As is so often the case with reality shows, the promos for NBC’s new “Better Late Than Never” are much more hateful than the show itself. The reality event series eventually reveals itself to be a slightly crotchety and mostly warmhearted buddy comedy about bucket lists. But the production is all too eager to frame its four elderly traveling stars — Henry Winkler, William Shatner, Terry Bradshaw, and George Foreman — as buffoonish Americans who inflict themselves on Asia with comical machismo.
The first few minutes of the pilot are absolutely intolerable — Winkler, in a usefully expository but perfunctory bit of narrative, makes a show of calling each of his “old friends” to pitch to them, in about 10 seconds, the idea of going on a trip somewhere far away with a camera crew in tow. He spins a globe (because all elder statesmen have a globe, ideally bought from Brookstone, which opens to reveal a stash of scotch) and pokes a stubby finger to make it stop somewhere in the vicinity of China — at which point he declares to his friends, now apparently on conference call, that he has decided upon Asia.
It does not seem quite possible that in 2016, a show on a major network would be so tone-deaf as to describe a complex and vast continent with the purposefully alienating modifier “exotic.” “Better Late Than Never” does it twice in five minutes. It punctuates its observations with sound effects that include the repeated clang of a gong and an accompanying score that is to Japanese music what piped-in elevator Muzak is to Beethoven.
There is an insidious, unforgivable glee to “Better Late Than Never”’s stereotyping. It’s especially maddening because the meat of the show is not mean-spirited at all — a warm, funny show about four successful men contemplating mortality, complete with morose sentimentality and playing pranks on each other. Ironically, the four-episode event series is an American remake of a popular South Korean show, “Grandpas Over Flowers,” which continues to take four aging actors to new locations, and now has an elderly-lady spinoff. With all of this cultural immersion, the show should and clearly does know better — but one gets the sense that the provocation is just the hook, the (un)appealing insensitivity that pulls the interested or horrified audience member in.
It may work, in terms of nabbing viewers, but it’s frustrating manipulation that results in lazy humor, where the audience is encouraged to laugh at people who are different because of their “weird” food or “silly” customs. In the pilot episode, for example, much is made over the fact that the hole-in-the-wall restaurant the men are visiting is serving them pig genitalia. But anyone with a passable understanding of the average ballpark hot dog might be puzzled by that punchline. And though the men are the affable famous millionaires they have grown to be over the course of their lives, the camera is all too eager to locate anonymous Asian faces with mingled enthusiasm and horror, waiting for someone to make a face, eat something surprising, or strip down naked in a way Americans would never.
All of this us vs. them sentiment detracts from what is most fun about the show — the game-for-anything collective attitude of the men, who have a natural bro-ish affection for each other, and their hilarious engagement with fans and strangers on the other side of the world. Winkler signs autographs in Shinjuku station, much to the eye-rolling amusement of his colleagues, only to find that one fan has mistaken him for someone (anyone?) from “M*A*S*H.” The four appear on a popular Japanese game show, where the host introduces Foreman, drolly, as “Georgie Foreman-san.” Shatner later intones, “That is the stupidest game show I have ever seen,” and is so theatrically priggish that he is the butt of the joke, not Japan.
Underneath the show’s planned shenanigans, the four men display fascinating, distinct personalities. Foreman is a surprisingly quiet member of the group, while Bradshaw is a camera-hog eager to say the silliest Middle-American things (first, remarking that Tokyo sure is bigger than Oklahoma City, and then, “man, there are a lot of short people here”). Winkler and Shatner appear to be old friends who enjoy taking the piss out of each other. Shatner drops in a Priceline joke at some point, which sends Winkler into stitches, and then when Shatner tries to get him to try Japanese food, Winkler bickers, “You know, I’m really enjoying myself right now, so leave me the f–k alone.” Meanwhile, Foreman brings out, from the recesses of his handbag, a bottle of his own barbecue sauce to eat the mystery meat with. At some point, the four stop being Americans encountering Asia and instead become four older men on an unlikely adventure, trying to squeeze as much out of it as possible.
I’ve no doubt “Better Late Than Never”’s appreciation-exploitation relationship with Asian culture will continue, in fits and starts, throughout the series. But it’s a pity that easy mockery is where the show starts, because at its heart it is a show about coming to terms with death, a worthwhile topic on any continent. Later in the episode, the four are unexpectedly stymied by an excursion to Mount Fuji when they discover they can’t actually climb up it anymore, with their aging knees and backs and muscles, and take a moment to cherish the fleeting beauty of life. And over a discussion about the courage necessary to travel, the men end up reminiscing about when they’d experienced grace under pressure. Winkler recounts auditioning for the part of Fonzie; Foreman recalls losing to Muhammad Ali. Shatner, moved, outright declares, “I’m afraid of dying… the older I’ve gotten, the clearer coming death is.”
And then, in the tonal whiplash between sweet and terrible that this show seems to be angling for, Bradshaw discloses to the camera that he and the other guys have a side bet going for which country Shatner’s not going to survive on their collective Asian trek. “It’s terrible, terrible,” Bradshaw allows. “But, uh, I think he’s going down on Thailand.”