Because I'm a sucker for sitcoms, and because there's not much new on TV these days, I've watched all three episodes of CBS' low-rated, pretty-much-ignored-by-everyone Welcome To The Captain. I wish I could tell you that it's some kind of buried gem, and that you all should tune in immediately and Save This Show, but the truth is that tonight's episode will be my last. The "40% funny" of the pilot slipped to 20% in the second week, and 10% this week, and even given the paucity of original scripted series right now, one weak chuckle every half-hour isn't really a good time investment.
The thing about sitcoms is that sometimes they take a few weeks to really get rolling, so a promising pilot followed by a few bum episodes doesn't necessarily mean the show is dead. In recent years, both 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother took a while to build up momentum—though the former had too much going for it from the start to just abandon, and the latter I actually did dump after episode two, only to return a couple of months later when reliable friends of mine told me the show had gotten a lot better.
Still, it's hard for me to watch any new TV show lately—and any new sitcom especially—without thinking about the little-watched Bravo reality series The Next Great Sitcom, and without thinking about The TV Set, Jake Kasdan's mildly amusing but highly watchable 2007 indie film about a talented writer-producer played by David Duchovny, and his struggle to guide his latest series through pilot season without too many changes imposed by the network suits. After watching The Next Great Sitcom's contestants get their scripts run through the mill of "punch-up" joke writers, and watching The TV Set's Duchovny suffer through the audience-testing process, I now tend to blame every lame laugh-line and every predictable story element in a TV pilot on the gears of production, not on the creators. Those creators typically hold out hope that if they go to series they'll get to regain control and make the show they planned to make from the start, and similarly, I often hope that the more offbeat or poignantly realistic elements of a show will eventually win out over the stuff that's safe and blandly fakey.
Unfortunately, it doesn't help Welcome To The Captain's cause that its star is Fran Kranz, who also appears in The TV Set as an ambitious young actor unduly sympathetic to the network's attempt to dumb-down Duchovny's show. I'm sure Kranz is a decent dude, but I can't see him now without picturing him in The TV Set doing funny voices and exaggerated hand gestures during his more serious scenes. And it doesn't help Kranz's cause that his character in Welcome To The Captain is an aspiring movie director living in an apartment complex filled with agents, writers, holistic healers, vamps and ingenues. Welcome To The Captain is set in that same vapid world that The TV Set inhabits, but it's also plainly a product of that world.
In the three episodes of The Captain I watched, there were glimpses of a potentially entertaining show. Well, one consistent glimpse anyway: Jeffrey Tambor, playing a former writer for Three's Company (which he refers to a "T-Co"), positions his character as an overly chummy, semi-agoraphobic idler who amuses himself by meddling in the lives of his fellow tenants. A few of his quirks—like the way he keeps another apartment in the same building as his "vacation getaway"—are odd enough to be interesting. They're sitcom-y quirks, but Tambor really sells them, and over the course of, I don't know, maybe 10 episodes or so, the Captain creators might've been able to build those quirks into a unique comic universe, a la 30 Rock and Arrested Development. But Welcome To The Captain is halfway through a six-episode order, without much hope of making it past that first six, so there's not much reason to expect that the people behind the show will ever make proper use of their best asset.
Ultimately, Welcome To The Captain is neither good enough or bad enough to give much thought in and of itself. But its mediocrity is part of larger problem with the TV development process—namely that the networks' pilot-to-pickup-to-tryout favors the conventional. The "acquired taste" shows have a hard time competing with the flatly competent shows, especially since the latter are so amenable to the suggestions of the businessfolk. The "vacationing in another apartment in the same building" bit in Welcome To The Captain may be unreal, but it's unreal in a likeably goofy way. I'll take that over the scene in the series' second episode which has Kranz getting turned off by a girl he likes because he sees her brush her teeth. Seinfeld could pull off a gag like that because it would play off the absurd fussiness of its characters. Post-Seinfeld, using tooth-brushing as a romantic deal-breaker feels stupidly contrived, primarily because the creators apparently take it seriously. In the real world, no-one ditches potential mates because watching them brush their teeth "destroys the mystery." Only in image-obsessed Hollywood would someone think such a plot point would qualify as "funny because it's true."
What finally checked me out of The Captain for good is the final scene of tonight's episode, in which Kranz decides to expose his embarrassing side to his love interest by letting her paw through his trash, which contains a doodle of a lightsaber battle, a used Secret deodorant stick, and a ticket stub for David Hasselhoff in The Producers. "I think we have a pretty good idea who I am now," Kranz says to her sheepishly. Only we really don't, because there's nothing we've seen in any of the first three episodes to indicate that Kranz is especially nerdy, effete, or kitschy. Those things are in his character's trash because they're someone's generic idea of "embarrassing," not because they have anything to do with who this dude is supposed to be.
I may not have "a pretty good idea" about Kranz, but based on what its pulled out the trash so far, I think I know what Welcome To The Captain is. The question now is whether the disruption of the writer's strike, and the need to rush product onto the air, is going to mean more sitcoms just like it next fall.