The Good Guys returns tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox.
Retooling. There are few more dreaded words by TV fans. The idea that your favorite show - the show that you love and want to have babies with - is somehow inferior and needs to be tweaked, often by the network that airs it, rather than the people that make it, well, that idea can be horrifying. And, yeah, much of the time retooling just doesn't work. If The A.V. Club were to do an Inventory of shows that got better after networks meddled with them, it'd be very hard to go up above five, even if the rules were generous and permitted shows that were meddled with at the pilot stage (like when NBC insisted Seinfeld add a female character). Sure, making TV is a collaborative process, but that collaboration, usually, should be between the various artists who make the show. Right?
It's tempting to head for the hills and give up on Human Target and The Good Guys because both are being retooled. In the case of Human Target, the retooling is of the fairly classic variety: New characters are being added, and the show is getting a slightly tweaked premise (in that Christopher Chance will now work for one of the new characters). In the case of The Good Guys, though, it sure seems more like the usual work of a creative staff that's frantically trying to make a show work better through the course of its first season. It's not that The Good Guys was bad this summer. Indeed, it was largely a fun and amusing show with solid action, a great Bradley Whitford performance, and a terrific soundtrack. But there was also a sense that it wasn't quite what it could be, that the complicated formula it had set up for itself, wherein every case the guys tackled ended up being told via a needlessly elaborate time-jump method and led to some sort of much larger drug cartel when the bad guys were rounded up at the end.
Honestly, one of these gimmicks at once probably would have worked, but both of them together often made episodes of the show feel strained. The idea that two small-time cops keep stumbling upon giant criminal conspiracies is an amusing one, particularly when paired with the cops played by Whitford and partner Colin Hanks. The concept of telling a cop drama through the kinds of in-narrative flashbacks and flash-forwards that more serialized shows have made commonplace is also a pretty good one, though it's less obvious how it would be applied to comedy. There were enough good and funny episodes of The Good Guys to suggest that both of these elements could work together, but the episodes that fell down often fell down from an over-reliance on one or both of these elements.
In the summer run, the show also had a problem figuring out just how seriously to take its bad guys. In some episodes, they would be powerful criminals who, nonetheless, bumbled around as much as the leads. In other episodes, they would be small-time crooks who were treated fairly seriously. Considering that each episode of The Good Guys spends a surprisingly large amount of time hanging out with the bad guys, the show's treatment of these characters can often make or break an episode. It also didn't help that some episodes were so crammed with villains the editing needed to keep jumping to that the scenes between Whitford and Hanks - the best thing about the show - got short shrift. As a final complaint, the summer stretch also didn't use the female characters it has well, casting two very good actresses in the parts and mostly reducing them to scolds who pop up to tell Jack and Dan that they've crossed a line.
Yet when it went off the air, The Good Guys had found a kind of momentum that made for good, time-wasting TV. There are plenty of people out there who just want to turn on their TV to kill an hour or two, and if all of those people were watching The Good Guys, with its goofy humor and wild action, instead of Criminal Minds or something, the world would very likely be a better place. But something about The Good Guys caused it to tank in the ratings, saved to come back in the fall solely because Fox had ordered a full season and was going to air it, dammit. It's not immediately certain when in the production process the producers realized they needed to attract new viewers to somehow keep the show on the air, but it's obvious that point had been reached by the time all involved made "Vacation."
The most interesting thing about "Vacation" is how the gimmick of the time-leaping narrative has almost completely been removed. Most of the exposition about the criminals is simply told to the audience, rather than abruptly shoehorned in via flashback. The case that Dan and Jack pursue (while being suspended) is told in a straightforward fashion. Plot point A proceeds normally to plot point B, and though there are three groups the episode feels the need to drop in on - the main criminals, Jack and Dan, and everybody else involved in the criminal conspiracy to break a mountain of a man out of jail - the fact that the story is told in a logical progression makes the constant side-trips seem less out of place. Everything just seems a little less cluttered. It's tempting to miss the narrative time-jumps, and it's very likely that the show would have figured out how to use them consistently given enough time. But when the time to turn around ratings became short, the producers probably made the right call in minimizing this element.
Many of the other consistent complaints still stand. The various criminal portrayals are all over the map, from broadly comedic to deadly serious. (The show doesn't need to make all criminals dark and evil; it just needs to pick a tone within a single episode and stick to it.) The female characters continue to be little more than window dressing. And the fact that what the guys investigate always, always leads to some massive criminal thing is perhaps taken a little too seriously by the show as an element of its episode template. Now, these items weren't seriously hampering the show in the summer, and they don't seriously hamper it now. But they do remain things the producers hopefully tackle in the weeks to come.
Still, the best reason to watch this show is not only present but somewhat heightened in this episode. Dan and Jack remain fantastic comic creations, and their interplay is often genius, thanks to Whitford's ability to turn even the lamest of lines into a seminar in making things funny. Hanks has really come into his own in the Jack role, and the subtle story of how he's becoming more like his partner than even he would admit is starting to really pay off. In the climactic car chase scene - still featuring some of the best-executed action on TV - Jack is as much into what's going on as Dan, and that change has been a good one for the show. And check out the opening sequence - scored to The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" - to see just how well this show can use action and musical elements and how well Whitford and Hanks play off of those elements.
Any time a series is retooled and abandons some of the things it was initially trying to do, it's kind of a sad thing, even if those things were holding the show back. In "Vacation," it's obvious that the producers are still figuring out just how to tell a straightforward story without all of the time jumps, and, yeah, there's a temptation to miss all of the narrative trickery from before. But there's also a sense that the show is improved by focusing on the sorts of comic scenes it can create and amuse viewers with. "Vacation" isn't perfect, but it uses Dan, Jack, and even Julius pretty well, and that's good enough for now.
- We're likely going to drop coverage of this show after this write-up, unless readership perks up substantially. I'd like the night off, but if you simply can't live without weekly Good Guys write-ups, let me know. I do have a screener of next week's episode, so I can drop in on that, at least, if interest seems to be there.