'Almost Family': TV Review

The fall's spermiest and squirmiest new show.
10/2/2019

Fox's new dramedy about misapplied genetic material wants to be funny, heartwarming and occasionally provocative, but it's more frequently just a mess.

Even before Fox's new dramedy Almost Family features a former Olympic gymnast rushing to defend and support a doctor accused of sexually abusing patients, it's pretty clear nobody associated with the show gave enough consideration to the ramifications of an icky central scenario being depicted as disturbing-but-wacky.

Or maybe some people did? If Almost Family is anything, it's a series in conflict with itself.

If you hear the premise, "Very different women learn they're sisters when it's revealed that a famous fertility doctor has been impregnating clients with his own sperm without authorization" and go, "Ha! What a silly and whimsical way to build an extended family!" then it's entirely possible you'll find enough charm in Almost Family to be amused.

If you hear that same premise and go, "Ew! That's absolutely horrible and as unforgivable a violation as I can imagine!" you'd best stay away, because that is not a sentiment that's compatible with the confusingly goofy way Almost Family is approaching this story.

Adapted by Annie Weisman from the Australian show Sisters, not to be confused with the Swoosie Kurtz show Sisters, this is the story of three young women who discover that they're siblings when the above revelation comes to light regarding legendary fertility doctor Leon Bechley (Timothy Hutton) and his wayward seed. The women include — and there could be dozens upon dozens of future introduced siblings — Leon's known daughter Julia (Brittany Snow), head of communications at the Bechley Clinic, hard-nosed attorney Edie (Megalyn Echikunwoke), whose mother was friends with Julia's mother, and former Olympian Roxy (Emily Osment), now a pill-popping social media gadfly and energy drink pitch-woman.

I've seen two episodes of Almost Family and I can see how the exact same scripts could have been played for straight drama or drama with spiky notes of humor. That doesn't mean there weren't intended humorous beats in Weisman's scripts or that pilot director Leslye Headland isn't interested in letting some performances breathe. It's more about noting how hard it is for any of the actual moral quandaries to develop here when scenes are all bridged by a jaunty comic score; how the editing is manic and impatient in hustling from the serious moments into comic misunderstandings; how every song choice in the soundtrack is so distractingly on-the-nose that you can only chuckle (intentionally or otherwise); how you can have a character talking about how what Leon Beckley did — always described in terms of "genetic material" or simply "material" because I guess you can't say "jizz" on Fox — is gross or reprehensible, but when you introduce said "disgusting" character's house-arrest by accentuating his silly socks, that's a statement you're making. 

And, again, maybe you won't be distracted by how the show feels more amused by Leon and the predicament these women are in than interested in dealing with the implications of his actions, while at the same time feeling like it needs to acknowledge the wrongness of the actions. At times, especially since I've seen both the original pilot and a slightly revised version (and follow-up episode) that play somewhat as reactions to early audience/critic responses, these episodes come across as overly calculated. How much outrage do we need to have characters express before they can be silly again? How much legal jeopardy do we need to include before everybody can go about their lives again? How many times can we repeat the phrase "sexual assault" and still have you think Leon is a good and well-meaning guy?

Almost Family is executive produced by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), whose sense of the internal calculus of humor and heart and social issues has generally been second to none. So it's disappointing to see so much scratching-out and erasing and scribbling in the margins of this equation.

And amid the mismatch, it isn't at all surprising that the actors come off as if they're playing in different shows. Osment, whose performance is effectively comedic and effectively emotionally wounded, is probably doing the best work in both versions of Almost Family. She's broad and silly and the way the show treats her use of social media is straight-up cartoonish, yet when she's tearing into her parents and struggling with her pain and addiction, I bought that, too. So maybe eventually Almost Family will admit that we live in a real world in which Olympic gymnastics has spent multiple years in the dark shadow of a horrifying scandal involving a rapist doctor, and expecting that not to be a part of Roxy's world or her reaction to Leon is absurd. So far it hasn't.

Osment, as silly and unbelievable a character as Roxy sometimes is, is likable. Snow and Echikunwoke are likable, too, though I don't think the show does nearly as well with feeding their behavior into the attempted comedy. Julia and Edie are primarily defined by being in a moment of sexual risk-taking, which is inevitably paralleled and not in good ways, with Leon's actions. I don't think the show means to equate rebellious sex and sexual fluidity with Leon's violations, but when you make juxtapositions, these associations happen and it's another point of "Does the show have a clue what it's saying about this?" discomfort.

I can accept an argument that Almost Family is almost ambitious in what it's attempting. It's definitely exhausting and not in a "This is challenging my expectations and forcing me to make tough moral choices" way — but in a "Sometimes American TV is a factory assembly line and nobody in the assembly line is on the same page and the widget you started off with can become a mismatched gizmo with nobody exactly being at fault" way.

Cast: Brittany Snow, Emily Osment, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Mo McRae, Mustafa Elzein, Victoria Cartagena, Timothy Hutton

Creator: Annie Weisman, developed from the Australian series Sisters

Airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, premiering October 2.