TV 101: Goofus And Gallant, TV-Style
'Highlights' was one of the few pleasures of my childhood trips to the dentist's office, the others being the toy at the end of the visit and a dentist who had a very liberal nitrous policy. Every six months, I spent an hour split between enjoying the games and puzzles in 'Highlights' and burning a hole through my stomach-lining with dentist-inspired fear.
One feature of 'Highlights' that always stood out to me was "Goofus and Gallant": a teaching aid using two brothers, one of whom always did everything wrong - Goofus - and one who always did everything right - Gallant.
Since most TV executives are like children anyway, I figured the "Goofus and Gallant" model would be ideal to teach them a few things about how to improve their product.
Goofus: Charlie Harper ('Two and a Half Men')
I have a lot of friends who like 'Two and a Half Men' and I kind of get it. If I were in prison and somebody switched the only TV in the rec-room to 'Two and a Half Men,' I probably wouldn't risk a shanking by changing the channel. It's got some funny moments and it works in the most sitcommy of sitcom ways.
That said, Charlie's character is a lousy, half-hearted copy of Sam Malone. I don't want to say Charlie is one-note but (puts on Dennis Miller wig) he makes Philip Glass look like John Philip Sousa. Charlie is a male Mona from 'Who's the Boss' - a sexualized character for whom sex exists solely as a punch line and is therefore, ironically, never really all that funny.
Gallant: Hank Moody ('Californication')
Like Charlie Harper, Hank Moody is an LA hedonist who uses his career in the arts to laze and lay his way through life.
Unlike Charlie, Hank doesn't exist just to have sex and spout punch lines. He's a multi-dimensional character whose sex addiction is just one way you can get to know him. Sex on 'Californication' is used for much better purposes than on 'Two and a Half Men' for two reasons: 1) it expands the character rather than defines the character and 2) Showtime = Full Frontal -- which might seem childish to note until you remember that Eva Amurri was naked for a lot of last season, causing me to accelerate my evolution and wind up floating in space as the Star Child.
Goofus: Jessie Spano does caffeine pills ('Saved by the Bell')
It's hard to even bring up 'Saved by the Bell' after Sean O'Neal's fabulous deconstruction of those who deconstruct the show, but this episode is still worth mentioning if only because it represents the very worst kind of "Very Special Episode".
Like all VSE's of that era, Jessie does something dangerous (CAFFEINE!), gets addicted, psychotically sings 'I'm So Excited,' gets a talking to, then gets cleaned up. If you were like me, watching Jessie descend into an "addiction" to a drug you actually couldn't get addicted to made you want to go out and do some angel dust just to spite the producers. Jessie's Song took a real problem - drug addiction - and so sugar coated it that it was not only ineffective as an anti-drug message, it was ineffective as any kind of recreation of a recognizable human reality.
Gallant: Tom Hanks drinks vanilla extract ('Family Ties')
The key to doing a Very Special Episode is acting, which is why (puts Dennis Miller wig back on) most VSEs suck worse than Dennis Miller's two years on 'Monday Night Football'.
The average sitcom actor uses a pretty limited range of acting tools: basically, hit mark, say funny line, hit next mark, repeat until commercial. When a VSE pops up and they're asked to emote more than snark, the result is typically pretty pedestrian.
What makes Ned Donnelly, Elyse's younger brother and closet alcoholic, so effective as a VSE vessel is that the guy playing him could actually act. Rather than ask Tina Yothers or Justine Bateman to descend Tony-Stark-style into alcoholism for an episode, the producers wisely brought in Tom Hanks, a future Academy Award winner. Watch Hanks dance between comedy and drama and then compare it to Jessie singing.
Goofus: 'Smallville' enters its 40th Season
There should be a wind-chill factor for TV shows where, instead of giving the actual season number, we give you the season number it feels like. For instance, 'Community' is on season three already because it hit the ground running and already feels like a well-oiled machine of a show. 'Smallville' is on season 40 because every time I catch an episode, I feel like everyone on it gives a heavy, resigned sigh before and after every scene.
This is a show that's creaking. Louldly.
If Warner Brothers had handled 'Smallville' properly, it would have ended season five with Tom Welling in the blue, red, and yellow, ready to fly right into a revitalized Superman film franchise. Instead we got Brandon Routh and endless seasons of slight profitability for 'Smallville'. Way to go, Warner Brothers!
Gallant: 'Lost's' sixth season
I caught a lot of baloney in the comments last week for saying that 'Lost' is like a loveless marriage. And though I'm well known for not standing for any baloney, I was impressed by the passion 'Lost' lovers still have for the show.
So, this week, I come to praise 'Lost' and ABC: instead of milking the fanbase into perpetuity like 'Smallville' is doing, 'Lost' is actually trying to finish the story the proper way. In order to do this, they gave up the money that two or three more seasons might have brought them - a feat that requires a rare kind of willpower in Hollywood.
I'd say that the success 'Lost' is having in its last year might help more American TV shows to begin with the end in sight, but we all know that probably won't happen. It's a nice thought, though, and the Gallant way of doing things.
Germany update: if you're seeing the column, it means that I got the internet to work here in Ansbach, Germany. If you're not seeing this column, then how did you know what I just wrote? (Blew your mind right there, didn't I?) The tour is going great and I'm getting to meet a lot of very nice young men and women who are far, far braver than me. If any TV Squadders are US Army stationed over here, I hope to see you out at a show!
(Jay Black is a comedian and writer who really hopes you enjoy this column. For more information about Jay or to catch a live show, check out his website: www.jayblackcomedy.net.)