Time to look at a trio of new ABC sitcoms which debuted in the last week, none of which have been acquired by a UK broadcaster as of yet. That isn’t necessarily a mark against their quality – one looks great, one looks okay, and one delivered a pretty dreadful pilot. Nor is it a sign that they aren’t a good fit for the UK – at least one of them would be a perfect pick for E4, for example – and all three are certainly worthy of discussion. Sadly, the ratings for each show are pretty much the inverse of how much I liked each of them, so we’ll work our way through them in reverse order, starting with the one I liked the least but got the biggest audience…
And to my immense surprise, The Goldbergs was the worst by a long, long way. I was really looking forward to this one: Patton Oswalt narrates the Adam Goldberg-created show about his family life, growing up in the ‘80s. Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Wendi McLendon-Covey (Bridesmaids) play his parents in what very much seems like a relocated riff on The Wonder Years, with relative newcomers Sean Giambrone (as a young Adam Goldberg), Hayley Orrantia and Troy Gentile playing the family’s three siblings. George Segal as their grandfather rounds out the family… and in the pilot they all spend the majority of the time yelling at each other. Like, really obnoxiously, really uncomfortably, really unpleasantly yelling.
To a certain extent you have to expect that from any show featuring Jeff Garlin (who I probably liked the best in this pilot, and who I like elsewhere), but it needn’t be so obnoxious. It brought to mind another family sitcom, not The Wonder Years, but Malcolm in the Middle, another show that I’ve been watching a lot of recently and manoeuvres well around the problem comparatively. That show sets up some characters as the yellers, but it also has Bryan Cranston’s goofball dad, and the cute (near silent in the early goings) Dewey as a counter-balance to the shoutyness elsewhere.
You’re also drawn to those characters a lot more than you are to The Goldbergs, they feel distinct and likeable, whereas I found myself flat out disliking most of the characters here. The young Adam Goldberg, who I’m going to assume is the lead, isn’t the kind of winning, charming young scamp we want to be introduced to this world by. His sister is ignored for most of the pilot, while the older brother ends up coming off way too broad. He also yells the most of all of them which isn’t a help.
I’m still going to hold out hope for the show, because if it can get anywhere near either Malcolm in the Middle or The Wonder Years at their best, then it’s going to be a decent show. They have two good comic performers in the parent characters, and I’m sure the kids can do better work if they’re given better material. I just really didn’t like this opening episode.
I think it might have a lot to do with something we’re shown in the closing credits: real life home-video footage of Goldberg’s real family behaving in exactly the way we’ve seen in the show. That’s all well and good, and Adam Goldberg gets points for recreating those situations and characters so accurately, but it doesn’t make it funny. Maybe when the show feels it has the freedom to shape these characters into what the show needs them to be, rather than what Adam Goldberg’s family were like, we’ll have a more entertaining sitcom.
I have to admit, I also really hate the trope where we see the real people depicted at the end of anything. It’s bad enough in the movies – it immediately takes me out of what I’ve just seen – but at the end of the pilot of a sitcom that will continue, I hate that they’re so eager to point to the artifice of the show. That’s a personal pet peeve, but it really did annoy me.
Let’s move onto ABC’s second new sitcom, and that’s the thoroughly middle of the road Back in the Game. Starring Maggie Lawson and James Caan, Back in the Game sees Lawson’s single mother Terry – a former promising softball player – agree to coach a little league baseball team for her nerdy son Danny (Griffin Gluck) and his misfit friends after they fail to make the school team. Caan play’s Terry’s straight-talking, curmudgeonly father, Terry Sr., who clashes with his daughter over whether the kids should be playing to win, rather than just for the fun of the game. Elsewhere Lenora Critchlow (Being Human) pops up as the wealthy mother of one of the other kids in the team, and Ben Koldyke plays the coach of the school team who looks like he’s being set up as a romantic foil for Lawson.
The pilot episode is extremely pleasant, and it passes the time just fine without ever really engaging. Caan’s fun in the sort of role you’ll feel like you’ve seen hundreds of times before, Lawson’s a likeable lead, and Gluck’s not entirely irritating in the way that kids of his age can often be on this type of show. The problem with Back in the Game, unfortunately, is how crushingly mediocre and forgettable it is. It leaves far less of an impact than The Goldbergs did, for example, and despite liking this pilot more than than I did that of The Goldbergs, I’d be far more interested in returning to the latter because it seems like there’s more going on there.
I could be proved wrong, but I can’t foresee a situation where Back in the Game is doing anything drastically different to what it’s doing now, and what it’s doing just doesn’t interest me as much as a bunch of other family sitcoms (Modern Family, The Middle, Suburgatory) already airing on the network. Nor does it compare favourably to Trophy Wife, the network’s other new family sitcom, which is unfortunate for Back in the Game, but let’s move on now to that show which I liked an awful lot.
Trophy Wife is up there amongst the very best of any of the pilots I’ve seen so far this year, either on the comedy or the drama side. Malin Akerman stars as the eponymous trophy wife, Kate. When we first meet her she’s a young, easy-going party girl, who literally bumps into Bradley Whitford’s older lawyer Pete in a club, and the next thing you know they’re hitched. But she’s not just marrying Pete, she’s marrying into his family, and that includes two ex-wives (Michaela Watkins and Marcia Gay Harden), two teenage twins (Ryan Lee and Gianna LePera), and an adopted child from China (Albert Tsai).
It’s a really great premise, and the cast is full of fine performers (perhaps the weakest link, LePera, is being replaced by Bailee Madison from here on in), but the early ratings for the show have been woeful, so something’s clearly gone awfully wrong in the promotion.
We can probably start with the title. Trophy Wife. It’s awful, and it may be ironic but it does the show a real disservice. Akerman’s Kate isn’t a stereotypical trophy wife. She’s quite the opposite. The relationship between her and Bradley Whitford comes off as loving, sweet, and in no way motivated by superficial reasons on either side. Kate seems like a smart, caring character who really wants to do right by her new family, and wants to get along with her husband’s exes as best she can. And Akerman’s really fantastic in the role too. She shares great chemistry with Whitford, has a couple of brilliant scenes with Marcia Gay Harden (who plays the sterner of the two exes), and her knack for physical comedy is employed excellently in the pilot. That Akerman’s stupendously pretty isn’t going to help convince the Nikki Finke’s of this world that she’s also stupendously funny, but this honestly is one of the comic performances of the season so far.
There would be a lot to miss about Trophy Wife if it doesn’t manage to stick around, because even during the brief pilot I found myself intrigued about the number of great character pairings the show could explore. I haven’t even mentioned Natalie Morales as Kate’s best friend Meg, who in this episode is tasked with looking after Albert Psai’s Bert. While still strong, their thread of the story is probably the weakest, but is still good enough to include the best running gag that culminates in an enormous laugh when Bert screams “Horndog!”. Trust me, it’s really funny.
I’d love to see Kate interact with Bert more, or see her share more time with her best friend, or see the three kids just hanging around together, or see Bradley Whitford and Marcia Gay Harden get their own subplot. If after just one episode a show can have me wanting to see that much more, it’s doing something right. I’d be back for Akerman alone, but the rest of it’s great too. Come on America, watch Trophy Wife!