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Comedy: It's a family thing.
So Amanda Bynes gained a huge a fan following from her work on Nickelodeon, where she even had her own kid-based comedy sketch show, The Amanda Show. With her rising fame, it was only natural that she be tapped for a network sitcom. For her co-star, Jennie Garth of Beverly Hills: 90210 was cast, providing another familiar face for viewers. Dan Schneider, former star of the underrated '80s teen sitcom Head of the Class, is now a TV producer of similarly quirky teen shows today, and he co-ran things behind the scenes with former Friends writer Wil Calhoun. In the resulting series, What I Like About You, Bynes and Garth were to play a pair of sisters going through a personality clash while sharing an apartment in New York City.
What could possibly go wrong?
Facts of the Case
When rambunctious teenager Holly Tyler (Bynes) learns her father is moving to Japan on business, she comes up with an alternate plan—she'll do the roommate thing with her older sister Val (Garth), who has a posh apartment in the city. Although Holly's act-without-thinking nature collides with Val's uptight fussiness, they learn to set aside their differences at the end of each day.
Also along for the ride are Holly's best friend Gary (Wesley Jonathan, Roll Bounce), who mistakenly considers himself to be a suave ladies' man, and Val's boyfriend Jeff (Simon Rex, Scary Movie 3), a dim-witted restaurant manager.
You know that saying about good intentions, and the road they pave? Well, I have no doubt that the makers of What I Like About You had the absolute best of intentions, and look where it ended up. It's a great concept—two sisters, one a teen and one in her 20s, live together in New York and have all sorts of crazy misadventures. After the first two episodes, I appreciated the enthusiasm of the cast, but didn't laugh very much. I remained hopeful. By the time I finished the first disc, though, I dreaded having to watch the rest, because by then I realized that this is simply an unfunny comedy.
For one thing, the plotlines are the types of things we've seen a dozen times in plenty of other sitcoms. There might not be any pregnant ladies in elevators this season, but there are still numerous other clichés fluttering about. Any given episode has the free-spirited Holly coming up with some crazy idea with the best of intentions (there's that phrase again). Only, being a slave to her impulses, Holly doesn't think things through, and the results of her plan end up disastrous. These are the same kind of ridiculous situations that Lucy found herself in back in the I Love Lucy days—except that Bynes, for all her talent, is no Lucy.
This leaves it up to Garth to play the straight woman in most episodes, reacting to Holly's crazy schemes. Like Bynes, Garth throws herself into the comedy without hesitation, and neither actress is afraid of looking foolish for the sake of a laugh. Sometimes she portrays Val as stuffy and uptight, imposing strict rules for Holly and worrying that little sister might be dressing too sexy. At other times, Val comes off as the nerdy one, not "getting" what today's youth considers cool. Basically, she's the "Felix" in her and Holly's odd couple—except that Garth, for all her talent, is no Tony Randall.
OK, so a lot of sitcoms recycle plots. That's expected, and it's up to the writers to put their own spin on the plots, so that it works with the show's characters, its style of humor, and its overall "voice." In What I Like About You, however, the jokes mostly tend to fall flat. While watching, I kept thinking, "That joke would've been funnier if…" or "A better punch line would have been…" Viewers shouldn't be rewriting a show's scripts in their head while watching.
I've aired my number one complaint about romantic comedies before, and guess what? I'm about to air it again. In most, but not all, of the romcoms I've seen, there's an enormous amount of time spent depicting the female characters as well-rounded individuals who are smart, talented, and fun to be around, but not without their flaws. Then these fascinated female characters are matched up with guys who are nothing brainless Ken dolls. Simon Rex is one such Ken doll, playing the roles of "supportive boyfriend" and "lunk-headed beefcake" in equal doses. If women in these shows are so dynamic and full of life, why are the men always so dull? Rex gets a little bit of character development late in this season, when his relationship with Val goes through a rough patch, but by then it's a little too late.
The character with the most depth, somewhat surprisingly, turns out to be Gary. At first, he's a one-note joke—the teen guy always trying to pick up girls. Later on, in an episode when he tries to seduce Val with some horrible piano playing, I realized just how sad and clueless the character really is. He's not the suave, cool guy as he first appears. His alleged suaveness masks just his true dorkiness. Later, when his incredibly hot, single mother is introduced and we see his reaction to guys fawning all over her, it reveals another layer to his personality.
What I Like About You has arrived on DVD with all 22 episodes of the first season on three discs. The picture quality is solid, with plenty of bright, vivid colors on display. The 2.0 sound is similarly good, with the dialogue and the audience's suspiciously raucous laughter coming across with loudness and clarity. A gag reel is included, with the usual assortment of shots in which the actors blow their lines and/or break character. Fans of the two lead actresses will likely be disappointed that there are no other extras to get to know them better.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a surprising amount of celebrity and pseudo-celebrity cameos throughout this season, including skateboard legend Tony Hawk and JC Chasez of N'Sync, and numerous recognizable character actors. Trivia fans will probably have a good time playing "spot the famous face."
Despite some nicely enthusiastic performances from the cast, What I Like About You ends up being a little more tedious and a lot less funny than it should. I doubt even the young people it was created for will get much enjoyment out of it.
I wanted to like What I Like About You, but I didn't. Like, guilty.
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