'The State' & 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose' DVD reviews - Sepinwall on TV
by Alan Sepinwall/The Star-Ledger
Thursday July 02, 2009, 6:10 AM
When you revisit something you loved when you were younger, there's always a danger it won't hold up under more mature eyes -- and that seeing it again could ruin fond memories. So it was with some trepidation that I cracked open a pair of new DVD releases of '90s comedies: "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," which I loved when I was in high school, and "The State," which I was obsessed with in college.
my great relief, "The State" (which comes out on DVD on July 14) holds
up remarkably well, give or take some legal issues. And while "Parker
Lewis" (which came out earlier this week) hasn't aged as gracefully, it
at least works as a time capsule of a certain era of comedy (and
"The State" boxed set, collecting the sketch comedy series that MTV aired from 1993-95, was, for years, the Loch Ness monster of TV-on-DVD: its existence oft-rumored, but never proved. At the time it aired, MTV had a deal with the major record labels to use their music on all of their shows, so "State" sketches were crammed with popular songs of the period. The problem was, that deal didn't apply to home video, so "The State" was stuck in legal limbo. (This is the same reason other shows like "The Wonder Years" and "China Beach" have never been released on DVD.)
Eventually, all the songs were stripped from the soundtrack and replaced by new instrumental scores, many of them designed to closely resemble the original. In "Pants," a sketch where Michael Ian Black realizes he needs to start wearing pants (as opposed to just underpants) so women will talk to him, the new track sounds remarkably like The Breeders' "Cannonball," which was such an integral part of the original sketch. (During one of many lively cast DVD commentaries, Ken Marino notes that the "Pants" music is different, and Thomas Lennon leaps down his throat to holler, "Well, kill it for everybody, why don't you, Grandpa?")
The replacement music is, unfortunately, never as good as a fit as what was once there, and it becomes awkward when the dialogue refers to the original tune. One of the series' more memorable recurring sketches featured Lennon and Black as Barry and Levon, '70s-style lounge lizards fond of sitting in giant mounds of pudding and dancing to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" -- which becomes a problem when they talk about Marvin even as the soundtrack features a generic R&B track.
But even with the replacement soundtrack, much of "The State" set -- which features all 24 episodes the troupe made for MTV, plus an unaired pilot and a wealth of unaired sketches -- is wickedly, if bizarrely, funny.
Where MTV was often requesting recurring characters and a focus on pop culture spoofs, the cast's interest was in stranger areas. They would do recurring characters, but in odd ways, like a sketch where Barry, Levon, rebellious teen Doug (Michael Showalter) and catchphrase-repeating Louie (Marino) performed kabuki theater together. In one of the most durable "State" sketches, a marvel of deadpan timing combined with plot illogic, Black plays a suburbanite patiently trying to find out why his mailman (Kevin Allison) is delivering tacos instead of the mail. In another, a mustachioed, half-naked Lennon tries to solicit money for the U.S. Men's Bikini Thong Rollerblading Team, whose members perform classic plays of the '30s and '40s like "Our Town" and "Waiting for Lefty" clad in nothing but bikini thongs and inline skates; "For several reasons," he admits, "the US Men's Bikini Thong Rollerblading team is not sponsored by the Olympic Committee."
The tension between the troupe and the network is most obvious in "Porcupine Racetrack," an elaborate, largely joke-free mini-musical that Lennon introduces by explaining, "MTV asked us specifically not to do this skit." In the commentary, Robert Ben Garant says that, "MTV really didn't want us to do this one -- for obvious reasons."
But while the troupe fell apart after a brief, disastrous marriage with CBS (their one CBS special isn't on the DVD, alas), most of its members continue to work in movie and TV comedy, sometimes alone, sometimes together in projects like "Reno 911," "Wet Hot American Summer" and Comedy Central's upcoming "Michael and Michael Have Issues," which debuts the night after "The State" DVD is released.
With "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," a high school sitcom about a popular, conniving teenager (Corin Nemec), the alums still making an impact in the business are mostly behind the camera, and not always where you'd expect. Co-creator Clyde Phillips is one of the lead producers on Showtime's serial killer drama "Dexter," for instance, and directors Bryan Spicer and Rob Bowman later became institutions at "24" and "The X-Files," respectively.
It's not hard to see why. While the actual jokes on "Parker Lewis" feel fairly dated -- one episode, in a 30-second span, features punchlines about Vice President Quayle and the idea of Tom Petty as the biggest rock star in the world -- as do the wardrobes (Parker Lewis and Vanilla Ice apparently shopped at the same boutiques), the show's stylistic template still feels impressive, particularly compared to other comedies of the time.
Phillips and company were committed to giving the show the feeling of a live-action cartoon, with exaggerated sound effects and camera angles, and characters -- like Abraham Benrubi as gigantic bully Larry Kubiac, or Melanie Chartoff as wicked principal Grace Musso -- set a half-step away from reality. Later Fox comedies like "Malcolm in the Middle" owe a creative debt to "Parker Lewis."
"Parker Lewis" debuted in 1990, at the same time as NBC's "Ferris Bueller" remake, and while it was initially dismissed as a rip-off, it turned out to be the much better, and longer-lasting (it ran for three seasons), comedy. Where "Ferris Bueller" star Charlie Schlatter was so smug that he accentuated all of his character's most insufferable qualities, Nemec offered up the same kind of innate sweetness that Matthew Broderick brought to the original character in the big-screen "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
Watching "Parker Lewis" on DVD, I didn't exactly find myself
wondering why I found it so funny nearly 20 years ago. It just felt
like I had outgrown it. (If there was a way to digitally alter the
fashions and remove all the period references, it wouldn't be hard to
see these episodes doing well on the Disney Channel.)
Thankfully, I don't seem able to outgrow "The State." It's still blessedly silly and funny. And I suspect that those DVDs are going to get a lot of play in my house.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200. Include your full name and hometown.