What's on

A guide for the compulsive TV fan

Back in October, The Onion A.V. Club took a look at some of the most promising shows on network television's fall schedule. Some have thrived (Lost, Desperate Housewives), some developed a cult audience (Veronica Mars), and some died an early death (LAX). As always, television marches forward, so here are a handful of recent discoveries, with theories about how they'll hold up over time.

House (Fox)

The Premise: "Which would you prefer: A doctor who holds your hand while you die, or who ignores you while you get better?" So says eccentric doctor Hugh Laurie, whose brilliance in solving confounding medical puzzles frees him to treat patients like walking disease-bags. Dragging himself around on a bum leg, the half-shaven Laurie only deigns to work on cases that interest him, and even then, his methods consist of a weird sort of trial-and-error that screams "malpractice suit."

The Difference: The nastiest black comedy from Fox since 1996's short-lived corporate-Darwinism series Profit, House gives a Bronx cheer to the saintly lifesavers on ER and its ilk. In the real world, the contempt between doctor and patient is nearly as common as its opposite, but House takes it to cathartically funny extremes. When forced to log time at a walk-in clinic, Laurie tends to his Nintendo Game Boy more often than to his patients, when he isn't pocketing their Vicodin and replacing it with candy placebos. Some of the irreverence doesn't rise far enough above M*A*S*H level, and the Fight Club-inspired animated anatomy tours quickly lose their novelty, but House has an authentically sour tone that's rare in such a heroic field.

The Future: An addiction to formula may be the show's undoing: Every episode opens with a future patient falling gravely ill. Then Laurie and his young team of specialists do their best Columbo impersonation. There's no overarching plot: House hits the reset button each week, so the hour is only as good as its one-liners and pseudo-science. Fortunately, both have been consistently engaging thus far.

Cheap Seats (ESPN Classic)

The Premise: The Sklar twins—Randy and Jason—sit in the ESPN basement and mock tapes of old sporting events, Mystery Science Theater-style.

The Difference: Many have tried to ape MST3K, but the Sklars, who've been kicking around the stand-up and sketch-comedy scenes for a decade, have the right sensibility for found comedy. They focus on the inherent ridiculousness of sports-broadcasting clichés, like on-camera host intros and audience-scanning "honey" shots, and they have an uncanny knack for finding the moment when athletes go from heroic to foolish.

The Future: Cheap Seats has already improved greatly from its fumbly, overlong early episodes, and even though the Sklars' sketches remain the weakest part of the show ("Dueling Foxworthys" aside), they usually come right before the commercial break and are easily skippable. So far, Cheap Seats hasn't even come close to exhausting the twin pleasures of watching dopey old junk-sports and hearing two smart comics riff. It's nostalgia and sarcasm wrapped up in one tidy half-hour package.

Peep Show (BBC America)

The Premise: A hapless office dweller (David Mitchell) and a clueless aspiring musician (Robert Webb) share a South London flat and a level of comic social awkwardness that rivals Larry David's.

The Difference: Composed almost entirely of POV shots, and punctuated with the misanthropic, embarrassing, and just plain dumb inner thoughts of the two roommates, Peep Show is equal parts The Odd Couple and a more visceral Herman's Head. The audience often sits behind the eyes of the two main characters, peering out as the overanalytical Mitchell and his lazy counterpart Webb bumble through everyday interactions. The jarring device takes some getting used to, but the comedy lies in the contrast between these characters' sharp internal lives and their flat realities. Witness Mitchell after he says hello to a disinterested co-worker in the elevator: "Fuck you if you're not doing small talk. Let's die together!" he thinks aloud, before staring sheepishly at his shoes.

The Future: Peep Show is already through its second hit season in Britain, but its stateside success is more uncertain. Its gimmicky look and position in the nether regions of cable could either put off a lot of viewers, or cultivate a loyal cult following à la BBC America's other different-looking comedy, The Office.

Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi (Cartoon Network)

The Premise: Japanese indie-rock-ish duo Puffy AmiYumi embarks on a series of animated adventures that allow the ditzy Ami and the punky Yumi to encounter various pop-culture absurdities.

The Difference: The show's visual style is three-quarters The Powerpuff Girls and one-quarter Jem, but the show gets its snap from parodies of phenomena ranging from Pokémon-like card games to Beanie Baby-like collectibles. Each half-hour features three short episodes that offer a few quick jokes, maybe a song, and a lot of generalized "lost in translation" bizarreness. (Though to be honest, Cartoon Network's Teen Titans does that shtick much better.)

The Future: Like too many shows on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi relies on ugly, aggressively ironic animation, which makes the gags hard to actually see, let alone enjoy. But the flexible format and the likeability of the leading ladies mean that any given eight-minute block has the potential for greatness. The show mostly needs more music: without Puffy AmiYumi's quasi-Go-Go's sound, this cartoon is indistinguishable from any other heap of brightly colored clutter.

Poker Royale (GSN)

The Premise: Hosted by Kevin Nealon and sultry poker pro Evelyn Ng, this six-episode series chronicles the World Poker Players Association (WPPA) Championship at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. On the final episode, one Game Show Network viewer will get a chance to split $10,000,000 with a poker pro, should that player draw a full house or better in five cards. (The odds: 693 to 1.)

The Difference: Given his abysmal showing as a player on Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown, hiring Nealon to broadcast a poker show is akin to hiring Tim McCarver to do color commentary on a cricket match. By pairing a comedian with a pro, Poker Royale aims for a Celebrity Poker dynamic, but Nealon could use some of Dave Foley's drunken panache, while Ng lacks Phil Gordon's laid-back charisma and shrewd insights into the action. Even the contenders are B-listers: Chris Moneymaker, the improbably named Internet amateur who took the 2003 World Series Of Poker, bowed out quickly, leaving Kathy Liebert (arguably the most fearsome female professional) as the only recognizable face at the tables. The first episode did feature one memorably horrific beat, however: Player A, holding pocket queens, flopped a full house, queens over jacks and lost to Player B's miracle fourth jack on the river. Ouch! [Note: The majority of The Onion A.V. Club does not understand this last sentence either. —ed.]

The Future: TV poker enthusiasts divide into two camps: Students of the game would like nothing more than a C-SPAN for poker, with cameras showing the hole card for every hand, not just the blockbuster confrontations. More casual players and viewers want the jovial coffeehousing and "family pots" familiar to their own home games. Though entertaining, Poker Royale doesn't challenge the gold standard for the booming genre: Travel Channel's World Poker Tour with Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, who have given poker pros the mystique of Wild West gunslingers.

Filed Under: TV

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