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.
Tonight’s TV lineup is packed with the return of such hits as The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Parks and Recreation and Elementary, but it’s the return to series TV of two A-list stars, Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams, that’s the most noteworthy. Their respective sitcoms, NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show and The Crazy Ones on CBS, both show a lot of promise, but NBC’s decision to launch Fox’s series with two back-to-back episodes means that, tonight only, the two shows are time-slot rivals at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.
CBS is giving The Crazy Ones a dream lead-in with a double episode of The Big Bang Theory, but even so, I suspect The Michael J. Fox Show may very well win tonight’s face-off. While a lot of people probably assumed Fox’s career was pretty much over when he went public with his status as a Parkinson’s disease sufferer in 1999, he has rebounded in recent years via his very popular (and Emmy-nominated) recurring comic role on The Good Wife as Louis Canning, a Parkinson’s-afflicted attorney who aggressively exploits his disability to score courtroom points.
Fox and the creators of his NBC sitcom have taken a page from that same playbook for his role as Mike Henry, who was a beloved presence on the New York TV news scene before a Parkinson’s diagnosis led him to retire five years ago to spend more time with his schoolteacher wife, Annie (Betsy Brandt, Breaking Bad), and their three kids.
Since Mike left, ratings at his old station have steadily fallen, and his former boss, Harris (Wendell Pierce, Treme) is begging him to return to work. Mike’s understandably reluctant, however.
“I don’t want a pity job,” he tells Harris. “We both know that if I come back, NBC is going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame, uplifting music in the background.”
Eventually, of course, Mike decides to accept Harris’ offer, setting up the show’s split focus between family life and workplace. It’s a solid set-up. I just wish it were funnier.
You can’t blame the cast for that. Mike and Annie’s three kids may be standard sitcom issue, but in addition to Brandt and Pierce, clearly relishing this chance to show off their comedy chops after years of intensity on their respective drama projects, the show also co-stars two-time Tony Award winner Katie Finneran as Leigh, Mike’s comically neurotic younger sister, with recurring roles for Candice Bergen and Charles Grodin (as Mike’s parents) and Anne Heche as Susan, Mike’s bitchy anchor rival at the station.
Nope, the problem, as usual, is the writing. Fox and Brandt have a wonderful, sexy chemistry together, so they can make even underwritten moments seem funny just because they feel so true. Otherwise, though, the story lines seem sitcom-stale. Mike develops a crush on a pretty upstairs neighbor (guest star Tracy Pollan, Fox’s real-life wife and former Family Ties co-star). Teenage daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia) tries to up her hipness by befriending a lesbian. Hypersensitive Leigh pressures Annie for her opinion on Mane Attraction, a ghastly teen novel Leigh has written about a boy who turns into a horse at night. (OK, that last one is pretty funny.)
The writers compound the problem by falling back on the tired mockumentary device of making Eve a vlogger, so she’s constantly taping the other characters, allowing them to talk directly to the camera. What once seemed fresh in a single-camera sitcom like this one now just feels more like lazy writing.
Despite that, The Michael J. Fox Show has done so many things right that it’s impossible not to hope the show will grow into a bona fide comedy hit. NBC certainly could use one, but then, so could we.
The Crazy Ones, on the other hand, is a much harder show to call. The sitcom, from executive producer David E. Kelley, stars Emmy and Oscar winner Williams as Simon Roberts, a former advertising wunderkind who is starting to doubt himself now that he’s reached AARP member status. His no-nonsense daughter and creative director, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), worries about him, and, in tonight’s premiere, the future of their company: McDonald’s, which represents 60 percent of their business, is leaning toward going to another agency.
Simon’s only hope is to land a major talent to star in a series of new ads, but when he and his handsome protégé, Zach (James Wolk, Mad Men), pitch singer Kelly Clarkson on the prospect, she agrees to consider it only if they’ll tailor it to the sexy new image she’s trying to cultivate.
“So we just need to come up with a meat-related sex song,” Zach sums up.
“…for a family restaurant,” Simon adds. “How hard could that be, really? It almost writes itself!”
The two men then launch into what such a song might sound like. This heavily improvised scene is comedy gold, with Wolk (who knew this guy could be so funny?) and Williams riffing seamlessly like longtime improv partners.
Given that each episode will feature a different real-world client (and, presumably, a name guest star playing himself), it’s hard to imagine what this show will look and feel like on a week-to-week basis, especially because Clarkson, I have to say, absolutely throws herself into her guest role, scoring her own big laughs and, I suspect, launching a credible acting career, if she chooses.
Then again, Simon’s motto, often referenced in tonight’s pilot, is “Leap and the net shall appear.” After years of watching him work without a net, I’m inclined to give Williams the benefit of the doubt, but mark my words, if this show becomes a hit, it’s Wolk who’s going to be red-hot and superstar-ready.
The Crazy Ones may take a ratings hit on its first outing tonight, if The Michael J. Fox Show opens as strongly as I expect it to, but next week Crazy will be up against the premiere of Sean Hayes’ weaker new sitcom, Sean Saves the World. It’ll be interesting to see how this Thursday-night network rivalry eventually shakes out.