What if classic, canceled before their time shows like Arrested Development, Freaks And Geeks, Undeclared, and (probably) Friday Night Lights were on TBS? Would they be promoted like crazy during the World Series like Frank TV? Probably not, but at least they’d be able to eke out a few seasons of existence while keeping a low profile and posting minuscule ratings and continue like those things don’t really matter, like 10 Items or Less.
10 Items or Less, released recently as a two-disc, two-season set (with barely any extras to speak of), is most often called a “rip-off” of The Office set inside a grocery store (which actually means it’s a “rip-off” of The Office starring Steve Carell, which itself is a “rip-off” (or re-interpretation) of the The Office starring Ricky Gervais). And to wit, there is a certain amount of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott in Leslie Pool, manager of the Greens & Grains (played by John Lehr), and both shows get by on the zaniness of the supporting cast.
But 10 Items or Less is an imperfect mixture of two other comedy shows in addition to The Office — Curb Your Enthusiasm (90 percent of 10 Items or Less is improv) and Arrested Development (for the fact that Pool faces taking over a business that his dad once did a better/worse job of running, and for the documentary feel).
10 Items or Less follows the exploits of Pool as he takes over for his deceased father at the family-owned grocery store, Greens & Grains. Pool immediately finds he is in charge of a store staffed with barely competent employees—the janitor/stock boy/jack of no trades Carl (played by the Lurch-like Bon Clendenin), the man-whore butcher Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert), the mousy, spineless customer service girl Ingrid (Kristin Gronfield), the sassy Latina produce manager Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama), and the bagger/cashier duo of night student Buck and Ice Capades-loving Richard (Greg Davis Jr. and Christopher Liam Moore).
If that’s not enough pressure, Pool also has to fight off the manager of the local superstore, SuperValueMart, Amy Anderson (played by Jennifer Elise Cox) whom he had a tremendous crush on in high school. Amy wants to buy Greens & Grains from Pool, and he’s having trouble saying no—for reasons financial and personal.
Most of the laughs come from the randomness of the show’s supporting cast. Clendenin’s Bob is like The Office’s Dwight if he had no hair, no discernible skills, and talked like he was in danger of running out of oxygen if he says too much. The first season’s funniest plotline revolves around Carl coming to terms with being a father after he finds out (five years after the fact) that he has a kid with Yolanda after sleeping with her once. Carl tries to show Yolanda he really wants to know his son, but his efforts are mostly disasters—he misspells his son’s name (Manuelito) when he gets it tattooed on his chest.
Most episodes of 10 Items or Less have a general plot (like they’ve challenged SuperValueMart to a bagging contest, Pool holds a reality contest to see who gets fired so the other employees get health insurance, the disastrous decision to have a money booth in the front of the store as a promotion), but then the stories are filled in with improv from the actors.
Sometimes this pays great dividends, but most of the time, you can see the actors literally thinking up the lines as they go along. It gives the show a somewhat more realistic feel than if it was paced and scripted like a normal sitcom, but the scenarios and things said by the employees remove the show from a reality it should/could be grounded in.
The underlying problem with 10 Items or Less is the fact that none of it seems even remotely “real” in the way that The Office does. The Office gives us characters like Jim, Pam, Stanley, and Oscar, all people who could exist in an office setting. When Carell’s Michael Scott screws up, he has to answer to executives who are serious, and think he’s a joke.
But in 10 Items or Less, none of the characters ever have to atone for their actions. Pool can’t seem to get anyone to come to their store, and his promotions range from the incredibly sad to the incredibly terrible. At some point, he’d have to either close up shop, or bail on the promotions to save cash, but he never does in these 13 episodes. He just keeps floating by on a prayer and despite all odds.
Same goes for the employees, who spend work shifts talking about the Ice Capades, making out with employees from their store and their competitors, and generally doing nothing that could earn an honest wage. It makes for decent comedy, but it also makes for moments where you’re yelling at your TV: “That could never happen! What store would have a shopping cart joust in the meat department?”
That’s not saying 10 Items or Less doesn’t have a decent amount of laughs, or isn’t worth your time. It’s just not going to make you throw out your Arrested Development DVDs, erase your Office episodes off your iPod, or cancel your HBO subscription. It’s merely a competent comedy that wouldn’t probably exist if it wasn’t on TBS.