Sometimes, all it takes is one minor element to make an episode of TV enjoyable. In the case of tonight's episode of The Good Guys, that one minor element was Bradley Whitford's absolutely ridiculous Italian accent. His character had affected it when he went deep undercover with a bunch of mob guys years ago, and now that he runs into them again, he re-adopts it. It's a tremendously funny bit of business, and Whitford makes the most out of the way that it morphs and shifts from a pretty goofy accent but a vaguely plausible one to something completely ridiculous, all the while his targets having no idea that he's an undercover cop. It's a very, very ludicrous plot point, and Whitford just plays the hell out of it, which makes it that much funnier. Some of you think I take this show too seriously or something, but I loved the way this played out.
I suspect I'll be in the minority, though. My wife thought she couldn't bear a full hour of Whitford playing a cop playing an over-the-top gangster and bailed early on. And I've seen a number of folks saying that the performance struck them as one of those things that was too far over-the-top, like when Dan beat up the computer in the second episode. I don't disagree with my wife or those other people, but I found the whole thing pretty hilarious, and it enlivened even a number of scenes that were otherwise pretty clumsy or boring and expositional. Whitford has been sinking his teeth into this role from day one, but this is his "Emmy tape," for lack of a better word (not that he'll ever be nominated for an Emmy for this show, since it's so far under everyone's radar). It's a big, gutsy performance that risks a lot and makes most of it pay off.
Unfortunately, it's in the midst of an episode that doesn't always work. Again, there are probably too many people running around on the bad guys side of the coin for the villains' storyline to really make sense. You've got the (fake) mobsters that Dan is hanging out with, the pharmacy bandits, and the vandals, all of whom fit into the narrative in one way or another. Now, the vandals are basically unimportant to the story as a whole, but when they turn up to figure into the episode's conclusion, it took my mind a minute to scramble and remember, "Oh, right. Vandalism." The show has gotten so used to having a million moving parts that it sometimes outguesses itself. In this case, I think the show felt that Dan and Jack had to apprehend some actual bad guys, so that was why there were pharmacy bandits (since the mobsters weren't actually bad guys but innocent people that Dan had accidentally turned into criminals), and it was necessary that Dan and Jack not be on the pharmacy case—to keep up their unpopularity within the department—so that was why there were vandals. But the whole thing, again, felt like it was a bit too complex for its own good.
Still, the pleasures of The Good Guys come from the little moments. Going to "Layla" for the classic rock number of the week in a mob-themed episode could have been cliche, but it was used with the show's usual verve. All of the scenes where Dan hung out with the guys he thought were mobsters were funny, as the script treated them so goofily that they became blatant parodies of other, more famous mobster scenes. And the whole sequence with Dan and Jack in the bar was fantastic, as the two talked about nothing in particular, and the captions on the screen kept getting edited, that we might better know just how many drinks the guys had had. The plot was a little too convoluted this week, to be sure, but those issues paled in comparison to the fact that the show is figuring out the best ways to give solid laughs to all of its (male) characters. That wasn't the case in some of the earlier episodes, and it suggests that the show is starting its self-improvement projects in the most important places.
That said, more broadly, I do wonder if this show is even going to be around long enough to reach that place where it's the kicky bit of weekly fun it clearly wants to be. The ratings for the show are abysmal, and it doesn't seem to be picking up much of a fan following. Even here, where I was certain the show would pick up some really strong fans, it struggles to get much in the way of page views or comments. I've been theorizing about just what keeps the show from breaking through in a big way for a few weeks now, but the show not only hasn't broken through with the general audience, it doesn't seem to have broken through with a cult audience either, which is odd, since a cult audience would seem to be a natural for this series.
I think the issue is that the shows the show is drawn from—the cop shows of the '70s and '80s—have never really gone away. Their DNA is still prevalent in the DNA of most of the shows on the CBS lineup (not to mention numerous shows on the other networks). Burn Notice—a show that's very similar to this one—succeeded because the shows it was gently mocking were shows that weren't anywhere else on the lineup. For a show making fun of the cop shows littering the landscape to work, it would have to be more of an overt parody, and The Good Guys is really trying to have its cake and eat it too. It's a parody of cop shows, but it's also actually a cop show, where you can play along at home and try to see how all of the plots come together. Reading over that again, it sounds like a show I would really like, but there's too much about the show from week to week that flails around for it to really start to build the momentum it would need to get more people saying, "You know this show you're not watching? It's really great, and you should be watching it." It either needs to go more balls-out with the action or more balls-out with the comedy; it's trying to play it too safe.
The Good Guys is off the air after next week. I have no idea if we'll continue coverage of it when it returns in the fall (even though I've now heard from multiple sources—including one of you—that the back half of the season is much more consistent than the front half). I continue to think it's worth watching this show struggle to find itself, but I'm more and more convinced that its struggle is the sort only TV-heads would be interested in or obsessed with. And that's a problem, since most people just want entertainment that's not too arch. The rest of us, though, just want to see Bradley Whitford speak in a ridiculous Italian accent, and that will be enough.
- "That there is why we can't be a great team like Starsky and Hutch and Nixon and Agnew and BJ and the Bear."
- "You can't know a man until you know his taste in cartoon ladies."
- "Nobody told me the rule about not mixing a cold medicine with the tropical rums!"