There’s a certain flexibility that comes with getting to reinvent a show’s character list every episode. Like its new motel counterpart “Room 104,” each episode of the first season of “The Guest Book” focuses on a different set of occupants: These vacationers range from scientists to quarreling spouses to parents with misplaced preoccupations.
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But the problem with cycling so many of these performers in and out of the world of the show is that creator Greg Garcia has essentially made 10 different pilots. Rather than treating these individual chapters like short stories, there’s an unspoken effort to squeeze a season’s worth of quirks and angst into a twenty-minute window.
Over the course of his work on “My Name is Earl” and “Raising Hope,” Greg Garcia shepherded shows that presented unconventional family dynamics and disjointed inner circles of friendship. But, despite their collective shortcomings, the offbeat characters of those series worked together to create something built on love, appreciation, and understanding. To see so many episodes of “The Guest Book” tinged with cynicism and frustration seems like a misstep that doesn’t play to his strengths as a writer and observer of human tendencies. The humor here often seems forced, both in its writing and the physicality of the performances it asks of its actors.
It’s all the more frustrating when some episodes seem to strike the ideal tone that the others strive for. Episodes 4 and 5 are probably the strongest efforts of this first season, the latter of which stars Jenna Fischer as a scientist uncovering some unexpected memories of an Alzheimer’s patient left in her care. Some of those developments are legitimately shocking, but it doesn’t have the same manufactured chaos that plagues so many of the other installments.
“The Guest Book” boasts an impressive roster of guest stars, including Michaela Watkins, Danny Pudi, Lauren Lapkus, Stockard Channing Tommy Dewey, and Michael Rappaport. But the actors who have worked in previous Garcia shows seem to be the only natural fits for this new venture. Jamie Pressly, a bright spot on “My Name is Earl,” instantly finds the heart a character that in lesser hands could have been an episode-length punchline. Same goes for Shannon Woodward, who finds some an extra emotional layer in a character that could easily be a fodder for sight gags.
And although many of the recurring side players in the town surrounding the cottage are little more than means for advancing the handful of season-long throughlines, Garret Dillahunt is an exception. As Andrew, a local doctor whose marital foibles and parenting misadventures pop up across the season, Dillahunt gets another much-deserved chance to show off his comic chops. The shifting dynamic between Andrew and Kellie Martin’s Officer Kimberly hints at an alternate foundation for the show that might not be as formally innovative, but would make for a more satisfying series.
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The stealth stars of “The Guest Book” might just be Arjay Smith and John Milhiser as two office co-workers who serve as the show’s “Previously On” Greek chorus. Reorienting audiences at the start of each episode, their changing 15-second banter is one of the show’s best bits of character development. That they make such an impression in short snippets is a testament to Garcia’s ability to find some fun developments with a repeatable framework, but it also emphasizes that the constant cast list churn of check-ins and check-outs is rarely the part of this show that’s most engaging.
With a handful of drug-fueled benders and neuroses-driven montages, “The Guest Book” gets the chance to match its changing cast list with a few visual switch-ups. Some split-screen episode bookends and some inventive camera placements keep the cottage from getting too familiar. But those occasional touches can’t replace the fact that the show lives and dies on the strength of its episode-to-episode stories. A few of them are entertaining enough, but a show that’s still in search of its strengths still keeps it from being a reliable trip worth taking every week.
“The Guest Book” airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on TBS.
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