Superstore. NBC. Monday, January 4, 8 p.m.
- Telenovela. NBC. Monday, January 4, 8:30 p.m.
- Angel from Hell. CBS. Thursday, January 7, 8:30 p.m.
Knowing that it's an election year, television is thoughtfully frontloading 2016 with comedies so we can get some laughs in before the notion of a warm bath and a straight razor (President Trump! President Sanders!) starts sounding irresistible. And they're all pretty funny, if not necessarily good marketing bets.
The biggest challenges probably face NBC's Telenovela, the first half (with Superstore, a kind of Walmartized version of The Office) of what the network hopes will be a potent one-two comic punch. Produced by and starring Eva Longoria, Telenovela is a broad backstage mockery of the breathless, bosomy Spanish-language soaps from which it takes its name.
Longoria, in a sense, has been preparing for this for years; she spent eight seasons in the cast of ABC's Desperate Housewives, which was itself something of a comic take on novelas, and four as a producer on Devious Maids, Lifetime's tongue-in-cheek adaptation of a Mexican novela about cunning and oversexed household help.
She makes an amusing job of it, playing a deracinated American Latina star of a Miami-produced novela, who—neither speaking Spanish nor dancing salsa—gets by mainly with smoky stares and down-to-there dresses. "The real me loves eating cheese puffs and relies heavily on boob tape for cleavage," she confesses to one of her bosses.
A lot of Telenovela's humor will stretch across any cultural divide: The treacherously petty bitchery of her castmates; her vengeful rivalry with her actor ex-husband, brought onto the show as her romantic interest because her sleazy producers think it will goose ratings; and pratfalls and wig-fires galore brought on by the network's cheapjack props.
But what distinguishes Telenovela from any other sitcom—its relentless lampooning of every convention of its own genre, from the pistolero mustaches of the villains to the ever-escalating décolletage wars of the heroines—may fall flat with an audience that's largely unfamiliar with real novelas. (Even their less-saucy American cousins, the soaps that dominated daytime programming for the first three decades of television, have largely vanished.)
As I watched Telenovela, I kept thinking of a 1985 Saturday Night Live sketch with Madonna that roasted the madcap Spanish-language variety show Sabado Gigante. After years of living in Miami and Latin America, I found the SNL send-up hilarious, but most of my friends were throwing their TV sets out of windows.
Superstore, NBC's other debut, is far less problematic from a commerce standpoint. Written and created by veteran The Office Producer Justin Spitzer, it's about the epic and ancient struggle of man against dull job and moronic boss.
It's set in a big-box discount store staffed with workers ranging from damaged to deranged. There's spacey but affable Manager Glenn (Mark McKinney, The Kids In The Hall), who, spotting a crush of customers in the check-out line, wonders if it's a race riot or the Rapture. (Actually, it turns out to be a computer glitch that's marked everything in the store down to 25 cents.) There's also Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom, Shameless), a sweet, dim and very pregnant teenage cashier ("I didn't set out to have a baby, it came from sex."). And then there's Dina (Lauren Ash, Super Fun Night), the fascist HR head who believes no problem in life is too complex for resolution by either the store's employee manual or one of the shotguns back in sporting goods. This is a bunch whose idea of good after-work fun is stuffing the dumpster full of naked mannequins, then hiding nearby to watch the garbagemen freak out.
Yet at the core of all the eccentric frolic and folly is a sobering existential dilemma. On one side of is bright-eyed newbie Jonah (Ben Feldman, Mad Men), who thinks that doing a job well can be fun and even beautiful. On the other, there's old-hand Assistant Manager Amy (America Ferrera, Ugly Betty), who after 10 years on the job is suffering soul-killing burnout. "Tomorrow is going to be just like today," she tells him. "And I know that because today is just like yesterday. So sometimes it's hard to find those moments of beauty."
And, because this is a sitcom and not a documentary on suicide hotlines, there's a faint romantic spark between Jonah and Amy that will have to jump not just the chasm of Amy's ennui but generational and marital divides to ignite into a flame. Even if it never happens, Superstore is funny enough to be well worth your while.
Angel from Hell, originally penciled into the CBS fall schedule and postponed for reasons too secret to disclose but probably having to do with something one of the network's crack programming experts saw in the entrails of a chicken, also has an emotional core surrounded by multiple layers of beguiling loopiness.
It stars Maggie Lawson (Psych) as Allison, a workaholic young dermatologist cluelessly wandering the emotion ruins of her mother's death and a going-nowhere romance. Until, that is, an unhinged street magician named Amy (best trick: pulling a taquitos out of ears) barges into her office claiming to be her guardian angel. Not that the encounter appears fruitful at first. "I'm a skin doctor," says Allison. "I think what you need is a psychiatrist."
No wonder. Celestial screw-up—or maybe just a homeless nutjob; it's never entirely clear—Amy (Jane Lynch, Glee) is sort of what Clarence Oddbody, the guardian angel of It's A Wonderful Life, might have been like if Frank Capra's testicles had ever fully descended.
Belching like a smokestack, constantly hitting on a hip flask of créme de menthe and prone to diarrhea, she blurts out Allison's secrets like a rogue NSA officer on a Wikileaks jag. And while Amy admits the Guardian Angel Code says she's supposed to exercise her influence subtly, she says Allison's life is just too much of mess for that: "If I see you go down a dangerous path, what am I going to do, stick my head up my ass?"
Lynch, after two decades of dithering around in nondescript character roles, seems finally to have found her scabrously funny metier as the Mussolinian gym teacher in Glee, and she exuberantly echoes the performance here. Her chemistry with Lawson is the best since Madame Curie hooked up with radium, and just as radioactive. Surely we will not see any time soon on television another angel speak aloud the phrase "dry-humping."