There's a deadly serious competition brewing this calendar year regarding a peculiar sort of bragging right: Who has the worst new comedy of 2012? Is it ABC, with the clumsy drag farce Work It? NBC, with the shrill swill of Are You There, Chelsea? (Fox doesn't enter the fray until this weekend with the launch of the negligible animated version of Napoleon Dynamite.) But it's hard to imagine anything surpassing the jaw-dropping tone-deafness of CBS' cringe-com Rob (premiering tonight at 8:31/7:31c), a culture-clash calamity that's about as funny as the Mexican-American War, though hardly as subtle.
Rob Schneider, whose Saturday Night Live heyday seems a pitifully distant memory right about now, stars as the title schlub, a fussy nerd who somehow landed a gorgeous Mexican-American bride (the innocuous Claudia Bassols) after a six-week courtship. Now it's time to meet her family, a sprawling brood of shockingly stereotypical clichés whom Rob somehow regards as aliens — not necessarily of the illegal variety. "I feel like I'm at a Julio Iglesias concert," he cracks as the laugh track screams (possibly in horror). "Now I know what's going on during all those siestas," he smirks. He's like an Anglo E.T. who's never encountered guacamole or sangria before.
Forget things being lost in translation. Rob feels as if it were written by people who aren't on a first-name basis with comedy. For such a show to follow The Big Bang Theory is like there's been some breach in the time-space-taste continuum.
As the cigar-chomping father-in-law who brags about hiring illegals for his chain of car washes, Cheech Marin looks as dispirited as I felt watching him. As the disapproving mother-in-law, Diana Maria Riva has the bad luck to deliver an offensive reverse-racist gag in which she dismisses Rob as a "gardener" — he's actually a landscape architect — and gripes about "you people" and their leaf blowers. But the worst is reserved for the grandma, played by Lupe Ontiveros, who got better treatment when she was run over on Desperate Housewives. In a scene of numbingly crass slapstick, Rob destroys a shrine to her husband, shedding his pants when hot candle wax drips on his legs, and then manhandling the old lady in a "hump the grandma" moment when she walks in on him.
And did I mention the manic uncle from across the border who refuses to leave and hits Rob up for a loan in their first encounter? I will spare you that, and the Selena joke, and the Catholic joke, as I quote Rob's wife, summing everything up neatly by declaring, "This is a disaster." (Or were those my notes? Hard to say.)
We can only hope Rob will be deported soon to the TV neverland where time-slot predecessors How To Be a Gentleman and $#*! My Dad Says dwell in perpetual obscurity. Rules of Engagement, where are you?
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LOST AND FOUND: One thing I liked about Fox's The Finder (9/8c) immediately: the funky flip-up sunglasses its laid-back hero wears as he looks for lost objects, and souls, in the swamps and wilds of Florida. After all those years of watching Horatio Caine strike a ridiculous pose as he sheds his specs at the scene of a crime, what a relief to see someone from the Sunshine State who doesn't take himself so seriously.
Finder is filling the Bones time period until spring — there's one last original episode tonight at 8/7c before hiatus. It's a spin-off of sorts, having introduced Walter Sherman (the appealing Geoff Stults) via a Bones episode last spring. The series is low-key to a fault but likable, not so different from Bones in its sense of off-kilter humanistic humor, though never as graphic. It's even more akin to the USA Network model in its blue-sky setting, though lacking the sort of propulsive hook that fuels so much of that channel's successful storytelling.
Sherman is a less abrasive version of the Bones-style savant, a decorated war veteran who suffered some sort of brain damage in an explosion and has pretty much fallen off the grid, the better to pursue his extraordinary compulsion to search and retrieve. "His mind finds connections and lines that most people don't see," explains Michael Clarke Duncan, his loyal sidekick and giant-sized bodyguard, who handles his business and keeps him grounded as they hang at their Ends of the Earth Bar on a Florida key. Fleshing out the cast, with varyingly generic degrees of success, are a gorgeous U.S. Marshal (Mercedes Masöhn) and a rebellious delinquent teen on parole (Maddie Hasson) whose gypsy criminal-family upbringing is both blessing and curse.
Whether you find Finder to your liking will depend on your appetite for quirky procedurals that refuse to beat you into submission. I just worry that its mellow nature will cause it to get lost on Thursdays, in which case Walter will have his work cut out for him.
VERY INTEREST-ING: Freshman seasons are often a work in progress, and in a news conference this week, CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler revealed that the network had urged the producers of Person of Interest (9/8c) to move up their plans to integrate Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) into the shadow world of vigilante crime-stoppers Finch and Reese (Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel), feeling her character had been too marginalized for too long. A good call, and tonight's excellent episode is another step in that direction, as Carter comes face-to-face with Finch and asks the kazillion-dollar question: "Who the hell are you and what exactly is going on here?" He doesn't so much answer her as steer her toward a case so she can get an idea of the world they live in. (We're also treated to more flashbacks to 2005, back when "The Machine" was still in its beta phase.)
The rest of the episode is a suspenseful high-tech homage to Rear Window, with an injured Reese restlessly confined to a wheelchair, watching the residents of an apartment building via monitors in this week's game of spot-the-perp/victim while Finch does most of the legwork. Not easy with that limp, but you probably won't be surprised to learn that Reese wields a mighty crutch when required. All you can ask of a show during its first year is to work out its kinks along the way, and it's gratifying to see something this original get better as it goes.
More items of interest on tonight's lineup:
NBC's revamped Thursday comedy lineup is a case of the peacock giveth (the return of 30 Rock, at 8/7c, yay!) and taketh away (Community on temporary hiatus, boo!) ... On 30 Rock, the antics include Jenna enjoying her infamy as a judge on America's Kidz Got Singing — can't be worse than America's Got Talent, right? — while Kenneth stays home to await the Rapture (can't be worse than America's Got Talent, right?). ... And Up All Night moves to its new time period (9:30/8:30c) with a delayed New Year's Eve episode.
HBO's documentary unit presents Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (9/8c), the conclusion of a remarkable trilogy chronicling the legal ordeal of three men whose conviction in the early '90s of multiple child murders in Arkansas has long been contested. They were freed recently, but only after entering a plea in which they asserted their innocence while pleading guilty, choosing freedom over official exoneration in a twisted story of justice deferred.
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