'Better Late Than Never' sends elderly celebs to Asia.
Image Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC Robert Llyod, Los Angeles Times
Old people! So funny, and without even trying!
As a culture more invested in the inchoate ramblings of teenage pop stars than in the earned wisdom of the early-bird-special class, we find anything outside the imagined norm of the elderly - bad words, motorcycles, sex, shenanigans, high jinks - improbable, unallowable and automatically comedy gold. Thus, your Grumpy Old Men , your The Over-the-Hill Gang, your classier gerontological comedies such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Something's Gotta Give. How dreary Downton Abbey would have been without Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton not acting their age.
Now here is Better Late Than Never , a new reality comedy, which premiered Tuesday on NBC, in which the unlikely quartet of seniors Henry Winkler, Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman and William Shatner - whom we are meant to regard as already the best of chums rather than four unrelated celebrities cast in a reality show - go travelling in Asia together. Comic Jeff Dye, in his early 30s, plays their factotum, chaperone, social director and element of contrast.
Based on a highly successful South Korean series called Grandpas Over Flowers - a title the producers, whose ranks include The Bucket List producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, sadly did not retain - the series will include visits to Japan (Tokyo, in the opening episode, and Kyoto); Seoul, South Korea; Hong Kong; and Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand. Though it is represented as a spur-of-the-moment, anything-can-happen adventure - and while it is possible that the stars were kept in the dark about some of what was in store - most of it feels carefully fabricated and well protected.
In any case, this is not Michael Palin circling the globe thataway and thisaway - that is, a real travel show, with a comic host - but a comedy with travel features, like If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium or The Hangover Part II . And old people.
The principle seems to be to make the show as much like a sitcom or theatrical romp as possible - with Winkler the affable, befuddled nominal leader, Shatner the irascible seeker after new sensations, Bradshaw the bull in the noodle shop and George Foreman as Ringo - and not to discover how these men would actually get on as travelling companions. (Or as Dye describes them, "these bionic men with their hip replacements and recent knee surgeries.") Or who they really are.
Another form of easy humour Better Late offers is that of the muddled tourist: the innocent abroad alarmed by the funny ways and foods of foreign lands - not funny or foreign, of course, to the people who live there.
Much supposed hilarity is mined from feeding the travellers parts of animals Americans do not consider food. ("The good thing about me," says the man whose name is on the George Foreman Grill, "I will eat anything" - as long as he can put some barbecue sauce on it.)
"There are a lot of short people here," observes the six-foot-three Bradshaw, walking in crowded downtown Tokyo. Certainly, if you want foreign flavour, Japan is a good place to start, with its pinball-machine aesthetics, its giant-fighting-robot restaurants, its capsule hotels, where the travellers stay alongside an old Japanese man who walks around naked. "I been in New York; I been in Oklahoma City, Tulsa," Bradshaw says, "but I've never seen anything like this."
Through the tommy-gun edits, paced to create a sense of Fun! and Excitement!, the forced marches and arranged meetings, one gets an occasional glimpse of real people having some form of a real experience and exchanging sincere thoughts. And yet this air of discovery and intimacy - even Shatner, who at an uncannily lively 85 is nearly two decades older than Bradshaw and Foreman, announcing his fear of death - is also, in a way, built into the feel-good script.
It is possibly not the worst thing to plug into the lazy, hazy, waning days of summer - I mean, I can see its appeal to other people - as current events melt your mind and before everything gets busy again.
Mark Olsen Robert Llyod
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