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.
FX has carved out an impressive niche for itself with diverse, envelope-pushing fare ranging from hard-hitting cop show The Shield to the wildly raunchy animated spy spoof Archer and the character-driven crime drama Justified. In some ways, however, The Americans, which premieres tonight with a special 90-minute episode, may be the channel’s riskiest venture yet.
Set in 1981, shortly after President Ronald Reagan’s first term begins, the period drama explores the complex lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell), who live in suburban Washington, D.C., with their two children, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Turner) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), 10. Philip and Elizabeth look like any clean-cut young couple pursuing the American dream, but the reality is far more sinister: They’re Russian spies who have spent the last several years in a KGB-arranged marriage, working for the Soviet Union.
As the story opens, Philip is beginning to have second thoughts about their double life. For one thing, Reagan’s sabre-rattling speeches have his Moscow bosses worried that the new president is one step away from declaring outright war on their country, which leads the Russians to ramp up their own covert activity stateside. For another, Philip is becoming more and more seduced by the role he has been assigned to play. His marriage to Elizabeth may have been set up by the Motherland, but their years together, especially raising their two kids, have sparked a genuine emotional bond between them. And when Philip discovers that their latest neighbor is an FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich), he starts in earnest to consider defecting with his family.
Until they figure out a way to do that without jeopardizing their own lives, or those of their kids, Philip and Elizabeth are forced to continue their undercover dirty work for Moscow – and it can get pretty dirty indeed. Elizabeth, for example, goes all Rosa Klebb on one innocent young American, poisoning him to force his mother to plant a listening device in the home of a highly placed government official. Moreover, both of them freely engage in sex with their targets to get the information their bosses need.
In other words, The Americans asks us to identify with and root for a couple of “bad guys,” and the degree to which the show pulls that off is largely to the credit of its two stars, both superb. Rhys vividly conveys Philip’s deep ambivalence over his situation and his growing desperation to find a way out, while Russell is a revelation as this tough-as-nails KGB officer who still feels a very deep allegiance to Russia, even as she begins to realize her kids may wind up paying a heavy price if she and her husband don’t change sides.
The series judiciously employs flashbacks to give us perspective on how Elizabeth and Philip reached this crossroads, but after watching the two episodes FX provided for review, I’m still wondering about what motivated their younger selves to join the secret police in the first place. Were they coerced somehow, or did they just see these careers as a means to power and relative financial security? And now, are they considering defecting mainly out of fear and a desire to protect their comfortable American lifestyle, or are they genuinely remorseful for some of their past activities?
That ambiguity makes it hard for me to sign up for Team Elizabeth and Philip just yet, but the two stars, and the fast pace of their suspenseful show, will keep me watching over the next few weeks.