I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of high-concept movies. For the uninitiated, a high-concept movie is one that can be pitched in one sentence. The most famous semi-recent example is the doesn’t-even-need-a-sentence-to-be-pitched-just-listen-to-the-title movie from 2006, Snakes on a Plane. While some, if not most, films that fit into this subset are easily forgotten or are memorable only for the name and a few lines of dialogue, others like Jurassic Park (“What if dinosaurs were real…TODAY!”) find the legs to transcend the conceit and achieve staying-power. High-concept TV is trickier. While an interesting hook can get people to the pilot, it is character and story that will keep people coming back week after week. Eventually the show has to transcend the concept to survive. The way this has been done well in the past is by using the high concept as a hook and then over time turning the show into a low-concept vehicle that concentrates on character and story. Breaking Bad immediately comes to mind as a recent example (“What if a high school chemistry teacher got cancer and had to start selling meth to pay for his treatment!”) of a show that did just that. Recently, NBC premiered the sitcom Powerless (“What if there was a show about the people in the comics who don’t have powers and who are getting saved all the time!”) that failed to move past the original hook and thus, was quickly canceled. When people don’t have something to grab on to after you grab their attention, even the comedy stylings of people like Alan Tudyk, Danny Pudi and Ron Funchess can’t keep mediocrity at bay.
This brings me to my current favorite comedy on television, Last Man on Earth on Fox. You don’t have to be super creative to have an idea of what the pitch meeting for the show looked like. “Picture this: everyone on earth is dead except for one idiot played by Will Forte!” I don’t say that disparagingly. That’s all I knew about the show when I tuned in for the first episode in 2015. It was a good hook. But over the past 3 seasons, it has consistently risen above its concept and become a really solid look at what it means to be a survivor, forge community (Spoiler: while Forte’s Phil Miller is the titular “last man on earth,” he wasn’t actually the last man on earth) and rebuild after tragedy. The show could have been just a funny look at what it would be like to be able to do whatever you wanted simply because no one else was around, but instead it’s been tragic yet joyful, dark yet silly and always very funny. It has somehow found the perfect combination of lowest common denominator laughs, biting humor, subtle character development and heart. Season three wrapped this week with a bang as we saw a complication filled child birth, a nuclear meltdown, a change of location, a fire, the death of an old character and the introduction of a new character all in two 20 minute episodes. If you haven’t seen the show, I highly recommend it. If you quit watching because it didn’t transcend it’s high-concept conceit soon enough for your liking, I’d suggest you give it another try. All three seasons are currently streaming on Hulu.
- Do you like high-concept shows that go deeper than their concept like LMoE? Does “Ok, Kristen Bell goes to heaven; only she’s not supposed to be there” sound funny to you? Give The Good Place a try. I can’t think of many shows I’ve watched that had a stronger first season than this comedy from one of the creators of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99. You can catch up over the summer on Hulu.
- New to stream this week on Netflix is season two of Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None. It picks up where season 2 left off with Ansari’s Dev pursuing culinary training in Italy. While the story arc of the season is nice, the stand out episodes take a detour into the lives of other friends of Dev and, in one stand out episode, the lives of random New Yorkers. The thing that makes Master of None stand out to me is that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang could have simply created a standard sitcom based around Ansari’s comic persona, but instead they went deeper to create a show that, while funny, takes the time to examine tough issues about being an adult, falling in love, relating to your parents, etc. Season two wasn’t quite as strong for me as season one, but there are some stand-out episodes, including a season premiere that’s an amusing homage to the 1948 film Bicycle Thieves.
- Did you binge Master of None, get sad and end up wanting to watch something similar? Does Master of None sound intriguing but you don’t like it’s TV-MA rating? I’d suggest giving TV Land’s Jim Gaffigan Show a try, also on Netflix. Like Master of None, it would have been really easy for Jim and his wife and co-creator Jeanne Gaffigan to create a standard sitcom about a husband and father of 5 who is a slob and eats all the time. Fortunately, they dive deeper and offer thoughtful reflection on celebrity, religion, fatherhood, friendship and being a husband in 2 seasons of great television. Sadly, the Gaffigan’s decided they didn’t have the time to put into making more TV, but instead of being sad that it’s over, I’d suggest being thankful that it happened by watching the show that they did have time to make.
- This week in the Arrowverse: While Arrow and Supergirl focused mainly on table setting and moving the pieces into place for the last couple of the episodes of the season, The Flash pulled out one of its best episodes of the season. By using the old super hero standby of amnesia, the show was able to help us remember the earlier days of Barry Allen’s story where he was light-hearted and fun instead of the brooding hero we now see every week. Doing so allowed them to add some meta-commentary about why things have become so dour in Central City as opposed to the way things used to be. It was a lot of good fun.