Trust Us With Your Life debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Improv comedy is a bit like sushi: It’s not for everyone, but those that acquire the taste for it crave it something fierce. (Me? Well, let’s just say I was more than a little upset when ABC Family stopped running late night Whose Line Is It Anyway? reruns a few months ago.) ABC’s new improvisational show Trust Us With Your Life marks the first show in the Whose Line mold since GSN’s Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza debuted in 2011. While that show had plenty of highlights, the proceedings also would often get swallowed whole by the enormous Vegas showroom in which it was conducted. Trust Us With Your Life loses Carey, but gains a host of other celebrities in the process.
Trust Us With Your Life builds every episode around a series of improv games, but it features a central spine holding all of them together. Every installment features a celebrity or celebrities who come on the show to share stories of their lives with host Fred Willard. For his part, Willard plays things straight, so those looking for a Christopher Guest-esque performance here will be disappointed. Instead, he gently mines each celebrity for stories about their respective lives. Those stories are then reenacted in game form by the improvisers. Eight episodes in total were filmed for the series, two of which will air each week over the next month. (While screeners for tonight’s première were not available at review time, episodes featuring Jack and Kelly Osbourne and Mark Cuban were. Other future celebrities include David Hasselhoff, Ricky Gervais, and Florence Henderson.)
If you’re familiar with Whose Line Is It Anyway? or Improv-A-Ganza, the improvisers will be familiar: Colin Mochrie, Brad Sherwood, Wayne Brady, and Jonathan Mangum all appear in the episodes made available for review. Ostensibly, having the narrow focus of simply reenacting preselected scenarios should limit the performers’s abilities to stretch their comedic muscles. But while the show is produced within an inch of its life up until the point at which the games start, the improvisers are talented enough to overcome the limitations and generally find fun in every game. What helps them along in early episodes isn’t simply their skill at performing, but the willingness of the celebrities to play along as well. Celebrities who act as if they have better things to do than watch Brad Sherwood play “Forward/Reverse” would kill this show on the spot. But both the Osbournes and Cuban are game for anything, willing to share (completely and obviously pre-screened) stories, as well as participate in some of the games themselves.
As for the games, there are few from Whose Line that make a direct appearance, while a few from Improv-A-Ganza show up in the two episodes screened for critics. An attempt to produce improvised music, “Glee Club It,” is the worst of the bunch, but the aforementioned “Forward/Reverse” is skillfully executed, with four improvisers all playing the same scene forward and backward at the whims of an unseen announcer that sounds exactly—and I mean exactly—like the announcer from Mortal Kombat who implores you to “Finish Him!” The voice appears often throughout the episodes, and it’s never not unnerving.
“Sideways Scene” is the series’ strongest game, with performers playing a scene on the floor, hidden from audience view. A camera stationed above them films the action in a way that makes the performers seem as if they are standing up. In less trained hands, this sketch would be a clusterfuck. But with these improvisers, it’s impressive both in terms of its physicality and inventiveness.
But while the performers are nimble within the constraints of the program in both feet and mind, they can’t quite worm their way out of every corner. The long history these performers share doesn’t come alive in these games. This is the downside to framing all comedy stylings around celebrity anecdotes: There simply aren’t many good places for the performers to tweak each other when they are reenacting a scene from Mark Cuban’s life. Those without much experience watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? or Improv-A-Ganza probably won’t miss those types of moments; those looking for the looseness of those programs, however, won’t find it here. In some ways, the tight ship that Trust Me runs is a good thing. But longtime fans of these improvisers will sense what’s missing.
Not everything works, which is to be expected by the very nature of improvisation. But there’s one game, “Face The Music,” that has its flaw in its central concept. In this, a professional mime comes onstage and acts out a popular song while the celebrity watches with noise-cancelling headphones pressed to their ears. It’s as bad as it sounds. (The mime doesn’t wear makeup, so celebrities as well as the audience are spared that particular form of hell.) But when Kelly Osbourne’s “I need to have a word with my agent” look is the funniest thing about a segment, you know there’s a problem.
Still, in terms of hit-to-miss ratio, Trust Me is a successful improvisation program. Willard’s amiable style, the celebrities’ game attitudes, and the performers’ stellar skills make each episode fly by. Placing celebrities at the center of the show is understandable from a marketing perspective, but less time setting up the games and more time simply letting the performers work their improv magic might have earned the show an even higher grade. But ABC doesn’t want just viewers who crave sushi. And because the celebrities themselves don’t actively detract from the proceedings and occasionally even enhance it, there’s nothing wrong with a more widely consumed culture appearing on this comedic plate.
- Others performers in other episodes will include Greg Proops, Nicole Parker, and Josie Lawrence. Craig Cackowski appears in the Osbourne episode, but is given little to do other than impersonate Ozzy.
- As bad as the miming in “Face The Music” is, it’s made doubly bad due to the fact that each song is actually a cover of the original. Can we have noise-cancelling headphones, please?