There’s a certain air of desperation about a show named after its star. Not only does it display a startling lack of creativity, but it also shows that the creators had so little faith in their show that they had to resort to advertising explicitly its only asset. It spells even more trouble for a series when the dreaded word “retooled” gets attached. And so The Michael Richards Show was therefore doubly cursed, before it ever aired. The series’ original premise cast Richards as Vic Nardozza, a private investigator who solved a different case every week. But the first pilot (described in the September 29 issue of Entertainment Weekly as “slow and moody”) was scrapped after it got poor scores from test audiences. So the sitcom was retooled into that most dependable of concepts: the office comedy. Vic is still a P.I., but now he has a group of wacky characters with whom to interact. But wait. It gets better. NBC decided it didn’t like that pilot, so what audiences saw for the October 24 premiere was originally the second episode, with a hastily tacked-on prologue to set up characters and situations. All this adds up to one mightily desperate show.
What’s puzzling is why they didn’t just call the thing “Cosmo Kramer, P.I.” That’s what audiences wanted, and that’s essentially what the show turns out to be. In the sloppily written “premiere” episode, Kramer, I mean Vic, is asked to investigate a woman who is being unfaithful. After unsuccessfully trying to rehire his regular pretty boy to “bait” the woman into cheating on her fiance, Vic goes after her himself. This leads to the episode’s one funny sequence, in which Vic thinks he can become more attractive by lifting weights until he can’t move his arms, and then goes to a bar where he attempts to dance despite his paralysis. Richards is known for his physical comedy, and in this scene, he delivers. But it only serves to remind us that Vic is the Kramer-who-is-not-Kramer. The genius of Richards’ best moments on Seinfeld came from the subtly off-kilter way he reacted to ordinary people and situations, but as that show became increasing mannered and unrealistic toward the end of its run, his character was reduced to a slapsticky caricature. Vic is best described as a photocopy of that caricature.
Apart from this brief, two-minute stretch of comedy, The Michael Richards Show is dreadful in that familiar, second-tier-must-see-TV kind of way (The Single Guy, Caroline in the City, Veronica’s Closet, Jesse, et. al.). The original idea of having Vic solve a mystery each episode would’ve given the show a foundation, a set of situations; but now it just flounders around a series of non-jokes and a crew of ill-defined characters. There’s nothing wrong with predictability and generic conventions those can actually be the building blocks of art but The Michael Richards Show swirls two of television’s most often used genres together into a unique concoction: a detective show without mystery and an office comedy without laughs.
The supporting cast which includes Tim Meadows (Saturday Night Live) as Kevin Blakeley, Amy Farrington (Cupid) as Stacey Devers, William Devane (Knots Landing) as Brady McKay, and Bill Cobbs (The Gregory Hines Show) as Jack is largely superfluous, a situation that both Richards and the script collude to create. Ensemble comedies take the pressure off of the star to carry the entire show, but such an arrangement demands that each supporting character has something unique to offer. And so far, none of cast besides Richards has been given much to work with. Stacey spends the first episode filing, William watches her, and the main subplot running parallel to Vic’s exploits has Kevin fearing that Jack is close to death after Vic says, “About a week before people die, they get very grumpy.” Lame.
Finally, the show’s abundant lack of humor is foregrounded by an especially annoying laugh track. Fake sitcom laughter is ubiquitous, of course, but it’s most often produced so as to not draw attention to itself. In The Michael Richards Show, artificial-sounding laughs follow almost every line of dialogue, even those not easily recognizable as jokes. It’s easy to imagine Tony Roberts’ character from Annie Hall standing next to the canned laughter machine saying, “Give me a tremendous laugh here ... now give me like a medium-sized chuckle here.” But who can blame them for trying to manufacture guffaws? A show this desperate needs all the help it can get.