TBS's late-night series "10 Items or Less" appeared under the radar in late 2006, overshadowed by some of the network's better-publicized shows. But like some other low-profile cable fare - notably, Oxygen's "Campus Ladies" - it has a quirky spark that deserves much more attention. Cable is good for risks, and it's good for comedy.
Especially improvisational comedy, it seems. "10 Items," which airs tonight at 11, shares the same structure as "Campus Ladies" and HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm:" Episodes are plotted along a loose outline, but the dialogue is made up on the spot. And like "Curb," this show revolves around a central figure - Leslie Pool, the owner-manager of the underdog supermarket Greens & Grains - to drive the absurd situations.
As played by series co-creator John Lehr, Leslie is far more sympathetic than the ever-prickly Larry David. He's not a curmudgeon, but a well-meaning buffoon, a black sheep who comes back to run the store when his father dies suddenly. Personality-wise, he shares a lot with Michael Scott, the boss in NBC's "The Office." He loves his staff, even if he finds strange ways to show it. And he wants to be loved in return.
As in "The Office," this show is populated with quirky employees, from Richard (Christopher Liam Moore), an aging cashier with figure-skating dreams, to Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield), a mild-mannered customer service clerk who will lose her virginity this season. ("10 Items" is generally more ribald than "The Office," given its hour and location on the dial.)
In tonight's season premiere, Leslie finds $5,000 in a hole in his office wall, then fashions a "Dollar Day" giveaway: He sets up a booth, powered by a fan, in which customers can grab flying bills. When two robbers arrive on the eve of the promotion, Leslie tries to stop them with reason.
"My man! It's cool! It's all good!" he says. "Listen, you're one day off. If you come back tomorrow, you can walk in here and get money without a gun. Tomorrow's 'Dollar Days!' "
Before the episode ends, one of his employees will experience Stockholm Syndrome and Leslie will engage in a failed rescue attempt, after removing his shirt in slow motion. This season seems to rely more on camera effects than I remember from the past.
But the sight gags and slapstick are less entertaining than the dialogue itself: In improv, it's often the throwaway lines that work best. Tonight, Todd the butcher (Chris Payne Gilbert) discovers that one of the robbers is a fellow butcher (he recognizes his "butcher's tattoo"), and appeals to a butcher's code of ethics. He just finds it hard to recall the wording.
"No butcher," he tries, "shall enter any promissory . . . where another butcher . . . with blood on his hands . . ."
"Maybe what you're saying is armed robbery is just bad," Richard suggests.
"Yeah, that's it," Todd says. "You don't rob fellow butchers, bro."
It's hard to do this justice in print; the humor is in the straight delivery. And in general, those deadpan moments provide for better comedy than the over-the-top ranting from Jennifer Elise Cox, who plays the manager of the big supermarket across the street. Still, her character is good comedy fodder. In an upcoming episode, she comes to work at Greens & Grains, and the employees quickly compare her to Darth Vader. Or maybe it's the Emperor; in one sequence, they debate precisely how the Star Wars analogy fits.
It's funny, and more impressively so for being made up on the spot. Thanks to the writers' strike, nearly everyone is working without a script on late-night TV these days. But these "10 Items" guys are professionals.