There are three kinds of pop-culture punch lines — by which I mean an actor, band, movie, or TV show that is regularly used as an all-purpose kicker to jokes. Type 1: The very successful person or piece of art that is deemed ridiculous by those who consider themselves to have “good taste.” Examples: Two and a Half Men, Dane Cook, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Nickelback, Twilight, reality television. Type 2: The huge, high-profile bomb, often synonymous with the Hollywood’s hubris: Gigli, Ishtar, Battlefield Earth. And then there is the third type, the rarest type of punch line. Something in this category is neither wildly popular nor a huge disaster. It’s not so good it’s bad or so bad it’s good. It’s something in which every element, when put together, is inherently funny, even before anyone sees it: the name, the genre, the cast — they all combine to make something so absurdly foolish that you know it will always work when you want to mock something. It is Franklin & Bash.
The show, which airs Wednesday nights on TNT, is in its third season, and yet most people who make jokes about it only have a vague idea of what it’s about (two fast-talking, irreverent shyster lawyers are paired together to help poor and unconventional clients). But the details of the show are irrelevant; that has nothing to do with what makes it the perfect title for all-purpose jokes like, “What, do you have something better to do? Is there a marathon of Franklin & Bash on?” “Wednesday is my night, where I just stay in with my four best friends: a bubble bath, a bottle of Yellow Tail pinot grigio, and Franklin & Bash.”
Everything about Franklin & Bash feels like it’s a parody that you might see on The Simpsons, a take-off of a show just like Franklin & Bash. Just start with the title, with its characters’ last names separated by an ampersand; it instantly brings to mind a wave of cheesy eighties cop shows with banter-y partners (Hardcastle & McCormick, Simon & Simon, Jake and the Fatman), a tradition also upheld in F&B’s sister show on TNT, Rizzoli & Isles. You hear the title and you picture two partners standing back to back and smirking, possibly each gesturing at each other over their respective shoulders with a thumb, as if to say, “Check out this nutball I gotta deal with!” It instantly makes you imagine a promo: “He’s Jared Franklin and he’s Peter Bash … and together they are Franklin & Bash.” (That’s actually not far off from this actual promo.) The onomatopoeic name “Bash” tries too hard to connote wackiness, and the whole title even rhymes with and has the same cadence of a past pop-culture punch line, the Sylvester Stallone–Kurt Russell action movie Tango & Cash.
And then there’s the cast, Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Franklin or Bash) and Breckin Meyer (Bash or Franklin, does it matter?): so perfect! Both are familiar but not specifically memorable; it’s as if the casting agents were told, “Get me two people who are technically celebrities.” They are the perfect sort of likeable, interchangeable actor who still earns nostalgic goodwill from something they did back in the 90s, but whose recent work nobody can really put much of a finger on. If it wasn’t them in the show, it could’ve been Scott Wolf and Wilmer Valderrama or Ethan Embry and Jonathan Silverman. This season Heather Locklear joined the show as Franklin and Bash’s new tough yet sexy boss, because Heather Locklear is synonymous with coming in and spicing up bland shows…in the 90s. Franklin & Bash is so defiantly unoriginal that you can’t even get mad at it for being so, the way you might hate Vikings for ripping off Game of Thrones. You just have to laugh at how the show took a bunch of clichés that had long since passed their sell-by date, and just went for it all over again in a baldly unsurprising way. It’s like in the late ‘90s, when Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens started the sitcom trend of shlubby husbands with annoyed, disproportionally attractive wives, and by the time we got to Yes, Dear it was like, “I can’t take it anymore, enough with this!”…and then came According to Jim! Same setup – and with Jim freaking Belushi, the perfect punchline actor! You had to applaud its utter lack of inventiveness, and lo, According to Jim became a utility punchline. (Other examples of this brand of pop-culture punchline: The Single Guy, Homeboys in Outer Space, Candlebox, O-Town, The Bucket List, Breakin’$2 2: Electric Boogaloo, the Air Bud series.)
Many watched According to Jim (it lasted for eight seasons); Franklin & Bash has an older audience, and has struggled this season after moving to Wednesdays away from hit Rizzoli & Isles. But to its loyal viewers, the show is not a joke; it’s only a joke to people who have never seen a full episode. F&B is shot well enough, the dialogue is inoffensively fine, and the performances are arguably quite good. It has all the trappings of a show you could imagine people liking, except any originality — it’s like a Mad Libs lawyer-show script that hasn’t been filled out yet. One memorable scene came as the opening of a season-two episode, in which our heroes are test-riding motorcycles, wearing suits, sunglasses, and helmets (one American flag-styled, natch), soundtracked by what can best be described as “Jet warming up.” They pull up to an attractive-ish woman, a bike dealer festooned in shoulder-to-toe black leather. “That was a way to start a Monday,” Franklin exclaims. To which Bash pauses and shoots back with “yeah” in a way that sounds more like “yeah-ah.” They decide they’ll buy the motorcycles, but there’s one problem: Here, in the big climax of the scene, the attractive-ish woman responds, “We have to do the paperwork.” And that is it. The end. Then they just head into the office, asking the woman to “hold onto them.” When you watch it you can picture a parallel universe in which fans are screaming at their TV sets, “Classic Bash!” because it has all the beats that would elicit that reaction, except for an actual payoff. The show is built on scenes like this, where nothing funny or unfunny happens.
There is zero wink, and this total lack irony is the secret to Franklin & Bash’s punch line status, just like the punch lines that came before it. Franklin & Bash is a blank canvas to be used for mocking, without fear of putting a joke on a joke. It’s so nothing, that if re-created shot-for-shot but ironically, it would work as a sketch. You watch the opening credits, with its shots of Franklin and Bash smirking their way around L.A., scored by music that sounds like a Lenny Kravitz tribute band covering Entourage’s theme song, and you can easily imagine Adam Scott announcing it as the next subject for his Greatest Event in Television History series (with him playing Franklin and Paul Rudd playing Bash).
It would be a fitting fate for Franklin & Bash. If its ratings do continue their dip, the show may not make it to a fourth season, but even if canceled it will live on for a few years as a punch line, which is not easy to do. Last month, King & Maxwell, a drama in which Rebecca Romijn and Jon Tenney play former Secret Service agents who become private detectives, ampersandically joined Franklin & Bash on TNT. Though it gets better ratings than F&B, it’s largely ignorable to non-fans. It’s close, but it’s not a punch line. The title is funny but not funny enough. The cast doesn’t have that right mix of fame memory. The show itself seems a bit too slick. Simply, it’s no Franklin & Bash. No, Franklin & Bash is a born punch line, just like “orange you glad I didn’t say banana,” “to get to the other side,” or “because 7 8 9,” but with business suits and nineties nostalgia.