How To Be A Gentleman

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Donna Bowman and Steve Heisler talk about How To Be A Gentleman.

How To Be A Gentleman debuts tonight on CBS at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Donna: Based on the cast list, TV aficionados should have high hopes for How To Be A Gentleman. The ensemble is full of cult favorites. Lead actor and series creator David Hornsby, who plays Andrew, a refined writer for Marquis magazine who pens the titular column, is recurring character Rickety Cricket on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and is almost unrecognizable here all cleaned up. Dave Foley, playing Hornsby’s editor Jerry, is a comedy legend from Kids In The Hall to NewsRadio who has done steady stellar guest work in series for the last several years. Mary Lynn Rajskub (Andrew’s sister Janet) added much needed quirk to 24 while appearing in almost every Sundance audience favorite movie of the last decade and doing a one-woman show in Los Angeles. And Rhys Darby, the best feature of the pilot episode as Rajskub’s cheerfully henpecked husband Mike, is best known as Murray the manager from Flight Of The Conchords.

And then there’s Kevin Dillon, late of HBO’s anti-hipster talisman Entourage, who gets co-top billing as Bert, the former high-school bully and current physical trainer who tries to get Hornsby in touch with the common schlub, his column’s new readership after Marquis is sold to a company that wants to dumb it down for a broader demographic. (“Women in thongs, articles about… abs,” as Jerry puts it.) He’s not just the odd man out in this stellar ensemble; he’s also the embodiment of this sitcom’s high-concept “situation:” One has a cufflink collection, the other doesn’t own any shirts with sleeves! Watch the wacky hijinks ensue! 

That’s the problem with How To Be A Gentleman in a nutshell. While the jokes are often funny and the cast awfully game, the show is painfully conventional. I don’t have a problem with laugh tracks or with CBS’ embrace of the multi-camera traditional format; there’s still fine work to be done within that box, as reliable entertainments like the network’s late The New Adventures of Old Christine prove. At least in the pilot, though, Gentleman has almost no style, mannerisms, or flair—odd for a show whose lead character provides an intermittent voiceover about a gentleman’s style, mannerisms, and flair. Without something in the structure or package to signal a unique perspective on the sitcom, the setup of Bert and Andrew giving each other ethnography lessons on their respective class tribes is just Sitcom 101.

The pilot sets up the premise with a minimum of fuss. Jerry lets Andrew know that he won’t be fighting the magazine’s new boss Cody on Marquis’ altered mission statement: “I was thinking about doing that, and then I remembered: I’m 50! So I decided I’m very happy about the new direction.” At Andrew’s birthday dinner, Janet and Mike give him a gift certificate for a personal training session at Bert’s Body Shop, and as the voiceover points out, “A gentleman always uses a gift, even if he doesn’t like it.” Turns out the “Bert” of the facility’s name used to whale on Andrew in high school for offenses like agitating for a stricter dress code with tighter limitations on jeans (“I only had two pairs of pants back then—my jeans and my church jeans”). Andrew realizes that Bert represents the magazine’s “demographic holy grail: men in their mid to late 30s who act like they’re 15.” And Bert wants to make up for his former bullying ways by helping Andrew get over his fiancee, who dumped him for a man much like Bert except for his ownership of a winery, and whose sock he carries around like the mopey nerdling he is.

Where this initial episode shows some promise is in a setpiece at a restaurant with everyone but Bert contributing to the ensemble energy. Bert pushes Andrew to ask out Lydia, the next-door neighbor who professes to feel “safe” with him. “I kill many of her bugs,” Andrew explains; “You should be taking off many of her pants,” Bert retorts. On their date, Lydia’s ex-boyfriend Donny (Todd Stashwick, a.k.a. Dale Malloy on The Riches) menaces Andrew. “Why would he do anything to you? You’re not the one who cheated on him,” Lydia dismisses Andrew’s concern. And at a nearby table, sister Janet is flirting with a co-worker while Mike sits at the bar putting a veneer of respectability on the whole screwed-up scene (“She doesn’t want to come home after a hard day’s work and deal with my theatrics,” Mike excuses his wife, adding, “Her words.”) Both Janet and Mike sense Andrew’s anxiety through his less-than-impeccable blazer (“Ooh, unbuttoned—you okay?” Mike asks). And rightly so—Andrew heads back to his table to find Lydia and Donny smooching shamelessly, whereupon he pronounces via voiceover that a gentleman sometimes must bitchslap a rival.

Another attempt at a signature flourish falls flat, though. At Andrew’s place, Bert casually starts drinking straight from the milk carton. When Andrew protests, he responds that there’s only a little left, and proceeds to chug the milk, pause for breath, then chug again before tossing the carton with “See?” It’s a bit that takes about 30 seconds of precious screen time and doesn’t seem to fit with the mostly utilitarian vibe of the rest of the episode. You probably shouldn’t try gags that depend on playing with the audience’s expectations of timing until you know what the pace of your show is actually supposed to be.

With a little faster pacing and a little more imagination, How To Be A Gentleman could be eminently watchable and perhaps even live up to the promise of its excellent cast. Based solely on the pilot, though, the “odd couple” premise doesn’t inspire interest or intrigue as much as sighs of weariness. Over time, Andrew will need to become more distinct in his gentlemanly code (he’s basically Niles Crane at this point, right down to the unrequited romance) and Bert will need to become more distinct from the narcissistic lumps that populate our nation’s beer commercials and spring break videos. Around the edges, the show has plenty of attractions; at its core, it seems to have sprung from a particularly unimaginative focus group.

Stray observations:

  • A birthday dinner at Mom’s is the “perfect situation to wear a vest!” as Mike enthusiastically observes, and Andrew has just the pale-salmon-y one for the occasion.
  • Everybody likes listening to Mike’s New Zealand accent, and in that “everybody” I happily include myself. “Remember that time you said chimichanga?” Andrew and Janet’s mother (Nancy Lenehan) recalls. “We laughed… ” Mike reminisces.
  • Janet has spent her life making Andrew’s more difficult, like the time she announced to his school homeroom: “Don’t beat up my little brother; he’s very weak and has no peripheral vision.” That prompts Mom to demonstrate where Andrew gets his visual-field affliction by moving her waving hands forward and back beside her temples. And Mike to observe, apropos of very little, “My uncle had a brass eyeball. Kept it under a patch—it was all legit. Made peek-a-boo a bit traumatic.”
  • Lydia’s not much of a catch, as Andrew soon finds out when he asks what she does for a living: “I do what I always dreamed of doing—I market cigarettes for a major tobacco company.”
  • Bert has trouble deciphering Andrew’s gentlemanly thank-you note (“Thanks for your fried nips”). “You’ve got the handwriting of a pirate,” he complains; “It’s calligraphy,” Andrew specifies.
  • Everything you need to know about what the show hopes to be is contained in Janet’s query to Andrew about which of his many high-school bullies he just met: “Johnny? Steven? Asian Steven?” Everything you need to know about what the show is finds expression in Bert’s explanation of his black-circle tattoo to Andrew: “It’s a yin-yang without the yin. It’s a yang-yang.”

Steve: I read Donna’s review and, as I expected, it was spot-on. I don’t have a ton to add, other than that I was harsher on How To Be A Gentleman, probably because I was much more turned-off by how calculated the pilot episode is. Rather than refining the particulars of Kevin Dillon’s character, they make him a “meathead” in the most generic sense. Same goes for the wimpy Andrew, the overbearing Janet, and the kooky Mike. The pilot is much more focused on the dynamics it’s setting up between the characters than the characters themselves, which is a dangerous thing for a comedy pilot to do. The games characters play with each other in future episodes often come out naturally once the actors are comfortable in their characters’ skin and the world of the show is built out. How To Be A Gentleman tries to get ahead of itself—as Donna puts it, “sprung from a particularly unimaginative focus group”—and instead does itself a huge disservice. There’s nowhere to go because everything is so locked in.

There is one possible force of chaos present: Andrew’s lessons—the framing device for the pilot, and presumably episodes moving forward. My hope is that the show uses his pursuit of an updated set of gentleman-ly rules (the poor man’s “bro-code,” as it were) to force Andrew into uncomfortable situations that far exceed “ask out a girl he might not ask out.” If the variables on the show are going to remain constant, at least outside variables have the ability to change. But right now, How To Be A Gentleman is content taking the path of least resistance, throwing in a misplaced joke or two to spice things up. Not quite the recipe for a lasting sitcom.

Donna’s grade: C+
Steve’s grade: C-