Office, 30 Rock and Back to You (in addition to How I Met Your Mother, New/Old Christine and very much looking forward to Aliens in America). Viva la sitcom!

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Two seconds later he launches into a pre-written commentary on coming back to Pittsburgh. And now, everything he says has a double meaning, “I left a part of me here”…”I was like a lone Allegany warrior, separated from his tribe, riding bareback and unprotected”, etc. I thought, that’s damn clever writing. Worthy of tuxedo shows (my expression for Emmy recognized shows).

I agree with what you wrote about multi-camera shows and about Grammer and Heaton, but I sort of thought that Frasier did this exact same joke in its second season (when Lloyd and Levitan were both there). Frasier has prepared a speech about a candidate for Congress he supports, but just before taping the speech he finds out that the candidate thinks he was abducted by aliens. Now the whole speech has a different meaning: "He's a visionary, and he cares about... the little people."

Of course, repeating jokes (or in this case, joke structures) isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it worked well in BTY.

Tom Quigley said...

I imagine the overabundance of "jokey" lines spoken by both the main and supporting characters were what were needed to help sell the script to Fox and convince them to produce the pilot. My main fear was that Kelsey would come off too Frasier-like and the chracter would immediately become a stereotype. Knowing that Kelsey in real life was not like Frasier at all, I think he did a fine job of transitioning to his new character. What would have sunk the show immediately would be to have Chuck come off as a cross between Frasier Crane and Ted Baxter. Patricia Heaton has also done more in the past than just Debra Barone, so I had no problems identifying with her new character.

As far as the supporting characters go, in my opinion only Fred Willard had the range and the timing to do as good a job with his lines as he did.

My main concern about the plot was that what I'm assuming is going to be one of the continuing story arcs in the show, namely, Chuck's suspected fatherhood of Kelly's daughter -- I'm not sure if they revealed too much already in the first episode.

Generally, good writing overall, and I was glad to see some of the old CHEERS and FRASIER names pop up in the credits -- and as the others here are saying, will continue to watch and see how the show develops.

Paul said...

I didn't watch it specifically because the ads insulted my intelligence. I'll give it a try now, but you better be right Levine!

Tim W. said...

I missed it, but will try to check it out, after reading your review. As for multi-camera vs single camera shows, it was like an epiphany the first time I watched Larry Sanders. I realize that sitcoms didn't have to be SOOOO formulaic and predictable. Watch out, here comes the set-up....here's the joke. Now laugh. The good single camera shows show humour in reality, not just in jokes or physical comedy.

Yes, some of the best sitcoms have been multi-camera shows, but that doesn't mean we can't move on. Multi-camera shows were once necessary because the cameras were so big and cumbersome, carrying them around was impossible.

And when the laugh track goes the way of black and white, it won't be soon enough.

Some Crank said...

While I certainly have nothing against multi camera in and of itself (and certainly all those classic shows you cited are shining examples of the format), almost all of the truly good and groundbreaking shows of the past decade or so have eschewed that style.

CURB, 30 Rock, Extras, The Office, Malcolm, and, of course, the late, lamented ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

(Hey, I actually LIKED "Knights of Prosperity"...somewhat.)

It feels kinda hard to go back into the bottle after the more expansive format of those impressive and innovative shows.

At best, we have solid, if unspectacular shows in multi camera like "Old Christine" (uneven, but often quite good) and "How I Met Your Mother."

I haven't seen "Back to You" yet, but it sounds like it falls into the same category - predictable, formulaic but entertaining.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. With so few good options out there, finding 22 amusing moments is an achivement not to be dismissed.

But which shows are we still going to be watching in 10, 20, 30 years?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Multi-camera shows were once necessary because the cameras were so big and cumbersome, carrying them around was impossible.

That's not really so. Most sitcoms in the '60s were single-camera. Multi-camera, live-audience shows came back because single-camera shows had gotten so tired and felt so sterile (particularly the performances).

The reason for doing a show in front of a live audience is that comedy is different when there's an audience present. The performers react to the audience and vice versa. Their timing is based on the audience reaction.

Everybody understands why "The Daily Show" is done in front of an audience (it wasn't, as I recall, when it started, and it didn't work), or why stand-up doesn't work without an audience. It's the same with multi-camera sitcoms; the performances wouldn't be as funny without the audience.

Miles said...

It was like an early MTM episode. The real standout for me was the youngish reporter who will never be an anchor, who basically took on the embittered and brilliantly funny one-liner-delivering role made famous by Gavin McLeod (pre Love Boat).

The whole episode was like putting a warm old sweater. It felt really good.

Kudos to Chris Lloyd (Please tell your brothers, sisters and your parents that Miles says hello.) and Steve Levitan.

Dixon Steele said...

Love Grammer & Willard, but gotta be honest, I though this was a stinker. I actually laughed once.

Liked the ending with his daughter but still...it was like watching a comedian flopping and hearing crickets afterwards. And that laugh track!

Ken, be honest, if you're buddies weren't repsonsible for it, I think you'd be ripping it a new one.

Love the blog, though...

Anonymous said...

The best example of how the multi-camera, live audience approach can improve a sit com was The Odd Couple.

The first season episodes, done single-camera with no audience, are close to awful. No big laughs, terrible pacing, lack of energy, etc.

Second season, in front of the audience, the whole thing came alive. Klugman and Randall are electric, and the writers deliver huge punchlines in every episode.

Ken, any Odd Couple anecdotes?

Tim W. said...

Jaime,

When the sitcom began, the multi-camera setup was necessary. The 60's was well after the beginnings of the sitcom. And even though they did have single camera shows, they still took place on a sets, for the most part. What I like about the single camera shows now is the fact that you don't feel like you're watching someone perform on a stage.

And while I agree that certain types of comedy is best performed in front of an audience, not all is. When a shows' comedy is based on the set-up-joke formula, then an audience helps, but I find that type of humour on television more difficult to watch, now. The humour seems so forced and unnatural. I loved watching Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends, but the comedy has to be REALLY good in order for that to work, I think. And it has to be a certain type of humour. A broad humour. Even broad humour, though, can be intelligent. And that's what's missing on most multi-camera shows, that tend to aim low, in this regard.

Any, hey, Ive never seen a movie with a laugh track, but they can be absolutely hilarious.

kellydwyer said...

You: "damn clever writing."

Me: "more stupid dick jokes."

Sorry they didn't give you a job.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Will give it a few more episodes but I can already say it's no 30 ROCK or THE OFFICE, two superb pieces of comedy!

Just started watching "The Office" on Netflix while still debating whether to watch "Miami Vice" on Netflix (and free up one of my three DVD slots), and where the hell have I been?! I've never seen any character as brazen and clueless as Michael Scott, and I love it! And I knew about the whole Jim and Pam thing through media osmosis, but now I'm into it under my own power. Can't wait to see more of that.

Looks like I'll be spending a lot more time on the computer than I usually do.

David said...

//I've never seen any character as brazen and clueless as Michael Scott, and I love it!//

Wait until you see David Brent in the original "The Office".

(I'm not trying to turn this into a UK version vs. US version thing, because I enjoy both very much, but the fact remains that Brent was more outrageously ignorant, while Scott is more amusingly oblivious.)

John said...

Overall, I prefer the three-camera format, but even that has its downside when the show's premise is pretty raucous while at the same time developing into something of a pop culture phenomenon. Mid-70s and early-80s shows coming out of the Garry Marshall and Norman Lear production companies are killed in reruns by the synchopatic laughter of the studio audience at decibel levels way higher than what the laugh was worth (applauding at everyone's entry also is a sure way to sitcom purgatory). Shows like that almost beg to be put back into single-camera mode just to force the writers to work at actually coming up with gags that are funny, since the live fan-boy crowds (with help from the sound editors) raised every gag reaction to the decibel level of standing at the end of an LAX runway.

The demographics on "Back To You" skew older than the type of show that would normally fall into that trap, and you can't picture Grammer and 'raucous' comedy in the same frame. Hopefully, the suits at Fox will get that, and not try to dumb down the show, since the network has never exactly been known for its sophisticated three-camera comedies.

Anonymous said...

It still seemed forced to me, but maybe that's pilot-itis. A bit too much preening and grandstanding. And yes, the supporting characters were often too one-note. Leave a little ambiguity. It's more interesting.

Real life seems harder to simulate on a multi-cam now vs. the MTM Show days. Now they're more concerned with pumping up the pace, pumping out the jokes, and not letting things breathe, for fear somebody with a low attention span will flip to something else. (I dare say a lot of us would flip less, if the rhythms weren't as predictable, and we were lured into the nooks and crannies of the comedy more.) Another symptom of pilot-itis: Exposition and backstory crammed down our throats. I think there were ways to make the cramming subtler. Another thing I don't like to see in a first episode - fighting (You...gasbag, etc.) between couples we don't even care about yet.

To me, Kelsey didn't seem like a local anchorman, he seemed like Frasier. He's such a good actor, couldn't he have drawn a little more from the inherent comedy in the many real life local anchors out there, towards further distancing himself from his past comedic persona? I was more impressed with Patty.

That being said, I'm still rooting for it!

NYLouOC said...

And while I agree that certain types of comedy is best performed in front of an audience, not all is. When a shows' comedy is based on the set-up-joke formula, then an audience helps, but I find that type of humour on television more difficult to watch, now. The humour seems so forced and unnatural. I loved watching Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends, but the comedy has to be REALLY good in order for that to work, I think. And it has to be a certain type of humour. A broad humour. Even broad humour, though, can be intelligent. And that's what's missing on most multi-camera shows, that tend to aim low, in this regard.

Then there is Barney Miller - started out as a multi cam show, but as Danny Arnold got more and more of a perfectionist, the shoots started getting way too long for a live audience to stay for..heck, the actors and crew people barely could make it through the lonnnnng taping sessions! BM, much like MASH,ended up having a network dictated laugh track. There is one episode in the last season ( I cannot remember which one!), however where the laugh track was (purposely?) left off. It is amazing how dull that episode was! Did Arnold do it on purpose? It would be interesting to find out! I do know that MASH actually had a couple of shows without its laugh track - the one where they are in the OR all day ('Deluge'?)-done quite deliberately by Gelbart just for that reason. The other one was 'Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?', the episode with the amnesiac pilot who thinks he is Christ - that was under orders from CBS! Apparently they didn't want to seem sacrilegious or something...

R.A. Porter said...

I wish networks and show runners would stop jamming so much exposition into pilots. I re-watched the M*A*S*H pilot a few weeks ago and was amazed that no characters were explicitly introduced and no background was provided. The episode could have been the first, the fifth, or the twentieth. Everything we needed to know was eased out through characterization.

It was a very refreshing change of pace.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

It would be interesting to find out! I do know that MASH actually had a couple of shows without its laugh track - the one where they are in the OR all day ('Deluge'?)-done quite deliberately by Gelbart just for that reason.

I'm not sure how correct I have it (I've only heard about it), but there's absolutely no laugh track in the OR scenes, either dictated by Alda early on or Gelbart, but that edict, from the beginning, remained throughout the entire series.

Al in Portland said...

I watched about half the program and gave up, not seeing anything that made me laugh.
On the other hand, I've watched Corner Gas, a Canadian import on WGN this week, and have laughed through each show.
I don't really care about "traditional" style, number of cameras or live audiences. I just want funny.

Mike said...

Well, to add to the MASH discussion, it was a Gelbart edict, from day one, not to have a laugh track during the OR scenes. He said he couldn't exactly picture people cracking up during bowel surgery....and he was right.
That being said, I never minded the laugh track in MASH. I just got used to it, and it never impeded the comedy to me. In fact, I tried watching an episode of it on DVD without the laugh track, and it just seemed strange. After growing up watching it one way, something seemed a little off.

As for Back to You....I liked it. Yes, it did feel very much like a pilot, and the supporting characters do need to be fleshed out more, but I think it has a lot of potential. I laughed a good deal of the time. I hope it continues to win its timeslot.

Dimension Skipper said...

For those who object to laugh tracks on sitcoms (and I do understand the reasons why even though I don't necessarily agree) I'd like to ask this...

How do you feel about incidental music in dramas?

To me that's just a "serious laugh track" to coin an oxymoronic phrase. Often I don't mind the incidental music, but some shows overuse it to the point where there's hardly a scene without some music playing (often too loud) to "enhance" the scene and elicit some targeted emotional viewer response.

Let me put it this way... Say that two shows, one a sitcom and one a drama, are actually real and happening in front of your eyes... And assuming they're quality in that the sitcom jokes and situations are funny and the drama scenes are touching...

Your natural reaction to the sitcom is going to be laughter anyway. Your natural reaction to the drama might be crying, but instead they play "weepy" music (not the sound of people crying!). Or if the scene is suspenseful they'll play, well, suspenseful ominous music (not people gasping or nervously tapping!).

And I'm not talking about music that might be an integrated part of a scene or even segue music, a la Boston Legal.

Not sure what my point was... except to suggest that most (if not all) fiction-based shows have "laugh tracks," just in different form.

When I start to notice the incidental music, then it's just plain too intrusive and gets out in front of the drama. Ditto for the laugh track.

I don't object to the laugh track at all, just its mis-/over-use. I generally liked The Practice, but felt they overdid the i-music at times. I once tried to watch a new Outer Limits episode and I recall thinking "Could they just do five seconds without that i-music, please?"—it was that intrusive to me.)

If a scene is written and acted well, then ideally it should hold one's interest without needing to be punctuated by this-is-how-you're-supposed-to-react music—just as if you were merely an invisible voyeuristic bystander in the actual scene.

After all, there are rarely violinists hiding behind the drapes!

Just something to think about, perhaps. I'd be curious to know how others may feel about incidental music and its possible abuse, or whether other folks even tend to notice it at all as I do.

(I'm sure many shows would seem flat without any i-music. All I'm saying is that i-music or a laugh track is a tool of the entertainment business, but like any tool it can used for good or ill. I think both should be used sparingly, but not eliminated altogether.)

R.A. Porter said...

Regarding a drama's score: watch the fifth season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Body". You'll see how much more powerful drama can be without music at every turn.

My problem with laugh tracks is that they are never used correctly. First off, if your show is "filmed before a live studio audience", the laughs you get are the laughs you get. There should be no juicing with a laugh track. Beyond that, let the audience get it on its own. If it's funny, they'll laugh. If not, your canned laughs from long-ago dead people are just showing how weak your writing really is.

I'm all for filming in front of an audience, but kill the canned laughs.

Toby said...

//I'd like to ask this...

How do you feel about incidental music in dramas?//

Usually I enjoy it; my favorites being in 'Columbo' and 'The Prisoner'. The work by Michael Giacchino (?) for 'Lost' sometimes brings me to tears - the piano is so sparse and moving.

But Murray Gold drowns everything he touches on 'Doctor Who'. And lately I've been watching old reruns of '77 Sunset Strip' on the American Life Network, and it's unbearable hwo they use the incidental music as a laugh track! Check out an episode and you'll see what I mean - every reaction shot has to be hammered home by some kind of musical zinger.

Dimension Skipper said...

Toby... Yes, I agree the new Doctor Who does indeed suffer from a too-intrusive score, but that's pretty much my only complaint with the show. There are times—and this could be partially due to my American ear poorly deciphering the English accents—when the music drowns out the dialogue and that's never good. Sorry, I'm just not familiar with the other examples you mention, but I get your drift.

R.A. Porter... I'm a big Buffy fan myself and so I know exactly what you mean about "The Body." That was probably one of the most uncomfortable to watch episodes of any program I've ever seen. Of course, I believe that was a very large part of Joss Whedon's intent.

Due to the unease it filled me with I would have to say that it was probably one of my least favorite Buffy episodes because that feeling was not offset with any of the typical Buffy-type humor. Nor should it have been due to the serious subject matter, but still... It was certainly an atypical Buffy episode.

I don't think I could even begin to watch the episode at all now since I eventually ended up in Buffy's exact position myself. So it's just not an episode I would watch as "entertainment," but I do indeed know what you mean.

Thanks for the responses. I'd still be curious to hear other views (including yours, Mr. Levine, if you have any thoughts on the subject especially with regard to sitcoms). I often hear/read folks griping about sitcom laugh tracks, but I rarely (if ever) find anyone mentioning the role of incidental music in dramas even though to my mind it serves an analogous purpose and is often misused as well.

Dimension Skipper said...

Oh, I forgot... I do watch Lost, but it's been so long since an episode has been on I can't honestly say I recall anything about the incidental music. Which probably means it's done right!

Also, in addition to Buffy I was an Angel fan as well and that was a show where I thought they absolutely perfected the incidental music! They used it very sparingly, if at all, and even in scenes where it was present it was never so intrusive as to overly draw attention to it. ...All in my opinion, of course.

Anonymous said...

From the UK. Clever writing- that double meaning section reminded me of The Two Ronnies but the canned laughter killed it for me.

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