Each of ABC’s three new fall comedies have similar problems: they all rely on a gimmicky “hook” to justify their existence; all three of them have bleach-white casts and suffer from “upper middle-class problems” disease; and most of all, all three of them go through the 22-minute exercise of a comedy pilot without ever finding a way to connect to the audience in any meaningful way. In a fall full of uninspired comedies, ABC might not have the wall-to-wall worst lineup: but boy, have they brought a trio of bland pilots to the table this fall, with only one of them looking like it has any chance of growing into something good.
The “good” pilot – surprisingly enough – is Trophy Wife: and most of this is due to a great cast delivering solid performances. Malin Akerman stars as Kate, the young third wife of lawyer Pete (an always-welcome Bradley Whitford), and delivers the single best leading sitcom performance of the pilot season, a charming woman trying to keep herself afloat in a dynamic family full of the stress and clutter one might expect with three kids and two fiery ex-wives (equally terrific Marcia Gay Haden and Michaela Watkins in those two roles).
Unfortunately, Trophy Wife‘s pilot goes too far in trying to create this frenetic family dynamic, robbing itself of the opportunity to dig into any of its characters further. It limits how effective the pilot can be – and when it forces its main character to be drunk for 2/3 of the proceedings, it really doesn’t have a lot of room to tap into any of the potential in the cast and the interesting relationships it establishes in the first half hour. Unlike the other two comedies, though, the framework is there for a family comedy that may be able to distinguish itself from Modern Family (barely, but it could) – and more importantly, the foundation for something funny and genuine, which Back In the Game and The Goldbergs most certainly are not.
The biggest problem with these two pilots are the grumpy father characters: in Back in the Game, it’s James Caan as a disgruntled former ball player who emotionally abuses his daughter and teaches his grandson to settle disputes by smashing people’s faces or cars in violently with baseball bats. In The Goldbergs, it’s Jeff Garlin’s character, the grumpy, lazy mid-life father who never listens to his wife or says anything to his kid but insults (which the show tries to justify by subtitling in more emotionally resonant phrases, a complete cop out on just how much of a dick their father is). Neither of these men respect the women in their lives, and it’s so poorly written to try and glean laughs out of an already unfunny script, it leaves me uncomfortable by the time the painful 22 minutes of each show was up.
If there’s anything good between the two of them, it’s the son of Maggie Lawson’s character in Back in the Game: in the pilot, he kisses another boy to freak him out and prevent him from bullying him around in front of the hottest girl in the school. Caan’s character growls something homophobic in one scene, and the kid dismisses him as an idiot, a rare, refreshing moment of interaction between a parent and a child on either of these shows.
Overall, Back in the Game and The Goldbergs are too mean to their characters to make good comedy: it’s not funny to watch men insult women and children, acting like dickheads until time is running out of the episode and some goofy, meaningless ending is constructed to convey some kind of growth in character that inherently can’t exist. Trophy Wife at least avoids this, taking its gimmick and hiding it in behind some well-written characters and witty bits of dialogue. Back in the Game and The Goldbergs don’t even have that: and that’s why they’re not worth watching, shows that will be forgotten the minute their obnoxious dialogue is no longer blasting from out of the television.
(For full individual reviews of each pilot, visit Randy’s site Processed Media).