Tuesday, February 5, 2008

O Captain, My Captain

Y'know, I keep complaining about the writer's strike taking away scripted TV shows, but there's been a pretty steady stream of them since November. Some good ("Breaking Bad"), some not so good (the execrable "Eli Stone"), but the networks and cable channels have kept them coming at a decent clip. Writers don't strike so good, do they?

Well, the strike looks like it might be settled soon, and out here in fan-ville, it will be back to business as usual. But in the meantime, let's look at yet another new, scripted network offering.

"Welcome to the Captain" (premiere episode)

Back in 1975 (aka The Pleistocene Era), there was a Norman Lear sitcom called "Hot L Baltimore." Set at a seedy hotel populated by the desperate and the downtrodden, the show was based on a Lanford Wilson play and, while critically acclaimed, the public steered clear. After thirteen episodes, it disappeared. If anyone remembers it today, it's because it was the first major exposure for a then-unknown James Cromwell. But nobody remembers it today. Except me. I liked it. Where's the DVD set?

I couldn't help but think of the old Hot L (the "E" in the sign was burnt out) as I watched CBS's new sitcom "Welcome to the Captain." Set at a seedy hotel -- in Los Angeles, not Baltimore -- it also features a number of desperate and downtrodden characters, though being LA showbiz types, they all put up a better front than the Baltimore residents ever did.

The premiere concerned the plight of one Josh Flum (ah, funny names), a writer who won an Oscar five years earlier for a short film and has since been unable to follow it up. Another show about a writer who can't write. Writers love writing about writers who can't write. See "Californication" and dozens of others for more.

On the verge of leaving LA, Josh (Fran Kranz, a pretty funny name in its own right) is convinced to stay in town by his friend Marty (Chris Klein) who gets him a place in the El Capitan hotel. There, Josh meets unhelpful clerk Jesus (Al Madrigal), longtime resident Uncle Saul (the always brilliant Jeffrey Tambor) and aspiring acupuncturist Hope (Amy Adams look-a-like Joanna Garcia), among others.

The show is written and directed by John Hamburg who had a hand in the Meet the Parents films, Zoolander and wrote and directed Along Came Polly. And who has not won an Oscar. The comedy he provides for "The Captain" is sporadic at this early stage, but when it's on, it's quite good. Jeffrey Tambor's breakdown on the golf course is a riot. And the character of Astrid (Valerie Azlynn) has a vocal affectation that probably should have annoyed me, but kept making me laugh.

The show also has a devestating secret weapon: the impossibly gorgeous Raquel Welch. At the age of 67 (67!), she still has more voom than any half dozen anorexic starlets put together. And, oh by the way, she also happens to be a magnificent comedienne. She pitches her idea about an "erotic thriller" to Josh with hilarious results.

The problem here is with Fran Kranz, who is bland blanz. As well as, Chris Klein who, after a nice turn as a high school lunkhead in the great Election, has never delivered a decent performance since. Sadly, the show focuses on these two. I would put coins in a slot to see a show about Jeffrey Tambor's romantic pursuit of Raquel Welch, but that is relegated to the sidelines here.

Flaws aside, it is a promising start. I don't know if I'll be moving into "The Captain," but I'll be glad to visit this Hot L for awhile.

3 stars

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