Mr. Sunshine, “Employee of the Year” and Traffic Light, “En Fuego”

When I wrote this piece earlier in the week about my frustrations with television comedy criticism, I had series like Mr. Sunshine and Traffic Light in mind. I wrote up some thoughts on the Mr. Sunshine pilot last week because I randomly had a lot of people asking for my thoughts on it, but I never got around to discussing Traffic Light‘s opening salvo. In general, I found that pilot episode to be a lot like the Sunshine opener: Promising elements, not a lot of cohesion.* After watching both series’ second episodes, I found myself with lacking anything too much to say past the normal platitudes.

*There I go, fulfilling the television critic stereotype.

Therefore, I figured I’ll use these two episodes and this post to reinforce the thesis from that long and wandering article. As I wrote there, I don’t really know what the value is in tackling long-form reviews of still-gestating comedies, particularly ones that aren’t fully awful or pretty damn good. It would have been pretty easy to write thoughts on the second episode of Outsourced because it was so noticeably bad that there was enough to grab on to. Perhaps the same could have been said for something like Modern Family on the opposite end of the spectrum. But in general, when a comedy series is still figuring out its voice and figuring how to work with the characters — and the full writing staff even — reviews of second episodes more or less serve to highlight the little moments where things might be improving or devolving further. I guess that’s something, but without dramatic changes, which both “Employee of the Year” and “En Fuego” lack, there isn’t a lot to process.

Take these two episodes for example. “Employee of the Year” is more or less a retread of the Mr. Sunshine pilot, down to the basic backbone of the story — Ben experiences a personal milestone, gets frustrated — with a few new shadings to it. Ben is a bit more defined here and there’s a sense that the crusty facade is actually covering for his general care for what happens at the Sunshine Center. And kind of surprisingly, Nick Jonas’ guest turn as the slight variation on the egotistical teen pop star was pretty darn good. I mentioned in my review of the pilot that the series could be really fun if it figured out how to cycle through some fun and zany guest stars who could perform at the arena and Jonas’ Eli Cutler is much, much better than the circus. Matthew Perry can riff off of anyone, if his work her with Jonas is any indication.

So yeah, there are things to like here, just like last week. But outside of Perry and Allison Janney’s general insanity, but Mr. Sunshine is still a mess and not overly funny.

Traffic Light‘s second episode is a larger step up from its pilot, which was by my account generally bad, that still isn’t saying a whole lot. There’s a nice, breezy feel to the chemistry between all the lead characters, but I can’t find much else to discuss. There has been much made about the string of white friends sitcoms this year and while I appreciate the more laid-back atmosphere of a series like Traffic Light, it doesn’t really bring a whole lot to the table. “En Fuego” is a fun little half-hour of television that makes you feel like you’re dropping in on a friendship that’s been going on for a really long time and I like that sense of history. But it doesn’t necessarily make the series overly funny, just sort of charming.

I almost prefer something like Perfect Couples to Traffic Light because the wild swings in character and good-to-bad ratio makes it more interesting, at least to watch. I wouldn’t really want to write about Perfect Couples on a week-to-week basis either, but I certainly laughed at NBC’s version of the white friends shtick, even if I find myself liking the people on Traffic Light a lot more. Of course, it doesn’t really matter in the end because the ratings for both have been terrible and they’re on their way to cancellation.

I will continue to watch these series with the hopes that they can improve, but unless anything drastic happens on either end of the quality spectrum, I don’t think I’ll be writing about them anymore. Even though I could have easily separated them into different posts in hopes of obtaining a few more page views, it’s not even worth it. This is the problem I run into when I write about comedies, particularly new comedies and that strain is just so annoying. I’d love to have more to say about them, but I don’t.

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