Monday, February 27, 2006

“Mayer Test” Dooms CBS’ Love Monkey

(Editor’s Note: Mere days after this article was penned, CBS cancelled the show. What foresight!)

After first seeing previews for “Love Monkey,” I decided to pass. After seeing Tom Cavanaugh appear on David Letterman while looking like Will Ferrell’s coffee-addicted character from “Kicking and Screaming,” I made a vow to keep the show from ever appearing on my television screen. However, like anyone else with a TiVo, somehow I wound up recording something that I didn’t really want to watch, and the next thing you know, I’ve seen the first three episodes.

For some reason, the show appeals to me. I don’t know why, and even if I did, I wouldn’t write about it, because that’s not what this article is about. Instead, let’s focus on why this show is doomed to fail.

Failure in this case has nothing to do with going off the air. I suppose in the television industry, that is the only kind of failure that matters, but I insist on living in a fantasy world. One where successes and failures are measured with different yardsticks. In this case, Cavanaugh’s latest excuse to talk really fast (“Ed” being the first) is going to fail because it is misfiring on the most important level. It is a show that bills itself as being about one thing, while in reality it is another. Let me explain.

It is obvious from the first five minutes of the pilot that this is a show about music. More specifically, a show about a music snob. Tom Farrell (why do shows so often give the lead character the same first name as the actor? Is it so that people can remember the name easier? Some sort of marketing tie-in? A coincidence?) is an A&R exec living in New York City and he loves music. He knows the historical significance of every club in Manhattan, has an ear for talent, and worships all the right bands of yesteryear. He gets fired from his major label because he believes “in the music” and winds up at a small, indie label, where he can presumably sign only bands that sound like The Arcade Fire. He is a music snob, through and through. (Don’t take this as a criticism of music snobs. I find myself being one all the time and I think it is fine.)

So that’s what the show is about: a music snob living in Manhattan, playing hoops with his boys (the most excruciating scenes in every episode), hanging out with his friends, chasing women, and living for the music. Sounds fine. In this era of Napster and iTunes and mp3 players, it is about time we had a major network show or big studio film about music junkies. There is only one problem: the show strayed from this premise in about eight minutes and 30 seconds.

Early in the pilot episode, the character of Wayne is introduced. He’s a young singer/songwriter that catches Ferrell’s attention, prompts a bidding war between Ferrell’s new and old labels, and then goes on to be the centerpiece of the indie shop. The character is fairly likeable, is played by an actual singer/songwriter (always a good start), and enables the show’s writers to launch directly into the sort of mentor/protégé relationship that Jerry Seinfeld and Kenny Banya could be proud of. Again, there is one problem: the Wayne character fails the crucial “Mayer Test.”

The Mayer Test symbolizes the line between acoustic genius and pop music. The chasm between Saddle Creek Records and MTV. The gap between “amazing” (the adjective of choice for anyone under the age of 25) and “cheesy.” When John Mayer burst on the scene, he straddled the line like no other musician. Clearly talented with an obvious appreciation for music’s history and roots, Mayer had all the chops to become a music snob favorite, right up there with Ben Harper, The Shins, and Elliott Smith. Alas, Mayer’s looks, voice, and lyrics (starting with “Your Body is a Wonderland”) launched him into the MTV star stratosphere and turned him into a heartthrob. More Justin Timberlake than Jeff Buckley.

It doesn’t matter that Mayer has since revealed himself to have far more “street cred” in the Music Snob World than originally anticipated. From appearances on The Chappelle Show to collaborations with Kanye West to surprise appearances with Buddy Guy at “Blues Night” at the Hollywood Bowl, Mayer has evolved into more than just a cross between Peter Cetera and Dave Matthews. None of that matters. All that matters is that when he first came out, he put music snobs to a decision: embrace him or ridicule him?

Mayer got the boot. His romantic lyrics and whispering voice were never going to fly with music snobs. To fly the John Mayer flag would have been tantamount to turning in a membership card. Therefore, the Mayer Test was born.

The Mayer Test has been used many times since and has left talented musicians like Jason Mraz, Gavin DeGraw, and Amos Lee on the other side of the fence. Sometimes the reason is obvious, like overproduced music aimed at radio airplay. Sometimes you can’t really point to any one thing. You just know that a band or artist failed the test. And you know who would be given the same treatment? That’s right, Wayne, acoustic wunderkind and Tom Farrell protégé.

The Wayne character is almost a John Mayer clone, so it is only appropriate to invoke the Mayer Test in this instance. He croons, strums love songs on his guitar, wears chic clothing, and does a duet with a pop star. In short, he fails the Mayer Test in a big way. No music snob would ever fly the Wayne flag. Not in a million years. Music snobs make sure that people can see that the Arctic Monkey’s are displayed on the “Current iTunes Track” feature of iChat. They exchange 1,000-word emails about My Morning Jacket with fellow music snobs. They pretend to like the Antony And The Johnsons album because it got a high score from Metacritic. They deem the song “Handle Me With Care” to be the pinnacle of music because it features the trio of Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, and M. Ward (can’t say I blame them). They consider “Garden State” one of the greatest movies of all time because of the soundtrack. The one thing they don’t do is download a song like “Confidence” by Teddy Geiger-cum-Wayne.

As established earlier, the Tom Farrell character is a music snob. Therefore, he shouldn’t be fawning over Wayne. He shouldn’t be racing to see him live after hearing the demo. He shouldn’t be trying to launch a record label with Wayne as the centerpiece. He shouldn’t be doing any of these things, because Wayne fails the Mayer Test. As such, Tom Ferrell wouldn’t like his music. He wouldn’t think twice about it.

Because Wayne fails the Mayer Test, so too does the show “Love Monkey.” They’ve given us a show about a true music snob. There is an audience for this. You and I both know at least a dozen people who qualify and perhaps we are music snobs ourselves. We know this character. And we know that this character wouldn’t embrace Wayne’s music.

That critical disconnect will doom the show. It is confusing and distracting to hear someone talk about Dylan and The Clash and the purity of music and then act like he’s just discovered the next Thom York in the form of a crooning teenager that sings “Love is a marathon.” In fact, it is more distracting than watching Cavanaugh’s awkward jump shot, witnessing Lorenz Tate’s demise (didn’t he just make “Crash”?), observing Christopher Wiehl’s wooden acting, seeing “Kitty” from Arrested Development play the role of a normal woman, or even noting that Jason Priestly looks like he ate Luke Perry. The crucial failing of the Mayer Test trumps all of that.

There are a lot of small problems with this show, but one big one. It’s all about a music snob, who, well, isn’t one.

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-award winning and the foremost authority on sports, pop culture, film, and television in his entire apartment.

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