'Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life': TV Review

Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life - H 2015
Courtesy of FOX
Cooper, you're not Parker Lewis or Ferris Bueller.

This new Fox comedy tries hard to be today's 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose' — maybe too hard.

Every generation is entitled to its own Parker Lewis Can't Lose, with a preppy wiseacre breaking the fourth wall to deliver tenuously valuable life advice and post-modern cultural criticism with a grin.

Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life, premiering Sunday night on Fox, aspires to be a Parker Lewis Can't Lose for some generation, but there's a big old muddle about which generation it's intended for or about — much less how to convey any of the pearls of wisdom. In fact, in addition to boasting a needlessly wordy title, Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life is a generally frantic effort, failing to settle on a structure or rhythm over the four episodes sent to critics and, despite some wholly appealing performances at its center, never finding its voice.

First, let's talk about the Noid. Readers of a certain age will vividly remember that for a stretch in the '80s, the Noid ruined Domino's pizzas. Now if we're being honest, Domino's ruined Domino's pizzas, but the Noid made them arrive late, which was somehow even worse. He was best avoided. Born in 1986, but essentially gone by 1990, the Noid spawned countless ads, a video game and endless references on Gen-X-friendly TV shows. In the third episode of Surviving Life, Barry (James Earl) cracks that roommate Neal (Charlie Saxton) should tell a pizza place, "I continue to miss the Noid."

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See, the simple gimmick of the series is this: Cooper (Jack Cutmore-Scott) is four years out of college and living with Barry and Neal, down the hall from slow-developing love interest Kelly (Meaghan Rath), getting periodic assistance from his more financially secure older brother Josh (Justin Bartha) and Josh's wife Leslie (Liza Lapira). Although Cooper is easily the least dynamic character in the show that bears his name, he's the guy who begins and ends every episode by addressing the audience and giving entirely empty advice on such subjects as having insufficient funds, being a plus-one and losing your phone. I seem to remember Parker Lewis' advice being more substantive, but that's very likely just nostalgia talking. As a child of the '80s, I vividly remember Parker Lewis Can't Lose and I also vividly remember the Noid. You know who does not and, in fact, can not remember the Noid? People in their mid-20s, people like the characters in Surviving Life.

Created by Jay Lacopo, the show is one of those classic bits of TV generational slippage, in which the characters onscreen are one age and the writers are significantly older, so the characters onscreen, meant to be spokesmen for their own generation, seem stuck in memories that predate them by decades. And the characters in Surviving Life are absolutely supposed to be the embodiment of what a TV network perceives about millennials, but their pop-culture references are to things like the Noid, Weird Science and Gremlins. A key scene in the second episode includes a funny cameo from Paula Abdul, as the characters gush about songs from an album released several years before they were born. It's incongruous because Josh and Leslie are supposed to be the older, less tuned-in characters, but the hipper, younger characters are stealing their cultural memories.

Chances are good that if you're not me, the Noid and this generational slippage won't bother you, just as audiences have never minded that on shows like Chuck or The OC, the characters shared creator Josh Schwartz's pop touchstones, rather than their own. Instead, you may just internalize this as one of many places that Surviving Life feels just off.

It's more likely that you'll notice that each episode is built differently. The pilot is near chaos, building a complicated story of a missing TV across 2011, 2013 and 2015, giving the rare opportunity to see how nostalgia works for a generation weaned on energy drinks. Remember the movie version of The Book Thief? Barely? There's a joke about it. The pilot caroms wildly, but it's also genuinely ambitious, filling in gaps from each year to build a full story. It tries too hard, but at least it's trying. Subsequent episodes try significantly less, starting with a catastrophe and having Cooper loosely steer us to how the catastrophe came to be. Sometimes he imparts advice, but he never seems more sage than a fortune cookie, and not one of those smart fortune cookies that quotes Confucius, but one of those fortunes where you go, "That's just a dumb statement that doesn't predict anything at all."

Part of why we listened to Parker Lewis or Ferris Bueller is that in their ability to step outside of the narrative, they seemed to have acquired knowledge and introspection, they had a voice. Cooper Barrett (gifted two last names in, I assume, a blatant Parker Lewis homage) is accused of living a chaotic life, but Cutmore-Scott is too passive and placid to sell that. He's our narrator, but he's not believable as a character who makes things happen or instigates action; he's just the character who somebody decreed looked the most like a leading man. He's the straight man who we're inexplicably stuck with and after four episodes with him, I don't know why I'd want a Guide to Surviving Life courtesy of Cooper Barrett, but I also don't think the title is meant to be ironic.

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When Surviving Life isn't glued to Cooper Barrett, it's sometimes OK. Hung veteran Saxton's character is an incongruous mix of nerd stereotypes, but Saxton gets some chuckles. Earl's Barry isn't in any way the "lovable jackass" he's described as in the pilot, but Earl makes him likable. Bartha's presence leads to too many Hangover overtones, but he does "frazzled" well. And both Lapira and particularly Rath have been actresses in need of a starring comedy vehicle for years and their regular upstaging of less interesting male characters here reinforces that. To repeat: Somebody give Rath her own show.

With any new comedy, the question is whether or not there are elements in place that could let the series become something decent if it's given the time. Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life has some pleasing performances and a few laughs, and it is aping shows that worked in the past. So if you like ensembles about characters in their 20s, who talk like they're in their 30s or 40s and find themselves in the middle of an alleged guide for surviving life that has little to say about surviving life, this may satisfy. 

Otherwise, you may find yourself a-Noid. Sorry.