ANIMAL PRACTICE: Wednesday 8PM starting 9/26 on NBC - Change The Channel
UPDATE: Tonight NBC aired the recast version of the ANIMAL PRACTICE pilot as a last-gasp grab for the attention of its Olympics audience. Joanna Garcia Swisher now plays the female lead, the new boss of the show’s animal hospital and ex-girlfriend of hero George Coleman (Justin Kirk), and she is indeed an upgrade. She’s more likable and has more chemistry with Kirk than the previous actress did (although less than he’s had this season with Jennifer Jason Leigh on Weeds). Since a key component of the show is when-will-they flirtatious banter, that’s an improvement… but despite the opportunity reshoots provide, the pilot script wasn’t changed in any significant way, and it’s still generally witless. “Cut to the monkey” can only smooth over so many bad jokes, and not enough of them to make Animal Practice worth watching.
It’s only fair to note at the start that ANIMAL PRACTICE has had some significant changes since its pilot was picked up to series in May. Most notably, its leading lady has been recast, with the very likable Joanna Garcia Swisher taking the role of Dorothy played by Amy Huberman in the original pilot. This will probably be an improvement–despite the fact that characters in the pilot keep talking about sexual tension between Huberman’s character and star Justin Kirk, there was no evidence of it on screen–but it’s unlikely by itself to be enough to make the show worth watching.
As you know if you’ve seen the promos for Animal Practice on NBC, the show’s one big selling point is that its lead character, veterinarian George Coleman (Kirk) has a pet monkey he calls Zaius (like Planet of the Apes, get it?) who rides a mini ambulance down the halls of George’s animal hospital and “referees” tortoise races. Yes, this is what comedy on NBC, the network of Cheers, Friends and Seinfeld, has come to: cute monkey tricks. Pilot directors Anthony and Joe Russo frequently cut to the monkey for a reaction shot when they need a laugh, because really, what else are they going to do?
The show, though–probably unfortunately–isn’t about the monkey. George is the sitcom version of doctors like House, a brilliant diagnostician who has his patients’ backs (and paws and tails), but is cantankerous and brusque with humans. The hospital where he’s lead dog, so to speak, was owned by Dorothy’s grandmother, but now Dorothy has inherited it and come back to town (apparently meant to be New York, since there’s a passing reference to “Rikers,” but with no attempt at local atmosphere). Dorothy is all about efficiency and eliminating George’s idiosyncratic ways, and did I mention she’s also his ex? Any complaints you may have watching Will and Mackenzie on The Newsroom will disappear once you see George and Dorothy (although the chemistry, if not the script, may well improve with the recasting). Dorothy is ready to fire George when he won’t cooperate with her changes, but naturally by the end of the pilot, she’s seen George strong-arm a dog-owner out of putting his daughter’s pet to sleep (by suggesting that since the dog became sick by swallowing a coaster Dad had gotten at a strip club, his daughter will work the pole in later life, which isn’t even funny, let alone minimally convincing), and Dorothy has come to see that the hospital and its patients really need him… as, we’re left to assume, does she.
The Animal Practice pilot was written by the team of Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, whose only other credit was last year’s lousy Jonah Hill vehicle The Sitter. For the most part, their work here couldn’t be more routine. In series, however, the show will be run by Gail Lerner, an experienced sitcom hand whose credits include Happy Endings and Will & Grace. Lerner has a lot of work to do. Even aside from the romantic aspect, the pilot has little that’s promising. George is meant to be crotchety yet lovable down deep, but Kirk, a very talented and funny actor best known for playing Mary-Louise Parker’s brother-in-law on Weeds, comes across as merely snarky–we could just as easily believe that he’s conning the rest of the staff into thinking he’s a real doctor as that he actually is one. The supporting cast features eternal sidekick Tyler Labine as the closest George has to a buddy, as well as Bobby Lee, Kim Whitley and Betsy Sodaro as various bland doctors and nurses.
Given the changes brewing for Animal Practice, it would be unfair to dismiss the series based only on the initial version of the pilot. And the good news for NBC shows is that since the network gets such low ratings as a rule and has so little on hand to replace its bombs, series tend to get a decent chance on the air before the boom is lowered. The show’s timeslot is fairly difficult, though, facing ABC’s successful The Middle head-to-head, as well as Survivor, X Factor and CW’s new Arrow. NBC had little success with comedies in that slot last season, with Whitney and Up All Night barely surviving. and it’s not making things easier for itself by opening up the night with this problematic piece of work.
On the other hand, never underestimate the appeal of cute monkeys.