In the wake of Internet monsters like YouTube and MySpace, VH1’s Acceptable TV has come up with a trendy gimmick: it’s interactive. Each episode presents five sketches — called “pilots,” though they’re more like parodies of current pop-culture phenomena — and viewers are invited to choose their favorites. The top two of these are “picked up” for a second episode the next week. To highlight the DIY feel, throughout the week viewers are invited to submit their own videos (hooray, user-generated content!), which are also voted on, with the winners awarded a coveted slot on the show.
Promoted with the tagline, “produced by Jack Black,” this premise sounds innovative and exciting in theory. In reality, the show is… acceptable. While the YouTube/MySpace video revolution has profited from universal access and dialogue on the net, the aesthetics remain rough. Acceptable TV‘s shows — produced in just a week — look less like polished TV and more like quickie videos. Sure, they’re a big step up from YouTube’s shaky, handheld camerawork, but they retain grainy production values and celebrate speed-writing, very little of it exceptional.
That said, production values are less important in comedy TV than the jokes. And here, as in any sketch comedy show, the laughs are hit and miss. It makes you grateful for the fact that viewers decide on the running gags. Saturday Night Live often repeats its worst sketches again and again, as they become nightmarishly recurring characters (Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady, I’m looking at you). Most of Acceptable TV‘s premises are at least amusing. In the first episode, “Who Farted?” was a spot-on parody of the new crop of primetime game shows, a perfect mix of Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100, and Identity. More hilarious was “Homeless James Bond,” a sketch where a homeless man has to infiltrate the cardboard box of a hobo evildoer. “This is a screwdriver,” says the sketch’s Q, demonstrating a high-tech gadget for the impoverished set. “You can use it to unscrew things.” Even the second episode’s viewer-submitted video, which subtitled its characters in hacker-slang (“l337 speak”) popular on the Internet, was good for a few laughs.
The comedy becomes less effective, however, as the sketches are repeated. So far, the strongest material has been chosen by its audience. (There’s no Sanjaya-like voting for the worst idea going on — yet.) But some of the premises are just too thin to support a second episode. The second sketch of “Homeless James Bond” only revisits its simple formula: replace houses with cardboard boxes, sophisticated technology with cheapo dumpster items, and bling with tin cans.
Between sketches, the show’s low-fi mentality is exaggerated by improvisational intros to each pilot. I’m not sure if it’s an aesthetic choice to garner YouTube-fan credibility or a complete accident, but these are universally painful to watch. They all feature principal “personalities” — talent reportedly honed in venerable comedy institutions like the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade -– adlibbing a line or two that essentially says, “Vote for this sketch because I’m in it, tee-hee.” As the performers laugh at themselves or giggle at each other, barely introducing their clips, they’re only calling into serious question their comedy chops.
Thankfully, these intros are dispatched quickly. And Acceptable TV is at last, quite average.