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"Click & Clack's As the Wrench Turns:" Like "Car Talk" Without the Funny Bits

America isn't the only thing that needs repairCar Talk is consistently one of the funniest and most popular offerings on National Public Radio, despite what the show’s hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi claim. On their radio show, Tom and Ray (a.k.a. Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers) offer up really rotten puns, crazy puzzlers, questionable relationship advice, a lot of laughing at their own jokes, and occasionally some information about cars and car repair. Even so, it seems like it could be a bit of a stretch to cast them in an animated sitcom, even considering their brief turn as the animated Rust-Eze owners in Pixar’s Cars. Nevertheless, the Magliozzi’s and PBS took a chance with As the Wrench Turns, a new animated sitcom series on PBS. Unfortunately, the show proves to be a major disappointment, inexplicably leaving out much of what makes the radio show as enjoyable as it is.

The show presents a fictionalized Tom and Ray as they run their garage and a public radio call-in show. They are assisted by their put-upon producer Beth Totenbag and their looney crew of mechanics: the gruff Stash, the overly-educated Crusty, and the suave sharp-dresser Fidel. Add in the grumpy compulsive gambling receptionist Sal and Zuzu the garage dog and shake well. In the pilot episode of the show, “Campaign,” Tom and Ray end up losing money for the fifth straight year in the annual public broadcasting pledge drive. Unless they manage to pay back the $5 million they’ve lost over the years, the public radio network they’re on will go under, taking the show with it. Obviously, the best way to make that much money quickly is to run for President — by landing as little as 5% of the vote, the pair will qualify for public matching funds, not to mention the sweet, sweet lucre of jobs as post-election lobbyists.

The garage crewDespite such a target-rich environment, the show never reaches very far for its laughs, and still falls short of its incredibly low standards. The biggest shortcoming of the show is that it seems unable to capitalize on its two greatest assets: Tom and Ray themselves. Considering that the show was built around the brothers, it’s rather odd that they are given so little to do. With precious few exceptions, the entire show could be done by any two sitcom chuckleheads with a get-rich-quick scheme, from Fred and Barney to Joey and Chandler. One of the best parts of the show is an extended speech from Tom and Ray about why car mechanics ought to be elected to public office instead of the lawyers that dominate now. It’s the kind of speech that would fit in perfectly on the radio show, and it’s the only time when the pair can really speak in their own voices, reminding us why we liked them in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s also the only real Car Talk moment in the whole episode. The pair don’t even get to exhort viewers, “Don’t drive like my brother!” What were the writers thinking?

Without being able to use Tom and Ray to their fullest potential, As the Wrench Turns is just an average sitcom that’s way too thin on laughs, replacing them with jokes so well-used that their treads have been worn down to smooth rubber. There is exactly one really good laugh in the entire episode, and the fact that it’s built around public television nature shows reveals that the show’s crew can come up with good comedy. However, as a rule, the script and the characters don’t seem to be trying very hard to earn their laughs, going for tame, blitheringly obvious schtick. It would have gotten better results by thinly fictionalizing and exaggerating some of the more unusual calls from the radio show.

No real alt text joke necessaryAs the Wrench Turns also has little to recommend it as a cartoon, either. When Tom and Ray get to talk, they are their usual clowning selves, but the rest of the cast is dull and forgettable. The character designs are good enough, with a recognizable Tom and Ray (at least for those who have gone beyond the radio show and visited the web site to see what the two look like). The animation seems to have been done with the same low-budget Flash animation that drives products like Lil’ Bush, and that’s perhaps the biggest sign of how much trouble the show is in. You know you’re in real trouble when you have to reach for Lil’ Bush to find a positive basis for comparison.

Network TV has built sitcoms on pretty thin premises. A severe case of self-delusion is the only explanation for why anybody would think that sitcoms based on Emeril Lagasse or those GEICO Cavemen would last. It’s also not unusual for a major slip between the pitch and the production; based on her Asian-American inflected stand-up routine, ABC offered Margaret Cho the All-American Girl sitcom, and then undermined the entire show by telling her that she didn’t know how to be properly Asian and forcing lots of consultants on her to show her how to do it “correctly.” Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the remaining 11 episodes of the season, As the Wrench Turns seems like it will join those other shows in the dustbin of TV history. It will end up as another unheeded warning of what happens when you pitch a show around a concept, but then use the concept as nothing more than window dressing for the same sitcom jokes that were old by the end of I Love Lucy.

Click & Clack’s As the Wrench Turns debuts Wednesday, July 8, 2008, at 8:00 PM/7:00 Central on local PBS affiliate channels. Check the show’s website to find your local channel.

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