'Fam': TV Review

Thin, familiar and rarely worthy of its stars.
1/10/2019

Nina Dobrev, Tone Bell, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Sheryl Lee Ralph star in yet another CBS sitcom in which the writing and premise can't live up to a tremendous cast.

Back in September, CBS conveniently scheduled the premieres of The Neighborhood and Happy Together for the same day, making it possible to pair the sitcoms in a single review bemoaning the waste of extremely talented stars in flat, banal multicam sitcoms lacking in voice and creative purpose.

If CBS had wanted to make things truly convenient, the network could have premiered Fam on the same day, rather than holding it for midseason when it has to bear the brunt of a similar review alone. Like CBS' fall sitcom slate, Fam boasts an almost outrageously good cast, one plugged into the most hollow and familiar of premises and then fed with a broad assortment of reheated multi-generational punchlines. There is a great comedy that could be made with this cast and, despite the game efforts of said cast through the first three episodes, Fam is not that comedy.

Created by Corinne Kingsbury, Fam stars Nina Dobrev and Tone Bell as Clem and Nick, an impossibly attractive and newly engaged couple. They're already close to Nick's loving parents (Sheryl Lee Ralph and Brian Stokes Mitchell), but Clem's told him that her parents are dead. That's because she's ashamed of her dad (Gary Cole's Freddy), a gambling-addicted homicide detective with no paternal instincts. Dad, who clearly isn't dead, gets brought back into their life in part because Clem and Nick have to become surrogate parents to her sister Shannon (Odessa Adlon), a somewhat troubled teen who brings out Clem's maternal side. Yes, that core Clem/Shannon relationship is basically the plot of The WB's What I Like About You, an association CBS hopes its core demographic won't be able to make.

The show already is a hodgepodge of many of the greatest not-hits of recent CBS sitcoms past. Remember 9JKL? No? Me neither, but I know that the relationship between Nick and his clingy parents, who appear to be functionally if not literally his neighbors, reminds me entirely too much of that short-lived series. Remember The Great Indoors and basically every CBS sitcom to ever feature a millennial character? Kinda? Shannon is written as CBS' ultimate mockable millennial, even though at 16 she's not a millennial at all, but if the network's comedy development group has never shown any interest in actually understanding millennials, you can bet they're not ready to deal with an even younger generation of unfathomable youth.

Even if you combine those elements, there isn't much to hang a show on here and by the third episode, Fam has already resorted to a "Clem and Nick want to have sex but they can't have sex because Shannon is always around!" plot that proves to be as lazy in execution as it is in concept. An added wrinkle is that the Fam team has clearly seen what Chuck Lorre and company have done on Mom, so they periodically try to include emotional beats about Freddy's failings and Clem's desire to keep Shannon from repeating her own teenage mistakes, heavy lifting that falls almost exclusively on Dobrev.

Given that Dobrev's background includes teen soaps and supernatural soaps, it isn't at all an unfair attempt to play to her strengths. She isn't bad at the brief serious stuff, even if it never feels earned within the show, and she brings a high energy when the comedy requires it. Her chemistry with Bell is limited, and it remains a pity that TV can't figure out what to do with Bell, whose résumé of quickly canceled half-hours includes Bad Judge, Truth Be Told and Disjointed, all shows that suggested he could be good in something better. Bell's part feels like it was written interchangeably with Damon Wayans Jr.'s part in Happy Together and one can assume Wayans was offered both parts, a choice from which there was no winner. 

They're both upstaged by Adlon, the latest of Pamela Adlon's daughters to prove that raspy voices and comic timing just might be genetic. It is a tribute to Adlon's natural gifts that she made me laugh once or twice even while delivering awful and basically nonsensical dialogue like this comment on an ex-boyfriend: "He met some ho at Arby's, which is ironic because he does NOT have the meats." See, she's talking about her teenage ex-boyfriend's unimpressive penis and an Arby's marketing slogan and it's just not good writing.

The older generation is where Fam's cast is an embarrassment of riches, and you can't say that the writers are unaware of their gifts, since it takes less than three minutes for them to get Mitchell singing and then another 15 minutes to get him singing again. There's no reason why he shouldn't be singing all the time, since he's playing a Broadway star of some status, yet he's used more to say slightly embarrassing things with a friendly smile, a smile that presumably comes from picking up a decent CBS comedy paycheck for sitting in a comfortable-looking chair and playing himself. Ralph's character is a mix of overbearing mother cliches and oblivious old-person cliches — she doesn't get why everybody finds it odd that she calls save-the-dates "STDs"!!! — and she's much better than this and they have yet to let her sing. Cole, who seems to only be a periodic guest star here, also doesn't sing, but in the second episode he raps and that's the only time I felt like he was being used to anything close to the full extent of his powers. Cole's professional enough that he gets a couple chuckles out of underwritten dialogue, a parallel to whatever laughs Adlon gets from overwritten millennial chestnuts.

When you've got a cast like this, there's always a chance things could get better. That was my principle with the CBS fall comedies, too. I got as tired of the flimsy plot of Happy Together as the writers seemed to be, while The Neighborhood remains a frustrating mix of splendid cast chemistry and hacky, sub-All in the Family social comedy. I reviewed both of those shows off of pilots only, fuel for hope that still hasn't been rewarded. Having seen three episodes of Fam and finding the least amusement in the third — despite appearances by the reliable James Urbaniak and Leslie David Baker — I may have even less hope here.

Cast: Nina Dobrev, Tone Bell, Odessa Adlon, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Gary Cole
Creator: Corinne Kingsbury
Premieres: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)