[19 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Less Than Perfect, which originally ran on ABC from 2002 to 2006, was, sadly, a somewhat under-appreciated show. Sure it was a fairly formulaic sitcom. It had the plucky young woman trying to make her way in the big city workplace with help from a couple of well-meaning but weird friends; it had the clueless boss who was both exasperating and inspiring and it has the ruthless, career-obsessed co-workers. All of whom are eventually won over, or at least slightly softened, by the good nature of the fresh-faced heroine.
Less Than Perfect was Mary Tyler Moore for the new millennium. That familiarity, however, was part of what made it work.
Another crucial component, of course, was the character of Claude Casey, played by the irresistible Sara Rue (Popular, Big Bang Theory, Eastwick). Claude is the sweet, slightly naive floating temp at a television network who is suddenly promoted to assistant to the nightly news anchor, Will Butler (played with a perfect balance of charming arrogance and clueless ineptitude by Eric Roberts). She must leave the safety of her friends on the fourth floor and brave the cut-throat world of the newsroom on 22. She takes all of her quirky appeal; along with a box of toys for her desk, a big crush on her new boss, and of course, her friends, to begin a new life near the top.
Yes, it’s definitely standard sitcom on paper. However, on screen the characters take standard to new heights. There’s Ramona and Owen, Claude’s cheering section and comic relief, played by Sherri Shepherd and Andy Dick. Shepherd’s Ramona is a payroll manager with all the big, brassy sass for which the actress herself is known, and Dick is an absurd and spastic, but entirely endearing example of social awkwardness as supply clerk Owen. He’s a bit like you’d imagine Mr. Roper from Three’s Company to be if he worked in a modern office environment. In fact, as I think about it, Ramona could be Mrs. Roper, with her outsized personality and flashy clothing.
That’s where the comparison to that show ends, however, because the other characters are nothing like Janet, Jack, or Chrissy. Kip Steadman (Chuck‘s Zachary Levi) is an assistant producer who never hesitates to step on someone to further his career. He’s vain, shallow and self-serving. His weapon of choice is sarcasm and he uses it well. He’s a hollow guy, the guy you want to hate, but you can’t because his motives are so transparently desperate that you almost want him to succeed. He’s a great character, and Levi lends just the right tone that keeps Kip’s comedy sharp without letting it become too spiteful.
His counterpart is Lydia Weston (Andrea Parker). Like Kip, she’s all surface, obsessed with her appearance, equally vain and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. Yet, she’s also much more insecure than Kip. She’s never had friends, she doesn’t know how to relate to other women (at one point it’s noted that this is because she’s from Connecticut), and she’s still pining for an encounter she had with Will Butler while working on a presidential campaign story, so she’s a perfect foil for Claude.
Parker plays her as a tightly wound woman who thinks she’s totally self-reliant and envied by all, but who instantly unravels into a needy object of pity when things don’t work out the way she expects they should. It’s a hard line to walk without making Lydia a caricature, but Parker’s sly portrayal keeps Lydia truly sympathetic even as she shoots down Claude’s attempts at connection.
All these characters seem fresh and funny despite the formula because this cast is bringing their A game to some really snappy dialogue that, even when it’s verbal sparring or insults, never gets really mean or needlessly negative. That’s the mark of a great show, when a cast can enhance and elevate the material even beyond its smart writing. Creator Terri Minsky (Sherri) really hit a jackpot with this group, not only in the individual actors, but in the combination. It’s possible that Less Than Perfect wouldn’t have worked at all without Rue as the likeable, excitable Claude, but it’s also very likely that it wouldn’t have worked half as well as it does with any other configuration of the core cast.
In addition to the regulars, Less Than Perfect: Season One features some great great stars and supporting players in its 22 episodes. Will Sasso is Claude’s dorky neighbor and Jenny McCarthy appears as Will Butler’s demanding fiance. It would have been nice to have some extras featuring these two, specifically, beyond some outtakes that run in the end credits, but this DVD set has no bonus material at all. Let’s hope that the Season Two DVDs correct this oversight, because it’s the one flaw that keeps this set less than perfect.