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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2012-2013 season, now in its seventh year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
PRAIRIE DOGS (ABC)
(written by Jackie Filgo & Jeff Filgo; directed by Luke Greenfield; TRT: 22:18)
The network's description: "At Egg Computer Technology, a leading smartphone company, the programmers are anything but cool. They're the "prairie dogs", the cubicle dwellers, who write software code all day and pop their heads up from time to time to see what's going on. In another era, they'd be wearing pocket protectors. These underdogs do all of the technological grunt work but get none of the glory. Meet Neil (Kal Penn), a programming wiz. At Egg, he's the top dweeb, the guy the other nerds all look up to. But Neil has big dreams beyond programming. He wants to move over to the sexier, higher profile design department to work for Rams (Cary Elwes), a kilt-wearing German eccentric. The only problem is, his boss Imogene needs him too much to let him leave.
Enter "Guy", a conman who's just stolen Neil's identity. He's been racking up quite a bill living an exciting life on Neil's credit cards. He may have stolen Neil's identity, but he's having a lot more fun with it than Neil ever has. Fed up with people taking advantage of him, Neil decides to confront the identity thief with the help of his friends Mazi, Roj, and Charlotte. And when they do, it leads to an unlikely friendship with "Guy", and an ingenious plan to get Neil transferred to the design department. From Jackie & Jeff Filgo (That '70s Show, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The New Adventures of Old Christine) comes an ensemble work-place comedy about taking care of business with friends in low places."
What did they leave out? The Mazi character, played by Dayo Okeniyi, has been renamed as Tunde.
The plot in a nutshell: For years nebbish programmer Neil Mitnick (Kal Penn) has dreamt of just one thing: transferring to the uber-cool design department at his company, Egg Computer Technologies, and leaving his cubicle dweller status behind. It's a big hurdle, especially considering his boss Imogene (Michaela Watkins) won't approve such a request ("I need you in programming," she notes. "The other nerds, they really look up to you.") while Rams (Cary Elwes, wearing a kilt, no joke), the kooky German head of the design department, doesn't even know his name. That all changes however when he discovers someone has cloned his credit card, running up charges for everything from flat screen TVs to bottle service. Tired of being life's doormat, Neil vows to track down the man responsible.
And so, flanked by his motley co-workers - disgruntled pal Roj (Dan Fogler), wide-eyed immigrant Tunde (Dayo Okeniyi) and wild card Charlotte (Charlotte Newhouse) - he confronts said guy, who's literally named Guy (Nick Zano, channeling Brad Pitt from the aughts). Much to their surprise, he's an affable fellow and unlike our heroes, isn't a tightly wound bundle of nervous energy. To make up for his crime, Guy vows to help Neil achieve his dream of joining Egg's design team. His plan: steal Rams's latest smartphone prototype and then have Neil play the conquering hero by returning it. Neil of course scoffs at said notion, but when a mailroom clerk (Eric Price) inadvertently steals said thunder, Neil realizes Guy may just be the key to turning his life around. Ultimately he gives Guy a choice: get turned into the cops or stick around and continue to offer him sage advice.
What works: If anything, "Prairie Dogs" plays like a 22-minute excuse to get to the title joke: a twice repeated shot of the central quartet peering over of a cubicle - a la prairie dogs from their holes in real life - literally on the outside of the lives they want looking in.
What doesn't: In other words, not particularly funny. As you might wager from the above, the show's central hook - Neil hiring the guy who stole from him - comes across as something you would only see on TV. There's literally no stakes or tension to the aforementioned proceedings, it's just "hey, you stole my money," followed by "man you sure seem like the coolest guy ever" and ultimately "how about you mentor me even though I've only known you for 10 minutes." It's a silliness that extends to practically every aspect of the show, whether it's Guy's fortune cookie wisdom ("Wherever I am I look like I should be there."), Neil's endless anxiety ("He's going to throw me in jail or worse: Germans do very bad things when they're angry.") or Charlotte's random mania (she "just happens" to have a tracking anklet to put on Guy).
And it's not the good kind of silly either, it's the are-we-really-supposed-to-buy-this silly. It doesn't help that Neil is portrayed as a spineless, limp noodle of man while Guy is an infallible piece of marble, chiseled from the gods. The resulting détente that Neil running to the cops is any kind of threat to Guy is likewise the bad kind of laughable, an oversight we're told to gloss over because the gang can offer Guy the one thing he can't get in his line of work: real friends. Said feelings aren't exactly engendered by shoehorning in the usual tropes of the nerd comedy genre, such as the prerequisite "Reservoir Dogs"-esque walk in slow motion (here set to "Make Some Noise" by Beastie Boys). All things considered...
The bottom line: ...it's definitely a pass.