Nobody's watching: The strange genius of the fourth season of 'Til Death
Imagine for a second that you've been handed a TV show. It's a long-running show, coming up on 100 episodes, yet it's been off the air for almost a year. You have almost complete assurance that when this show gets on the air, no one will be watching it. The show has been retooled over and over and over again until it barely resembles itself, and the whole thing is here only because the production company cut a crazy deal with the network so the show would be on the air long enough to get to syndication. You are, for all intents and purposes, producing a show in a vacuum. You see, this show has a reputation of being absolutely godawful, one of the worst examples of a kind of TV comedy that went out of favor long, long ago. So most everyone has made up their mind on this show anyway, and it's unlikely you're going to win critical favor, no matter what you do. Hell, a prominent TV critic "live blogs" most of your episodes on Twitter and mocks you mercilessly.
To be honest, if I were handed this situation and I couldn't run far, far away for some reason, I would just produce something so balls-out bizarre that it would be borderline unwatchable, a weird expression of just how much I hate the television idiom and working in it, as well as a desperate plea for anyone to watch me, anyone at all.
And if it isn't obvious already, this whole situation really happened this last TV season to the show 'Til Death, a perpetually low-rated sitcom that aired its series finale Sunday, after receiving a number of puzzling renewals and making it to a fourth season and 81 episodes, just shy of syndication. And to the delight of the less than 2 million people who watched it, 'Til Death turned into the weirdest show on television last season, desperately tossing post-modern fourth-wall breaking, weird gimmicks, aggressively unfunny stunt-casting, and storylines that more or less mocked their own existence at the audience. I don't know if I would call the show "good." "Borderline unwatchable" comes close, but it was a far, far more interesting form of bad TV than the show had been in its first three seasons. It was a kind of TV that had simply given up, a kind of TV that was just going to do whatever the hell it wanted, regardless of network notes or audience desires.
The only things that have remained consistent about 'Til Death through its run are Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher as Eddie and Joy Stark, a long-time married couple whose seeming bitterness about the fact that they were still together was meant to drive season after season of conflicts to come. In its first two seasons, the show paired the two with a young, newlywed couple next door. In the third season (of which only seven episodes aired before the show was yanked for just under a year), the newlyweds were gone, and Eddie's little brother, a grown black man played by JB Smoove, inexplicably became another regular, moving in with Joy and Eddie for no apparent reason. And in the fourth season, the show was retooled yet again and thrown under the guidance of veteran comedy producer (and occasional genius) Don Reo, as though Fox and Sony (which produces the show) had no better ideas. Now, Joy and Eddie had to deal with their daughter and her long-term boyfriend, Doug (played by the fine comedy actor Timm Sharp for all four seasons, but only a regular in the final season), as they moved into the couple's backyard.
The first three seasons attempted to draw the sorts of small tales of gentle domestic squabbles that take a weird left turn toward hellish stalemate battles that will never be won that had been in vogue with family sitcoms since Garrett's previous series, Everybody Loves Raymond, had been a hit. What made Raymond work was the sense that underneath everything, the characters really did have some affection for each other. What every show that tried to copy Raymond missed was this very fact, as it seemed like the characters on most of these shows—'Til Death included—were only staying together for health insurance reasons. These were ugly and unpleasant shows to watch, full of bitter people who had no real reason to be so angry at everyone and everything. 'Til Death was a bad show in these seasons, but it was innocuously bad, easy to turn away from.
The fourth season was something else entirely. I don't know how much of this is attributable to Reo (I suspect a lot), but the domestic squabble stuff grew much, much loopier, right from the first. Fisher and Garrett, perhaps emboldened by the fact that nobody was watching, pushed their characters so far into unpleasantness that it looped back around and became fascinating to watch. Their marriage suddenly made so much more sense. The reason Joy and Eddie Stark had stayed together so long was almost entirely because absolutely no one else on Earth would want to put up with them. Perversely, this made the episode-closing scenes every sitcom like this is required to have where the characters say they love each other feel more genuine. When Eddie and Joy nearly drive each other toward bankruptcy because they want an HDTV and also can't stand carpooling together, it seems stupid on its face, but it becomes something much bleaker and despairing in practice. Someone somewhere in the production team was using the season to deliberately skewer this kind of show and this kind of storytelling, and Fisher and Garrett were surprisingly game.
But if that were it, that wouldn't qualify the fourth season of 'Til Death as some sort of weird, outre comedy. It would certainly be more interesting than what the show had been before, but not necessarily worth seeking out. Perhaps realizing that the role of Ally (Joy and Eddie's daughter) had been played by four actresses over the course of the series (including Krysten Ritter!) while the role of boyfriend/fiancee/husband Doug had been played by only Sharp, the series embarked on an astoundingly bizarre story arc: It had Doug realize he was a character in a sitcom whose wife kept getting recast, then sent him to psychotherapy to make peace with this fact.
Here's a Hulu highlight reel, which, sadly, doesn't get at how strangely this all played out within the normal confines of 'Til Death:
By comparison, here's part of a season three episode. See how far you can get.
Now, last season, a much, much better comedy—Community—had a similar running gag, where Abed (Danny Pudi) would crack wise about how the things he and his friends were doing bore some relation to a classic sitcom, riffing on shows like Cheers and Friends and M*A*S*H within the show's normal universe. The show made this safe by edging up closely to breaking the fourth wall but never going so far as to actually break it. The Abed character is one of the better ones on Community and, indeed, on TV right now, but the show would never really have him acknowledge his fictional existence. That would be cheating, more or less. (Similarly, a commenter on one of my reviews this year said that Britta on the same show is a sitcom character who's realized she's bad at being a sitcom character, an observation I've always enjoyed.)
But if you compare what Community did to what 'Til Death did, they're not even in the same universe of gutsy. Community pulled its trick off, and 'Til Death mostly didn't, but Community wasn't attempting anything quite as potentially off-putting as 'Til Death was. The Doug story arc was one of the more unexpected things on TV last year, including the character riffing on the generic brands the other characters were using (and tossing in a tie-in to another storyline, no less), the other characters joking about how if they were a sitcom they'd be in a timeslot where no one would watch them, Doug slowly coming to realize he could neither swear nor have actual sex, and a whole episode where Ally was recast yet again and Doug had to come to terms with it before realizing the actress playing his new wife was much friskier in the bedroom (even as he realized that the camera would cut away before anything would happen).
But wait! There's more! Doug went to therapy with a therapist played by Mayim Bialik, who was gradually revealed to be the actress Mayim Bialik, who was filming a reality show based on her practice, all the better to further disorient Doug. And there were suggestions that she might actually have been the character Blossom, as well as a long, startlingly unfunny scene full of "Yeah, your career's dead, but so is mine!" jokes from some number of former Blossom stars and a fat man who thinks he's Joey Lawrence.
And here's the thing: I haven't even seen every episode of the fourth season of 'Til Death, just the highlights of Doug's arc. It's possible that even weirder stuff crept in around the edges in other episodes. After all, Reo, his cast, and crew could be pretty certain no one was watching this. Why not just do something completely nuts? Further compounding problems and making the show seem even more hallucinatory was Fox's decision to screen the 15 episodes they never aired from season three along with the season four episodes, so the show would ping-pong randomly between a series about a bitter married couple having strained fights and living with JB Smoove to a weird, hallucinatory nightmare of suburban life filtered through the perception of a stoned, possibly mentally ill manchild. Ally would be played by a blonde in one episode (from season three), then a brunette in another, then another brunette in yet another. Plus, Fox aired the episodes all out of order. Doug and Ally's wedding aired before their engagement, and the birth of their first child—intended to be the series finale—was followed by three more rejected third season episodes. The show itself seemed to give up as well, tossing weird, random sound effects and obnoxiously loud music over the top of establishing shots or having a recurring plot where guest star Martin Mull is in a dom-sub relationship with a woman who may or may not be a psychopath.
I don't want to make this sound more interesting than it actually is. There is a fair chance that if you seek the fourth season of 'Til Death out (and it's highly unlikely any of these episodes will ever air again after this summer), you will be disappointed because half the fun was happening upon these episodes in the moment and wondering what world you'd wandered into. By the time Doug and Ally's wedding rolled around, the show had finally lost it completely, tossing in lengthy animated sequences done in styles ranging from Disney to Edward Gorey, letting Fisher sing at length, and having Garrett do Rodney Dangerfield impressions for no apparent reason. You wanted to stop watching; you couldn't look away. This was television made by consummate professionals who were pretty sure no one was ever going to see it, and it was somehow gloriously awful and compellingly watchable all at once.