Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Welcome to the Captain. Don't Check Your Bag Just Yet.
If nothing else, the writers’ strike has proven that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. It’s also borne witness to the truism that when empires are crumbling—in this case, the omnipotent studios and their producer lackeys—they’ll resort to bread and circuses to placate the populace. That’s why we’ve been treated to such high-minded entertainment as American Gladiators, a retread of a late-night nineties syndicated series elevated to cultural revolution by the presence of Hulk Hogan and the PR machine of the almighty Peacock. Testosterone and spandex sells, baby!

It’s also why we’re getting “new” episodes of series that have been languishing in purgatory for the past three months. In actuality, they’re episodes shot before the writers’ rebellion, which the studio empire shelved in case of a prolonged strike. Even that hasn’t weakened the writers’ resolve, fueled by Starbuck’s lattes as they are. That leaves the studios and producers with their last line of defense—they’re left with the final option. They’re pulling out the second stringers that didn’t make the cut last May, and promoting them as “brilliant.”

Welcome to the Captain is a case in point. The good news is that it’s replacing (at least for now) Big Bang Theory, one of the most ill-conceived shows about nerds in recent memory. The bad news is that Welcome to the Captain is an ill-conceived show about the tragically hip, blissfully languishing in their faded glories. The residents of El Capitan, who inexplicably call it the Captain, are mostly broadly drawn Hollywood has-beens and wannabes. There’s Saul (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development), who prefers to be called “Uncle Saul”, who’s been living there for 26 years, and loves to remind anybody who’ll listen that he was a writer on Three’s Company, or as he calls it, “3-Co.” Along with the Captain’s doorman, Jesus (Al Madrigal)--yes, pronounced biblically—he’s the self-appointed gossipy leader of the community. Then there’s Astrid (Valerie Azlynn), the obligatory blonde bimbo with stars in her eyes who prefaces most nouns with an ‘s’. Of the oddball supporting characters, a remarkably preserved Raquel Welch stands out as Charlene Van Ark, a seasoned seductress who once starred in a seventies prime time soap.

It takes a certain amount of genius, or at least chutzpah, to make quirky characters in a rooming house environment work. Fawlty Towers pulled it off by virtue of absurdity, and did so brilliantly. Welcome to the Captain stops short of going over the top, and puts the absurdity on the back burner in favor of romance. The show centers on Josh Flug (Fran Kranz), who had won an Oscar for best short film years back, but is suffering from writer’s block. The Hollywood lifestyle isn’t helping, either. He’s a New Yorker, and he’s not adapting to the West Coast very well. But at the urging of his best friend (and accountant to the stars) Marty Tanner (Chris Klein), agrees to make a last stand by moving into the Captain. After the set-up encounters with the oddballs, he meets, and falls for, the aptly named Hope (Joanna Garcia), a not very good acupuncturist whom he sees as his soulmate.

What ensues are the requisite boy chases girl themes that are a mainstay of sitcoms from Dobie Gillis to Friends. And that’s the problem with Welcome to the Captain. It’s not that it’s a bad show—there are moments in it that are genuinely funny. But it teeters between the absurd and the romantic, and never finds a focus between the two. Written and directed by John Hamburg (Meet the Parents), it attempts to balance the edgy vitality of premium cable programs with perceived middle class values.

The second episode, which airs Monday 11 February, does venture a bit m Welcome to the Captain doesn’t look to be a post writers’ strike salvation. ore into the absurd, and offers a glimmer of hope for the series. It’s too early to predict its demise, but