Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Whose Line Is It Anyway? debuts tonight on The CW at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Let’s assuage fears right up front: Against many odds, this is still the Whose Line Is It Anyway? that you remember and love. No sense in burying the lede here. There are certain tweaks and concessions that come with this latest revival of the improvisation franchise on The CW, but the show has always been a fluid entity that changed personality and tenor over the years. Both the original British version as well as its Drew Carey-hosted America counterpart found new (and not always improved) rhythms throughout their lengthy runs. Thus, trying to recreate a singular version of its former self would be a fool’s errand for this latest iteration.

With that established, this is a surprisingly strong restart for the series. The surprise doesn’t come from lack of talent, with Whose Line veterans Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, and Wayne Brady appearing in each episode sent out for review alongside new host Aisha Tyler. Rather, the surprise comes from what could have been a nostalgia act turned into a vital bit of improvisational comedy. Honestly, The CW could have licensed the name and tried to sell a more demographically-friendly set of comedians to its audience. And to be sure, the elder statesmen of this show could have tried to explicitly play to fans of The Carrie Diaries during each sketch. Instead, this looks, feels, and plays almost exactly like the shows you remember, and that’s a strong testament to all involved.

Now, to be certain, Whose Line itself isn’t some sanctified institution that never made a misstep. It has always been hit-and-miss due to its improvisational nature. Mileage will obviously vary on what constitutes a “hit” versus a “miss,” but it’s easy to forget when culling through favorite clips online just how much dead air this show could produce. Both the British and American versions were guilty of producing many episodes in which the host and performers seemed dead set on entertaining themselves instead of the audience, and more than a few games wore out their welcome as seasons moved on. The beauty of this restarted version is that while not everything is perfect, everything feels fresh, even if the format itself has barely changed.

Leading this new approach is Tyler herself, who isn’t as omnipresent as Carey but still makes her onscreen moments count. Under Carey’s reign, Whose Line had a very shaggy feel to the proceedings, with episodes not so much edited as slapped together. That approach lent an air of spontaneity in many cases, but also produced episodes that often sagged with self-importance. The new version trims that excess and produces clean, sharp, crisply moving episodes. One doesn’t feel that poor jokes were intentionally omitted. Rather, there’s a commitment to produce fast, focused humor that stays on topic and rarely strays to indulge personal flights of fancy. Tyler leads this charge with a commanding yet playful presence that keeps the sketches and the laughter coming. Whose Line is ultimately the star of the show, with everyone participating a supporting player to that main focus.

Things can feel a bit too streamlined early on, with both the host and performers feeling out the new dynamic and afraid to ruffle any feathers. But there’s also a huge improvement between the first and third episodes that suggests much better things to come as the summer progresses. Whereas Carey was often the punchline to many of the improvisers’ humor, the comedic veterans don’t seem to know how to engage Tyler early on. But she brings not only incredible presence to her hosting gig but a sharp tongue as well, doling out lines that get as much (if not more) laughter from the crowd as her male cohorts. It’s impossible to know if this upward trajectory will continue, but familiarity almost always helps in the world of improvisation. The producers of Whose Line are running a tight ship, but also seem to realize that a little bit of messiness can add character and surprise to the mix.

If there’s a slight warning bell, it comes in the form of weekly guest appearances. To be sure, such appearances were staples of late-era Carey-hosted episodes. But they were rarely fun then, and are rarely fun now. Every once in a while, those stunt guests yielded comic gold. (The Richard Simmons episode is still one of the funniest things to air in the 2000s.) But more often than not, these attempts to garner ratings yielded stilted, unfunny segments in which seasoned improvisers struggled alongside actors who couldn’t be funny on demand. Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead), Kevin McHale (Glee), and Candice Accola (The Vampire Diaries) stop by in these initial episodes, and all look more than slightly terrified to be there. All three are game, but all three also help illuminate how easy the show’s core cast makes this look. Considering there is a rotating fourth comedian in each episode with superior improvisation skills (including Keegan-Michael Key, among others), it’s a shame to waste valuable screen time selling stars instead of solid comedy.

But as stated earlier, this isn’t a new problem for Whose Line. What’s encouraging is how few new problems exist at all. The Mochrie/Stiles dynamic is still fantastic, with the two so accustomed to each other’s rhythms that it feels like watching two jazz musicians at work. Brady, so often isolated in the Carey era, has a great new sparring partner in Tyler. And while Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza recently brought many of these talents together, there’s something about reconnecting in this particular setting that seems to energize all involved. There’s no way to predict if this new edition of Whose Line will translate into ratings success. But simply getting new episodes of this show at all feels like a success already. That these episodes are actually really funny is a happy bonus. 

Stray observations:

  • Along with Key, comedians Gary Anthony Williams and Heather Anne Campbell occupy the fourth chair. Poor Campbell is all but excluded from the proceedings, with McHale occupying her comedic position in more than half of that episode’s sketches.
  • Tyler’s gender is one of the show’s secret weapons, as she’s able to disarm the frat-boy attitude of the Carey era while simultaneously giving the veterans a new comic sensibility with which to interact.
  • Sorry, Key & Peele fans: No Obama translator nor Liam Neesons to be found here.
  • In terms of the grade: All segments not involving that week’s celebrity guest get an A-; those involving the guests receive a B. The final grade splits that difference.
  • Considering its time slot, there are some downright saucy jokes in these episodes. Mochrie stumbles into one in the third installment that seems unlikely to actually air. (It’s up there with his “animal porn” gaffe, yet features an added visual component.)
  • Since I’ve linked to an old clip, I think it’s only appropriate that at least one thread below is dedicated to favorite all-time sketches and/or individual lines from the past two versions of the show. Personally, I’d have to go with the “Improbable Mission” involving Mochrie constantly using a cat as his go-to solution for every problem.

More TV Club