"A Job That Needs Doing"
ABC’s gritty comedy The Job is back, and thank god for it. In a season that has seen some of the worst comedy offerings yet by the networks, The Job might offer some slight hope for the resurrection of the seemingly dying art form of TV situation comedy.
Not that The Job is yet a great show; it only rarely rises to that level, and often quickly slips back again to merely serviceable. But it is at least an honest show—by which I mean, it strips away the veneer of the sanitized, saccharin “reality” that characterizes so much of today’s television comedy.
Instead of a world where even cute little kids are ready with perfect quips, The Job gives everyone real life dialogue, real life responses, and at least semi-real-life situations. It takes a generic TV situation—the detective show—and brings an updated sensibility to it, much like NYPD Blue meets Barney Miller.
The Job centers around the flawed anti-hero Detective Mike McNeil (Dennis Leary), whose good heart is deeply buried under a mound of biting cynicism, a history of womanizing and drug use, and a massive American rebel complex. It’s a role Leary has been playing elsewhere for years, and it fits him perfectly. Surrounding Leary is an ensemble cast of detectives who fuel the ample side plots available in each episode. Most essential is Bill Nunn as Detective Terence “Pip” Phillips, McNeil’s partner and conscience; it’s his rather thankless job to point out constantly just how much trouble McNeil is headed for. Add Dianne Farr as eye candy that can act; two likable, joke-adept standups in Lenny Clark and Adam Ferrara; and the irascible Keith David as the ever-angry lieutenant, and the show has plenty of acting pop.
It is also nicely written. The script twists aren’t afraid to go to the edge (a nun strips on an interview table, McNeil spends an entire episode needing to “relieve himself” in the same bathroom where an escaped suspect has two handguns on him), and the dialogue is crisp, quick, and funny. The writers scrape their plots together out of the small conflicts and ordinary situations to be found (or imagined) in police life. It locates comedy in the merger of a reality-based form and the sitcom form, where the reality keeps things from being so TV silly, and the sitcom keeps things fast and light.
But it is a deeper theory of what television might be that makes The Job worth watching. It is created by Leary and Peter Tolan, whose previous credits include one of the best anti-sitcom sitcoms ever, the sorely missed Larry Sanders Show. Like that show, The Job abandons the multi-camera studio format for an almost documentary-style handheld camera, but it is its attitude that truly makes it stand out in stark contrast to ordinary network programming. It is a show that isn’t afraid of censors, isn’t afraid of adult content, and doesn’t limit itself to silly innuendo in order to deal with its chosen content. Maybe the ultimate gift of cable will be, finally, to push network execs away from the conservative policies that always seem to kill good art by limiting what creators can try. With shows like Sex and the City, HBO has shown in splendid fashion just how good TV can be when advertisers and network business affairs get out of the way of the artists and let them work. It’s possible—with its more adult-oriented plots, its keen writing, and its edgy attitude—that The Job is a network comedy reaching for that same standard.