Life on a Stick

Have you ever said to yourself, “Man, it would be great if someone took That ’70s Show, set it in the present, cut out all that bothersome comedy but left in all those awesome interstitials, and put the whole thing in a mall”? If so, you must be loving Life on a Stick right about now. If not, well, you’re one of us. Welcome. You’ll be glad to know that we far outnumber them.

Laz (Zachary Knighton) just graduated high school, and he’s in no rush to pursue higher education or “real world” opportunities, so he does what a lot of 18- (and 25-, and 30-) year-olds do: he finds a stopgap job at the mall. Mostly, he gets the job to make his dad Rick (Matthew Glave) and stepmom Michelle (Amy Yasbeck) reconsider their plan to jumpstart his ambition by kicking him out. With dimwit sidekick Fred (Charlie Finn) in tow, Laz turns Yippee Hot Dogs into a stage for his personal reenactment of Spartacus, as he and his fellow employees — including fetching Lily (Rachelle Lefevre), doomed to be Laz’s love interest — rise up against super-angry manager Mr. Hut (Maz Jobrani) to demand recognition of their basic human rights. Unfortunately, Laz ain’t Kirk Douglas, his squad bails on him, and he gets fired, putting him on a collision course with homelessness.

After consulting with Gus (Frankie Ryan), the beloved product of Rick and Michelle’s marriage and the blended family’s incredibly wise youngest child, Laz agrees to watch out for rebellious stepsister Molly (Saige Thompson), who’s more than cute enough for the show’s target demo, but not quite cute enough for Michelle. The salon-running mom insists that her daughter look and act more “girly” (do something with her hair, wear more flattering clothes, probably some kind of pore-minimizing regimen), which, of course, drives Molly nuts. As Laz is the only one who communicates with Molly, their parents decide he should stay. He and Molly start hanging out, Fred drops in to tell Laz they aren’t getting paid for the three days they worked at Yippee, and the three of them head to the mall to get their ducats and make all kinds of mischief at their boss’ expense.

Some other stuff happens before the merciful rolling of credits, but do you really care? Hilarity just refuses to ensue, no matter how many sitcom conventions the writers throw together. Life on a Stick has a laundry list of problems — off the top of my head, jerky pacing, canned laughter, derivative premises, and a total lack of charismatic performers — but they all stem from one overarching flaw: the scripts are flailing. The opening episodes aim alternately for quality and kitsch, achieving neither. It can’t be a “good” sitcom because it lacks the prerequisites of sharp wit and appealing characters. Its pop-cultural referencing of Spartacus and corn dogs indicate a desire to enter the “hip to be square” territory of Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy or Kevin Smith’s pre-Jersey Girl work, but it doesn’t have the former’s non sequiturs or the latter’s strong dialogue. Even if the goal is to be “dumb” — and for the purposes of this discussion, let’s define “dumb” as Dude, Where’s My Car? — the characters are too lame to like as idiots. When a script about two lazy dumb-asses makes you say to yourself, “Man, I wish I was watching more dynamic and interesting characters… you know, like Bill and Ted,” drastic overhauls are required.

Maybe creator Victor Fresco (blowing it big-time here after scorching my mindscape with the gone-too-soon Andy Richter Controls the Universe) decided to lean back in order to mirror the characters’ abject indolence. Maybe Life on a Stick‘s sucking is actually way meta, intended as a window onto the emptiness of our collective fabricated fast-food existence.

Or, maybe Fresco thought he had a can’t-miss formula and just ate it huge. Either way, Life on a Stick is getting slammed in the ratings. The 18-49 demo that you’d think would jump at the chance to watch two young dudes be thoroughly and consistently semi-retarded just hasn’t been suiting up. The American Idol voting results lead-in to Life on a Stick‘s debut carried over 20 million viewers; Life on a Stick lost more than half of them and was soundly beaten by the debut of NBC’s The Office. Its second episode gained about 300,000 viewers, but still lost too much of the Idol lead-in to make Fox happy.

The lone semi-positive thing I’ve heard anyone (anyone I don’t suspect works for Fox, at least) say about this show is, “It’s something stupid that doesn’t involve a lot of thought… After a long day of working and going to school, I don’t want to watch something I have to think about.” What a ringing endorsement. Slack motherfuckers of the world, relax, sit down: we’ve found the show for you.