Those of you looking for a laugh will be pleased to know that TBS has just begun airing the second season of their workplace comedy, 10 Items or Less. Unfortunately, you’ll be hard pressed to find any PR for the show. It feels like the network chose to place all of its ad dollars behind Tyler Perry’s House of Payne (because, you know, Tyler has a tough time getting people to find his work) and the far inferior My Boys.
10 Items or Less premiered in the summer of 2006 to little fanfare; the show seemed to slip under the radar as critics instead salivated over My Boys, the romantic comedy with which it was paired. Thankfully, TBS didn’t give up on the series, and you can now catch new episodes Tuesdays at 11 p.m. (I know, I know, what kind of time is that to premiere an original series? Once again, all praise the mighty TiVo). Full episodes of the series are also available online.
John Lehr stars as Leslie Pool, who has inherited his father’s Ohio grocery store, Greens & Grains. Leslie returns to the Buckeye State after years of failing at everything else. So, what’s one more failure, eh? Pool is determined to carry on his father’s legacy, despite the fact he knows nothing about groceries (except that you need them to eat). Greens & Grains is staffed by a group of misfits who form a dysfunctional family of sorts: Carl (Robert Clendenin), the sweet, goofy stock boy; Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama), the sexy, no-nonsense produce worker who gave birth to Carl’s baby; Buck (Greg Davis Jr.), the bagger who attends night school and very well may be the only sane person in the store; Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield), the soft-spoken, flaky customer service representative; Richard (Christopher Liam Moore), the dignified cashier who dreams of becoming a professional ice dancer; and Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert), the butcher and the ladies’ man. Leslie’s arch nemesis, Amy (Jennifer Elise Cox), is the manager of Super Value Mart, which is right across the street from Greens & Grains. The two have known each other since high school — and since then, Leslie has harbored a secret crush on Amy.
The workplace sitcom has a formula all its own, and for every Mary Tyler Moore Show or Murphy Brown, there is a Good Sports or Working Girl. What sets 10 Items or Less apart from the standard sitcom is the show’s reliance on the cast’s improvisational skills. The show is shot in an actual Los Angeles grocery store, and the extras in the background are often actual customers on their daily shopping trip. As a result, the reactions from these non-actors are often real, unrehearsed moments. 10 Items or Less also uses that cinema-verite camera work we’ve all come to recognize from shows like Arrested Development, My Name is Earl, and The Office. Because 10 Items or Less shares some of the same qualities as The Office, it’s been compared to the hit NBC comedy. For that same reason, TBS has opted to premiere new episodes of 10 Items or Less immediately following The Office reruns. I don’t think this is such a bad idea; if it gets people to stick around for another half hour, that’s a good thing.
While most of the plots in the show seem familiar to those of us who’ve spent too much time in front of the television (quick, who can tell me who starred in Good Sports?), it’s the cast and their interactions that makes the show worthwhile. It’s easy to see when a show is torture to produce: the actors seem to be straining to make unfunny lines work, and the only laughter you hear comes from a machine. It’s clear that the positive vibe of 10 Items or Less is the direct byproduct of actors who are enjoying themselves. Lehr — the man holding everything together — has an abundance of comedic energy that seems to affect the rest of the cast. His hapless Leslie Pool is so blind to his shortcomings, it makes his falls from grace (if he was ever graceful to begin with) more hilarious. In the second season premiere, Leslie creates a “free money giveaway” after he finds $5,000 in his father’s office safe. The giveaway entails customers standing in a glass box and attempting to grab dollar bills as they are blown by a fan. Leslie, however, opts to use the actual money he found: 5,000 silver dollars. It’s not until Amy enters the box and begins stuffing her clothes with the coins that Leslie realizes his error. As mentioned, this situation may not be an example of gut-busting hilarity, but true humor can be found in the actions — and interactions — between the actors.
Is 10 Items or Less a classic series? Nah, I don’t think so. But it does often elicit a number of knee-slaps and guffaws each week, which is more than you can say about worn-out workhorses like According To Jim. At least the creators of 10 Items or Less are trying something new — and as far as I’m concerned, they’re succeeding. So head on over to the checkout counter at Greens & Grains, and try a free sample of 10 Items or Less. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.