If Judge Daryl Loomis wrote this in the voice of Norm McDonald, there'd already have been three O.J. jokes by now.
Hey, it's Weiner Dog!
From 1994 until nearly the end of the millennium, I was entirely devoid of a television set. When I returned to the tube, a lot had changed with sit-coms. There were fewer laugh tracks and catch phrases. I like this new style of television comedy, at its height in Arrested Development, and the old style just doesn't seem so funny anymore. Coming toward the end of that laugh track era was The Norm Show, starring a number of veteran television actors and created by successful comedy producer Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show). All three seasons of The Norm Show come to us from Shout! Factory, and reveal a series filled with actors who make me laugh, performing in a format that I just don't like.
Facts of the Case
Once upon a time, Norm Henderson (Norm McDonald, Dirty Work) was a middle-of-the-road NHL player looking at a long career of sitting on the bench. One IRS inquiry and a tax evasion conviction later, however, and Norm is remanded to community service as a social worker helping others in need. There's only one word to describe what happens when a selfish idiot like Norm counsels people: comedy.
This premise is preposterous and the scenarios are most often absurd, but we should expect no less from a mind like Norm McDonald's. It sounds like the kind of idea Lorne Michaels turned down fifty times when pitched in Saturday Night Live, but one that McDonald got the chance to do after he left the show. Latching on with Bruce Helford and collecting a very strong group of television actors, they took this ridiculous idea and put together an above average sit-com; nothing amazing or terribly memorable, but the high quality performances deliver plenty of funny moments.
The cast is the cart of the show. Top to bottom, quality actors have been placed perfectly in their roles. Norm is a lovable cad, always screwing up people's lives and getting away with it by making some stupid crack. The actor's weird David Letterman-style delivery seems ill-suited to a prime time comedy, but he takes to the part very well. He's backed by Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), one of the best comedians in television. As the office's top social worker, she brings all the pathos and, with just her reactions, gets most of the laughs. Max Wright (ALF, I haven't seen Willie Tanner in ages!) and Ian Gomez (Cougar Town), as Norm's boss and best friend respectively, provide good support with their consistently strong performances. Even when I don't like the actor, such as in the case of Artie Lange (Beer League), the casting is still perfect.
The consistency of the show falters some in the storylines. A few episodes are absolutely hilarious, but that is the exception. Most have a few good laughs, but generally suffer from too much plotting and too many coincidences. The comedy goes for edgy, but winds up more juvenile than anything. At its worst, the show comes across as homophobic, including one episode that exclusively revolves around Norm's attempts to "change" a lesbian. In most cases, it doesn't sink this deep, but there are so many throwaway jokes about homosexuality that it weighs on the entire series. If nothing else, Norm McDonald and Laurie Metcalf play off each other very well and I can always enjoy their work together.
Shout! Factory's collection of The Norm Show: The Complete Series is unspectacular, but fine in every basic way. The image transfer is full frame and looks generally good, with only a small amount of grain to mar the screen. The colors are strong and the edges are sharp; it looks quite good. The sound is a thoroughly standard stereo mix with clear dialog and music, but nothing special here. The only extra included over the nine discs is audio commentary from McDonald and Helford on six episodes. It's interesting to hear them talk nostalgically about the project, but they don't go into very much depth, and having the content on just over a tenth of the episodes feels like a little bit of a rip. Still, I'm just happy Shout! Factory has taken the time and the care to release these now somewhat obscure television shows and give them new life on DVD.
I like The Norm Show, but it's not great. The scenarios are absurd, but the show is filled with great performances and a certain charm that's hard to deny. I hate the laugh track, I hate the amnesia that every episode resets with, and I hate the preponderance of gay jokes, but I like to laugh and most episodes have enough of those that I can reasonably recommend the show. It's a product of its time and, for all it's problems, there are too many things I like about The Norm Show to convict it.
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