One of the oldest cliches of dead-tree media is that of writers writing about writers. It is, after all, a subject they know – Stephen King’s canon averages out at around two parts horror to one part troubled author. So, Underdeveloped, a TV show about movie producers, is clearly following in this established and not particularly proud tradition.
Similarly, if the workplace mockumentary – e.g. The Office and its slew of imitators – hasn’t become a cliché, then that’s because it’s prolific enough to be a genre of its own. The denizens of GeneriCorp, with all their flaws and foibles, struggle through another shift, with frequent asides directly to camera (here, one of those asides is a man making the amazing leap in logic that a fart must have been produced by one of the people in the room).
The cast of Underdeveloped do not so much have foibles plural as they have one foible apiece, one defining point where their characterisation begins and ends. Most of these archetypes will already be familiar to viewers of any other workplace mockumentary out there, like Parks And Recreation: you’ve got the self-important one, the sex pest, the jaded authority figure, the wilting work experience girl, and few of them get any room to stretch out and hark at anything beyond that initial brief.
The central duo of creator-writer Brian A. Metcalf and Thomas Ian Nicholas are the least flat of the bunch, but that’s mainly because they get the most screen time. As a double-act they’re shaky at best. The characters don’t particularly like each other, fine, but usually a workplace comedy tempers this with a degree of frenemy-style affection, or otherwise a real, serious mutual hatred. Here, it just seems like you’re actually watching two guys who don’t really get along stumble through a working day.
Creating this sort of verisimilitude is an achievement of sorts, but it’s not particularly entertaining to watch. The same goes for what could be called Underdeveloped’s running jokes, which are just people repeating the same phrase – everyone has come across a bore who runs the same expression into the ground with overuse, but that’s no reason to script, stage, film, and broadcast it.
And while even fairly lifeless material can be saved in the delivery, here it most definitely isn’t. Frequently, Underdeveloped gives us a stilted performance followed by a lingering session of nothing – sometimes these are intentional awkward silences, which are awkward and are silent, but perhaps not quite in the way they were intended. And these silences work especially badly when someone’s meant to have been cut off mid-sentence.
This was one of the big problems with Matt Groening’s Disenchantment, where shots frequently just dragged on after everyone had finished speaking, with seemingly no purpose or goal. Underdeveloped isn’t a cartoon, so here this can at least be put down to one person screwing up in the editing booth rather than an expensively and elaborately created error.
From the title onwards, Underdeveloped makes promiscuous use of self-deprecation – or at least, it tries to, but instead flies past that and ends up crapping in its own knickers. The company is called ‘Bottom Dwellers Films’, they invoke by name how similar the show is to Project Greenlight (though again, I’d point to The Office and its gaggle of bastard children), and at one point they throw up their hands and winkingly direct the self-deprecation directly to camera, which inexplicably isn’t in one of those to-camera asides.
All tools and devices should be used with some degree of care, even just to the point of ‘don’t jam it in your own eye’, but self-deprecation must be deployed with a surgeon’s steady hand for exactly this reason. Turn the dial a little too far, and you find yourself just flagging up your own flaws. In its time, Cracked illustrated this with the tale of a rapper who tried to recapture “the self-effacing charm of Ol’ Dirty Bastard” and dubbed himself ‘Shorty Shitstain’. This is the danger you face when you don’t know when to stop, and Underdeveloped has made this terrifyingly real.
While the to-camera aside doesn’t always flirt with disaster in the same way, Underdeveloped does use it a lot. The cast get a great deal of time speaking directly at the camera before they even get into the same room together. These asides are sometimes used in that classic form of emphasising “the gap between the sense of themselves that a character has and the reality of what they are”, but just as frequently end up a rather hasty explanation of what’s going on.
(Likewise the shaky-cam, which has been a mockumentary staple for decades, is here used with a pretty heavy hand.)
Initially I put this down to a simple lack of subtlety, which is no bad thing in and of itself; comedy can work just fine painted in even the broadest of strokes. But the way Underdeveloped keeps cutting away to explain something fairly basic, it’s nothing less than really not thinking much of the audience.
And this gels especially badly with the way scenes find themselves drawn out longer than they could possibly need to be. When some snooty actress insists she’ll only drink Evian water, and one of Bottom Dwellers Films’ hapless drones spies an empty Evian bottle in the bin, nobody needs to see what happens next played out in its entirety. Yet this is what Underdeveloped proudly presents us, drawing it out just long enough for the thought to occur ‘but won’t she notice that the bottle isn’t sealed?’ Reader, she doesn’t.
Given the surprising insularity of Tinseltown, that weird and amorphous parallel world of the studio backlot, I can at least understand where Underdeveloped came from. Everyone has their catalogue of funny things what happened at work – wouldn’t that make perfect sitcom material? Sadly, in the cold light of day, exposed to people who aren’t already invested, turns out it might not.
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A fairly flimsy example of the workplace mockumentary, where the stupidity of its alleged professionals doesn’t raise a wry smile of recognition so much as a tired sigh.
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