Sit Down, Shut Up premieres tonight at 7:30pm Central time
In this week’s A.V. Talk, Steve Heisler and I defended Sit Down, Shut Up against Keith and Nathan, neither of whom much cared for the new animated effort from Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz. And early reviews have been decidedly mixed, leaning toward negative. It’s a little disconcerting that something so divisive could come from the same source as something so unequivocally adored—though I have to wonder how much Arrested Development’s long shadow has darkened critics’ views of Sit Down, Shut Up.
But perhaps the fact that the show isn’t an automatic critical darling—which almost always translates to “early cancellation”—will keep it on the air long enough for it to work out some of its kinks and live up to its potential. Because the pedigree is certainly there, in both the creative team and the voice cast; and although the characters are far too broadly drawn right now—a problem summed up in the show’s meta “catchphrase” gag—I think they have the potential to become a little more, ahem, three-dimensional over time. Given the size of the ensemble cast and the short running time—not to mention the restrictions of the animated format, which as Steve points out in the podcast, is limiting as far as reaction and interplay between characters goes—I think the pilot provided a good crash course in the various misanthropes that comprise the staff of Knob Haven high school.
That’s not to say there’s not some tweaking that needs to be done. I wonder how cognizant the writers of Sit Down, Shut Up were when they penned the line “I’m not going to test well” for bisexual drama teacher Andrew LeGustambos (Nick Kroll), easily the most painfully clichéd character and the source of most of the episode’s biggest clunkers. Oh really, the mincing fancy boy who teaches drama and coaches the cheerleading team is queer?? Oh no you di’nt. And the sad-sack German teacher voiced by Henry Winkler, Willard Deutschebog, is as bland as a lettuce sandwich on white bread. (Though his line, “God, why didn’t I sign up for the Internet when I had the chance,” was worth a halfhearted chuckle.)
Some characters get by on voice performance alone, such as Cheri Oteri’s fiercely unappealing librarian, Helen Klench, and especially Will Forte as oblivious “Ass Principal” (HAR!) Stuart Proszakian. (I realize Oteri’s over-the-top carping will probably turn some people off, but I dug it.) English teacher Ennis Hofftard is essentially Gob Bluth, apparently the only character Will Arnett cares to play these days—which is fine for now, but without the blatantly insecure physical presence to counteract the unearned bravado of his words that Gob had, Arnett’s shtick could become stale quickly here. Keenan Thompson’s cynical principal Sue Sezno (wordplay!) had her moments—“Keep up the weird work” made me giggle—but overall the character was pretty expected.
At this very early juncture, the two best drawn characters are unwilling P.E. teacher Larry Littlejunk (Jason Bateman, comfortable in his role as the straight man) and flighty science teacher Miracle Grohe (a perfectly cast Kristin Chenoweth). Actually, Miracle Grohe is a little confusing at this point—her anti-creationism and bumper stickers suggest a fundamentalist, but her hippy-dippy spirituality, such as asking the stars to determine what sort of drugs had been found in a student’s locker, skews away from that. Her catch-all mysticism is obviously constructed as a foil to practical Larry, and while it’s funny at this point—science, the subject she teaches, is “just a bunch of voodoo the Jews came up with so they can charge us for medicine and stuff”—I hope she doesn’t become an easy punching bag for spirituality of any stripe. But it’s Bateman and Chenoweth that sell these characters—Bateman’s beleaguered tone fits his character perfectly, and Chenoweth’s Broadway past is evident in the enthusiasm she lends to so-so lines. (“You man you!”)
I’m staying optimistic that the characters are going to get fleshed out in upcoming episodes, because this is obviously going to be a character-based ensemble comedy. The plot of the pilot—the Knob Haven Baiters have to win the football game so that the alumni will “donate” funding, or else one teacher is going to get fired—was basically just a vehicle to introduce the various eccentricities of the staff as they all tried to show Principal Sezno they weren’t expendable. It was also a platform for the Arrested Development-like meta humor that’s apparently going to pervade the show: Larry’s story of how Miracle earned her position begged for a flashback that never came; Helen bursting in with the time capsule she spent the episode digging for elicited a cry of “Oooh, the B story!” from Miracle; and the aforementioned catchphrase shtick worked in fits and starts.
I’m curious to see how Sit Down, Shut Up fits into the FOX Sunday night animation lineup. Its non-sequitur, gag-based humor is certainly in line with the MacFarlane contingent (and, let’s face it, The Simpsons too), but it exists outside the family sitcom dynamic that defines all the other shows that surround it. This, combined with its frankly unappealing animation style—which screams “Adult Swim” to me—gives it a weird air of unwholesomeness, which is saying something when the show following it regularly uses rape, AIDS, and aborted fetuses as comic fodder. But there’s something about Sit Down, Shut Up that feels scrappy and a little bit mean, a somewhat in-your-face disregard for acceptance that’s refreshing in the midst of a couple of long-running shows that frequently coast by on their audience’s goodwill. It’s a big “we’ll see” at this point, but I’m optimistic. How about you?
• Sophomoric gags like Ennis’ “bag of nuts”: ironically sophomoric, or actually sophomoric? This will become an important distinction as the show continues.
• I loved that weird, a capella cutaway music for some reason.
• For those of you unfamiliar with Kristin Chenoweth, she’s actually a devout Christian (she was the inspiration for the Harriet Hayes character on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, if that means anything to anyone), which makes me like her character even more. I like it when religious people are willing to laugh at the way society perceives them.
• In case you’re wondering, Sit Down, Shut Up will be getting regular TV club coverage as part of the Sunday night lineup for the time being.