"It's this big major triumph that Renée Zellweger gained 30 pounds so that she could look like a 'normal' person in a movie? It's like, gee, thank you so much, but I didn't need to feel like how I look is actually considered, you know, stunt work." - Claude Casey
Pinch me. No, seriously...pinch me. (OK, um, ouch! Not that hard...) Am I really holding a release of the first season of Less Than Perfect in my hands? One of my favorite underappreciated shows that I swore I would never see on DVD, its modest three-and-a-half seasons long forgotten by the majority of TV viewers after it disappeared all too soon in 2006? I suppose I should thank creator Terri Minsky and actress Sherri Shepherd. The two collaborated on the (far, far inferior) series Sherri for Lifetime (Shepherd as the star, Minksy as a writer for an episode), possibly prompting the network to resurrect ABC's Perfect--repeating it in its entirety in the summer of 2009. (It doesn't hurt that the cast is filled with recognizable names who have enjoyed past and present success, too.)
I was so convinced I would never see Perfect officially released, I aggressively programmed my Tivo to record the entire series (which still sits saved in my library, taking up valuable hours of DVR space) during its Lifetime run. So color me pleasantly shocked when I heard about this release. I won't try and convince you that this is groundbreaking television or comedy by any means; like the title suggests, it's definitely less than perfect--but in a really charming way. The show follows a strict sitcom formula with plenty of stereotypes as characters, but sometimes Less is so much more (and are you as tickled pink with my pun as I am?).
There's something about LTP than endeared it to me from its very first episode. That's primarily due to the cast, an energetic group that plays perfectly together. And that's really saying something considering that, in other avenues, Shepherd and Andy Dick (yeah, he's in it, too...stay with me!) have been known to drive me crazy, and not in a good way. The two have garnered plenty of negative publicity through the years for their behavior (seriously Andy, get clean and take some responsibility) or comments (from the Earth being flat to a bevy of doozies on hot-button topics, Shepherd's declarations on The View have provided endless fodder for comedians). But I don't care, because here the two are essential cogs in a hysterical ensemble.
Less Than Perfect is sort of a semi-screwball comedy infused with a sarcastic sensibility. It's often quick, sometimes witty and frequently ridiculous (perhaps more so in its later seasons)--and built on a modern day battle of classes in the building of the New York-based GNB Network, which proves to be just like high school (the cafeteria is home to a bounty of the show's laughs). Our lovable heroine is a plucky redheaded spitfire named Claude Casey (Sara Rue), a glorified gopher who jumps from assignment to assignment from her home on the 4th floor. She's a homely, hard-working woman with an All-American upbringing, a kind soul who's idea of rebellion as a kid was blasting the TV when her parents were out of town.
She gets a week-long assignment as an executive assistant in the news division on the 22nd floor, where anchorman Will Butler (Oscar nominee Eric Roberts) rules the roost behind the powerful Plexiglas windows. It's enough to send the wide-eyed go-getter into excitable overdrive, her nerves causing her to talk too much (one of her more endearing characteristics). And when her week-long gig quickly turns into a permanent position, her propensity for fear-based rants, nervous laughter and giggle fits is in full force.
Claude is a doll, but she's particularly nervous given the fact that she isn't greeted with open arms. The arrival of the perky yet sensible small-town girl doesn't sit well with the GNB vultures--namely the skinny bitches upstairs, researcher/news writer Lydia Weston (Andrea Parker) and executive producer assistant Kip Steadman (Zachary Levi, currently enjoying success in NBC's Chuck). They seem to despise the kind soul and her cheery disposition (also reflected on her toy-filled desk), her ray of sunshine clashing with their dreary, image-obsessed lives:
Claude: "Seriously, I just feel a little out of place here having slightly more than 3 percent body fat..."
Kip: "Oh, you're the temp..."
Claude: "Well, technically, I'm a floater...and yes, I what you're thinking: 'She looks more like a sinker to me!'"
The two career climbers are materialistic kiss-asses of the highest order, vain sycophants who never heard a compliment that didn't distract them. Their conversations revolve around insulting co-workers ("Do you color your hair or just leave your head out to rust?"), backstabbing their way to the top and material possessions (like Lydia's new living room chairs: "Ooh, what color? Cinnabar or British Graphite?"). Kip lingers in the background on his swivel chair, ready to pounce at a moment's notice with a cruel quip (that is, when he isn't plotting his next move on his rise to the top: "Historically, all the famous anchors have been odd looking. Do you think it'll be a problem for me that I'm too handsome?").
Meanwhile, Lydia business herself looking fabulous ("I'm the girl that guys want, and you're the girl that guys tell that to...let me put it this way: If this were Beaches, I would be Barbara Hershey and you would be, like...I don't know...a prop person?"), not caring about stuff ("Claude, I don't have enough time to both insult you and help you get over it!") and hinging her hopes on a past hookup with Will: "June 3rd, Crawford, Texas. Will was covering the President's violation of the Kyoto Protocol, and I was wearing a thong for the first time. Guess I don't have to tell you the rest." It's an event she never wastes an opportunity to exploit, much to the chagrin of even pal Kip: "Intimate encounter? That's kind of a fancy way to describe being bent over the room service cart." (Counters Lydia: "...that was a very small part of the evening!")
The two are polar opposites of Claude's friends from the 4th floor ( a.k.a. "the dungeon" to Kip and Lydia: "All this place needs is stalagmites and bats, and you could run tours through it..."). That's where you'll fund brassy, busty and often Bedazzled payroll specialist Ramona Platt (Shepherd), a sassy temptress with an inner street girl ready to pounce at a moment's notice ("You're suffocating the sistas!" she says to Claude about her tastefully covered breasts); and office supply clerk Owen Kronsky (Dick), a socially awkward, childlike space cadet prone to recite random facts about himself ("You know, I actually was a cheerleader, and I could have made it all the way to State if it wasn't for these damn glass ankles!"). The pair also never met a piece of food they didn't love, another source of hilarity (like compliments to Lydia and Kipp, it proves to be their Achilles' heel).
The bulk of the laughs come as the two camps engage in battle (listen for the frequent nicknames they both come up with for each other), and Kip and Lydia are just mean-spirited enough without going too far (kind of like how I am with my closest friends). When push comes to shove, they prove to actually have a conscience and care (at least a little bit) about people, preventing the show from becoming a heartless, bitter pill. That allows the writers to mix up the obvious pairings with some wacky ones ripe with can't-miss material (Owen's crush on Lydia is a recurring theme, while Kipp bonds with Ramona over nails).
Claude remains the heart of the show, dishing out (in Kipp's words) "bumper sticker, fortune cookie, Hands Across America, stupid Hello Kitty cheer-up speeches" in an effort to make everyone feel better. That includes herself, as she has to overcome a crush on (and her idolization of) boss Will, who--by his own admission--isn't the nicest guy: "I'm selfish. I pretend to like people I don't. I never call people I do. I've been married three times and was faithful to...none of then. I never pick up a check. I've told some whopping lies in my time: 'I love you', 'I love you a lot', 'I'll be back in a minute...'." (Will also doesn't garner much respect from Ramona: "A man's expense report is a window into his soul, and his soul is cluttered with Toblerone and Grand Marnier from the mini-bar. And I know for a fact that the news division has never done a story on full-release massage...")
The show makes the most of its cast, and the cast makes the most of the material. The scripts don't necessarily shine by themselves, but the way these actors bring them to life is something special. It's the energy and repartee between them that really lifts Perfect above many other efforts, and you can't help but smile as the gang has a blast sparring and playing off each other. The five main players really roll with their personas, and their expressive faces prove to be secret weapons the show frequently calls upon--one of the great pleasures is watching each character reach their boiling points. Shepherd is a blast, her face often contorting into an angry scowl, a wide-eyed look of shock or a giant sexy smile. Meanwhile, Parker (my personal favorite) and Levi epitomize scorn-filled contempt, while Dick makes the most of his noodle-like body, providing the most physical comedy when he isn't being, you know, weird.
The only weak link here is Roberts. To be fair, he's doing exactly what is asked of him, infusing Will with a clueless bravado that keeps him "above" his staff. But it often feels like Roberts is just reading lines, and I wouldn't necessarily say that comedy is one of the actor's strong suits. He doesn't really add anything unique or special to the character, but his role is a necessary one and he does get one or two laughs ("Happy birthday, Ramón!" was actually pretty fantastic). The show fares far, far better with the arrival of Patrick Warburton in Season 2, providing some competition for the anchorman and helping us forget how boring Will is.
Guest stars this season include Jenny McCarthy, who appears three times as Will's ditzy yet demanding girlfriend; Cindy Williams and Martin Mull as Claude's parents; Josh Braatan as Claude's love interest Charlie (I actually wish we saw more of him); Community's Jim Rash as a seminar speaker; one of ABC's Bachelors (Aaron Buerge) and one of its Bachelorettes (Trista Rehn); Vincent Pastore as a Mob boss; MADtv's Nicole Sullivan as an office supply clerk with a hidden agenda; and her Rita Rocks co-star Richard Ruccolo as Claude's brother, who romances Lydia in a great episode that shows us a more human side to her (proving these characters have more depth than you might initially give the show credit for).
We also get our first glimpse of Sullivan's MADtv pal Will Sasso, who shows up for three episodes at the end as Claude's loud neighbor who envisions himself a ladies' man ("Phase 1: They're repulsed!"). A great addition who soon becomes a series regular, he is the perfect odd-couple buddy for Owen, a bundle of androgyny in desperate of more testosterone in his life (did I mention he has two moms?). As much as I love this first season, I really loved seeing more of Sasso and Warburton in the following seasons.
And that's what was so amazing about revisiting the first season...even without those two comedic gifts, the show is still a huge success. Less Than Perfect is just a lot of fun, and the outstanding cast couldn't do better. They give it their all, really selling the material like they mean it and believe it--not just with their words, but with their expressive faces and bodies. The show is quick, has great flow and a nice snap. It also knows when to end subplots that may wear themselves out (Lydia's obsession with her "intimate encounter" with Will is dropped just in time). While some might accuse the "bad guys" of being too cruel--and thus not quite buy that Claude would even hang out with them--the writers do a good job of forcing them to spend time together in convincing ways (for a sitcom, anyway). And small moments (like Lydia's reaction to a great Claude zinger in "Ice Cream with Lydia") show that these people don't truly loathe each other.
There isn't an episode here I don't enjoy, and my favorites include "Claude the Liar", where she gets tips from Kipp on being deceptive; "The Pole", which has two great storylines to keep you giggling; "One Office Party Too Many", an instant classic; the aforementioned "A Little Love for Lydia"; "Picture Perfect party", which stuffs the gang n Claude's apartment; and "Breaking Up", where the gals have a memorable bonding session. As for my favorite scenes? Anything with Parker and Shepherd (individually or together) is usually perfection...and that reminds me of one of their winning moments: Watch for anything that takes place in the elevator. Like the cafeteria, it provides a bounty of material that never ceased to make me smile, my favorite of the show's great settings. Hmm, maybe this show is a little closer to perfect than I initially thought...
"This is even worse than the sexual harassment lecture we got from the lady with the huge cans."
- Kipp Steadman
"Claude, I look at you as the daughter that tests have shown I don't have."
- Will Butler
Claude: "Oh my God, he does look really orange..."
Ramona: "All I know is the makeup looked good on my cousin DeNeitra."
"I never had a nickname I could repeat in public..."
- Lydia Weston
The 22 episodes (each averaging 20-21 minutes) are presented across four discs. This lists the episode order presented here, which doesn't match up with the original air dates. Both orders have their problems. ABC apparently broadcast some of the episodes out of intended order; the order here fixes some of those problems (the episode "One Office Party Too Many" has to come before "Claude the Heartbreaker"), but this new sequence has at least one problem of its own--"The Umbrella" is clearly the season finale, not "Oh Papa". But all of the episodes are here, and for the most part the order isn't too important; save for the season finale not being shown last, this seems to flow well:
1. Pilot (aired 10-1-02) Claude's dream comes true when she moves up from temp to a permanent position as the assistant to news anchor Will Butler. But all is not quite as she had imagined when she realizes that new co-workers Kipp and Lydia will stop at nothing to sabotage her. Meanwhile, friends Ramona and Owen begrudgingly help her transition.
2. Ice Cream with Lydia (aired 10-8-02) When Claude is unexpectedly asked out for dinner with Will. But when the "date" turns out to be a bust, Claude finds solace in the company of Lydia. Meanwhile, Owen tries to assert authority over Kipp as the two feud over an expensive pen.
3. Claude the Liar (aired 10-15-02) When Claude is forced to lie for Will, she finds it difficult--until she gets lessons from Kipp. Meanwhile, the employees attend a companywide meeting where they have to pick a "floor buddy" .
4. Queen of England (aired 10-22-02) Claude thinks that Will's irritated by the sudden constant presence of Ramona and Owen, so she winds up alienating her friends. Meanwhile, Lydia schemes to get her hands on a handbag.
5. The Vacation (aired 10-29-02) Ramona tells Claude she has to use her vacation days in the next few days or else she'll lose them--but Claude's nervousness regarding her temporary replacement complicates matters.
6. The Pole (aired 11-5-02) Tired of living in constant competition with Lydia over Will's attention, Claude decides to attend Ramona's dancing class. Kipp asks Owen to take a good picture for his ID card.
7. A Claude Casey Production (aired 12-17-02 as Episode 11) Claude tries to make nice with Kipp by producing a demo of him showing off his anchorman capabilities. Lydia desperately tries to remind Will of the anniversary of their fling. Owen imitates his TV role model, Dr Phil.
8. Future Shock (aired 11-12-02 as Episode 7) Claude inadvertently brings down the wrath of Roz, the assistant to the network president. Kipp finds himself broke after buying an Armani suit. Will works on his autobiography.
9. One Office Party Too Many (aired 12-10-02 as Episode 10) It's the office Christmas party, and nearly everyone arrives with an agenda.
10. Meet the Folks (aired 11-19-02 as Episode 8) Claude's parents (Cindy Williams and Martin Mull) come for a visit and are smitten with Will. Kipp falls for a college student who idolizes him.
11. Telephone (aired 1-21-03 as Episode 13) When Will goes out of town, he leaves his apartment in the care of Claude--and everyone invites themselves over.
12. Claude the Heartbreaker (aired 11-26-02 as Episode 9) Claude goes out with Charlie from Travel--and then with Will's Godson Oliver (Aaron Buerge of The Bachelor). Kipp sucks up to the network president's young son.
13. The New Guy (aired 3-18-03 as Episode 18) Will's contract is up for renewal just as the head of the network arrives, flaunting a new anchor. Fearing that Will's job is in jeopardy and they'll be replaced, the staff bands together to pull of "The Gum Caper".
14. Claude's Got a Secret (aired 1-7-03 as Episode 12) Claude and Charlie try to keep their relationship a secret. Lydia asks big shot Norma Craft to be her mentor, a plan that backfires.
15. A Little Love for Lydia (aired 5-6-03 as Episode 20) Claude's brother Bobby (Richard Ruccolo) shows up at the office and sweeps Lydia off her feet. Owen tells a little white lie in the office newsletter.
16. High Maintenance (aired 2-4-03 as Episode 14) Will's new girlfriend Dani (Jenny McCarthy) insists on having Claude run errands for her. Lydia and Kipp start sucking up to Ramona and Owen when they find out they have access to the VIP area at a new bar.
17. Valentine's Day (aired 2-11-03 as Episode 15) Owen falls for Deidre (Nicole Sullivan), the new office supply rep. Claude uses Will's office to have an intimate phone conversation with Charlie. Lydia receives two dozen roses from a secret admirer.
18. Picture Perfect Party (aired 3-11-03 as Episode 17) In celebration of two years in New York, Claude decides to throw a party at her place. But when Will says he'll go, it changes from casual to fancy with disastrous results.
19. Breaking Up (aired 2-18-03 as Episode 16) After breaking up with Charlie, Claude gets sucked into escorting Will's fiancée to a bridal shop--where a meltdown leads to an impromptu slumber party. Kipp tries to ghostwrite Will's autobiography.
20. Save the Squirrel, But Bet the Over/Under (aired 5-13-03 as Episode 21) Will hosts a benefit dinner for a squirrel clinic. Carl coerces Owen into placing bets. Kipp and Lydia use Will's name to score free merchandise. (Note: This episode has Claude reciting a former classmate named Blair Tefkin; I always wondered if Rue was friends with the V actress?)
21. The Umbrella (aired 5-20-03 as Episode 22) Claude's umbrella is stolen. A new executive producer shakes up the office.
22. Oh Papa (aired 4-29-03 as Episode 19) Claude tries to arrange a get-together between Owen and the dad he's never known. Kipp decides he needs a gimmick to get noticed. A bad photo in the paper has Will feeling self-conscious about aging, so he recruits Lydia to make him over.
First things first: the transfer here looks fantastic. Less Than Perfect is a very attractive show often filled with nice colors, which pop beautifully. Detail and sharpness are solid, enabling us to enjoy every sparkle of Ramona's glittery outfits and the detailed variation detail Claude's bright hair.
Here's the interesting part: The show aired in the full-frame (1.33:1) ratio, and I assumed it was shot with that in mind. However, Lionsgate has presented us with an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, labeled as "DVD Format" on the box. When I first saw that, I was concerned what the picture might look like. Lifetime also aired the show in a widescreen format in the summer of 2009, but it always looked a little stretched horizontally (certainly not too terrible, but enough to notice). I'm happy to report that the image looks great, and nothing has been stretched--body proportions are what they should be. Either the original visuals had more image to play with and we're getting more on the sides (the picture never looks "too close"), or we're dealing with a slightly zoomed image (which is probably what I would do on my TV anyway if we got full-frame presentations). I never noticed any major issues with the top and bottom being compromised, but maybe it is just little. The central framing and focus is excellent. If anything, a few expressions from quiet characters on the far sides of the screen may be lost, but that doesn't seem to be the case much. While I always herald presenting shows and movies in the original formats they were presented in, this picture looks great and doesn't bother me in the slightest.
The 2.0 track is about as good as can be; dialogue is solid, and little distinct sounds like crinkling plastic wrap are given a hint of emphasis.
Sadly, no extras at all here. I wasn't expecting anything, but a gag reel would have been nice. Thankfully, the two bloopers tacked on to the bumper of the "Breaking Up" episode are still intact (Parker and McCarthy get a great laugh).
In the immortal words of Bowling for Soup, high school never ends. It's certainly alive and thriving in the GNB Network offices, where the hierarchy hysterics are in full force as the 4th floor peons clash with the 22nd floor smartass snobs. Featuring the likable Sara Rue as our spunky heroine and a gung-ho supporting cast that creates plenty of laughs, Less Than Perfect excels in its energy and performances. Sort of a semi-screwball comedy infused with both sentiment and sarcasm, it's simply a lot of fun despite its adherence to the sitcom formula and character stereotypes. One of my favorite "lost" shows, it just has an appeal and charm that meshes perfectly with my smart-aleck sense of humor. So even with no extras, a questionable ordering of episodes (don't worry, all of them are here!) and some tinkering with the original aspect ratio (don't worry, it looks great!), this fun, colorful show comes Highly Recommended. (Please keep those seasons coming, Lionsgate!)