The Complete First
and Second Seasons
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All photos © Turner
Reviewed by Will Harris
hen was the last time we were blessed with a sitcom that took place almost exclusively within a grocery store? Those willing to do the research may feel free to disprove this suspicion, but I believe you have to go back to “Check It Out.” It was a Canadian sitcom starring Don Adams as supermarket manager Howard Bannister, and although it ran from 1985 through 1988 in syndication on the USA Network, it has all but vanished into the mists of time. By 2006, then, it was clearly high time for someone to brush the cobwebs off the concept and make a run at trying another series set in a grocery store.
There’s an immediate difference between TBS’s “10 Items or Less” and its predecessor, however. This series, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is ad-libbed rather than scripted. Oh, sure, the plot lines are written, but the actual dialogue is limited to whatever the hell comes out of the various actors’ mouths. In theory, it’s a great idea, and when it’s funny, it’s a testament to the improvisational abilities of the participants. The reality, however, is that it’s often really, really hit or miss. And when you consider that each half-hour episode of “10 Hours or Less” is reportedly edited down from 30 hours of footage (hey, that’s what it said in an article on Access Atlanta, anyway), is it wrong that I can’t help but feel that it really ought to be funnier than it is?
John Lehr plays Leslie Pool, a guy who inherits ownership of his father’s grocery store, Greens & Grains, when the elder Pool dies. Leslie’s pretty hapless when it comes to being a businessman, but then, Papa Pool knew that, so if his legacy goes to hell in a grocery basket, then he really has no one to blame but himself. Actually, that’s not true: he also has the other employees to blame, since the majority of them aren’t any more responsible than the store’s new owner.
A quick roll call:
- Ingrid (Kristen Gronfield): quiet, virginal customer service rep for the store
- Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama): tough-talking head of produce
- Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert): tough-guy butcher
- Richard (Christopher Liam Moore): the decidedly gay cashier
- Buck (Greg Davis, Jr.): the decidedly black bagger
- Carl (Bob Clendenin): the store’s spaced-out (or possibly just stupid) stocker and handyman
With a lovable loser in charge of a bunch of misfits, the resemblance to “The Office” is undeniable, but this is definitely an occasion where you’re reminded that, despite the off-the-cuff feel of the NBC series, it actually is scripted – by professional writers. And although “10 Items or Less” certainly has its share of laughs, the characters too often fall back on weird lines which are funny only in their weirdness, thereby making it the repeat humor of the show rather limited. There’s also an occasional problem with Lehr throwing out punchlines about other characters – like, say, something stupid Carl did in the past – which leave them with little else to say except, “That’s true,” or, “Why’d you have to go and bring that up?”
The general scenarios, however, are funny, particularly the ongoing battle between the Greens & Grains and the big-chain competition, Super Value Mart, managed by Amy Anderson (Jennifer Elise Cox, probably best known for playing Jan in the “Brady Bunch” movies). The slight touches of reality are nice, too, such as the ongoing situation with the store having to struggle to provide health insurance to its employees, and the inevitability of various employees hooking up with each other. Ingrid has a thing for Todd, Carl and Yolanda have a child together, and – horror of horrors! – Leslie has a crush on Amy, one that he’s been harboring since high school. When the episodes focus on these sorts of events and occurrences, they work really well.
“10 Items or Less” has a lot of potential, but while it succeeds on occasion, the cast would be better served by trying to stay closer to reality with their flights of improv. That’s when they score the kind of laughs that make you want to buy a show on DVD and watch it again and again. At the moment, though, it’s a flip of a coin as to whether you’d just be better off renting it from Netflix.
Special Features: The making-of featurette, “‘10 Items or Less’: A Look Behind the Scenes,” does provide a nice backstage look at how the series comes together, and the two internet viral videos are both funny, but fans will likely all be asking the same question when they purchase this set: how can you do a show that’s almost entirely improvised but not contain a single bit of outtake footage from the series? “Coffee Break (Blooper Reel)” is halfway mistitled, since the so-called “blooper reel” is just a few minutes worth of the cast playing around between scenes, which means that the closest we get is “Notes from the Casting Couch,” which only offers the briefest of snippets from the cast’s auditions. Someone really dropped the ball here.