Monday, November 12, 2012

A Disappointingly Average Comedy Arrives On DVD With 'Til Death - The Complete First Season!

The Good: Decent cast, Moments of humor
The Bad: Twenty-two episodes of the most predictable jokes ever performed, Lackluster DVD extras, Lack of character
The Basics: With few DVD bonuses and a primary series that is predictable in its humor and delivery, 'Til Death makes for a poor addition to a humor collection.

A few nights ago, I sat down and watched a new episode of ‘Til Death on Fox. Despite my appreciation for the works of Joely Fisher, I had pretty much missed out on the prior episodes. I found myself amused, even though the episode included a singing routine which lasted a bit long for my tastes and picked up 'Til Death - The Complete First Season on DVD. Wow, was that a mistake! Perhaps over the summer, the writing team was replaced and the show became dramatically better, but on DVD, ‘Til Death reveals itself to be some of the most average, disappointing and banal humor I've ever seen.

Eddie and Joy Stark have been married for 8,743 days (and counting!) and while they have a love for one another, they have settled into a pretty firm rut and routine. Married for twelve days, Jeff and Steph Woodcock move into the house next door to them. As Jeff and Steph become unnerved by their neighbors and the potential future they represent, Eddie and Joy begin to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place. As a result, fights and discussions between one couple often spills over into their neighbor's house and despite the age and experience gaps, the two couples begin to become friends.

The thing about ‘Til Death is that it's nothing new. This is a Brad Garrett vehicle that Garrett apparently leapt on as soon as the spin-off for Everybody Loves Raymond that was supposed to happen fell through. Garrett plays Eddie and his performance is, sadly, nothing new. But even worse are the canned sitcom plots. I understand that there's little new that has not yet been written or filmed, but ‘Til Death seems obsessed with recycling the most mundane, overdone plots in the history of television! So, for example, in the second episode, both Eddie and Jeff come to realize that their wives get what they want around the house by witholding sex; that's an idea that goes back to Lysistrata! Then there's the newlywed who sides with his mother-in-law episode, the newlywed awkward fantasy episode, the settled fight over mundane things (in this case whether or not leaving the toaster plugged in utilizes energy), the mistaken impending death episode (and yes, Eddie does use it to get sex), and, of course, a bachelor party episode. I write about these things in the most generic terms possible because the plots are generic and with these DVDs, the episodes fall almost exactly as one would predict the episodes would.

This is not to say the show isn't amusing, it does have its moments. However, the typical joke between Eddie and Joy is set up as an acerbic remark based on how long they've been together and the standard joke between Steph and Jeff involves their naiveté and youth, often with Eddie and Joy bonding by making an ironic remark about that. In other words, the humor is canned. I smiled, there were even a couple laughs in the boxed set, but mostly it was rigidly average and uninspired. I haven't been able to call so many jokes before they were made since Perfect Strangers!

So why was I so eager to try this series out? Well, the cast has a lot to do with it. Brad Garrett is not my favorite comedian in the world, but I thought it was refreshing to see him act in Music And Lyrics (reviewed here!). His role as the strangely upbeat agent in that film illustrated to me that he has a talent that can be tapped and that he can act if given a chance. The problem with ‘Til Death is that it forces Garrett back into the stiff, slow, dry sarcasm that one would suspect he was typecast with following Everybody Loves Raymond. It's like the producers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa figured if his spinoff fell through they might as well use him in essentially the same way as he had been used. I suppose that makes this the natural successor to Everybody Loves Raymond (which I wasn't a fan of) and Garrett seems stuck in a niche that is only slightly livelier than his role from that show.

Joely Fisher is someone whose work I've enjoyed since she was on Ellen. She was funny, gorgeous and witty on that show. She takes a lot of flack for having her cleavage exposed in ‘Til Death, but I don't think most audiences will complain. The truth is, on 'Til Death - The Complete First Season, she illustrates she has the ability to truly act. Her character of Joy is far more mature than the bubbly, self-centered character she played on Ellen. She is able to play acerbic much better than I might have suspected given her prior roles. And truth be told, she has a great sense of on-screen chemistry with Garrett.

There is some sense in the first few episodes that ‘Til Death was originally geared more toward showcasing the younger couple, but the Starks quickly upstaged the Woodcocks. This is no fault of Kat Foster (Steph) or Eddie Kaye Thomas (Jeff). Indeed, Thomas had a very memorable role as "Fat Pat" on Wonderfalls (reviewed here!) and that illustrated he could hold his own with a pretty solid and impressively seasoned cast. Here Thomas and Foster have a very natural sense of chemistry that makes their characters truly come alive as a young couple like they portray. How much their characters are a stretch for them is a bit of a mystery - especially in the case of Kat foster as this is her first recurring role.

But the problem with all of the characters is that they are more "types" than individuals. More than being actualized characters with genuine quirks and character traits, the principles of ‘Til Death come across as archetypes or stereotypes plugged into their respective niche roles for the sitcom. Eddie is Grumpy Old Husband, Joy is Settled Nagging Wife, and Jeff and Steph are bright-eyed newlyweds. It takes several episodes before Jeff and Steph begin to function independent of one another in the show and honestly by the time that comes around, it's already hard to care about them. The show is not trying to be new or fresh, it seems to be attempting to fill the blase working-class humor niche that was vacated when Everybody Loves Raymond and According To Jim left the airwaves. The result is a DVD set that does not feel fresh because the material isn't.

Moreover, this is quite a waste on DVD. Bonus features are scant with three unfulfilling featurettes exploring life on the set and the basic concept of ‘Til Death (which the back of the DVD box does as good a job of detailing) and a blooper reel for the first season. There are no commentaries, nothing extensive exploring this series and there's not a truly good reason why there ought to have been, I suppose, other than to give this boxed set some enduring value.

As it is, the twenty-two half-hour episodes that comprise the first season of ‘Til Death are largely unremarkable and those who enjoy the banal humor of playing seasoned couples off young ones are likely to get just as much out of waiting for this show to be syndicated. It's hard to imagine one would get a lot of replay out of these discs; after all, I watched them once and felt like I had already seen them all before.

For similarly formulaic comedies, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Perfect Strangers - Seasons 1 & 2
Ned And Stacey - Season 1
Dharma & Greg - Season 1


For other television reviews, check out the organized listing on my Movie And Television Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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