For all the time and effort so many spend trying to think of the perfect premise for the perfect show that can be perfectly pitched to the perfect network for the perfect sitcom deal, it’s ironic that some of the greatest concepts of all time were, really, about nothing.
Larry David is of course the king of nothingness, twice shaping the taken-for-granted moments of everyday life into canons of timeless comic genius. Many shows have lax arcs, but almost every successful one is based on some sort of gimmick intended to monopolize network executives’ short attention spans, fast. “Two guys. Both Lawyers. One can talk. Neither can hear. Both can read minds.” Those few ideas that are truly nihilistic often struggle to win over audiences who need to be sure of the plot before jumping in.
Take, for example, Ronna and Bev.
Though show creators Jamie Denbo and Jessica Chaffin enjoyed success on the web and in a slew of still-running live performances at LA’s UCB Theatre, their middle-aged Boston-area yenta characters failed to keep Showtime's attention. Despite the show’s 2008 pilot deal, Ronna and Bev never got picked up and I bet it was, at least in part, because of thinness of premise. I guess a series about two caricatured Jewish women trying to promote their book, You’ll Do a Little Better Next Time: A Guide to Marriage & Remarriage for Jewish Singles, while tearing through Los Angeles nail salons, doctors offices, and cleaning ladies isn’t enough of a hook.
That’s a shame because it really should be, as I’m sure any fan of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm will agree.
If you can’t get enough of realism and precarious human interaction, and can get past the idea that Ronna and Bev is not a show about landscapers sent from the Moon to start a nightclub in New York City, or some such premise-heavy amalgam, then you should take the time to pay homage to a brilliant endeavor that didn’t quite make it mainstream (at least not yet).
Christopher Guest may be the style’s most notable purveyor but, in recent years, The Office has made the faux documentary an instantly recognizable technique. There’s just something about confessional shots, supposedly untrained subjects’ conspicuous awareness of the crew, and handheld cameras making quick pans that works wonders in establishing characters as oblivious know-nothings, and that’s funny.
When you have a web series that’s completely character-driven, those characters have to be believable. Very believable. No explosions or salacious betrayals will distract us if they’re not. Ronna and Bev is just…Ronna and Bev, two stereotyped Jewish women doing everyday stuff. If Jamie and Jessica’s portrayals were anything less than spot-on, from make-up to clothing to cadence in their Yiddish-inflected Boston accents, the show would fall flat on its face. All one needs to do is compare the actors’ headshots with Ronna and Bev’s mugs to know how far this series is from that fate.
Ah, awkwardness, the cornerstone of 21st century comedy. Uneasiness and discomfort have become visceral indicators of success for series like Curb and The Office. Leagues of squirming viewers repeating “oh my God, no” mean the shows got it right. If cringe humor is your cup of tea, there’s nothing quite like watching characters ruin a moment in a way so authentic that your fists clench.
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