When Fox unveiled “Action” a few seasons back, the crispness of the writing and the outrageousness of the characters portended big ratings and critical acclaim. It didn’t happen. Showtime then launched the marginally funny “Beggars and Choosers” that chronicled life at a TV station and its run ended last year unnoticed. Hollywood proves it just doesn’t learn by foisting it’s latest insider comedy, “Wednesday 9:30,” that has little going for it beyond a strong lead actor in Ivan Sergei and John Cleese returning to the wackiness of his Monty Python days.
Coming on the heels of the Oscar telecast, which continues to curiously crack wise about talent agencies and studio tactics that sail over the head of the general public, “Wednesday’s” first two episodes feel bound and determined to fulfill every Hollywood cliche imaginable. There’s the black woman (Sherri Shepherd as Joanne Walker) who has gone from fired crouton maker to assistant to VP of programming in five months; the senior VP of programming (James McCauley as Mike McClarren) who has converted to Judaism and attempts to pass himself off as gay whenever its to his advantage; and there’s the clueless boss Paul Weffler (Ed Begley Jr.), who sees Weiss as the Midwesterner who will tap their network, IBS, into America better.
Weiss, played by Sergei with unerring confidence, hails from Minneapolis where his theatrical experience impressed the estranged wife of IBS owner Red (Cleese) and led to his hiring at the network as a manger of programming. Within three days, he’s giving notes to show runners — which offends the VP of comedy development Lindsay Urich (Melinda McGraw) — and having sex with one of IBS’ series stars (Lori Loughlin), which leads to harassment suit and puts his job on the line.
In the second, funnier episode — thanks to more screen time for Cleese — Weiss is actually fired. But he starts to learn how to play the game of confusing your peers about your sexuality in an episode that may offend some gay viewers, the stereotypes played way over the top. The Jew jokes we’ve all heard before — in Woody Allen movies from the 1970s.
Show does try to key in on the idiosyncrasies of the characters rather than the machinations of a network. Still, when Urich hits on Weiss and denies it, it feels like this could only happen on TV and in Hollywood. Ted Wass’ direction avoids most cliches and at the end of the second episode, the marvelously eccentric Cleese is allowed to do his weirdo thing so well that it feels like an unsupervised, well-tuned monologue. Writing is funny in parts though it doesn’t penetrate the business sufficiently — if the writers could find a way to demonstrate how IBS’ sitcoms spring from these particularly gay and Jewish points of view, that could be subversively funny. For that, it would have to take lessons from TV’s finest show about itself, “The Larry Sanders Show.”