With last week’s pilot episode of Dr. Ken I was more interested in potential than anything else. Sure, it was a bumpy ride, but I could see how the show could become something remarkable, if only it was willing to try. This time out, though, I was much more focused on the episode at hand. After all, it was the first real episode, and should likely represent what the show with its full writing staff wants to become going forward. Unfortunately, the result was tepid and middling, a direct attempt at going the full broad comedy route, instead of trying for something nuanced. Much of the cleverness we saw last week dropped off here entirely, and instead Dr. Ken was barely a notch above Chuck Lorre’s work.
So much of a sitcom’s quality depends on its jokes, and I don’t think it’s a good use of anyone’s time for me to simply quote a bunch of the show’s failures in a row. But the big problem here was that Dr. Ken relied on that horrible staple of laugh track-infused comedies, the non-joke joke. Non-joke jokes have the same timing and set-up as real jokes, in that they use the setup-punchline format that we’re all familiar with, but with one pretty big difference: they’re not funny. Sometimes they don’t even try to be funny, other times they misfire, but in any case their failure is one of expectations. We’re telegraphed that a joke is about to happen and then, where a real joke pulls something strange and unexpected out, a non-joke joke zigs where it should zag. Instead of the unexpected, we’re given… exactly what we expected, only with an emphatic inflection and a laugh track to tell us that this was in fact the punch line we were waiting for. Only it’s not funny, because having people offer lines that are exactly what we expected to hear isn’t funny, it’s predictable and (to me, at least) often kind of depressing. It’s what I imagined sitcoms were like in Soviet Russia when I was little.
“The Seminar” was filled with these non-joke jokes, which was one of the most frustrating parts of the episode. But when the humor isn’t working in a show, sometimes the stories themselvse are interesting enough to carry things along (see: How I Met Your Mother, until even that fell apart). Unfortunately, like last week we have archetypal sitcom stories. One of these literally concerned the in-laws coming over and how awful that is. The other one involved Ken having to go to anger management because he has bad bedside manner with his patients. And as much as I appreciated seeing James Urbaniak get more work as the hospital’s counselor, he was mostly wasted because the story itself was a waste. Like the rest of the cast, he did as well as could be hoped with the material, but that’s almost a backhanded compliment.
The problem with both of these plots isn’t that they’re inherently bad. In fact, sitcom staples tend to be staples because they work. You can write a story around them without too much effort, and they allow you to ideally spend time on said joke writing instead of figuring out something terribly creative for the story beats (the best shows, e.g. Arrested Development, aren’t lazy in either aspect, but those shows are few and far between). Unfortunately, though, both of these plots had the same problem as the jokes. They zigged where they should have zagged, and there were no surprising beats at any point. Somehow the storylines managed to be more predictable than the joke writing, which was no small feat.
Last week, I cut the show a lot of slack because of its moments of inspired weirdness. Those sorts of things count for a lot, and implied that Dr. Ken’s identity might be more subversive than it initially seemed. With “The Seminar,” though, instead it feels like we were being misled by that weirdness, that those unpredictable moments are some vestigial remnant that the show has no interest in recreating. Alternately, though, this might have just been a really bad episode. It’s difficult to say at this point, but in any case it didn’t bode well. Had this been on display last week, I’m not sure I’d still be writing about the show. As it stands, I still want to give Dr. Ken a chance, but I’m a lot more skeptical about its future, not in the sense of ratings (its premiere did surprisingly well), but in terms of sheer watchability. If it keeps going at this rate, I don’t think any of us want to keep tuning in.