Friday, June 30, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 5: The John Larroquette Show

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld

Show of hands, how many of you even remember The John Larroquette Show?

C'mon people, it ran for FOUR seasons on NBC!

To be fair, the reason the show is on the list is almost entirely because of its wonderfully dark first season. Created by Don Reo, the show starred John Larroquette as a recently-sober night manager of Crossroads, a depressing bus station in St. Louis. And let me be clear, this is a dark setting rife with tension. John spends most of the pilot trying not to drink as he deals with depressing crisis after depressing crisis. Darryl "Chill" Mitchell played the lunch counter owner who might have been stereotyped as an "angry black man" but became a fleshed out character as a comic foil for John. Liz Torres played John's assistant and the great Chi McBride was Gene, the station janitor who had no problem standing up to John. Their first encounter comes as a horrified John emerges from the bathroom and says, "It looks like you've really got your work cut out for you in there." Gene, in a "are you kidding me" tone says, "I don't go in there!"

Most of the characters had an edge of some kind, and for the first season, the show resisted softening them too much. John's 12-step recovery was a focus of several episodes, and you don't usually see broad laughs wrung out of a guy at rock bottom trying to put his life back together. It was also surprisingly literate. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another sitcom that devoted a whole runner to author Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

I have this theory that NBC bought the show assuming that it would be another Cheers-like sitcom, with the bus station acting like the bar that all these quirky lovable losers hung out in. Cheers was a place where everybody knows your name, but Crossroads was where no one wanted to be. But it works because real comedy can come out of conflict - and it existed on every level on TJLS. Characters hated the depressing night shift environment, where you were just as likely to get shot as have to deal with the station's regular homeless bums and hookers.

The cast of people with color meant that the show could also address racial issues and tensions. No other NBC sitcom was trying to mine dark laughs out of the problems that a guy who looks like "Chill" has when driving his car through a white neighborhood while playing gangsta rap. The song's only lyrics, "Kill Whitey," is one of those jokes that I'm not sure I should laugh at for its naked antagonism or shake my head at for being too broad. On the other hand, when NBC had a full night's worth of sitcoms set in New York with nary a person of color in the cast, Larroquette stood out because it actually acknowledged race existed. I can't think of any other NBC shows that went to that well.

No, wait. There was the painfully unfunny Rhythm and Blues, which was about a white DJ being hired by an all-black radio station when he's mistaken for a black guy. I swear to you this was a real show.

A show like The John Larroquette Show couldn't last for long, and if you want to see a perfect example of how network meddling can rob a show of its distinctiveness, check out the overhaul the show got in Season Two. With a year of sobriety under his belt, John's recovery was far enough that his backstory as a former alcoholic receded into the background. Suddenly he was working the day shift, robbing the show of the darker danger and atmosphere it had. The elderly bum got cleaned up and started shining shoes at the bus station, and the streetwise hooker got clean and bought the station's bar. The edgy show about life's losers at a crossroads in their life morphed into just another show where funny people hung out in one location most of the day. That's the development process - take what's distinctive and make it acceptable to the masses.

I wish I could rewatch the first season, but it has yet to come to DVD. My memory of the show is that it boldly followed its voice that first year and was successful in spite of - perhaps maybe because of - it made viewers uncomfortable.

Part 6: ER

1 comment:

  1. I'm little late to the party but I remember this show. I used to watch it with my mom. I was a little too young for it, but I remember liking it a lot. The show was very ahead of its time and would most likely fair much better in today's market.

    The most interesting thing about the show, to me, is that despite terrible first season ratings (it was ranked 96th) the show was renewed. Needless to say, that would never happen today. It's also never been officially released for the home market in any format.