FAILURE TO LAUGH: Sit Down, Shut Up is what happens when talented people don’t try too hard.
The Devil's in the details in Fox's new animated series, Sit Down, Shut Up, but I wish he'd gotten more involved in the main elements as well — like stories. The show, adapted by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz from a short-lived live-action Australian series about dispassionate, eccentric high-school teachers, boasts gags that feel as if they'd sauntered past the network's lax standards-and-practices department and were intended for those who snicker under their breath rather than laugh.
The school in question shares the slyly smutty name of the small Florida fishing town where it's set: Knob Haven. (It's less sly but more smutty if you're familiar with British vernacular.) The school's team name is the Baiters (another knob reference). One teacher's name is Larry Littlejunk. At one point the school marquee reads "F U SH TS"; a carnival booth in the background of another scene offers the ever-popular "SALAD TOSS." A bag of peanuts falls, apropos of nothing, from a character's athletic supporter. A character with an established predilection for porn (or, as he calls it, "my filthies") insists, "Pacific Rim is a cooking magazine."
If only Hurwitz and his brain trust had expended as much energy on the jokes that aren't throw-aways and on the story lines. It's as if the writers had decided early on that the show wouldn't run any longer than the 13 episodes its Aussie counterpart did (Fox is currently planning to air five) and had opted to slip in as many subversive gags as they could.
Sit Down, Shut Up features voice work primarily from Arrested Development (Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Henry Winkler) and Saturday Night Live (Will Forte, Kenan Thompson, Cheri Oteri) alumni, with the occasional vocal ringer (helium-voiced Kristin Chenoweth and SpongeBob SquarePants' Tom Kenny). The visuals get a lot out of a little — cheesy Flash animation plays out over real-world photographic backgrounds.
The premiere episode introduces us to the educators, who seem content to leave every child behind. Sane but sad gym teacher Littlejunk (Bateman) can't decide whether he loves or loathes Miracle Grohe (Chenoweth), the born-again/new-agey/ditzy science teacher who's a creationist. (Note to Hurwitz: fundamentalist Christianity and new-age platitudes are pretty much antithetical.) Acting principal Sue Sezno (Thompson, in a role better than any SNL has cooked up for him) has nothing but contempt for her new assistant, Stuart (Forte) — but then, everyone hates Stuart. Arnett voices pretty much the same character he played on Arrested Development, a clueless nitwit who's grandiosely self-absorbed; Winkler plays a beleaguered German teacher named Deutschebog (think "Douchebag"). Oteri essays a high-strung librarian named Helen Klench and Kenny gives voice to an embittered custodian named Happy who may or may not be a terrorist, though it hardly matters — they're both clichés, one ancient, one recent. There's a stereotyped gay character, too.
Sloppily constructed, the story lines are by no means the ingeniously coiled absurdist plots of Arrested Development. In the premiere, potential layoffs, a fundraiser, and a big game are mashed into a shrug of a story; next week, the promising premise of Littlejunk's efforts to seduce Miracle during a school fair gets squandered. I share Littlejunk's disappointment. Sit Down, Shut Up is what happens when talented people don't try too hard.