"If you all just believe in me, anything can happen."
Come on! What is with all the animosity towards this funny little shaggy-dog series? Sony has released 10 Items or Less - The Complete First & Second Seasons, gathering together the TBS "improvicom's" 13 episodes on two discs. Structured not unlike the more buzz-worthy The Office (perhaps too closely to The Office for some people's comfort), 10 Items or Less is an agreeably sunny, lightly-ironic improv comedy that seems to have little on its mind other than to entertain its viewers - a big no-no for TV cultists who demand their comedies be dark and cruel and "about something more." Co-created, co-written, and starring amusingly geeky John Lehr, 10 Items or Less is a refreshing light comedy that I found consistently funny.
During the opening credits, Leslie Pool (John Lehr) quickly narrates the show's set-up. Leslie's dad, who never thought his son would amount to anything, drops dead in the family-owned grocery store, the Greens and Grains. Returning to Ohio after inheriting the store, Leslie is intent on making the struggling store a success, while proving his father's assessment of him wrong. There are only a couple of catches, the most important one being that Leslie doesn't really know what the hell he's doing. As well, Leslie's staff (who know all about his dad's poor opinion of him), may not be the most stable. Incredibly soft-spoken and oddly-oriented Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield) runs the Customer Service counter. "Out" perfectionist and aspiring Ice Capades skater Richard (Christopher Liam Moore) keeps the cash register ringing, while young, world-champion bagger Buck (Greg Davis, Jr.) keeps the customers' bags fully loaded. Funereal gorper Carl (Bob Clendenin) skulks around the store, sweeping and mopping up when he's not busy trying to figure out how to fix a freezer or water pipe, while his one-night-(only)-stand partner Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama), a sexy, outspoken produce arranger who likes her men rough, puts her time in so she can take care of her son, Manuelito (Raymond Ochoa) - Carl's son (a fact that Carl only learns about four years later). Rounding out the G & G team is Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert), the handsome stud butcher who is about as bright as one of his sides of beef. And if Leslie's inexperience and his staff's flakiness and casual approach to their duties isn't bad enough, he has to contend with next-door-neighbor Super Value Mart, one of a behemoth grocery chain (all similarities to Wal-Mart intended) run by power-mad, sex-crazed Amy Anderson (Jennifer Elise Cox), a former object of unrequited lust for Leslie when they went to school together, and now his arch nemesis who's focused on only one thing: either acquiring or destroying altogether the G & G so Super Value Mart can expand their parking lot.
I haven't been a devoted follower of 10 Items or Less, but I have occasionally caught episodes on TBS over the last two years since its debut, and I always found the show to be quite amusing and light and charming in its own rough, rag-tag way. I understand that quite a few people have a hard-on for the show because it "apes" The Office too closely, coming up short of that brilliant show in their minds because 10 Items or Less is neither as funny, nor as cruel and dark as The Office. Therefore, it's seen as "less valuable or meaningful" in a society that looks askance at anything that suggests sunny fluffiness first in its comedy. While I do think there is an underlying irony to the show that fits in nicely with other "improvicoms" like Arrested Development or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and while it may not be as consistent in generating relentless yocks like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office, when it does deliver, 10 Items or Less had me laughing, and I'm not sure what else you could ask of a TV comedy.
But along with that freedom comes an expectation (at times an unrealistically high one, considering the excellent examples of "improvicoms" that debuted before 10 Items or Less) that the show can't be anything less than consistently, uproariously funny, each and every time out of the box. Of course, anyone who's experienced improv in a theatrical setting will know that more often than not, the misfires outnumber the bulls-eyes, but when TV fans find out that a show like 10 Items or Less can pick and choose its improv moments, and edit them down into an episode, the expectation is: every one of those scenes better be fall-down funny. Or else. Well...they're not all fall-down funny in 10 Items or Less, but then again, I don't think The Office knocks it out of the park each and every time it steps up to the plate, either. If I laugh more than I sit silently during an average episode of 10 Items or Less, then it's a success - regardless of whether or not it matches up to unrealistic expectations of what an "improvicom" could or should be.
There's no doubt that 10 Items or Less does bear some similarities to The Office, particularly in the way the characters are structured in the work-place environment, and the generally absurdist way the comedy tends to trend. But there seems to be some significant differences, too, particularly in the lead, Leslie Pool. While Michael Scott is an incompetent whose cringingly embarrassing attempts to be cool, or hip, or accepted by his staff consistently backfire as he fails time and again to work out the embarrassing, humiliating quirks in his personality, Leslie Pool is utterly oblivious to his sunshiny dorkiness (the writers of The Office have increasingly taken away Michael's "obliviousness" to ratchet up the pathos and audience sympathy for the character, which to my mind, has softened and weakened the character, turning the show more and more into a prime-time drama rather than a comedy). Leslie is an old-fashioned, infuriatingly dense "can-doer" who refuses to let the odds get him down. He's bound and determined to keep the G & G going, despite the oppressive might of his neighbor, Super Value Mart, and the vagaries of his staff. In many ways, the character is reminiscent (not the "same as" or "equal to," so don't send outraged emails) of much older American comedy stereotypes, like Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, who, when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, continually kept a bright, fresh, "young" positivism to their physical, ridiculous gags, winning out in the end each and every time (it's significant in the final episode of the second season, that Leslie wins back the G & G from Super Value Mart, by being nice to Yolanda, who feels terribly guilty for selling out her co-workers). There's a Midwestern squareness to the Leslie character, coupled with an enthusiastic, open, go-getter mentality, that harks back to an earlier, classical style of American comedy that I find quite nostalgic and refreshing.
Of course, all of that is still filtered through an ironic, absurdist viewpoint more akin to today's post-modernism - with frequently delightful results. Randomness and absurdity rule in 10 Items or Less, where the content follows the form (improv). There is an underlying, consistently articulated "dark" theme to 10 Items or Less - Leslie was considered a failure by his father, and seemingly by everyone else, and he wants to prove them all wrong - but happily, the main point of the series seems to be to offer up laughs first and last, leaving the messages, if any, to be sorted out on your own (interestingly, when the series tries for an out-and-out "messagey" episode, Illegal Alien, the results are less than impressive). It's impossible to accurately convey in a review how or why something is "funny" - you can come close, but more often than not, it winds up as mere description (it's like trying to explain a funny joke that someone doesn't get the first time around - it just ruins it). I can "describe" why I think moments in 10 Items or Less are funny, but they won't "read" as funny as they are; you just have to experience them for yourself (and even then, that's no guarantee - ever had that horrible experience of trying to turn a friend on to some show you love...only to see them sit there stone-faced?).
I found big laughs in almost all the episode from 10 Items or Less, and while the episodes sometimes suffer from spotty rhythm and timing (due no doubt to the way they're shaped from improv to final production), taken as a whole, there's an agreeably cheap, off-the-cuff feel to the shows that's fresh and lively. Stand-out episodes include the opening pilot (the roughest one out of the bunch), The New Boss, where Leslie learns his father's last words when he suffered his fatal stroke in the bread aisle ("I smell toast."), and where mentally-challenged butcher Todd gives a non-rousing buck-up speech to his co-workers extolling the virtues of nerds who "think with graphs." The Miracle Worker, where Leslie exploits a water-stain in the store that looks like Jesus, has quite a number of hilarious one-liners, including two of my favorites from the entire series: "I think Jesus would be very proud of our prices for peeled shrimp," and "Jesus has come to town, and we're going to welcome him with a big, fat sale!" Health Insurance has a beautifully sick premise of Leslie initiating a Survivor-like series of stunts to find the loser whom he's going to fire, so the rest of the employees can have health insurance (Leslie's line, "A modern man like myself...who doesn't want to make a decision," is flat-out brilliant). Bag It has the delightful Kirsten Gronfield getting booted off the grocery-bagging team; when the team still loses, she quietly says, "Thanks for believing in me...up to a point." The second season opener, Dollar Day, has Gronfield again shining, this time hilariously acquiring the "Stockholm Syndrome" almost immediately after thieves invade the G & G. Forever Young has a great bit with Leslie and Amy, totally out of their element, at the beautifully named Bang Bang Monkey Bar (after dancing with a young girl, Leslie beams, "That was fierce, Jasmine!, while Cox manages a devastating parody of robotic, loud "bar speak"). The Bromance is a stand-out, with a central sequence - Leslie and Todd steeling themselves to slaughter a live cow in the store for "sushi-grade beef" - that plays about as good as anything gets on TV right now (when Leslie starts whining in sympathy for taking the cow's life, and then instantly turns ugly macho while menacingly intoning, "But we're gonna do it, you stupid cow!", I was on the floor). And Amy Strikes Back has a delicious gross-out moment, where we think Leslie eats a human finger, before being deprogrammed by the gang after he's been turned evil by Amy.
Here are the 13, one-half hour episodes of the two-disc set 10 Items or Less - The Complete First & Second Season, as described on their slimcases.
The New Boss
The Miracle Worker
What Women Want
To Heir is Human
Amy Strikes Back
The Ren Fair
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.