The prospect of watching the tables turned on inveterate practical jokers, seeing them hoisted on their own petards, so to speak, has a certain appeal to a sense of mischievous justice in most of us, and the opening episode on the premiere of "Payback" provides just that. But the "paybacks" that follow smack more of people using the show and its TV audience as a safety net as they demonstrate publicly to loved ones discontents they have been unable to express privately.

The prospect of watching the tables turned on inveterate practical jokers, seeing them hoisted on their own petards, so to speak, has a certain appeal to a sense of mischievous justice in most of us, and the opening episode on the premiere of “Payback” provides just that. But the “paybacks” that follow smack more of people using the show and its TV audience as a safety net as they demonstrate publicly to loved ones discontents they have been unable to express privately.

The built-in discomfort for viewers–aka voyeurs, it feels like –outweighs the sense of just desserts, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste and seems likely to lead to a slow return in ratings.

Host Stephen Furst does a good, upbeat job of setting the stage for the three situations. He’s helped by a colorful, very ’90s set and mood. Others in the cast provide the furnishings and characters needed to play “Payback’s” elaborate practical jokes. They do fine.

First situation serves the wife of a true practical joker. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to mind his practical joking–she just wants help to zing him in kind. She, and “Payback,” succeed, and the husband clearly understands in the end he has been had and seems to appreciate his wife’s coup. This one works.

Second situation involves Dodger pitcher Tom Candiotti, whose girlfriend, Donna Beck, is purported to feel that he resents her getting attention. “Payback” invites him to guest on a fake show about his beautiful home; when he says (in fact, volunteers) that Beck arranged all the decorating, show people ask to include her, then direct all their attention to her. Candiotti is a bit nonplussed, but there’s no indication he’s resentful.

When the make-believe host asks her to become a co-host on the show regularly , explaining that she’ll have to give up going on the road with Candiotti, and she seems enthusiastic about the prospect, the pitcher is quite naturally concerned. He wants to talk it over with her off the air. There’s still no indication on his part of any behavior deserving of this terribly discomfiting treatment.

When eventually the truth is revealed, Candiotti is so relieved that he takes it in good humor. Fact is, he had every right to be thoroughly disgusted.

Laughter and relief at the revelation of practical jokes that aren’t particularly justified is not good humor, really.

Unless “Payback” can find a lot more true practical jokers, and unless the world has a bigger capacity for such people than this reviewer suspects, “Payback” is likely to become “Deadbeat.”

Payback

(Sun. (10) 7-7:30 p.m., Sat. (23) 9:30-10 p.m., Fox)

Production

Taped by FA Prods. Inc. Exec producer, Jim Coane; supervising producer, Paul Barrosse; producer, Kathleen French; co-producer, Wesley Eure; associate producer, Stacy Hope Herman; director, Cisco Thomas; writer, Peter Giambalzo; production designer, Henry Cota.

Crew

Music, Dan Stein.

Cast

Host: Stephen Furst; cast, Marc Bailey, Paul Barrosse, Steve Bean, Eileen Conn, Magda Harout, Marilyn Johnson, Myke Michaels, David Theriault.
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