House of Payne

John Larroquette holds the key to an existential smarminess in Payne

When we first glimpse Royal Payne, proprietor of the scruffily genteel Whispering Pines Inn, he's staring into a mirror while fixing his tie and remarking, "You, my friend, deserve a better life." Payne's portrayer, John Larroquette, might well share this sentiment. One of our most classically gifted comic actors, he excels at the cringing aggression that has been this genre's stock-in-trade since the days of Jack Benny, in particular the snide parting shot that suggests a man too terrified of his own self-loathing to dare open combat. But despite the raft of Emmy awards Larroquette has amassed (most recently for his guest spot as a hilariously self-satisfied murderer on The Practice), the last few years have seen his talents scandalously underused. We can, for the most part, blame the networks' post-Seinfeld rush to find standups capable of carrying a sitcom. In such an atmosphere, the delicacy of Larroquette's almost existential sneer could well seem too difficult, too arid for viewers accustomed to a wisecrack every third line.

Given those conditions, it's a shame Payne (CBS, 7:00 p.m. Wednesday) hasn't fathomed the depths of its star's abilities. While the show has had more than its share of fine moments so far, even the funniest bits have only scratched the despair his comedic talents suggest. Much of that shallowness is no doubt attributable to the conventions of the half-hour sitcom, which seemingly mandate that no scene escape without discharging its comic payload, small though it may be. For instance, when the valet, asked if he's herded an entire nudist convention from the lobby to their rooms, replies, "I don't know. I didn't do a head count." Larroquette, on the other hand, is the kind of actor who can keep a slow burn going for a good fifteen minutes. To posit a new sitcom formula: If this show cut the laugh lines by half and let the star add his own comedy, it would be at least twice as funny.

In a deeper sense, though, Payne's shortcomings are less structural than cultural, a point that becomes clear when you compare the show to its British model, John Cleese's Fawlty Towers (which is newly available on video). Basil Fawlty was an unregenerate snob whose frustrated aspirations to class mobility were neatly encoded in that "w" in the middle of his name. Its faux-classy tone is both a sign of snobbery and a reminder of how faulty his aspirations truly are: This far, it said, and no further. (Compare that name to, nyuk nyuk, "Royal" Payne, which apparently refers to Payne's mother's annoyance over the five days of labor she endured. This gives some context, but Wodehouse it ain't.)

Basil was regularly cruel to the help, condescended to those below him, and groveled before his betters. His hapless Spanish factotum/punching bag Miguel, whose English was as badly mangled as Fawlty's marriage, reflected the kind of ethnic bad taste only Brits seem able, or willing, to pull off these days (recall AbFab's Edina deciding to accessorize with a Romanian baby). And it grew even more funny for its very transgression of PC standards. Fawlty's desperation and random sprays of hatred played perfectly: Who knows better than the British how painful, and how inescapable, are the horrors of finding yourself languishing beneath your (self-)appointed station in a society that has supposedly left class privilege behind?

All of which is to say that British pop culture often reaches its greatest heights when recognizing its deep legacy of national defeat. The best U.K. imports of recent years--Prime Suspect, Cracker, Trainspotting, et al.--glory in griminess: They cheerily immerse the viewer in a wide channel of failure. Thus the secret of Fawlty Towers was its recognition that, at base, there was absolutely nothing funny about who Basil Fawlty was or the predicament he found himself in. (Done straight, this comedy reads as an Albee play.)

Royal Payne, by contrast, is a man without a country. Why is he here? What did he do beforehand? And why should we pity him for enjoying many yuppies' early-retirement fantasy, running an inn on the Northern California coast? Nor do we know why Payne so desperately wants his small inn to do better. So he can permanently retire three years earlier? Deprived of that crucial backstory, he's just another self-improving American, on the road to better things--because, goshdarnit, that's what America is about.

In that vein, it hardly needs mentioning that Miguel has been nervously transformed into Mo, an ethnically indeterminate comic foil whose vaguely Eastern European/Indian(?) accent seems designed to evoke every ethnic group in general without insulting anyone in particular. Meanwhile, JoBeth Williams, as Payne's tart-tongued wife Connie, has yet to register beyond her narrative function; she overdoes the pert sassiness like a small-town trouper doing Gilbert and Sullivan. And we should no doubt thank Seinfeld for the recurring bit part of the irascible Chinese delivery man who barks at Payne every time he makes an appearance. (Maybe we're better off without that ethnic humor after all.)

And yet Payne makes you laugh. While uneven, it's sufficiently clever to tease you with the hope that something worth your time is just around the corner. Payne, when surprised by Mo, prissily barks: "Don't do that! You're like a little horror movie." In another scene, the maid tells Payne that the conversation she wishes to conduct with him concerns his ethical failings--"and is thus irrelevant to me," he replies airily.

Despite insufficient aid from the supporting players, Larroquette manages to carry the program, biting off his lines with a smarmy instinct for self-preservation that makes every joke into a little philosophical gesture. Payne makes it up as he goes along, sacrificing pride for position in an endless game of one-upmanship with the universe. Told that the seals depicted in his lavish brochure do not appear on the actual beach near the inn, he shuffles through a stack of note cards, finds one apposite to the occasion, and offers the only apology he can: "Tough."

In moments such as this, Payne touches on its true subject: the ways we learn to enjoy and even glory in our failure to climb most of the peaks we once dreamt of surmounting. Should the show continue on the clumsy path, it will still exist as a middling star-powered sitcom in a dry season (and compared with Ted Danson's Becker, it deserves an Emmy). But if Payne develops the will to let its star's instinct for recrimination loose, it could become the unflinching portrait of self-lacerating survival we've needed ever since Larry Sanders went off the air. And with a thorough overhaul, Payne might profitably wander the great comic wastelands of defeat for years to come.

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