Friday, September 27, 2013

Fall Season 2013: A Look at Five New Sitcoms

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 27, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Sean Giambrone and George Segal on The Goldbergs, now on ABC

Even in this era of cable television when a series can premiere at any point on the calendar, September, when the major networks premiere the majority of their new shows, remains a special time for TV viewers. Most of the shows you see this fall won't be here come January, but with a crop of almost 50 new shows coming your way in the next few weeks, it may be difficult to figure out which to check out and which to pass on. Today I'm looking at five new comedies which recently showed up on our airwaves, some more promising than others: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Trophy Wife (ABC), The Goldbergs (ABC), The Crazy Ones (CBS), and Dads (Fox).

Andre Braugher and Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox/Citytv)
In my experience, new comedies always have a steeper hill to climb then new dramas. A freshman drama, especially a procedural, can often tell a compelling, self-contained story and take its time introducing viewers to its characters. Story and tone can carry the day, at least in the short term. Comedies, on the other hand, are about trust. And it can take a little while before a viewer  this viewer at least  can relax enough in the company of new people, fictional though they may be, to join in their fun. This is why it is all the more wonderful when a new series succeeds right out of the gate. (Four years ago, Modern Family did just that.) This year, that honour goes to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Fox's new sitcom, a workplace comedy set in a Brooklyn police precinct, comes on the scene as easily the most confident and fully realized new comedy of the season. Good-natured and often delightful, Brooklyn Nine-Nine stars Saturday Night Live-alum Andy Samberg as Detective Jake Peralta, a good cop but overgrown man-child (“The only puzzle he hasn't solved is how to grow up") who struggles to shape up when his laid-back police captain is replaced by the far more formidable and stone-faced Captain Holt, played Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street, and last year's Last Resort). The ensemble also includes Melissa Fumero as Jake's more uptight partner Amy Santiago, Terry Crews (Everybody Loves Chris), and Joe Lo Truglio.  (SNL's Fred Armisen has a brief but memorable cameo in the pilot episode.)

Created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur (who last worked together on NBC's Parks and Recreation), Brooklyn Nine-Nine is far more than an Andy Samberg vehicle. (Based on the two episodes which have already aired, it might turn out to actually be an Andre Braugher vehicle!) Samberg successfully slips into the Peralta character with abandon, but perhaps the real surprise however how much of a comedic force Braugher is. Calling back to the commanding presence of Homicide's Det. Pembleton, the 51-year-old Braugher brings weight to the room. Despite its sitcom frame, the show also looks and feels authentic. With the usual squad room dynamics and lingo (Santiago hopes aloud that Capt. Holt will be her 'rabbi'), petty rivalries, regular piss-taking and barbed camaraderie among the detectives, Brooklyn is clearly playing with well-established tropes familiar to any viewer of police dramas (from Hill Street Blues to Homicide to The Wire or even last year's, cancelled-too-soon, Golden Boy)  but the show doesn't depend on those tropes. It doesn't have the surrealist edge of 2009's The Unusuals, but considering the fate of that ABC series, perhaps that's a good thing. I would rather this one stuck around for more than one season.

Trophy Wife (ABC/CTV)
Bradley Whitford and Malin Åkerman in Trophy Wife
Trophy Wife stars model-turned-actress Malin Åkerman as the titular wife, alongside Bradley Whitford (still most famous for The West Wing, but that's only because no-one watched him in Matt Nix's absolutely delightful The Good Guys). Wayward Kate (Åkerman) meets, and quickly marries, uber-successful lawyer Pete (Whitford), and winds up smack in the middle of three kids, two ex-wives, and multiple gerbils. The arrival of the (younger) Kate into this chaotic, but well-established, scene is certainly the situation of this situation comedy, but the show has already demonstrated that it is casting a far wider net. With only one episode aired, both of Pete's ex-wives (played by Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins respectively) have already emerged as fully realized characters. Whitford himself spends much of the first episode reacting to the three women in his life, though hopefully Pete's inner life will deepen as the season progresses. While Åkerman holds her own among more veteran actors, we still need to get more of a back-story for Kate  although she does come along with an irresponsible best friend, played by the eminently watchable Natalie Morales (The Middleman). In the Modern Family vein, the cast also includes a charming wise-beyond-his-years youngest child, 8-year-old Albert Tsai.

Though its title  and indeed the framing narration of the pilot episode  would imply that this is primarily Kate's story, concealed beneath the (clearly ironic) title is one of this new season's most promising new family ensemble comedies. It's always a shame when a show's name proves to be a distraction (I'm looking at you, Cougar Town!), but don't let it keep you from checking this show out.

The cast of The Goldbergs
The Goldbergs (ABC/CTV)
Set in the mid-1980s, The Goldbergs is an ostensibly autobiographical suburban coming-of-age comedy, in the style of The Wonder Years. Quick confession: I approached this pilot with some ambivalence. For one, I still haven't quite forgiven it for simply lifting the title of Gertrude Berg's absolutely classic 1950s sitcom. For another, I was also a teenager in the 1980s and as far as I can remember, the 80s weren't particularly funny. Unlike me, however, The Goldbergs' creator Adam Goldberg (Breaking In) spent the 80s with a camcorder on his shoulder, irritating his loud, quirky Jewish family and prepping for that day when he would get to helm a single-camera sitcom for ABC.

First off, what's good: George Segal as 'Pops' Solomon, young Adam's womanizing grandfather. Segal slips into the role with panache and his scenes with Adam (played well by 14-year-old Sean Giambrone) are among the best in the pilot episode. Also, Patton Oswalt (Justified) is on board as the show's Bob Saget/Daniel Stern adult narrating voice. Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) certainly has presence as Murray, the Goldberg patriarch, but so far he seems to only have two modes: yelling loudly and yelling quietly. What's less than good: Period shows always have to balance shopping list-style nostalgia with creating a realistic sense of an era, and the pilot doesn't quite yet have its equilibrium. Boat-sized Buick sedans? Check. Audio cassettes and REO Speedwagon? Check. Hopefully the series will have gotten all the Ghostbusters and Rubik's Cube references out of its system by episode four, and we may be able to see the story beneath the Reagan-era trappings. Still, the pilot did have its touching moments. A closing montage using clips from Adam Goldberg's archival footage of his real family repeating small scenes from the episode we'd just seen however actually enchanted me more than the show on its own. (It had the troubling effect of making me want to love the show more than the episode itself did.)

The Goldbergs lands firmly in the wait and see column. The tone of the inaugural episode certainly does earn some the Wonder Years talk that has been bandied about, but (perhaps I can still remember 1985), it is hard for me to experience that nostalgic glow that the Wonder Years had. There is a volume to the characters  the father, the brother, and the mother all speak at dangerously high decibels which obstructs our entry into their world. This is no doubt intentional  so that their mushy insides will be all the more mushy when revealed  but if that is the arc of every episode (yelling and stomping turn to half-second flashes of quiet, sincere affection), I fear I'll tire quickly.

Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Crazy Ones
The Crazy Ones (CBS/Citytv)
Named for the groundbreaking 1997 Apple ad that launched its 'Think Different' campaign (the ad notoriously/famously featured Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Pablo Picasso, and Martin Luther King Jr.), The Crazy Ones introduces us to Simon and Sydney Roberts, a successful father/daughter ad team struggling to keep their company afloat. Celebrated advertising executive Simon (played by Robin Williams, in his first regular television series since Mork and Mindy ended in 1982) founded the company but is past his prime, and he often needs to be handled by Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal) is at the helm as producer and writer, but Robin Williams is in the front seat.

The pilot (which aired last night on CBS) is largely what you'd expect in this post-Mad Men era: pitch conferences with major brands (this week it was McDonald's), heartstring pulling ad concepts designed to convinced humourless executives that the human touch is the best way to move a product. The primary business idiom of the pilot is rebranding, although the show itself isn't doing much of that. The Crazy Ones will rise or fall depending on how much Robin Williams being Robin Williams appeals to regular viewers. Williams is in fact the best and the worst thing about the show so far. His frenzied, schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness monologuing shows up in practically every scene he appears. James Wolk (right off the actual set of Mad Men) plays Zach, a quick-witted younger creative who often plays off of Williams in some of the episode's set pieces. (A scene in which the two try to convince Kelly Clarkson that she should sing the classic McDonald's jingle "You deserve a break today" in a desperate bid to keep McDonald's as a client displays their chemistry at its best  Clarkson would rather steam up the studio with a rendition of The Swallows' classic "It Ain't the Meat"). Still, Williams' Simon Roberts (how much name recognition does a star need to get one of those 'close but no cigar' handles?) is often too big for the room, and sometimes too much for the screen. When I first heard of the series  and the Buffy fan in me was looking forward to a better Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle than last year's underwhelming Ringer  I feared the show would just give Williams the keys and let him drive away with the show. It is a bit more restrained than that, but Williams remains as much a distraction as an anchor. The conceit of the series  the aging past his prime ad executive (with a fluctuating grasp of reality) who needs to rein in his manic behaviour,  paired with his long-suffering daughter and business partner, who needs to learn to loosen up  is fairly well executed. But it will have to walk that not so fine line between corporate realism and product placement better than the pilot did  and hopefully Kelley will learn that a little Robin Williams goes a long way.

Martin Mull, Peter Riegert, Seth Green, and Giovanni Ribisi 
Dads (Fox/Citytv)
Dads, a fairly run-of-the-mill multi-camera laugh track sitcom, has earned some undeserved notoriety in the past few weeks as both the "most racist" and "worst" show on television. It is however neither. Produced by Family Guy and American Dad creator Seth MacFarlane  it is his first life-action series  Dads stars Seth Green (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Robot Chicken) and Giovanni Ribisi as two lifelong friends, and co-founders of a successful videogame start-up, who are forced to deal with their frustrating and intrusive fathers, played by Peter Riegert (Local Hero) and comedy veteran Martin Mull (Arrested Development). Long before the series premiered last week on Fox, the still-unscreened pilot of Dads generated a lot of very public disdain, mainly for its depiction of Asians. After the wrongheaded vilification of the absolutely charming Outsourced a few summers ago, I felt compelled to check out the series, and perhaps come to the show's defence. Dads, however, is no Outsourced, though the show's worst crimes certainly are not worth the bad name it's received. It isn't racist (most of the bigotry comes from Mull's character, but those racist comments are also clearly why his son finds his presence such a pain), but neither is it particularly funny.

I do appreciate what Dads was going for: the inter-generational angle is ripe for comedy, and the notion of taking the edgy sitcom with an ensemble of ever more unlikeable characters off cable and into the more traditional realm of network television could be fruitful. But even though the first two episodes had their moments, cable still does it so much raunchier and funnier – put it alongside FX's pair of long-running poor taste comedies, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League, and Dads pales to the point of invisibility. But this is by no means the worst (or even the most racist) comedy on television: after all Two Broke Girls is still on the air, isn't it? And the talents of Seth Green and Martin Mull do shine through the sometimes weak material and far too emphatic laugh track. There is even one fairly remarkable moment in the pilot  wherein Green mimes murdering his father behind his back, while Riegert is apparently engrossed by an antisemitism documentary on television  that might make the first episode worth watching in itself. But don't believe the hype: there is little here salacious enough to be worthy of the ire the show has inspired.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, Citytv in Canada), Trophy Wife (ABC, CTV in Canada), The Goldbergs (ABC, CTV in Canada), and Dads (Fox, Citytv in Canada) all air on Tuesdays this Fall. The Crazy Ones (CBS, Citytv in Canada) airs on Thursdays. Be sure to check them out and form your own opinions. And, besides, if none of them catch your fancy, there's always YouTube.