10 September 2010

Dog Bites Man

I think this marks a first for me on this blog. I have never discussed a show before.

Admittedly, there are a lot of shows that I would place higher on my list of favourites than Dog Bites Man. However, as I recently rediscovered this show on Netflix instant streaming, and as the entirety of the series only spans 9 episodes, it seemed like a natural choice for a brief review.

Partly planned, partly improved
Those two words describe this show all to well. For those unfamiliar with this short-lived Comedy Central series, the basic concept behind Dog Bites Man is about the same as Candid Camera or Trigger Happy TV but with a much drier tone and a stronger sense of continuity.
The show does, in fact, have characters, as it follows a local television news team, which is in fact a group of four comedians. Kevin Beekin (Matt Walsh) is the starring reporter; Tillie Sullivan (Andrea Savage) is the team's producer; Marty Shonson (A.D. Miles) is the intern turned production assistant, and Alan Finger (Zach Galifianakis) serves as director. Aside from these four characters, the rest of the show involves "real people who were not made aware they were being filmed as part of a comedy show" (quoted from the pre-show disclaimer).

The show is, perhaps, bizarre in that it blends scripted and entirely unscripted elements. Each episode generally revolves around a specific story that the team is investigating, which is preplanned. Their interactions with one another in private are more of less scripted, though I'm sure some improvisation takes place.

Awkward and uncomfortable
However, while they are out in the field reporting, they are, in fact, baiting reactions from their unwitting victims. I say victims, and yet in actuality, a lot of what they do is far less directly disturbing as what might be done in other "hidden camera" style shows. The focus is not to pull pranks on the general public, but rather to verbally push comfort levels.

Sometimes, this just falls to discussing things in public that most people would consider more intimate or private and then prompting those they are interviewing or otherwise interacting with to respond. These moments can be funny, but are generally less so than some of their more creative ploys.

The show really shines when it mocks news itself. One particularly strong example is the episode "Assignment Brighton, Florida." In this episode, the news team is called out to Brighton, Florida to report on a kidnapping story, but accidentally end up in Colorado. Determined to still get the footage they need, they set about convincing the locals to pretend to be the missing girl's family, the sheriff, and so forth. In one scene, they ask a large group of people to pose as the mourning community. They then ask the crowd to do different reaction shots that can be used depending on how the story unfolds—one if she is found alive, one if she is found dead, one if she is found alive but missing a limb, etc. When the crowd questions this, Tillie explains, saying that all news channels do this sort of thing.

Then, the phone call arrives that the girl has been found alive, the scenario the team had not been betting on, and they are gravely disappointed, much to the crowd's outrage. Maybe that fake phone call was just them fishing for a reaction, but at the same time, you have to think: when the adage "If it bleeds, it leads," rings true, you can't help but think that maybe all news channels do this sort of thing too. Cuz afterall, death sells.

No one was surprised to see it end
Overall, though, it's not surprising that the show was cancelled before it even completed a full season. The premise was interesting, and I like the level of improv. As I'm fairly familiar with the comedic styles of both Matt Walsh and Zach Galifianakis, it's interesting for me to see how they play out and combine during the improvisational scenes.

Ultimately, though, Zach's incredibly awkward comedic style does nothing but amplify the vague awkwardness Matt's full-of-himself-but-actually-unappealing persona. As I said before, the show is awkward and uncomfortable. Painfully so, in fact. And as the news team pushes at the comfort levels of those they interact with, the viewer's boundaries are ultimately pushed as well (although not as far, as we the spectators are made aware that this is comedy).

Much like Zach Galifianakis's stand-up, I think the show demands a certain niche audience. And while that may be viable as a stand-up routine, it just won't cut it when it comes to network television. Network TV doesn't do niche. Not long-term, anyway.

Still, I have to wonder. How many episodes of Dog Bites Man could you get a fan of The Hangover to sit through before they decide it's just too weird? I mean, not to be like that, I was a fan of Zach way back when most people didn't even recognize his name, and most people reacted with, "Oh, yeah. That guy is really strange." How he ever became popular is beyond me, but more power to him.

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