"I like to think of myself as a regular guy," says Chris Isaak in the promotional materials for Showtime's The Chris Isaak Show, "but rock and roll is a pretty irregular world. There are weird things that go on behind the scenes, and you meet a lot of interesting people. The guys in the band and I have always had a good laugh about the way the business works, and it occurred to me that other people might get a laugh out of it too."
Warning: From time to time, everybody is guilty of thinking, "My job would make a great sitcom." Just transfer the real-life hijinks of your coworkers to a Hollywood soundstage ("hilarity ensues when Wally hides Meredith's coffee mug"), and watch the Emmys roll in. Every day in Tinseltown, another hopeful tries to sell a prospective show about the zany misadventures at a dentist's clinic or the graveyard shift at Dunkin' Donuts.
But the truth is the workplace is never as amusing as we imagine. Your job isn't The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It's not even WKRP in Cincinnati. Yet that didn't stop somebody from giving The Chris Isaak Show the green light. And after watching the first four episodes, I miss Dr. Johnny Fever more than ever.
Handsome San Francisco rocker Isaak seems like an ideal candidate for his own program. He's proven his acting chops in movies, such as Little Buddha, and on TV shows, like Friends. Since 1985, he's managed to release consistently high-quality albums, changing tack just enough to keep matters interesting. Plus, he's one of those rare artists capable of scoring the odd Top 40 hit without alienating longtime fans, which would imply that he boasts the type of broad appeal necessary to carry a regular show that's a little more subversive than the average Fox fare.
Wrong! The Chris Isaak Show, which begins airing next month, just blows. The premiere episode, "Freud's Dilemma," proved so wretched that the first time I tried to sit through it, I switched it off halfway in and watched an old Scooby Doo cartoon instead. Subsequent hour-long episodes (I sat through four) were only slightly less excruciating—much the way, I imagine, that after the inquisitors have ripped out two or three of your fingernails, you barely notice the rest through the haze of pain.
One major flaw with Isaak's show—a behind-the-scenes look at life with "the rock star next door" and his cronies—is the writing. Uniform fetishes? Pirate jokes? Dumb-as-cheese music video directors? There was funnier fare on Bette, and you didn't always see the punch lines coming from a mile away.
Then there are the characters, a mix of real and imaginary folks populating Isaak's world. Even though he's playing himself, the normally charismatic singer often comes off as smug and spoiled. Perhaps it stems from being pampered too much by his manager, Yola (Kristin Dattilo), who grows increasingly unsympathetic with each episode: In the premiere, she bullies her female assistant; by the third, she sabotages a budding relationship because (surprise!) she's subconsciously in love with Chris. Obviously these gestures are meant to "humanize" Yola, but she comes off as just petty and nasty—and not in a good way.
Oddly enough, the most likeable guy here is the one designated to bear the brunt of the audience's ridicule. As the dim-witted Anson, Isaak's fictitious keyboard player, Jed Rees manages to transform what undoubtedly reads like a cartoon character on the printed page into a sweet, roguish charmer. He's the source of almost all the real surprises anybody manages to eke out of the predictable scripts.
Lots of famous folks drop by to visit. In the first four shows, we're treated to appearances by Poison's Bret Michaels, Joe Walsh, tattooed chanteuse Bif Naked, and actress Minnie Driver. The producers were probably aiming for a Robert Altman vibe, but it feels more like The Love Boat. And since this is Showtime, there's plenty of gratuitous nudity—all female. In every episode, there's an ersatz David Lynch interlude in which the fully dressed rocker consults an oracle in the form of a naked blonde on a slowly rotating dais. But for all the dick jokes, we're treated to less male flesh than in a Sears catalog. Would it be such a crime if Isaak walked around in his boxer shorts for a scene?
It's a pity The Chris Isaak Show is so short on plots, characters, or gags with real teeth because the subject matter offers ample potential for smart satire and real pathos—at least, if my 12 years in the music business is any indication. Then again, it's exactly that sort of deluded thinking that leads to job-related accidents like this show in the first place.
The Chris Isaak Show premieres Monday, March 12, at 10pm on Showtime. Make plans to do something fun instead.