Will Arnett and Margo Martindale (dancing center)
Three fairly high-profile network series premiere tonight, two on NBC, one on CBS. All three have some amazing actors in their casts, and all three are criminally let down by their writers.
My hopes probably are highest for The Millers, premiering tonight on CBS in the coveted time slot following The Big Bang Theory, partly because this new comedy, which is filmed in front of a studio audience, is the brainchild of Greg Garcia, who recently has given us such winning shows as My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope.
The Millers is far more old-fashioned than either of those two quirky hits, though. Emmy winners Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale star as Tom and Carol Miller, a long-married and eternally bickering couple who decide to move in with their daughter, Debbie (Jayma Mays, Glee) after Tom inadvertently floods their basement. Again. Hardly have they arrived, however, before long-simmering resentments reach the boiling point and Tom and Carol decide to end their 43-year marriage, with her moving into the upscale home of their son, Nathan (Will Arnett), who’s currently working as a roving correspondent for a local TV station.
What Nathan, the golden boy of the family, hasn’t told his parents is that he and his wife (Eliza Coupe of Happy Endings in a recurring role) divorced three months ago. Carol initially is horrified by the news, but soon starts trying to resume her long-ago role as the most important woman in Nathan’s life, which means ignoring boundaries at every turn (she clips Nathan’s toenails while he’s asleep and discusses her and Tom’s sex life with upsetting explicitness).
This isn’t a bad set-up for a sitcom, but in tonight’s premiere episode, the jokes are mainly broad and fairly vulgar. Martindale has been on a career hot streak lately, recently scoring another Emmy nomination for her striking guest role in the FX thriller The Americans, but here she is reduced to an extended string of jokes about her character’s tendency to pass gas on a regular basis. Bridges’ role is even more one-note: See Tom fumbling with the coffee maker and microwave and appear perpetually confused by the household’s remote controls! Ha!
Garcia is a funny, funny man who writes brilliantly about dysfunctional families, so I’m hopeful he’s going to give his strong cast the kind of material they deserve in future episodes. Fingers crossed.
The same thing goes for Sean Saves the World, Emmy winner Sean Hayes’ new NBC sitcom premiering tonight opposite CBS’s Robin Williams comedy The Crazy Ones, last week’s top-rated comedy premiere. Like The Millers, Sean Saves the World is filmed in front of a studio audience and has a strong cast, including sitcom veteran Linda Laviin (Alice) and Smash survivor Megan Hilty, as well as Reno 911! madman Thomas Lennon. Tonight’s premiere, however, feels tired and old-fashioned (Hayes also is an executive producer on the decidedly old-fashioned but frisky Hot in Cleveland).
In his new show, Hayes stars as a divorced gay dad who recently assumed fulltime custody of his teenage daughter, Ellie (Samantha Isler). Now that Sean’s former wife no longer is in the picture, his formidable mother, Lorna (Lavin), is trying to swoop in and fill the maternal vacancy, to the pronounced displeasure of Sean’s best friend, Liz (Hilty). Sean’s attempts to be the perfect dad, though, are compromised by his demanding new boss (Lennon), a smothering, hands-on type who wants his staff to have as little of a social life as he does.
The comedy pros in the cast make quite a few of the tired jokes in tonight’s premiere sound, if not fresh, at least less wilted, but it’s discouraging to see such a heavy reliance on uninspired slapstick in the very first episode. I like the show’s main quartet enough that I’ll be sticking around for awhile, but this cast deserves much better. That said, I do think my many colleagues who have put Sean Saves the World on their lists of the fall’s worst shows are going a little far. Sean won’t even save NBC, let alone the world, but it’s not a crime against nature.
Nor is tonight’s other NBC premiere, Welcome to the Family, although it’s far and away the worst of the three. The lone single-camera (no laugh track) series among this trio, this sitcom stars the usually endearing Mike O’Malley (Glee) and, especially, Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) as Dr. Dan and Caroline Yoder, who are enthusiastically looking forward to their imminent empty nest situation now that beautiful but dim daughter Molly (Ella Rae Peck) has defied all expectations and actually graduated from high school.
Plans to ship Molly off to a party school are derailed, however, when the Yoders discover that Molly is pregnant by a boyfriend they didn’t even know existed: Junior Hernandez (Joey Haro), a Stanford-bound Mathlete and class valedictorian. The pregnancy horrifies his proud father, Miguel (Ricardo Chavira, Desperate Housewives), especially after Miguel discovers that Molly’s dad is the jerk he clashed with that same morning at Miguel’s gym (in a contrived argument that’s only there so these two characters can hold a grudge against each other). Junior’s mom, Lisette (Justina Machado, Six Feet Under), like Caroline, tries to act as peacemaker in this volatile situation.
Anyone who has been watching TV for awhile will recognize the exhausted premise for this show, which stretches all the way back to the 1967-70 sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, which was based in turn on a 1920s play called Abie’s Irish Rose. I wish I could report that Welcome to the Family reinvents that heavily diluted formula, but sadly, that’s not the case: The show just kind of plods along on its thrice-familiar path, dutifully ticking off scenes that we’ve seen so many times before. Even a fade-out “surprise” for Caroline at the end of tonight’s episode is something you’ll probably see coming a mile off.
I really want O’Malley and McCormack to figure out a way to turn this seemingly ill-fated vehicle around, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. Unless the writers can come up with some fresh ideas and jokes, this Family won’t be overstaying its welcome.
Showtime’s provocative new dramedy Masters of Sex, which premieres tonight, goes the Mad Men period route in its depiction of the pioneering work by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the field of human sexuality. The series opens in 1966 at a teaching hospital in St. Louis, where gynecologist Masters (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon) has built a reputation as the facility’s leading fertility specialist. Off the books, however, Masters has become obsessed with a sketchy side project, paying prostitutes to allow him to observe them, Peeping Tom style, at work with their clients. It’s not mere voyeurism that drives him, though.
“I simply want to answer the question, ‘What happens to the body during sex?,” he tells his skeptical provost, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges).
When Masters says that, we realize that he’s not just talking on a clinical level, because this man is emotionally detached from everyone around him, including his beautiful and adoring wife, Libby (newcomer Caitlin Fitzgerald, heartbreakingly good). Libby desperately wants a baby, since she senses that their marriage is missing something, which isn’t a tough call given that her husband doesn’t even unbutton his dress shirt while having brisk, passionless procreative sex with her. They’ve been doing this for months now, without success, and Bill is telling people it’s because Libby has biological issues that make it hard for her to conceive. A colleague, obstetrician Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), knows the truth, though: Bill himself is very nearly sterile.
Ethan has drifted into an affair with Virginia “Ginny” Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a twice-divorced former nightclub singer currently supporting herself and her two kids as a secretary at the hospital. A beautiful free spirit, Virginia has a very healthy appreciation of sex, although her life at present is so complicated that she can’t be more than “friends with benefits” with the besotted Ethan. It’s Ethan’s unrequited love for Virginia that puts her on the Bill’s radar, and he soon hires her as his secretary and covert colleague in his sex research.
Although they’ll have a tough row to hoe initially in terms of establishing what role Virginia, who is not a doctor, will play in the studies, Masters and Johnson are, at heart, a perfect match. He’s obsessed with compiling empirical data on human sexual response, while she understands intuitively that a person’s emotional life can has a powerful impact on his erotic experiences.
“Women often confuse sex with physical attraction,” Virginia tells Bill during her job interview. “They often think sex and love are the same thing, but they don’t have to be. They don’t even have to go together. Sex can be perfectly good on its own, whereas love is… .”
She leaves that sentence unfinished, because Virginia, unlike Bill, comprehends the value of something that can’t be quantified. Their disparate viewpoints lead to frequent clashes, but also to some of their most surprising discoveries. When Bill asks Virginia to describe what a woman experiences at the height of sexual gratification, she replies, “That’s like trying to describe salt to someone who never tasted salt.”
“I’ve tasted salt,” Bill responds.
“Not the way I’ve tasted salt,” Virginia says with a little smile.
Sheen, who played Tony Blair in a trilogy of films about British politics including the Oscar-winning The Queen, never cheats by trying to make the chilly Masters more sympathetic than he deserves (Sheen also is a producer on the show), giving a deceptively brilliant performance in this very difficult role. It’s Caplan, however – best known before now for her smart comedy work in such shows as the cult sitcom hit Party Down – who is the absolute revelation here. Her Ginny is sexy, funny, whip-smart and vulnerable, and she conveys all of that while doing most of the heavy lifting in the show’s fairly explicit sex scenes. Former Academy Award nominee John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directed tonight’s premiere, and Allison Janney has an unforgettable guest appearance in a couple of future episodes as Bridges’ sexually frustrated wife, Margaret.
Masters of Sex is adult entertainment in the finest sense of the phrase. Send the kids to bed and check it out.