Wednesday, November 15, 2017

TV REVIEW: Hulu's 'There's... Johnny!'

Hulu will debut its new original comedy series There's... Johnny! on Thursday, November 16. The comedy stars Ian Nelson, Jane Levy, T'Keyah Crystal Keymah and Tony Danza.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its first two episodes.

Seeso is a now defunct streaming service that was associated with NBC. It started a few years ago. It had original content as well as streaming rights to a couple of random shows. It never broke out in the zeitgeist. It never became a legitimate rival to Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. It probably never rose to the comparison of CBS All Access, YouTube Red or Facebook Watch. That's why Seeso shut down in August 2017. Honestly, I never felt the urgency to learn what Seeso was. I had heard that it was offering originals. But it was just so easy to completely forget about it and what it was trying to accomplish. It wasn't really until its shutdown that I fully realized that it had shows that were now without a home. One of those was There's... Johnny! This show had a premiere date on Seeso before it shutdown. Those episodes were never shown on the platform and the creative team had to find another home for it. They got very lucky in Hulu picking up the series. Its entire seven episode first season will drop on the streaming service on Thursday, November 16. I've only seen the first two episodes. But if Seeso was creating content of this kind of quality, then I'm wondering what other shows I - and probably many others - missed out on during the last few years. That's not to say that There's Johnny! is great. It has problems like most shows do. But the execution is very charming and earnest. I went into the show knowing next to nothing about it. I came out eager to see the rest of the season. That's about as good of an endorsement as I can make right now.

Co-created by Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon with David Gordon Green directing, There's... Johnny! takes a behind-the-scenes look at The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1972 after it made the move from New York to Los Angeles. It's produced in association with the Carson estate to use archival footage of the various broadcasts of the show. Carson himself appears only through that archival footage. There's no actor trying to step into his iconic shoes. In fact, none of the actors are playing historical figures who were associated with the show - either as personalities, executives or guests. Yes, the series is all about what it took to produce the show each night which includes writing monologues full of jokes and wrangling celebrity guests. But every famous person mentioned in each episode appears solely through archival footage. It's a unique blend that could be quite obvious and annoying. And yet, the show does a nice job in making it seem like its unique characters are actually a part of historical events as they are happening right in front of their eyes. They are the ones responsible for the successes and the failures. Again, it's tricky. And it's noticeable in a couple of spots that the show is being a little heavy-handed in explaining certain things. But overall, the transitions are quite smooth in making it seem like celebrities are in the orbit of this environment while it still being an ordinary job to hundreds of people who work in the studio.

And so, the lead character is Ian Nelson's Andy Klavin, a Nebraska transplant who miraculously gets a job on the show. He's a little too much the epitome of an "aw, shucks!" character type. He's oblivious to the behind-the-scenes workings of Hollywood life. He's the audience surrogate character. We are experiencing everything about this world alongside him. He believes Johnny Carson actually responded to his fan mail and offered him a job. It's a solid case of miscommunication that eventually escalates to a sequence where Andy is just fooling around on the set with no one else in the building. It's asking a lot of the audience to believe that Andy is that oblivious while competent enough to be an engaging main character. Nelson has that youthful glow to him that makes it believable that he is a simple, average guy from Middle America who adores Carson and hasn't become cynical about the demands of living in Los Angeles. That's where the other characters come into play. Jane Levy plays Joy, a talent coordinator and segment producer on the show who is always fighting against the impression people have of her because her father is a famous agent. Elsewhere, there is a group of writers who are always convening in the writers room coming up with jokes and doing Carson impressions while making fun of the physical work being done elsewhere in the building. And then, there's Tony Danza who plays a high-up executive who doesn't do much but whose influence is still pretty widespread throughout the set.

Mostly, these opening episodes are just so pleasant to watch. It's a nice love letter to the Johnny Carson era of The Tonight Show. It appreciates what the energy was like on that set while highlighting the many ways people worry about losing their jobs. Andy fears that losing a dog before a segment will get him into trouble. The writers worry that they need to deliver on the big anniversary show otherwise their contracts won't be renewed. Joy wonders if she is truly making the most of her life or if she's just failing to live up to her dreams. It's a show full of familiar sitcom setups. As such, it's not all that revelatory in its actual storytelling. It's just competently made and acted. The more specific the show can become in this world the better off it will be in the end. The character relationships need to become something special. Everything that happens with Carson will happen from afar. And so, the other relationships need to make up for that. Of course, there's already the awkwardness that comes from Andy and Joy being flung into a will-they?/won't-they? sexual dynamic. It's really forced and awkwardly introduced in the premiere that highlights the freedom of sexual harassment in the workplace and the ideas of free love during the 1970s. But it's mostly just ensuring that every interaction between the two leaves them unsure of how to talk with each other even though they do enjoy each other's company. Plus, everything seems to ultimately go their way. That could be an annoying narrative tick throughout the season. Not everything can work out for Joy and Andy as much as they do in these opening episodes. It would be fascinating to see them fail and have to forge ahead somehow. Again, specificity with these characters is key. But I'm intrigued to see more.