Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. In this very special two-part episode we’re covering summer reruns: shows that have ended but deserve to be seen. Part 1 explored SFF; Part 2 tackles everything else geek-adjacent: absurd doctors, wisecracking cops, dorky caterers, reanimators, and Ms. Encyclopedia Brown. Be warned, these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS—nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.
The Road So Far: This British sitcom, created by the same geniuses behind Smack the Pony, took Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs and ran them through the sketch comedy grinder. Ostensibly, it’s about doctors in a Greater London hospital, but it’s really the craziest frakking thing this side of Community. Surgeon Caroline Todd is the new doc on the block, and she develops an intense crush on fellow surgeon Dr. “Mac” Macartney. Her other romantic interest is womanizing, slightly amoral/immoral anesthetist Guy Secretan. Doctor-in-training Boyce dedicates his life to tormenting uptight creep Dr. Statham, while the latter has set his obsessive sights on Joanna, Head of Human Resources. Mac and Caroline’s relationship is tested by Guy’s schemes, a coma, an illegitimate child, a murdered dwarf, an Oedipal complex run amok, and Sue White’s all-consuming insanity. Green Wing aired for 2 seasons, from 2004-2006, and, like any good British show, has had several Christmas specials and sketches for Comic Relief and The Secret Policeman’s Ball. The whole series is free to watch on Hulu.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Honestly, I don’t even need to write this bit of the review. I should just point you to YouTube and let you loose. Because it’s all good. All of it. The writing is clever, witty, sharp, quick, and biting to the point it makes Joss Whedon look like a slacker. The plots veer from vomit-inducing to cringe-worthy to schmaltzy schmoop. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, the kind of laugh that comes out first as a shout, deepens into a belly laugh, then goes on so long you start wheezing and tearing up. Green Wing stars some of the UK’s best comedic talent. Tamsin Greig (from Dylan Moran’s Black Books), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Hippies!), and Stephen Mangan (find Beyond the Pole right frakking now) sell the absurdity in such a way that it feels both natural and ludicrous. The rest of the hospital staff is fifty shades of loco, especially Mark Heap of Spaced and Sarah Alexander of Coupling.
Part absurdist humor and part romantic melodrama, Green Wing is all amazing. I’ve seen this show at least two dozen times since I randomly discovered it a few years after it was cancelled (I was IMDB stalking Greig from Black Books and Rhind-Tutt from Stardust, and was curious about the weird little hospital show on which they collided). In fact, I’m pretty much always in a state of rewatching this show. If it’s not regularly topping lists of the Best British sitcoms, then I don’t want to live in this world anymore. It occupies a completely unique strata of lunatic surrealism. It’s awkward and gross, uncomfortable and disturbing, hilarious and hideous, foul and charming, raucous and riotous, sweet and romantic, etc.
The Road So Far: “Hi, I’m Eddie. How do you like me so far?” After screwing up a drug bust, NYPD Detective Eddie Arlette (the always welcome Mark Valley) is banished to jolly olde England to clean up his mess. He and his too-aggressive bull terrier Pete let a flat from sparky Fiona, an arrangement she only agrees to when he promises not to tell her parents she lied about being enrolled in university. Arlette is hired by Scotland Yard, and his new partner is the possibly crazy, definitely deviant Monty Pippin (Julian Rhind-Tutt again!). Eddie and Fiona bicker, but is their relationship headed for Sam and Diane territory, or will she settle with her boring boyfriend? Is Ms. Moneypenny really completely shaved? And just how perverted is Monty? You’ll never find out because Fox is evil and cancelled it. Keen Eddie aired its first half during the summer of 2003 on Fox and the rest on Bravo in 2004. The DVD version is minus the original score, lost in the same hellish landscape of licensing issues that Ed is currently trapped in.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Ah, Keen Eddie. You forgot about this one, didn’t you? It’s basically in the same vein as two other unjustly cancelled Fox shows, Human Target (also starring Mark Valley) and The Good Guys. It was an action crime dramedy that was better than it had any right to be. It was a fun, funny, lightly witty, procedural that remembered not to take the procedure too seriously. This is quality B-television: light yet blunt, quirky yet energetic. It’s not your typical cop show. This one toys with Guy Ritchie stylizations and snarky repartee.
The fish-out-of-water scenarios are a little overdone (“football” vs. “soccer,” and suchlike), and often the script treads too far into cop show tropes (Eddie can weigh a little heavy on the Dirty Harry act). The storylines are entertaining and fast-paced, and in a show like this you just have to accept that plot holes are going to exist and aren’t going to be resolved. The cast is great, and by that I mean that Julian Rhind-Tutt is amazing and Mark Valley is television’s most underutilized and underestimated actor. He served in Operation Desert Storm, has a B.S. in Mathematics and Engineering from West Point, speaks fluent German, and is a frakking rugby player. (He and Joshua Jackson are the only things keeping me sane as I suffer through the first season of my Fringe rewatch.) There’s a lot of good stuff in Keen Eddie, both for what it was and what it could’ve become.
Clearly, Fox had no love for this show. As Firefly proved, an average viewing audience of 5.1 million was too low for Fox’s delicate sensibilities. They shunted it off to summer burnoff theatre (and in 2003, that was more or less a death sentence), rather than using it as the mid-season replacement it was intended to be, then kicked it out before it picked up any traction. Which was too bad. A majority of the critical response was pleasant surprise, and that was mine as well when I Netflixed it by accident. Keen Eddie was too nonconformist for network television. Had it premiered a few years later on cable, well, it’d probably be on its seventh season just like Burn Notice is.
TL;DR: If I were president of the world, Mark Valley would be cast in everything all the time.
The Road So Far: Henry Pollard and Casey Klein are disillusioned cater-waiters for the catering company Party Down. Both have Hollywood aspirations, but neither have the ambition to pull it off, and find themselves as broke twentysomethings with nothing better on the horizon than to serve party food to a bunch of stuck-up rich weirdos. Their coworkers range from wildly incompetent to frustratingly lazy, and they bungle their way through jobs as varied as a pathetic orgy to chilling out in Steve Guttenberg’s hot tub. Critically adored but crippled by low Nielsen ratings, Party Down was unceremoniously cancelled after 2 seasons, airing from 2009-2010. You can watch the whole thing for free at Starz.com.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Party Down stars genuinely funny actors Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott—aka Leslie Knope’s adorably dorky husband on Parks & Rec, also aka the dude who got Jon Hamm to help him recreate Simon & Simon and Amy Poehler to do Hart to Hart, and also aka Aaron Tyler in the unaired Wonderfalls pilot. Comedy legends Ken Marino and Megan Mullally both turn up as series regulars, and brilliantly funny actors J.K. Simmons, Ken Jeong, Ryan Hansen, Martin Starr, Jane Lynch, and Jennifer Coolidge pop in and out to add even more humor to an already well-stocked show. It’s biggest mistake was probably being picked up by Starz. This allowed them the freedom to show sex and cursing, but it was better suited to Comedy Central or Adult Swim. Like the best shows cut down in their prime, Party Down has become a cult classic, with critics, fans, and cast and crew regularly speculating on the likelihood of a feature film. With Netflix scoring with a new season of Arrested Development and the potential success of the Veronica Mars movie, it’s a move that gets more and more likely.
Party Down is blisteringly sarcastic, neurotically hilarious, and achingly romantic. But it’s more than just a really funny show. At its heart, Party Down is about figuring out how to live with your insecurities. It’s about finding happiness with what you have instead of sinking into a miserable depression because you failed to attain the unattainable. And it’s about having the guts to look at what you want and go for it even though you know there’s a very good chance you’ll fail. It’s about realizing that you’ll never fail if you never try, but you’ll also never win, either.
TL;DR: One day we’ll have a real Party Down reunion. In the meantime, I’ll take what pieces I can get from Parks & Rec.
The Road So Far: Pushing Daisies is a “forensic fairy tale” starring sweetly shy Ned, his undead girlfriend, Chuck, a private eye named Emerson Cod who loves to knit, a lovelorn waitress named Olive Snook, and Chuck’s agoraphobic aunts, Vivian and Lily. The piemaker has the magical, inexplicable ability to reanimate the dead. But there’s a price to his gift: if something’s dead, he can touch it once to bring it back; if he touches it again it will die, and if he doesn’t do it within 60 seconds something else with an equivalent life value will die in its place. When Chuck is murdered on a cruise ship, Ned wakes her up. Trouble is, Ned has been in love with her since they were children and he inadvertently killed her father by bringing his mother back to life. Ned whisks Deadgirl away and Emerson spend the next two seasons solving bizarre cases. Pushing Daisies ran for 2 seasons, from 2007-2009
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Because no television-related list would be complete without Bryan Fuller. Gorgeously filmed, whimsically written, impeccably acted, irresistibly costumed, and unjustly cancelled, Pushing Daisies is one of those shows you just have to see. Fuller has a way with the television medium like no one else. If Neil Gaiman had a TV equivalent, Bryan Fuller would be it. There is as much magic in his craft as there is in his shows. Bonus points for every show he’s created being a part of the Fullerverse.
The show is visually lush, intensely quirky, and chock-a-block with delicious wordplay, like a Technicolor Dr. Seuss. Certain shows and showrunners have a very unique production design style. Fuller is kind of like the television version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Tim Burton. You know exactly what you’re getting with a Fuller show, and it’ll be gorgeous and strange in the best way. The casting is spot on, as per Fuller usual. He picks actors that not only completely inhabit their characters but who come to utterly define them. No one but Lee Pace could play the Piemaker anymore than anyone but Hugh Dancy could play Will Graham on Hannibal. Any other actor—hell, any other showrunner—would run the show into the ground. (Side note: if you haven’t seen Lee Pace’s The Fall or Soldier’s Girl, you are in for an incredible surprise.)
Pushing Daisies was critically acclaimed and a cult classic from the beginning, but despite 7 Emmy wins and 17 nominations, ABC cancelled it. The Writer’s Strike didn’t do the show any favors when it cut a 13-episode first season down to 9. And since so much time had passed between those eps in December 2007 and the next season in October 2008, the show just couldn’t garner enough viewers to make the studio happy (6.1m season 2 average). Fortunately, the cast and crew had some notice and were able to restructure the season 2 cliffhanger into a more satisfying “ending” that still left room for season 3. Fuller did a detailed post-mortem on what would’ve happened next on Pushing Daisies here. The season 3 comic book is apparently done, but has been stuck in stasis since DC shut down its WildStorm imprint 2 years ago. And Fuller has expressed interest in doing a cable mini-series and/or a feature film and/or stage adaptation, though budget and scheduling issues are going to be the biggest hurdles.
TL;DR: If you’re a fan of musical theatre, you have even less of an excuse to not watch this show. Kristin Chenoweth (Olive) is a highly accomplished, Tony Award winning stage singer and performer, and Bryan Fuller utilizes her talents as often as possible.
The Road So Far: In the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Neptune, Veronica’s best friend is murdered and her father, the local sheriff, loses his job when he points the finger at Lilly’s father. The Mars family falls apart when her mother runs off to become a thieving drunk, and Veronica and Keith are left to piece their lives back together. When he becomes a private investigator, Veronica helps him out, initially as a receptionist but eventually taking on her own investigative duties. At school, she becomes the go-to girl for high school mysteries, everything from forcing gay kids out of the closet to finding out who killed that bus load of poor kids. Each season has season-long arcs affected by many of the Cases of the Week, including Veronica’s pre-show rape and the bus explosion. Veronica Mars ran for 3 seasons, from 2004-2007. The season 4 pilot, “Veronica in the FBI,” is available o the 3rd season DVDs.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Veronica is the kind of teenage girl I always wanted to be. She isn’t physically powerful like Buffy or with an extensive network of contacts, adult experiences, and superheroes like Lois Lane. She’s just this girl with a helluva lot of know-how, creative ingenuity, and righteous guts. If someone’s being exploited or life skews too far into unfairness, she’ll right it if it’s the last thing she does. She doesn’t just stand up for truth and justice, she goes out and figures out how to make sure that truth and justice get exposed in such a way that it does the most damage to the person keeping other down. All while keeping her schadenfreude from careening into Vengeful Vigilante Town. Playing the Jimmy Olsen to her Lois Lane is Wallace. They have a friendship that, in a refreshing change of pace, never morphs into a relationship. Besides, Veronica has her heart occupied by her ex-boyfriend Duncan and her school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass” Logan Echolls. Epic doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The show falters more than it should, but most egregiously in the third season when Veronica ships off to college. During the high school seasons, the show focused its energies on a core cast with weekly newcomers bringing fresh crimes. In college, Veronica’s community drastically expanded to the point where the season has 2 non-related major story arcs and 5 standalones. The stories aren’t given enough room to grow, thus what should be crucial plot points are rushed through or skipped over entirely (I’m looking at you, Parker). And can someone can tell me what the point of Piz was, other than as Logan’s opponent for Veronica’s affections? But despite all that, I fell in love with Veronica Mars and Veronica Mars. She’s bright, plucky, clever, impetuous, rash, overly emotional, and not as clever as she thinks she is. She’s a teenage girl with a killer sense of humor, an eye for sussing out malfeasance, and a taste for comeuppance.
TL;DR: If the worst criticism you can lob at a show is that sometimes it bites off more than it can chew, I’m pretty OK with that.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.