Must-Please TV

The fall network comedies all seem neurotically aware of just how hard they have to work for your attention.

John Stamos and Josh Peck in Grandfathered, Rob Lowe in The Grinder, Ken Jeong in Dr. Ken, and Kermit the Frog in The Muppets.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jimenez. Photos by Fox Television Co.

The fall TV season, in which the networks shower audiences with a storm of new shows, puts me in mind of a parade that has fallen on hard times. Years ago, every September, the networks would roll out dozens of gleaming series to cheering throngs eager to watch all the new sitcoms roll by on fancy floats. Now, every September, the parade still happens, but there are no crowds, just a few stragglers standing on the sidewalk, looking at their phones, occasionally glancing up to see a sitcom plod past on a rinky-dink flatbed. The parade used to be a festive event, but the mediocre shows and the better parades HBO, FX, AMC, and all the other channels started throwing year-round—plus the nearby Internet amusement park, open 24/7—has led to paltry attendance. Still, the parade happens annually.

Just a few years ago, the networks still had a far better comedy parade than cable and streaming services: 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Rec, Community, Modern Family, New Girl, Mindy Project, The Middle, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine were all airing on network television. But last year was a historically bad one for the network sitcom, despite the debuts of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, and it came as cable fully cracked the comedy code. HBO’s Veep, Comedy Central’s Broad City, and FXX’s You’re the Worst are better than anything airing on the networks, as are sadcoms like Louie and Girls and differently formatted comedies like Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Review, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

This year, the network’s new comedies are unexpectedly decent (with one notable exception). After a few years of the lady-sitcom and last year’s disastrous attempts at the rom-com, the networks have returned to men, simultaneously fixating on handsome, already famous, middle-aged guys: John Stamos, Rob Lowe, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Kermit. The shows are generally slick and well-constructed, but they are burdened by more than the already heavy load of having to be funny; they seem to have been tacitly tasked with solving the gargantuan, nearly existential problem of comedy on network TV. They are all trying to amuse in a slightly new way, a way that might—fingers crossed!—re-attract a sizable audience. (And that’s just the shows taped in advance. This fall NBC is bringing back Undateable, which will air live every week, and debuting Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris, a variety show that is live as well.) They are trying to be the finger in the dam, the last flare sent up into the night, the life preserver tossed into the sea that helps the network sitcom find its audience.

Let me get specific. CBS’s Life in Pieces is a polished family comedy broken into four distinct segments of about five minutes each. In the first, Matt (Thomas Sadoski) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral) fail to have sex, first in her apartment, where her ex-fiancé (played by Jordan Peele) still lives, and then in his parents’ house, where his parents still live. In the second, Greg (Colin Hanks) and Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones) have a baby, bring her home, and tend to Jen’s roughed-up nether regions. In the third, Heather (Betsy Brandt) and Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) take their oldest son on a college visit. And in the last, Matt, Greg, and Heather are revealed to be siblings, the children of John (James Brolin) and Joan Short (Dianne Wiest), when they and their families attend their father’s funereal birthday party.

The cast is stacked, the timing is jaunty, the jokes are good, especially for a pilot. When Heather and Tim’s older daughter informs their youngest that Santa isn’t real, the little one begins to ask questions. What about the Easter Bunny? The tooth fairy? God? After the last one, Heather takes a long pause, “That one’s real.” And yet the show is still four shows jammed into one, with each segment almost entirely self-contained. The series feels neurotically aware of all the other things you could be doing instead of watching it. The family at the center of the show is named “Short,” and that’s the series’ promise: This will be short. You can watch in fits and starts. It’s an understandable gambit: Maybe busy viewers will have time for a show if it takes up no time at all. But the result is a series that has gone out of its way to make itself disposable, generously inviting audiences to prioritize all other leisure activities ahead of it.  

Fox’s Grandfathered and The Grinder are far less modest. They both star unaging ’80s heartthrobs as shallow charmers. (John Stamos and Rob Lowe, the respective stars of these shows, look so good it will make you believe in the fountain of youth, vampires, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or an infallible plastic surgeon, depending on which flavor of supernatural speaks to you.) Stamos stars in Grandfathered as Jimmy Martino, a smooth, perpetually single operator who sometimes kicks game by pretending that he would like a family one day. Then one day arrives, in the form of Gerald (Josh Peck), the son Jimmy didn’t know he had, and Edie, Gerald’s daughter. Jimmy goes from being an unencumbered rake to an encumbered one in an instant.

Grandfathered breaks new ground for the GILF (a grandfather I’d like to … you know) but not much else. The story of an irrepressible bachelor who gets civilized by domestic responsibility is familiar from Uncle Buck, Three Men and a Baby, and, of course, Stamos’ own Full House. Still, Grandfathered tells a slick, likeable iteration of this tale, cruising along on Stamos’ charisma, some timely pop culture references, and a good script. Jimmy is a kind of riff on Full House’s Uncle Jesse, another bad boy so bad he … gives his heart away to a pint-sized tyke, but Stamos has learned a trick or two since Full House and he’s more willing to both ham and sleaze it up.

The Grinder is even better, if you can get over the name. Its similarity to Grindr, the gay hook-up app, cannot have been lost on all the executives who had to sign off on the title. They must have figured most people wouldn’t get that reference, and the rest would hear it as a dog whistle: Come howl at the supremely foxy Lowe. Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, a self-absorbed actor who has just finished playing a trial lawyer in a long-running legal procedural also called The Grinder. (It’s the sort of show where the main character’s last name is “Grinder.”) He returns home to Idaho, where his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) is an actual lawyer, and soon decides for his next job, he’s going to help Stewart, whether he likes it or not. (Stewart does not.)

The Grinder is clever. It has a great time sending up the clichés of lawyer shows, while also reveling in them. The pilot features a giddily ridiculous play on A Few Good Men’s “you can’t handle the truth” speech and the frequent appearance of the absurd tag line “Grinder rests.” Savage—another star of the late ’80s, early ’90s— is the show’s main character, its heart, its straight man, and that allows Lowe to lean into Dean’s self-involvement. Dean is not as relentlessly positive as Chris Traeger, the character Lowe played on Parks and Recreation, but he is also a self-actualizing machine, so confident he can change any circumstance by being himself that he really can change any circumstance by being himself.

Grandfathered and The Grinder represent the latest attempt to solve an ongoing network problem: how to make a show starring a famous person who should get great ratings, and, this time, actually get great ratings. Series starring sitcom royalty like Michael J. Fox and Tim Allen, for example, have failed or underperformed. Fox’s solution to this problem seems to be to drench the attempt in irony. Viewers who tune in because of how much they like Stamos and Lowe will be treated to series in which Stamos and Lowe play irascible jerks, perpetually single men who struggle to make lasting emotional connections. Fox is not just taking Uncle Jesse and dropping him into a straight-up Full House remake—that’s Netflix’s jam. The network is trying to take advantage of audience nostalgia, while simultaneously being cooler than that nostalgia, which, heck, might work: Nothing else has.

ABC’s The Muppets is a purer nostalgia vehicle, but that might just be because it is impossible to make Kermit the Frog a cad.  (Less pure: the straight-faced gossip items about Kermit’s new girlfriend.) The Muppets opens in the Muppets’ writers’ room, where Kermit announces that ABC wants to make a primetime show about the Muppets and their personal lives. The muppets decide it should be filmed in the style of a mockumentry, just as the camera cuts to Gonzo, who complains, “cut-to interviews? That is totally just an overused device to make easy jokes!” The whole show is like this: knowing, self-aware, clichéd, adorable, irresistible—unless you, understandably, thought the Muppets were perfect as is.

Celebrities make cameos while wondering if the show will have celebrity cameos; Fozzie Bear meets his human girlfriend’s parents, and they wonder how they will ever procreate; and, of course, there is Miss Piggy, a reality TV diva long before there was reality TV.  In the pilot, Miss Piggy doesn’t want to do the show—and without Piggy, there is no show. Kermit visits her on a movie set, where she is vamping it up across from Topher Grace, to try and change her mind. Nostalgia aside, the kicky, probably kinky dynamics of the Kermit-Piggy relationship does seem like a rich topic for a grown-up comedy— or drama. (The New Republic has already branded Miss Piggy a domestic abuser.) What attracts a well-meaning, froggy-voiced, affable guy to a glamorous, high-maintenance pig, and vice-a-versa? We’ll have to wait and see if The Muppets is really willing to go deep into the couple’s boudoir

All of the aforementioned shows are single-camera comedies without a laugh track.  The season’s two new laugh tracks are NBC’s Truth Be Told and ABC’s Dr. Ken, which share more than just canned laughter: Race is also one of their central subjects. Networks have long theorized that multicamera sitcoms are more likely to be ratings smashes than single-camera comedies. Certainly that’s been true for CBS. But this is the first time in years they have tricked out the multicam with contemporary themes. (The Carmichael Show, a multicamera show NBC burned off in August, was also explicitly about race.)

Truth Be Told is about two best friends, Mitch (Gosselaar) and Russell (Tone Bell), who are married and live next door to each other. In the opening segment, a valet gives Mitch the keys to Russell’s Porsche. Mitch yells at the valet; he thinks the valet assumed the car was not Russell’s because Russell is black. The valet says he assumed the car was Mitch’s because a John Mayer CD was playing. Cut to Mitch and Russell jamming out to John Mayer. Truth Be Told has the herky-jerky rhythms of multicam, but it surprised me: It feels like it exists in the real world, or at least adjacent to a congenial version of it. Ferguson and police brutality aren’t mentioned, but prevalent racism and white guilt are. (As in, “your white guilt is adorable.”) The show includes a kind of tired bit about how Mitch can’t use the N-word while singing along to “Empire State of Mind,” but it also has a scene in which Mitch freaks out about hiring a hot baby sitter. “I am a white guy who is married to a woman who is ethnically ambiguous,” he tells Russell, “And we hire a sitter who is ethnically ambiguous? People will think I have a thing.” “You have a thing,” Russell replies.

This leaves Dr. Ken, which stars Ken Jeong as Ken Park. (Before Jeong became famous in The Hangover, he was a doctor.) Ken is a typical sitcom dad—irascible, hammy, convinced he’s always right, even though his wife, Allison (Suzy Nakamura), usually is. Ken and Allison have two kids: the teenage Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and the younger Dave (Albert Tsai, so awesome on the dearly departed Trophy Wife). In the first episode, Molly learns to drive, sending Ken into a spiral of over-protectiveness, involving an app that tracks teenagers, a rave, and the slam-dunk joke about what happens when you go looking for a Molly at a rave.

Dr. Ken addresses Ken and his family’s race—Ken’s racist boss (Dave Foley) is looking to fire him—but this is just detailing: It’s a staid, old-fashioned family comedy through and through. It’s by far the worst of the bunch—it’s just dreadfully unfunny—which is sad because Jeong is trying so hard to elevate the material. There is no line he won’t finesse, no physical comedy he won’t commit to. But there’s only so much he can do with the only fall sitcom that isn’t trying anything new.