Laugh Track

Pilot Season sends up the sitcom genre itself.

Pilot Season: an unlovable mutation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

Last spring, when Frasier and Friends were euthanized, there was much talk about the demise of the sitcom. But like any endangered species, the half-hour comedy may be merely adapting and mutating, figuring out new ways to survive. Pilot Season, Trio’s first original comedy series (check local listings for airtimes) may represent one possible answer to that tired question: Whither the sitcom? The old formula placed a few likable characters in an enclosed familiar setting—a home, an office, a bar, a desert island—and had them wisecrack for a half-hour, learn a lesson, and seal it with hugs all around. Hapless and bumbling as Gilligan, Frasier, or the Friends crew may have been, they were, at their core, lovable and loving characters, loyal both to their onscreen “families” and to the viewing audience. Pilot Season, by contrast, dispenses with both sentimentality and punch lines. Its characters, a group of fatuous L.A. actors, writers, and talent agents squabbling over the dregs of the impending television season, are too self-obsessed to kid around. And if there’s any hugging going on, it’s only as an excuse to twist the knife in someone else’s back.

Pilot Season is a pointed, often wicked satire, not only of Hollywood mores, but of the sitcom genre itself. Like last season’s quirky Fox show Arrested Development, Pilot Season uses a faux-documentary format to maintain a wry narrative distance from its characters, regarding them with a healthy skepticism that stops just short of ridicule. Everyone onscreen is vain, backstabbing, and visibly invested in looking good, physically and otherwise, for the camera. The humor derives not from traditional gags, but from the disparity between the characters’ perceptions of themselves and our perceptions of them. Eventually we realize that what we’re laughing at is less what the characters are doing or saying than their collective delusion—in this case, that their transparently absurd creative pursuits are actually worthwhile.

When it comes to the depiction of self-absorbed, backstabbing venality, it doesn’t hurt that Pilot Season is set in Los Angeles on the abject fringes of the entertainment industry. The six-part series follows the travails of Max Rabin (played by Sam Seder, who also directed and co-wrote), a manager at L.A.’s Big Management talent agency. Max is terrible at his job—asked to produce a client’s “signing papers,” he whispers to his assistant, “Call downstairs and find out what that means.” But he’s hard to fire, because he secured the job through his ex-girlfriend Susan (Sarah Silverman), an actress who was once one of Big Management’s hottest clients. These days, though, Susan’s career, like Max’s, is in peril; she’s struggling to get a part in Fatal Actions, the TV spin-off of a big action movie. The still-lovelorn Max stalks Susan around Los Angeles with a camera crew, purportedly to collaborate with a group of student filmmakers on a project but really in an attempt to win her back. Meanwhile, a group of motley hangers-on (played by cable comedy regulars like Mr. Show’s David Cross and The Assistant’s Andy Dick) jockey desperately to cast or be cast in new shows that sound ever less promising as Pilot Season wears on.

Silverman and Seder dated in real life—in fact, Seder made a semi-autobiographical film about their relationship, Who’s the Caboose? (1997). Pilot Season cannily scavenges some of that material, operating on the premise that the failure of Who’s the Caboose? was the impetus behind Max and Susan’s breakup, and that the camera crew that follows Max everywhere is filming a sequel to the original flop. It’s a complex, layered conceit that could have easily gotten too cute for its own good. But Pilot Season, with its large, talented cast, its freewheeling, vérité-style camera work, and its refreshingly astringent misanthropy, pulls it off.

In Susan Underman, Sarah Silverman has finally found a role worthy of her deadpan stand-up persona. She’s a very funny woman, but her combination of Parker Posey-like good looks and grating voice has condemned her to play the shrewish girlfriend in movies like The School of Rock and There’s Something About Mary. In Pilot Season, Silverman spoofs this very typecasting, phoning her agent to screech, “How come I always have to be the ****ing bitch?” In fact, Silverman’s character is so deliciously bitchy she could carry the show on her own, even without solid backup work from Seder and the consistently hilarious Andy Dick, who plays a tightly wound agent bent on “poaching” Susan away from Big Management.

Of course, a cynical worldview, a faux-doc format, and improvisational acting aren’t necessarily enough to make a show funny. Another recent example of this genre, Bravo’s Significant Others, flopped so badly that it was pulled from the air after only six episodes. * Despite the show’s formal inventiveness, Significant Otherscharacters were merely variations on flat sitcom stereotypes (the clueless husband, the nagging wife). Pilot Season’s ensemble of not-so-lovable Hollywood losers are funny because, as they pitch and bitch at each other, they show us how relentlessly humorless the process of making television can be. The new television season promises to contain plenty of drab, cookie-cutter shows like the ones lampooned by the show’s characters. But if Pilot Season represents the sitcom’s next incarnation, we could do much worse.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2004: This article originally said that Bravo’s Significant Others was pulled from the air after only three episodes. In fact, Significant Others ran for six episodes.