Richard Linklater’s one of America’s most respected indie directors, the man behind films like Boyhood, The Before… trilogy, Dazed and Confused and School Of Rock, and even though he made $5.15/Hr when he was less famous than he is now he was still a very high profile name back in 2004. So in some ways it’s surprising that HBO decided against letting him make his own tv series, and in this era of PeakTv I imagine they’d champ at the bit to work with him again. But I can understand why they turned down this particularly project as it lacks a strong (or even mild) narrative and the characters aren’t exactly that appealing.
It’s an ensemble comedy which takes a look at the lives of the unusual and underpaid employees of a Grammaw’s Home Cookin’ restaurant, a hard nosed fast food company who try to pretend that they care about their customers really. Starring America Ferrera (two years before she shot to fame with Ugly Betty), Retta (four years prior to her taking a role on Parks and Recreation), Clark Middleton (Charlie in Twin Peaks’ third season) and William Lee Scott (The Steve Harvey Show) like most people who have ever worked for a soulless fast food company they’re mostly pretty unhappy to be there.
The show starts with Mitch the manager giving positive staff feedback until it gets to Joy (Retta) and Vince (Middleton) who it turns out aren’t exactly model employees, the sequence creates the odd smile but that’s about it. Then most of the episode consists of short vignettes from their lives, be it the staff playing a game of customer bingo or having to sell a new dessert to annoyed customers, or over cooking food so that they get free meals. If there’s anything close to a central character it’s in the form of William Lee Scott’s Bobby who we witness casually having an one night stand, putting his truck in to hock so that he can pay child support and making plans to go to Alaska for a years to make millions of dollars fishing because he’s the kind of guy who’s so stupid as to think that such a thing is possible. The problem is that he isn’t that interesting, or likeable, so I found myself not caring about his antics in the slightest and found the series far more involving when it centred around other characters.
The most engaging of these are America Ferrera’s Brianna who’s crazily desperate to be liked, even by the shitty manager Mitch who despite being something of a twat is also a lot of fun to watch, and Retta’s Joy and Clark Middleton’s Vince, though the latter two don’t get enough screen time which is something of a shame and hopefully something which would have been remedied if the show had been given time to develop. Like many a Linklater work it’s not exactly plot heavy, most of the time it’s just a brief insight in to their lives and interactions with each other, and it’s more of a dramedy than an out and out comedy, but for it to be really involving it needed a stronger script and characters who fascinate an awful lot more than this lot do. It’s something Linklater has achieved in the majority of his work so it’s hard to know why he didn’t quite manage it here.
That all said there are a few laugh out loud moments, including one subtitled sequence where a staff member is fired, a patronising employee training video which gives tips on how to wash your hands after visiting the restroom, and Brianna being told off for saying God Bless You to a customer, while a sequence where they let off steam by having a bit of a dance late in the evening is cute, so it did show some promise. There’s also a brief scene at the company headquarters where they’re discussing a future product, but the issue with that is the company bosses seem far more intriguing than the characters the show mostly follows, and I couldn’t help but feel that a show about these cynical bastards would have been much more amusing and in some ways it’s disappointing Linklater didn’t create one about them instead. As it is we’re left with a disjointed work, and one which it’s doubtful would have survived for longer than a single season if it had been commissioned.