'Carol's Second Act': TV Review

A solid premise still working out its kinks.
9/26/2019

CBS' workplace sitcom stars Patricia Heaton as a plucky retiree entering the medical field in middle age.

Patricia Heaton's sitcom characters typically come packaged with their own oft-repeated mantras. As a harried housewife on Everybody Loves Raymond, Debra Barone's refrain was "I'm tired!" — a spear frequently lobbed at her indolent husband. On The Middle, it was "I'm a mom!" — midwestern matriarch Frankie Heck's entire raison d'etre. And now on Carol's Second Act, it's "I was a teacher!" — Dr. Carol Kenney's fallback explanation for why a retiree is now a medical intern and why, naturally, her bedside manner is already in tip-top shape.

When I first read that CBS was developing a vehicle for Heaton about a middle-aged woman who chooses to go back to medical school after completing her first career, I was struck by the sheer number of creative opportunities built into this conceit: the revelatory moment Carol decides to pursue the impossible; the mixed reactions from her friends and family; the Sturm und Drang of MCATs and medical school and Match Day; then finally, professional practice. I was excited to take this journey with her.

In hindsight, the fact that Carol's Second Act actually begins on the first day of our protagonist's medical residency — cutting out the slog of study and aiming straight for hospital-set antics — makes more sense given the network's staid programming. But by eliminating origin story, the show ends up doing a lot more telling than showing when it comes to Carol's unique background and seasoned social-emotional skill set.

Based on the two episodes available to critics, I worry that each episode will follow the structural path of (1) Carol jumping headfirst into a patient problem, (2) Carol getting admonished by her much-younger boss for stepping out of line and (3) Carol saving the day anyway.

If you've seen Scrubs, you've seen Carol's Second Act: a story centered on a chirpy newbie learning how the medical system works and constantly getting nailed by the caustic chief resident. Heaton, also an executive producer here, stars as Carol, a cheery former high school science teacher whose midlife divorce fueled her pursuit of the long-forgotten dream of becoming a doctor. She's heard all the jokes before, so when her 20- and 30-something fellow interns tease her for being "old," she's quick to gracefully shut them down. (There's not a bitter bone in this sunny woman's body.) These interns include arrogant pretty boy Daniel (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), bougie bohemian Caleb (Lucas Neff) and sarcastic firebrand Lexie (Sabrina Jalees).

Carol is a good doctor, but empathy gets in her way whenever she flings herself into patient care against the wishes of her martinet Chief Resident, Dr. Maya Jacobs (Ito Aghayere). Other characters who flit about the screen: senior physician Dr. Stephen Foster, a doofy silver fox played by Twin Peaks' Kyle McLachlan, and Carol's daughter Jenny, an omnipresent pharma rep played by High School Musical's Ashley Tisdale. (Is the daughter's name Jenny Kenney? Time will tell.)

The joke-telling isn't particularly sharp — a lot of punchlines revolve around slapstick mischief and the rookies' fear of killing their patients — but Heaton's veteran comic timing and Jalees' sardonic delivery keep the energy afloat. Carol comes across as the dorky mom who sends you "chin-up!" memes on Facebook: groan-inducing, but sweet. Beware some creaky humor aimed at "woke culture," the show's toe-dipping attempt at political awareness. (Then again, a character nonchalantly describes herself as "queer" in the show's second episode and others debate privilege, imposter syndrome and the pressures of being a first-gen college student, so it's still somewhat progressive for a CBS sitcom.)

The show's core strength rests in its open dialogue about middle-aged female invisibility. At the end of the pilot, Carol finally tears into her naysayers. "You know what? I am getting tired of being treated like a meddling old lady. I am a meddling old doctor […] And I was good at it because I'm old. You think a woman my age should just disappear into the woods and knit. But I see the world in a different way than when I was 28. […] I know all kinds of stuff that you won't know for another 20 years. And guess what? My age is what's going to make me a great doctor." It's the kind of searing rant you rarely see on mainstream television these days. After all, The Golden Girls has been off-air for nearly 30 years.

Carol's Second Act hails from Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, the writing duo behind ABC's short-lived sitcom Trophy Wife and 2019's superlative teen comedy Booksmart. Haskins used to host the late-great InfoMania segment "Target Women," a witty talking head on gender-based marketing, so the show's feminist beats should come as no great surprise. There's potential here, but first Carol needs to stop tripping over her own compassion.

Cast: Patricia Heaton, Kyle MacLachlan, Lucas Neff, Sabrina Jalees, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Ito Aghayere, Ashley Tisdale, Cedric Yarbrough

Executive producers: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Patricia Heaton, Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor, Rebecca Stay, Adam Griffin, David Hunt, Pamela Fryman

Premieres: Thursday, Sept. 26, at 9:30 p.m. on CBS