Mixology: “Closing Time”
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Mixology: “Closing Time”

Reflections on an experimental sitcom as fascinating as it was unpleasant

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Mixology

"Closing Time"

Season 1, Episode 13

When Mixology—ABC’s romantic comedy about 10 singles navigating a night out at the same bar—held a panel at January’s Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour, there were 15 people onstage. It was one of the largest panels of the tour, and it was a complicated one. Onstage were 10 actors, most unknown to the critics in the room, along with five executive producers. Two were the series’ showrunners, The Hangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore; one was Ryan Seacrest, flanked by two lieutenants from his production company, shifting into scripted programming for the first time. They were all supporting a show that many in the room didn’t seem to have watched, that was never going to appeal to the majority of critics, and that was particularly ill-received given that its plush post-Modern Family timeslot could have gone to one of a number of ABC series critics preferred (most notably Trophy Wife, since canceled).

Press tour is a weird place for midseason shows like Mixology for this reason. Although the show was given a strong timeslot, that timeslot has been a consistent failure for ABC, and earlier this year claimed Super Fun Night, which like Mixology was a clear attempt at reaching young viewers. This isn’t to say that critics wrote off the show entirely, but there was never the sense that this was ABC’s next breakout hit, and the panel reflected this: Seacrest was thrown some questions about his other life, the actors were asked to share their own experiences on nights out, and the producers fielded a few questions about whether it really matters if these people get laid or not.

In the process, though, I think we collectively lost track of what Mixology actually was—and was is the proper term, as the series was canceled by ABC two weeks ago. This is not to say that critics were wrong to question the stakes of a show about getting laid, or that Mixology is a great series that was misunderstood by critics who watched it and by and largely hated it (with a few exceptions). However, whereas other midseason comedies that come and go without much fanfare—see: CBS’ Friends With Better Lives—do so based on there being absolutely nothing to distinguish them from dozens of other failures, Mixology is a singular failure of a television program. The reasons it failed are complex, embedded both within the show’s basic structure and in choices made once the project became a reality; they’re also the same reasons it could have been a success, and why I’ve found it such a compelling series to follow. As unpleasant as the show and its characters are at times, Mixology is the kind of experimental storytelling that we don’t see enough of, and that deserves to be acknowledged alongside pieces that rightfully excoriate other elements of the series.

I don’t want to drone on about the show’s misogyny or the inherent challenges of the premise, both because the dearly departed David Sims—he’s not dead, just writing elsewhere—wrote an advance review covering that territory and I myself opined at length elsewhere about that press tour panel and the problems with the show’s premise. When I wrote that piece, I had seen half the season, and I found myself warming to the characters. After getting past the ugliness of the pilot, and the first five episodes introducing the characters and their backstories, the show started to settle into something of a rhythm. The characters had been developed enough to feel like real people: Some of those real people—mainly Bruce, the red-haired, bearded douchebag to end all douchebags—were horrible people, and others were pretty thinly drawn, but the show’s cast has an easy chemistry, and the introduction of new pairings brought some additional life into the storytelling.

One could suggest it’s a sort of Stockholm syndrome, but I’d argue that it’s inherent to the show’s premise that it would take time to warm up to the characters. The series’ structure largely mirrors an actual night out, awkward at the beginning before things begin to loosen up as they move along. The series’ ratings struggles obviously demonstrate that not all viewers were willing to work through the awkwardness, but doing so sort of made me feel like a survivor, and connected me with the characters. Although not quite the thrill ride of 24, Mixology nonetheless mirrors that show’s goal of embedding you with the show’s characters: just as we’re meant to feel like we’re in the trenches with Jack Bauer as he works to save the President, Mixology’s goal is to make us feel like we’re in the dating trenches with these 10 singles “ready to mingle.”

I consider this to be a legitimately compelling idea, one that seems a good fit for ABC’s broader schedule—think The Bachelor—if not for the Modern Family audience. And the broadcast networks would tend to agree, given that both NBC (Marry Me and A to Z) and ABC (Manhattan Love Story) ordered romantic comedy projects during this year’s upfronts. Although the show struggled to balance the stories on any given week, meaning that few caught on with real momentum as characters bounced back and forth between different potential pairings, I would say that the show crafted four moderately interesting pairings by season’s end, and “Closing Time” does a solid job of arguing for the complexity of relationships in its varied conclusions even if it never uses Semisonic’s “Closing Time” (which is as grievous an error as I can imagine).

I don’t know if “Closing Time” is a strikingly funnier episode than those that came before it, but it’s helped by the fact that characters are finally allowed to find resolution. The season structure meant that no one episode could reach a definitive conclusion, limiting the work any given episode could do for a particular character. With the end imminent, “Closing Time”—and to some degree last week’s “Last Call”—was able to commit to character development, and it does an admirable job of making the somewhat scattered episodic storytelling coalesce into clear conclusions. Those conclusions are still embedded with some highly reductive gender identities: Tom’s arc is basically that choosing Maya “makes him a real man” as opposed to pining after his ex, while Bruce and Jessica becoming “Friends Who Flirt” comes with the not-so-shocking knowledge that Bruce has never had a female friend before. But Liv breaking off a spontaneous trip to India and instead choosing to find herself on her own paid off some fun flighty work from Kate Simses, and although Cal and Kacey were often marginalized, their failed attempt to take things slow is solid enough. The closing voiceover gets a bit too pat with the idea that one night can change everything, but at the end of the day the storylines mapped out fit comfortably into tropes of romantic comedy and pay off a range of smaller storylines in earlier episodes.

It wasn’t enough to keep the show on the air, of course, for a number of reasons that speak to the show’s limitations. Mixology had the unfortunate luck of being ahead of the trend on the romantic comedy genre, it would appear, but it also made the unfortunate choice to put us in the trenches with someone as awful as Bruce. Now, to be fair, the casual misogyny of Bruce is not exclusive to this sitcom. In fact, in rewatching some episodes of How I Met Your Mother recently, I was reminded that Barney Stinson regularly dropped jokes similar to those Bruce makes throughout Mixology’s season. There is also a similar character in NBC’s Undateable, another dating-focused comedy that debuts next week. It’s true none of Barney’s comments are quite as gross as the phrase “smash her out”—which rears its ugly head again in the finale—but taken out of context, they are in a similar category of male sitcom characters with little respect for women.

The difference is that How I Met Your Mother is not a story told from the perspective of Barney Stinson: it’s told from the perspective of Ted, a hopeless romantic, and someone who—along with the rest of the characters—finds Barney’s schtick repulsive if also entertaining in its way. He’s a supporting character, and the show’s larger point of view is built around ideas and characters that adhere to a wildly different worldview. The rhythms of the multi-camera sitcom also help characters like Barney or Undateable’s Burski, as the heightened performance of the medium draws attention to the exaggerated sexism of these larger-than-life characters.

By comparison, Mixology has no clear point of view, and the closest thing it has is Bruce. With 10 separate characters, Mixology is constantly pinballing between storylines, to the point where any given episode is moving in about five different directions. Although serial storylines thread their way through the whole season, the “lead” shifts with any given episode, and that same character could play only small roles in the episodes that follow. While Tom and Maya—whose stories were introduced in the pilot, and who are the only two characters to get a clean “happy ending” of waking up in bed in love the next morning—are arguably the show’s central storyline, the uncertainty of the show’s premise means that everyone’s potentially a lead character right up until the moment the series concludes.

The only centering point is the voiceover narration, used to detail flashbacks and to offer too pat summaries of the events of a given episode (as though the producers were given notes by executives to make the show more like its Modern Family lead-in). And this voiceover narration is, for every storyline other than ones explicitly about Bruce, delivered by Bruce—or, more accurately, by actor Andrew Santino. Although producers toyed around with bringing in an omniscient narrator (ala Ron Howard in Arrested Development), they ultimately chose to use Santino and his co-star Ginger Gonzaga. It’s never entirely clear if they’re doing voiceover as their characters, or simply doing the voiceover work in the series, but the result is the same: If you, like me, couldn’t stand Bruce, you have to reconcile that he’s the perspective through which the series is being viewed, and he’s an enormous douchebag.

This narration didn’t preclude the series from telling some effectively subtle stories. There’s a strong storyline in “Last Call” where Tom and Liv, the show’s two most innocent and naïve characters, interact substantially for the first time and wonder if they’re in fact perfect for each other. It uses our cumulative knowledge of each character to ask real questions about compatibility, and it’s charming and engaging in the way that a romantic comedy anthology series should be. It’s not a particularly complex storyline, but the more the show played around with character combinations the more interesting it became, as though it was fully embracing its potential to use its revolving set of characters and explore different relationship dynamics in nuanced ways. In the end, especially given the redemptive arc he’s given in which he chooses platonic waffles over a night with the “Pumpkin Pounder” (I cringed just typing that), Bruce was not some sort of cancer that meant the show could never tell stories untainted by his disrespect for women.

However, the lingering effect of Bruce’s narration became clear as the series came to its conclusion, when you realize the entire show is predicated on one of the principles guiding Bruce’s awfulness: The ultimate stakes of the series come down to whether or not each of the characters goes home with someone at the end of the night. Although each character is given a range of other motivations through backstory—like Liv’s boring marriage, or Maya’s destructive relationships, or Tom getting over his fiancé—the thing that brings them together is that they want to hook up with someone on this particular night in this particular bar.

I realize this happens. I realize the show is pitched on the idea of singles going out for a night on the town and wanting to hook up. I realize that at least some of you are presuming I’m getting on the show’s case for this because this is not how my life works and I wish this was how it works. However, it’s a thing that transforms every character into Bruce, or at least makes the suggestion that Bruce is the accepted norm. Not every character hooks up: Jessica and Bruce stick to waffles, Liv and Ron call off the trip to India, and Dominic is left all alone. But as the show moves to its conclusion, it reaffirms that this is a universe where those are the exceptions to the rule, and it comes after a set of ugly sequences in “Last Call” where Bruce trawls the bar looking for a backup option, while in “Closing Time” Fab settles on the last remaining Hawaiian so the show can indulge in more awful Hawaii jokes in the series-ending tag.

There is no question Mixology is a better show by the end of its first season than it was at the beginning. The characters are more developed, the storylines are more complex, and I would generally say that it has a satisfying ending in regards to the character arcs laid out. However, the problem is that it’s still a show about a bar culture that is predicated on predatory dudes and desperate women, and those characterizations rear their ugly heads right when I am starting to connect with the characters.

It was an inevitable failure with the show’s format, more than it was a failure by the writers or the cast in bringing that format to life. The reality is that people would never change in one night in the same way that our impressions of those characters would change over the course of 13 weeks of television. When you’re trying to cram a season’s worth of development for a character into 13 episodes, that’s one thing; David noted this in his review of the first six episodes, in comparing Bruce with characters like Barney that very quickly gained complexity over the course of multiple seasons. However, when you’re trying to do it with a narrative that spans roughly eight hours, you’re inherently limited on how far you can evolve a character like Bruce. At no point did the show seem more stretched thin than when the show tried to sell us on Bruce being a decent human being in “Bruce and Fab,” working so hard in voiceover that I half-expected a zoom-in on his heart to show it growing 10 sizes. And so when the end of the night arrives, none of the characters are at the stage where they’re like “Fuck this meet market noise, I’m going to try to have a stable relationship with these people.” The specter of the hookup must remain, and it brings everything back to the same low stakes, “who cares who hooks up with whom?” critique that was so clear in the pilot.

I think it’s fair to call Mixology a failure: It won’t be coming back for a second season, and there are inherent flaws in the show that make it difficult to recommend it as a great piece of television that was unfairly maligned. That said, however, I would also argue that the structure of the series makes it a fascinating case study of television storytelling, and in the struggles of evolving beyond the traditional sitcom setup. The show created a premise it had no option of running away from, and it steered into so many skids that—although I may have been more interested than entertained—I had no reservations about seeing the series through to the end. The show failed because some of its challenges were insurmountable, while the efforts to solve other problems—like how to break stories, develop characters, or deploy voiceover—at times only made problems like Bruce worse inadvertently. Every action has an inverse reaction, and Mixology’s experimental storytelling required so much action it was inevitable the show would suffer for it. And yet the show also became far more interesting than it appeared at first glance as a result, and I would have gladly welcomed a second season if only to see how the writers would take such a limited premise and give it another try.

I don’t believe I will ever be on the same comic wavelength as the show’s creators, such that I would find Mixology hilarious. It’s also quite likely that I’m too disconnected from the premise of the series to see its observations as “slice of life” realism as opposed to reductive absurdity. And yet once I shifted my lens for the series—from “Who will hook up?” to the somewhat less marketable “How will the writers navigate an impossible premise to develop meaningful character arcs within the limitations of the broadcast sitcom?”—Mixology became a rabbit hole of what it means to develop a comedy in the contemporary moment. Although its cancellation will likely render it a cautionary tale, and I’ll admit that Bruce is a lot to get past, I would like to think that Mixology can at least serve as a productive lesson for those who dig deeper into its web of love, lust, and intolerable colloquialisms.

Episode Grade: B-
Season Grade: C+

Stray observations:

  • According to the ABC website, the bar on the show was actually called “Mix,” which I had never actually realized, or was not obvious enough in the show itself for me to pick up on.
  • “I’m going to smash her” vs. “I gotta go obliterate this chick before she comes to her senses”—Sophie’s choice of awful Bruce lines to choose from in the finale.
  • There’s a definite disconnect in an episode of television that has an Indian cab driver criticizing Liv’s romanticized notion of traveling to India and then ends with a ludicrous collection of Hawaiian sterotypes in which Fab’s hookup cooks spam, wants to watch Lilo & Stitch, and gives her a lei before she leaves.
  • But seriously, how did this episode not include Semisonic’s “Closing Time?” Surely Dan Wilson has enough Adele money that he’d be willing to license the song at a reasonable rate for a closing montage for a show that seems tailor-made for the song’s inclusion. As another TV critic put it to me as I shared my anger, “[“Closing Time” is] the ONLY reason you even do a show with this premise and format.” It’s also possible it would have been too on-the-nose, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be irrationally angry about it.
  • It ended up that neither Mixology nor How I Met Your Dad was picked up, but it looked possible for a moment that there would be a fight over Andrew Santino. I would’ve been curious how they would have juggled that if so, and whether he would have been contractually forced out of the CBS sitcom (which he may be forced out of if it gets picked up elsewhere, given there’s talk of some casting concerns with the first pilot).
  • In the interest of perspective, I wanted to resolve my curiosity regarding what a second season would look like, so I reached out to co-creator Jon Lucas. He was kind enough to oblige (my thanks to him for that), so this was the plan for the not-meant-to-be season two:

“Our concept for the second season was to do it all in one night, one year later, at the bar, but instead of short little flashbacks like we had in the first season, the vast majority of the show would be told in flashback, catching us up on what’s happened in the last year. In other words, if the first season was about the first night of relationships, the second season was about the first year of relationships. The idea behind this was to liberate the show from the one night constraint, allowing us to tell stories that took place over days, weeks, even months, and have more emotional resonance than what you could generate in just a few hours at a bar.”

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