If there's one thing the Mad Men phenomenon has taught the viewing public, it's that advertising is a lie. A beautiful, well-crafted lie, but a lie nonetheless. Advertising shows the veneer of a soft-tinted, almost-attainable dream, painted on a backdrop of plywood propped up on cardboard limbs. It's the painful nostalgia, the sweetness in a Hershey's bar, the freedom of a brand new car.
But underneath those lovely falsehoods is nothing but air, a free-fall drop into reality. The reason Mad Men works is because it shows the decline, it exposes the shaky lifespan of such moral fallacies, the toll that rationalization can have. And it does all that in a slick, mesmerizing way.
The Crazy Ones is clearly trying to use the same backdrop, but instead of using it to offset the bittersweet tones of life, they're using it to heighten the wackiness of family drama. It even has a familiar face--James Wolk, better known to Mad Men fans as the mysterious Bob Benson, the man who drew the most frenzied buzz and speculation in the latest season.
Here's where The Crazy Ones goes astray: they try to capitalize on the overblown glitz and sparkle that covers the falsity of the advertising business, but they've let the hollowness creep into too many aspects of the show. The writing falls flat, and the stakes are low. The situations the characters face are almost laughable. Losing McDonalds, and trying to get Kelly Clarkson to sing an ad? Having Clarkson's pop star go through an identity crisis? It rings false. It feels like a desperate plea to get the audience to buy something, but what CBS doesn't realize is that their audience is savvier than they imagine.
And then there's the issue of characters. First off, this is being marketed as the Robin Williams comeback tour. I understand the skill of Robin Williams, but I also understand the use of reining him in. The man can riff better than anyone I've ever seen (with the possible exception of Russell Brand riffing in Shakespearean cadence), but he can also get lost in his own momentum. I highly doubt anyone is willing to run Williams-duty, and the possibility of character development being lost to "the funny" is a palpable fear.
And then we have dear Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, Buffy. Oh, casting agents. Have you learned nothing? Gellar works best when she's allowed to stand up for herself, to be confident and in control. It's why she was so amazing in Buffy, and it's why her evil twin worked so much better than the good one in Ringer. Here she's delegated to playing the uptight straight man, but the cracks in her character are so visible you could throw pebbles through them. She's playing the same three emotions over and over again, but she's capable of more. Let her have more, writers.
So with the sanitized writing, the characters that are either too loose or too tight, and the overly-scrubbed feeling of sets and scenarios, I have my doubts about The Crazy Ones. The lone ray of sunshine is James Wolk, who is the only one I'm buying at this point. In a show that's constantly shoving a product down the viewer's throat, he alone is responsible for drawing me in. He's the ad that works, the smile that reeks of sincerity. Wolk is the hint of authenticity in the cutout world of The Crazy Ones, and if that attitude permeates the rest of the show I'll be sold.
Basically, I'm watching for Bob Benson. Let's hope they're smart enough to make him wear those shorts again.