100 Questions debuts tonight on NBC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
For the past few years, I've been able to get my hands on most of the scripts for the new pilots, even before I'm able to see said pilots. I used to read all of them and base my anticipation for new series on said scripts, but I've been burned often enough at this point that I don't terribly believe what I read anymore. As an example, the pilot script for FlashForward read like a rocket. It was even better than the - pretty good! - pilot that was produced, getting deeper into some of the flash forwards and other moments that felt so leaden in the produced pilot. As another example, I thought the pilot script for Modern Family was a major flop, something that barely enlivened ancient family sitcom tropes. Yet, when both were produced, the respective strengths of their casts led to shows that I ended up feeling very differently about from how I felt about the scripts.
Obviously, it goes that way in a collaborative medium like television. The right casting can save a nothing show - does House ever become anything without Hugh Laurie? - while the wrong director or visual style can bury a show that should work better (like how Without a Trace was always gloomier than it really needed to be and, thus, felt like less of a show than it was). I say all of this as a way to introduce the fact that one of my favorite scripts I read last spring was a half-hour sitcom script called 100 Questions for Charlotte Payne. Since the script was picked up to pilot, then to series, I was intrigued to see what would become of it. The longer I've waited, the more I've realized something must have gone very, very wrong.
Something did. The script I read has morphed into the much more generically titled 100 Questions, and where it was, yeah, another Friends clone but one with a pretty individual voice, the series that actually got made is just a Friends clone, right down to the hyper-cute opening credits, which feature the cast traipsing around the city and beaming out at the camera. A lot of the things I liked in the script are still present, including some of the best laugh lines. (There's a moment where one character accepts a bet from another character to make something sound sexy, and what killed on the page mostly falls flat here.) The central concept of the show remains a little forced but not a bad idea for a whimsical sitcom. And the storyline, which is a good one for a pilot, has mostly gone unchanged. In theory, all of this should work well, should entertain me as much as reading it did.
But it doesn't. The script, by Christopher Moynihan, who also stars, isn't the problem, other than the fact that the template ended up not being strong enough to resist every network's attempts to find the next Friends. (Seriously, if you look at the upcoming sitcom slate, it appears that the networks have learned the lessons of Modern Family's breakout success in completely the wrong way, as they've decided to abruptly return to 1997 for no real reason.) Where the script had sharp characterization of your usual attractive, young 20somethings, the series makes them all feel way too similar. You get which one is supposed to be the smart one and which one is supposed to be the slutty one, but you never get a real sense of why they're friends or the people they are, the way you did on the page.
So what went wrong? I have some theories, but first, a quick rundown of what, exactly, the show's about.
100 Questions is the latest attempt to capitalize on the slight success of How I Met Your Mother, but it's crossed with that insatiable desire to create a Friends clone. Since HIMYM is already very close to Friends, creating a show that's the missing link between the two feels truly unnecessary. It's obvious that the original concept for the show was closer to HIMYM than Friends, since it involves one woman (the no-longer-titular Charlotte Payne) and her visit to a dating service that purports to help her find her perfect match by asking her 100 questions. This being a show with some hope of hitting syndication, we're going to get one of those questions every week, but it's kind of a cute idea for a show, nonetheless. Presumably, as this goes on, we'll realize that her true love is actually one of the guys in the cast of the show, and we'll have a happy series finale where she and the guy run off together. Aw.
And some of this could work. Charlotte's scared of commitment, and that's a character type that needs to be put back in the character type drawer very quickly, but the writing isn't afraid to make her a little unappealing, showing the way she tends to run from guys who have fallen instantly for her. This should feel a lot less endearing than it is, but the show has found an intriguing lead in Sophie Winkelman, a Brit who doesn't completely have the rhythms of a character who was obviously written to be the all-American girl next door but is rapidly learning. If the show were even slightly better, I'd be intrigued to see where Winkelman took the character in the course of its run. And the pilot - where Charlotte rejects a guy's marriage proposal - is a good showcase for Winkelman's particular charms.
But everything that doesn't work about the show stems from the fact that NBC wanted the show to be Friends, and one of the things people remember about Friends is that the best moments were the ones that were just a little over-the-top. That's the way it often is on a multi-camera sitcom, particularly one filmed before a live studio audience. Putting anything in front of a live audience means that it has a tendency to get bigger and bigger as time goes by. (This is why the most understated multi-camera sitcoms, like Barney Miller, often didn't film before a live studio audience and piped in a laugh track after the fact.) As such, 100 Questions is pitched to the cheap seats from the first. Every joke is underlined and bolded and circled with permanent marker. The actors are playing all the way to the back, and trying to make the laughs go all the way over the top. The direction is pitched to an unnatural speed, where punchlines pile on top of each other, ideally to make you hit a pitch of non-stop, rolling laughter.
You can see the problem, I think. The best multi-camera sitcoms, no matter how goofy they eventually got, always started in a pretty realistic place, then got bigger and bigger as time went on. Think of how Cheers was essentially very low-key in its first season or how even Friends aimed for something like a Day-Glo realism in season one. HIMYM, for its part, eschewed big laughs in its first five or six episodes in favor of building the characters, the better to get the big laughs from them later. When you're immediately entering with a cast that pushes everything really far and a director that encourages them to push it that far, you end up with something that feels like it takes place in no version of reality. Where once there was a spiffy little script about a girl figuring out who she was with the help of her comedy type friends, we now have a show about shrill people who yell everything. The execution undermines everything here, making the lines I laughed at when reading them turn into lines that make me roll my eyes when seeing them acted out. The script needs a tossed-off quality, and what it's gotten is a "Hey, everybody! Let's clean out Soundstage B and put on a sitcom about attractive people!" quality.
There's still stuff to like in 100 Questions. Winkelman, as mentioned, is going to become the crush of roughly one out of every four men that takes a chance on the show. The laugh lines are still there, even if they're overplayed. And that central conceit is winning enough that it could survive any manner of abuse. There's a good show hidden inside of the bad show we have now, but it seems unlikely we'll ever get to see it. And I suppose that's the ultimate problem with knowing too much about a project before you see it. Once your expectations are set too high, there's no way to bring them back down.
- The LOOK of the show is really interesting. It's underlit, and I think it's filmed on film (or, at the least, in very high-quality DV). The show is attempting to feel like a single-camera sitcom without actually being one and getting some of the benefits of a multi-camera sitcom. It's really weird to look at, honestly.
- Come to think of it, this show probably should have been a single-camera show. It's rare for me to say that (since I think many single-camera shows would benefit from being multi-camera shows filmed before a live audience), but this series needs a quality that makes it feel almost thrown off at random, and multi-camera is pretty much the opposite of that.
- I feel like everything that went wrong with this show can be explained just by saying that they changed the title from 100 Questions for Charlotte Payne to 100 Questions.
- Somebody is going to take Winkelman and make her a star. Just probably not the producers of this show.
- Happy summer TV season, everybody! We look forward to months and months of shitty reality debuts, all of which will surely drive me ever closer to ending it all. Or taking a job as an actuary.