In the voice-over that begins each episode of The Winner, Glen Abbott (Rob Corddry) introduces himself as “the richest man in Buffalo.” Despite its borderline obnoxious provincialism — he’s not “The King of New York,” after all — this boast suggests that Glen, a self-described “late bloomer,” has finally earned the show’s title. No longer a 32-year-old living with his mother (Julie Hagerty) and father (Lenny Clarke), he now owns a mansion with an impressive garden. When he looks back on his “wonder years” with a soft-focus nostalgia, however, the effect is underwhelming.
In the pilot, we learned that Glen’s transformation began back in 1994. That summer, when he “turned 32 and became a man,” he was reunited with Alison Miller (Erinn Hayes), the only girl he’d ever kissed. In a flashback sequence, the kiss, which marked Glen’s failed entrance into adolescence, appears as an innocent peck with significance only for him. Allison left Buffalo to become a doctor, returning with her 13-year-old son Josh (Keir Gilchrist), to care for her sick mother. Glen rarely left his childhood bedroom, and Allison’s return reminds him of a world beyond it.
Glen’s efforts to remain insulated are focused through television (his favorite show is Wings). Given the opportunity to reinvent himself in the fourth episode, “What Happens in Albany, Stays in Albany,” he became “Lance Manley,” a brash, toupee-wearing ladies man who is, just like Steven Webber in Wings, a pilot. In bring such detail to Glen, the episode came closest to fulfilling The Winner‘s potential as an edgy coming-of-age comedy. Glen’s revelation that he had saved up allowance money every year since he started to go bald, in order to buy a toupee he could wear only if he left Buffalo, was almost poignant. What kind of man buys a hairpiece he won’t dare to wear?
More often, though, the show settles for familiar jokes. As the wide-eyed naif, Glen solicits easy laughs (the show makes generous use of a laugh track: the exchange, “What’s all the commotion?” “I was cleaning my guns,” got an improbably spirited response). Yet Glen’s ingenuousness is (predictably) inconsistent, fluctuating to occasion the most obvious gags. Thus, he knows that hookers “have hearts of gold,” but not how many condoms it’s “possible” to wear on his “unit.” Though he thinks he has gained insight from seeing Philadelphia, Glen also evinces ignorance when convenient, believing that “gays” are into Barbie dolls, ballet, and cinnamon toast.
Glen’s forced childishness offers some kind of ground for a friendship with Josh (they’re both going through puberty, physical and/or emotional), but renders him a caricature. A two-dimensional protagonist wouldn’t necessarily doom a sitcom, if he’s surrounded by a robust supporting cast or immersed in original “situations.” The Winner satisfies neither of these requirements.
It also doesn’t come up with much in the way of alternative humor either, with its setting in 1994 providing only an excuse for dated pop-culture references. Allison observed that Bill Clinton “seems to be a good family man.” Raucous laughter erupts from the non-existent audience, aficionados of dramatic irony. The show pokes you in the ribs hard enough to leave bruises, constantly asking, “Do you remember 1994? Melrose Place, American Gladiators, L.A. Law, The Cosby Show, Mandingo?” Yes, we remember. Do you have any jokes to go with that?
Flat characters, lazy plots, and nostalgia for pop-culture detritus signifying nothing: these elements do not a successful sitcom make, Family Guy notwithstanding (promotion for The Winner includes the following: “The creator of The Family Guy strikes again.”) Still, The Winner might be accused of verisimilitude, its first few episodes have been just as tedious as you’d expect, based on the life story of a guy who introduces himself as “the richest man in Buffalo.”