Thursday, August 3, 2017

TV REVIEW: TBS' 'The Guest Book'

TBS will launch its new anthology series The Guest Book on Thursday, August 3 at 10/9c. with back-to-back episodes. The comedy stars Kellie Martin, Garret Dillahunt, Charlie Robinson, Carly Jibson, Aloma Wright and Lou Wilson.

Read on for my thoughts on the episodic anthology after screening its entire first season.

2016 turned out to be a really pivotal year for TBS. Along with TNT, it experienced a rebranding with its shows. Out were the traditional multi-camera sitcoms that generated very little buzz. In were high-concept single camera comedies. In that first year of business, the network launched six shows - Angie Tribeca, The Detour, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, People of Earth, Search Party and Wrecked - and all of them quickly became success stories. That was very impressive. I'm watching more shows on TBS now than ever before. All of them have the quality to deserve such buzz and acclaim. Well, Wrecked really isn't my thing. But only one of those shows being wrong is still a good thing. It proves that the development team at TBS really knows what they are doing. They had clear guidelines for what the new objective was for programming and were able to deliver on that. TBS has been able to turnaround much more quickly than TNT has. And now, TBS is set to launch its first new show of 2017 with Greg Garcia's The Guest Book. Unfortunately, it seems like the network has its first complete misfire under this new administration.

The Guest Book suffers unfavorably because of its close proximity to HBO's similarly premised Room 104 from The Duplass Brothers. Both shows are episodic anthologies where the main plot of each episode focuses on a different set of characters visiting the same hotel room. It's unfair to compare and contrast the two shows. The Guest Book will more than likely average a larger audience than Room 104 ever does simply because it's airing on basic cable instead of premium cable. Sure, it has an unproven time slot on TBS, which has never really used Thursdays to launch its new shows. But it's still much better than the Friday night time that Room 104 airs. And yet, Room 104 is much more experimental. It plays around with time, tone, casting and genre. It confines its story completely to the hotel room. It keeps things centered around that one central set piece. With The Guest Book, there is uniformity of tone because the actual stories are interconnected to one another. Each week's guests largely keep to their story. But they also play with the locals who appear in most of the season. Plus, there are running jokes about the upkeep of the central cabin - like a broken toilet not getting fixed for awhile. That makes The Guest Book feel less like an anthology and more like a standard serialized comedy with an overarching plot. The main characters in each episode change. But the story is still building to a climatic moment that brings all of them together by the end of the year. The finale itself is centered around the townsfolk as their various stories reach their resolutions at the central cabin after a season worth of development.

Of course, the uniformity of tone throughout the stories leaves The Guest Book feeling very familiar and tired out. The main stories do cover a wide range of people and life experiences. There's a religious woman (Stockard Channing) trying to convince her son's fiancé (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to join the church. There's an Amish boy (Sebastian Schier) on his Rumspringa. There's a man in witness protection (Tommy Dewey) trying to escape his federal agent (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). There's a love story of a guy (Andrew J. West) trying to help his girlfriend (Shannon Woodward) kick her crystal meth habit. All of these stories fundamentally boil down to wild hijinks. At times, the stories can be fun. But that largely boils down to the actors elevating the material. All of the laughs largely come from whatever the actors bring to the situation. So when it's clear that the actors can rise to that occasion, the show can be mildly amusing. But there are far too many stories that just don't work at all. The first episode especially is very troubling because it's a conventional story of a guy (Danny Pudi) trying to spice up his sex life with his nagging wife (Lauren Lapkus) and instead being blackmailed after going to a strip club. That story leaves a sour taste in the mouth and it's the audience's first introduction into this world. That's not the only problematic story either. A later episode features Michael Rapaport as a guy with OCD who is obsessively trying to trick a co-worker of his (Kate Micucci) into going on a date with him. So at times, the show has awareness of how awful its characters can be. But other times, it just plays things for laughs and hopes the audience doesn't think too hard about what these characters are actually doing.

The zany hijinks can be very problematic as well. The uniformity of tone means that every single situation is underscored by comedic music that makes it clear that the audience shouldn't be worried about any of this. So if a woman gets drugged in the middle of the night, it's a wacky situation apparently because the injection site gets infected and her attackers struggle to keep up the ruse. If a man comes to the cabin thinking he's suppose to kill himself there, it's more of a comedic situation over how he keeps trying and failing to do so. If a bear breaks into the cabin, it's funny because he immediately finds and ingests the drugs that are in the sink. If a woman goes missing while playing a game, it's much more interesting to spend time with her high and talking to a rat. Those are the kinds of situations that The Guest Book puts itself in. Not a lot of them are actually funny but they are played for laughs. And again, with the right cast, the material is slightly amusing. The messaging underneath the story is really troubling though. It makes me question just how seriously the audience should approach the material and be worried about the people involved.

The ongoing storylines are just as problematic. They are clearly characters and stories the audience is meant to engage with and be amused by when they all come to a head in the season finale. And yet, they are just minor details throughout the season. As such, they hit the same notes over and over again. The jokes themselves are pretty bad as well. So, the entire season revolves around the local strip club which blackmails its patrons by videotaping their sessions in the VIP room. The man who rents the cabin each week, Wilfrid (Charlie Robinson), finds himself caught up in that scandal. But the entirety of the story is a disagreement over whether or not he was "sucking titties." It's literally the same joke over and over again. It's not funny the first time and doesn't get any better in repetition. So, he's an incredibly pointless character. So are all of the individuals at the strip club (primarily Carly Jibson's Vivian and Lou Wilson's Frank) because they just talk about running this scam to get enough money to leave this town. That's it. It's incredibly vague about what they need this money for and what they would do if they suddenly had it. Instead, they are just one-note and awful people. Of course, there's also a sweet romance between local doctor, Andrew (Garret Dillahunt), who owns the cabin next door and local cop, Kimberly (Kellie Martin), who has numerous run-ins with the guests. That story is sweet and simple. The show would almost be better if it was told entirely from their perspectives. They have their wacky moments as well. But they feel much more grounded than the absurdism happening elsewhere. The final balance just makes things feel like a missed opportunity for the entire show.