'Working the Engels': TV Review
Andrea Martin and Kacey Rohl star in a comedy about a family that must pull together after their patriarch's death leaves them in deep debt.
For its summer Thursday-night comedy block, NBC has enlisted the help of two nations: Sweden (Welcome to Sweden) and Canada, the latter of which for the first-ever co-produced broadcast sitcom with the U.S., Working the Engels. So far, the result of the Swedish collaboration is a lovely summer comedy respite, while Canada's is still a work in progress.
Working the Engels follows the trials of a family whose patriarch has died and left them in deep financial debt through his law firm (which is less than hilarious). Like Arrested Development though, the eccentric family is then left to pull together, live under the same roof (or at least work under one), and in this case, see what happens when a family stops being polite, and starts entering hip-hop dance competitions to pay the rent.
The Engels are made up of a kooky and over-protective matriarch, Ceil (Andrea Martin), and her grown children: small-time criminal son Jimmy (Benjamin Arthur), former pill-popper daughter Sandy (Azura Skye) and "the serious one," Jenna (Kacey Rohl), who is also a lawyer. In the wake of her father's death, Jenna realizes that she should leave her job at an abusive law firm to go back home and take over her father's failing business, while her family helps out (more or less) in the office and with cases.
While the series mostly revolves around Jenna, it's Sandy who may prove to be a potential diamond in the rough. Her ditzy personality soon gives way to something more akin to aloof self-centeredness, and allows for an ever-expanding colorful past that her family starts to bring up and allude to more in later episodes. While Jimmy remains static as a pea-brained Lothario, and Jenna plays the straight woman to her family's offbeat behavior, Sandy (who also goes by the nom de plume "Pippa Cundiff") is given the freedom to deliver some of the show's throwaway lines like, "I just got this great book on tape: it's Leviticus, read by Danny Glover. It really brings it to life!"
As for the firm, despite the show's Working the Engels title, there's not a lot of work ever being done on the series, so if it proves popular, that debt may never get paid down. The law office setting leaves plenty of room for a revolving door of weekly oddball clients, though, most of whom have some connection to the family. The show also initially relies a lot on physical comedy, which is best embraced by Martin, a veteran of SCTV. But as the single-camera comedy improves somewhat, the jokes turn more on wordplay and delivery (although, while there's no laugh track, the beats for it remain). It doesn't force any "lessons," either, but Jenna's sentimental voiceovers and some of the genuine family bonding muddy the waters: Is this a traditional family comedy, or a parody of one? That uncertainty leaves the show straddling an unsatisfying middle ground.
Working the Engels' cast does an earnest job with what's given to them, but they are greatly boosted in later episodes by some better-known Canadian actors, like Eugene Levy, Scott Thompson and Gregory Smith, who steal their scenes by easily running over the show's stars (with the exception of Martin). Ultimately, though the series may have some passing connection to Arrested Development in terms of setup, it isn't able to capture the depth or tone or charm that elevates a comedy out of just being mediocre to being something really great. That requires more work.