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Short attention span? Then watch this

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In the past couple years, Fox's "Family Guy" and "Titus" were the perfect series for viewers suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Both go off on quick, weird tangents perfect for the ADD age. How could a TV show get any more frenetic, jumping from a main story to a flashback and back again in a matter of mere seconds?

The answer can be found in NBC's "The Downer Channel" (8:30 p.m. Tuesday), a comedy show with sketches so short they're barely brush strokes.

"Downer" has a few moments of comedic ingeniousness in each episode, but mostly it's filler centered around the theme of "horrible, annoying, unpleasant things we all go through constantly," according to cast member Wanda Sykes in a lame introduction to a future episode.

Those "things," as collected through man on the street interviews with John and Jane Q. Public, include junk mail, boy bands, cell phones, germs, telemarketing, etc.


"The Downer Channel"

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.

Starring: Jeff B. Davis, Lance Krall, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Wanda Sykes


Sometimes the public's annoyances are the basis for quick skits, but mostly the sketches are random. An irritable Betsy Ross is the star of "Period Drama," in which it's implied the famous flag maker suffered from PMS. That one falls pretty flat.

Others are more successful. "Anal Retentive Rage" features a guy jilted by his girlfriend who goes on a rampage, taking a glass off a coaster and putting it on a bare coffee table, making pictures crooked, etc.

"Oh, my God, what have I done!?" he screams, looking at the mild disruptions he's wrought on his living room. Only the most severely Type A personality wouldn't laugh, recognizing a bit of truth in that sketch.

The best recurring sketch features guest stars Fred Willard and Teri Garr as parents of "The Withholding Family." Set at a dinner table, one of their children comes in with great news, only to have the parents rain on his or her parade.

Tuesday the son gets accepted to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, prompting his father to say, "Gee, I hope they're as good as they used to be."

Mom chimes in with, "You'll have to make a decision, and you've never been good at making decisions."

It comes as no surprise the intelligent and talented Steve Martin is an executive producer when you see subtle, insightful skits such as these. But you have to wonder where he was during other segments that don't work so well.

"White Guys Rocking Out" shows clips of goofy white guys dancing. It's not funny or insightful, just obvious. A picture of the world's worst comb-over and the runner-up for the title isn't really amusing.

The show's theme of comedy through pain is made as upbeat as possible, including in the opening credits that feature sad looking people as a chirpy theme song plays.

"Life wouldn't seem like such a drag if it weren't for all the madness, fear, anxiety and pain," the theme song goes. "... So please don't be so blue, it's not just you, we're downer too."

The incorporation of real people is a mixed bag. A future episode has a segment on a woman who fears clowns that's done in a condescending but funny "Daily Show" style. Tonight's scenes of a cast member wielding a leaf blower on city sidewalks for a segment called "Noises Can Drive You Crazy" just isn't humorous.

The best man on the street segment involves people describing "My Awful Boss," followed by scenes of cast members putting all the anecdotes together to create one super-crazy awful boss. It's comedic exaggeration at its best.

Among "The Downer Channel" cast members, only Mary Lynn Rajskub is likely to be familiar. She's been a guest star on many sitcoms and had a regular role in the last seasons of HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show." She's adept at playing the sad sack, but it can't help but get old after a while.

Sykes is the most skilled at the interactive segments, particularly in a future episode when she hangs out at a 24-hour towing impound lot, interviewing an employee and drivers who come to pick up their cars.

In the end, is "The Downer Channel" worth watching? It depends on your willingness to watch an experiment. When it succeeds, it does so brilliantly. When it fails, you'll be tempted to click away from "The Downer Channel" for good.

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