There’s a school of thought in Hollywood that good comedy is quantifiable, that you can measure a successful script or pilot on a punchlines-per-page or laughs-per-minute basis.
It’s tough to quantify drama in a similar way, because what kind of madness would inspire somebody to weaponize emotion on a tears-per-page or breakdowns-per-minute scale?
Allow me to present NBC’s The Village, the latest new series to attempt to capitalize on the success of NBC’s This Is Us with the confusing interpretation that the success of This Is Us is attributable almost exclusively to people’s desire to cry uncontrollably for an hour every week. If that actually does sound like a reason you watch TV, then The Village has been precision-designed in a laboratory for your pleasure. If, however, you’re allergic to overt manipulation even in the hands of a reasonably talented cast and thoroughly admirable production values, best to give this one the widest of berths. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel of tears.
The title of The Village, created by Mike Daniels (Sons of Anarchy), refers to the name of a Brooklyn apartment building where all the residents know each other by name and gather frequently on the rooftop for highly organized parties. They’re neighbors, but they’re also family, which I know because in the four episodes sent to critics, characters say “You’re under this roof, you’re family” and “Family’s where you find it, kid” and “You live here, you’re family,” so it starts to sink in.
It’s a big building and a big ensemble. Nick (Warren Christie) is the complex’s newest resident, a veteran struggling with PTSD and a recently amputated leg. Nick was recruited, as it were, by Sarah (Michaela McManus), a nurse dealing with her artistic and rebellious teenage daughter (Grace Van Dien’s Katie), an aspiring artist with a secret that isn’t very surprising. Gabe (Daren Kagasoff) is a law student enlisted to assist Ava (Moran Atias), an Iranian immigrant recently nabbed by ICE, while also dealing with his aging grandfather (Dominic Chianese). There’s also Ben (Jerod Haynes), a friendly cop who takes an interest in Ava, and building manager Ron (Frankie Faison) and wife Patricia (Lorraine Toussaint), facing a looming crisis of their own. Some of the characters have actual blood relationships, some are interconnected through business or past associations, but mostly they live in The Village, so they’re family. Oh and I don’t think we’ve seen close to all of the residents of The Village, so I don’t doubt there’s a bottomless supply of drama should the show run 10 seasons.
A Million Little Things, one of this season’s more lachrymose This Is Us imitators, offered an apparent suicide as the series’ instigating event, giving all of the characters a common thing to cry over. The Village is astounding for the sheer variety of reasons that its residents have to be bawling. Unplanned pregnancies! Dead roommates! Shared military affiliation! They have shared reasons to cry, individual reasons to cry, happy reasons to cry, sad reasons to cry, pressing and immediate reasons to cry and future reasons to cry. It’s not enough that there are open wounds to trigger sobbing episode by episode, but the first four episodes of The Village make sure that they push one or two sources of mysterious trauma forward to be revealed the next week or the week after.
Every sentimental beat is underlined, whether by a blatant soundtrack choice, gauzy cinematography that suggests every scene is taking place either on the brink of sunrise or sunset or music that swells like a pustulant sore. There’s always room to kick every poignant moment up a notch, like Emeril Lagasse standing over a dish with a complementary garnish of pain ready to yell, “Bam!” You like a wounded vet getting a support dog? BAM! How about a three-legged dog? You respond to a sad-eyed woman being taken away by authorities? BAM! How about if she has a sad-eyed son who keeps having to be restrained in his wailing. It’s nonstop, unrelenting and in the Venn diagrams of overlapping reasons for tears, most characters are being impacted in several storylines.
There’s one episode in which McManus’ character has to be crying in four or five entirely autonomous scenes, sometimes about similar things and sometimes for completely independent reasons and since the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit veteran is married to the series creator, it’s fair to think that this parade of despondence has been bestowed upon her as the ultimate gift. When McManus isn’t crying, she’s on the brink of crying and if there’s one thing the series’ cinematographers capture more beautifully than the shafts of sunlight breaking through windows and across the horizon, it’s glistening, pendulous tears ready to burst from the ducts of its stars.
It’s here that it has to be emphasized that McManus handles this lugubriousness with total aplomb and her Gilmore Girls-esque scenes with the solid Van Dien, the radiantly Scarlett Johansson-ish daughter of Casper, benefit from some of the sharper writing in the early episodes. McManus also has good moments with Christie, who may be her equal in terms of total percentage of the series spent with red-rimmed eyes blinking back tears.
As decent as the rest of the young cast is, if The Village is watchable, it’s watchable because of the prominence of a well-selected older generation of stars. The amount of schmaltz that Faison, Toussaint and Chianese are required to legitimize is unreasonable, yet they do so and do it well. As with This Is Us, every line of dialogue in The Village that isn’t whimpered through a saline haze is delivered in the exact same “I’m imparting great wisdom” tone. These are performers who can make it work.
There isn’t a second of The Village in which a single character feels normal or at ease — even as early directors including Minkie Spiro and Peter Sollett aim for heightened naturalism in the treatment of New York surrounding them —and that’s only the sort of thing that will bother you if you haven’t given over to the melancholia. The series is so artificially dolorous that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that The Village is actually an alien space vessel powered exclusively by the rending of hearts and jerking of tears. Probably the series is too aggressive and exhausting in its commitment to sentiment for me to stick around to learn the truth. But if the building takes off into orbit in the finale, somebody let me know.
Cast: Moran Atias, Dominic Chianese, Warren Christie, Frankie Faison, Jerod Haynes, Daren Kagasoff, Michaela McManus, Lorraine Toussaint, Grace Van Dien
Creator: Mike Daniels
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)