Last month, TV Land announced its rebranding efforts, including a new, simpler logo that separates its newer programs from its daytime block of older reruns, which now fall under the banner of “TV Land Classic” (a name that reads as redundant). It was a clear attempt to shift focus from baby boomers to Generation X, an interesting move for the network — if anyone paid attention to it.
For a while, TV Land’s formula for original programming was practically set in stone: pick a veteran sitcom star and place them in simplistic, multi-camera comedy. The network doubled as a career reinvigoration machine — or at least aimed to; plenty of the shows haven’t exactly performed well. The Nanny‘s Fran Drescher went on to Happily Divorced (two seasons); The Golden Girls‘ Betty White had the surprise hit Hot in Cleveland (six seasons); George Segal (Just Shoot Me) and Jessica Walter (Arrested Development) starred in Retired at 35 (two seasons); and 2013’s one-season Kirstie reunited Cheers‘ Kirstie Alley and Rhea Perlman, and added Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards.
The series were all forgettable (with the possible exception of Hot in Cleveland), usually relying on easy-to-screw-up premises (a woman and her gay ex-husband, a woman and her newly discovered son) that TV Land easily screwed up and then canceled. But a few remain: The Exes, about three divorced men living together in an apartment (starring Scrubs‘ Donald Faision, Seinfeld‘s Wayne Knight, and 3rd Rock from the Sun‘s Kristen Johnston), begins the second half of its full (24 episodes!) fourth season tonight; The Soul Man, a Hot in Cleveland spinoff starring The Steve Harvey Show‘s Cedric the Entertainer as a former R&B singer/current minister, recently ended its fourth. Neither are great, though both are shows that I can’t stop watching, if only because they appeal to my very basic love of silly, but not necessarily funny, sitcoms.
But the failures far outweigh the network’s successes, which is perhaps one way to explain its recent attempts at shaking this original formula and skewing a little younger. Last year’s Jennifer Falls, starring Jaime Pressly and (again) Jessica Walter, was TV Land’s first single-camera comedy series, and while it was a noble attempt, it didn’t stick. But the recently renewed Younger had a surprisingly strong first season, improving vastly as it progressed, despite being the network’s biggest anomaly. The show stars Sutton Foster, hardly a sitcom veteran (the dramedy Bunheads was a quickly canceled cult hit), and skews decidedly, well, younger, with emphases on sex and modern technology, as well as references to everything from hashtags to Diva Cups.
Even with Younger, however, TV Land is often at best ignored and at worst a punchline. It’s hard to take the network seriously after programs like the god-awful Kirstie (in which Kirstie’s character wasn’t even named Kirstie) and the tone-deaf and shrill Happily Divorced — shows that I, inexplicably, watched in their entirety. These, along with The Exes, are by-the-numbers sitcoms, plugging in specific character names to comedy Mad Libs in order to create formulaic plots. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there is certainly an audience out there, but it doesn’t feel like a sustainable programming model.
Enter TV Land’s new(ish), original(ish) programs, both in the same vein as Younger (single-camera, sometimes a bit darker and more cynical, now marketed with Tumblr GIFs and Pinterest boards): Impastor and The Jim Gaffigan Show. The former stars Michael Rosenbaum as Buddy Dobbs, a gambling addict/con man who ends up pretending to be a gay pastor. While trying to outrun his debts and debating jumping off a bridge, a good Samaritan attempts to talk Buddy out of suicide but falls to his own death instead… so Buddy just assumes the guy’s identity. It is, at least, a unique premise, and Rosenbaum is a solid choice to pull it off, but Impastor quickly falls into tired plots and stereotypical characters.
Buddy is a straight man who is very interested in sex (is there any other kind of straight man on television?), but the man’s identity he stole was gay — meaning Buddy has to pretend in order to keep up appearances. While he thankfully doesn’t go over the top or act grossed out by his new sexuality (he mostly acts like himself; when his sexuality is questioned by a bratty teen boy, he responds, “I don’t know what a gay person is supposed to seem like, but make no mistake: I like cock”), the church secretary, a gay man named Russell (Mike Kosinski), is a broad stereotype who quickly becomes grating, especially as he continues to participate in an unspoken competition with slightly ditzy blond Alexa (Mircea Monroe) for Buddy’s heart (Alexa doesn’t believe that he’s gay).
Impastor can be somewhat enjoyable and is undeniably better than most of TV Land’s previous offerings, but that doesn’t make it good. It suffers from an overreliance on the kind of voiceover that explains far more than it needs to, as well as crass humor (the first episode includes a mother who’s concerned after she walks in on her son having sex with a melon). And it tries to go an almost Community-like route through Buddy’s slow realizations that maybe he belongs in this parish, and maybe he is helping people out, and maybe this fraud does deserve this second chance. (His speeches, in the form of sermons, are even vaguely reminiscent of a lesser Jeff Winger.) None of this works well for Impastor.
Fortunately, TV Land also has The Jim Gaffigan Show. A semi-autobiographical series, The Jim Gaffigan Show was previously developed by CBS — twice — before it ended up on TV Land. It’s actually a natural fit for this network: Gaffigan is a well-known name with an established fan base due to his stand-up, which is pretty clean (it’s food- and parenting-centric) and easily accessible to TV Land’s crowd. It’s a family sitcom that is actually funny, it doesn’t go out of its way to be cruel or offensive (though the bulk of one episode hilariously revolves around a drawing of a penis), and Gaffigan is a lovely, affable star.
The Jim Gaffigan Show is very much a softer Louie for an older audience. Gaffigan also plays a version of himself: a stand-up comic mostly known for his Pop-Tart jokes and a Catholic father of five (five!) children in a New York City apartment that is entirely too small. He does sets, he runs errands, he bumps into famous comedians (Hannibal Buress and Chris Rick pop up randomly; Michael Ian Black and Adam Goldberg have regular roles), he bumbles around, and he eats — a lot. The first few episodes feature a wide range of plots: one is about Jim getting a vasectomy; in another he’s photographed with a giant Bible (“I don’t want people to think I believe in God”), and faced with the praise and then backlash that follows; and another seamlessly transitions into a Law and Order parody before you even realize it. Somehow, almost of all it is funny.
The series is best when it focuses on Jim and Daniel (Michael Ian Black) and their lightly contemptuous relationship; Daniel is Jim’s wife’s (Ashley Williams) best friend and gay ex-boyfriend, and the two men trade jabs throughout the series the way reluctant friends do, making sure to never get too harsh. Adam Goldberg, as Jim’s best friend Dave, is also great here, and their friendship is casual and believable. In fact, all the relationships on the show are: there is an ease to Jim and his wife Jeannie (the real Jeannie Gaffigan is a writer), who love each other and joke around through all of their marital and parental frustrations.
Their marriage, however, does showcase the throwback nature of The Jim Gaffigan Show, with a familiar (and not totally welcome) feel: the bumbling husband who screws up all his errands and the hot wife who gives him these tasks and then gets irritated when he doesn’t complete them. But even this is not nearly as groan-worthy as it could be (and tends to be, in other sitcoms); the writing in all the scenes surrounding these moments is good enough to keep the show upbeat and promising.
TV Land has always been an underdog when it comes to its original programming, and that much hasn’t changed, but the network seems to be growing more confident — and more comfortable with single-camera comedy, no laugh tracks, and sitcom premises that are less broad. The much-hyped Jim Gaffigan Show is a good example of this newfound self-assurance; not only did TV Land release an episode for advance viewing, but each episode will air on Comedy Central a week after its premiere. The series might even be good enough to gain attention outside of TV Land’s established audience.