Pilot Error – Clerks
Recently, I’ve been stumbling onto more and more pilots to TV shows that never got off the ground. And much like the shows that actually make it to production, these pilots vary wildly in quality. I’ve begun seeking out some of the most unusual, most infamous, and most elusive of these to break them down for you kind folks at home, maybe even offer my own insight as to why these shows never made it.
The first entry in this series is one that I only discovered a few weeks back, although it was made 20 years ago, in that dark age of culture known as the 1990s.
When I think of the 90s, what comes to mind is a sea of gaudy patterns and neon against flannel. The art from that era, in my opinion, is in most cases only worthy of appreciation in an ironic sense. Sure, there are many exceptions that have stood the test of time, but I was there. I don’t just get to appreciate the gold that has lasted 20 years. I know that for every Jurassic Park there was a Congo. And one time there were dueling volcano disaster movies.
Perhaps it was the blossoming cynicism of Generation X (the group of young people, not the Marvel Comics TV pilot… not yet anyway) that shone a light on the lackluster media of the day, even back then. Many young people were aware that most of what was being forced down their gullets was pure, unadulterated garbage, but there were able to spot a few diamonds in the rough. After all, this was the era that brought us visionaries like Quentin Tarantino, and to a lesser (and I’m talking LESSER) extent Kevin Smith. And while we never did get a Saturday morning cartoon based on Reservoir Dogs, you’d better damn well believe we almost got a young adult sitcom based on Clerks.
Now, I feel like there’s actually a decent chance you’ve never heard of this show. I know a lot of people who never stopped caring about Kevin Smith, and when I mentioned it a couple of them over the last few weeks they were all flabbergasted. So let me give you a quick overview of how drastically the show deviated from the source material.
If you’ve never seen Clerks the movie, it’s definitely worth a look. It was something unlike everything else that had come before it, a very personal little tale about two deadbeats doing not too much of anything. The dialogue is not, as some would claim, naturalistic in the least. The actors are clearly reading a script, and although they are amateurs I don’t mean that as a slight against their skill. The script is such that Meryl Streep couldn’t make it seem like authentic speech, particularly not coming from the mouth of a convenience store clerk and his friends.
All the same, the movie was funny and strange and different enough that it launched the career of Kevin Smith and gave a serious fiscal boner to the folks at Disney, who had purchased Miramax and thus this property. While it would be hard to imagine a flume ride based on the Quick Stop (the convenience store in which the movie was set) , they seemed to think that the show lent itself just fine to a family-friendly sitcom with a late teenager skew.
I haven’t really mentioned this, and I suppose I should in case you’re not at all familiar with Kevin Smith’s movies or even his manner of conversation speech… everything the man does is riddled with “coarse” language. Now, I can sympathize with that (although I can turn it off when needed), and it certainly doesn’t bother me in the least when a movie has more f-bombs than it does takes during production, but you can’t have that kind of shit at the Disney Channel. And while I’d assume that this show would have likely aired on ABC (Disney was in the midst of buying that network at the time) that doesn’t change things.
This show needed to be a whole hell of a lot cleaner than Clerks. Two of the breakout characters in the movie were drug dealers who were characterized as lovable scamps rather than villains. The movie discussed sex very matter-of-factly and all-in-all promoted a moral system not entirely in line with the one Disney’s PR people seem to favor.
No problem, though, simply turn Jay And Silent Bob from two rascally weed peddlers into one super-sketchy shoplifter named Ray. Take away all of the carefree charm of Randall and slip Jim Breuer in instead. Where one could easily imagine Randall smoking weed off-screen and being all the more laid back for it, we now see a brain dead caricature of the stoner best friend who comes off as unsavory rather than aloof. Dante, the main character, is now a handsome young everyman. And while that’s what you want for a TV show, a non-threatening but appealing male lead with charisma, it’s a drastic change from the creepy, effete, whiny, evil-Magician-looking Dante we saw in the movie. Okay, so maybe that was a good movie, but it makes it less relatable to whiners and buzzkills the world over.
The main complaint about these characterizations is that all of the jokes seem to come from one pool. At one point, an ice cream store clerk (played by Endless Mike from Pete and Pete) who seems to be in his late teens or early twenties says “no nookie” like all people his age do. I wonder if this didn’t inspire the discussion of that term in Mallrats.
The grainy dutch angle exposition shots stand in stark contrast to the multi-camera filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio audience cinematography of the meat of the show. Can it even be called cinematography on a show like this? Is it just camera work? Also, cigarettes were $1.69? I’m sure that’s right, but it feels like it’s out of Stand by Me or something. These jokes were clearly written by some Borscht-Belt comedian on retainer at the studio. These are ALF level jokes, for Christ’s sake.
And the laugh track. We haven’t talked about the laugh track yet. There is nothing more jarring in this day and age, the Golden Age of Television in which we’re lucky enough to be living, than a laugh track. It’s one thing if you’re watching I Love Lucy but it always seems so out of place on shows that discuss sex. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch those kind of shows, and the last show with a laugh track that I’ve actually been into was Saved by the Bell that it makes everything seem so childish.
By the way, this show is Saved by the Bell, for all intents and purposes. It’s set on a few manufactured-looking sets with every character walking on to every scene, a small and unrealistically diverse set of friends (Keri Russell plays a friend of theirs who works at a tanning salon and is as hot as, you know… Keri Russell). In fact, this show is operating at about the level of The College Years or The New Class. All of the dreck with none of the charm that made the original Saved by the Bell a generation’s favorite awful show. It even has the little musical stings before and after the credits in gaudy 90s style. Although, while the humor is definitely a soft PG, it’s more risque than any Saved by the Bell series ever dared to be.
And I’m sorry for that dig I took at ALF earlier. I’m sorry, ALF.
I seriously think that if they reshot this today and sold it to CBS, it would be a runaway hit. It’s very broad. very weak comedy and would thus fit in beautifully alongside the likes of 2 Broke Girls and the Big Bang Theory. There are a few moments on the show that actually generate a chuckle, but the laugh track also notices and the proportional uproar of canned laughter takes all of the wind out the show’s sails.
If you like Clerks and insist it be serialized into TV format, check out the animated series. I think it’s better than the movie, I’d go so far as to say it’s the best thing to bear Kevin Smith’s name.
Does garbage have an expiration date? If it does, alert the dude at the counter to this show.
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