It's something of a crying shame that the new comedy getting the most attention tonight (buzz-wise, though certainly not critically), and which almost certainly will attract the widest audience (of morbidly curious rubber-neckers, but who's counting) is by far the least worthy of attention or respect.
We're talking, of course, about Anger Management, bowing on FX with back-to-back episodes (9/8c) following a 12-hour marathon of Two and a Half Men repeats (starting at 9 am/8c) selected — so we're told — by Charlie Sheen himself. He's now trying to make nice with the legacy of the hit show he left in tatters and relentlessly trashed as he embarked on an exhibitionistic meltdown that has led to this thing, this would-be cash cow in sitcom clothing, which isn't so much a show as it is a deal.
A raw deal for those who tune in, I might add. This too-soon comeback vehicle is one of the most cynical projects ever calculated to cash in on a fallen star's notoriety. It may be good business — for FX and for the production company that plans to muscle the show into instant syndication, cranking out 90 more episodes if the first 10 are successful enough (which seems depressingly likely) — but that doesn't make it good TV. With its deafening laugh track and its banal barrage of gamy insult humor, it intrudes on FX's otherwise distinctive comedy lineup like an obnoxious drunk uncle who's not as funny as he thinks he is.
Self-consciously smarmy as it winks and leers at Sheen's bad-boy reputation — the opening gag is a self-reflective groaner that stops just before its "winning" punchline — Anger (related to the Adam Sandler movie in name only) finds Sheen once again playing a not-very-sorry Charlie, a former athlete and divorced dad with anger issues who's trying to redeem himself as an anger therapist counseling wacky groups at home and in prison. (Cue those gay inmate jokes!) As usual, Sheen's comic timing is sharp, even with this calcified material, but the chemistry is flaccid and icky with his leading ladies: Shawnee Smith as his smug ex and Selma Blair sleepwalking through the tasteless role of a therapist he's bedding in between sessions.
Somewhat more intriguing, for sitcom historians anyway, are the scenes featuring Brett Butler (another ravaged sitcom veteran who hit bottom in a Chuck Lorre show) as a jaded bartender who needles Charlie. Her show I might watch. The fact that hype alone could make Anger Management a hit is enough to make the blood boil.
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But wait. This isn't the only affront to comedy perpetrated by FX tonight. The network has inexplicably given a late-night platform to the egregiously self-impressed Brit nitwit Russell Brand, and if there's any justice, Brand X With Russell Brand (11/10c) will be as quickly forgotten as his blink-and-you-missed-it union with Katy Perry.
Strutting in front of a live audience like a comedy rock star, Brand bombs instantly with an interminable riff about his favorite subject — himself — which goes on for nearly seven minutes. He desperately and ineffectually tries to wring humor from media reports about his meeting with the Dalai Lama, who embodies the theme of "spiritual principles" to which Brand devotes the rest of his numbing half-hour diatribe. You may not be surprised to learn that a Charlie Sheen shout-out figures into this rather incoherent discussion of cultural icons. That's what's called being "on message." I'm not sure what message Brand X is trying to convey, but when he jokingly begs the audience to "Hear me out — then throw me out," I'm sure anyone still watching and listening will be more than willing to comply. (Besides, wouldn't you really rather be spending time with Jon Stewart? Need I ask?)
What's most aggravating about these blemishes on FX's usually high-aiming track record is that it pulls focus from the show we should all be celebrating.
NOW FOR THE GOOD COMEDY NEWS: Which brings us to the remarkable Louie (10:30/9:30c), which I've been referring to as "Seinfeld with a chronic migraine" even before learning that Jerry Seinfeld will be appearing in a story arc later in this third season. I'm sure that will be terrific, but this masterful character study of a midlife comedian's melancholy misadventures is pretty marvelous even without such stunt casting. Writer/director/star Louis C.K. brilliantly juggles moods from slow-burn exasperation (at indecipherable parking signs) to sheepish befuddlement (towards a girlfriend who forces a breakup while he stares in miserable silent incomprehension) as he assembles a life's worth of material while going through his dour paces.
At ease delivering off-color material on the stand-up stage, Louie's at sea in the world of relationships — as in next week's hilarious episode, when he finds himself on an outrageous set-up blind date with an explosively aggressive Melissa Leo (a guest-performance Emmy contender if I've ever seen one). In future weeks, he travels to Miami and embarks on an awkwardly touching bromance with a Cuban-American lifeguard, and then, after being badgered by his adorable daughters to find a girlfriend, becomes smitten by fetchingly mercurial bookstore clerk Parker Posey (her most appealing role in ages) in a multi-episode romantic escapade tinged with the freewheeling urban anxiety of upper-tier Woody Allen.
This season, circumstances compel Louie to buy a motorcycle, but nothing is an easy ride for this balding, flabby, sweat-prone and insecure clown. Louie isn't exactly what you'd call a joy ride, but there's joy to be had in its pungent authenticity, the element so sorely lacking in Anger Management. (I wish I could be as rapturous about FX's other Thursday night comedy, the perverse talking-dog fantasy Wilfred, now in its second season at 10/9c, but the one-joke premise leaves me cold, though I know it has its champions.)
More happy tidings, and a DVR alert, as MTV brings back the blissfully irreverent yet heartfelt teen-angst romantic comedy Awkward for a second season, airing directly opposite Louie at 10:30/9:30c. More grounded and less cartoonish than Suburgatory, and even more of a scream, the show resumes with the put-upon Jenna (the terrific Ashley Rickards) declaring, "I am done with secrets." Good luck with that, because she still hasn't figured out how to tell her current beau (Brett Davern) that her former and still sorta-kinda flame is also his best bud (Beau Mirchoff). At home, Jenna is still reeling from the betrayal of learning that her own mom sent the anonymous wake-up letter that sent her into her downward spiral. The spirit of John Hughes lives on in this rowdy ensemble of insecure spazzes and delightfully fresh mean girls (yes, we're talking about you, Sadie).
Finally, if this week's Olympic swimming trials have whetted your appetite for next month's London Games, BBC America delivers a satirical treat in the uncannily topical Twenty Twelve, which is like The Office (original flavor) set loose amid the fumbling bureaucracy of a hapless "Olympics Deliverance Commission," tasked to promote and prepare for the games. (The scheduling is unusually aggressive, so take note: The first three episodes air tonight starting at 9/8c, then the show moves to its regular Saturday night time period at midnight/11c, with two more back-to-back episodes, barreling through the show's two seasons.)
Downton Abbey's great Hugh Bonneville stars as the super-stressed "Head of Deliverance" Ian Fletcher, whose superbly polished double-speak and warped gift for reverse logic comes in handy as he oversees a staff of self-important incompetents — none more fatuous than Jessica Hynes' p.r. brand manager — as they bungle a cavalcade of excruciating calamities. The farcical plots involve such matters as a malfunctioning countdown clock (an incident echoed in real life), traffic that ensnares a visiting delegation from Rio, a wind turbine that lacks the wind to operate, and personnel screw-ups that invariably lead to the least appropriate person getting the job. In other words, business as usual, but set against the backdrop of national pride, making Twenty Twelve bracingly daring in its gold-medal comedy.
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