Call Me Fitz debuts tonight on DirecTV’s Channel 101 at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Call Me Fitz, a Canadian import picked up by DirecTV’s Channel 101, takes a little while to get going, but it eventually finds a nice, sly rhythm. Ostensibly a comedy, it’s more in line with the recent wave of HBO and Showtime dramedies, in that it’s rarely laugh out loud funny, but there’s a dark comic sensibility underlying everything that unexpectedly lightens the mood. The show it’s most reminiscent of is HBO’s Hung, but while it’s probably better than Hung, it doesn’t have anything as striking in its premise as Hung’s desire to examine the way that the crumbling of Detroit reflects the crumbling of its characters’ lives. Call Me Fitz just wants to revel in the naughty, then rub our noses in how that’s a bad thing. Sometimes it works; many other times, it doesn’t.
The worst thing about the show is its main character, Richard “Dick Fitz” Fitzgerald. Jason Priestley plays the role, and while he does his damnedest to make the part work, as written, it probably just couldn’t. Fitz is that only-on-TV anachronism, a man who longs for the days of the Rat Pack and ‘50s and ‘60s Las Vegas, when the men were men and could treat the women like whores. He over-indulges in just about everything. He has a woman in nearly every business establishment in the small town where he lives and works. He’s a car salesman, with all of the expected dishonesty and weasel-like nature that goes along with that occupation. Inexplicably, he’s irresistible to women, with only two females in the entire show—one of whom is his sister—able to see through his bullshit. The show loses its strength when it isn’t quite sure whether we’re supposed to find Fitz charming, rogueish, and fun or if we’re supposed to pity him and wonder why he’s never grown up.
Priestley is over 40, and while he’s still a handsome man, he’s happy to play the character as that sort of creepy old dude you see every so often, the one who’s still able to score but seems increasingly desperate to do so. And at times—particularly in the second of two episodes sent out to critics—the show does a good job of avoiding the sense that Fitz is some sort of hero we’re supposed to be cheering on. It would be far too easy for the show to fall into Californification syndrome, where the repulsive hero is to be seen as some sort of fucking awesome champion who says what we’re all really thinking and does what we all wish we could do. The show is aware of Fitz’s weaknesses as something more than a plot point that occasionally drops in to remind us we’re not supposed to be like this guy. Indeed, Call Me Fitz is built entirely around the idea of Fitz’s redemption.
And it’s here that I have to be cagey, because I want to avoid spoilers for tonight’s pilot. The pilot is a fairly weak episode of television, and it’s largely because it spends most of the half-hour running time setting up the premise of the show. (When will comedy writers learn this is rarely—if ever—an effective way to start a comedy series in the modern era?) But one of its primary weaknesses is that we’re forced to hang out with Fitz all this time and find him witty and charming, even though he’s a giant asshole. Without someone to counteract Fitz, the show can be just a bit unbearable, and Priestley doesn’t have the automatic amount of sleazy charm that someone like David Duchovny brings to the role of Hank Moody. The episode becomes a long collection of the man’s sins, gleefully retold, and the show doesn’t seem to have any particular stand on them. One minute, Fitz is an iconoclastic hero, living his life like one of those guys who didn’t let anybody tell him what to do. The next, he’s a jerk who needs a good comeuppance. The whiplash doesn’t entirely work.
Yet after Fitz gets into a car accident with potentially dire consequences for both himself and the car dealership, his father, who owns and operates the dealership, decides to sell half of his shares in the company to a mysterious man named Larry (Ernie Grunwald) who seems to have showed up out of nowhere. Just who is Larry? Why does he have such an interest in Fitz’s life? The pilot takes far too long teasing these issues out, when it might have been better off just having Larry come out with it, but once Larry reveals his mission within the show, the series becomes much more focused and sharp. As mentioned, this is a redemption story. It’s about a guy who’s such an unrepentant asshole because it’s going to be about the guy becoming a better person. And that’s only interesting to watch if he’s so bad that his eventual goodness seems like some sort of miracle.
Larry’s presence also enlivens the other characters on the show. Suddenly, bimbo receptionist Sonja (Brooke Nevin) is more than just the hot chick Fitz is sleeping with at work. She has actual goals and ambitions of her own. Similarly, mechanic Josh (Donavon Stinson) goes from a borderline extra to one of the funniest people on the show in the second episode, where he reveals a wealth of information from his former life. The only character not improved by Larry’s arrival is Fitz’s sister Meghan (Tracy Dawson), who serves such a similar function to Larry in the grand scheme of things that it’s not entirely clear why she needs to be there, other than as someone else for Fitz to disappoint.
There are still plenty of problems with Call Me Fitz. The car accident at the beginning of the pilot leaves a potential customer of Fitz’s in a coma, and the investigation into what really happened takes up far too much time and effort, particularly when involving a not particularly funny troop of demented Survivalist girls. Similarly, lawyer Kathleen (Ali Devon), who’s digging into the crash on her own time (and with the help of the girls), doesn’t really have a reason to exist within the show’s universe, though she’s clearly the woman whom Fitz will end up with when he’s all better. She’s not so much a character as a potential endpoint. And the owners of the car lot across the street from Fitz are just there so Fitz can make easy, politically incorrect jokes at their expense.
On top of everything else, there’s often a heavy sense of been there, done that wafting through this series. Even in the much-better second episode, there’s a lengthy scene set at an intervention that nobody really wants to be at, and it’s a scene that’s been done so many other times that it would be impossible to find a fresh take on it. There’s rarely a sense that the writers of this series—which was created by Sheri Elwood—have pushed themselves too much to think of something more creative than the first thing that pops into their heads. It’s as if the premise of the show seemed original enough to them that they thought they didn’t have to do any work beyond that.
But there are pleasures to be had here, nonetheless. Priestley’s character may not make a lot of sense, but he plays him well, and Grunwald makes a good foil for him. Many of the other actors are a lot of fun, and it has the benefit of a title sequence that seems irritating in its vague weirdness the first time you see it but makes a lot of hilarious sense once you know the full premise of the show. And there are a few deft visual gags here, as well as a handful of solid one-liners. Plus, the look of the show, filmed in Nova Scotia, is suitably grey and drab for the subject matter. There’s a lot of promise and potential inside of Call Me Fitz, but the show will need the help of someone very like the fictional Larry to keep it on the right path toward realizing that potential.