Here are some expository scenes of the new Fox sitcom, Running Wilde, with Will Arnett and Keri Russell. A yet-to-be-identified girl’s voice introduces the characters by name and habit (“always one-upping each other”). The title character, Steve Wilde, inhabits an expansive mansion, which is presented in high-angle long-shot. We see visual humor based on cartoonish compositions, as in the shot of the friends facing one another, one on a huge horse and the other on a ludicrously small pony. The introduction of Steve’s secretary Mr. Lunt is presented in horizontal split-screen, a novel stylistic choice in a network comedy. In terms of the sound and image, the sitcom is hardly the same genre as it was even ten years ago, when Malcolm in the Middle debuted on Fox as a novelty -- a live-action single camera show with a voice-over and no laugh track.
Now comedies on the networks are easily sorted into two kinds, the “mass” sitcoms on CBS and the “class” shows on the rest of the nets. No one thinks of Chuck Lorre as “Quality TV” but on ABC, last season’s favorite new half hour, Modern Family, has slid into that category, accompanying the Thursday night slate on NBC. Now within the class/Quality category of course there are distinctions; some shows work better than others as stories and some casts come together better than others as effective ensembles. Running Wilde seems less likely to make it to 100 episodes than the show following it on Tuesdays, Raising Hope, another class sitcom emphasizing visual humor. On Running Wilde, the screwball situation between the shallow overgrown rich kid and Keri Russell’s earnest liberal do-gooder requires a frisson of sexual tension à la Sam and Diane, and we don’t get that from the pilot. But whether it turns out to be a classic or a dud, it’s interesting to consider how expectations around a show like Running Wilde are set, and what terms we use to consider its success or failure.
Unlike Mike & Molly or $#*! My Dad Says, Running Wilde comes to us bundled in discourses of art, including the identification of creator and oeuvre. It is the next project by the Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz, and Arnett as well as David Cross are veterans of that beloved earlier Fox show, which was also of course in the “class” mold of zany, cartoonish single-camera shows with distanced voice-over narrators and visually and verbally sophisticated humor. Most television shows are not publicly identified with an individual’s vision, but this one certainly is, and critical as well as popular judgment measures it against the beloved earlier favorite. But Arrested Development was not a commercial success, having lasted as long as it did not by virtue of solid ratings but in hopes that cult viewing might eventually spread to the mainstream. Indeed its ratings failures and cancellation after three seasons are central to its artistic identity as the show too good for network television. Quality TV performs its own quality, and Running Wilde does this in its sophisticated mise en scène and camerawork, as well as in its liberal political viewpoint (though we might hesitate to pin this down based on a pilot). But perhaps the most obvious way it sells itself as Quality is by association with AD -- Arnett is playing a similar character to Gob Bluth, and the scenario of over-privileged rich folks whose foibles are milked for sophisticated comedy is familiar. Meanwhile on CBS, “your grandfather’s network,” you can tune in to see their newest “conventional, cynical, yet sentimental joke-pause-joke comedy.” The state of network comedy is split between two poles of cultural legitimacy, and even if it’s a stinker, Running Wilde represents the more highly valued of them.