As the frontiers of television have been pushed out to new platforms and cutting edges, network situation comedy has become ever more itself, a place where homilies live and hugs happen.
It is true that broadcast prime-time comedy has become a more morally complicated, sexually implicit zone than in days of old when Lucy or Mary ruled the air. But on the whole they tend to be bright and optimistic, even when they are full of snark and snickering.
Network comedies run longer seasons with a minimum of serial action; you can drop in any time and be assured that whatever changes may have occurred since you last watched will be quickly apparent, and won’t matter much. The message of these shows is that life is stable, whether anchored to a family, a pack of friends, a hangout, a workplace. That is why even as dysfunctional a sitcom as The Office can also feel like a not unhappy home.
Two new sitcoms recently joined the long parade. Schooled, a spinoff of The Goldbergs, adds a workplace-as-family comedy to the ABC lineup (premiered Jan. 9); Fam, whose point is embedded in its title, came to CBS on Jan. 10.
Each is concerned, in different ways, with the care of sometimes difficult young people, and each features a lead character who was herself trouble in her youth. Each is a fairly efficient delivery for good feelings and some actual laughs.
Taking a leap a few years into the 1990s, the likable Schooled moves three recurring characters from the parent series and puts them at center stage in a high-school workplace comedy.
Lainey Lewis (AJ Michalka), who was still engaged to eldest Goldberg child Barry when that show went on winter break late last year, is still single here and, having failed to achieve rock stardom, is back at her old high school as a new music teacher.
Tim Meadows returns as John Glascott, now principal of William Penn Academy, as does Bryan Callen as Coach Rick Mellor, who, Lainey observes, is “looking weirdly the same.” (Michalka is 27, more chronologically in tune with her character now than previously.)
In the pilot episode, Lainey has to win the respect, or at least the cooperation, of one of her students, Felicia (Rachel Crow), “an angry rage monster” and an echo of her younger self (and also Glascott’s niece). This requires that she become the adult she has resisted becoming, even as her still-active inner adolescent provides the blast of fresh air that is just what these musty old halls of high-school academe needed.
It’s a device, of course, that has powered countless films and television series down through the ages — you can call it trite, or proven and reliable.
The Goldbergs has a warm, squishy center, and every episode comes with a dedication, a convention continued in Schooled. If anything, the sentiment has been intensified here, though this may also be a side effect of a pilot episode in which all the characters had to accept themselves, or someone else, or their present situation, or a changing world, and because the tone overall is less hectic. These actors use their indoor voices.
Lainey, who states her qualifications for the job as “I love music; I work well with children, probably,” begins the episode teaching for economic expedience — she asks if she can get her year’s pay in a lump sum. That will change soon enough: “Even though I might have put my dreams on hold for this job,” narrating future Lainey recalls, “in the end I got a lot more back than I ever thought possible.”
Rough edges are quickly sanded, yet the players are good — Meadows, especially, seems more valuable to comedy with every new role; they make it possible to look past the homilies. Unless, of course, the homilies are what you come for, and they are there for the taking.
Just so, there is no irony in the title of Fam — it’s what the kids call family now, the kid here says, to clear up any confusion. There are troublesome characters here, but they are troublesome only for the sake of comedy, as much as some sort of professional help might be appropriate. Snappy lines may fly around, but hugs are all you need.
Nick (Tone Bell) and Clem (Nina Dobrev) have just become engaged. Clem loves Nick’s parents as well — Rose (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Walt (Brian Stokes Mitchell), theater people with a nice place that seems to overlook Central Park.
Nick’s a college professor; Clem plans parties for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are respectable and responsible and fun in ordinary ways.
Into their cozy world comes Clem’s 16-year-old, high-school dropout half sister Shannon (Odessa Adlon, Pamela Adlon’s daughter), followed shortly by her estranged father, Freddy (Gary Cole), a homicide detective and “narcissistic sociopath” with numerous bad habits and no talent for parenting. But the arms of family will be opened wider to accommodate them, as Shannon moves in with Clem and Nick and Freddy at least comes to dinner, bringing wine from the evidence room.
Created by Corinne Kingsbury (a story editor and staff writer on The Newsroom), it’s a multi-camera comedy in the familiar CBS style, popping off jokes in rapid succession. A surprising number are about drugs (because that is the sort of 16-year-old Shannon is), and a less surprising but still quite considerable number are about sex, because that is how things go even on CBS sitcoms nowadays.
It’s all pretty predictable — isn’t that why you’re here? — and, again, the cast is good. It works often enough; a beachhead has been established.
Style on 01/22/2019