NBC’s Better Late Than Never, a travel series on which four old male celebrities (Henry Winkler, William Shatner, George Foreman, and Terry Bradshaw) and one reality show star (comedian Jeff Dye, from Last Comic Standing and I Can Do That), immediately presents itself as something other than a reality TV show.
It opens with a scripted scene that even the two seasoned actors and one comedian can’t even pull off with a hint of authenticity, a rather inauspicious start. Then it immediately transitions into product placement for NBC shows (on billboards) and Delta (basically a Delta ad).
So what is it, exactly?
Its producers come from reality TV (The Bachelor‘s Jason Ehrlich, I Survived a Japanese Game Show‘s Tim Crescenti) but also Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced Smash and NBC’s live musicals, such as The Wiz Live. That seems like an odd collaboration.
NBC calls the show an “alternative comedy series,” combining its “alternative” series (i.e. reality TV) and its scripted shows (comedy). It’s based on the South Korean show Grandpas Over Flowers, a format that’d described as a “unique adventure format series takes four beloved actors travelling through Europe” who “are accompanied by a youthful porter, who turns out to be the comedic foil.”
The trailers mostly made it seem like rich old famous men would be mocking other cultures, though thankfully there is very little of that in episode one, which debuts tonight after America’s Got Talent.
There is still some of it, though, largely surrounding food, such as pork vaginas. Terry Bradshaw wonders who would bother to harvest chicken vaginas as food, and says, “my people, Southern people, that just ain’t gonna happen.” As if Southerners don’t eat chicken liver!
At least his xenophobia is called out in the show; Jeff Dye compares Bradshaw to an ignorant grandpa and says, “My apologies, Asia.”
Genuine moments amid the choreographed moments
On Better Late Than Never, Jeff Dye gets the thankless job of 1) pretending that he’s set up and arranged everything, rather than the producers, and 2) commenting in post-production, providing narration and jokes that rarely land.
The irony is that when the series tries to hard—when the men try too hard, when the written narration tries too hard, when the editing tries too hard—it falls flat.
But there are moments that are clearly genuine, honest reactions to the moment or to each other, and it’s in these that there’s something watchable and fleetingly wonderful. That’s not unlike The Real Housewives franchise, with honest, raw moments occurring inside set up scenes for which cast members have knowledge of what they’re supposed to accomplish.
The men mock each other gently, such as when Henry Winkler takes photos with fans in a train station. Shatner—”Bill,” to his fellow cast members—says “there is only one way to discover a culture, and that is to explore bravely.” The five pause to look at Mt. Fuji and seem actually moved by what they’re experiencing.
All of this is edited into a package that has a lot of energy and style. While there are the standard confessional interview segments (which look to have been shot against a green screen, perhaps well after filming was complete), it’s a mostly welcome diversion from the all-too-familiar editing rut that network shows have fallen into. And since it’s not a competition, it’s also the rare network show that is not formatted.
Sometime in the first episode, Terry Bradshaw says, “You talk about a good time: watching other people make a fool of themselves besides you,” and that seems like the thesis for the series. This is miles away from a travel documentary series, but it manages to have a good time while watching others—famous others—enjoy themselves while learning about different cultures. There are worse ways to spend an hour.