Fall Sitcoms: A Dear TV Rundown

By Jane Hu, Phillip MaciakOctober 13, 2014

Fall Sitcoms: A Dear TV Rundown

Dear Television,

Phil: Jane, it’s time to stop texting, put your field hockey uniform on, and start transcribing your elaborate internal monologue in this Google document because it’s fall TV season! And boy oh boy do we have a crop of new network sitcoms to cover. As discussed in advance, we’ll be chatting here about the following new shows: A to Z, Black-ish, Manhattan Love Story, Mulaney, and Selfie. All of these shows have problems. Some are certainly more charming than others and some are way more demonstrably, irredeemably bad than others, but this is what the mighty gods of the dying network empires are giving us in between Good Wife and Sleepy Hollow every week, so this is what we’ll be talking about.

The first thing I want us to address is the Cellular Telephone. At least two of these new pilots hinge on some degree of smartphone slapstick. Selfie’s neo-Pygmalion premise is a little hard for me to wrap my head around. Are these people brand consultants? Are they in marketing? Is there a difference between those two things? What am I? In any case, the Eliza Doolittle character is an image-obsessed, fever dream of a millennial whose primary issue, as the show begins, is that she literally can’t stop looking at her phone. And the makers of Manhattan Love Story, a show that I imagine a lot of detainees are watching on loop while handcuffed to chairs at CIA black sites, has decided to utilize incompetent texting as the primary narrative device of the pilot. Selfie is doing a kind of ham-fingered job of telegraphing the received critique of social media-drenched Youngs, but Manhattan Love Story is putting a lot of weight on a very particular phenomenon. I think that the show thinks that that makes it super-hip, but it really just ends up seeming like a show about Love in The Time of Texting featuring characters who have the technological agility of grandparents. What’s your take on these works of art in the age of whatever? 

Jane: Phil! When did the cellphone become the primary motivator of plot in television? Or has this, in a sense, always been the case? (I’ve been watching a lot of Louis Feuillade, aka-early-silent-serials, recently and wow does he place pressure on the telephone.) As a very brilliant supervisor of mine once asked: do we use the phone to talk to one another, or do we talk to one another in order to use the telephone? In the case of both Selfie and Manhattan Love Story, I’m leaning toward the latter. Selfie’s heroine Eliza Dooley is certainly more attached to her phone than to, say, interacting with actual human beings. In fact, the premise of the show is that while Eliza has tons of contacts on her cell, she might not actually have any “real” friends. Classic dilemma! It’s still too early to tell whether Selfie is in fact a brilliant or terrible show, but two things to note:

1. I am so happy John Cho is getting some real acting work, post-Sulu.

2. Karen Gillan’s delivery is perfect. (Does anyone else miss Suburgatory’s Dalia?)

What I like about Selfie is that it’s trying to incorporate all the hazards of cellular devices: off-brand versions of Candy Crush (zany sound-effects and all) and texting in the bathtub while simultaneously downing cans of ginger ale. Selfies are, of course, not exclusive to camera phones, nor is it the primary symptom of what seems to be the show’s larger subjects of millennial narcissism, self-representation, and self-alienation. When Eliza’s vomit mishap on an airplane goes viral (the moment doesn’t even happen ON THIS PLANET, people), she’s suddenly hit with a realization of just how detached she’s grown from her supposed image of herself. As I said, classic dilemma. Does the phone support the narrative we tell about ourselves or does it begin to determine it?

Phil: Is the ginger ale in that pilot because of the vomit? Is that why? There’s something charming about this tech kid leaning so hard on an old wives’ tale in the first episode, and it would make the most sense contextually, but I also like the idea that this character is addicted to ginger ale for no discernible reason. And in cans! Buy a two-liter, friend-o! Impractical millenials, smdh. The question at this point is whether this show is self-aware enough already to be building a world on top of details that are willfully absurd. In any case, I think we’re both provisional fans of Selfie. It’s pretty clunky, but it’s hard not to like Cho — who was really fun on Sleepy Hollow — and Gillan plays this role like a star turn even though the writing might very possibly never catch up to her. It’s also likable because it has a perspective, however clichéd or poorly pulled-off. It actually is, in its own way, about communication and sociability and the phone as a thing that mediates and alienates both. And, to that extent, it seems like it has potential to grow.

On the other hand, is it too much of an alley-oop to say that a show — Manhattan Love Story — that boasts two distinct points of view, articulated via dueling voiceovers, has absolutely no perspective at all? I liked Analeigh Tipton in the underrated Crazy, Stupid, Love, but her concentrated bubbliness as an actor was nicely cut in that film by the fact that she occupied the darkest subplot. Here, it’s a lot to handle, all the more because they make her such a dunderhead. I won’t be that guy who wistfully recalls the days of Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, but in that show a similarly exuberant Dreama Walker also played a naive New York transplant, but the series had the good sense to establish that what she lacked were street smarts, not actual smart smarts. Also, does anybody on earth speak in sweepingly broad terms about gender relations as much as male characters in network sitcom pilots? I don’t know, Jane. Am I being too harsh here?

Jane: Please do not speak to me of Don’t Trust the B----, the loss of which I still have not quite accepted. 

Manhattan Love Story is perhaps a bit more straightforward. Idealistic girl moves to NYC. Girl gets set on blind date with boy. Girl butt-dials boy before first date. First date ends prematurely with girl in tears. Dude, is Manhattan, like, ever going to get easier? (Over all, I think I found the show more bearable than you, but I have a soft spot for Tipton.)

But but but! Speaking of gender clichés can we please talk about how scared all these pilots are of marking their leads as gay? John Cho’s Rex Harrison: not gay! He might be Asian, but let us be explicit that he. is. not. gay. Or how about Peter, Tipton’s love interest in Manhattan Love Story: when he starts crying at the very sight of Lady Liberty (“MANHATTAN NEVER CHANGE!”), Tiptop jokes that just when she starts to vibe with this guy, he turns out to be gay! Nothing can save this kind of writing. (You see this alignment with straightness by an explicit distancing from gayness — and gayness, specifically — in almost all the new sitcoms this term, which is at least a change from your usual unspoken distancing from gayness.)

Phil: I re-watched The Big Chill a couple weeks ago — much love, Goldblum — and there’s a scene in which Mary Kay Place says, “They're either married or gay. And if they're not gay, they've just broken up with the most wonderful woman in the world, or they've just broken up with a bitch who looks exactly like me.” I’m not saying Lawrence Kasdan invented that line, but that joke is at least 30-years-old. And it was trying to be a sharp social comment then. Manhattan Love Story actually ended its pilot with it. These people really get it. 

And speaking of that, I’m beginning to think that the primary purpose of a television pilot is to make sure the audience is comfortable in their knowledge of whether or not each character is gay. Character development can wait, compelling emotional stakes can wait, just so long as I know FOR SURE that John Cho is straight as an arrow. We’ll get to Black-ish down below, but it too had a weird, overcompensating throughline about masculinity surrounding the protagonist’s young son trying out for the field hockey team. This, obviously, created a crisis for dear old dad, leading, for what it’s worth, to a moment of acceptance about the manliness (and thus sexuality) of his son playing one of earth’s most popular sports on a men’s team. But don’t worry everybody: the son was just trying to score chicks and be straight. He really does want to play basketball and have sex with girls! Everybody is straight, folks, nothing to see here. Nobody is gay except for the male field hockey players who aren’t secretly using the sport as a loophole to get girls. Soon will be the foxes! Anyway, I digress. 

Jane: We’ll come back to Black-ish, but more to the point might be turning to A to Z, which seems to be not only a better version of Manhattan Love Story, but also a potentially more charming take on 500 Days of Summer? A to Z is not actually all that more novel than the others, but, as we’ve already begun to see with The Mindy Project, there’s been a real push lately to import movie rom-com conventions into the world of serial television. Is it because the rom-com plot is ever oh-so-repeatable?

The title A to Z already suggests a kind of filmic containability, though I doubt the show was pitched as something that could only be marketed for, like, one season only. As the narrator tells us during each title sequence: “This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship.” So far, though, we’ve moved from a few awkward false-starts to a first kiss, which in television time is pretty darn fast. There’s something strange about negotiating the slow beginnings of a romance alongside the necessarily jaunty beats of a pilot episode.

Phil: The plotting of this show is going to be fun to watch. 500 Days of Summer is a good filmic parallel, but I think this show is also shooting after something like the narrative architecture of How I Met Your Mother. Omniscient narrator, clear narrative endpoint, an expanding story-world within a contained, but undefined, space. They have to be hoping for a long-run for this. My hope is that, as we go on, it’ll actually buy into its framework and start jumping around in time. In other words, I like HIMYM and 500 Days of Summer fine, but here’s a network note I’m pretty sure they didn’t receive: what about True Detective


Phil: I also like these actors, though it’s jarring to see Ben Feldman — who so recently appeared on our screens as Michael Ginsberg on Mad Men — playing such a conventional role.


Phil: Comic romantic lead is clearly a strong suit for this guy, but he’s also so good at delivering unnerving lines, at confidently occupying the odd man out role. Jane, do you remember when Ginsberg is pitching Don, and he says “fuck,” and Don looks at him and says, “Why are you cursing?” It’s one of my favorite moments on that show, and thinking about it makes me wish A to Z were just a little weirder. Presumably, with a set-up like this, the show has some unexpected beats in store, or at least beats that are supposed to feel unexpected. But for a show set in an office park — easily best location for a new series — I really want a little more Coen Brothersy bureaucratic surrealism, at least.

Jane: Weird Ginsberg!

Man, maybe part of the pleasure of this show is just how it elicits these cross-references. Cristin Milioti, or “The Mother” of How I Met Your Mother is the female lead here. And, yes, Ginsberg is, as ever, in the advertising world of generating desire. Speaking of desires: will Milioti sing? Will she play the ukulele? With pipes like hers, how can this show not? (Let’s be straight: I’m gunning for a musical episode.) Dancing Ginsberg! I have to say that a lot of what’s driving my interest in this show is the possibility that it might do something, as you suggest, with the traditional three-part structure of the classic Hollywood rom-com that isn’t just: Hey, look! A parody!

Let’s move backwards and forwards! True Detective meets Guys & Dolls?!

A side-note regarding phones in A to Z: I had no idea you could text someone from your computer? 

Phil: I just have to assume now that these writers have heard about technology, but they’ve never actually used it before. “Text me an email!” “Ok, if I get there before you, ping me your snapchat.” “Reddit bitcoin lol, butter me on Ello.”

Speaking of conventions, though, let’s talk a little about this year’s biggest throwback, Mulaney. It’s filmed before a live studio audience, it’s got an almost identical structure to Seinfeld — though, I’d argue, it’s got two Kramers, a half of an Elaine, and no George, which is a weird problem to have — and it’s, you know, about making it in the big city. Is it possible to have a show in which every single actor is underused? John Mulaney is a funny stand-up and, we know from his work on Stefon and other things at SNL, a sharp writer; Nasim Pedrad is a really bonkers performer; Seaton Smith’s a fine stand-up; Elliott Gould is good in everything; and Martin Short is a gawd. Smoosh it all together, and you ought to have a dynamite show! But Mulaney feels flat to me. Am I just not used to the beats of a multicam sitcom? Or is John Mulaney not used to them? I can’t tell if this is a structural mismatch issue (the jokes are funny, but not big-guffaw-from-the-audience funny) or a content issue (the jokes just aren’t funny at all). Jane, help me out.

Jane: I think the problem might be the overabundance of voices, though I also have faith that the show will find its rhythm. (Remember the early episodes of Mindy Project? Or Parks & Recreation? Both are shows defined by their ensemble dynamics that began less than fortuitously.) Everyone in Mulaney is individually great, but the show as a whole isn’t gelling yet. That said, Mulaney seems aware of this. If you listen to his recent interview with Andy Greenwald— recorded months prior to the premiere — he acknowledges that it’s only starting (then around the seventh-episode point or something) to feel like everyone has discovered their place in the show. These relationships are very difficult to establish in and within the span of a pilot, and what has always been amazing about serial sitcom pilots is that they try, against all odds, to establish that “lived-in” atmosphere right off the bat. (It’s the same atmosphere that makes them eventually such a joy and comfort to return to.) I think the fact that Cheers begins with a protagonist explicitly entering the “world” of the show is what makes it such a successful sitcom pilot. (It also helped that a large part of this “world” wasn’t in the apartment too, perhaps. Is the Apartment Sitcom Over?) Anyway, I’m going to continue to watch Mulaney, and perhaps we can return to this conversation later this year to see how its dynamics develop.

Mulaney is about making it in NYC, but what about LA? I was cheered to see another sitcom take a jab at life in the city of angels (ironically, that’s where Mulaney is filmed), especially with the advent of Nic Pizzolatto’s forthcoming presumably serious take on that metropolis in season two of True Detective. It’s also somehow hilarious to me that Black-ish is overtly about “selling” all the monolithic glossy weirdness that is LA, from the perspective of an upper middle-class black man who is intent on paying tribute to what is some very mediated and complicated idea of his roots. The show itself is ultimately less concerned with selling LA than with selling this perspective, however, and it does it through humor! Black-ish isn’t about being offensive or threatening; it’s about being entertaining social commentary for the whole family! At least I think so? How about you, Phil — is it working for you?

Phil: It is, kind of! There is sometimes a tendency, once a pilot has made its way from a writer’s head through the network gristmill and onto the screens in front of our eyeballs, for that pilot to either be really about something or not really about much of anything. Selfie and A to Z, I think, have very clear perspectives, very defined premise-y takes on modern digital culture and modern digital relationships, respectively. The likelihood is that, if these shows get better, these premises will wilt a little, and we’ll be left with a very lived in, comfortable, detail-rich world to enjoy for six seasons and a movie. Mulaney and Manhattan Love Story seem not to be about much of anything. They’re trying to just be appealing worlds and, so far, not succeeding very well. So, without a compelling thesis or a compelling ensemble dynamic, and without a relationship to the world that isn’t mediated through genre expectations, these shows feel flimsier.

Black-ish falls a little bit in the middle. Inasmuch as it’s about a multi-generational upper-middle-class family in LA struggling with issues of identity and work and parenthood, it’s building off of the Modern Family structure. (It’s telling, of course, that of two shows with such similar interests, one gets to be representative of Family, writ large, and the other gets to be representative of Black family alone.) So it’s got that clear perspective, but the thing I enjoyed the most — and I think I’ve laughed at more jokes on Black-ish than any of these others so far — is the ensemble itself. That, to me, is the biggest contrast to Mulaney. Anthony Anderson gets to ham it up in the center — his performance is a little too hyper at the moment — but Tracee Ellis Ross is really solid as a comic foil, the kids are adorable and have spectacular timing, and I now basically want Laurence Fishburne to sit at my kitchen table all day, reading the paper, making fun of me, and teaching me how to be a Good Man. I also like his hats.

That said, we glossed over the gay panic that has been a central element of Black-ish’s first two episodes, and it’s still a problem. When a show is trying for a clear perspective — or at least a clear set of questions — you want to be able to trust that perspective. And, even though the show has been actively interested in turning a critical gaze toward interracial communication breakdowns for laughs, what’s more worrisome is what the show is perfectly intent to casually communicate about the status or even the possibility of a queer perspective. Presumably, this sitcom is about learning and living together and progress, etc., but it hasn’t yet convinced me that there are any critiques of heteronormativity on the syllabus. Have the networks failed us, or is there any hope here?

Jane: Remember The New Normal? Or even Modern Family as it currently stands. When the sitcoms try to address any form of queerness — no matter how “straight” — it walks itself immediately into a corner. So any explicit denial of queerness is, well, while perhaps more true to the current ethos of network television, not really going to move us forward in any progressive sense.

In an ideal world, my television would reflect the intersectionality of our world in all its complexities, but right now the best place to find that seems to be not in the sitcoms, but the dramas...


LARB Contributors

Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!