An exceptional TV show these days is David Steinberg’s Inside Comedy series on Showtime or streamed via the Showtime Anytime app. It’s simply an interview format and guests range the generations from Carl Reiner to Sarah Silverman, none of whom are new to TV interviews. So it’s what Steinberg brings to the usual chair-to-chair format that sets this series apart. A former stand-up comedian from the 1960s, Steinberg’s comedy features non-snarky, smart, observational funny delivered with gentility. He’s also a very successful comedy series director with shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You, Designing Women, Evening Shade and so on, which means the man knows how to bring out the best from his actors. In addition to asking the right doorknob questions, Steinberg gets the viewer into the guest’s process which you don’t see often on other interview shows – which is why it’s properly called ‘inside’ comedy. This series, plus Fonda and Tomlin’s Gace and Frankie and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee are what makes the streaming world a valuable alternative to reality show-based broadcast options.
While we’re on the subject of Davids, David Duchovny is the only reason to watch the police procedural, Aquarius on NBC. Exceptional acting is often about just listening and Duchovny is a master class in listening. However, Duchovny is the ONLY reason to watch this show. Aquarius is set in the 1960s and in an apparent attempt to give the show an appropriate ‘tone,’ some chichi executives added a dusky gray, soft visual look to the show which doesn’t give tone so much as it gives dim and hard to see. Then there’s the casting of the Charles Manson character. Gethin Anthony seems to be a perfectly fine actor but he’s just not the right choice to play the real-life cult leader. Manson’s entire shtick was an exaggerated, fierce-eyed hippie spouting amorphous babble for maximum scary effect. Maybe it’s this actor’s hesitation of going too big, too caricature for the small screen. But that’s Manson’s unique essence which makes it a much more compelling acting choice then the common one delivered here. Missed opportunity.
Conversely, there is a no more bold and magnetic acting choice than the one Portia De Rossi makes as the hyper-alert boss in Better Off Ted, an office-based half-hour comedy series that aired for only two seasons on ABC in 2009 and now on streaming. The show got crackerjack reviews; Entertainment Weekly called it “The most original sitcom to come along in a while.” Newsday: delightfully “oddball.” The New York Times: a “charmingly offbeat” satirical poke at corporate America which is the R&D department of Veridian Dynamics a huge conglomerate that’s forever bringing good things to life such as carnivorous shoes, popcorn that pops in your mouth, a man-eating ficus, cow-less beef and a people-skinning laser system. This is comedy satire at its best and it works because show creator Victor Fresco has the ability to make the absurd sound perfectly reasonable.
And it takes skilled actors to play screwball comedy like this without cartooning. There’s always one normal character in a goofy mix, the fulcrum around whom everything pivots. He’s the narrator who comments and guides viewers through the mayhem. In the 1940s it’s an incredulous Cary Grant. The fulcrum role here falls to Jay Harrington who projects a resigned acceptance of the chaos around him. It’s the casting of riveting de Rossi along with Malcom Barrett and Jonathon Slavin as uber-nerd scientists with a need to over-analyze everything that puts this discarded series back on the must-see list.
Caveat: the second season begins to sag in what appears to be a re-tooling effort by producers to make the De Rossi character nicer which only succeeds in diminishing the essential comedic friction of the show. This is the same miscalculation producers made with Carroll O’Connor on Archie Bunker’s Place.