Bowling Ali Sitcom Analysis — Short Story


Jeff Spicolli

Owens Community College

T-Com 150

TV Media Studies — Sitcom Analysis

Dr. Ruth Bradley

Premise

“Bowling Ali” is the typical fish out of water comedy. Tej Ali immigrated to the United States and bought a bowling alley in a small midwestern city. The show follows a bowling team and to a lesser extent the Indian bowling alley owner. In season one, Tej Ali, a popular Indian standup comedian was the star of the show, but focus groups preferred the American bowling team, so their storyline became the focus of season two and Ali became a secondary character. NBC-Universal faced a sharp backlash, given the fact that this show was initially promoted as a part of NBC’s diversity initiative (internal documents later revealed during a sexual harassment lawsuit that the show’s producers had little concern for social justice and were more than willing to embrace the passion of naïve activists to gain virtue points and help with their strategic Asian subcontinent deployment). Nonetheless, the protests were short lived because Ali was not quite brown enough and was male. Ali’s role was diminished, seeming to only appear in the most inconsequential times and for easy jokes. Although his role is limited, he can be a scene stealer, especially when his immigrant character ventures into taboo topics.

Originally, the show featured flashy Bollywood clothing, but the bowling shirts were too exotic and had to be dialed down in season two. Another prominent change was the decision by the producers to cut the song and dance number before every episode. It was expensive, and critics felt that it was racist. Everything is racist.. The network didn’t even bother to explain the sudden disappearance of a show staple because it was expensive and the sitcom audiences didn’t care for the theatrical openings. There was also the matter of the elephant that died during the filming of the opening number for episode three. A sitarist fell off the back of the elephant, breaking his tibia and his sitar. It was unclear which pained the sitarist more, but he took out his anger on the elephant and began to verbally berate the wise and emotionally sensitive mammal. This upset Tiny the Elephant, so the creature attempted to stop the sitarist to death. However, the quick thinking or trigger happy elephant handlers fired off several rounds of elephant tranquilizers into Tiny. Within seconds of the darts penetrating the elephant's tough skin, the elephant collapsed to the crowd. Minutes later the elephant was dead. Minutes after that, the executives were on the phone with their diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, and were reassured that elephants do not have a race and that there are only two elephant genders, so this would likely not cause much social media outrage. The scandal would last three hours tops. It lasted two hours, two and a half depending on who you were talking to. ANTEPHFA (anti elephant fascists) is still protesting to this day but with little impact due to their clever but confusing names. Are they against elephants, against fascist against elephants, or before elephant fascism? For good measure, the producers broke the sitarist's other leg with a baseball bat, so they could claim he was immobile and his life was in peril. 

Tej Ali is seen as a racist token by western sophisticates, but actual sitcom viewers do not perceive this role. Nor do actual Indians. They do not read in between the lines and live for inferences like eighth grade English language arts teachers. They see Ali for what he is — genuine. He is an immigrant trying to make it in America that is often caught out of place and unaware of his mistakes. This character resonates with immigrants and Americans familiar with immigrants, which is everyone except western sophisticates only familiar with Hispanic housekeepers. Also, most American sitcom viewers are exhausted by constant race lectures permeating from their TV screens and are pleased to laugh at real life.

Bowling Ali is unique compared to current network programs. Most shows feature sarcastic, quick witted characters with biting jokes. In contrast, the main cast of Bowling Ali features sincere characters. They do not deliver one liners or ironic remarks. They do not get laughs at each other’s expense. The humor comes from their sincerity. They, like most Americans, are inadequate and unprepared for this world, resulting in a life that is nothing more than a series of mishaps. However, they remain unjaded because they’ve always got bowling. They are adult versions of Charles Schultz characters. We laugh at their mistakes because we can relate. No matter how bad a predicament they get into, they just keep going — day after day, episode after episode. 

Plot

The predicament in episode two of season two is that Dan (a typical heavy-set white guy in a sitcom) was supposed to bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the combination KFC-Taco Bell was out of chicken. To the utter dismay of Rick (typical skinny white guy friend of a heavy-set white guy in a sitcom), Dan arrives with a box full of tacos.

Rick is distraught. He is bowling the best bowling of his life. Any changes to his routine could derail the streak. He hasn’t washed his underwear in a month, but he applies copious amounts of Old Spice original formula aftershave to cover the unpleasant odors. The skin irritation and burns are likely unnecessary because the smells of lane oil, bowling alley pizza, and Korma create such an odoriferous suffocating blend that his dirty underwear are mild and quite aromatic in comparison.

The underwear revelation is only learned not because of pungent odors, but because Rick admits that he secretly likes the burn, which isn’t much of a secret if he tells his teammates. Franklin (typical stocky black man in a sitcom, he probably played football or something) asks why Rick doesn’t just use a deodorizer like Febreze, but Rick has never heard of Febreze. This is not a stretch for a never married, single, 49-year-old male that is bowling the best bowling of his life based on the consumption of Kentucky Fried Chicken on league nights.

Rick explains to Dan — although Dan already knows this, but the TV audience doesn’t, so he has to tell someone — that chicken coincides with his hot streak. He accidentally broke the “no outside food” rule on the first night of the streak of the best bowling he has ever bowled. When he realized that it was a performance enhancer, he applied for a waiver and was granted a “no outside food” exemption for the chicken as long as the streak continued. 

Their teammate, Tom (typical nondescript — other than balding — sitcom character), is listening to the conversation while lacing up his bowling shoes. He is confused by the seriousness of a seemingly trivial matter. Is Rick worried about the bowling or being able to bring chicken in, he wonders aloud. To which Rick replies, “Which came first the chicken or the egg? No one knows. Tom.” 

Tom is now more confused. 

Dan suggests that if they’re chicken tacos, then they meet the exemption requirements and the universal laws that govern the hot streak. Rick considers it, but before too much thought is given, Dan reveals that they’re beef tacos. This distresses Rick even further. He feels like the victim of a cruel trick. Why even bring up the possibility if Dan knew he had bought beef tacos? They might as well be seafood taco bowls for all he cared. 

Meanwhile, Franklin sips on a bottle of beer and shakes his head. There is a standing offer for Franklin to join a rival team — a more serious team. This story line develops in the latter half of season two, and the chicken episode is cited in later episodes as a turning point.

Tom suggests that they should order bowling alley pizza. Rick won’t hear it and Dan doesn’t see anything wrong with the tacos. Tom thinks tacos don’t go with bowling, plus they clearly break the “no outside food” rule. Also, he wants to eat pizza, though he was intrigued by the prospects of the brand new Salt and Vinegar fried chicken recipe. Still, he prefers pizza to both fried chicken and tacos. He was never on board with the fried chicken scheme, but he supported it because of his teammate’s superstitions. With chicken no longer an option, he felt inclined to assert his own food preferences and allow pizza to do battle in the arena of team meal. In his mind, this was like when Lee Van Cleef turned the duel between Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach at the end of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly into a three-way duel. Pizza had arrived. Maybe pizza would be his streak, and he would begin to bowl the best bowling of his life.

At this point, Ali pops into the scene, and he immediately spots the taco box. His temperament changes from happy-go-lucky immigrant bowling alley owner to suspicious immigrant bowling alley owner.

“What is this?” he asks.

“Tacos.” Dan answers. Rick watches as his life unravels. The best bowling he has ever bowled is disappearing before his eyes. He intervenes. 

“Yes, but they’re chicken tacos.” Rick asserts.

“Chicken tacos?” asks Ali as he ponders in only the way an Asian could. There is a zen-master element to the way he ponders the nature of chicken tacos in his bowling alley. If he had a Fu Manchu, he would surely be twisting it between his finger and thumb and stretching the Asian tropes beyond the limits of network TV. Tej Ali does not have a Fu Manchu, but he is a seasoned standup comedian that spent years touring the Korma Belt in the Pushpagiri Alps where he he mastered physical comedy, so although he does not have a Fu Manchu to illustrate curiosity, the subtle crease in his brow and slightly raised cheekbone effectively emote deep thought to western audiences.

“Yes, it’s pollo.” Rick explains that Franklin – a black man – has Latin roots.

“What?” Franklin angrily interjects.

Rick glares back at Franklin, “You mean que.”

Tom then quickly summarizes the differences between Mestizos, Mulatos, Creoles, Pensularies and African slaves. Due to the time constraints of a 17-minute episode, Tom’s elaboration on Cholos and Zambos was cut, but it’s available with director commentary on the season two blu-ray.

Franklin shakes his head and mutters under his breath as he takes a swig from his cerveza.

“Hola, Franco,” Eric enters with an enormous grin on his face. His entrance generates uproarious laughter on the laugh track. Eric is a drunk and heroin addict. This is a groundbreaking role in a 21st century sitcom. Most television critics believe his role has been more significant than gay Ellen. Where as gay Ellen did little to narrow the divide within the country during the 1990s, Eric’s character is familiar to all Americans, and they are empathetic to his plight. Their deep attachment to the opioid epidemic creates large belly laughs (another reason Bowling Ali did not take off in India as NBC expected, was that India, like every other country on the face of this planet, did not experience an opioid epidemic because they were not controlled by pharmaceutical companies).

Ali is confused by the Americans, but his suspicions return. Rick assures him that there’s no funny business afoot, but Ali is not satisfied. His suspicion now turns to worry. He is panicked by the thought of a food truck convoy lining up out front because the sacred barrier preventing outside food had been broken. 

Tom explains to Ali, while technically convoy is correct, food truck rodeo would be the appropriate term. Nevermind that Ali, as an Indian, is more fluent in English and is actually a practicing lawyer in his native province, but they have no use for lawyers, as no nation has any real use for lawyers. In his homeland, they have the decency to treat lawyers like second class citizens. To Ali, a food truck rodeo seems even more insidious, but he has no idea what the word rodeo means because in British English it does not mean anything at all, it’s Spanish.

While Tom is explaining the word rodeo to Ali, the game begins. Ali becomes even more confused. He doesn’t understand how riding bulls is related to food trucks or the presence of his Bowling Alley – the only Indian owned and operated Bowling Alley in the state. This appears on a large sign out in front of the Bowling Alley followed by a message in parenthesis. It reads: The Only Indian-Operated Bowling Alley in the State (not Native American owned and operated). There are three bowling alleys owned and operated by Indians — Native Americans — in the state of Ohio, and two of the three threatened to sue Ali, but he had legal training and added the parenthesis to the sign out front (this was part of the plot of episode one of season two and marked the new bold direction of the show). The sign also seemed to attract more customers much to Ali’s surprise. This leads to Tom’s explanation of the colonization of North America through the lens of the ablest white male (this is his own truth and on equal footing to the actual truth based on the studies of postcolonial theorists Giyatri Chakravorty Spivak). He does not cite Spivak and assumes that she is known because she is a powerhouse in the field and she’s Indian. Tej Ali has no clue who she is because there are a billion people in India and they don’t think everyone and everything is racist. Tom is racist and Tej Ali knows this. This scene is also cut from the original airing.

It’s Rick's turn to roll. He lines up with his bowling ball, affectionately dubbed The Comet, and raises the ball in front of his face and goes through his motions. They are not unique and rather subdued compared to most league bowlers. Rick proceeds to roll a gutter ball ending the streak of the best bowling he had ever bowled. His demeanor completely changes. All hope is lost and in this moment, he is indifferent to life itself. He immediately drops the ruse and opens a bottle of beer, then coldly explains his pollo taco deception to Ali.

Eric is disgusted by Rick's behavior. He chastises Rick and accuses him of angering the bowling gods with his lies. He proclaims that Rick was being punished by the bowling gods and more gutter balls await.

Rick doesn’t particularly enjoy being lectured by a drunk and heroin addict, but he takes it with a grain of salt because after all, Eric is a drunk and heroin addict.

Ali isn’t aware of the bowling gods, but there are so many Hindu gods that he had lost tracks year’s ago. If he would have passed the entrance exam to divinity school, then he would still be living in India today. But with thousands of gods, the entrance exam is tougher than the MCAT. He had to settle for law school instead, and the rest is history.

When Eric notices that his bowling god comment didn’t get under Rick’s skin, he decides to push further. “It’s so strange that they ran out of chicken at the KFC-Taco Bell, and for it to happen tonight, so weird. My guy Abe…”

He turns to Ali, “you know him, Ali, he’s middle eastern”

Then back to Rick, “He works there. I’ll call him and get to the bottom of this.”

Rick becomes suspicious.

Franklin has reached his breaking point. “I'm not the first person to cry racism, but just because they’re both immigrants doesn’t mean they’re friends. There isn't a club”

Ali cheerfully chimes in, “I know Abe. He brought us a housewarming basket the day we moved to town.”

Eric gives Franklin a serious stare and says, “Hey! be careful throwing that word ‘immigrant’ around (dramatic pause) my buddy Ali, (another dramatic pause) is an American.”

Franklin shakes his head and drinks his beer.

Ali shakes his head in approval, and with the hackiest smile Tej Ali could stretch across his face says, “Hey buddy, do you mind not doing heroin in the bathroom anymore?”

The laugh track and applause roar as a shocked look appears on Eric’s face. The shot freezes and the credits roll. The stylized Samarkan Font credits are a vestige from season one, but still remain in season two because the show’s primary sponsor, Oxyo Pharmaceuticals, plans a major product roll out of a mild opioid in Uttar Pradesh in Q3. The mild potency is not a reaction to the excessive overdose deaths in the United States. Indians are poor and cannot afford the real version sold to Americans, so they get the watered down version. Oxyo Pharma is also a large distributor of elephant tranquilizers, and they believe that oriental font will drive sales.