It’s not the fault of the actors, who for the most part are trying their absolute best with some extremely shoddy material. I chuckled a couple of times at the delivery of a line from Seth Green, or a bit of physical comedy from Peter Riegert, for example, but never at any of the “jokes.” It’s an extremely broad, multi-camera comedy, but it’s not the format that’s the problem, it’s the jokes themselves. They just continue to fall flat. There’s no structure to the humour, so there’s never any sense of building to a gag. The closest Dads comes to laying the groundwork for a joke is simply telling us what’s going to happen next. Eli and Warner (Green & Ribisi) predict that their dads will fight over who pays the bill at their lunch… and then they do. In the very next scene. Eli and Warner tell Brenda Song’s Veronica that she has to dress as a stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl [more on which later]… and then she does. It’s awful.
Other than that, punch lines simply appear out of the blue sans set-up or context, and because the characters are almost to a man either completely unlikable or borderline detestable, it’s not easy to laugh along with them simply because the audience are. It plays out like Rules of Engagement would if all the characters were David Spade, and if the writers simultaneously believed that David Spade’s character was the hero of the show and a totally awesome dude.
But, again, it’s not just that the jokes aren’t funny, the characters unlikeable and the episode lacking in structure. The pacing also seems a little bit off from start to finish. It’s stilted, as if all involved haven’t got used to playing to a live studio audience yet, and scenes seem to perpetually end at the most unnatural of moments. Even the transitions between scenes, simple fades to white, happen far too quickly, and that lends a jarring quality to the beginning of each new scene.
So that’s why Dads sucks before we even get to the “offensive” parts, and it’s those parts that make the show downright unlikable, rather than just bad. Now I have to admit that I wasn’t personally offended by Dads, but I’m a young, white male so I was never really going to be, was I? No, Dads has women and minorities in its crosshairs instead. Being a show from MacFarlane and co, it was always going to try and court some controversy, so there are lots of jokes designed to get a rise. They’re largely lazy jokes: Martin Mull pronouncing ‘Shiite Muslim’ incorrectly; a video game featuring Hitler being impaled by a Menorah; the implication that all Asian men are interchangeable, have small penises, are untrustworthy and beat their children. I’m sure Sulkin and Wild (who penned this first episode themselves) will feel fine laughing off the controversy because, for them, the offense is all there by design. But that would be to ignore the more casual sexism and racism that permeates the rest of the episode.
I don’t want to go on for too long about all the unpleasantness in Dads because many better writers than me have already covered it at length, but there’s some bits I can’t ignore. It’s not just that they have Brenda Song dress up as a Japanese schoolgirl, it’s that she does so for a Chinese businessmen, and she herself is of Vietnamese and Thai origin. They’re all Asian, so who cares, right? And it’s not just that the racist humour comes from the old men who don’t know any better (the Ricky Gervais defense), it comes from the characters we’re supposed to identify with. Female characters aren’t just marginalised; they’re presented as either shrewish nags or nameless sex objects, whose purpose is solely to be the butt of jokes. When the offensive humour seeps into the areas of the show that aren’t designed to be offensive, you know there’s a deeper problem. The subsequent episodes of Dads will have been produced with the writers fully aware of the toxic reception this Pilot received, so it will be interesting to see how much they took (or were able to take) the criticisms on board. No UK broadcasters have taken a punt on Dads yet, and for now that seems like a good thing.
In fairness, comedy pilots are very hard to get right, but it certainly can’t have helped Dads that it debuted alongside another new Fox sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that is pretty much as far away from Dads in terms of quality as it’s possible to be. Here’s a show that hits the ground running; introducing characters effectively, developing interesting character dynamics, raising laughs from the first scene to the last, and it even finds the time to throw a fun semi-twist in there before the end too. If there’s another network pilot better than this in the coming few weeks, I cannot wait to see it.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine comes from the bona fide geniuses behind NBC’s Parks & Rec, Dan Goor and Michael Schur, and stars Andy Samberg as immature NYPD Detective Jake Peralta, and relative newcomer Melissa Fumero as his partner Detective Amy Santiago, who share a friendly rivalry. They work out of the 99th Precinct alongside a selection of other law enforcers played by Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, Stephanie Beatriz and Chelsea Peretti. When a new Captain arrives at the Precinct, Andre Braugher’s by-the-book Ray Holt, they’re all forced to up their game whilst investigating a murder.
With Parks & Rec, Goor and Schur have shown over time that their sensibilities lie in optimistic comedy. They like their characters, they want them to like each other, and they want you to like them too. There’s a great deal of heart in what they do, and that’s definitely evident here where their well-intentioned spirit meshes really well with Samberg’s goofy schtick. There’s conflict established between a number of different character pairings, but every zing exchanged comes with wry smile and a knowing look. It’s friendly banter played for laughs, and even the most severe characters (Braugher’s Captain and Beatriz’s Rose Diaz) get a chance to exhibit a remarkable amount of warmth in a short space of time. They’re a group of characters I immediately want to spend more time with and get to know.
Samberg gets most of the big laughs and he’s in his element here, yet while not quite as polished, Fumero seems full of potential alongside him. Braugher, meanwhile, is set up as almost the anti-Ron Swanson, and who knew that could be such a good thing? He’s given a compelling back-story (especially for a sitcom) and plays the straight man superbly whilst still getting laughs. It was probably a disservice to lump the rest of the supporting cast together earlier in the review, because during the course of the pilot each and every one of them gets a number of opportunities to shine and they all make a decent of it. I was intrigued by the character of Diaz – who seems a little bit like this show’s version of April Ludgate – and predictably amused by Lo Truglio, who I guess we can extend the comparison and call him Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Dwyer (or should that be Bert Macklin?). Peretti was particularly impressive as the precinct’s administrator who reminded me a lot of Twin Peaks’ ditzy Lucy, and I’m always open to seeing Terry Crews do more comedy. Colour me impressed with this ensemble.
To top it all off, the episode’s expertly directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord – the 21 Jump Street directors (who also serve as exec producers on the show) being pretty much the perfect choice to shoot a sit-cop-com. They nail the visual style of a cool, throwback cop show by playing with some of the same visual motifs they experimented with in 21 Jump Street, bring the same sense of joy to a couple of small-scale action scenes, and have a whole bunch of fun with some heightened (and downright hilarious) flashbacks, which are wisely used sparingly but integrated seamlessly.
Almost everything that Dads does wrong, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does right, and it somehow seems wrong that they’ve been paired together given that they’re polar opposites in almost every department. The latter is irrefutably the better of the two by some margin, and actually managed to produce a better episode than either of Fox’s other established sitcoms, New Girl and The Mindy Project, could manage on the same night too. I’ve got high hopes for this one… and so it seems have E4. Digital Spy reported yesterday that the freeview channel have picked up the rights to air the full season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine from January 2014. Hurray!