The Knights of Prosperity / In Case of Emergency

So here’s the pitches I imagine occurred for ABC’s new sitcoms: What if Danny Ocean looked and acted like Homer Simpson and not George Clooney? Or, what if the high school valedictorian ended up a masseuse at Korean “massage” parlor?

Even with such gimmicky premises, The Knights of Prosperity and In Case of Emergency for the most part avoid the old sitcom format, in spite of themselves. They delightfully follow in the footsteps of The Office and My Name is Earl, quirky and relevant, laugh-track free.

Knights focuses on Eugene Gurkin (Donal Logue), an overweight, unshaven everyguy who dreams of owning a bar. Lacking the smarts and the funds for this enterprise, he is depressed, “celebrating” his 20th year at his janitorial job, elbow deep in a dirty toilet. Here, in the pilot episode, he turned to his older, African American coworker Jonesy (Arthur French) for wisdom. When Jonesy replied, “Wisdom? Who do I look like, Morgan Freeman? I’ve been drunk since the bicentennial,” and then promptly died, Eugene was forced to take stock of his own accomplishments, finding that he’s come up woefully short of what he expected of himself.

With Boston’s “More than a Feeling” as his soundtrack, Eugene realized that if he wants to make something of his life, he’d have to make it happen on his own. Barraged by media images that glorify wealth and celebrity, Eugene conjures a plan he might have seen on TV. He’ll rob the rich, different targets on each episodes.

The premise isn’t new, but casting and writing make the show crackle with cultural insights and homages. My favorite is the hip, Soderbergh-style music during the shockingly incompetent and ill-orchestrated heist scenes. Eugene’s band of thieves is not close to capable or philanthropic (one Knight wants to give his cut to a charity for “Cat AIDS”), and this leaves lots of room for punch-lines that resonate as well as amuse. Consider the running commentary on celebrity worship: in the pilot, with a Loni Anderson poster on his wall, Eugene Gurkin watched a Cribs-style show on E!, wherein Mick Jagger walked a camera crew through his luxurious Manhattan apartment. A houseboy drew him daily baths of warm yogurt (“Fabulous for the skin”) and his hat collection had its own room and lighting scheme. In contrast to Eugene’s apartment and vocation, this lifestyle looks like a joke rather than something to covet.

Fellow Knight Gourishanker Subramaniam (Maz Jobrani) is similarly stymied. An Indian-born cab driver with four ex-wives, he hates being called “Gary,” though everyone does it. When the gang used laser pointers to trace their route on a wall-sized map, one pointed to Gary’s forehead like a bindhi. Just like The Simpsons‘ Apu, Gary serves as jokes about racism, but Gary brings more sardonic wit to each occasion. He wants to hire an intern (Josh Grisetti) to assist the Knights for college credit, because, Gary says, “It’ll be like white slavery.”

Pity that thus edgy show is followed on Wednesday nights by the confounding In Case of Emergency. Its premise is mostly proximal, based on the intersecting lives of four friends and graduates of Los Angeles’ Fairfax High class of ’87 (my question: didn’t any of these people go to college? What 38-year-old hangs out with people he knew from high school?). The show delights in its self-absorbed characters, all more or less self-destructing. Littered with the trappings of a zippy indie flick — multiple storylines, characters introduced in freeze-frame as their names flash across the screen, Jon Favreau as a producer — the series pilot raced out the door, impressed with its own ingenuity, before we could care about a single character.

For example, when we first meet Harry (Jonathan Silverman), getting a hand-job from his high school valedictorian, Kelly (Kelly Hu), it’s hard not to think of him as smarmy. Even when we did gain context for his pleasure-seeking (he’s newly divorced, neurotic, and has hired a sitter to watch his 7-year-old son while he gets his evening’s happy ending), he was immediately chased out of the parlor by Kelly’s meathead boyfriend Frank (Lee Reherman). Similarly shoddy was the next step in this plotline: Harry left his license with the massage parlor’s cashier, which allowed Frank to track him down within minutes.

Such overwrought hijinks made me glad for the cut to another character, even if it was Jason (David Arquette,) gun raised to his head, ready to commit suicide. But even this suicide attempt landed with a contrived thunk. When Jason realized he couldn’t go through with it (Arquette’s emoting amounted to raising one eyebrow up and then down again), he tossed the gun behind him, but it fired anyway and wounded his foot. That’s right: he shot himself in the foot. In case didn’t get this joke the first time (no laugh-track), it was reiterated three more times.

Also suffering from the unfunny ad nauseam condition is Sherman Yablonsky (Greg Germann), a diet guru (his bestseller: Eating for Mommy) who stole an Entenmann’s truck, inexplicably parked in front of his mansion, when he came home to an empty house and a “Dear John” note. Sherman proceeded to careen through the entirety of the episode, eating uncontrollably. Each of the friends ended up at the emergency room for one reason or another, where they rediscovered one another. Just as their lives were coming apart in various uninteresting ways, they now have a built-in support group, someone to fill in on the “in case of emergency” line on the ER paperwork.

As hard as Emergency tries to be both zany and adult, it can’t compete with the affable charm of Knights. Though both avoid the shtick that has doomed soundstage sitcoms in the past, only one even starts to get clever.

In Case of Emergency – opening sequence

RATING 8 / 10