Ken Jeong, best known for his over-the-top portrayal of Mr. Chow in The Hangover, was given a star vehicle in the form of the new ABC situation comedy, Dr. Ken. This is an ambitious task for Jeong, although there have been several precedents for the kind of frantic, self-centered, eccentric, and obnoxious clown seen in the first episode of Dr. Ken.
Jerry Stiller did one of the more enduring and recent manifestations in the form of Arthur Spooner, on The King of Queens. This character is basically an updated version of Frank Castanza on Seinfeld. In both series, Stiller is used judiciously; a little narcissistic mayhem goes a long way. Unfortunately, Jeong and the writers and producers of Dr. Ken ignore this fact. Not only is Jeong in almost every scene — he dominates them. This creates huge problems.
First, in short bursts, Ken’s psychopathic outbursts are amusing; however, after 30 minutes, they become grating. John Cleese managed to pull this off as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, but there are several significant differences between Fawlty Towers and Dr. Ken. Perhaps the most important is that Fawlty Towers’s entire run consisted of 12 episodes, or a little more than half a season of a US sitcom.
Second, you can argue that John Cleese is the single funniest living person on the planet, and Basil Fawlty embodied all of his greatness. (It’s possible that Ken Jeong is equally skilled; unlikely given what we see in this episode, but possible.)
Third, one of the major differences between US and UK sitcoms is that the English have a long history of writing great shows with unlikable people as the main characters; something that US television continues to struggle with (see: Arrested Development for a good case study of this matter). Finally, while Cleese dominated many episodes of Fawlty Towers, he was surrounded by equally interesting characters: Prunella Scales played Sybil Fawlty with just enough shrewishness to make you feel sympathy for Basil, and Andrew Sach’s dazed, loyal, and adorable Manuel equaled Basil’s manic lunacy. Further, the series included many scenes either without Basil or in which he was a secondary element.
This final difference is the main problem with Dr. Ken. Not only does Ken dominate the screen time, but there are too many supporting players. What’s worse, most of the supporting cast serve as little more than animate props to help define Dr. Ken. Need to prove Dr. Ken is goofy? Put a tie on his head or have his son Dave (Albert Tsai) practicing mime. Need him to be frantic? Put a couch on the set for him to jump over. Need to show he is a neurotic father? Give him a smart daughter, Molly (Krista Marie Yu), who mocks him.
Only two characters rise above prop level and assert an iota of individuality. His wife, Allison (Suzy Nakamura) does a good job constraining her husband’s madness. While given predictable lines and functions, she’s also granted a few moments when she’s portrayed as her husband’s equal. When the episode’s plot gets resolved, and it turns out she was right and he was wrong, she chooses to cede to her husband’s madness rather than gloat. Nakamura plays Allison as a smart confident woman, but there is only so much she can do in this role.
The other character that’s allowed a few moments of asserting an actual identity is veteran comic actor Dave Foley. Foley plays Pat, Ken’s obnoxious clinic office manager, as if he’s impersonating Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) in Office Space (1999). There are few better indications of the lack of originality in Dr. Ken, than the fact that the only unpredictable moment is an homage to a fairly famous, if somewhat dated, comic character.
Genre identity is another problem with Dr. Ken. At one point, it seems to want to be a silly pre-teen comedy, along the lines of The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, including the latter’s nearly impossible plots. (The pilot sends Dr. Ken to a rave and to jail in the first episode.) At the same time, Dr. Ken also wants to be viewed as an adult farce, with the requisite swearing and Ken and Allison’s sex life as a recurring source for humor. It’s a shame, because Ken Jeong, Suzy Nakamura, and Dave Foley are talented enough to wring humor out of their roles as best they can.
The final sequence neatly epitomizes the show’s main problem, which ends with Dave miming to Katy Perry’s “Roar”, in a sequence that’s painful to watch. But no worries, Dr. Ken is there to rush the stage and dance with his son, because absurd bad dance moves by a well-meaning eighth grader is worthy of scorn, but the same moves by a grown man? Well, if that man is Dr. Ken, it’s apparently high-octane ironic comedy. Or maybe it’s just a display of massive and unchecked ego — in both the character and the star.