News Column

TV Picks: 'Dobie Gillis,' 'Awesomes,' 'Casting By,' 'Broadchurch'

August 2, 2013


Aug. 02--"The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (Shout Factory DVD). One of television's great comedies, collected completely: 20 discs, 147 episodes, immaculately transferred, compactly packaged. I mean to get around to speaking of its virtues at length in some future piece, but briefly: For all that we are living in a so-called Platinum Age of Television -- somebody said that once, and it seems to have stuck -- when personal expression is the order of the day, TV has 1) always been a writer's medium, expressive of individual vision, and 2) never lacked for talent. They may have had narrower lines and stricter rules to deal with in the olden Golden days, the envelopes may have not been the sort you could push very far -- as if that were a good in itself -- but works of pop genius, even crazy pop genius, are not exclusive to the post-"Sopranos" TV era. "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," the 1959-1963 CBS series in which Max Shulman adapted his short story collection of the same name -- a movie version, the 1953 "The Affairs of Dobie Gillis," with Bobby Van is less well remembered -- starred Dwayne Hickman as a perennially lovestruck high school (then a junior college) student. While the series nestled in the common settings of teenhood -- school, home, park, malt shop and the grocery store run by Dobie's parents, played by the alliteratively paired Frank Faylan and Florida Friebus (despairing and doting, respectively) -- it had a slightly surreal edge, and ran on highly musical dialog that mixed the archaically formal with contemporary (and invented) vernacular. Phrases like "not a smidgen of an iota of a chance" and "grapple me to your bosom" and "Unhand me, wench." The show is probably best known for Bob Denver's Maynard G. Krebs, America's sweet-tempered beatnik, but also featured, in its first year at least, Tuesday Weld as the money-minded Thalia Menninger and Warren Beatty as rich-kid Milton Armitage (replaced by Steve Franken's rich-kid Chatsworth Osborne, Jr.). Steadfast through the series was Sheila Kuehl (then Sheila James, later a California state legislator) as the smart and determined Zelda Gilroy, whom Maynard calls Small Girl and whose passion for Dobie is her great blind spot: "He's weak and bewildered and helpless; he needs me to guide his faltering feet." Some of these characters provided the model for the Scooby Gang, it has been acknowledged: Maynard for Shaggy, Zelda for Velma, Dobie for Fred, Thalia for Daphne.

"The Awesomes" (Hulu). The attack of the streaming networks continues, with two new Hulu series produced in-house: the animated superhero comedy "The Awesomes" and the semi-improvised Western comedy "Quick Draw." Both perform that half-twist, familiar from Adult Swim's "Venture Brothers" and Comedy Central's "NTSF:SD:SUV::" and FX's "Archer" and Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," not to mention a pack Mel Brooks films before them, in which heroes and villains are cast in an ordinary light, leading lives of banality, trivia and confusion. Starring and co-created by Seth Myers (with "Saturday Night Live"/"Jimmy Fallon" producer Michael Shoemaker), "The Awesomes" is a cartoon about a team of reject superheroes led by Myers' weak but smart Prock (for "professor doctor") in the wake of his famous superheroic father's leaving Earth to get some reading done. (It's "The Bad News Bears," formally, as so much is.) "Our bar is lower," teammate Muscle Man (Ike Barinholtz of "The Mindy Project") suggests as a motto. (His stopping for felafel on the way to a battle is a typical gag.) The marquee cast includes "SNL" personnel Taran Killam, Emily Spivey, Paula Pell, Kenan Thompson (as a hero who can embody his thoughts, but only in the form of his smothering mother) and Bill Hader as smooth, Montalbanesque supervillain Dr. Malocchio. As crush object Hotwire, Rashida Jones lights up the soundtrack, if such a synesthetic figure may be allowed; that Ann Perkins sweetness comes through. Given the talent, the jokes can be surprisingly creaky, but it's amiable enough. ("The Powerpuff Girls" was more radical.) It has an adult bent (bleeped expletives, sexual situations, a planet where everyone has breasts for eyes, some blood, a cute little lion-cub villain declaring "Silence, whore, or I will rip your throat from your gullet"). I suppose that's the point, but with a little surgery -- those aren't the best jokes in any case, and there aren't so many of them that the show would fall to pieces with their removal -- "The Awesomes" might be Fun for the Whole Family. And might be in any case, of course, depending on your family.

"Broadchurch" (BBC America, Wednesdays). Premiering this week and already announced for an American remake. (This is the proverbial well enough that wants to be left alone.) A detective serial set on the dramatic Dorset coast, it stars David Tennant as a big-city cop in retreat from a previous public failure who winds up in the job Olivia Coleman had thought was hers. Immediately, there is a dead child at the bottom of a beachside cliff. There's much here that's standard for the genre: antagonistic partners learning to work together, ambitious journalists getting in their way, the dour mood that has become de rigueur for prestige crime series. And I have some thoughts about the ending we can discuss privately later. But the sense of place, quality of performance and natural dialog quash most qualms. (The seaside small town setting and richly pictured locals make it kind of like downbeat "Doc Martin.") Tennant, bearded and dark and seemingly thinner and pointier than ever, keeps memories of his beloved Tenth Doctor at bay; Coleman, who has a long history in British comedy (you can watch her now on Hulu as the sparky wife of Tom Huddleston's "Rev"), is wonderful as a policewoman, wife, mother and mourner torn this way and that. Some other "Who" connections: Euros Lyn, who directed Tennant there, directs some episodes here, and Eleventh Doctor companion Arthur "Rory" Darvill appears as the local vicar -- suspicious, because that's just how it goes with vicars now. Plus another great performance from David Bradley (who'll play First Doctor William Hartnell in the upcoming docudrama "An Adventure in Space and Time"), as a man who keeps a shop, and (like everyone here) a secret.


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