This short-lived workplace comedy from Victor Fresco (Andy Richter Controls the Universe) peaked with a brilliant high-concept set-up: a memo cautioning employees not to use offensive language replaces the “not” with a “now.”  Since Veridian Dynamic is staffed with bureaucrats and obedient cube-drones, everyone blindly obeys the obvious typo and the swear words begin to fly.  Dilweed.  It’s a classic sitcom plot (by veteran sitcom writer Mike Teverbaugh) because it’s driven forward by each main character’s reaction to the circumstances: free spirit Linda (Andrea Anders) finds the profanity liberating; controlling middle manager Ted (Jay Harrington) takes it as a threat to his authority; nerdy scientists Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett) craft a mathematical formula for effective cursing (which actually works, by the way).  Buttmunch.

Teverbaugh’s premise is also transgressive in the way it subverts television censorship requirements to get laughs.  The joke is that Ted and company invent an off-the-wall alternative slang to insult each other; if the show ran on HBO and the characters could use real F-words, the gag wouldn’t work.  Back-alley crab muffin.  (Although a blooper reel featuring actual blue language is still pretty funny, you walking cock-cozy.)  A subplot in which heartless corporate exec Veronica (Portia de Rossi) deals with unexpected guilt over a stolen promotion by consolation-dating her sad sack rival (Chris Parnell) is more traditional, but it’s still worthwhile because it sets up lines like: “Then I let him feel me up.  I think I might need new breasts.  These are covered in sadness.”  That’s an example of the kind of presentational wit that Better Off Ted came to specialize in after it evolved from a topical satire (like The Office) to a non-realistic farce (like 30 Rock) driven more by dazzling verbal humor than by situations or characters.  You’ve heard of comedians’ comedians; this is comedy writers’ comedy writing, you sad jar of hobo urine.

When I launched the Classic TV History website three years and change ago, one of the exclusive pieces that debuted there was my personal, subjective, opinonated list of the one hundred greatest American television episodes of all time.  Immodestly, I thought the article included some pretty good short-form writing, and it certainly inspired some lively discussion in the comments here.

But there was one problem: I only wrote about fifty television episodes.  The idea was that this would be a list to grow on, one to which I would add over my, and the website’s, lifetime.  I explained that in the introduction but I guess it didn’t register, or else people really want the whole hundred when they’re promised a hundred of something, because occasionally I still get e-mails asking, “Where’s the rest?”  (Or, “Hey dumbass, your list only has fifty shows on it.”)  In truth, I had another ten or so episodes that I had planned to add to that page at some point, but I never got around to it.  For the rest, readers would to have to wait until I got around to seeing, well, every television show ever made.  Not that I have a life or anything, but that’s still going to take awhile.

Then it hit me that the solution to this problem was the solution to more or less everything these days: blogify it.  So from now on, as I discover new episodes that belong in the canon, I’ll write about them here first, and eventually archive them on the 100 Episodes page.  Without further ado, number fifty-one in a series.

 

Gordon Forbes steps out onto a window ledge and threatens suicide unless his wife is brought to him.  Only one problem: when private eye Honey West goes to pick her up, she finds that Mrs. Forbes has been shot dead.  This episode represents a wistful choice, because Honey West is one of those “classic” television shows that was never very good.  Most of the scripts were written by journeymen, and the stories and characters are cartoonish and silly.  The producer, Aaron Spelling, liked to leer at the ladies when the gaze, and the violence, was directed against them; see Burke’s Law (from which Honey West was a spin-off) and Charlie’s Angels.  But when he was handed a female protagonist, Spelling turned prude and made the show a live-action cartoon that would have fit in just fine on Saturday morning.  Only in the series’ pilot, written by Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by Walter Grauman, do we get a glimpse of Honey as she was meant to be: dangerous, sexy, chic.  Link and Levinson returned twice – fittingly, for the final episode – and arguably topped themselves with their final script, despite the punctuation error in the title.  The dialogue in “Eerie, Airy” is sophisticated, the pace fast, the stakes life-or-death, and the twist ending devilishly clever.  If U.N.C.L.E. fans pine for an alternate history where Batman kept the camp to itself, then I’ll take a Honey West led by L & L.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers