One of the most common tropes in television comedies also seems to be one of the most entertaining: famous people playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Watching celebrities poke fun at their fame and fortune has become somewhat of a captivating concept for audiences. But while this formula has created some of the most critically acclaimed TV shows in history (“Seinfeld,” “Louie,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), it doesn’t always work. Unfortunately, USA’s new original series “Donny!” seems to prove that.
Despite being sporadically funny, “Donny!” falters as an uninspired comedy that relies mostly on tasteless jokes about the media and celebrity culture. Playing the show’s womanizing eponymous protagonist, real-life TV personality Donny Deutsch certainly has some experience in the industry. Deutsch has led a successful career in business as an ad executive and in television as a judge on NBC’s “The Apprentice” and a former host of CNBC’s “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch.” Though Deutsch plays a fictionalized version of his real-life persona in “Donny!,” he exaggerates himself to the extreme and the results are neither as original nor as clever as they could be.
In the pilot “A Sext Ruined My Life!,” Deutsch’s character is introduced as the host of a talk show called “Donny!,” which looks like a cross between “Dr. Phil” and “Maury.” On the show, Deutsch’s first guest is a young woman named Becky, whose racy sext has become a viral meme and deemed her as the “Psycho Sexter.” Rather than sympathizing with Becky and her situation, Deutsch shows her picture to the mortified live audience, leaving her in tears and even more distraught. While this scene may have intended to satirize the exploitative qualities of talk shows, it doesn’t provoke any laughs nor offer any insight.
Throughout the rest of the episode, Deutsch continues to squander every possible comedic moment with bland, insipid humor. In a brainstorm meeting with his thick-skinned associate producer Pam (Emily Tarver, “The Residuals”), Deutsch uses lesbians and cancer as ideas for topics to boost ratings for his show. Later on, while defending his relationship with his Russian girlfriend Galina (Tina Casciani, “Jane the Virgin”) to his concerned assistants, Deutsch suddenly breaks the fourth wall, promoting a product placement of Hak’s BBQ Sauce to the audience. Though this scene is probably a tongue-in-cheek reference to Deutsch’s real-life advertising repertoire, it feels incongruous with the show’s overall tone.
As Deutsch recently told Rotten Tomatoes in an interview, he is intentionally playing an “idiotic” version of himself on “Donny!” Deutsch does indeed play an idiot, but one whose stupidity seems more obnoxious than hilarious. In this episode, he continually misunderstands the difference between a visual sext and a “suggestive picture,” when they are clearly the same thing. In addition to denouncing Becky for her sexting situation, Deutsch takes a shirtless selfie, which is intended for Galina and accidentally sent to his daughter’s teacher. Of course, the racy selfie becomes viral like Becky’s and immediately causes bad publicity for Deutsch. At this point in the show, you would expect some sort of character growth from Deutsch, who would learn from his mistakes and recognize the irony of his actions. But instead of taking responsibility for his hypocritical behavior, Deutsch acts on this viral mishap for his own self-interest. When appearing on an MSNBC morning show, he markets the selfie as part of a made-up charity for carcinoma, dismissing the inherent issue of his sext, or what he considers a mere “suggestive picture.” Though Deutsch has the charisma and natural delivery, his character is in dire need of some development.
The one aspect that is surprisingly refreshing about “Donny!” is the predominantly female cast. Deutsch and his young son Jagger (newcomer Jacob Thomas Anderson) are the only two male characters present in the episode. But even then, the women on the show are portrayed in a stereotypical, one-dimensional fashion. Deutsch’s snarky two assistants Jackie (Hailey Giles, “Hustle & Flow”) and Zoe (Meera Rohit Kumbhani, “Weird Loners”) come off as mean-spirited and his newest assistant Violet (newcomer Jessica Renee Russell) acts naive and desperate to win Deutsch’s attention. His daughter Coco (Fiona Robert, “Law & Order: SVU”) is the typical spoiled, vapid teenager, who gets in trouble at school for cussing out a kid in Mandarin. During her brief screen time, Galina is a purely sexualized spectacle, canoodling with Deutsch and acting out a cheeky roleplay with him, in which she plays a Russian figure skater to Deutsch’s Vladimir Putin. Even Becky the “Psycho Sexter” from the opening scene is made out to be crazy and hysterical. However, as conventional and clichéd as these roles may seem, the one character who mostly subverts the female TV stereotype is Pam, who uttered the funniest, sharpest lines by far.
While “Donny!” lacks the depth, heart and genuine humor of other meta comedies, the premise of a middle-aged, self-obsessed talk show host could potentially make the show interesting. But at the moment, “Donny!” doesn’t really know what kind of show it wants to be yet. “A Sext Ruined My Life!” plays out like any other generic pilot, rushing and overlooking small details and not giving any room to develop an intriguing storyline. Perhaps its late time slot and its presence on a television network filled with dramas that could be the problem.
Nevertheless, “Donny!” fails to make a lasting impression, even with a celebrity at its helm.