Because I used to cover the Fox Sunday Animation block—which Todd VanDerWerff has been doing quite splendidly—my DVR is still set to record all the shows. And even though I had read the news that episodes of Sit Down, Shut Up were going to be burned off late on Saturday nights, I was still surprised when I noticed a new episode had popped up amidst my other recordings. I never considered SDSU appointment TV, but curiosity got the best of me, and I popped in every few Sunday mornings to see what the show was up to. It didn't seem like much had changed. Despite a stacked cast and Mitch Hurwitz behind the wheel, I still wasn't quite clear what the show was trying to do; there were a few promising plots lost in a compound of cheap jokes and half-formed characters, even for animated TV. By all metrics, it was time to give up—at one point, in lieu of a two-minute commercial, Fox simply aired its logo, which made me think that even the most modest of cheap advertisers had abandoned ship.
So it was with reservations that I checked out last night's series finale, for a show I wanted so badly to like from the get-go. A few weeks ago, I chatted with Nick Kroll, who voices the show's bi/a /huh-sexual Andrew, and asked him how the show could have gone so wrong. He said it might have to do with a combination of the show not getting a chance to grow, and that people's unrealistically high expectations for the next Arrested Development were clouding their judgment. Thus it pains me to report that his theory is only partially true: At least as far as this episode is concerned, SDSU seems to have overcome those expectations and become comfortable in its own skin; problem is, the show is still riddled with distracting faults.
The most prevalent one in "High School Musical Musical" is one that even early episodes hinted at: an overreliance on meta humor, with the joke being that they're making a joke about making a joke. In this regard, last night's plot wasn't doing anyone any favors. After staging a slew of failed plays like a Reservoir Dogs/Peanuts mash-up, Andrew and Helen—who "mysteriously" always find themselves stepping in for the leads just in time for opening night—are given one more shot to produce something good, or Sue is tearing down the theater. Fresh out of ideas, the two decide to write something about their own experiences in the high school, play themselves, and cast their fellow teachers in roles like the lovelorn gym teacher and uptight, overweight principal. It's High School Musical Musical (A Musical), and thus nearly every joke pokes fun at one of the characters. It'd be fine if there was more to these guys than essentially one-word character descriptions, so after what feels like the millionth double entendre joke and/or joke about saying a lot of double entendres, I was ready to punch something. And it doesn't stop there: The meta universe from which the show draws its jokes has increased to include the outside world too, with Jason Bateman's Larry Littlejunk (ugh) name-checking his former show by saying something to the effect of, "We can't be stuck in arrested development forever," and Kristin Chenoweth's Miracle being told she could play the lead in Wicked.
Meta humor works when there's enough of a show history to draw on. Arrested Development had it, but didn't decidedly go to that well until at least the second season. SDSU did it right out of the gate, and while yes, the show has now embraced it as an omnipresent humor style, it still doesn't click.
The rest of the plot, though, wasn't half bad. Sue learns that when Ennis is drunk, he's really good at trivia, so he sends him with the school's quiz bowl team to compete. Sure, he answers some questions correctly, but a slurry Ennis also gives 60 points to see one of the other team's members with her top off. The points are actually subtracted and the girl actually obliges—it's this kind of joke commitment that makes most of this subplot actually work. The other small side story has to do with Helen getting kicked out of the production, and aligning herself with Happy to get back at Andrew. This at least pulls Happy into the fold, where he can play the enjoyable punching bag he should have been from the start, with moments like the exchange, "Happy! You're from a place where people do violent things at the drop of a hat." "Tampa?" It's not enough to hinge an entire episode on, but the quick humor was at least not as expected as many of the other jokes.
So the show never became an Arrested Development, and that's obviously fine. But I can't help but still feel disappointed with it. To set a talented showrunner, writing staff, and cast on a bloated collection of gags seems like a waste of talent. So what actually happened? I'm sure misguided expectations were a part of it, but for the life of me, I can't shake a feeling I had way early on, before the show even premiered. I was lucky enough to get to talk to both Henry Winkler and Will Arnett in conjunction with the show's premiere, so I did some research beforehand by watching the electronic press kit included with the screener of the pilot episode. It contained a bunch of interviews with Hurwitz and company, and footage of a few of the table reads. It should have been awesome, but man was it a downer. Hurwitz was struggling to say anything at all about the new show, only mustering pretty unenthusiastically that it was a show about teachers in a school. The cast was the same way; the lack of excitement was palpable. I sure hope I'm wrong, and that perhaps they just happened to catch the guys and gals on an off day or something for the interview. But the feeling that this show was nothing more than a half-hearted experiment lingers with me to this day. I still love Hurwitz and everyone involved with the show; I guess I just feel like the show let us fans down.
Knowing Fox, though, expect another try in a few years.