Television Turmoil: Listen Up!

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

As we reach the end of this little miniseries on the many failures of the Seinfeld cast, it feels only appropriate to take a moment and discuss the sham that is “The Seinfeld Curse.” As with most things coined by the entertainment press, the “curse” was a way to describe a common problem. Namely, that actors of popular shows had trouble moving on to other roles. It was also a quick and easy way to explain why these programs failed. In actuality, none of them sunk solely because of who was in the lead role, and Seinfeld was far from the only show whose cast had this problem. By the time 2004 had rolled around, the “curse” had moved on to its next phase. Everyone was rooting for someone to break it. Jason Alexander was the next up to bat and he struck out.

That sports metaphor is about as good as you get in Listen Up! (exclamation point necessary, according to Wikipedia). Based on the life of sportscaster Tony Kornheiser, the show follows Jason Alexander as Tony Kleinman, a columnist who hosts a sports show with former NFL player Bernie Widmer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). Will their disparate personalities be able to mesh? This show isn’t very interested in finding out. Instead, we spend most of our time with Tony’s family. His “beyond his league” wife, Dana (Wendy Makkena) and two kids, dopey golf prodigy Mickey (Will Rothhaar) and know-it-all Megan (Daniella Monet). That’s right folks, this was a CBS sitcom through and through.

The whole cast desperately trying to act like this show is worth anyone’s time.

For much of the last 20 years, CBS has prided itself on sticking to a formula that appeals, broadly speaking, to boomers. The vast majority of the shows you’ll find on the network follow a basic formula that leads to all the programs mixing into a stew of mediocrity, especially the sitcoms. Listen Up! was one of the many ingredients in that mixture. Another in a line of “schlubby guy and his attractive wife” sitcoms that dominated the network in the 00s, the show offers very little to differentiate itself from the pack. A milquetoast family sitcom using the mild star power of Alexander and Warner to appeal to viewers.

The standard plots and tired jokes might have been more tolerable if the Kleinman family weren’t profoundly unlikable. Constantly sniping at one another in ways that are supposed to be funny, but land with a thud. The primary culprits are Alexander and Monet, who spend most of each episode yelling at one another. Yelling is to be expected when you hire the former George Costanza, but in this role Alexander exhibits all the worst aspects of sitcom fatherhood. Rude, selfish, and treating his children differently based on their sex, Tony Kleinman is supposed to be relatable, but ends up reprehensible instead.

There is a better show lying on the edges of Listen Up! The brief moments spent on the set of Alexander and Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s sports show are infinitely more interesting. The two actors have an odd chemistry that would work well as the backbone of a workplace sitcom. Sure, I’m essentially pitching a multi-cam version of Sports Night, but it at least is a more compelling failure.

Unlike the previous “Seinfeld curse” programs, Listen Up! actually held steady in the ratings for its entire single season run. In an ironic twist, the show would have likely received another season if not for the cost of Alexander’s contract. The official reason given by the network was “rising production costs.” The prevailing theory was that while the show had decent ratings, they weren’t strong enough to justify the money spent on the cast. Listen Up! ran for 22 episodes, the most of any these “cursed” programs.

Any CBS sitcom from 2002 to now

After two prominent failures, Jason Alexander stepped away from the limelight. The main star role just wasn’t for him. Since then, he’s found a new career path as a voice actor, most notably, as the irritable Sy Borgman on Harley Quinn. It’s a career shift that fits well with Alexander’s comedic gifts.

A year after the cancellation of Listen Up! the “curse” would finally be broken with the debut of The New Adventures of Old Christine. Another CBS sitcom, Christine, distinguished itself by having Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the lead role and actually being funny. Sometimes that is all it takes to have a hit show.

Mediocrity is rarely a stumbling block for success in entertainment. Listen Up! may have been filled with unlikable characters and typical sitcom plots, but that isn’t the reason it failed. It had captured a passable number of viewers, but needed more to be financially viable. That it came so close to being the program to lift the “curse” is the only truly interesting thing about it. Even being adequate has its limits.

Next Time: We return to the 80s for the “Knight Rider but with a motorcycle” fun of Street Hawk.

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