Wednesday, August 23, 2017

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Disjointed'

Netflix will drop the first season of its new original comedy series Disjointed on Friday, August 25. The comedy stars Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Ho, Tone Bell, Elizabeth Alderfer, Dougie Baldwin, Chris Redd, Betsy Sodaro and Aaron Moten.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening four episodes.

Kathy Bates won her first Emmy for a guest appearance on CBS' Two and a Half Men where she played the ghost of Charlie Sheen. That sounds completely ridiculous but absolutely true. She received numerous nominations before that but never won. Since then, she has won again from her collaboration with Ryan Murphy on American Horror Story. But Chuck Lorre was the one responsible for Bates' first Emmy win. She's more than capable of going from serious drama to broad comedy. That makes her one of the most versatile performers out there. She brings gravitas to any project she is in - no matter how silly it ultimately is. So, it's not surprising that she is reteaming with Chuck Lorre for a new multi-camera comedy on Netflix. Disjointed is Lorre's first project for a streaming platform. It's clear that he enjoyed the creative experience because he already has a second project set up with Netflix. All of that happened before Disjointed even debuted. Netflix ordered 20 episodes for the first season of this show. So, it still has the feeling of a broadcast comedy but with a few more minutes in each episode. It's still filmed in front a live studio audience with broad and raunchy humor at the heart of the series. But the comedy is a complete mess as well.

I first became concerned about Disjointed when Netflix sent out four episodes for review. They weren't the first four episodes of the season. Instead, they were four random episodes from the first season - the first, third, eighth and ninth. That signaled to me right away that the streaming service was hoping to get the best episodes out there in order to prop up the pre-air reviews. But if these four episodes were the best of the season, then I have zero interest in watching the remaining ones. That opinion was basically formed after a problematic premiere and the three additional episodes did nothing to change my opinion of the show. It definitely has admirable ambitions. But the execution is just too weird and lame to amount to much. It plays more as a grand experiment for Lorre (as well as series co-creator David Javerbaum) in a new format then a potential new breakout show. Some of the experimentation is interesting. Netflix affords that for its creators. But most of it just feels random and uninspired. They are there in order to prop up the uniqueness of this show.

The story of Disjointed follows Bates' Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, the owner of a marijuana dispensary in California. She has been a lifelong activist for marijuana legalization. And now, the state has legalized it for recreational use. That has the potential to change up her business model and life's work for good. She spent her whole life fighting for this cause. But now, she fears that she'll become the very institution she rallied against if she approaches this business for how much money it can make her. She doesn't want to find a way to profit off this new freedom as quickly as possible. She just wants to help people in her own special way. Furthermore, her son, Travis (Aaron Moten), has just returned home from college with grand ideas about how to make the business more profitable. The dispensary also employs three "budtenders" - Pete (Dougie Baldwin), Jenny (Elizabeth Ho) and Olivia (Elizabeth Alderfer) - with veteran Carter (Tone Bell) acting as an on-site security guard. It's essentially a workplace show for a new and emerging business in 2017. The setup is very traditional. Ruth clashes with Travis because they have different ideas about the business. The season is essentially about him earning her support and respect as a businessman.

But there are very clearly moments where Disjointed desperately wants to be a single-camera comedy. It does quick cuts in close succession in order to amplify a specific story. But more importantly, it has these wildly over-the-top fantasy moments. They are moments that would play better in the single-camera format. It's just suppose to be accepted right away that these moments of playing solely to the audience and not the other characters of this world are just commonplace. So, Carter's PTSD from the war is dramatized through several different animation styles coupled with spoken word performances. And then, Jenny breaks into an epic song where a spotlight shines on her and she gets an instantaneous wardrobe makeover simply because her parents sent her a new water filter. Later on, there's even a scene where enough stress forces Ruth to hallucinate another version of herself and the two just have long conversations for awhile. That's the type of show that Disjointed is. They are jarring moments that don't really work all of the time. It depends entirely on what the purpose of the joke and the change in format is. With the PTSD stuff, it's interesting because it's digging deeper on a serious topic. But too often, these breaks from format happen because of the broad laughs they will generate from a studio audience.

This in turn creates a problem for the show regarding what type of humor it wants to showcase. It's very erratic and scattered with its tone. If you've seen Mom, you know that Chuck Lorre can handle adult subject matter very well. There are attempts at seriousness in Disjointed too. But they are largely confined to one character, Carter. So at times, it feels like Tone Bell is on a completely different show than everyone else. Bates can handle that transition as well. Again, she excels at both comedy and drama. But most of the time, the writing is asking Ruth to be this very broad character. The show's humor regarding stoner culture is very one-note as well. Lorre has had characters who smoked marijuana on his previous shows. He could just never actually show them smoking a joint or from a bong. Here, those limitations are gone. But it's problematic because everyone is doing it and everyone feels like the same character archetype. Yes, there's some variety. There are the stoners in a relationship who massively misread every single situation. Then, there's one who is completely indifferent to smoking. Then, there's one who needs it for the therapeutic advantages. But they all ultimately have the same reactions after they light up. It should bring some uniformity in tone and humor. But the type of jokes the show is selling don't really work. The balance just feels off. So at the end of the day, it feels like Disjointed is a massive work in progress. It may figure things out by the end of its run. But I can't say it's an enjoyable experience potentially getting to something greater. The eighth and ninth episodes seemed to be of the exact same quality as the first one. So, it's probably not worth wasting your time on it.