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April 21, 2009

Arrested talent keeps hope alive for Fox’s so-so Shut Up

Most people would probably agree that teaching is an honorable profession. You help others, teach the leaders of the future, and get a pretty sweet summer vacation. Unless, of course, you work for Knob Hill High School, the setting of the new Fox comedy, Sit Down, Shut Up. Focusing on the adventures—or, more accurately, misadventures—of the most inept high school staff in the world, Sit Down, Shut Up is an irreverent series that borders on being good, but doesn’t quite get there yet.

Sit Down, Shut Up is the latest from Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz. He brings with him Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Henry Winkler, and adds on a whole list of talent, drawing from SNL (Cheri Oteri and Will Forte) and Carnegie Hall (Kristin Chenoweth).

The show revolves around the faculty of Knob Hill High School, a group of people so dysfunctional that, to paraphrase one of the members of the cast, it’s a wonder they get out of bed in the morning. With these people, all children must be left behind. The main character of sorts is Bateman’s Larry Littlejunk, a gym teacher whose main concerns are preserving some semblance of order at Knob Hill and wooing the idiotic science teacher, Miracle Grohe (Chenoweth). Needless to say, his efforts in both directions prove impotent (pun very much intended). Rounding out the cast are a jockish imbecile (Arnett); a neurotic, porn-addicted German instructor (Winkler); a bisexual theater teacher (Kroll); a completely clueless assistant principal (Forte); and a ridiculously offensive caricature of a Middle Eastern janitor who speaks in gibberish but is dubbed in British English.

It’s best to judge a work based on its own merits rather than that of its predecessors, but it can’t be denied that Sit Down, Shut Up has a lot to live up to as far as its older sibling, Arrested Development, is concerned. Unlike Arrested Development, Sit Down, Shut Up can’t draw from the emotive potential of live actors—think Will Arnett or Jeffrey Tambor at their most ridiculous or Michael Cera at his most deadpan. Apparently Hurwitz wanted Sit Down, Shut Up to be a live-action show like the Australian original that inspired him, but for whatever reason found it necessary to abandon that for an mixed animated/live-action medium where the teachers are fully animated and the background is live-action. One wishes that he hadn’t. The mixed-medium presentation doesn’t contribute anything original to the show and comes across as a bit lazy.

But like Arrested Development, a lot of the humor is absurd and situational. The science teacher scorns science in favor of the mystical world (read: she’s a hippie), and the only levelheaded person in the building teaches gym, while the boneheaded jock teaches English. Arrested Development’s penchant for puns and wordplay is also kept alive. The name of Winkler’s character, Willard Deutschebog, begins to approach the level of Bob Loblaw-ian wordplay from Arrested Development. And some of the jokes are genuinely funny, like the Woody Allen-esque scene in which Deutschebog is caught buying “filthies” at a newspaper stand and attempts to conceal them with a cooking magazine. Pacific Rim, we find out, is not porn, but a culinary magazine.

In short, Sit Down, Shut Up is okay, but not good. Considering its comic pedigree, one expects more from the voice talent and writing. That being said, there’s tremendous potential as the series progresses. For one, pilots, even with great shows like 30 Rock, aren’t for the most part the funniest episodes of the series. Next week’s episode, for example, seems much more cohesive, less obvious, and more entertaining than the pilot.

Fox has the unfortunate habit of cancelling excellent comedies—Arrested Development and Family Guy twice—while keeping mediocre shows like American Dad around. I’m not prepared to assign Sit Down, Shut Up to either side just yet, as there’s plenty of material in the series to work with and eventually build a better show. But it’s going to be a while before it gets good enough for Fox to cancel.