Television Turmoil: The Michael Richards Show

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.

How do you follow-up one of the greatest sitcoms of all time? It was a question that the main cast of Seinfeld must have asked themselves repeatedly. The struggle to land a successful gig after the show became known as “The Seinfeld Curse.” Ignoring that, it has always been hard for TV stars to find a new role after a successful run, it feels strange to lay the blame on the actors. They all added to the myth of the “curse,” but nobody contributed as much as NBC.

From 2000 to 2003, the network attempted to recapture the magic of one of its biggest hits with a collection of series starring a former Seinfeld cast member. Despite high expectations, each of the shows failed to find an audience. How could these programs fail to attract viewers? Could it be that they were all poorly conceived, badly written, and mishandled by the network? With The Michael Richards Show, the answer is a resounding yes to all the above.

On paper, The Michael Richards Show sounds like a unique spin on sitcom formula. Richards, teaming up with three former Seinfeld writers, plays private investigator Vic Nardozza. Vic is clumsy and more than a little inept, but he always gets the job done. The rest of the cast includes Vic’s various co-workers played by William Devane, Bill Cobbs, Amy Farrington, and Tim Meadows, fresh from his stint on SNL. Normally, I’d list out these characters’ names and the roles they fill in the show, but there is nothing of value to any of these roles. They exist to fill airtime and give Richards some “normal” folks to bounce off of.

It is impossible to not see Kramer in every shot Richards is in.

At this point, you might have picked up on some grievances I have with this show. Let me be clear, The Michael Richards Show is irredeemably bad. Not just by the standards of the talent involved, but by the standards of all of television. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s examine some reasons for the show’s wretched quality.

When originally conceived, Richards wanted Nardozza to be less physical than his previous role, relying more on the dialogue for humor. NBC disagreed and insisted that Richards and the writers add some Kramer elements into the character. This resulted in Vic Nardozza being two completely different people from scene to scene. Some times, he was the witty detective bumbling his way through a case. Other times, he was a barely functioning klutz who found himself in situations that would make Mr. Bean shake his head.

Perhaps these two versions of the character would seem less incongruous if the physical situations Vic found himself in weren’t so hackneyed. Take the opening to the second episode, for example. Nardozza attempts to get photos of a man he suspects is cheating on his spouse only to realize that he is laying atop a hill of fire ants. What follows is some standard Michael Richards physical comedy that ends with Vic falling down a hill. This incident has no bearing on the rest of the episode and we move on from it like nothing happened. It feels tacked on even when the physical comedy is part of an actual story. One episode features Vic attempting to pursue someone through a restaurant only to fall on the kitchen floor and spill hot grease all over himself. It’s not just that these sequences are unfunny, but that they don’t mix with the detective stories the writers are trying to tell.

It’s hard to determine if the writers were trying to tell detective stories at all. With only 22 minutes at their disposal, the weekly case would need to have a tight plot and fast pace. Instead, the show attempts to balance the antics of Nardozza with B-plots focusing on his co-workers at the detective agency. This often leaves the main plot underdeveloped. The side plots don’t fare any better. The writers don’t even care enough about the rest of the cast to give them consistent characteristics. It truly was THE Michael Richards Show.

The saddest thing about The Michael Richards Show isn’t that it was painfully unfunny, constantly scrapping the bottom of the barrel for laughs. It’s that the show’s premise had actual promise. On paper, “Michael Richards detective sitcom” sounds like a comedy goldmine. Unfortunately, we ended up with a show in an identity crisis from the start, torn between being a conventional sitcom and something with a bit more originality.

The Michael Richards Show debuted in October 2000. By the end of the year, the network pulled the plug. Undaunted, NBC would continue to search for the “next Seinfeld.” As for Michael Richards, I think we all know what happened to his career. Even without the racism, I suspect it would have taken a long time for Richards to make a comeback. That’s ultimately the nature of playing a popular character. For better or worse, that character becomes you.

Just two years removed from Seinfeld’s end, it would have been nearly impossible for Richards and crew to shed the image of his most famous role. NBC didn’t help matters by essentially advertising this as The Kramer Show. Either way, I’m not sure The Michael Richards Show could have succeeded. Not with a writing team this uncommitted to crafting actual jokes. It certainly didn’t fail because of a curse. No, this show failed on its own merits.

Next Time: Jason Alexander is up to bat as we look at the motivational sitcom Bob Patterson.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson