Continuing my look at the new shows for the fall TV season…even if most of them aren’t new and we’re rapidly heading toward winter. Ahem…
AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (ABC)
As I discussed in the last TV blog, ABC has a niche for churning out family-friendly, but still kind of edgy comedies: Modern Family, The Middle, Speechless, Blackish, Fresh Off The Boat and The Goldbergs to name a few. (Actually, I might have just named all of them.) You might have the impression that ABC can just produce these things at will, like they’ve found the network TV equivalent of mass-producing Wonka Bars. If that’s the case, American Housewife is your counter-argument.
Katie Otto is a housewife in the affluent suburb of Westport, Connecticut. She has three children with varying quirks and a husband whose main interests are taking a crap and getting laid (I’m assuming she got him off the top of the cliche pile.) Katie fancies herself a liberal, frequently mentioning how that and her weight set her apart from the materialistic shrews who surround her. As a way of proving that, the pilot focuses on Katie’s attempts to get a heavyset woman to move into the recently-vacated house across the street, thus preventing Katie from becoming the second-fattest woman in Westport. (Nope. I didn’t make that up. That was your plot.) Meantime, Katie struggles to deal with her three children. Taylor, the oldest, has emerged from her awkward phase to become one of the popular girls (and Katie fears she’ll turn into one of the vapid housewives Katie can’t stand.) Oliver is the money hungry middle child (whose lack of caring about others is a thorn in Katie’s liberal side.) Anna-Kat, the youngest, has a social awkwardness that is clearly the result of OCD (but Katie focuses more on the quirks than the actual disease.)
So to recap: political views are treated like a mental illness, mental illness is treated like a personality quirk and personality quirks-so long as they’re the main character’s personality quirks-are serious business. Is there anything in that statement that isn’t kind of despicable?
In general, American Housewife wants to be edgy and funny and it only achieves one of them. In the first five minutes, it gets in both poop and period jokes. I’d have no problem with that if said jokes were funny. But like everything else in this show, it makes the mistake of thinking being unpleasant automatically means being funny. There’s comedic potential in Katie worrying about her children becoming shallow when she’s possibly the most shallow person in the show. But it seems like we’re supposed to take Katie at face value, meaning the series isn’t in on it’s best joke.
Katy Mixon, as Katie, is a terrible actress. She has an annoying baby doll voice and exactly two facial expressions: scowling and the other one. Deidrich Bader, as Katie’s husband Greg, could potentially be funny, but he’s got nothing to work with. As Bader proved on The Drew Carey Show, he’s at his best when he’s got an ensemble to bounce off. Naming the rest of the cast would require doing the kind of research that their performances didn’t warrant.
After years of success in this particular genre, it was probably inevitable that ABC was going to greenlight a misfire like this. Let’s just hope American Housewife is an anomaly and not a trend.
SON OF ZORN (Fox)
Speaking of not funny…
Son of Zorn is a sitcom that’s a mix of animation and live action. It follows the misadventures of Zorn, an animated warrior from the South Pacific island of Zephyria, as he attempts to establish a relationship with his son and his ex-wife. In doing so, Zorn has to deal with mundane tasks such as getting a day job and navigating life in the suburbs, things that his warrior background have left him ill-suited for.
The show doesn’t lack for talent. Jason Sudeikis provides the voice for Zorn. Cheryl Hines plays his ex-wife, Edie, Tim Meadows is Edie’s new husband, Craig, and perennial guest star Artemis Pebdani plays Zorn’s new boss, Linda. And already, the show’s had guest appearances from Rob Riggle, Cedric Yarbrough and Horatio Sanz (okay, so not EVERYBODY involved with the show is funny.)
There are two main difficulties to Son of Zorn. The mix of live action and animation is an intriguing idea, but in execution seems rather stilted. No matter how talented the cast, there’s something off about their interactions with Zorn. The editing makes a heck of an effort, but you still become subtly aware that the cast is not in the same room with the actor they’re playing off. It’s impossible to build chemistry with someone who’s not there. On top of that, it’s really just a one joke premise (He-Man goes to work at Dunder Mifflin) that would be fine as a Saturday Night Live skit, but gets old by the end of the pilot. With nothing new or particularly funny to say, the show gets tired after 20 minutes…and I can’t see how it’s going to get better with additional episodes.
I’ll be honest: I wanted to hate Timeless. The (endless) advertisements for it over the summer and into the fall made it look like a ripoff of the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, but this time without superheroes. And in a sense, it is. But with enough variation to create its own level of intrigue.
When an experimental time machine is stolen by a terrorist intent on changing history, the government sends in a mismatched trio to stop him. Said trio includes Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) a history professor living in her mother’s shadow, Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) a Delta Force op who’s recently lost his wife, and Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) a programmer who can pilot the “Lifeboat” (an earlier, less sophisticated version of the time machine.) In the pilot, the pursuit of the terrorist, Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic), takes them back to the bombing of the Hindenburg, which Flynn prevents (thus putting our heroes in the delicate position of needing to blow up the ship in order to right history.)
As I said, Timeless does its best to create some separation from Legends of Tomorrow. Rather than careening through history in search of their target, our heroes return to the present after every mission (as does our villain.) In doing so, they discover (at least in the pilot) that even if they right history in the general sense (the Hindenburg does blow up, just a day later than it originally did) messing with history sends out ripples that affect their present day. Also, brief conversations between Rufus and his boss, Conner Mason (Paterson Joseph) and between Lucy and Flynn lead you to believe there may be more to this mission than meets the eye.
The pilot is fast-paced and exciting, but takes just enough time to set up its characters and their initial relationships. There’s a self-contained story that ends in a satisfying manner, but does plenty to set up future installments. The cast is distinct and likable. And there’s no flinching from showing history in a less savory light. While I may have condemned Timeless as a ripoff, it’s actually better executed than the largely-clunky Legends. I’m certainly willing to see more.
THE GREAT INDOORS (CBS)
Speaking of shows I didn’t think I’d like, but did…
The Great Indoors follows Jack Thomas (Joel McHale), a long-time adventure reporter for Outdoor Limits magazine. In the pilot, Jack is called home to the main office in Chicago and told by his boss, Roland (Stephen Fry), that the magazine will be going to a web-only format and Jack’s services as a reporter are no longer needed. However, Roland and his daughter/office manager Brooke (Susannah Fielding) offer Jack a golden parachute by asking him to take a job in the office tutoring their young and largely-sheltered digital staff on what the big wide world is really like. It’s a proposal that Jack finds as intriguing as crotch rot and he spends the pilot struggling with whether or not to take it.
For some reason, The Great Indoors didn’t roll out until late October, meaning I’d already been exposed to several weeks of Survivor: Gen X vs Millennials. That show has managed to hit all the worst cliches about Millennials (lazy, entitled, self-involved, impractical) while also turning Generation X into generic cranky middle-aged people (I gag every time I hear one of them talk about Gen X’s values of hard work and earning what you get. “Wait a minute,” I keep asking, “Weren’t you guys the barely-employed, pot-smoking, rarely-bathing slackers? Suddenly, you value hard work because your wasted youth only qualifies you to work at Denny’s?”)
So you can imagine that after more than a month of that crap, I wasn’t anxious to sign up for it in sitcom form. In one sense, The Great Indoors didn’t disappoint (by which I mean it did.) The Millennial cliches are again front and center. The young staff is wrapped up in their podcasts and social media. Work must absolutely be fun and done only half the time. Everyone gets trophies for the smallest achievements. And their feelings are hurt if there’s the slightest hint of criticism. The older crowd isn’t entirely spared either. Jack seems to have zero knowledge of modern technology (I guess we’re supposed to believe that during his years as a field reporter, Jack handwrote his articles and had sherpas bring them to the Pony Express for delivery.) But even in the flurry of cliches, the show also laid the groundwork for something more.
In the pilot, The Great Indoors showed a willingness to tweak the nose of its own format. If it doesn’t exactly break the fourth wall, it at least throws rocks at it. When Jack is introduced to the staff, which includes a nerdy Caucasian kid, a possibly gay African-American (the pilot doesn’t make it clear) and an Asian-American female, Jack says, “Well, you all seem very nice and…diverse.” During a standard walk-and-talk sequence, Roland starts an anecdote and is unable to finish because the hallway is much, much shorter than he realized. When Brooke tried to convince Jack that the young staff needs him, he replies, “Oh, I see. I can teach them. And in teaching them, I’ll find that they’re actually teaching me about…BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!” A willingness to knock sitcom cliches could show a willingness on the part of the show’s creators to knock some of the Millennial or Gen X cliches later on.
The pilot, under the helm of former Seinfeld director Andy Ackerman, was surprisingly funny. Not sidesplitting, but I laughed out loud 5 or 6 times, which was 5 or 6 times more than I expected to laugh. The cast is likable enough that you want to see them all on the same page, though you realize there’ll be MILES to go before that happens. I wondered, at first, if this wasn’t a waste of Fry, a comedy legend over in Britain. However, moments like the previously-mentioned hallway anecdote and a later scene with Fry pixelated by a bear cub Jack brings into the office are the exact oddball ways in which you SHOULD use Fry.
In the end, The Great Indoors was not a brilliant pilot (I oversold it to a friend of mine who came back with, “Well, it’s not UNappealing”) but there’s a strong possibility for growth once it finds its footing (look back at Seinfeld. Pilot episode wasn’t all that great.) And there are enough steady comedic hands on the wheel that there just might be something here. I’m willing to give it a shot.