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Donal Lardner Ward
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Full disclosure. My first and only experience with Eric Schaeffer's work so far was the bawdy, charming one-season eating disorder sitcom, "Starved". But as Schaeffer puts it in the intro for "I Can't Believe I'm Still Single: From Portland to Portland", he is a semi-famous filmmaker/actor with several heavily autobiographical independent films under his belt (with mostly negative reviews) and a cult following. In the intro Schaeffer also says that he's just a normal guy twice!
Beguiled at the fact that he's approaching 40 but remains unmarried, Schaeffer wrote a book (which this show takes its name from) detailing his numerous sexual encounters and failed attempts to find that spark with that special someone. This reality/documentary/comedy series graciously picked up by Showtime but criminally under-promoted, picks up right there. In it Schaeffer drives himself, along with his field producer Em and documentary cameraman Stas, across the country, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine on a book tour. Along the way having numerous encounters will all sorts of women either from his past or unsuspecting one's he's met on myspace, interviewing people in successful relationships to see how they do it. At the end of that book tour is a friend's wedding in which he plans to reunite with a women he had a "crush vibe" with and plans to put an end to the single life with her. A lot of set up and a lot going on here.
The first few times I watched "I Can't Believe I'm Still Single", I hated it. Hated it. Schaeffer comes off like an insufferable, disgusting, ego-maniacal, D-bag who falls in love fast and muses with romantic notions which makes his constant introspective questioning as to why he can't find a mate all the more frustrating. He appears to be a deviant, indulging in sex acts the mere mention of which would make the average heterosexual male clench up with fear and we can't quite tell if it's all for cheap comic shock value.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Portland. I fell in love with this show. Oh yeah, Schaeffer is a D-bag, a flawed anti-hero if you will, but his honesty is refreshing. He's witty, with a normal guy sense of humor trying to crack a joke at any situation. And he is going after something he wants. The show becomes so intimate, so real, so universal. Schaeffer shows it all, the creepy side and the charming lovable side. We watch him find success and strike out with many women, graphically detailing what he wants his dominatrix/agent to do to him and binging on those cakes we saw in "Starved". All the while Em makes a perfect comic straightman from the backseat of the car, quietly point out every inconsistency in his behavior and when he ventures into stalker territory. There's an odd sweetness to their relationship.
Away from the couple interviews and sexual escapades (a bit with a clown is a creepy highlight), the show really takes off when it hits the road from one small-town book signing venue to the next. I'd guess over 50% of the series takes place with a camera sitting on Eric and Em as they sit in the car. Nothing breeds invention like a shoe-string budget. I was sucked right into Schaeffer's world here. Warts, face fat, 5 o'clock shadow, gut and all. We go from town to town. Hotel to hotel. We race to gas stations on fumes, to nearly empty book signings; we get up early and pack, eat horrible dinner food. We meet all sorts of interesting people. Hear compelling stories. See a lot of gorgeous simple middle-American sights. Exchange a lot of funny observations and get nearly run off the road by truckers. "Racist" truckers Schaeffer assumes. "Single" captures the looks and feel of road trip travel better than most road trip movies.
"Single" also stands mightily over VH1's "Scott Baio is 45 and Single", almost like a counter-argument to one of the worst shows of all time. Schaeffer never approaches the full-on A-hole that Baio is and "Single" never becomes a single-bashing, pro-marriage lecture. It is Schaeffer's cinematic meditation on something that seems to elude him like a mirage. This isn't a sitcom, it's a documentary, the story of which could only be told with all of it's charms intact through a TV series. It's about little things in life. Things that other show's don't have the time or attention for. And I loved every tiny "adventure". In the final few episodes, climaxing in the 1 hour finale, when it comes time to bring "Single" in for a landing, that is when Schaeffer the filmmaker really hits it out of the park. The finale is just about perfect.
"I Can't Believe I'm Still Single" sports a one-of-a-kind self-contained deceptively simple premise, which baring an ingenious stoke on Schaeffer's part - would be a contrivance to extend beyond the 14 episodes, but at the end of this one I wanted more. I wanted another road trip with Schaeffer. "Single" is not a show for most tastes, for all of the reasons it (and it's lead) is so unique: its sexual frankness cannot be underplayed. It's a refreshingly meaty, nakedly intimate, guy-centric, decidedly adult, trip through the mind of one guy as well as down American backroads in which the most run-down looking towns house the most interesting love stories. This is one of the best and most richly satisfying shows of 2008.
* * * * ½ /5
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