In the second episode of CBS’ new single-camera comedy The Unicorn, the other characters are all worried that Wade (Walton Goggins), still a relatively fresh widower, is experiencing anger issues. They draw this conclusion from the fact that, at a couple of easily explained moments, he raises his voice slightly.
Their alarm, fairly well-meaning, comes across as borderline absurd, because anybody who has tracked Goggins’ career from The Shield to Justified to a variety of Danny McBride comedies knows what it looks like when a typical Goggins character has anger issues. It involves larynx-shredding shouting, strained neck muscles and the possibility that several people might die. This CBS family comedy version of an angry Walton Goggins is positively genteel, more like a Disney sidekick with a beaming smile than Shane Vendrell.
That’s the show.
As created by Bill Martin and Mike Schiff, The Unicorn‘s plot is simple. Wade is still in the first year of grieving the loss of his wife. If he has a job, the series largely avoids it, which gives him ample time to take care of daughters Grace (Ruby Jay) and Natalie (Makenzie Moss), having to take a much more hands-on fathering approach than he ever planned on. They’ve created an insular world for themselves, living off of the casseroles and frozen dinners provided by friends and letting things fall a bit too far into chaos.
Wade has supportive married friends, Forrest (Rob Corddry) and Delia (Michaela Watkins), and Ben (Omar Benson Miller) and Michelle (Maya Lynne Robinson), who have been patient for a year. Now, they think it’s time for Wade to get back to dating, assuring him that owing to his devotion, decency and established commitment to faithful monogamy, he’ll be quite a catch on the online market. A unicorn, so to speak. After 20 years off of the market, changes in the world of dating freak Wade out, and the idea that he might be replacing their mother freaks his daughters out. But I mention again that this version of freaked-out Walton Goggins does not, in any way, resemble, say, the “Family Meeting” episode of The Shield. Whew.
I wish the things Wade was freaking out about were more interesting, but they fit into familiar CBS sitcom modes of male bafflement and we should probably all be relieved that Wade’s friends are peers and that they aren’t joined by a CBS stereotypical millennial who has to explain Twitter to him. The take on online dating in the first episode is innocuous. A later take on social media and how it can create the fake illusion of a relationship was truly banal. It’s my sense that it will probably take at least half a season before Wade actually has sex for the first time since his wife, and I’m already terrified by what “Wait, people are doing WHAT with their pubic hair?” cliches the show will stumble into.
I can’t speak to how a stranger to Goggins’ thrilling cable résumé might respond to The Unicorn, but the series’ innocuous and amiable charm was the thing I enjoyed most. A guy who has made a career out of playing dirty cops, flamboyant crime figures, sadistic overseers and other motley malcontents proves a thoroughly pleasant presence as a loving father of two and grieving husband. It’s not an exciting performance. It’s a nice performance. And why shouldn’t Goggins be allowed and encouraged to show off the rest of his range?
It helps a tremendous amount that the show’s adolescent co-stars, Jay and Moss, are well-cast and have a chemistry with Goggins that brings out an unlikely paternal charm. Part of why Wade’s perplexity with technology and the modern world is so underwhelming is that when he’s simply dealing with his daughters, their shared awkwardness and affection is unforced. A show focusing on that, the sweet and lightly sentimental story, would be a good and compatible match with Young Sheldon. Even in the show’s lesser moments, Goggins is way too good an actor to give into the sort of bumbling, in-over-his-head dad hijinks that fueled recent CBS comedies like Man With a Plan or Kevin Can Wait.
As for the rest of The Unicorn, it’s the sort of comedy where, after seeing the pilot, I might praise the cast and say that there’s a good chance that it will find a more humorous rhythm as it goes along. Through three episodes, my appreciation for the cast remains intact. I’m still waiting on mirth. In three episodes, I had only one real laugh and it involved a phone dictation error, which is the lowest of low-hanging fruit.
Corddry and Watkins’ characters have been crafted as compatibly annoying, so they make sense as a couple even if they’re not funny as we know both actors are capable of being. The Unicorn is still working to find voices for Ben and Michelle, which should have been prioritized over pushing one of their kids forward in a way that’s creepier than the show understands. In general, all four key supporting characters, like the show itself, would be much better if they had interests other than getting Wade laid. Ha. That rhymes. I’m not sure why the show hasn’t built an episode around that. It’s the sort of joke Corddry’s character would make four or five times to the increasing chagrin of Watkins’ character.
Oh, and if you want to see Walton Goggins in more traditional Walton Goggins mode, check out HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. It’s better than this.
Cast: Walton Goggins, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Omar Miller, Maya Lynne Robinson, Ruby Jay, Makenzie Moss
Creators: Bill Martin and Mike Schiff
Premieres: Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)